Saturday, February 25, 2006

They kill In the name of God

As a social institution, monotheistic religion is meant to provide a benevolent dimension to society. Christians, Muslims and Jews presumably worship the same God to gain spiritual comfort and to acquire a moralistic underpinning for human behavior that might otherwise be like that of the animals.

But an examination of the current state of world affairs suggests that many of God's most devoted worshippers are behaving in a manner that certainly must dismay the Almighty. They are killing other believers in His (or Her) name. What could be more disturbing to people of any genuine religious faith than to see Islamic extremists rioting in the streets, exploding bombs, beheading victims, and performing other acts of terrorism, all the while shouting in Arabic: "Allah-u-Akbar!" ("God is Great!")?

In Nigeria, Muslims are slaughtering Christians in the country's northern region because a Danish newspaper cartoon lampooned the Prophet Mohammed. (I wonder how many of the rioters read newspapers or know where Denmark is.) Not to be outdone, in the country's southern region, where Christians dominate, Jesus' followers are killing Muslims.

The Danish cartoon wasn't really needed to provoke the latest rampage. Nigerians have long been murdering each other over religious and ethnic/political issues-- horrible acts at least partially stirred up by British colonialists who established national borders and disregarded the natural habitats of rival tribes.

Similar religious violence has majority Muslims pitted against Christian minorities in Sudan, Chad and neighboring black African nations. Even in a more modernized Islamic country like Egypt, the tiny Coptic Christian community lives in fear of violent threats.

But today's primary religious killing grounds, as the media are graphically reporting, are in Iraq, which the U.S. invaded three years ago to introduce tolerance and democracy. The two major denominations of Mohammed's followers are bitterly divided by doctrinal differences that are based on a 1,200-year dispute over the Prophet's successor .

Iraq's religious conflict has vital political implications. The country's minority Sunnis have traditionally governed the majority Shiites. The situation was overturned, however, by the arrival of the Americans who, in addition to their idealistic crusade for democracy, came searching for weapons of mass destruction and seeking revenge for 9/11.

Although they are the majority in Iraq, the Shiites are the minority sect in the Islamic world at large. But they are also the majority in neighboring Iran, whose maniacal president has contributed to the religious crisis by blaming Israel and the U.S. for blowing up the holy Askariya Shiite shrine in the Sunni-dominated city of Samarra. This atrocity has triggered the latest round of clashes which seems likely to escalate into a full-scale civil war.

Bloody strife continues elsewhere in the world between religious combatants claiming differing paths to God. In the Philippines, the majority Christians are battling separatist-seeking Muslims in the country's southern region. In Indonesia, the majority Muslims fight native Christians regarded as infidels.

Minority Muslims are struggling against the Buddhist nation of Thailand for their autonomy near the Malaysian border. In Sri Lanka the majority Sinhilese Buddhists are fighting Tamil Hindu separatists. In Kashmir, Indian Hindus have been in a decades-long war against Muslim separatists supported by Pakistan. And in Islamic Pakistan, Christian churches are being burned down.

Nigeria provides a case study of how misfortune can follow the introduction of organized religion--particularly ones with competing beliefs-- into an ancient land with exotic cultures. Until about 1,000 years ago, what is now Nigeria was a region of countless primitive tribes ignorant of the concepts of nationhood and monotheistic religious belief. The inhabitants' spiritual needs were fulfilled by what modern sophisticates call animistic beliefs. Undoubtedly bloody territorial warfare among the native tribes was already commonplace. It is unlikely, however, that they fought over the issue of whose animistic beliefs were superior.

Then came the Arab slave traders. In addition to human booty, they sought the souls of the indigenous tribesmen, introducing them to the compassion and mercy of Allah. Hundreds of years later European Christians arrived, bringing with them a rival form of divine worship. Ever since, the inhabitants whose ancestors worshipped idols and jungle spirits have been praying to a single God and fighting over whose path to the Almighty is greater.

Meanwhile, our God in heaven must be weeping over what is being done in His (or Her) name.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

MEMOIR: How my Dad downed a Nazi dirigible and became a "saint"

According to a Jewish legend, each generation produces 36 righteous men--humble, spiritually-gifted individuals scattered throughout the Diaspora, who possess mystic powers that protect Jews from persecution and disaster.

Jewish literature abounds with folk tales about them. They are known as "lamed-vovniks" after two letters in the Hebrew alphabet that have a numerical value of 36. They are described as modest and upright men who conceal their identity and are indistinguishable from simple mortals. Their presence is revealed only in times of crisis.

In the Talmud it is written that "the world must contain not less than 36 righteous men who are vouchsafed the sight of the Divine Presence." In effect, these men are regarded as "secret saints."

