December 14, 2018

Salvador Litvak: Can Talmud change your life?

Hollywood filmmaker and Accidental Talmudist Salvador Litvak recounts his journey of how one moment of learning Talmud led to a million followers on Facebook.

“What we learn from the students of Hillel is that you should be able to state the opinion of your opponent in a way your opponent will say, ‘yes, that is my opinion.’ When you do that, you are opening a door for him to say ‘I feel heard. Now I am willing to hear what you have to say.” -Salvador Litvak

Accidental Talmudist Salvador Litvak

From left: David Suissa and Salvador Litvak

Check out this episode!

Moral people cannot support the Palestinians

I understand those who yearn for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. I do, too.

I understand those who fear a bi-national Jewish-Palestinian state. I do, too.

I understand those who wish Israel never came to rule over millions of Palestinians. I do, too.

But there is something wrong with the moral compass of anyone who sides with the Palestinians in their conflict with Israel.

While every nation has good individuals, as a collective, the Palestinians are among the world’s most morally unimpressive national groups.

• Palestinian immorality was manifest before there was even a distinct Palestinian national identity. The Palestinians’ leader, the Mufti of Jerusalem, Mohammed Amin al-Husseini (1897-1974), was an ally of Hitler who pushed for the annihilation of Jewish people in Europe. As Abraham Cooper and Harold Brackman of the Simon Wiesenthal Center wrote in the Jewish Journal:

“The Grand Mufti will be remembered as one the 20th century’s most virulent Jew haters and a key cheerleader for Hitler’s genocidal Final Solution.  … [He] helped organize a Muslim Waffen SS Battalion, known as the Hanjars, that slaughtered 90 percent of Bosnia’s Jews, and were dispatched to Croatia and Hungary.”

• The next Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, another Jew-hater, responded to Israel’s offers of a Palestinian state with two “intifadas,” a fancy name for what was nothing more than the terror-slaughter of Israelis on buses, in restaurants and at schools.

• Palestinians adore those who murder Jews. According to a Palestinian poll conducted in December 2015, two-thirds of Palestinians support the recent wave of knife attacks on Israeli Jews.

• Every Palestinian who murders Jews is deemed a national hero of the Palestinian people by both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority (PA) and is celebrated among the majority of Palestinians. Squares and schools are named after Palestinians who murder Jews.

• The Palestinians have been the single greatest reason the United Nations has become the moral cesspool it now is. Instead of combating the world’s most horrific evils, the U.N., under relentless pressure from the Palestinians and their Muslim allies, have made Israel almost its sole concern. 

Recently, for example, Anne Bayefsky, director of the Touro Institute on Human Rights and the Holocaust, reported:

“On March 24, 2016, the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) wrapped up its annual meeting in New York by condemning only one country for violating women’s rights anywhere on the planet — Israel, for violating the rights of Palestinian women.

“On the same day, the U.N. Human Rights Council concluded its monthlong session in Geneva by condemning Israel five times more than any other of the 192 U.N. member states.”

• The Palestinians living in Gaza voted Hamas into power. Unlike the PA, Hamas makes it clear that its one agenda is to exterminate Israel. Thus every Palestinian murder of a Jew —whether a baby or a 90-year-old or an entire family – is hailed by Hamas. 

• Palestinians routinely engage in libels as wild and toxic as the medieval blood libel. 

Most recently, even The New York Times reported:

“Echoing anti-Semitic claims that led to the mass killings of European Jews in medieval times, President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority accused rabbis in Israel of calling on their government to poison the water used by Palestinians. He made the unsubstantiated allegation during a speech to the European Parliament. … ”

Under international pressure, Abbas later retracted the lie. But, of course, the retraction meant nothing. Palestinians probably don’t even know it was retracted. It was done for gullible Westerners. 

And, as the Times further reported:

“Anadolu, the Turkish state-run news agency, repeated the claim on Sunday. It was echoed in the Gulf News, a daily newspaper in Dubai. The Anadolu article said that a Rabbi Shlomo Mlma, whom it called the ‘chairman of the Council of Rabbis in the West Bank settlements,’ had issued an ‘advisory opinion in which he allowed Jewish settlers to poison water in Palestinian villages and cities in the West Bank.’ ”

The rabbi, the council of rabbis and the call to poison the water were all made up by the Palestinians.

Palestinians spread lies about Israel on a regular basis. Lying is a Palestinian art form.

• In what many consider the finest history of the 20th century, “Modern Times: The World From the Twenties to the Nineties,” English historian Paul Johnson wrote this about the African dictator Idi Amin, the cannibal-murderer of hundreds of thousands of his fellow Ugandans:

“Idi Amin’s terror was a Muslim-Arab phenomenon … run by Nubians, Palestinians and Libyans.”

• And, of course, there is the record of Palestinian suicide bombings, the form of mass murder of the innocent that violent Muslims have now spread around the world. The Palestinians did not invent it, but they can look with pride upon a practice that they made popular and respectable.

Despite all this, left-wing Jews and non-Jews speak about the Palestinians as if they are a moral people oppressed by an immoral one. 

They should be ashamed of themselves.

Dennis Prager’s nationally syndicated radio talk show is heard in Los Angeles on KRLA (AM 870) 9 a.m. to noon. His latest project is the Internet-based Prager University (

Auschwitz bookkeeper admits ‘moral guilt’ at Holocaust trial

A 93-year-old former bookkeeper at Auschwitz who is accused of being an accessory to mass murder told a German court that he felt morally guilty for his work at the Nazi death camp, describing in detail the grisly killings he had witnessed there.

Oskar Groening, in what could be one of the last big Holocaust trials, is accused of assisting in the murder of 300,000 people although he did not kill anyone himself.

“In moral terms, my actions make me guilty,” Groening told the court in the northern town of Lueneburg at the start of the trial.

“I stand before the victims with remorse and humility,” he said. “On the question of whether I am guilty in legal terms, you must decide.”Groening was 21, and by his own admission an enthusiastic Nazi, when he was sent to work at Auschwitz in 1942. His case is unusual because unlike many of the other SS men and women who worked in concentration camps, he has spoken openly in interviews about his time at the camp in occupied Poland.

Wearing a sleeveless beige sweater over a white shirt, the white-haired Groening was calm and composed, leaning back in his chair and looking at papers, as prosecutors read out the indictment.

He laughed when his lawyer asked the judge to speak louder so that Groening could hear him. At one point, taking a sip of water, he joked: “I'll do that like I drank the vodka at Auschwitz”.

His job was to collect the belongings of deportees after they arrived at the camp by train and had been put through a selection process that resulted in many being sent directly to the gas chambers.

He inspected their luggage, removing and counting any bank notes that were inside, and sending them on to SS offices in Berlin, where they helped to fund the Nazi war effort.

“By sorting the bank notes he helped the Nazi regime to benefit economically,” said Jens Lehmann, a lawyer for a group of Auschwitz survivors and relatives of victims who are joint plaintiffs in the case.


The case goes to the heart of the question of whether people who were small cogs in the Nazi machinery, but did not actively participate in the killing of 6 million Jews during the Holocaust, are guilty of crimes. Until recently, the answer from the German justice system was no.

In past years, prosecutors in Frankfurt decided not to pursue the case against Groening and other concentration camp workers, saying there was no causal link between their actions and the killings that occurred around them.

Prosecutors in Hanover disagreed, emboldened by the case of Ivan Demjanjuk, who in 2011 was convicted of being an accessory to mass murder despite there being no evidence of him having committed a specific crime during his time as a guard at the Sobibor extermination camp.

“It is certainly not an easy trial for us,” the judge Franz Kompisch told the court. “This is a trial which is attracting and creating a lot of attention and setting off emotions.”

The charges against Groening relate to the period between May and July 1944 when 137 trains carrying roughly 425,000 Jews from Hungary arrived in Auschwitz. At least 300,000 of them were sent straight to the gas chambers, the indictment says.

Groening described some of the murders that he witnessed at Auschwitz. On his first day on the ramp where Jewish prisoners exited the trains, he saw an SS colleague grab a crying baby and slam its head against a truck until it was quiet.

“I was so shaken. I don't find what he did good at all,” Groening said, telling the court that he later went to his commander to request a transfer from Auschwitz.

He also told of an incident in late 1942 when he witnessed naked Jews being herded into a converted farm house near the camp. A fellow officer shut the door, put on a gas mask, opened a can and poured its contents down a hatch.

“The screams became louder and more desperate but after a short time they became quieter again,” Groening said.

“This is the only time I participated in a gassing,” he added, before correcting himself: “I don't mean participated, I mean observed.”

In an extensive interview with German magazine Der Spiegel in 2005, Groening said he felt “nothing” when he saw Jews being taken to the gas chamber.

“If you are convinced that the destruction of Judaism is necessary, then it no longer matters how the killing takes place,” he said, describing his feelings as a young SS officer.

Opinion: How the contemporary left can reclaim its moral authority

After the 1967 Six-Day War, much of the radical left in the West predicated its militant anti-Zionism on the illusory notion that the Palestinians represented a revolutionary and “progressive” vanguard that could one day mobilize the Arab masses in the cause of social revolution.

But in 2011, when revolution really spread to the Middle East, Palestine was scarcely on the agenda. Not only that, but the Palestinian national movement, far from representing social revolution, has been increasingly dominated by religious fundamentalist terrorism, whose values are completely antithetical in all respects to those of Western liberalism.

Yet, the Palestinian “myth” of liberation still lives on as if nothing has changed.

Significantly, Israeli society continues to move forward as an increasingly successful, economically liberalized and modern “start-up” nation. Yet, its very tangible achievements are simply shrugged off by those left-liberals who either ignore the moral and political bankruptcy of Palestinian nationalism or blame its abject failure on Israel and the United States.

In my recent book “From Ambivalence to Betrayal: The Left, The Jews and Israel,” I addressed this Manichean stance at some length, examining the refusal of the left to engage in any substantive critique of radical Islam even as it indulges in the most hyperbolic clichés about Israel.

Moreover, whenever the subject of contemporary anti-Semitism also is thrown into this boiling pot, an infantile counter-accusation is usually evoked—that one is cynically “stifling criticism” of Israel or dishonestly playing the “Zionist card.” In other words, any critic who detects even a hint of anti-Jewish bias in the venomous demonization of Israel as “Nazi,” “fascist” or a “racist apartheid state” par excellence is assumed to be protesting in bad faith or acting as a venal apologist for Israel.

If anything can stifle genuine debate, it is surely such unjust accusations. They invariably shut down any serious discussion of the very real anti-Semitic legacies, the stigmatizing vocabulary and paranoid conspiracy theories so widely prevalent today among many Islamists, Marxists and supposedly “liberal” adversaries of modern Zionism.

There is something profoundly dishonest about reducing anti-Semitism to a discourse about “immunizing” Israel from legitimate criticism. Among other things, it assumes that Jews actually have the power to silence critics of Israel. Yet, it should be obvious that such “criticism,” far from being silenced, is in fact rampant in the Western media. The appalling fact is that obvious falsehoods such as branding Israel as an “apartheid state” or trying to demonize it through the “Nazi” analogy have become rather fashionable in much contemporary Western discourse.

