Saturday, May 28, 2005

Jewish-Americans and Israel

Readers of this blog are aware that I am a Jewish-American with an intense interest in Israel. I do not harbor any dual loyalities and divided allegiances. I am a first-generation American who served in the military during wartime, and my concern about Israel does not impinge on my standing as a proud American patriot.
I often wonder whether non-Jews recognize how deeply Israel is rooted in the psyche of Jewish-Americans like me.I lived during a period in which one-third of the world's Jews--6 million--were methodically slaughtered by Nazi Germany and its collaborators in virtually every European country. Their psychotic goal was to exterminate the world's Jewish population. If my grandparents had not been fortunate enough to have fled Poland and Russia more than a century ago to settle in America, I could have been one of the victims..
This was underscored when I recently checked the web site of Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust Museum, which contains the names of 3 million of those killed. I was stunned to find 139 persons bearing what I had always considered my uncommon surname. All had been inhabitants of the Polish region in which my father was born.
If there had been an independent Jewish state in which the Jews could have defended themselves during the 1930s and early 1940s, there would not have been a Holocaust. I may be presumptious, but I have long believed that both the Christian and Muslim worlds "owed" the Jews the privilege of secure statehood to compensate for the torment experienced by Jews for at least 1,500 years in both Christian and Muslim countries.
To some extent, the establishment of Jewish statehood may have been at the expense of Palestinian Arabs. But perhaps this was payback time for the suffering of the Jews in Arab countries (there are now 22 of them) ever since the time of Mohamed. Where, however, were their Arab brethren--especially the ultra-rich oil states--to redeem them? The Arabs traditionally boast that they are a single "nation" with a distinct culture, history and language. But what happened to the much-celebrated Muslim concept of charity?
To be sure, in certain eras, the Jews were tolerated and allowed to integrate into the local Christian and Muslim societies, especially if they were willing to abandon Judaism and convert. Particularly in Muslim lands, Jewish communities occasionally flourished. But the Jews were invariably treated by Islam as "dhimmis." These were so-called "protected peoples," but still second-class citizens often required to wear certain clothing, barred from land-owning, and subject to special taxes and other restrictions.
Only in the U.S. and other Western democracies during the last two centuries have the Jews been welcomed and allowed to assimilate or to freely retain their religious culture.
Despite their good fortune in living in the U.S., however, most Jewish-Americans regard Israel as a refuge for foreign Jews who do not share our good fortune, are still unwelcome in other lands, and need a homeland of their own.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

The seven Rachels and Israel

A new play entitled "My Name is Rachel Corrie" opened in a London theater this month to rave reviews. The play is based on the diaries and e-mail messages the real-life Ms. Corrie sent to her family in the U.S. from the Gaza Strip during the two months she was there before her death in March 2003.
Her associates have described Rachel, who was 23, as a "peace activist." She had come to Gaza to protest the Israeli occupation and to demonstrate her concern about the suffering of its inhabitants. She was accidentally killed by an Israeli army bulldozer that was attempting to demolish an Arab home suspected of concealing tunnels used for smuggling weapons from Egypt.
Ms. Corrie might also be described as a naive and idealistic radical apparently ignorant of local history that would explain why Gaza is under Israeli occupation.
Twenty years before she was born, Egypt ruled the Gaza Strip. It was occupied by Israel only after Egypt, which was mobilizing to invade Israel, was defeated in the 1967 Six-Day War. It remained under Israeli control until 1993 when Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization signed the so-called Oslo Accords. The treaty provided for the transfer of governing power to the Palestinians and a halt to terrorist attacks on Israel. But Palestinian violence did not cease, and Israeli military forces again occupied Gaza.
The situation has been complicated, I concede, by the creation of Israeli civilian settlements in the Strip. I believe Israel was unwise in building Jewish communities in such a densely populated and hostile region. The settlements are scheduled to be closed in upcoming months and the residents moved out. The event has generated serious civil strife in Israel.
Shortly before Ms. Corrie was killed by falling into the bulldozer's path, she was photographed burning a mock-American flag at a Hamas rally. Hamas is the Palestinian political/military movement that refuses to accept Israel's very existence and is dedicated to its destruction. The International Solidarity Movement, an anti-Israel organization with ties to Hamas and other Palestinian terror groups, sponsored Ms. Corrie's presence in Gaza. According to ISM and Ms. Corrie's family, her death was not accidental and that she was deliberately killed. Since her death, ISM has been engaged in promoting Ms. Corrie as a martyr in the so-called "peace movement." One result of their campaign is the new play in London.
Rachel Corrie's death was indeed a great tragedy. But six other women named Rachel, each an Israeli, were also killed within a few months of Ms. Corrie's death. They were murdered by the Palestinian terrorist groups with whom Rachel Corrie has been linked. Conceivably, the murder weapons were the kind the Israel army tries to block from entry into Gaza.
The murder of Israeli civilians by Palestinian terrorists has become so commonplace, however, that their deaths have been overshadowed by the death of an American so-called "peace activist."
In a recent article in the Jerusalem Post, Tom Gross, former Jerusalem correspondent for Britain's Sunday Telegraph, wrote that "unlike [Rachel Corrie..the Israeli Rachels] died in circumstances that weren't disputed. They were deliberately murdered."
In February 2002, Rachel Thaler, 16, was blown up by a suicide bomber at a pizzeria in an Israeli shopping mall.
Rachel Levy, 17, was blown up in a grocery store.
Rachel Levi, 19, was shot while waiting for a bus.
Rachel Gavish was killed with her husband, son and father while at home celebrating a Passover seder.
Rachel Charhi was blown up while sitting in a Tel Aviv cafe, leaving three young children.
Rachel Shabo was murdered with her three sons, aged 16, 13 and five while at home.
The six dead Israeli Rachels have only cemetery markers, not a highly-touted London play as a memorial.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

