Friday, August 26, 2005

Islam's Judaic roots

Meaning no disrespect for the Muslim religion, I have always been puzzled by the way Islam has appropriated Jewish history. Yet so many Islamic political leaders and clerics continue to denigrate the Jewish people, even to the point where they deny the Jewish historic link to what is now Israel and Palestine.
According to the generally accepted version of Biblical history, Abraham, the Jews' first patriarch, probably lived about 1,500 BC. That was more than 2,000 years before the birth of the prophet Mohammed (570-632 AD), Islam's founder. Until the birth of Mohammed in what is now Saudi Arabia, there is no evidence that the Arabs were even aware that the historic figures of Abraham and his two sons, Isaac and Ishmael, existed.
The Arabs were then primarily pagan nomads. It is highly unlikely that they possessed any sacred scripture until the creation of the Koran during the life of Mohammed. There were Jewish tribes, mentioned in the Koran, living in the Arabian peninsula. Mohammed and his followers presumably became familiar with their Jewish neighbors' Five Books of Moses--the Jewish Bible--and were inspired to abandon their pagan gods and to seek the monotheistic divine figure worshipped by the Jews.
It was only after the creation of the Koran and the introduction of the worship of Allah that Abraham and his sons, Jacob and Ishmael, who had originated in the Jewish Bible so many centuries earlier, were introduced into Arab and Muslim tradition.
In contrast to the Jewish belief that God ordered Abraham to sacrifice Jacob, his younger son born to his wife Sarah, Muslims believe that Abraham was to sacrifice his older son Ishmael, whose mother was Abraham's servant Hagar. This is in accord with the Islamic tradition that Ishmael is the ancestor of the Arab people and that Isaac was the ancestor of the Jewish people. In all candor, I cannot understand how the Arabs can trace their origins to Ishmael since he lived more than 2,000 years before his existence is revealed in the Koran.
It is unfortunate that, while they acknowledge their common Abrahamic ancestral origins with the Jewish people, the Arabs and the Muslim world at large continue to regard the Jews as enemies and refuse to recognize the Jewish historic connection to the Holy Land.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Surrealism in Gaza

The gut-wrenching evacuation of the Jewish settlers in the Gaza Strip is nearly completed now. It was heart-breaking to see them forced from their homes and to watch Israeli troops and police sadly performing their assigned task. I am confident that even the most ardent proponent of disengagement from Gaza shared my sorrow.
I have always thought it unwise for a few thousand Jews to settle in Gaza amidst a huge and hostile Arab population in a region whose Biblical historical ties are tenuous. Moreover, I have been offended by the religious fanaticism and intolerance displayed by so many of the Gaza settlers. Their behavior threatens the sanctity of Israeli statehood. But most important, there are so many other places within Israel itself, particularly in the Galilee and the Negev, where new Jewish settlement is needed and would contribute to the nation's security.
The "surrealism" in the title of this posting refers to the successful efforts of a handful of American Jewish zillionnaires, headed by Mort Zuckerman, to raise $14 million to buy the Gaza settlers' lucrative greenhouses and to hand them over to the Palestinians, presumably to provide jobs for the locals. Zuckerman is the publisher of the New York Daily News and U.S. News & World Report, and I have always admired his philanthropic actities and supported his political views.
But why is it necessary for American Jews to engage in such charity that will never be appreciated by a hate-filled Arab populace? This is the sort of philanthropic enterprise that should have been undertaken by the enormously wealthy Saudi royals and the even richer Arab Gulf State rulers. These hypocrites who zealously proclaim the "unity of the Arab nation" always seem to be absent when it comes to productive charity to aid the Palestinians. When they do offer financial assistance for the Palestinian cause, their money is normally earmarked for Arab terrorist organizations, not job-creating projects like greenhouses.
What can one expect, however, when Prince Turki al-Faisal, the new American-educated Saudi Arabian ambassador to the U.S., formerly ambassador to the U.K., continues to argue that the Mossad, Israel's secret service, was responsible for the 9/11 World Trade Center bombings and for terrorist attacks within his own country?