Equally, when self-proclaimed “progressives” work overtime to turn Israel into a pariah state or to dismantle it, they are hardly being “progressive,” let alone original. Worse still, they echo in a sometimes ominous manner the brutal language of the Nazi campaign in the 1930s to make Europe judenrein (Jew-free).

As for the Islamists (whether in Iran or those currently riding high in the Arab world), they have never disguised their relentless pursuit of the “eliminationist” option—to “cleanse” the Middle East definitively of the “Jewish cancer”—which is exactly how Israel is currently described by the ayatollahs in Tehran.

Yet, incredibly, there are leftists—including so-called Jewish “progressives”—who either remain silent about the enormity of this genocidal language or malevolently suggest that Israel is deliberately exaggerating the Iranian threat to justify future aggressions of its own.

As I showed in my recent book, the prevailing defamation of Zionism has its roots in the campaign of the Soviet Union and its Third World allies that cynically manipulated “anti-racist” catchwords to stigmatize and morally discredit Zionism in the international arena.

It was the totalitarian Soviet propaganda apparatus that first invented the myth of an essential ideological unity between Zionism and racism—a canard eagerly embraced in the 1970s by Yasser Arafat, many Arab states, nonaligned Third World countries, black radicals and much of the Western New Left. Already at that time, Zionist Jews came to be seen by communists, leftists and Islamists as embodying an immensely powerful, intangible, occult form of global power threatening to dominate the whole world. This pseudo-Marxist and anti-American variation on the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” produced a particularly vicious mutation of fascist conspiracy theories, which during the past decade have experienced a spectacular revival on the anti-Zionist left.

Such mythologizing of Jewish power lies at the heart of the so-called “new anti-Semitism,” which is ultimately not so different from the old. Already in the mid-19th century, socialists as diverse as Karl Marx, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Mikhail Bakunin had postulated the existence of a universal, anti-social Jewish mercantile “essence” that had supposedly seized control of the capitalist world and would therefore have to be destroyed. Their heirs today have embraced the phantasmagoric view that humanity can be redeemed (and peace finally achieved in the Middle East) only if the world is physically liberated from the new “Jewish” yoke—that of a demonic American-Zionist-Israeli conspiracy.

If the contemporary left seriously wishes to reclaim its own moral credibility and political relevance, it will have to engage in some serious soul-searching and definitively free itself from the incubus of such perverse fantasies. Only in this way can it hope to reconnect to an authentic emancipatory vision of human liberation.

(Robert S. Wistrich is the director of the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and author of the newly published “From Ambivalence to Betrayal: The Left, The Jews and Israel,” University of Nebraska Press, 2012.)

Synagogues Working to Be More Open to Gays


NEW YORK (JTA)—The newsletter sent out last month by Temple Israel of New Rochelle contained the usual sort of announcements, including a reminder about the synagogue’s upcoming Purim carnival, mazal tovs and condolences, and information about a social event at a local steakhouse.

But a small notice about a screening of the film “Hineini: Coming Out In a Jewish High School” reflected a quiet change at the Reform synagogue in suburban New York.

The screening is part of an overall push by Temple Israel to be more welcoming to gay and lesbian Jews. In recent months, the synagogue has edited its membership forms to accommodate diverse family structures, and it now advertises in the gay press and with gay advocacy groups. It also plans to train teachers to be sensitive to issues related to sexuality.

Prompted by the experience of a teenager in the community who was teased when he revealed his homosexuality, momentum built last year when the synagogue hired a new youth director who is openly gay.

“On some level, I kind of view myself as a poster child and that these kids and the adults need to see somebody in the community who fits the description,” said Barry Shainker, the youth director.

Shainker says that while changes are programmatic, the goal is to make such inclusiveness routine.

“Of course in some ways, our goal is to put ourselves out of a job,” he said. “In a few years this will be a no-brainer. What could be a 30-minute discussion at a board meeting becomes a 30-second vote in the future.”

Temple Israel is not alone: A recent conference in New York attracted a cadre of about 60 rabbis, educators and activists from across the denominational spectrum who shared “best practices” for becoming more welcoming to gay and lesbian Jews.

The conference, organized by Jewish Mosaic and the Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, was part of the “Welcoming Synagogues Project,” which seeks to develop a model for inclusiveness to be implemented this summer by 10 pilot congregations.

“We’re trying to come up with a process that’s scalable,” said Joel Kushner, director of the Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation. A similar program took place March 1-2 in Los Angeles.

“There isn’t going to be one size fits all,” he said.

Findings from the 2009 Synagogue Survey on Diversity and LGBT Inclusion, presented at the New York conference, underscored what Kushner described as a need for congregations to be more welcoming. The survey found that 73 percent of the 760 rabbis polled think their congregation is welcoming to gay and lesbian Jews, although only 33 percent of the 997 synagogues that responded offer programs aimed specifically at gays and lesbians.

The impetus for adopting a more welcoming approach comes from a critical mass of gay members or from policy questions such as the ordination of openly gay and lesbian rabbis and cantors, according to one of the study’s co-authors, Caryn Aviv.

“It has shifted people’s perceptions because they’re having personal interaction with gays and lesbians,” said Aviv, who co-authored the study with Steven Cohen.

To be sure, some synagogues have consciously welcomed sexually diverse Jews for years. For example, Temple Israel in Boston, a Reform congregation with 1,700 families, made such a decision based on what members believed was “right.”
“It was untenable to them that gay and lesbian Jews wouldn’t have a home,” Rabbi Stephanie Kolin said.

The synagogue is working with the Boston-based advocacy group Keshet to become a so-called “safe school,” meaning it will train teachers to address bias and promote gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender inclusion.

Temple Israel recently conducted a focus group with some of its LGBT members to find out what as a community the synagogue could improve. Last year the synagogue hosted a program on transgender and gender expression. In the past there was a LGBT chevra, or social group, and the synagogue sent dozens of people to rally at the Massachusetts State House in support of equal marriage.
“Acting publicly around justice issues is another way that we are proactively welcoming,” Kolin said.

At the conference in New York, representatives of other synagogues shared their “best practices.”

At Kolot Chayeinu, a progressive congregation in Park Slope, Brooklyn, b’nai mitzvah students discuss gender diversity in Jewish texts. Congregation Bet Haverim in Atlanta has adopted a “brit,” or contract, that stipulates the inclusive values of the community. Beth Simchat Torah, New York’s synagogue for GLBT Jews, has published a new prayer book in which the prayers for life-cycle events—including marriages and baby namings—are not printed in the conventional order, so as to promote the idea of diverse family life.

According to Debra Kolodny, the executive director of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, a critical part of being inclusive is to have leadership that reflects diversity in sexual orientation, and that LGBT perspectives are heard and integrated into teaching and services.

“So it’s just kind of normative,” she explained. “I think inclusion presumes that there is an ‘in group’ and ‘out group.’ ”

At Kehilla Community Synagogue, a Renewal congregation in Piedmont, Calif., the congregation’s inclusiveness was on display last summer when seven same-sex couples married in a group ceremony staged in reaction to the state’s Proposition 8.

Sandy Bredt, Kehilla’s executive director, said the ceremony “was kind of a marriage of our political and our spiritual values.”

For gay and lesbian Jews, having programs and sermons targeting them—combined with a generally welcoming attitude—make congregations more inclusive.

When Joseph Antenson was shopping for a synagogue several years ago, he sought a congregation that had obvious participation from gay and lesbian members and where there was no “separate but equal” status. His desire to hear a rabbi take a proactive stance from the bimah was part of his attraction to B’nai Jeshurun, a liberal synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

“It’s too easy to say, ‘Sure, we’re welcoming,’ but just don’t talk about it,” he said.

In general, Antenson noted with regret, the Jewish community has not been at the forefront of welcoming gays and lesbians into synagogue life.

Antenson, a lay leader and member of the marriage equality, membership and interfaith committees at B’nai Jeshurun, said that when he told fellow congregants about his partner, “I never got a reaction.”

Half of the members of the marriage equality chevra are straight and at B’nai Jeshurun, it is common to celebrate the anniversary of a gay couple, or to see a gay or lesbian couple celebrating an aufruf.

“It’s public evidence that we welcome gays and lesbians, and they are full members of the congregation,” Antenson said.

But according to Aaron Weininger, a second-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, a change in cultural assumptions must accompany concrete actions.

“There are so many ways to engage the issues,” he said, citing films such as “Hineini” and programs like LGBT Shabbat dinners. “It is not ‘either-or,’ it’s ‘and.’ ”

While Weininger noted there is no “one size fits all” model, he said synagogues should be asking whether they are engaging all members of the community.

“Because LGBT Jews have been marginalized and alienated for so long, there does need to be a certain level of awareness,” he said. “The more messages our synagogues send that are pro-inclusion, the more younger people coming out and identifying as LGBT feel safe.”

Still, he and others noted, a shift in attitude in Conservative congregations is linked to the movement’s policies regarding gay rabbis and cantors.

Rabbi Morris Allen of Beth Jacob Congregation in Mendota Heights, Minn., said his congregation was ahead of the curve and had been since the mid-1990s, when the synagogue was asked to participate in a gay marriage ceremony.

“I think that the Conservative movement in its official capacity sort of caught up to what we’ve been doing,” said Allen, who served on the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Human Sexuality in the early 1990s.

Allen said in lieu of programs targeting LGBT members, his congregation has adopted a welcoming mind-set.

“We didn’t make a special gay slot on our board,” he said.

Gay members serve on the board because they are involved and supportive of the synagogue.

“For many years, people did not feel they could talk about the core of who they were,” Allen said. “I think all we’ve done is open the door and allow people to walk in.”

Al-Jazeera and the glorification of barbarity

I have often wondered why some of the best thinkers of our time refuse to believe in human progress. After all, there was a time when tens of
thousands of ordinary citizens flocked to the gates of the Roman Coliseum to enjoy the sight of wild beasts tearing human beings to pieces. Today, such a sight would evoke revulsion and disbelief.

Of course, inhumanity still exists, but it is no longer laudable or fashionable in the public sphere. With the exception of exhibition killings by jihadist recruiters, cruelty is no longer a catalyst of mass arousal. Even the Nazis tried to hide their deeds from the eyes of history. Be it for fear or shame, the trend is clear: The norms of civilized society are moving forward, and it is those norms, not their exceptions, that shape the minds of our youngsters and invigorate our hopes for a better world.

All this was true until about four weeks ago, when the royal procession of Samir Kuntar brought barbarism back to the public square. Kuntar is the killer who smashed the head of a 4-year-old girl with his rifle butt in 1979 after killing her father before her eyes. The mother, hiding in a crawl space, accidentally suffocated her 2-year-old child while trying to keep her from giving away their hiding place.

Kuntar was tried, convicted and sentenced to 542 years in prison and never expressed any remorse. He was released by Israel on July 26 in exchange for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, who were kidnapped by Hezbollah in 2006.

As anticipated, Hezbollah’s mass celebration in Beirut in the presence of its leader, Hassan Nassralla, evoked a chivalrous scene from a fairy tale gone awry. One by one, the whole Lebanese leadership stepped up to “brother Kuntar” to shake the hand and kiss the cheeks of that archsymbol of barbarity. There was Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, President Michel Sulayman, even the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt — a whole nation bowed down to a moral deformity in a Hezbollah’s fatigue and a “Heil Hitler” salute.

