Friday, March 23, 2007

A contrast between Israelis and Palestinians

Today's New York Times contains two articles that unintentionally show a vivid contrast in the psyche, social mores, and attachment to democracy between the Palestinians and Israel, which the world at large simplistically views as an oppressor victimizing the Palestinians.

One article reports that still another Palestinian has been killed in the continuing warfare between the Fatah and Hamas factions in the Gaza Strip. Since the Israeli withdrawal from the territory, hundreds of Palestinian militia members and innocent civilians have died as the two groups battle each other for control.

Prior to that incident, the Times article notes, Palestinian gunmen forced the driver out of a UN refugee agency car and made off with his vehicle. A UN spokesman later announced that agency cars would temporarily stay off Gaza's roads.

Yet this is the very agency into which the U.S. and Western European countries have poured billions of dollars to feed and house Palestinian refugees over the past five decades. No other refugee population in the world--e.g., the hundreds of thousands of Jews driven out of Muslim countries--has ever received such massive foreign assistance.

The so-called Palestinian unity government, composed of both Fatah and Hamas, is the party with which Israel is expected to negotiate. How much confidence can the Israelis have that a durable settlement can be reached with a regime that cannot live in peace with itself and a society that refuses to renounce violence, that is unwilling to make serious compromises, and that scorns coexistence with Israel?

The second Times article is headlined: "Israeli Soldiers Stand Firm, but Duty Wears on the Soul." The article tells how some Israeli soldiers are troubled by their own harsh treatment of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. Manning security check points, they control the movement of Palestinians to prevent suicide bombers and other terrorists from infiltrating into Israeli communities.

In the process, some soldiers acknowledge that they seriously inconvenience and often intimidate innocent Palestinians. Their duty, the article states, "wears on the soul and turns young men callous."

A left-wing group has collected the testimony of nearly 400 Israeli soldiers who are disturbed by their own behavior while on duty. These men are frustrated by the Israeli need to live by the sword. "We are so few and they [the Arabs] are so many," one soldier says sadly.

By no means do these troubled soldiers represent a majority of those in the Israeli armed forces. But I am impressed by their empathy, and I wonder whether such sensitivity would ever be displayed by soldiers in the armies of the Arab countries that surround Israel.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Reality and Iraq

Today's front page of my local newspaper features a photo showing a GI crouching in front of an Iraqi house. He's equipped with an automatic weapon and hi-tech gadgetry unlike anything I ever knew when I was a soldier during World War II. Just a foot or two away from the GI, a small boy squats on the ground, seemingly oblivious to the soldier's presence. The wheel of a bicycle or baby carriage can be seen in the courtyard.

I assume that the soldier's mission is to find terrorists--Sunni insurgents or Shiite militia members. But how will he know whether those he encounters are friends or foes unless he's fired upon? And if he is attacked, how he is supposed to react with the child innocently sitting so close to him?

There is a sense of absolute unreality about the photo. I study the photo and feel that it reflects the Bush Administration's own basic lack of reality as it escalates military operations after four years of fighting an unnecessary war in Iraq.

The President warns that if the U.S. withdraws from Iraq right now, the country could become a staging ground for terrorists to plan attacks like 9/11. But Iraq was not a terrorist training ground before we invaded the country. The country's leader, Saddam Hussein, was an evil dictator responsible for horrific treatment of his own people. But he posed no imminent threat to the U.S.

By getting rid of Saddam, however, we have served the interests of Iran, which now does pose a serious security threat. Iran was Saddam's biggest enemy. Moreover, we have helped install a pro-Iranian government in Baghdad. And by invading Iraq, we have allowed the Taliban, a regime that sheltered anti-American terrorists in Afghanistan, to recover after it had been soundly defeated.

Our failure in Iraq is reflected in recent authoritative polls showing that 78% of Iraqis now consider the U.S. "occupiers" of their country and that 51% consider it acceptable for local militias to attack American forces there. With that kind of psychological climate, I shudder at the challenges faced by the GI in my local newspaper's photo and his comrades. It is time to bring them home!