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Jewish nomenclature

"I can still understand Jewish, but I have difficulty speaking it," a friend of mine told me recently, recalling the language of his Polish-born parents. At the risk of nit-picking, I corrected him by explaining that his parents spoke Yiddish, not "Jewish," and that Yiddish was just one of about half-dozen different "Jewish languages."
Yiddish was the language only of Ashkenazi Jews--people who inhabited central and eastern Europe. (Ashkenaz is the ancient Hebrew word for the German-speaking territories from which their ancestors migrated eastward.) Until the early 1900s, it was the world's most commonly used Jewish language, largely because the Ashkenazim outnumbered the world's other Jewish communities before the Nazi Holocaust.
Since the establishment of Israel in 1948, Hebrew has replaced it as the world's leading Jewish tongue. Yiddish and the other Jewish languages are becoming as obsolete as Latin. Yiddish is still the primary language only of Hasidim and other insular ultra-Orthodox Jewish sects who regard Hebrew as too sacred for common usage.
Yiddish is essentially a blend of medieval German (about 75%), Hebrew (20%), and bits of Slavic, Lithuanian, Hungarian, or Romanian, depending on where the speaker lived. A century ago, East European Jewish immigrants to the U.S. began adding English to the mix.
My grandmother, who did not speak English, would casually ask me to "open der vinder," failing to realize that she had absorbed at least some of the language of her new homeland. Even before the Nazi era, however, most Jews living in Germany and Austria disdained Yiddish and spoke genuine German.
Ashkenazi Jews mistakenly tend to lump all other Jews as Sephardic. (Sepherad is the ancient Hebrew name for the Iberian peninsula.) Sephardic people are descended from the Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal in the 15th and 16th centuries. They settled primarily in the lands bordering the Mediterranean Sea.
Their language is Ladino, which is largely medieval Spanish with touches of Hebrew and the languages of the countries in which they settled--e.g., Turkish, Greek, Bosnian, or Arabic. Their new homelands, particularly in north Africa, Italy and Greece, contained tiny ancient Jewish communities (the last two called Romaniot), existing before their arrival. These people spoke Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Italian, and Judeo-Greek. But in most cases they were absorbed into the larger Sephardic community.
In Israel there is increasing recognition of what are now regarded as Mizrahi or Eastern Jews. These are the Jews from Iraq, Yemen, Iran, Kurdistan, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Uzbekistan (where they are known as Bukharan Jews). They speak Judeo-Persian, Judeo-Arabic, and other local languages that mix the native tongues with bits of Hebrew.
The Ashkenazi tendency to include these people as Sephardic has some legitimacy. Some Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition settled in these Asian lands, introducing their distinctive religious liturgy into local synagogues.
Aside from a common religion, what binds the Ashkenazi, Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews is Hebrew, the language of the Torah, used universally by all Jews for religious worship. Moreover, all the Jewish languages use the same written Hebrew alphabet.
As a boy in the Bronx, studying Spanish in high school, I recall picking up a newspaper printed in the Hebrew script in the local shoe repair shop owned by a Sephardic Jew from Turkey.
I was stunned to read what sounded to me as Spanish. It was a Ladino newspaper. The shoemaker said he was similarly surprised to encounter the sound of German when he tried to read a Yiddish newspaper.
When Israel was established, Hebrew was adopted as the new nation's official language, and the use of the other Jewish languages was discouraged.
On my first visit to Israel, I recall being emotionally moved to hear Hebrew, a language I had always associated only with old men praying in a synagogue, spoken by young people in the street and seeing its alphabet on the street signs and even on Army tanks.
Among the Ashkenazi Jews there has long been a kind of silly tribal rivalry between so-called "Litvaks" and "Galitziyaners," each claiming cultural superiority over the other, while apparently failing to acknowledge that they were other Yiddish-speaking Jews.
Litvaks are Jews who came from Lithuania, northeastern Poland and what is now Belarus. Galitziyaners, who enjoyed more tolerable treatment as citizens of the old Austro-Hungarian empire than the Litvaks did under Czarist Russia, came from what is now southern Poland and western Ukraine. Overshadowed by the Litvak-Galitiziyaner rivalry were other Yiddish-speaking Ashkenzi Jewish communities in what is now central Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Rumania, and Moldova (formerly Bessarabia and Bukavina).
The complexity of European Jewish communal identity is underscored by the fact that Jews from Poland could be Litvak (if they came from the northeastern part of the country), Galitziyaner (if they came from the south), and neither if they came--like my father's family--from central Poland. The last group called themselves "Paylisheh Yidn," or simply Polish Jews.
This attempt to explain the Jews' complex cultural background deliberately omits any reference to their significant religious differences. That's an even more complicated issue requiring more space than this blog can absorb and more patience than I possess.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Why are we still in Iraq?

