Thursday, March 30, 2006

The Palestinians' Arab "brothers"

According to a United Nations estimate, 34,000 Palestinians live in Iraq, many of them born in the country. They were given safe harbor over the past five decades after Egypt, Jordan and its Arab allies were defeated in three wars launched to destroy Israel.

Palestine's UN observer has reported to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees that the Palestinians are now trying to flee from Iraq. They are being persecuted by armed Arab militias, and increasing numbers of them have been killed or kidnapped in the sectarian conflict raging in Iraq. The UN observer has appealed for international intervention to protect them.

The Palestinians, virtually of whom are Sunni, feel less secure in Iraq since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein because Iraq's Shiite-dominated regime resents their past loyalty to Saddam. Meanwhile, the Sunni insurgents, who tend to be religious fundamentalists, apparently are suspicious of the secular orientation of most Palestinians.

So where can the Palestinians find a new refuge? The most obvious place is Jordan, Iraq's neighbor to the west, where at least half its own citizens still identify themselves as Palestinians.

But several days ago, two busloads of Palestinians fleeing from Bagdad were turned back by Jordanian authorities who had closed the border. For four days, the Palestinians were stranded between the Iraqi and Jordanian border posts. UN refugee agency officials had to be called in to feed them. Only then was Jordan's border reopened, and the Bagdad refugees admitted.

Ever since the establishment of Israel in 1948, the Arab world, comprised of 22 different nations, has made a major diplomatic issue of the Palestinian refugees who fled or were forced out in the course of the three wars launched against the new Jewish state.

Israel has been pilloried in the United Nations, the European Union and elsewhere for their alleged responsibility for the Palestinian refugees' plight. In many foreign circles Israel is regarded as a pariah state. Its very existence as an independent country has been challenged by those who conveniently overlook the fact that Israel itself was created as a refuge for Jews persecuted and slaughtered in Muslim and Christian countries.

So where is the much-vaunted Islamic compassion for their "Arab brothers"? Only Jordan and Iraq have accorded full citizenship to the Palestinian refugees and provided them with all the rights enjoyed by the native populations. The oil-rich Arab countries sit on their hands while other foreign countries, the U.S. included, have contributed billions of dollars to support the refugees. And all the while, the refugees' miserable condition has been used as a political instrument to demonize Israel.

A novel situation is developing as Israel plans to unilaterally establish its own borders. About 1 million Arabs live in Israel as citizens. Many of them bemoan their alleged treatment as second-class citizens. Nevertheless, their standard of living exceeds that of Arabs in most neighboring countries. And they enjoy social welfare benefits and democratic freedom unknown to their neighbors.

Some right-wing Israeli politicians, likely coalition members in Israel's new government, propose that Arab-populated communities in Israel proper be transferred to an independent Palestinian state in exchange for Jewish settlements on the West Bank.

Interestingly, however, many Israeli Arabs appear unenthusiastic about giving up the privileges of Israeli citizenship. They seem reluctant to become citizens of a Hamas-dominated regime that is likely to be an autocratic theocracy.

International law prohibits stripping citizens of their citizenship against their will. It will be intriguing to see, if the transfer plan is ever implemented, how many Israeli Arabs will try to apply this law to avoid joining their Arab "brothers" in a Palestinian state.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

MEMOIR: My introduction to India

When I was growing up in the late 1930s, I was enthralled by movies like "Gunga Din" and "Lives of a Bengal Lancer." They depicted India as a land of exotic mystery and excitement. It was a land far removed from my mundane life in a Bronx tenement and a vivid source for boyhood dreams of adventure. Little did I know then that only a few years later that I would be living in India, courtesy of the U.S. Army, to experience what I had been fantasizing about.

I arrived in Bombay, India on Feb. 8, 1944 aboard the HMS Empress of Scotland, a 27,000-ton luxury liner originally known as the Empress of Japan. It had been renamed and converted into a troopship two years earlier. (The city has also been renamed; to shed traces of its Portugese roots, it is now known as Mumbai.)