The focus of my attention naturally turned to Al-Jazeera because, with its outreach of 50 million viewers from Morocco to the Persian Gulf, this pan-Arab satellite channel is considered the conscience and future of the Arab world.

“What would they tell their children?” I thought. “How would they present a Lebanon — once the crown jewel of the Arab world — kneeling before a child-killing psychopath?”

A chill went down my spine when British-accented announcers introduced Al-Jazeera’s English channel correspondent Rula Amin in Abeih, Kuntar’s home village, and translated the wisdom of Kuntar’s words from the original Arabic. Imagine a voice cast in an impeccable Oxford accent articulating in obvious empathy: “He has returned to a hero’s welcome…. After 29 years in [an] Israeli prison, Samir Kuntar spent his first day of freedom vowing to continue to fight against Israel. He says he hopes to see the enemy again very soon.”

Shakespeare, Milton and Churchill must be turning in their graves, I thought, hearing their cherished English language at the service of a homecoming tribute to a child murderer. The book by Isaac Newton that I always keep on my shelf lowered its eyes in shame when the translator read: “Kuntar is a hero; he is a freedom fighter,” and my favorite John Locke’s, “A Treatise of Humane Understanding” turned purple as another translator, sounding exactly like Sir David Frost, consummated the festival with: “At this time yesterday I was in the hands of the enemy, but today I am eager to meet them again, and I pray to God that I will be able to meet them very soon.”

It was not the content, mind you, only that dissonance between the cultured respectability of an Oxford accent, with its emphasis and intonation, and the unmistaken sympathy with the newly anointed hero of inhumanity, and the alarming signals my brain kept sending me: “This is how civilized people used to speak in the old days.”

Thank God, I thought, we Americans speak in a different accent; no child would grow up to tell us: “I recognize your accent from Kuntar’s celebration in Abeih.” And I quietly prayed that my mother tongue, Hebrew, would never crawl to such lows.

Then came Kuntar’s birthday party, initiated and choreographed by Al-Jazeera’s bureau in Beirut and aired on Al-Jazeera TV July 19 (translation by the Middle East Media Research Institute). There was orchestral music, a huge birthday cake and infinite admiration by Bin Jiddo, Al-Jazeera bureau chief and master of ceremony, announcing: “Brother Samir, we would like to celebrate your birthday with you. You deserve even more than this…. Happy birthday, brother Samir.”

How amateurish was the Coliseum in Rome compared with modern-day satellite rituals of death and brutality. Imagine millions of living rooms watching their new role model, child-killer Kuntar, lowering a huge butcher knife onto his birthday cake to the sound of fireworks and male chorus: “This is the sword of the Arabs, Samir. Don’t cut the picture, cut on the side.”

Imagine millions of schoolchildren and educators receiving a lesson in moral philosophy from their new master: “To be honest,” Kuntar says, “our operation had both civilian and military targets…. There are no civilian targets, it’s ‘civilian’ in quotation marks. The Zionists themselves define the Israeli as a soldier who is on leave for 11 months every year.”

Imagine millions of democracy-hungry Arabs watching their most trusted TV station presenting a lesson in practical democracy, while the orchestra in the background is waiting for the next tune. Kuntar says, “[The assassination of Sadat] was a most wonderful operation…. It was a wonderful historical moment, which I hope will recur in similar cases.”

In a previous op-ed (New York Times, January 2007) I wrote: “It is important to extend a hand to the network because it can become a force for good. As Al-Jazeera on the whole feels the heat of world media attention, we can hope that it will learn to harness its popularity in the service of humanity, progress and moderation.”

Most analysts in the West felt that way in 2007: “Al-Jazeera is democracy in its infancy” was the prevailing mantra, and “you don’t slap an infant on the wrist before it learns to stand on its feet.”

That was in 2007, when we were still hopeful that the station’s lopsided reporting and anti-Western rhetoric could somehow be mitigated through professional dialogue. These hopes have all but dissipated this past year, when the station has committed itself unconditionally and unabashedly to the service of Hamas and Hezbollah. Today, we have much deeper concerns with Al-Jazeera — it is no longer a clash with journalistic standards but a clash with the norms of civilized society.

Why my friends in the mainstream media kept (and keep) silent about the Kuntarization of Al-Jazeera is a puzzle that I find hard to reconcile. Why the Wall Street Journal was the only major newspaper to allow discussion (Opinion, Aug. 16) of the ongoing Kuntarization of Arab society still challenges my understanding. Our charming infant is smashing windows now and poisoning pets in the neighborhood — a slap on the wrist is perhaps way overdue.

On Aug. 6, after the Israeli Government Press Office suspended services to the network for staging Kuntar’s birthday party, Al-Jazeera’s general director, Khanfar Wadah, admitted in a letter quoted in the newspaper, Ha’aretz, that “elements of the programme violated Al-Jazeera’s Code of Ethics” (Ha’aretz, Aug. 6). The letter did not specify though what items of Al-Jazeera’s code of ethics Wadah considered violated. Some regard this gesture to be an “apology” — it is not. An apology spells out the offense and outlines corrective actions.

Al-Jazeera owes a definitive public apology to be aired at least as broadly as Kuntar’s birthday party, not only to Israel but primarily to its viewers in the Arab world for attempting to turn their children into the likes of Kuntar; to the journalism community, for robbing the profession of its nobleness; and, most urgently, to us, citizens of this planet, for re-legitimizing barbarity in the public square.

Judea Pearl is a professor at UCLA and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation (, named after his son, which promotes dialogue and understanding.

Randy Pausch’s last lecture links morality and purpose

Randy Pausch Last Lecture: Living your childhood dreams

“Brick walls are there for a reason,” wrote the late Dr. Randy Pausch, author of the best-selling book, “The Last Lecture.” A computer scientist and former professor at theUniversity of Virginia and Carnegie Mellon, Pausch argued that brick walls are not there to keep us out. If anything, “brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something.”

On July 25, Pausch died of pancreatic cancer, having left this world much too early and leaving behind a wife and three young children. He was 47.

Having just finished his book, what struck me about him was not so much his tragic, premature death, but rather his vitality and his sense of perspective. Published before his death, his best-selling book is sweeping the nation, largely because it is an affirmation of life an affirmation of the here and now. It has become a popular literary wake-up call.

Titled, “The Last Lecture,” Pausch shares a number of personal anecdotes and insights throughout his 206-page book. The work is an outgrowth of a public lecture given by select faculty at Carnegie Mellon. The format of the talk invites a teacher each year to share his or her reflections on life with colleagues and students in an open forum. Pausch’s “The Last Lecture” was particularly poignant, given his terminal medical condition.

Apropos to our community’s upcoming celebration of the Days of Awe and, in particular, Yom Kippur, Pausch designates a chapter heading in his book: “A Bad Apology Is Worse Than No Apology.” In his words, “Apologies are not pass/fail.” Or, as he writes: “Any performance lower than an A really doesn’t cut it.”

I’m not in full agreement with him on this rarely are things all or nothing in life but that not withstanding, he does list three things, to which I agree, that must be included by the person who wronged the other for it to be an appropriate apology:

  1. What I did was wrong.
  2. I feel badly that I hurt you.
  3. How do I make this better?

Eight-hundred years earlier, Moses Maimonides offered the following insight into what constitutes a true repentant. In his legal work, Mishneh Torah (Hilchei Teshuvah 2:1), Maimonides suggests a good indicator of a truly apologetic person is one, who when faced with a similar situation, does not behave in the same manner. The feelings might still be there, but the behavior is different, improved, virtuous.

Like the Days of Awe that will soon be upon us, Pausch’s “The Last Lecture” reminds us all of life’s brevity. Like Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Pausch’s book asks us to ask ourselves: What matters most in life? How can I live a more purpose-filled existence? How can I fortify my faith without becoming excessive? How can I live more in the moment, appreciating all that I have?

In that way, Pausch was a teacher’s teacher. Through his book and recorded lecture, he continues to teach all of us to pause and look within.

But as inspiring as his book is and as vital as his life was, we Jews need look no further than our religious tradition when fashioning our own “Last Lecture.” Though our tradition may not be a best seller, throughout time, it remains forever ageless, undiminished by popular trends, God-filled and when taken seriously, life-transforming.

Truth and Consequences

From 2000 to 2002, I led a graduate seminar titled, “Post-Holocaust Ethical and Political Issues,” at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. Among the topics covered was the politics of memory.

One of the case studies we explored was the controversy surrounding language and its power. We looked in depth at the massacre of Armenians and how its depiction had become a subject of fierce debate, primarily between Armenians, who insisted on calling the events of 1915 a genocide, and Turks, who adamantly refused to countenance the “G”word.

Essentially, this was a zero-sum game. Either one supported the Armenian or the Turkish position, whether for historical or political reasons, but neither side allowed room for compromise.

The basic Armenian argument was that up to 1.5 million Armenians were deliberately targeted and massacred by the Ottoman Empire, eight years before the modern Turkish republic came into being. At the time, the word genocide didn’t exist. It was Raphael Lemkin, a Polish-born Jew, who coined the term.

The Holocaust was the most immediate frame of reference for him, but he was also haunted by the slaughter of the Armenians – and by the need to prevent a repeat of any such occurrences – throughout his career. But had the word been in use, it no doubt would have been invoked by Ambassador Henry Morgenthau, the U.S. envoy to Turkey at the time and one of the primary sources on the tragedy cited by the Armenians.

No, replied the Turks. This was a time of war. The Armenians sided with Russia, the enemy. Many people, both Turks and Armenians, were killed, but that was the regrettable, if inevitable, consequence of conflict and not a deliberate campaign to wipe the Armenians off the face of the earth, as the Nazis later sought to do to the Jews.

In recent years, of course, the survivors and eyewitnesses have disappeared. But each side has marshaled as much documentary evidence as it can to buttress its assertion. Yet neither side has been talking to the other. Instead, both have been appealing to the rest of the world, seeking supporters.

Not surprisingly, each has sought to draw the Jews to its ranks. The Jews’ moral voice, they reckoned, far exceeds actual numbers. The people of the Shoah are best positioned to tip the scales in one direction or the other.

The Armenian position has been straightforward. As victims of the Holocaust, who can better understand the Armenian ordeal and anguish than the Jews? Fearful of the danger of Holocaust denial, aren’t the Jews most aware of the slippery slope of distorting historical truth? And wasn’t it Adolf Hitler who reportedly asked, “Who still talks nowadays of the extermination of the Armenians?” – in effect, paving the way for the Final Solution?

Meanwhile, the Turkish stance has been that Jews shouldn’t simply accept the Armenian version of history lock, stock and barrel, as it’s fraught with distortion and deceit, but rather bear in mind the traditional Turkish welcome of minority communities, especially the embrace of dispersed Jews from Spain by the Ottoman Empire at the end of the 15th century.

Moreover, Turkish leaders have also at times taken a tougher line, suggesting, in barely veiled language, that a Jewish acceptance of the Armenian version of history could have negative consequences for other Jewish interests, whether in Turkey or beyond.

And it is in this vise that many Jews have lived for years, essentially pitting principle against pragmatism. For armchair observers, that may look like an easy choice, but in the world of policy, where actions can have real-life consequences, it’s anything but.