In the past two days 25 more American soldiers and marines died in Iraq, bringing total deaths close to 1,800 since the invasion in 2003. And as our casualties mount, Islamic terrorists are becoming bolder and are expanding their operations, assassination of Iraqis willing to cooperate with the U.S. has become more widespread, insurgents are penetrating the local army and police force we are trying to establish, and Iraqi politicians haggle endlessly over a constitution. The goal of imposing an American-style democratic system on an alien Iraqi culture appears increasingly quixotic.
Meanwhile, President Bush continues to recite his mantra: "We will stay the course" [in Iraq]...we will complete the job." But why are we still there? Just as he refused to admit making any errors during his first term, while campaigning for reelection last year, Bush stubbornly refuses to recognize that he made a monumental blunder invading Iraq.
He makes the nonsensical claim that by fighting the terrorists "over there," we won't have to fight them here at home.The dreadful fact is that the Iraq invasion has actually made the threat of an Islamic terrorist attack here more likely. Britain and Spain have experienced the consequences of teaming up with the U.S. in Iraq.
The invasion of Afghanistan, of course, was legitimate military action. That country had harbored the Al-Qaeda organization responsible for 9/11, and we succeeded in demolishing the group's capabilities.The subsequent Iraq invasion, however, was counter-productive. By deploying much of our military force away from Afghanistan to Iraq, we have allowed Al-Qaeda to revive.
More important, we have provoked the creation of new, worldwide Islamic terrorist cells eager to join the war against us and our allies.They are not necessarily linked to Al-Qaeda, but they share the illogical but fanatic view that the U.S. wants to destroy the Muslim world.
As comical as it sounds, Bush Administration leaders have been debating what to call the war we are fighting. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and other national security officials decided that the "war on terror" was an inadequate term.
They prefer the phrase, "global struggle against violent extremism." The implication is that more than sheer military strength is needed to counter Muslim terrorists, and that diplomacy and more chummy contacts with Muslim moderates are also required. Bush dismisses this terminology as timid sounding. He is sticking to the old phrase, the "war on terror," in his public utterances.
So as our men continue to die in an unnecessary war in Iraq, it's silly season in Washington, as Administration leaders behave like clowns consumed with arguments over how rhetoric might affect the battle against worldwide Islamic terrorism.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