Saturday, March 17, 2007

MEMOIR: My grandfather's tobacco farm

If my paternal grandfather could have assured himself that a quorum of 10 adult Jewish males could be easily assembled to recite the Jewish prayer for the dead in the event of his own death in Connecticut's sparsely populated tobacco farming region, I might have grown up as a farm boy.

With such assurances, my grandfather would have confidently purchased a 70-acre farm near Windsor Locks, Conn. in 1920, my father might have eventually inherited the farm, and I could have conceivably been born and raised on the soil. But it was not to be.

My grandfather had arrived in the U.S. from the Czarist Russian-ruled sector of Poland with his wife and four children about 14 years earlier. Like so many other East European Jewish immigrants, they settled in the hurly-burly of Manhattan's Lower East Side.

Grandpa, who was an ordained rabbi, founded and headed what was one of the first Hasidic congregations in this country. His prestigious position was essentially an unpaid one. He tried to earn a living selling steamship tickets and sewing machines, but was not very successful. Grandma became the family's primary breadwinner, as she had been in Europe. In Poland she had been in the vegetable oil business. In New York she operated a tiny dairy store on the ground floor of the tenement apartment house in which they lived.

Grandpa was oriented more towards philosophical pursuits than business. He had only one occupation: "being a devout Jew," as my father once put it. (I never actually knew my grandfather.) When his wife took time out to bear babies, however, it was his unhappy lot to take charge of the store. This was invariably a bitter experience for both Grandpa and Grandma. My grandfather had a disquieting tendency to allow the store's operations to collapse into commercial disorder.

Under his unskilled and half-hearted direction, customers would not be pressed to pay debts, bills would not be paid, and orders to replenish inventories were not placed. Grandma's remarkable mercantile talents would have to be hastily applied to resurrect the business.

This would be accomplished as soon as the care of the latest infant could be arranged, either with a relative or a boarder, usually a single young woman fresh from the family's Polish home town.

After several years in New York, Grandpa, who was now about 45, became dissatisfied with city life. The tumult of the big, teeming city was making him disenchanted with the new land. He decided to move to the "country," believing that rural life would be preferable for his youngest children still at home.

He was encouraged by a friend who had purchased a farm near Monticello, N.Y. in the Catskills. The friend owned a few cows, chickens and a vegetable garden. His farm house had several spare rooms, which he rented to summer boarders who required a kosher cuisine. This was at a time when the Catskills area was being established as the borsht belt, a summer vacation mecca for Jews from the big city. The friend, who came from Grandpa's Polish home town, invited him to visit.

Grandpa was overwhelmed by the beauty of his friend's bucolic surroundings. He decided that he too would become a farmer and offer his family the benefits of rural life. He was not deterred by the fact that he knew nothing about farming and had never performed manual labor.

The move to the country, of course, would involve his severance from full-time ultra-Orthodox synagogue life. But in the best Jewish tradition of "alles far der kinder" (everything for the children), he was willing to make the sacrifice.

Seeking advice on how to become a farmer, Grandpa turned to the Baron de Hirsch Agricultural Society, an organization set up to promote the settling of immigrant Jews on the land. The society provided both technical assistance and low-interest loans to aspiring Jewish immigrant farmers.

When my grandfather told a society agent how impressed he was with his friend's farming experience, the agent advised against moving to the Catskills. "If you want to run a restaurant," Grandpa was told, "you might as well open it up in the city."

The agent warned that my grandfather would have a hard time making a living by combining the operation of a tiny farm with a boarding house for summer guests. Indeed, Grandpa's friend normally moved back to the city in the winter to work in a garment factory to support his family and pay the mortgage on the Catskills farm.