My father achieved "sainthood" on May 6, 1937, the day the German dirigible Hindenburg arrived in the U.S. to begin its second season of trans-Atlantic crossings.

My father was educated in a yeshiva, preparing to become a rabbi like his own father, a Polish-born Hasid who came to the U.S. at the turn of the last century. Although my father was no longer religiously observant, he was highly respected in his community for his background as a Talmudic scholar.

As the Hindenburg flew only 600 feet over the Bronx on its way to its destination, the Lakehurst (N.J.) Naval Air Station, my father and a group of his neighborhood friends were standing on a street corner chatting. Staring up at the silver, cigar-shaped airship, they were infuriated at the bright red and black swastikas on the Hindenburg's tail gleaming brilliantly in the sunshine.

The Hindenburg was the technological wonder of its day, an object of awe, and a dazzling symbol of the glory of Nazi Germany. It was now four years since the Nazis had seized power, unleashing a wave of violence against Jews. The persecution of Germany's Jews was being widely reported in the press, and German Jewish refugees arriving in New York brought new horror stories. So to my father and his friends, gazing at the dirigible in the sky, the swastika-bearing Hindenburg was not a symbol of technological glory but an ugly provocation.

"If there is a God in this world," my father suddenly shouted in Yiddish, pointing to the sky, "may He destroy [the German dirigible]. May no trace or memory remain of it." He punctuated his curse by spitting on the ground. My father was normally a mild-mannered man, and his friends were shocked at his violent outburst. But they nodded grimly, putting their stamp of approval on his vehement declaration.

That evening as our family was having dinner, my mother turned on the radio. Through the crackling static, we heard a reporter broadcasting from Lakehurst. He was describing the intricate maneuvers required to bring Hindenburg down. Suddenly he began to scream that the airship had exploded.

While the landing lines were being tied to the mooring mast, the explosion ripped open the dirigible's tail and the Hindenburg burst into flames. In less than a minute, it was reduced to a mass of twisted, burning metal. Twenty-two crewmen, 13 passengers, and a U.S. Navy ground crewman were dead.

My father was horrified by the radio account. He sat as if paralyzed, the memory of the curse fresh in his mind. Many of the victims were Americans, and he had wished them no harm. He did not say a word all evening and went to bed early.

The next day, a Friday, word of my father's curse had circulated throughout the neighborhood. In the evening, as usual, he went out after dinner. As he walked four blocks to the candy store, where his friends gathered regularly, several men returning from Sabbath services at the local synagogue nodded respectfully at him. Other people pointed him out to companions, whispering solemnly that he was the man who had cursed the Hindenburg.

As he waited for the traffic light at a street corner, a man he knew casually came up and said tremulously to him in Yiddish: "We know about people like you from the old country. You are a 'lamed-vovnik'!" My father was bewildered. "What are you talking about?," he asked the man. "Are you crazy?" The man stepped back deferentially, touching his hat.

At first my father was amused by the man's remark. But as he pondered what "lamed-vovniks" mean to pious Jews, he became troubled. When he arrived at the candy store, his friends repeated the claim. "We heard you curse the Hindenburg, and we have seen what happened," one man said.

"What kind of nonsense is this?" my father responded, exasperated. "You know me. How can you believe such religious foolishness." Nevertheless, his friends felt ill at ease in his presence. Despite his protestations, they were convinced that my father was indeed one of the 36 secret saints. After all, he possessed all the attributes. Although he did not attend synagogue regularly, he was a righteous and learned man. He was generous and lived unpretensiously. And had he not performed a miracle, smiting the accursed Nazis before their very eyes?

My father became a marked man. Strangers began to phone him with pleas for assistance--to cure a sick child, to obtain a job, even to find a mate for a husbandless daughter. Helplessly, my father said he could do nothing. Neighbors withdrew respectfully when he passed on the street. Others bowed to him and made entreaties for help with their personal problems. My father was no longer amused. The tribulations of his superstitious neighbors began to wear on him.

To escape, he changed his routine drastically. He used a different subway station to go to work. Held in awe by his cronies in the candy store, he was no longer comfortable socializing with them. Now he remained at home every evening, bemoaning what had happened to him. It was ironic, he complained to my mother, that he, who went to synagogue only on Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kipper and did not observe the Sabbath, should attain such religious fame. He became a recluse.

Weeks passed. My father's absence from his usual neighborhood haunts surprised no one. According to legend, the "lamed-vovniks" resume their anonymity when their tasks have been accomplished. In desperation, my father decided to change his tactics. Nonchalantly he began to walk freely again through the neighborhood, unconcerned that some people still stared at him. And finally he took the ultimate step. He showed up at the candy store one evening.