MEMOIR: When the CIA wanted to hire me

The recent controversies over Central Intelligence Agency leaks to the press and the efficiency of its operations bring to mind the job offer the agency made to me in 1949.
A temporary summer job as a writer for the AFL-CIO Machinists Union's weekly newspaper had ended about a month earlier. Before the summer job, I had been "displaced" from a job as "information & editorial specialist (press & publications)"--civil service jargon for press agent--for the U.S. Department of the Interior's Fish & Wildlife Service. I had been employed there for a year following my college graduation in June 1948.
For a boy raised in the Bronx, it was a bizarre place to work, writing about trumpeter swans, whooping cranes, red-breasted mergansers, and other exotic wildlife. One of my colleagues was Rachel Carson, a spinsterish, then-unknown biologist-writer who later became a world-famed celebrity as a pioneer environmentalist.
I lost the job because the Civil Service Commission belatedly decided that I had been improperly hired. While still in college, I had placed a "situation wanted" ad in Editor & Publisher, the trade journal for the newspaper industry, seeking a job as a cub reporter. I received two responses. One was from a commercial printer in Moundsville, W.Va. who wanted me to invest $5,000 to start a weekly newspaper of which I would be editor-in-chief. I didn't have $5,000, and Moundsville, W. Va. was not exactly the big time.
The other response came from the Fish & Wildlife Service's Division of Information. The division's chief was an ex-newspaperman who had been Alaska's chief game warden and had been rewarded with a Washington sinecure by Harold Ickes, then the Secretary of Interior. He spotted my ad, invited me to Washington for an interview, and hired me to write press releases. The annual salary: $3397, impressive pay at that time for a newly-minted college graduate. Exuberant recommendations from two college professors who were faculty advisers for the New York University senior yearbook (I had been its editor-in-chief) helped me land the job.
Unfortunately, the former Alaska game warden was ignorant of civil service employment regulations and had not been fully authorized to hire me. The U.S. government doesn't hire people by answering "situations wanted" ads.
Seeking a new job after my summer job with the union would end, I noticed a want ad in the Washington Post for an editor-writer. The ad did not identify the employer and showed only a post office box number. I responded to the ad, enclosing copies of my Fish & Wildlife press releases and articles I had written for Army and college newspapers.
A couple of weeks later I received a strange letter inviting me for an interview. The envelope and the letterhead displayed no organizational name. I recall only an address in the 2000 block of E Street, N.W. in Washington and a phone number. I was instructed to call for an appointment.
I got to the E Street address, and found a large building that bore no identification. In those days anyone could walk into any Federal government building (including, as I recall, the Pentagon) unchallenged. But security in the E Street building was extraordinary. I had to go through a maze of reception desks manned by armed guards before I could get to an elevator that would take me to the office where I was supposed to go.
It was the most unusual job interview I have ever had. The scene was like something out of a Kafka story. I was instructed to fill out an application form outlining my educational, military and employment background in greater detail than I had already submitted. I was then told to wait in another room. I still had no idea who the potential employer might be. After about an hour, I was called into another room where two interviewers bombarded me with very personal questions for at least another hour.
Only during the interiew did I learn that I was sitting in the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency. (The CIA's huge headquarters complex in Langley, Va. was not built until the mid-1950s.) But I was not given any details about the job, nor was I allowed to ask questions. All I knew about the agency was that it had been created a couple of years earlier as the successor to the wartime Office of Strategic Services.
I successfully survived the initial stage of the hiring process, for I was told to report back the following week at 8 a.m. to take a written exam. Having had a security clearance and taken a loyalty oath at the Fish & Wildlife Service (as required for all Federal employees during those days, thanks to Sen. Joe McCarthy), the CIA apparently considered me sufficiently kosher to qualify for the next stage.
The exam lasted all day. I was in a room alone except for a proctor. He accompanied me to the men's room when nature called and offered me a sandwich during a brief break.The exam was the most comprehensive that I have ever taken. It covered American and foreign history, current events, American and foreign literature, world geography, and general science. (As a lifetime mathphobe, I was delighted to encounter nothing mathematical.)
About half the exam was devoted to editing techniques. In college as a journalism major I had never been exposed to anything like the CIA test. Patches of information on varied subjects were presented, which I was required to assemble into a coherent piece of writing. I was also given a lengthy manuscript made unintelligible by grammatical and spelling errors and illogical transitions. This had to be rewritten and transformed into readable material. I was never aware that something as arcane as editing skills could be subjected to an examination.
About a month later, I was invited to return and was formally offered a job. I would be the editor in a three-man team monitoring radio broadcasts from Soviet bloc nations. The team would include a foreign language expert, a radio engineer and an editor to compile reports on the broadcasts. The CIA had such teams stationed in Europe and Asia surrounding the sprawling Soviet Union and its satellite nations.
Perhaps because of my World War II military service in the China-Burma-India Theater, I was offered a choice of three Asian assignments--Singapore, Hong Kong or Seoul, Korea. The salary was about double what I had earned at the Fish & Wildlife Service, plus an overseas living allowance.
The CIA personnel officer agreed to give me a few weeks to consider the offer. By nowI had successfully taken a government civil service exam (far simpler than the CIA's), which granted me regular civil service status. This made me eligible for a job offer I had received from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to be an editor and press relations officer. I had been recommended by the union newspaper's editor to the agency's director of information.
So there I was with two job offers. I was then a bachelor enjoying a highly satisfactory social life in Washington. I tried to imagine the kind of social life a guy like me would have in Seoul, Hong Kong, or Singapore. I figured it would tough to meet girls there who I would feel comfortable bringing home to my mother in the Bronx. My mother, of course, had been bugging me to settle down and get married.
The result: I passed up what would probably have been a very exciting job with the CIA and accepted what turned out to be a very dull job at the Bureau of Labor Statistics. (I quit 14 months later to work for a new government agency created during the Korean War to control the nation's industrial production.)
I've always blamed my mother for preventing me from having a cloak-and-dagger career.

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