The vessel, carrying about 5,000 troops, departed from Hampton Roads, Va. on Jan. 10 without a warship escort. Officers were assigned to staterooms on the upper decks; enlisted men were crammed below deck in bunks stacked four high. The upper bunks were the most desirable. Probably because I moved too slowly when we boarded the ship, I wound up in the lowest bunk. My shipmates had to step on it to go up and down to their own sleeping quarters. The accommodations were not what one might normally expect on a so-called luxury liner.

Snow fell heavily as the Empress of Scotland departed, and we were bundled up in winter clothing. In a typical act of military absurdity, all troops were ordered below deck as we sailed out of the harbor. The purpose was to prevent us from seeing "strategic port facilities." Few if any of us could have recognized a "strategic" facility if we saw one. Moreover, how could any vital information have been transmitted to the enemy? And, after all, we were leaving the U.S. to fight the enemy.

The fierce battle at Anzio in Italy was raging as we sailed. In previous weeks, all troops leaving the Virginia port of embarkation had been sent there as reinforcements. The assumption was that Anzio was our final destination. Two days before we sailed, my outfit was equipped with trench knives for the first time, underscoring the notion that we were headed for combat on the Italian battlefield. The next day the knives were taken away. Too many men had hurt themselves opening beer cans or playing a game tossing and flipping the knives into the ground. Our commanding officer decided that the knives were too dangerous for soldiers presumably headed for combat.

After a few days at sea the weather began to turn warm. We had to shed our winter uniforms and change to summer or tropical clothing. We had no idea where we were headed. But a huge map was soon installed on the mess hall wall tracing the ship's route. It showed us heading south in the Atlantic Ocean. After about a week at sea, we crossed the Equator, prompting the vessel's British merchant marine crew to stage the traditional merry ceremony honoring first-time Equator crossers.

The merriment vanished early the next morning off the coast of Brazil when a German submarine was sighted. It fired a torpedo at us and missed. I was awakened by the sound of depth charges aimed at the sub and a loudspeaker alarm to don lifejackets. The ship quickly stopped zig-zagging and began going full-speed ahead. At a speed of at least 30 knots an hour, we were able to easily outrun the submarine.

After nearly two weeks at sea, we arrived in Capetown, South Africa and stayed for four days to refuel and take on food supplies. We sailed out of the city in darkness, wary of German or Japanese submarines known to be prowling outside the harbor. The ship headed east around the Cape of Good Hope then turned north in the Indian Ocean. We did not learn our final destination until we landed in Bombay nearly a month after our departure from Virginia.

As the ship moved into the Bombay harbor, we were greeted by a U.S. Army tugboat blaring Artie Shaw's popular recording of "Begin the Beguine." Also among the greeters were scores of tiny, flimsy boats manned by men shouting "baksheesh" at us as we lined the ship's railings.

"Baksheesh," a Persian word, is the universal plea of beggars in the Middle East and Near East calling for a tip or gift. We thought we were being asked for "boxes." Several men quickly rushed to the ship's galley to retrieve dozens of empty fruit crates and threw them overboard. Within minutes, Bombay's harbor was littered with gifts that were undoubtedly not what the locals had expected.

As we struggled off the Empress of Scotland's gangplank, loaded down with duffle bags over our shoulders, a pack of peddlers was waiting for us. They were selling photographs of naked oriental young women with their legs spread apart. The photos were airbrushed to show that the women's vaginas were horizontally shaped. The picture depicted a myth, with which I was unfamiliar, that the genitalia of oriental females differed markedly from Western women. Some my shipmates obviously were familiar with the myth. They eagerly bought copies of the altered photo to satisfy their naive belief about oriental ladies.