The lunacy of Bush's war in Iraq

Virtually every day the major newspapers publish the names of American soldiers whose death in Iraq has been confirmed by the Pentagon. The casualties keep mounting despite President Bush's inane claim on April 28 that "we're really making good progress" in Iraq. As I study the names, my heart breaks that so many young Americans are again dying in an unnecessary war, reviving memories of how Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon (with some earlier preparation by John F. Kennedy) plunged us into another unnecessary war in Vietnam.
Bush's decision to invade Iraq was made despite skepticism, if not outright opposition, from Secretary of State Colin Powell, retired generals Anthony Zinni and Brent Scowcroft, and from other active and retired military brass and diplomats.
The opponents were more knowledgeable about the Middle East than Bush and his war-hawk advisers, and they were suspicious of the skewed intelligence on which the invasion decision was based. They were dubious about the President's claim that Iraq posed an imminent threat to U.S. security. And they did not buy the Administration's claim that the Iraq invasion was a vital element in the legitimate and essential war against terrorism.
When it became obvious that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction and no link to 9/11--the Bush Administration's original excuses for the invasion--suddenly the war was transformed into a crusade to inject democracy into a despotic Muslim country. Apparently, it was deemed irrelevant that the U.S. continues to maintain relations with other Muslim and non-Muslim autocracies.
The irony is that the Iraq invasion has actually weakened the war on terrorism. In overthrowing the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which had harbored the perpetrators of 9/11, Al Qaeda, the U.S. had made a major advance in that war. But by shifting the military focus from Afghanistan to Iraq, the U.S. has lost ground in its battle against terrorism. Moreover, as the Pentagon now concedes, our military resources have been stretched so far by the Iraq invasion that our ability to contend with new threats to national security has been compromised.
Iraq, in Bush's own words, has now become a "a center of terrorism." No one questions that Saddam Hussein was indeed a psychotic despot worthy of being removed. But there was no evidence that he had been exporting terrorism to other countries. Even Saudi Arabia's foreign minister has declared that the Iraq war is "increasing terrorism." This comes from a leader of a valued ally, itself a despotic regime unethusiastic about the democracy that Bush wants to spread. The Saudi is alluding, of course, to the rise of terrorism in his own country, apparently inspired by the insurgency in neighboring Iraq.
In addition to the serious damage to American prestige caused by the Iraq invasion, the war there has created a new generation of extremists in the Muslim world eager to battle the U.S. and other Western democracies. It is responsible for the deaths of countless thousands of Iraqi civilians. Meantime, the insurgency continues to grow, the country is in political turmoil and chaos reigns in Iraqi society. All the while, the U.S. is spending so many billions of dollars that the Administration has been forced to make huge cuts in funding for critical domestic needs. And there is the dreadful possibility that the so-called democratic process that we are helping establish will lead to the creation of a pro-Iranian, fundamentalist Shiite regime. In societies unfamiliar with genuine democracy and open elections, sometimes the bad guys win.
In summing up the situation, New York Times columnist Bob Herbert writes: "From the very beginning the war in Iraq has been an exercise in extreme madness, an absurd venture that would have been rich in comic possibilities except for the fact that many thousands of men, women and children have died, and tens of thousands have been crippled, burned or otherwise maimed."
When I recall that Bill Clinton was impeached simply for lying under oath about a brief oral-sexual adventure with a White House intern, I wonder how history will judge George W. Bush's far more significant transgression--the lunacy of invading Iraq.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