The agent told Grandpa that he would seek a more attractive situation and would call when one came along. Several months later, Grandpa received a letter from the society, reporting that one of its field agents had learned that an aged Jewish farmer, a Mr. Weinstock, in Windsor Locks, about 15 miles north of Hartford, wanted to sell his farm and retire.

The farm was was almost entirely devoted to the cultivation of Connecticut River Valley tobacco, a high-grade strain widely used as a broad leaf wrapper for cigars. In addition to a curing shed for the tobacco, the farm had seven cows and three horses.

The agricultural society suggested that Grandpa visit the farm. It was available for $12,500, a fair price, the society agent assured Grandpa. The farmer had operated the property for 25 years. His three children lived in Hartford and had no interest in continuing to farm.

By coincidence, several weeks earlier, my father had just returned to New York after quitting his job on the Ford Motor Co. assembly line. Having tired of Detroit, he now sought work in New York. My father, who was 22, accompanied Grandpa on a visit to the tobacco farm.

As Mr. Weinstock explained, the tobacco seeds were planted in the fall under glass in a hot house. The following spring, the tobacco plants were set into the open ground, and in the early fall were harvested. The leaves were placed in the curing shed for several months and then sold. In addition to the tobacco crop, the farm produced a small but regular income from the sale of dairy products. It all sounded perfectly simple.

The time was May, and the farmer promised that if Grandpa bought the farm, he would remove the tobacco leaves from the hot house and replant them before turning over the premises. He assured Grandpa that he would visit the farm twice a week throughout the summer to see how my grandfather was making out and to provide any required assistance. He advised Grandpa to hire a live-in laborer to help with the heavy work. There were many immigrant workers in Hartford, he said, who were eager for such jobs.

Grandpa returned to New York with my father to decide what to do. After much deliberation, my grandfather decided to go ahead with the deal. Mr. Weinstock wanted an immediate $500 deposit and a $5,000 down payment 30 days later to seal the purchase. The agricultural society offered my grandfather a no-interest, long-term loan of $3,500 for the down payment. The farmer was willing to hold a mortgage for the balance of the purchase price.

My father offered to dip into his savings to help Grandpa with the down payment. Again my father accompanied Grandpa to Connecticut to make the $500 deposit. My grandmother and their other children remained in New York until arrangements could be made to sell the dairy store and move to the farm.

After a few days, during which the farmer instructed Grandpa and my father on how to operate the farm, my father went to Hartford to hire a laborer. The usual pay was $75 a month, plus room and board.

The first morning, my father was unsuccessful in finding a man. He had no better luck the following morning, and decided to return to the farm and bring Grandpa back to New York before closing the deal. He thought that the family might be able to get along without a hired hand. He figured that he would stay on the farm for a couple of months, and that his younger brothers would then be able to help their father run the farm.

When he got back to the farm, he was greeted by a stranger who introduced himself as the owner of the neighboring farm. The man sadly informed my father than Mr. Weinstock had had a heart attack and had died a few hours earlier. Very slowly my father entered the farm house's living room and was shocked to see Grandpa kneeling over Mr. Weinstock's body and reciting the Psalms in Hebrew.

A candle was burning on the floor besides the body. Grandpa was a member of his synagogue's burial society, which prepared the dead for burial, and was thus well qualified to cope with Mr. Weinstock's body. Jewish religious practice, which forbids embalming, requires the hasty burial of the dead.

Hasidim like Grandpa usually did not use commercial undertakers. Grandpa tied Mr. Weinstock's legs together before his body became stiff, washed the body, and covered it with sheets. After several hours, Mr. Weinstock's children arrived to arrange their father's burial.

After the funeral, the children returned to the farm to "sit shiva," the traditional Jewish, seven-day period of grief and mourning normally held in the deceased's home. ("Shiva" is the Hebrew word for seven.) The custom stems directly from the verse in Genesis in which Joseph mourns his father Jacob for a week.