I am astonished at how few Americans know or remember that U.S. troops served in India during World War II. About 300,000 of us were based there and in China and Burma. Our mission was to support the Chinese battling Japan's invading army and to aid the British recapture Burma from the Japanese. We were "the forgotten theater of war." I arrived in Bombay shortly after Japan's army had captured much of Manipur, a state in northeastern India. The Japanese were pushed back into Burma only about a week after our arrival. I cannot claim that my shipmates and I had an impact on the Japanese withdrawal

I spent nearly a month in Bombay, stationed at a Royal Air Force base in Worli, a suburb, awaiting assignment. Nearby was a race track where, to my surprise, the horses ran clockwise. Also in the area was the famed Towers of Silence, where the Parsis, one of India's many ethnic/religious minorities, deposit their dead to be devoured by vultures.

Every few days we were allowed to go into the city. Bombay offers extraordinary contrasts--more extreme than any city I have ever known. Tall skyscrapers, speedy commuter railroad trains, theaters, night clubs, upscale hotels, palatial suburban homes, and other features of a prosperous metropolis were matched by the starkist signs of poverty I have ever seen.

A teeming sea of humanity filled the streets. Diseased, malnourished beggars clad in rags were everywhere. Hordes of people made their homes on the sidewalks with no access to fresh water and toilets. Cows, sacred to the Hindus, wandered undisturbed through the streets. Corpses were a frequent sight along the street curbs, vultures hovering above the dead.

Sixty-two years have passed since I was in Bombay. From what I've read, the contrasts have been magnified as India has become a more modernized, industrial and commercial power and Bombay has become the site of a hugely successful movie industry.

I was based in India for two years, much of it shuttling among U.S. military installations across the country. Most of my service was in the eastern provinces of Bengal and Assam. From there vital supplies were flown to China or trucked over the Burma-Ledo Road, which we built and on which an oil pipeline was installed and a telephone line strung from Calcutta over the Himalayas to China.

I departed from Calcutta on Feb. 8, 1946 aboard a U.S. Navy troopship, the General Ballou (known fondly as the "Babalu"). Nearly a month later, after brief stops in the war-battered ports of Singapore and Manila, we happily debarked in San Francisco.

By that time, all the images of Gunga Din and the Bengal Lancers had been fully erased from my mind.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Advice to the Democrats: Stop acting like wimps and call for a referendum on Iraq

It's time for the Democratic leaders who failed to oppose President Bush's ill-advised Iraq invasion to stop acting like wimps. They should concede that they made a grave mistake in not recognizing the mess that the war would create. They should call for a referendum in Iraq, allowing its inhabitants to vote on whether U.S. troops should stay or leave.

The Democrats are not directly responsible for the deaths of nearly 3,000 brave young American soldiers and the wounding of many thousands of others. Nor are they directly responsible for the waste of more than half a trillion dollars that could have been spent to bolster Social Security and Medicare, rebuild New Orleans, finance scores of vital, under-funded domestic programs, and strengthen homeland security measures to counter Islamist terrorism. The buck stops in the Bush White House.

Meanwhile, the Democratic leadership stands feebly aside. While the most incompetent Presidential administration in a century has screwed up foreign and domestic affairs, the Democrats have failed to provide meaningful alternative policies.

Of all the blunders committed by the Bush Administration--from cutting taxes in the face of soaring Federal expenditures to creating an unfathomable Medicare drug plan--the Iraq invasion stands out as the biggest. The saddest feature of the war is that, according to a recent poll, 85% of the troops believe the dubious claim that they are fighting in retaliation for the 9/11 attack.

If it were not so serious, it would be comical watching the Pentagon deliberate whether the growing chaos in Iraq is only a communal conflict or a full-blown civil war. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld calmly declares that the Iraqi security forces are capable of preventing a civil war. But he fails to recognize that these forces are so sectarian in makeup that they themselves would be participants in an all-out civil war.

The most serious consequences of the Iraq invasion have been the creation of new anti-American terrorist forces, the growing instability in Afghanistan where we had defeated the Taliban, and Iran's emergence as a far more dangerous threat than it was before.