His friends did not know how to react. "In the old country," my father assured them, "a regular 'lamed-vovnik' would disappear after he was discovered. He didn't hang around any more once he was recognized. So you see I am still here. I have not disappeared. I am not a 'lamed-vovnik'."

His friends reluctantly conceded that they had been foolish. They began to treat my father normally once again. And thus was sainthood in the Bronx--at least for my father--finally terminated.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

The overblown fuss over Cheney's hunting accident

I defer to no one in my dislike of Dick Cheney. As the most influential vice-president in our history, he was a leading architect of our disastrous Iraq invasion. Who can forget his nonsensical arguments linking 9/11 to Saddam, his prediction about how U.S. troops would be welcomed as liberators, and his glowing claims of our "progress" in Iraq?

Beyond Iraq, his secretive dealings with the oil industry, his disdain for the genuine interests of working-class voters, and his long record as a right-wing extremist mark him as the kind of politician who is unsuited for national leadership. Moreover, his macho war-hawk image seems to clash with his background as a Vietnam draft-dodger.

Having said all this, I contend that the fuss over how and when the news of Cheney's accidental shooting of a hunting companion was revealed has been overblown. I am retiree who had a 40-year career as a journalist. But I regard the controversy over how and when Cheney's hunting/shooting episode was disclosed to the public as a synthetic crisis produced by the media. They suffer from an occupational obsession about being first with the news, even when the news, as in this case, really is not all that vital, considering the serious state of current domestic and foreign affairs.

Sure, it is important to know that our Vice-President accidentally shot a hunting companion. But did it really matter whether we learned this on Saturday, when the accident actually happened, or the next day or two?

In particular, I blame the cable news channels that are saddled with the responsibility of filling air time all day and night, even when there is no legitimate news to report. I point to MSNBC's Chris Matthews, who I normally admire as one of TV's most skilled interviewers, as one of the most blatant promoters of this so-called crisis.

I confess that my sour view of the Cheney episode probably reflects, in part, my disinterest in hunting as a sport. As a boy raised in the Bronx's city streets, I never touched a gun until I was in the Army at 18. Nor have I touched a firearm during the 60 years since my military service.

Nevertheless, I do take pride in having qualified as a marksman, firing an M-1 Garand rifle during infantry training. I subsequently became equally skilled with a Thompson sub-machine gun, my authorized weapon when I was subsequently assigned to the Signal Corps.

Meaning no disrespect for ardent hunters, I must also confess that, as a city boy, I do not grasp the joy one experiences shooting harmless birds in the air. For me, the idea of a sport means hitting a baseball, smacking a tennis or golf ball, throwing and catching a football, or otherwise competing on a field where the opponent is a fellow human being.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

There's lots of craziness out there

I spend about half the year in New Jersey and the other half in Florida. When I am in Florida, I subscribe to two newspapers. One is the New York Times, which I consider essential reading. I praise the Times despite a lifelong grievance that the paper turned me down twice when I applied for a job.

I also buy the Palm Beach Post. Because of my limited stay in Florida, I subscribe for only short-term periods, renewing every two or three months. I receive the paper daily, including Sundays. I very rarely get a chance, however, to read it on Sundays. When I was recently solicited to extend my subscription, I therefore asked for the paper only on weekdays.

I was told that it would be cheaper for me to take the Post seven days a week rather than only six. The sales rep explained that my subscription is on a special reduced promotional rate. If I were to renew my subscription, excluding Sunday delivery,I would lose the discount rate and have to pay the regular higher subscription price.

In short, I would have to pay more to get less. I thought the Post's circulation department was crazy. But then I began to ponder about all the other craziness out there in our society. I decided that the Palm Beach Post's policy was minor-league craziness. It could not compare to far more stunning examples out there on the political and cultural scene...

* The Federal government employs some of the nation's most talented scientists. Increasingly,however,the Bush Administration disregards their research on such matters as pollution, climate change, reproductive health, stem-cell research and other fields in which science clashes with religious, ideological or corporate interests. Moreover, the scientists are often punished for disclosing their research findings to the public.

* Religious fanatics fight to prevent a woman's right to abortion, calling themselves "pro-life." But many abortion opponents harass and try to kill doctors who perform abortions and are indifferent to the lives of unwanted babies.

* The Bush Administration invades a country posing no security threat to the U.S. and goes to war with inadequate, ill-equipped forces and with no plan on how to manage conquered territory.

* Televangelists, claiming to hear and talk personally to God, create commercial ventures out of religious ministries, while promoting reactionery social and political views and making a mockery of genuine spirituality.

* The Bush Administration tries to fix a Medicare system that isn't broken with proposals that would benefit insurance and money-management companies more than senior citizens.