During the shiva period, the deceased's sons recite "kaddish," the prayer for the dead, at the three Jewish daily prayer services--in the morning, at sunset, and in the evening. The sons continue to recite the kaddish for the next 11 months.

The prayer's central theme is the magnification and sanctification of God's name. The prayer's purpose is to assure that the deceased's soul goes to heaven. According to Orthodox Jewish practice, all the prayers are conducted in the presence of a "minyan," a religious quorum of 10 adult males.

Grandpa was jolted by the fact that there were not enough adult Jewish males living in Mr. Weinstock's neighborhood to constitute a minyan during the shiva period. He was equally shocked by the family's inability to quickly find a Torah to be set up in the home while sitting shiva--a tradition followed largely by ultra-Orthodox Jews like my grandfather.

Grandpa suddenly realized what it would mean for him to live and die in what he now regarded as "the wilderness"--a neighborhood with few if any other Jews. The religious requirements that meant so much to him could not be fulfilled. A life as an ultra-Orthodox Jewish farmer near Windsor Locks began to look impossible.

My grandfather decided to abandon the idea of becoming a farmer. He called off the deal, surrendered his deposit, and sadly returned to the hurly-burly of Manhattan's Lower East Side, the family's dairy store, and the familiar comforts of his religious life as an ultra-Orthodox Jew.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Ballad for Scooter Libby

(Inspired by the recent Scooter Libby trial in Washington, my friend Stan Balter has written this epic poem, which he has graciously contributed to my blog. Stan, who I have known since boyhood, was an engineer and later a Wall Street securities analyst before his retirement. He has long been an astute observer of the American political scene.)

Said Rove to Libby and Cheney-um,
Saddam must have bought some uranium.
Send Joe Wilson to try
To find where and why.
We'll have us a swell casus belli.

Said Libby to Rove to Dick Cheney,
This Wilson, he really does pain me.
The reports from this man
Don't fit in with our plan.
They're not what the White House demands.

Said Rove to Libby to Cheney-ous,
Reality and truth are extraneous.
No problem, relax,
Manufacture some facts,
And shout "terror." That always distracts.

Said Cheney to Libby to Rove-r,
Wilson's wife, she works under cover.
If Joe won't play out game
We'll leak Val Plame's name.
The reporters will know whom to blame.

Said Cheney: You know our agenda.
There's no one out there to defend her.
If we hurt the CIA
That's a small price to pay
As long as King George gets his way.

Get to Miller and Cooper and Russert.
Be coy but be sure to discuss it.
They'll do the job for us,
They'll join in the chorus.
That's good, 'cause our case is not flawless.

Armitage could help spread the word
By telling some things that he heard.
He might talk to Bob Novak.
That'll help get us back
At Joe for his op-ed attack.

What? You say that our plans are imperiled
By Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald?
He'll look into the leak,
But his case will be weak.
The reporters will not want to speak.

But Fitzgerald continued his probing,
Found proof of official misquoting.
I know Libby's lyin'
I'm sure that he's tryin'
To protect someone way up the line.

Said Cheney and Karl Rove to Libby,
Scooter, just be a bit fibby.
It's just common sense,
You forgot some events.
Use the "who me?" amnesia defense.

So tell 'em: I can't recollect.
After all, what do you expect?
My day job's real tough.
I have more than enough
Can't be bothered with trivial stuff.

Tell 'em: I just can't recall
The nitty and gritty and all,
The when's and the who's,
And everyone's views.
I forget, you'll just have to excuse.

Perjury's Fitz's contention.
Memory lapse is Libby's invention.
Fitz says Scooter's lying
With repeated denying.
He's obstructing the case Fitz is trying.

But Russert and Miller and Cooper
All said that you're telling a blooper.
Cheney's note makes it clear
That the story is queer.
There's obstruction and perjury here.

Just forgetful? The jury said no.
That's not what the facts clearly show.
Though not yet admitted,
Perjury was committed.
No way can this man be acquitted.