President Bush boasts that we have introduced democratic free elections in Iraq. Iraqis have indeed elected a parliament. Now they should be allowed to go one step further--to have a referendum in which they can vote on whether American military forces should stay in their country or leave. According to recent opinion polls, an overwhelming majority of both Shiites and Sunnis want us to get out. Why isn't the Democratic leadership calling for such a referendum?

Friday, March 10, 2006

Google, Alaska fur seals and me

From time to time, I type my name on Google just to see what traces I can find of myself out there in the wide world of the Internet. Invariably, I come up with a handful of my ancient published newspaper and magazine articles, more recent letters-to-the-editor, my comments on other people's web sites, and my own postings on this blog. I have even discovered a 20-year old clipping of my son's wedding announcement on The New York Times' Sunday society pages and a clipping from my wife's college alumni magazine reporting our visit to the campus for her 45th anniversary reunion in 1995.

I'm then edged off Google's pages by three cousins, all prominent in their respective fields, who bear my surname. For one first cousin, a renowned research cardiologist and medical school professor, Google provides a roster of his research papers. For another first cousin, recently deceased, a retired U-Cal/Berkeley professor and a highly regarded artist, the search engine offers samples of his work. And for a cousin, the daughter of another first cousin and also a successful artist, Google reports on her many exhibits here and abroad.

In the midst of these citations about my three highly talented cousins, I was recently astonished to find a press release headlined: "Fur seals with rubber collars baffle Fish & Wildlife Service biologists." The release contained a note to editors reading: "Photos of rubber collars on fur seals are available and may be obtained from Morton A. Reichek at the Division of Information, FWS, Washington, D.C." An office phone number is shown on the press release.

There is a problem for any Google reader who might want those photos of the Alaska fur seals with rubber collars. I wrote that press release nearly 58 years ago. It is dated Sept. 10, 1948. At that time, fresh out of college, I was working as an "information & editorial specialist" (civil service jargon for press agent) at the U.S. Interior Dept.'s Fish & Wildlife Service.

It was an extraordinary work environment for a kid from the Bronx whose only "outdoor" experience had been acquired during military service. There I was writing press releases about such exotic matters as Federal duck-hunting regulations, the preservation of whooping cranes and trumpeter swans, a census of the herring on the Georges Bank off the Canadian coast, and a fowl cholera epidemic that was baffling North Carolina hunters.

And then there were those Alaska fur seals with rubber collars on their necks, found on the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea. The Fish & Wildlife Service was the official Federal presence on the islands. The fur seals go ashore on these bleak, volcanic islands in late spring to give birth and to breed. They return to the the Pacific Ocean in November, migrating southward. Despite their heavy fur pelts the seals are apparently wise enough to escape the polar winters.

Until 1985 the Federal government supervised what was euphemistically called "commercial sealing operations" or "harvesting" of the seal herds. Young males aged two to five were killed for their pelts by the islands' Aleut inhabitants. They were actually employees of a Federal contractor, a St. Louis-based fur company. The commercial killing was halted as a conservation measure, and the island's natives are now allowed to kill the seals only for "subsistence" purposes.

For a couple of years, many of the young seals were coming ashore on the Pribilofs with a ring-like piece of thin rubber on their necks. The Fish & Wildlife Service biologists were baffled by the collars' origin. The rubber collars fitted snugly around the seals' necks and cut through the fur and skin of the animals. They resembled the rolled top of a woman's stocking.

At first, the biologists speculated that Japanese or Russian scientists studying fur-seal migratory habits had placed the rubber collars on the animals' necks for identification purposes. But the theory could not be proven. A more plausible explanation was developed by specialists at the Wright-Patterson Air Base in Dayton, Ohio, to whom samples of the rubber collars had been sent.

The purpose of the government press release that I wrote on Sept. 10, 1948, and which Google has amazingly uncovered for posterity, was to reveal the solution to the fur-seal rubber-collar mystery.

After examining the collars, the Air Force specialists determined that they were fragments of rubber bags used by the Japanese during World War II for aerial delivery of food and water to their besieged troops on the occupied Aleutian Islands. According to the specialists' theory, many of the aerial bags missed their mark when parachuted down and were blown out to sea where they floated on the surface of the water.

