Saturday, November 25, 2006

Seven generations of separation

This is a photo of my maternal grandmother's own grandparents. Grandma brought the picture with her when she and her husband and children immigrated to the U.S. from the Czarist Russian empire at the turn of the last century.

The photo was in the form of a picture postcard. On its back is the word "Jerusalem" in English, Arabic and French. The photographer's name, an Armenian, is also shown.

I estimate that the photo was taken in Palestine about the time of the American Civil War, or nearly 150 years ago. In pencil my mother wrote the name "Horowitz," identifying the couple as her mother's maternal grandparents. I believe that Horowitz is actually the English and Yiddish version of the Russian name "Gorovich."

My grandmother's family were natives of the province of Minsk in what is now the independent country of Belarus. The photo was apparently taken when Grandma's grandparents, who were Orthodox Jews, were on a religious pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I do not know whether they remained in Palestine, which was then a province in the Ottoman Turkish empire, or ever returned to Russia.

If my arithmetic is correct, seven generations separate Grandma's grandparents from my own grandchildren. In short, the elderly couple in the photo are my grandchildren's great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents.

Obviously, an enormous cultural gap exists between their generation and my grandchildren's. The technological and economic advances and the upheaval in cultural traditions have been far greater over the past 150 years than during any other 150-year period in recorded history.

Seven generations after their Horowitz ancestors, my grandchildren live a life that Grandma's grandparents could hardly have imagined. Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Hypocrisy in action

In Darfur, the western region of Sudan, and in the border area of the neighboring nation of Chad, Arabs are slaughtering non-Arab African blacks. Religion is not a factor in the genocide, for both peoples are Muslim. The slaughter is primarily racially motivated.

The Sudanese Arabs are not as dark-skinned as the non-Arab African blacks. They consider themselves racially and culturally superior. A minor factor in the fighting is the traditional rivalry between nomads like the Sudanese Arabs and the blacks who live in farming communities.

While the brutality in Sudan and Chad rages, I hear no outcries from the Islamic world condemning the slaughter by one Muslim people of another Muslim ethnic group. Nor do I hear any significant outrage from African-American leaders or from other Africans, both Christian and Muslim, about what's going on in Sudan and Chad.

Instead, much of the world's political outrage continues to focus on Israel's alleged mistreatment of the Palestinian Arabs. Among the latest Israel-bashers is former President Jimmy Carter, who in his new book has the audacity to compare Israel to the former white-ruled apartheid South African government. I have never regarded Mr. Carter as a religious bigot unfriendly to Jews. So I can only describe his comparison as a sign of senile foolishness.

Rarely if ever is the background of the Israel-Palestine conflict placed in proper context by the Israel-bashers. Overlooked in the world debate over the issue, notably in Europe, is the fact that Palestinian leaders and their Arab and other Muslim allies are opposed to Israel's very existence and have for decades fought to destroy it through both military and diplomatic measures.

Meanwhile, as Israel has been forced to become a garrison state, struggling to maintain a secure society in the face of harsh criticism from much of the outside world, the outside world does nothing about the Arab slaughter of black Africans in Sudan's Darfur region and in neighboring Chad.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

A breath of fresh air in Washington?

After six years of the Bush Administration's incompetent and corrupt regime, a breath of fresh air is breezing into Washington. No longer will a Republican White House, coupled with a Republican-controlled House of Representatives and Senate, get away over the next two years with the shenanigans that have crippled this country since 2001.

With the Democrats now clearly in control of the House, they should be able to rein in an Administration that has gotten us into an unnecessary war and then mismanaged it; botched the genuine war on terrorism; cut taxes for the super-rich while overlooking the middle class; burdened future generations with a gigantic Federal debt load; screwed working stiffs by clamping down on labor unions and refusing to raise the minimum wage; appointed pro-corporate political hacks to run the government's regulatory agencies; tolerated corruption in government; trampled on civil liberties; disregarded environmental problems; turned much of Federal law-making over to lobbyists; damaged our nation's international image and influence; and stifled much-needed scientific research.

Have I left anything out?

As I write this, the Democrats also seem to have squeaked by to gain control of the Senate, although a possible recount in Virginia may delay the official outcome. That would be icing on the cake, imposing stronger restraints on what historians will undoubtedly record as one of the worst Presidential administrations in U.S. history.