Look at successive governments of the United States, whether under Democratic or Republican leaders. All have reached the same conclusion: Turkey is of vital importance to U.S. geo-strategic interests, straddling as it does two continents, Europe and Asia, bordering key countries – from the former Soviet Union to Iran, Iraq and Syria – and serving as the southeastern flank of NATO. Each administration has essentially punted when asked about the Armenian question, seeking to discourage Congress from recognizing the events of 1915 as genocide, while arguing that a third-party parliamentary body isn’t the right venue to settle a heated historical dispute.

And now I come back full circle to my Johns Hopkins classroom. I had four or five Turkish students in the course. All but one proudly defended Turkey’s historical record, stubbornly refusing to consider any competing narrative.

But there was one young woman who, on reading the assigned material and much more, came to me and said that for the first time, she doubted the official Turkish version of events. There were simply too many compelling accounts of the suffering of Armenians to swallow whole the Turkish line.

She then went a step further and shared her thinking with our class. Regrettably, the other Turkish students distanced themselves from her, but the other students admired her for her courage. They instinctively understood that it wasn’t easy for her to express her sorrow and confusion, but that, under the circumstances, it seemed the right thing to do. I, too, admired her.

I have a strong connection to Turkey, a country I have visited on numerous occasions and to which I feel very close. Few countries have a more critically important role to play in the sphere of international relations.

I remain grateful to this day for the refuge that the Ottoman Empire gave to Jews fleeing the Inquisition. I am intimately connected to the Turkish Jewish community and admire its patriotism and enormous contribution to its homeland.

I deeply appreciate the link between Turkey and Israel, which serves the best interests of both democratic nations in a tough region. And I value Turkey’s role as an anchor of NATO and friend of the United States.

At the same time, I cannot escape the events of 1915 and the conclusions reached by credible voices, from Ambassador Morgenthau to Harvard professor Samantha Power, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide,” to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum about the nature of what took place: It was a genocide, they determined, albeit one that occurred more than 30 years before the term was coined.

Zealots and Sages

The people are confused and aimless.

Lately they have been attracted to the neighboring Moabites.

The Israelite men have been seen consorting with them — some serious interdating.

Moses and Aaron don’t know what to do; they are old men, out of touch. They seem to enjoy sitting around, saying prayers, making Kiddush on Shabbat and holidays, communing with God — but no action.

Suddenly the community is astir: A young Israelite prince has been seen checking into a motel with a Midianite socialite. The old men do what they do best: They ask God for help, they offer prayers and incense, they call for a commission to study the matter.

Pinchas was your go-to guy for cutting through the red tape. He was not constrained by the inefficiencies of a cumbersome and feckless legal system.

While the old men were wringing their hands over the loose morals of the younger generation and their profligate ways, the young priest seized a spear, burst into the bedroom of the young sybarites and impaled them together. And then, of course, comes the plague. Morality is satisfied, but people die.

I don’t like Pinchas; most of the rabbis of the Talmud didn’t either. His actions, they averred, are not to be emulated or serve as legal precedent. He was intemperate and disrespectful (not like those nice daughters of Zelophehad; the Zelophehad girls also saw injustice in the legal system, but they brought their complaint to Moses and it all worked out peacefully. Why couldn’t he be more like them?)

Pinchas exemplified the apocryphal teaching of another battlefield star, Gen. George Patton: “A violent plan executed today is better than a perfect plan executed tomorrow.” Yet what can we do? God apparently approved of Pinchas and granted him a special place in the priesthood. It is noteworthy that he developed his career with a sort of specialty in zealotry. In the Book of Joshua, we learn that when the tribes on the West Bank suspected their brothers across the river of building an altar to a foreign god, they selected Pinchas to lead the delegation to investigate. I have no doubt that he took his spear with him.

But toward the end of our parsha, when Moses anoints his successor, it is Joshua who received the commission, not Pinchas. Perhaps Moses suspected that the meteoric success of the young priest was not a predictor of future performance.

There is a scribal tradition, maintained in every Torah scroll, that testifies to the problematic nature of Pinchas’ reward. “I give him my covenant of peace,” God tells Moses regarding the young priest. But the word for peace, shalom, is defective. The letter vav is inscribed hollow. It is a broken letter, a broken shalom, a peace that can’t endure.

There is more. An ancient tradition identifies Pinchas with the prophet Elijah (never mind that they lived centuries apart). They shared a common soul: Elijah also declared that he alone was an avatar of God’s word, the last of the zealots.

God didn’t think much of Elijah’s zealotry. As a result, Elijah/Pinchas is tasked with appearing at every seder and every brit milah. At the seder he witnesses children turning to their parents with honest, sometimes embarrassing questions about our traditions and the parents’ telling the story, patiently and repetitively, to the children. At the brit milah, Elijah/Pinchas must witness that every generation has its place in the Covenant with God. He must also witness a token drop of blood drawn to perpetuate the covenant, not a murderous act of violent bloodletting — a much better and holier use of sharp objects.

Is there a place for zeal? No doubt. The battlefield needs warriors, not poets. Institutions, including religious ones, often get bogged down in minutiae and forget the mission. It is refreshing when younger eyes and hands can bring new perspectives to old intractables and shake things up. Communities depend on such people; without them, we would drown in process and the weight of precedent. The trick is for the sage and zealot to work together, even — maybe especially — when it is the same person.

Moderation owes a debt to passion, which must be paid without undue deliberation. The Book of Psalms exclaims: “There is a time to act for God! They have violated your Torah!” On this difficult verse, the third-century rabbi Rava explained that it can go in two directions. Sometimes, when people claim “This is a time for acting for God!” the result is a violation of God’s Torah. Sometimes, though, when there is rampant violation of Torah, there is indeed a “time for acting for God” and following the example of the zealot. Yet, I am frightened of my inner Pinchas. Anger and indignation are hard to channel; once unleashed, plagues can follow with celerity.

Religious zealots, whether they are rabbis, preachers, or ayatollahs, will always command a following. They may inspire masses to march, but rarely to think. Next Pesach or bris, let’s welcome the zealot to our home and offer him a glass of wine to sip and a chair to sit down.

Rabbi Dan Shevitz is av bet din of the Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din and serves Congregation Mishkon Tephilo in Venice.

What’s So Bad About Torture?

Suppose your child were kidnapped.

She is buried alive with a limited air supply. Police arrest one of the kidnappers. Indeed, he was on a store videotape luring the child and then abducting her. Witnesses saw him put the child in a car. His handwriting is on the ransom note. He admits he knows where she is but remains stubbornly unresponsive.

The police by-the-rules interrogation moves slowly, it seems, against the clock. The kidnapper’s record and demeanor indicate clearly that he would respond to graduated pain. The only way to save the girl is to intimidate and physically hurt this man.

If your child’s life were on the line, would you condone rough treatment?

In our society, the parent does not make this judgment. The civil authorities properly do. Because, for one thing, parents might want to kill this person with their bare hands, even after torture had done its job. And that would violate the due process that is fundamental to our system, which properly protects civil liberties, even when a life is at stake.

Our government, too, has an interest in saving this child’s life in this situation — and in doing almost anything necessary to save lives that are in imminent peril. And the minute you accept that, you understand the folly of blanket prohibitions against torture when confronting terrorism.

The situation here is analogous to the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, when the Clinton administration naively used the criminal justice system to prosecute the perpetrators, as if their act were an isolated crime, rather than go after the terrorist organization that launched their mission.

How, then, does our Western system apply to the global war on terror?

To answer that, it helps to recognize the scope of terrorism, which is more varied and pervasive than many commonly realize. The terrorists will not always be Islamists. And, even now, not all Muslim terrorists are religious zealots lining up for virgins in heaven.

The anti-Soviet Muslim groups in Chechnya are more nationalistic than religious. Many secular Palestinian groups want to destroy Israel, not conquer the world for Islam.

Still, our primary concern in the years and, possibly decades, ahead is mainly with the Islamo-fascists who would indeed use violence to impose Islam — whether they are part of an organized Al Qaeda-like group or lone rangers.

The military supremacy of the United States with the fall of the Soviet Union ended the era of classic war, with military forces that engage on land, air and sea, culminating in a defined victory for one side. Instead, smaller nation-states or, more likely, renegade movements that may or may not find sanctuary in states will lack the “rationality” that constrained other bad guys of times past, like the former Soviet Union.

They won’t heed, as did the Soviets, the nuclear deterrent of mutually assured destruction. Nor would they ascribe to the economic rationality that inhibits an ambitious China and other ascendant powers that look beyond military hegemony.

In contrast, consider how a mullah in Iran responded recently when asked whether Iran ought to explode a nuclear bomb in Israel, given that so many Arabs live in Israel, in the West Bank and in adjacent countries. Thousands of Arabs would be killed, if not immediately, then through radiation disease and toxic cancers. The mullah was unmoved, because he said the key was simply killing the Jews in Israel and destroying that country.

This is not your father’s Cold War-style conflict. And this scary Iranian theocracy could look moderate compared to Islamist terrorist gangs that stalk us, who would lack even the arguable constraints that moderate Iran’s behavior. Even Iran must deal with Russia and Europe, and its anti-Semitic president still has a public to answer to at home.

President Bush, for all his proper focus on national security, has not sufficiently explained the peril of today’s asymmetric warfare. We’re not talking about an old-style IRA explosion that would kill several uniformed British soldiers or even about the targeting of civilians, including children. Regardless of what was found in Iraq, Americans do face an ongoing threat from weapons of mass destruction — nuclear, biological, radioactive and chemical — that could sicken, maim and kill vast numbers of noncombatants at a blow.

Torture truly could be a lesser evil when the stakes are this high.

Even so, torture could not be justified if it falls short by any of three measures that have been articulated recently by law professor Harvey Rishikof, who heads the national security strategy department of the National War College in Washington, D.C. Rishikof, who does not object to torture under all circumstances, lists these possible objections to torture: pragmatic, political and moral, which I will deal with one by one.

The Pragmatic Objection I, the Reciprocal Golden Rule: We shouldn’t torture, because we don’t want our soldiers and civilians treated that way when they are captured.

This precept certainly holds in normal warfare, For example, one side is deterred from using biological weapons for fear the other side would retaliate in kind. But no matter how nicely we interrogate terrorists, their side will never reciprocate. Their core value is that enemy soldiers have no rights either as combatants or even as fellow humans, and that civilians are no better than soldiers.

The Pragmatic Objection II: Torture does not work or is even counterproductive. Take the case of a civilian suspect who falsely confesses to a murder or a terrorism suspect who falsely implicates others in a nonexistent plot.

I accept that torture does not produce assured results, especially if it isn’t carried out both thoughtfully and rarely. But what about the case when it does work?

The argument over capital punishment offers a helpful analogy. Opponents of capital punishment, for example, argue that it is not actually a deterrent. But what if you could show them, say, just one person who was deterred from murder?

When I confronted actor Mike Farrell, a crusader against the death penalty, with this possibility, he quickly acknowledged that it didn’t matter, because he was morally opposed to capital punishment, regardless.

This was an honest and telling response. The lack-of-deterrence argument simply is a convenient rhetorical stratagem. I regard the pragmatic argument against torture the same way.