The food in the bags attracted the small pup seals who probably plunged through the narrow openings of the rubber bags. Clinging to the seals' necks, the bags could not be dislodged and eventually crumbled away. The rubber rings remained on the necks of the fur seals as collars.

My press release was picked up widely by the media. As I recall, the photos were published in Life Magazine and other major publications. If TV was in existence at the time, the pictures of my fur seals with the rubber collars would have been a smash hit.

Thanks to Google for uncovering evidence of my accomplishment as a fur-seal publicist nearly 58 years ago. I will never understand how Google does it.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

How Isaac Bashevis Singer removed a "dybbuk" from my tape recorder

Three years before Isaac Bashevis Singer was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1978, I decided to write a profile article about him. Singer, who died 15 years ago, had long been my favorite author. He wrote exclusively in Yiddish, but was widely published in translation in the U.S. and abroad. I grew up in a Yiddish-speaking household, but was no longer fluent in the language when I embarked on my project.

I looked up his number in the Manhattan telephone book and called him. I explained my interest in his work and my desire to write an article about him. It was to be a free-lance piece, fully divorced from my daytime job as a journalist specializing in business news. Singer, who was not shy about publicity, eagerly agreed to meet with me.

I conducted several interviews with him in his West 86th Street apartment. On our first two interviews, he had forgotten our appointments. When I showed up at his apartment, he was entertaining visitors. Nevertheless, I was able to conduct my interviews despite their presence. Indeed, Singer's guests became participants in our discussion.

On my next visit, I arrived with a cassette recorder to tape our talks. I had never used one before for interviewing. I had been given the tape recorder as a gift from the American Standard Corp., a leading manufacturer of toilet and plumbing fixtures.

On my regular job at Business Week I had been assigned to do a major piece on American Standard. The company's PR director said that to "get a good feel" about American Standard, I should attend an upcoming convention of plumbing contractors in Las Vegas where the company was to introduce a new line of toilet fixtures.

I accepted his invitation, and the company paid for my transportation and hotel expenses. At one convention session, which was attended by several other journalists representing specialized trade publications, we were given portable tape recorders as a gift. The device had only been recently introduced on the market. (A new editor-in-chief of Business Week subsequently prohibited staff writers from accepting free air transport and hotel arrangements.)

Having never used a tape recorder and being a bit of a technophobe, I nervously set up the device on a small table in front of Singer's chair before I began interviewing him. Very quickly I became concerned that I was not properly recording his remarks. Singer watched me as I checked out the machine, shouting "testing, testing, testing" into the microphone. I failed to get any sound on the playback.

"Maybe there is a dybbuk in the machine," he said mischievously. A "dybbuk" is a fixture in Jewish folklore. It has been defined as a "restless soul or evil spirit that impregnates a living person." Also, as a "malicious spirit and dislocated soul of a dead person."

In his writing, Singer displays a passion for mysticism and the supernatural. Dybbuks often figure in his novels and short stories. It was only natural for him to hold a dybbuk responsible for my mechanical troubles with the tape recorder. He saw no reason to believe that dybbuks penetrate only human beings.

"Let me exorcise it from the machine," he said. He took the microphone into his hand and began to intone: "Testing, testing, testing. Eating bread and honey. Spitting." Satisfied with his effort, he resumed answering my questions on such matters as the future of Yiddish and the hostility of many Israelis to the language.

Suddenly he stopped responding. He pointed to the microphone on the table and asked: "Do you think this machine is working?" I rewound the cassette and pushed the playback button. Singer's voice came out loud and clear. "The dybbuk is gone!" he exclaimed happily.

I wrote two articles based on my interviews with Singer. One was published in The New York Times Magazine, the other in Harper's Bookletter, a now-defunct publication. I have a feeling that without Singer's exorcism of the dybbuk from my tape recorder, I may not have been so successful.

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