I've placed a question mark on the title of this essay. The reason: traditional Democratic liberals will find that many of their party's new Congressmen are more conservative than they are on so-called social "value" issues such as abortion rights, gun control, gay marriage, and separation of church and state. These newcomers were elected primarily because of voter disgust with the Iraq war and the Bush Administration's inept performance rather than ideology.

But the levers of power will be in the hands of the senior Democratic legislators who will chair the Congressional committees. Their success with a reform agenda will determine how much fresh air Washington will actually enjoy over the next two years.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The dysfunctional Palestinian leadership

Israeli troops recently returned to the Gaza Strip, searching for and destroying arms caches and battling with gunmen who use women and children as shields. Once again, innocent civilians have been killed, and normal life in Gaza has descended into chaos as political militias and criminal gangs battle each other. And once again, the Israelis are condemned in diplomatic circles and by much of the mainstream media for brutalizing the "poor Palestinians," who are invariably regarded as the "victims" in the Middle East conflict.

The late Abba Eban, Israel's former foreign minister and UN ambassador, once said that "the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity." He was referring to historic situations over the past half-century during which Palestinian statehood could have been established if the Palestinian leaders and their Arab allies had not rejected compromise and had not threatened the security and very existence of a Jewish state on their borders.

The current crisis in Gaza is the latest example of a missed opportunity. Last year, Israel withdrew from the territory, granting its inhabitants self-rule for the first time in their history. At the same time, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his successor Ehud Olmert announced plans to withdraw from virtually all of the occupied West Bank and to recognize the creation of an independent Palestinian state. Because of the Gaza crisis, however, the plan to disengage from the West Bank is now on the back burner.

With Gaza under their own control, the Palestinians finally had a chance to set up a modern government that could control chronic corruption and crime and could concentrate on economic development, job creation, and the establishment of civil order. Instead, their leaders failed to take advantage of the opportunities presented by the Israeli withdrawal.

Almost immediately the Palestinians began to launch rockets on neighboring Israeli towns, spend their limited resources to acquire hi-tech weapons smuggled in from Egypt, and even cross into Israeli territory to attack a military base and kidnap an Israeli soldier.

And all the while, a virtual civil war has erupted between rival Hamas and Fatah militias, making a mockery of any effort to establish a stable government. To be sure, the Palestinians have been forced to operate under a severe handicap. Because of the ruling Hamas faction's refusal to renounce violence, recognize Israel and abide by previous Israel/Palestine agreements, foreign aid to Gaza has been cut off.

The Palestinian leadership has clearly shown itself to be dysfunctional and incapable of governance. How is Israel expected to respond to what is an intractable and untenable situation? It faces an implacable enemy in Hamas, which dominates the Palestinian leadership. Supported by Lebanon's Hezbollah and Iran, Hamas is dedicated to Israel's destruction. Israel's natural response is to defend itself, even if it means stirring up opposition from foreign outsiders who insist, in a bizarre twist, to regard Israel's enemy as the underdog.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

MEMOIR: My "good fortune" in wartime

Every year as we observe the Veterans Day holiday, I reflect on my good fortune in having emerged from three years of World War II military service--26 months of it overseas-- relatively unscathed. I think of the hundreds of thousands of American soldiers, including two boyhood friends, who were killed, wounded or traumatized by combat, and I recall how I evaded misfortune because of a couple of strokes of good luck.

My sense of having been lucky during the war was reinforced recently when two of my New Jersey neighbors appeared on a local community TV program to talk about their wartime experiences. One of them had been an infantryman who was wounded in combat and captured by the Germans. He spent nearly a year as a slave laborer in a PW camp. The other man survived a troopship sinking in which more than a 1,000 men died.

The two veterans broke down as they recounted their experiences. The former PW had kept his a secret from his family and friends for 50 years. He had begun to talk about it only after undergoing psychiatric treatment. As I listened to their emotional accounts, I recalled that my most harmful wartime calamities were dengue fever and amoebic dysentery contracted in India.