What if you show that torture is, in some circumstances, utilitarian? After all, how can you possibly know that in all cases torture will never work? My guess is that the pragmatic objection to torture morphs really into a more reasoned political or moral objection.

The Political Objection: There is an indisputable downside for the United States if we are perceived to condone torture. Yes, some U.S. soldiers deserved to be punished for what happened at Abu Ghraib. It was a stunning setback to our national image.

And it’s possible that some people have been wrongly imprisoned in Guantanamo. Many more have not. And we have gained information from prisoners there that has helped us apprehend key terrorists and prevent significant loss of life.

Besides, the people who hate us, hate us. No matter what we do, large segments of the Islamic world believe the worst about us, even though Americans have fought and died in Asia and Europe to help Muslims — from Bosnia to Afghanistan to Iraq. And of the countries around the world that sit in judgment on Guantanamo, nearly all have engaged in torture. And in many cases, I’m talking about their police, who use torture to investigate street crimes, as well as making it an instrument of state oppression against unarmed and peaceful dissidents.

The Moral Objection: It’s wrong to torture. Morality is intrinsically good but is the moral course clear?

Here we come full circle to the original scenario, that of the child whose life is in imminent danger. Except multiply that child by 10, by 100, by 1,000, by 1 million. What about a biochemical attack that could be hours away? The possibility is not far-fetched. Consider, too, the long-term increases in cancer rates in the wake of a terrorist nuclear attack and the profound damage to the environment.

The goal is prevention, not responding after the fact… after thousands or even tens of thousands have died, and hundreds of thousands and their offspring are toxically doomed. To prevent such a calamity, would it be moral not to torture?

The Geneva Accords intended for such formal military conflict certainly might not fit well to the instance of interrogating terrorists operating outside of nation-states. Under Geneva, even temporary exposure to heat or cold or sleep deprivation would be off limits.

Are we to avoid degrading treatment? Are stress techniques forbidden? Critics of the United States have classified as torture even techniques that leave no permanent marks and do no lasting physical harm. Writer Mark Bowden, author of “Black Hawk Down,” for one, does not the regard the manipulation of fear and anxiety as torture. Neither do I.

Consider the case of an Al Qaeda terrorist who did not respond for months to conventional interrogation. His interrogators eventually manufactured a fraudulent photograph of his wife and two children, with the Arabic caption, “They need their father’s love.” He broke, providing valuable information. Was this beyond the pale?

What if, in the future, a brain scan could yield lifesaving information? (We’re not talking Dr. Mengele here.) Would that “invasion of privacy” or “violation of due process” be going too far?

Critics constantly group into the word “torture” practices that stop well short of ripping people’s fingernails off or mutilation. Is it OK to be mentally intrusive or hassle a detainee psychologically?

According to Rishikof, interrogators, under certain evolved and tortured definitions of torture, can’t even scare or threaten someone.

Let me be clear: I am not in any way advocating that our government should torture a criminal who commits arson or bombs the store that fired him. Even though that looks like terrorism, these acts are fundamentally crimes. And torture should never be used as punishment, , although it might be used to apprehend terrorist perpetrators, as was reportedly done by the CIA following the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut that killed CIA employees. My argument concerns what to do about a terrorist organization, and ultimately, doing what’s necessary to prevent a terrorist attack.

Opponents of torture talk about a worrisome, slippery slope, but the more worrisome and dangerous slide may be on the other side, when anything outside of “Adam 12” and the reading of Miranda rights becomes unacceptable.

Arnold Steinberg is a political strategist and analyst who serves on the Board of Visitors for the National Defense University. This article represents only his personal views.

Class Notes – National Nachas for Shalhevet

Shalhevet School is on a winning streak, bringing the Los Angeles yeshiva high school to national prominence in the areas of ethics, politics and sports.

Shalhevet is the only Jewish school and the only school in Los Angeles included in a national report on how to produce students who are not only intelligent, but have a sense of moral maturity.

The 14-year-old high school is one of 24 schools from across the country included in “Smart and Good High Schools: Integrating Excellence and Ethics for Success in School, Work and Beyond,” a 225-page report recently published by State University of New York College at Cortland.

Researchers spent time at Shalhevet to observe how it builds character in its students — for example, through its weekly town hall meetings and moral discussions that permeate the classroom and extracurricular activities.

“In a ‘Smart and Good High School,’ all things in the life of the school — routines, rituals, discipline, curriculum, co-curricular activities and unplanned ‘teachable moments’ — are intentionally utilized as opportunities to foster excellence and ethics,” the report reads.

Two seniors from last year, Leor Hackel and Sara Hoenig, served on the National Student Leaders Panel for the study.

Shalhevet also chalked up a win in Yeshiva University’s Model United Nations, where about 40 Jewish high schools faced off in debates on issues such as the crisis in Darfur, how to define terrorism and providing nutritional support to alleviate the HIV crisis in sub-Saharan Africa.

Shalhevet’s win continued a long Model U.N. crosstown rivalry with YULA High School, which came in second. In the last five years Shalhevet has placed first twice and YULA three times.

Phu Tranchi, adviser to the 14-member Shalhevet team, notes that aside from spending many hours preparing, students hone their persuasive abilities at town hall meetings.

And, Tranchi added, “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we have great overlap between the Model U.N. and the drama club — they can really get up and put on a show.”

The same can be said for Shalhevet’s Lady Firehawks, who won first place in the Hillel Community School invitational basketball tournament in Florida last month, where teams from Jewish high schools across the country competed. This was the second consecutive year that the Lady Firehawks won the tournament. Tamar Rohatiner, a Shalhevet senior, won tournament MVP.

Sun Strong for Camp Ramah

Camp Ramah in Ojai will be getting some new décor atop the Gindi Dining Hall this summer — about 250 photovoltaic panels to generate enough solar energy to cut the camp’s energy bill by about $30,000 a year.

This is phase one of a three-part project that will eventually save the camp up to $75,000 a year and will reduce toxic emissions by approximately 15 million pounds of carbon dioxide, 37,800 pounds of nitrous oxide and 121,000 pounds of sulfur dioxide over the 50-year life of the installation.

The camp received a $500,000 gift from alumnus David Braun to begin construction on the $1.3 million project. Camp Ramah expects reliance on solar power to insulate tuition against future energy cost spikes.

“By both using and educating about solar energy during future encampments, we believe we will create generations of Jewish leaders who are environmentally conscious and who will seek to move more and more Jewish and non-Jewish institutions to environmentally friendly energy options,” said Ramah’s Executive Director Rabbi Daniel Greyber.

Greyber has been working with Rep. Howard Berman (D-Van Nuys) to obtain IRS approval of a strategy to offer nonprofits the same tax incentives currently given to for-profit companies to build solar installations.

For more information about Camp Ramah or the solar energy project, call (310) 476-8571.

YULA Girls Face History

Facing History and Ourselves, a Boston-based organization dedicated to teaching morality and tolerance through the study of the Holocaust, will hold a seminar for teachers this summer at the YULA girls’ school. The five-day workshop will be geared toward, but not limited to, teachers at Orthodox schools.

“What I hope people come out with is a better way of teaching about this history and also a way to help students think about their own participation in the society in which they live,” said Jan Darsa, director of Jewish education at Facing History.

The conference runs June 25-30 and costs $500 for the first teacher and $400 per teacher after that. Applications are due April 15. For more information, contact Jan Darsa at (617) 735-1613, or visit

Jewish Peace Corps

Looking for a great summer experience of hard physical labor and few amenities? American Jewish World Service, an organization dedicated to sustainable development, will bring 16- to 25-year-olds to Africa, Central America and Asia to engage in tikkun olam, repairing the world, in the most literal sense.

The seven-week program couples intense physical work — building schools, water systems, homes and agricultural projects — with Jewish study and community experience.

The program is open to high school juniors and seniors, and adults 18-25. The application deadline is March 31. For more information, contact Sonia Gordon-Walinsky at (800) 889-7146, ext. 651, or visit

Prejudice Awareness Summit

More than 300 middle school students from area public and parochial school participated in a Prejudice Awareness Summit at the University of Judaism (UJ) last month. UJ undergraduates led the younger students in exercises that encouraged honest and open dialogue and allowed them to explore their own feelings about prejudice. Workshops focused on reducing harmful actions and developing techniques to resolve conflicts. For more information on the summit, call (310) 476-9777.


Unilateral Withdrawal

I, along with what the polls say is 60 percent of Israelis — and maybe even Ariel Sharon, too — trust Mahmoud Abbas’ good intentions. More than that, I’m impressed by what he’s done on the ground — by prevailing on Hamas and the other terrorist groups to “cool down” the violence a week after he took office, and reading them the riot act after their rockets started flying again a day after the hopeful Sharm el-Sheik summit. He seems to be the real thing — a radical departure from Arafat, the kind of Palestinian leader whom peace-lovers have been waiting for since this bloody mess began.

But even if Abbas’ intentions aren’t enough — if somebody kills him, if the warriors of the intifada decide it’s not over, if his security forces don’t follow his orders, if trigger-happy Israeli soldiers or settlers break the fragile truce — I would be disappointed, but not overly so. I don’t have a lot of faith in the Palestinian body politic, even with Abbas. What I do have faith in is Sharon and his disengagement plan. Whatever happens with Abbas and the truce, I believe Sharon is going to get us out of Gaza and a chunk of the West Bank, maybe by the end of this year as scheduled.

Sharon’s disengagement is the real peace process, the first step toward ending the occupation, toward getting Israelis out of the Palestinians’ midst. And what makes it a masterstroke, and superior to the Oslo Accord, is its unilateralism. It doesn’t depend on the Palestinian body politic, only on Israel’s. And with a political colossus like Sharon in power, with Israeli public opinion behind the plan by a 2-1 margin or better, and with the Bush administration now basically declaring disengagement an American strategic interest, the Israeli body politic is healthy. Healthy enough to finally overcome the intimidations of the settler movement. Strong enough to actually do the once-unthinkable — remove 9,000 Jewish settlers from their homes, along with the soldiers who’ve been dying and killing to protect them all these years.

And if that can be done, a precedent will be set for doing the same in the interior of the West Bank, in areas where settlements were planted deliberately as a “Jewish presence” amid densely populated Palestinian areas. If such a scale of disengagement is ultimately carried out, we will be able to declare the post-1967 occupation effectively over. All we’ll have left with the Palestinians is basically a border dispute.

It’s possible. If we can unilaterally get out of Gaza and a little part of the West Bank now, I see no reason why we can’t get out of a much larger part of the West Bank later.

This may sound overly optimistic, but only to people who haven’t noticed what’s been going on along Israel’s northern border since the army pulled out of south Lebanon in May 2000. What’s been going on is a fair approximation of peace and quiet. Up there, Israel’s nearly 5-year-old experiment with unilateral withdrawal has worked. Not perfectly — Hezbollah sometimes fires at Israeli targets, but then Israeli spy jets frequently fly over Lebanon — yet the level of violence is a little fraction of what it was for a whole generation. Ask the Israelis in the north if unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon was a good idea. Ask the soldiers who don’t have to go back there.