MEMOIR: "Meeting My Boyhood Idol on Chowringhee"

Growing up in the Bronx during the 1930s, my intellectual life was dominated by sports. I lived within walking distance of Yankee Stadium so my friends and I had a primary interest in baseball. We could rattle off statistics about batting averages and pitching records and recite the starting lineups of every major league team with extraordinary precision. If we could have devoted such scholarly passion to our schoolwork we all would have been candidates for Ivy League college scholarships.
I stood out among my friends by being the only one who was not a Yankee fan. My team was the Detroit Tigers. One reason may have been that the Tigers won the World Series in 1934, the year in which my interest in Big League baseball began to blossom. My fellow 10-year old friends, probably embittered by the Yankees' failure to win the American League pennant that year, were obviously not as impressed by the Tigers' achievement as I was.
My loyalty to the Detroit Tigers was also based on the fact that my father had once worked on a Ford Motor Co. assembly line, providing me with a provincial link to the city of Detroit that no other kid on the block possessed.
But the over-riding factor in my emotional attachment to the Tigers was my worship of Hank Greenberg, the team's star first baseman. His photograph, along with such other Jewish athletic heroes as the lightweight boxing champ Barney Ross and famed football players Sid Luckman and Marshall Goldberg, covered the wall behind my bed, much to the displeasure of my pious grandmother with whom I shared the bedroom. She would have preferred a more conventional sign of my religious allegiance to Judaism.
My Uncle George had given me Greenberg's photo, which bore both Hank's signature and a personal endorsement to me, his adoring fan. The link between Hank Greenberg and my uncle was a business one. My uncle owned a small shop manufacturing men's suits. One stage in the manufacturing process is called "sponging," in which the fabric is prepared for tailoring. Hank Greenberg's father was a sponging contractor. My Uncle George was his customer.
As I entered my late teen years, my intellectual passion for baseball began to wane. Now I was struggling with a full-time job while attending college at night and awaiting my induction into the Army. And, of course, I had discovered girls. I was starting to lose interest in Hank Greenberg's batting average.
In April 1943 I was inducted into the Army. After nine months of training in bases in Florida and Missouri, I was shipped to India from Hampton Roads, Va. and landed in Bombay after a month-long voyage via Capetown, South Africa. For the next few months, I was shuttled from one U.S. military installation to another while the Army was presumably deciding where I could make the most valuable contribution to the war effort.
I was eventually assigned to the 903rd Signal Co., which was initially based near a leper colony operated by Catholic missionaries in the province of Bihar. We were later transferred to a vacant Bengali jute mill about 50 miles north of Calcutta that had been converted into a U.S. Army air depot.
During my travels across India I got to see more of the country than most natives. I visited the Taj Mahal in Agra; the pornograpic Hindu temples outside Madras; the holy Hindu city of Benares; the Towers of Silence outside Bombay, where the Parsis deposit their dead to feed the vultures; the caged prostitutes in Bombay's Red Light district; and enough other famous sites to fill a guide book to India.
But the most startling sighting for me occurred in Calcutta one day in April 1945 as I strolled down Chowringhee, the city's main boulevard, while on a weekend pass. For Calcutta, a city I visited often, Chowringhee had the municipal stature of New York's Fifth Ave. and Broadway combined, but with sanitation facilities not much more advanced that the Stone Age.
Walking alone on a street ahead of me was a tall Air Force officer. From a distance, he looked vaguely familiar. As he approached me, I was stunned to see that the officer was Hank Greenberg. He was now a captain in the 14th Air Force based in China and was visiting Calcutta on a furlough. We exchanged salutes, and he stopped to ask me for directions to some place whose identity I've forgotten. This was Greenberg's first visit to Calcutta. I apparently had the look of an old Calcutta hand.
After replying to his query, I confided that he had been my boyhood idol. He was charmed to hear that and was pleased to discuss his baseball career with me. He even recalled that his father, the sponging contractor, had once had him autograph a photo for a customer's nephew. He was delighted to learn that I was the nephew.
We conversed for about 15 minutes. The weather was brutally hot. In front of us as we talked was the Grand Hotel, which housed a club for British and American military officers. Greenberg was about to invite me to join him for a drink inside when he suddenly realized that I would be barred from entering because I was a mere staff sergeant and not an officer. He was clearly embarrassed by the matter of military rank and apologized. I told him that I was unconcerned and that I had been thrilled to meet him. But I said that the Bronx, our mutual home town, would have been a better setting than Chowringhee.
We exchanged salutes again, shook hands, and said our good-byes. "It was a pleasure to meet you," he said as we parted. During three years in the Army, no officer had ever said that to me. But then I had never met an officer who had been my boyhood idol.

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