The jury says he's a felon
Because of the lies he's been tellin'.
His tale's out of sync
He belongs in the clink
In spite of his close White House link.

I suspect that this story's not over.
We must still deal with Cheney and Rove-r.
They must bear some blame
For outing Val Plame
And smearing Joe Wilson's good name.

For now, Scooter, you take the fall,
But were you really running it all?
The chief orchestrator?
And main obfuscator?
Were you the whole scheme's perpetrator?

Fitz says there's a cloud over Cheney.
(Was the whole plan really so brainy?)
From the whispers we hear
It's really quite clear
There must be a chief puppeteer.

Is it Karl? Is it George? Is it Dickie?
Who tried to be slickily tricky?
To start a war we despise
Based on half-truths and lies
And pull the wool o'er America's eyes.

Val was hurt in the process, of course,
But she'll still have the last laugh because
Your leaks are erroneous,
Your actions, felonious,
Your cover-up, full of baloney-ous.

Friday, March 02, 2007

My two years in the blogosphere

I am now embarking on my third year as a blogger. In the past two years I have published 127 posts, probably with enough total wordage to fill a small book. When I began blogging, I was concerned whether anyone would ever find and read the stuff that I would be writing. To my surprise, countless readers have appeared, often responding with comments. They have revived the spirit of a burned-out, geriatric, retired journalist.

Some of my experiences in the blogosphere have been extraordinary and wholly unanticipated. For example, I wrote a piece about having been in the same college economics class with Alan Greenspan 60 years ago. In the piece, I casually praised our professor as a stimulating lecturer.

I received a comment, which I published, from a man who had also been the professor's student. He had a different recollection. He remembered the professor as a windbag and a bore. Within days came a stinging response from another reader of my blog--the professor's grandson, who aggressively came to his deceased grandfather's defense and blasted the critic.

Another interesting experience resulted from a piece about a Soviet air force colonel who had defected to the U.S. after World War II and had eventually become a writer for Newsweek magazine. In the late 1950s, we became friends during a Pentagon press junket to visit U.S. military bases in Europe.

I was amazed to receive e-mail messages from his son and daughter. Their father had died while they were young, and they were eager to learn more about him. I had a lengthy and enjoyable phone conversation with the daughter, reminiscing about her father.

Then there was the appearance of a second cousin I didn't know existed. Out of curiosity, he had typed his mother's uncommon maiden name into Google. He was eventually directed to my blog. My maternal grandmother bore the same maiden name and it showed up in one of my family memoirs.

It turned out that my maternal grandmother and the stranger's maternal grandfather were siblings. To bolster this new family connection, the man's maternal grandmother, whom I had known as a child, was the midwife who delivered me.

And then there was the case of a World War II pilot who had been stationed in India. He Googled the name of an obscure village where he had been stationed and also wound up on my blog. I had spent three months at the same base, and had recorded my experiences there in another memoir.

This blog has essentially been divided into two sections. I identify one group of postings as "Memoirs." In these autobiographical sketches, I recall my life experiences as a war veteran, working journalist, and as a first-generation American who grew up in an immigrant family in New York City.

To my distress, my short-term memory is increasingly failing. But for reasons that I cannot fathom, I have been able to dredge up detailed bits of minutiae and trivia of my life which provide raw material for this blog. Thus the blog has apparently been functioning as a psychological stimulus for me.

I once started out to write a full-length autobiography, but never got much beyond my high school days. My hope is that these collected blog postings labeled "Memoirs" will be a record for my three grandsons and provide the kind of personal family history that wasn't left behind by my own grandfathers, neither of whom I ever knew.

The second section of my blog is basically composed of editorials in which I express my opinions about current events. I have not been bashful about my opinions, and I have been happy to learn that the majority of my readers seem to agree with my political views. Of course, I also hear from dissidents.

I publish their critical comments and have provoked some stimulating Internet debate on important issues of the day. What could be a better reward for two years of blogging?

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