Many argue that Hezbollah’s “victory” over the Israelis in Lebanon inspired the Palestinians to launch the intifada, and while I think there’s an element of truth to this, on the whole it’s a mistake. There’s no doubt the Palestinians were encouraged by Hezbollah at the start of the intifada — they freely admitted it — but to suggest that they never would have gotten the idea to fight Israel if not for Hezbollah’s example is to erase Palestinian-Israeli history. And to think Hezbollah’s inspiration alone could have kept the Palestinians going for four and half years, to die in the thousands and be reduced to destitution, is silly. If not for the pullout from Lebanon — Ehud Barak’s lasting achievement as prime minister — Israel would have ended up fighting the intifada in the territories and Hezbollah in Lebanon at the same time.

So while Oslo turned out to be a failure, unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon turned out to be a success, and the latter is also a precedent worth keeping in mind as disengagement goes forward.

But it’s not only Israel’s security that stands to benefit by withdrawal from the settlements — Israel’s morality will certainly benefit, and by morality I mean how we treat the Palestinians. Whatever anyone thinks of them, nothing gave Israel the right to move into the West Bank and Gaza after the Six-Day War when there were 100 percent Palestinians and 0 percent Israelis there, and to do so permanently, which was Israel’s intention when it built the settlements. A country does not build towns and neighborhoods and schools and clinics and shopping centers for tens of thousands of families on land it plans to give back. Residential settlements cannot be justified as self-defense — they’re an armed land-grab. That’s plain wrong, and no religious text can justify it.

Then the argument is often made that if Arabs can live in Haifa, why can’t Jews live in Beit El or any other settlement? It’s a false argument, though — Arabs live in Haifa as citizens of Israel, subject to Israeli laws and authority, and with no recourse to any Arab state for intervention. If the Jewish settlers were prepared to live under corresponding conditions in a Palestinian state, they’d have a case for being allowed to remain in their homes. But very few settlers are talking about that option now, and at the moment of truth I think only a few eccentrics would want to stay under Palestinian rule — and to them I would only say good luck.

What the settlers really want is to live in the West Bank and Gaza not like the Arabs of Haifa, but like the European settlers of colonial Africa and Asia — with their national army protecting them from the natives, to whom they, of course, have superior rights and privileges. That’s not the life of Haifa’s Arabs, nor of Haifa’s Jews for that matter.

And I’m very sorry — few Jews want to hear about this, but the acts of brutality against Palestinians by Israeli soldiers, not to mention settlers, are part of the fabric of the occupation. Without going into what I’ve seen with my own eyes, and the many, many accounts from soldiers I’ve heard and read, there’s a reason why Jews don’t want to hear about it — it’s insupportable. It has to be denied. I’ll just give one recent example of a reserve soldier in his early 20s who told me he had no sympathy for left-wing soldiers who refuse to serve in the territories for reasons of conscience.

“And when I fired at the legs of 5-year-old children — under orders — because they were throwing stones at us,” he said, “don’t you think that bothered my conscience?”

A friend of the soldier’s looked at him and asked, “You fired at the legs of 5-year-old children?”

He didn’t know; he didn’t want to know. But it’s true.

But what about Israel’s morality in how it treats the settlers? The right argues that uprooting them from their homes against their will is “transfer,” the national euphemism for expulsion. The world would never countenance transferring Palestinians, but it can’t wait to transfer Jews, goes the claim. This, too, is false. Transfer means expelling people beyond the borders of their country, turning them into refugees. That’s not exactly what will happen to settlers in Gaza and northern Samaria. Instead, they’ll be compensated for their lost homes and businesses — and I hope the money is enough to let them maintain their current standard of living — and be welcomed into their new homes in Israel, as citizens. Millions of struggling Israelis would love to be victims of the “transfer” awaiting those 9,000 Israelis.

Forcing citizens to give up their land and homes in return for compensation is something governments do when there’s no other way to build a stadium, airport or other public project. It’s called the power of eminent domain. If governments can rightfully act under their power of eminent domain to build a bus station or highway, they can do so to build national security and morality, which is Israel’s purpose in the disengagement plan.

But the plan must first be put to a national referendum, say the anti-disengagement forces. Something so fateful must be put before the people, especially when Sharon was against unilateral withdrawal during the last election campaign. This argument doesn’t stand up, either. Israel has never held a national referendum on any issue in its history, certainly not on the building of settlements, which never was nearly as popular as disengagement. So where do the settlers and their friends come to demand a first-ever referendum before the settlements can be evacuated? And anyway, it’s not the unilateralism of disengagement that bothers them, but the disengagement itself. If Abbas co-signed the withdrawal, would the settlers be any less outraged? By rights, the disengagement plan should stand or fall like every other Israeli policy — by majority vote of the Cabinet and Knesset. Again, the settlers aren’t asking for equal rights, but for superior rights.

This week, the newspapers are filled with stories about death threats against Cabinet ministers supporting the withdrawal, about graffiti calling for Sharon’s assassination, about the verbal assault and tire-slashing endured by Binyamin Netanyahu, who’s on the fence about disengagement. There’s plenty reason to be scared of a repeat of the Rabin murder or another Baruch Goldstein-style massacre or a renewed plot to blow up the Temple Mount or some other act of criminal insanity aimed at stopping the withdrawal.

But I believe it’s not going to work. The right-wing opposition is in a Catch-22 — if they play by democratic rules they’ll lose because the public is massively on Sharon’s side, and Sharon is a surpassingly shrewd and determined leader; on the other hand, if they turn to lawlessness and violence, the public will grow fed up, they’ll go along with harsh security measures against the extremists, and support Sharon all the more. If Sharon were killed, I don’t think Israelis would be in the mood to grant the assassins their wish by calling off the disengagement. I don’t think the Bush administration would go for the idea, either.

When Sharon first started talking about the disengagement plan in late 2003, I was betting he wouldn’t go through with it, that he wouldn’t be able to stand up to the settlers’ political and psychological pressure, that his supporters would back down until he was standing alone, and then he would back down, too. But since November, when Sharon stared down the settlers and won the make-or-break Knesset vote on disengagement by a thumping 67-45 margin, I’ve changed my mind. He’s another Ben-Gurion in the making, he’s stronger than all his opponents put together, and the occupation is going to start coming to an end — soon.

This has done wonderful things for my mood. I walk around looking at Israelis living their lives, and I say to myself, “What an interesting, lively, attractive country this is. Boy I’m glad I’m living here. Look at that group of animated young people over there — one day my two young sons will be sort of like them. And that’s fine by me.”

It’s been a long time since thoughts like this have been popping into my mind; in fact it’s been four and a half years, ever since the Oslo peace process died and the intifada was born. Now the intifada may be dead, and even if it’s not, we in Israel are coming up out of the bunker. It’s going to be a hard year, but I’m optimistic that it’s going to end well. After such a long stretch of bleakness, the future seems to be smiling at this country again.


A Question of Morality

We have been bombarded with the phrase “moral values” ever since it was announced that 22 percent of voters cited it as the single

most important consideration in the 2004 election. Not Iraq, not terrorism, not the economy.

Moral values. It is also reported that 23 percent of voters described themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians, and that a whopping 80 percent of these “values” voters cast their ballots for President Bush. This “moral values” theme has become so dominant that the 2004 election has been called the “God, guns and gays” election.

Bush administration officials have stated explicitly that far-right evangelicals turned out in record numbers to support the president and played a decisive role in his re-election.

It is interesting to note that while the religious far-right uniformly supported Bush, the Jewish community overwhelmingly voted for Kerry. Nationwide, Jews voted for Kerry over Bush by a 74-25 margin.

But just what are these “moral values” that so motivated the evangelicals, but apparently proved less than persuasive to the Jewish community? Put simply — and we like our moral values simple in America these days — they would include the following proscriptions:

1. No right of choice for women.

2. No civil unions for gays.

3. No gun control.

4. No embryonic stem cell research.

5. No separation of church and state.

And already the bellicose demands of the far right are dominating the national discourse. “We delivered the election to Bush” they seem to be crying “now Bush must deliver the country to us.” The brouhaha over the remarks of Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) about anti-choice judges is just the beginning. We can expect a great deal more muscle-flexing from the far right and, I fear, significant implementation of its social agenda. Jerry Falwell is already announcing an “evangelical revolution” and I believe we will see an all-out assault on the judiciary, the one branch of government the far right believes it does not control.

While the Jewish community’s rejection of Bush cannot be attributed to a single issue, implicit in our vote is the understanding that the dogmatic dictates of the far right are not moral values at all, but rather a set of regressive social directives, hung on the hook of theology.

We must ask: Where is the morality in dooming innocent women to back-alley abortions, or in denying gays the basic dignity of civil unions? Where is the morality in flooding our streets with assault weapons, or depriving the sick of the bright hope afforded by stem cell research? Where is the morality in imposing a “Christian nation” on the rest of us, or in eviscerating the bedrock principle of the separation of church and state, which guarantees our freedom of worship?

Moderate and progressive Christians are raising their voices to agree that to dignify such policies of intolerance and ignorance as “moral values” is abhorrent.

Additionally, for the Bush administration to don the mantle of morality is repugnant. Poverty, health care, fair taxation, environmental protection, public education and fiscal prudence are all issues of morality. Yet Bush’s record in these areas is one of abject failure. Throughout the presidential campaign, it was Kerry, not Bush, who stood for decency, equality, tolerance and compassion. Someone should remind the evangelicals that these are the true moral values taught by Jesus — not lifting the ban on assault weapons.

But if there is one universal moral value, it is respect for the truth. And here, the Bush administration’s penchant for spin and distortion comes into sharp focus. Here are some examples: In the face of the debacle in Iraq, the administration boasts “a remarkable success story”; in the face of this country’s first net job loss in 70 years, the administration proclaims “the strongest economy in 20 years”; in the face of an abysmal environmental record, Bush claims to be “a good steward of the land.” This is not so much an administration, as it is a spin factory — a perpetual myth-making machine.

Of particular interest are the claims made by Bush surrogates on Israel. Bush’s true record on Israel has been one of omission and abdication, rather than leadership and engagement (we’ll see if Arafat’s departure will change things). Yet during the campaign, Bush’s emissaries hailed Bush as the best president for Israel since Harry S. Truman, and shamelessly denigrated Kerry’s solid 20-year pro-Israel record. Fortunately, the Jewish community did not buy these fabrications.

Clearly, the Bush administration failed, despite enormous efforts, to make meaningful gains in the Jewish community. But I am sure that they will try to spin even this demoralizing defeat into a glorious triumph.

In a recent article in this paper, Paul Kujawsky stated that the Jewish community could take cold comfort in having voted “correctly” given Kerry’s ultimate loss. Perhaps. But it means something to me that we voted correctly, that we voted for real moral values. And I, for one, am proud that we did so.

H. David Nahai is a real estate attorney and former chair of the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board.

If the Situation Were Reversed

What would happen if a Palestinian terrorist were to detonate a bomb at the entrance to an apartment building in Israel and cause the death of an elderly man in a wheelchair, who would later be found buried under the rubble of the building? The country would be profoundly shocked. Everyone would talk about the sickening cruelty of the act and its perpetrators. The shock would be even greater if it then turned out that the dead man’s wife had tried to dissuade the terrorist from blowing up the house, telling him that there were people inside, but to no avail. The tabloids would come out with the usual screaming headline: "Buried alive in his wheelchair." The terrorists would be branded "animals."