* The Administration, claiming to offer low-cost drugs for the elderly, devises a complex plan that few of them can understand but that benefits the pharmaceutical and insurance industries.

* The Administration offers a $1.3 trillion tax cut for the wealthy over the next decade. But the budget is cut for education, Medicaid and Medicare. It also provides inadequate funds to care for Iraq war veterans and to rebuild Gulf Coast communities devastated by the Katrina hurricane.

* The Administration spends $16 billion to rebuild the infrastructure in Iraq, where the utilities still fall short of pre-war performance. Meanwhile, there are not enough funds to rehabilitate an ailing infrastructure in the U.S.

There is clearly so much craziness out there that one wonders how our society as a whole remains sane. So maybe I'm nuts to be concerned about the Palm Beach Post's subscription policy in times like these.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The popular sport of Israel-bashing

My Jan. 14 posting, entitled "The Iranian Madman and Israel," noted that roughly half of Israel's 5-million Jews--including the nation's Iranian-born president and defense minister--are refugees, or the descendants of refugees, from Arab and other Muslim countries.There are at least as many of them as there are Palestinian Arab refugees who have been used as political pawns to demonize Israel for nearly six decades.

I have received two critical comments from readers which reflect the ignorance, mean-spiritedness, and old-fashioned Jew-hatred that have plagued Israel ever since it gained independence in 1948 and have made the tiny nation an international punching-bag.

An anonymous reader asked: "What do I think about Israel occupying land beyond its original borders?" The term "occupying" suggests that Israel's expansion beyond its 1948 borders was the result of an aggressive intent to conquer another nation's land.

But those who are unprejudiced and informed know that Israel acquired territory beyond its 1948 borders only after successfully defending itself against an invasion by its Arab neighbors. Had the Arabs not invaded in 1948, intending to destroy the infant Jewish state, Israel would have remained a puny little land, less than half its present size. The Palestinians now live with the miserable consequences of the Arab refusal to accept Israel's right to exist.

In 1967, Egypt mobilized to invade Israel again, allied with Syria. It imposed a blockade against Israeli shipping in the Straits of Tiran, which was an act of war. In preparing to defend itself against the two Arab countries, Israel warned neighboring Jordan to stay out of the conflict. Instead, the Jordanian king placed his forces under Egyptian control and began to bombard western Jerusalem.

The obvious goal was to exterminate the Jewish state. There was no Egyptian or Syrian territory to be recaptured from Israel. Until the 1967 war, the West Bank, the Golan heights and the Gaza strip were all under Arab rule.

Again, the Israelis successfully defended themselves and, in the process, acquired control of those territories. In demanding the return of the territories lost in 1967, the Arabs remind me of the old joke about the boy who murders his parents and seeks clemency from the judge on the grounds that he is an orphan.

Actually, Israel had originally hoped to use its newly acquired territories as bargaining chips in exchange for Arab recognition of its right to exist in peace and security. Because of demographic and security considerations, Israel recently relinquished control of Gaza and appears ready to abandon portions of the West Bank.

Nevertheless, the process of winning recognition from the Arabs and other Muslim countries remains only partially complete. Iran's latest anti-Israel hysteria and the Hamas political triumph in Gaza and the West Bank are new barriers in the road to peace in the Middle East.

I received another comment on my Jan. 14 posting from a reader that can best be described as obscene. Identifying himself as "Terence," he questioned the significance of the Holocaust and argued: "We'd all be better off without Israel...and most importantly, Jewish people." I have published this obscenity to display the type of maniacal hatred of Jews and Israel that continues to defile civil society.

Left-wing academics in the U.S. and abroad, certain elements of the international media, and sectors of the so-called liberal or mainstream American Protestant churches have piled on, joining the Israel-bashers on a more respectable level. They portray the Palestinian cause as a victim and disregard the Arab atrocities that have made Israel a reluctant "occupying military power."

And then, of course, there are some leaders of the European Union's member countries, many of whose fathers and grandfathers sat in silence--or even collaborated--as 6-million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust, who also use Israel as a diplomatic punching bag.

There is an ironic byproduct to the military and diplomatic onslaught that the Israelis have experienced since gaining independence. The Zionist idealists, devoid of a Jewish military tradition since the Biblical era, founded a country based on Jewish spirituality and traditional codes of ethics and morality. Ghetto Jews--and most Jews did live in ghettos until a century ago--disdained physicality and even athletic endeavor.

Until Israel's establishment, the Jewish people were renowned largely for intellectual and mercantile talents. The irony is that Zionists created a tiny country that has strangely earned world respect largely for its military prowess. Israel exemplifies a "muscular" form of Jewishness that was not apparent before. For traditional Jew-haters that may be too hard to stomach.

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