I encountered good fortune on my first day in the Army on April 14, 1943, when I was inducted with about three dozen other 18-year olds from my Bronx neighborhood at Camp Upton, N.Y. My first lucky break (I didn't recognize it at the time) was not finding a bed in the same barracks with most of my fellow inductees. As we marched down a street being assigned to barracks, I and the handful of men behind me were ordered into a barracks across the street from the others.

Three days later, the men in the barracks in which there had been no room for me were shipped to Camp McCall, N.C. to be trained as glider-infantry men. The guys in my barracks were shipped to the Air Corps basic training center in Miami Beach, Fla. We were greeted by a colonel who, with a straight face, told us that we had been "scientifically selected for the Air Corps as the cream of the crop." Obviously, he didn't know about the bed shortage in one of the barracks at Camp Upton.

When I came home after the war, I met a couple of the men with whom I had been inducted three years earlier. I learned that about half of our group had been killed or wounded in action in France and Germany with the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions.

During basic training I had the option of selecting what the Army delicately calls a "military occupational specialty." I volunteered to be an aerial gunner, but was rejected because of color blindness. I never figured out why my difficulty in distinguishing certain shades of blue from certain shades of green would have inhibited me from shooting down enemy aircraft. As a gung-ho kid genuinely eager to "see action," I was despondent about being turned down. I later learned that casualties among aerial gunners were as heavy as those of glider-infantry men.

Last year, after reading his autobiography, I corresponded with Sen. Bob Dole, the former Kansas Senator and Republican Presidential candidate. He told me that when he was inducted into the Army he applied to be an aviation cadet. He was also rejected because of color blindness. He was then assigned to the 10th Mountain Infantry Division and was seriously wounded in combat in Italy, losing the full use of one of his arms.

I was luckier with my rejection. I ended up in the Signal Corps for training as a Teletype operator and cryptographer. Apparently the demand for infantrymen, however, was more crucial than the need for Teletype operators and cryptographers, and I did subsequently undergo infantry training at the overseas replacement training center at Jefferson Barracks, Mo.

One training exercise involved crawling under a barbed wire fence as live machine gun fire soared overhead. I remember ripping the seat of my pants on the barbed wire and being forced to repair the tear with my very limited sewing skills. I went through the war with very primitive stitches on the seat of my pants.

Evidently there was a shortage of fatigue uniforms because the supply sergeant refused to give me a replacement pair of pants. But maybe he thought I had kept my rear end too high up during the exercise and was trying to teach me a lesson . The crawling-under-fire experience was as close as I ever got to hearing a shot fired in anger. I was fortunate never having been called upon to test my skill as an infantry rifleman, which was far superior to my talent as a seamstress.

I did get to hear the explosive sound of what might be regarded as a battle when depth charges were launched from my troopship against a German submarine that had fired torpedoes at us in the South Atlantic Ocean on our way to India. The sub missed us, and we didn't hang around long enough to learn whether we had hit the sub.

In World War II, the rule of thumb was that it took at least 10 non-combatant troops--clerks, mechanics, truck drivers, warehousemen, cooks, and the like--behind the lines to support a single soldier in combat.

There was no need for more Teletype operators and cryptographers in the 903rd Signal Co., to which I was eventually assigned. So I was given the job of supervising a gang of Bengali coolies loading trucks at a warehouse with airborne electronic equipment. The vehicles were driven to nearby bases of the 10th Air Force and the Air Transport Command in Assam and Burma. Other supplies were trucked over the Burma-Ledo Road or flown over the Himalayas (known to us as "the Hump") to the 14th Air Force and to the Chinese Army.

My talent as a typist was eventually discovered, and I was promoted to be the outfit's company clerk and later its acting first sergeant for a brief period. My position was so lofty that a Calcutta civilian lawyer, who was more than twice my age, was hired as my assistant. The Army's wage was obviously more than he could earn in his law practice. (When he wasn't doing office chores, he promoted the cause of Indian independence from Great Britain to me; I was a sympathetic listener.)

In short, I served during World War II as one of those 10 non-combatant troops supporting the guys in combat. The war in Iraq, however, has destroyed the notion that truck drivers, mechanics and other supposed non-combatant support troops are safe from combat dangers. In Iraq, they are being killed and wounded in what is essentially a guerrilla war where there are no conventional battle lines. They are not getting the chance to be as lucky as I was more than 60 years ago in not being exposed to battle as part of "support" personnel.

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