Last Monday, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) bulldozers in Khan Yunis, in the Gaza Strip, demolished the home of Ibrahim Halfalla, a 75-year-old disabled man and father of seven, and buried him alive. Umm-Basel, his wife, says she tried to stop the driver of the heavy machine by shouting, but he paid her no heed. The IDF termed the act "a mistake that shouldn’t have happened," and the incident was noted in passing in Israel. The country’s largest-circulation paper, Yedioth Ahronoth, didn’t bother to run the story at all. The blood libel in France — a woman’s tale of being subjected to an anti-Semitic attack, which later turned out to be fiction — proved a great deal more upsetting to people. There we thought the assault was aimed against our people. But when the IDF bulldozes a disabled Palestinian to death? Not a story. Just like the killing, under the rubble of her home, of Noha Maqadama, a woman in her ninth month of pregnancy, before the eyes of her husband and children, in El Boureij refugee camp a few months earlier.

And what would happen if a Palestinian were to shoot an Israeli university lecturer and his son in front of his wife and their young son? That’s what happened 10 days ago in the case of Dr. Salem Khaled, from Nablus, who called to the soldiers from the window of his house because he was a man of peace and the front door had jammed, so he couldn’t get out. The soldiers shot him to death and then killed his 16-year-old son before the eyes of his mother and his 11-year-old brother. It’s not hard to imagine how we would react to the story if the victims were ours.

But when we’re implicated and the victims are Palestinians, we prefer to avert our eyes, not to know, not to take an interest and certainly not to be shocked. Palestinian victims — and their numbers, as everyone knows, are far greater than ours — don’t even merit newspaper reports, not even when the chain of events is particularly brutal, as in the examples given. This is not an intellectual exercise but an attempt to demonstrate the concealment of information, the double morality and the hypocrisy. The indifference to these two very recent incidents proved again that in our eyes there is only one victim and all the others will never be considered victims.

If a European cabinet minister were to declare, "I don’t want these long-nosed Jews to serve me in restaurants," all of Europe would be up in arms and this would be the minister’s last comment as a minister. Three years ago, our former labor and social affairs minister, Shlomo Benizri, from Shas, stated: "I can’t understand why slanty-eyed types should be the ones to serve me in restaurants." Nothing happened. We are allowed to be racists. And if a European government were to announce that Jews are not permitted to attend Christian schools? The Jewish world would rise up in protest. But when our Education Ministry announces that it will not permit Arabs to attend Jewish schools in Haifa, it’s not considered racism. Only in Israel could this not be labeled racist. The heritage of Golda Meir — it was she who said that after what the Nazis did to us, we can do whatever we want — is now having a late and unfortunate revival.

What would happen if a certain country were to enact legislation forbidding members of a particular nation to become citizens there, no matter what the circumstances, including mixed couples who married and raised families? No country anywhere enacts laws like these nowadays, apart from Israel. If the Cabinet extends the validity of the new citizenship law today, Palestinians will not be able to undergo naturalization here, even if they are married to Israelis. We have the right, you see. And if the illegal Israeli immigrants in the United States were hunted down like animals in the dark of night, the way the Immigration Police do here, would we have a better understanding of the injustice we are doing to a community that wants nothing other than to work here?

What would we say if the parents of Israeli emigrants were separated from their children and deported, without having available any avenue of naturalization, no matter what the circumstances? And how would we classify a country that interrogates visitors about their political opinions as soon as they disembark from the plane at the airport and bars them from entering it the security authorities look askance at the opinions they express? What would happen if anti-Semites in France were to poison the drinking water of a Jewish neighborhood? Last week settlers poisoned a well at Atawana, in the southern Mount Hebron region, and the police are investigating.

And we still haven’t said anything about a country that would imprison another nation, or about a regime that would prevent access to medical treatment for some of its subjects, according to its national identity, about roads that would be open only to the members of one nation or about an airport that would be closed to the other nation. All this is happening in Israel and is pulling from under us the moral ground that makes it possible for us to complain about racism and anti-Semitism abroad, even when they actually erupt.

Reprinted with permission of Haaretz © 2004.

Gideon Levy writes for Haaretz.

Your Letters

From a Soldier

About a month ago, my aunt purchased a subscription of The Jewish Journal for me as a gift while I am in basic training at Ft. Sill, Okla. The Jewish Journal has allowed me to keep up-to-date on world events especially those important to the Jewish community. The articles on arts, entertainment and literature have provided me with a much-needed diversion from my demanding training schedule.

I wanted to pass on my thanks to your fine publication for helping one Jewish soldier stay connected with the Jewish community. Of course, my Aunt Lynn and Uncle David deserve equal thanks.

When I leave training, I intend to transfer my subscription to this post’s one Jewish chaplain so he can add this newspaper to the list of materials he provides to Jewish soldiers.

For those readers who don’t know, the JWB Jewish Chaplains Council is a nonprofit organization charged with oversight and accreditation of Jewish chaplains in our armed forces. These rabbis do a tremendous job in providing a wide range of services and resources to the Jewish community within our military. I urge your readers to consider the JWB when it’s time to write those checks to their favorite Jewish organizations. Their address is: 15 East 26th St. New York, N.Y. 10010-1579.

Pfc. Brian Singer, Ft. Sill, Okla U.S. Army

Killing Yassin

British Foreign Minister Jack Straw’s statement that the assassination of Sheik Ahmed Yassin was unjustified will go down in history like Neville Chamberlain who tried to appease Adolf Hitler.

Rabbi Shimon Paskow, Thousand Oaks

Mixed on ‘Code’

In reading Wendy Madnick’s article, “Cracking a Controversial ‘Code'” (April 9), we ask ourselves whether we should be elated that, unlike Mel Gibson’s movie, “The Passion of the Christ,” here is a book written by a Christian, about Christianity, which does not blame the Jews for all of their ills. Or [should we] be disturbed that the book misrepresents Jewish history by claiming that Jews during Jesus’ time practiced pagan ritualistic sex acts inside the Holy Temple in Jerusalem? One can only assume that if such pagan ritualistic ceremonies did take place, Jews would have learned about the specifics through sources such as the Talmud, which openly touches upon the life of Jesus.

Danny Bental, Tarzana

Kirby Left Out

Tom Teicholz’ description of the influence of Jewish escape artists in comic book history contains a stunning omission (“The Escapist,” April 9). Jack Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzenburg) escaped the slums of Hell’s Kitchen and survived the battlefields of World War II to become the undisputed king of superhero cartoonists. He was the dominant creative force behind Captain America, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, the X-Men, Thor, the Silver Surfer and hundreds of others. At DC Comics, acting as his own editor, Kirby created an entire new pantheon of superheroes and villains called the New Gods, engaged in a cosmic war between the planets of New Genesis and Apokolips. The Torah echoes and the evocation of totalitarian society on the dark planet Apokolips is as resonant for Jewish history as anything in mainstream comics.

The war is triggered by the escape from Apokolips of a young character, Scott Free, who grows up to become he superhero, Mr. Miracle: Super Escape Artist. Pulitzer prize-winning author Michael Chabon read these comics as a child. At the back of his novel of escape and comics, “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” he dedicates a final acknowledgement to Kirby, for his influence on “everything I have ever written.”

Have I made my case?

Aaron Noble, Altadena

Bush on Israel

James Besser’s article makes a false assumption (“Speaking Truth to Power — Not,” April 2). Jewish criticism of President Bush’s domestic policies are muted for fear that he will stop supporting Israel? This assumes that Bush supports Israel because the Jews support Bush. Oh, I forgot that Bush owes the Jews for their unabashed support he got in the 2000 landslide victory over Gore. I doubt that Bush is counting on winning this election with the Jewish vote.

The real reason that Bush is supportive of Israel is based upon a strong religious belief in morality and justice. Bush sees the Middle East conflict as a fight of good against evil, and that same fight was brought home on Sept. 11. Has Besser heard of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Sen. Barbara Boxer and Rep. Nancy Pelosi? Real pro-Bush yentas? Domestic issues are meaningless to the victims of Sept. 11 and to the thousands of Israelis that have been murdered. Bush supports Israel because it is morally right and just — not because Jews vote for his domestic agenda.

I will support President Bush 100 percent as he fights to protect Americans and Israelis fight terrorism. Oh, and if my taxes go up or down by a few percentage points, well that is a sacrifice I am willing to make.

Joel Bertet, Los Angeles

Prefer Your Teen to Smoke or to Cheat?

Decades of lecturing around America and of speaking with parents on my radio show have led me to an incredible conclusion: More American parents would be upset with their teenage children if they smoked a cigarette than if they cheated on a test.

How has this come about? This is, after all, an entirely new phenomenon. Almost no member of my generation (those who became teenagers in the 1960s), let alone a member of any previous generation, could ever have imagined that parents would be angrier with their teenage child for smoking than for cheating.

There has been a profound change in American values. In a nutshell, health has overtaken morality. Or, if you prefer, health has become our morality.

The war against tobacco is both a cause and a symptom of this moral confusion. It has saturated American society with the belief that smoking is wrong, even immoral, not simply unhealthy.

Anti-smoking zealots (the term is redundant) in the California Department of Health Services launched a statewide billboard campaign equating cigarettes with drugs. Parents call my show to tell me that when their children see someone smoking, they say, "Look, that person is using drugs!"

Judges in child custody disputes have imbibed the moral idiocy that smoking tells us something about a person’s character. An increasing number of judges take smoking into consideration when choosing which parent is more fit to raise a child. Millions of Americans agree with these judges that smoking is a moral flaw. That is one reason the government airbrushes cigarettes out of pictures of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and other famous Americans. If a young American were to see Roosevelt smoking a cigarette or Sir Winston Churchill smoking a cigar, what might happen to that child’s wholehearted acceptance of the smoking-is-bad (not merely unhealthy) brainwash?

I smoke a pipe and cigar, and I am amazed at the certitude and chutzpah in the 5-year-olds who have visited my home who confidently walked over to me to tell me I shouldn’t smoke. Had they seen me drinking alcohol, as children regularly see adults do, it would never occur to them to say such a thing.

That we have a war against tobacco rather than alcohol well illustrates the moral confusion of our time. Eighty years ago, when American society warred against a vice, it was alcohol — because the society cared more about fighting evil than fighting potential dangers to health. Alcohol leads to more child and spousal abuse, as well as to murder and rape, than any other single factor. Was one child ever abused because a cigarette or pipe dulled an adult’s conscience? Have any drivers ever killed whole families because they smoked before they drove?

But in this Age of Moral Confusion we have chosen tobacco, not alcohol, as the villain. Because health and living long are our greatest values.

When I was a boy, I attended baseball games where most spectators smoked, but none cursed. Today, there is no smoking at ballparks, but obscene language is shouted out with impunity. We have traded in opposition to firsthand cursing for opposition to secondhand smoke.

So, ask your children if they think you would be more disappointed in their smoking or their cheating. If your child responds "smoking," you are morally failing your child. If you are pleased with that answer, the situation is even worse. If enough Americans prefer that their children cheat than smoke, we are a doomed society. Nor can the issue be avoided by claiming you don’t want your child to either smoke or cheat. That just means you can’t say that cheating is far worse than smoking. You are another American led to believe that healthy and decent are synonymous.

But if you do believe that, ponder these questions: Would you rather your business partner smoke or cheat? Your lawyer? Your friends? Would you feel better if your doctor cheated on medical exams or smoked?

The questions would have been considered absurd a generation ago. The war against tobacco is a symptom and cause of a shallower society. It has done far more harm to America than tobacco. Just ask your teenager.

Dennis Prager hosts his nationally syndicated radio talk show on KRLA-AM 870
in Los Angeles. He is the author of four books, including “Why the Jews? The
Reason for Anti-Semitism” with Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, which will be updated and
rereleased by Simon & Schuster in August. To find out more about Dennis
Prager, visit or
the Creators Syndicate Web site at

Love in the Afterlife

Neil Simon has always laced his plays with aspects of hisown life and, at age 75, he takes on mortality — specifically the mortality ofa creative writer — in “Rose and Walsh.”

In the world premiere of his 33rd play, now at the GeffenPlayhouse in Westwood, Simon examines death, and if the subject might not behilarious at first blush, trust Simon to make the shuffling off the mortal coilan entertaining experience.

The title characters are Rose Steiner, a legendary writer,winner of two Pulitzer Prizes and a self-described “Jewess from Atlanta”(that’s the play’s only Jewish reference, so it’s better to get it in upfront), and Walsh McLaren, a “Mick from Hoboken” and the master of thehard-boiled mystery novel.

The pair has been stormy and profligate lovers and politicalleftists for decades, and if that description brings to mind Lillian Hellmanand Dashiel Hammett, you’re in the right ballpark. (Hellman, who died in 1984,is currently also recreated on Broadway in “Imaginary Friends,” focusing on herbitter rivalry with writer Mary McCarthy.)

There is one damper on their relationship: the fact thatWalsh died five years ago, but continues to visit Rose, in her mind and at herEast Hampton cottage; a more acerbic ghost would be hard to find, even in thevicinity of New York.

Rose, in her mid-60s, is suffering from a massive case offailing creative juices, eyesight and bank balance, but Walsh, during hisfrequent nocturnal visits, suggests a remedy, at least for the last problem.

Dust off a manuscript left unfinished at his death, writethe last 40 pages, and make a killing in the book market.

Rose can’t do the job herself, but Walsh suggests Clancy, adeservedly obscure, one-book author (“Die in Pieces”) as the — ahem — ghostwriter.

Rounding out the quartet is Rose’s young companion, Arlene,who has her own unfinished confrontation with Rose, and if you think that thereserved Arlene and the uncouth Casey are going to fall in love, score one foryour perceptiveness.

“Rose and Walsh” is not prime Simon (and he must be sick andtired of hearing that comparison). The play’s beginning is rather slow, theending a bit soggy, and, given that Simon kept rewriting scenes up to curtaintime, the actors stumble occasionally.

That said, Simon not in top form is probably still the bestAmerican playwright-craftsman around. He handles so devastating an experienceas the loss of a cherished lifetime companion with empathy and considerablewit, and applies the same qualities to a mother-daughter relationship and, ofcourse, the tribulations of a blocked writer.

While the play is hardly a sidesplitter, there are some finecomedic bits in the fractured conversation between Rose and Walsh, while Clancyand Arlene can neither hear nor see the ghost.

In the single funniest scene, Walsh reports on the weddingup yonder of Charles Dickens, with a full complement of 19th century novelistsin attendance.

Credit foremost the work of two of our most skillful senioractors, Jane Alexander as Rose and Len Cariou as Walsh, playing off each otherlike Serena and Venus Williams in a doubles match. That’s tough competition forMarin Hinkle as Arlene and David Aaron Baker as Clancy, but they more than holdtheir own, under the direction of David Esbjornson.

“Rose and Walsh” runs through March 22 at the GeffenPlayhouse, 10866 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. For tickets, call (310) 208-5454, orvisit .

Educator Sees Needfor Teaching Morals

Something vital is missing from public and day school
curriculums, says Dr. Hanan Alexander, a rabbi, educator and author of “Reclaiming
Goodness: Education and the Spiritual Quest” (University of Notre Dame Press,
2001), which received the 2002 National Jewish Book Award in Education.

“Schools are just about making doctors and lawyers, and that
troubles me,” Alexander told The Journal. “Schools should be about teaching
[children] about being good people.”

Alexander will speak to the Jewish community about teaching
students morals during a special lecture series and discussion at Congregation
Ner Tamid of South Bay on Feb. 7, 8, 9 and 11.

Through his book and lectures, the author proposes that
Jewish and non-Jewish communities should turn education into “an emissary of
goodness,” where it is expected that students will learn ethics in school.

Currently a professor of education at the University of Haifa,
Alexander attributes his interest in spirituality to the time he spent working
at the University of Judaism. From 1983 to 1999, he was an education and
philosophy professor and eventually became the school’s chief academic officer.

During a conversation between rabbincal students there,
Alexander noticed that people tended to think of Jewish spirituality in an
extreme way — either their ideas were too fundamentalist or too open-ended.
Worried that these perceptions were dangerous, he wrote a book proposing a
different conception of spirituality — especially within the realm of

Dr. Wendy Mogel, a clinical psychologist, parent educator
and school consultant, believes there is a great need for spirituality and
ethics in education.

“What’s happened is that there is an incredible amount of
stress and competition in schools,” the Los Angeles therapist said. “The
incidents of cheating are very high in high schools, because what is worshiped
are grades and SAT scores.”

A national survey taken by the Rutgers University Management
Education Center in 2002 showed that in a sampling of 4,500 high school
students, 75 percent admitted to some form of cheating.

To counter these behaviors, Alexander believes that the
community has to make a commitment to change. “If we want our kids to be
different in the way they look at Judaism, for example, we have to behave
differently,” Alexander said.

For example, if the community places a high value on wealth,
he said, that mindset will carry over into our schools, because the adults set
the standards.

God — or a sense of something holy or sacred — should be
taught in all schools, Alexander said. “We may differ in how we express God,
but we have to believe somehow we are all trying to aspire to some common
higher good.”

He believes that neglecting to acknowledge this commonality
encourages animosity and competition. “We have to believe we’re together in
this, even though we may disagree what being together means,” Alexander said.

The lecture series is geared toward the Jewish community,
educators and parents. In the lecture “I’m Right and You’re Stupid!” he will
prepare students to talk intelligently about taboo topics, such as religion and
politics. In “Modernity: Political Success — Moral Failure,” he will speak
about Americans creating inclusive communities, while maintaining their
individual beliefs.

 For a more in-depth lecture and discussion of his theories,
Alexander will teach a two-part master class in moral philosophy based on his
book. He believes that if we are able to achieve teaching morality and goodness
in education, our community will flourish.

“The message speaks to a deep need people are feeling,” he
said. “And that is to find a way of being spiritual that reinforces our core
commitment to community, to free will, democratic values and liberal

Hanan Alexander’s lectures and classes will be held this
weekend and early next week at Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay, 5721
Crestridge Road, Rancho Palos Verdes. Friday, Feb. 7, at 8 p.m.: “Modernity:
Political Success — Moral Failure”; Saturday, Feb. 8, at 1 p.m.: “I’m Right and
You’re Stupid!” The two-part master class is scheduled Sunday, Feb. 9, at 12:30
p.m., and Tuesday, Feb. 11, at 7:30 p.m.

To attend a Shabbat dinner on Feb. 7 ($18) or lunch on
Feb. 8 ($12) before the lectures or register for the talks, call (310) 377-6986;
or e-mail

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Don’t Win the Battle

A professor in seminary once asked us to find themost important section in all the Torah. We offered Creation, theShma, the Exodus, the revelation at Mount Sinai. No, he argued, it’ski teze l’milchama (Deuteronomy 21): “When you go out to war against yourenemies, and the Lord God delivers them into your power and you takesome of them captive, and you see among the captives a beautifulwoman, and you desire her, and would have her. You shall first bringher into your house, and she shall cut her hair and her nails, anddiscard her captive’s garb. She shall spend a month’s time in yourhouse, mourning her father and mother…and then you may come to her,and marry her, and she shall be your wife. And if not, you mustrelease her.”


“L’Amour,” by William Mortensen,1936.


Why would anyone think this the most importantsection of the Torah?

In my den, over my breakfast table, or in mydeepest thoughts, I can be a moral hero. It’s easy to be a tzadik intheory. Deep in the heart, everyone thinks of himself as a goodperson. But to moralize in the abstract is the height ofsuperficiality. Morality is what happens in the real world, in themarketplace, in the world of conflict and competition. And thechallenge of morality is not to recite pithy rules but to look deeplyat the darker parts of our own souls; to examine and know the drivesand desires that distract our moral vision; to appreciate ourinfinite capacity to rationalize, compromise and excuse our own moralfailures.

What is real morality? The Torah offers us a studyof the moral worst-case scenario: the most amoral of settings, themost unrestrained of moral actors, the most vulnerable of victims. Hesees her on the field of battle and desires her with all the lustsand passions of battle. With rape, looting and wanton acts ofviolence all around him, no one would know, no one would care. Afterall, what is she? A captive, an enemy, the spoils of battle. He wantsher. And just at that moment, in that most unrestrained and amoral ofall circumstances, amid the smoke and screams and confusion of war,the Torah says, Stop. She is not an object. She is a human being. Andyou must uphold her humanity and protect her dignity. All is not fairin love and war!

The genius of the Torah’s ethic, argued myprofessor, is found in this unique combination of realism andidealism. The Torah does not reproach him for his drives. It does notcondemn his desire. Desire is natural; it is not evil. But neitherwill Torah allow its untamed, savage explosion.

“Who is a hero?” asks Pirke Avot. “One whoconquers his yetzer, his drives.” One does not uproot the yetzer. Itis part of us. But neither is it given raw expression. Torah permitsthe expression of drives and desire only in the proper relationshipto human dignity. So this ingenious rite is followed by allowing thecaptive woman to mourn and heal, and by allowing our soldier’s ardorto cool and his judgment to return. She is actually made ugly — herhead shaved, her nails pared — and she lives untouched in hishousehold for 30 days. If, after that, he still wants her, he maymarry her and afford her all the protection of his household.Otherwise, she goes free. He may not sell her as a slave — thenormal fate of captives.

On all the battlefields we find ourselves — incorporate offices, in community politics, in the marketplace, inpersonal relationships — when passions are high and indiscretionsoverlooked, when anything goes, the Torah demands reverence for thehumanity and dignity of the other. What’s at stake, after all, is notjust the other but your humanity as well. Ki teze l’milchama, whenyou go out to war, don’t win the battle and lose your soul.

Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom inEncino.

Read a previous week’s Torah Portion byRabbi Feinstein

SEPTEMBER 5, 1997 So Where Are You?

AUGUST 29, 1997 What’s Wrong with aCheeseburger?

AUGUST 22, 1997 Finding the AdultWithin

AUGUST 15, 1997 Make the Time Count

AUGUST 8, 1997 ‘What’s the Meaning ofLife

AUGUST 1, 1997 A Warning toRevolutionaries