Friday, July 28, 2006

MEMOIR: My audience with the Pope

For a decade during the 1950s and early 1960s, I worked as a Pentagon correspondent for Business Week magazine. One of the perks of the job was to be invited frequently to tour U.S. military bases in the U.S. and abroad. This was the era of the cold war. The presumed purpose of the junkets was to publicize how well prepared the U.S. and its NATO allies were if the cold war ever turned into a shooting war against the Soviet bloc.

One of the most interesting of my trips was a 23-day visit, starting on May 29, 1958, to military bases in France, Belgium, Norway, Denmark, West Germany, Turkey, and Italy. There were about a dozen American journalists on the tour, including Newsweek's Leon Volkov, about whom I wrote on an earlier blog posting. We were accompanied by an almost equal number of Defense Dept. officials and our personal aircraft's crew members.

Our military tour leaders managed to find time for us to squeeze in a day at the Brussel World's Fair. And on June 12, during a free day in Rome, the press attache at the local U.S. Embassy arranged for us to have a private audience with Pope Pius XII. (If you could call a Papal audience "private" with about 20 participants.)

An American monsignor acted as our personal Vatican guide. He led us through the Vatican's vast libraries, offices, and even into the Pope's personal quarters. As we walked through the Vatican complex, he lectured us on the sights and introduced us to various Papal functionaries.

Finally, in the afternoon we were invited into the pontiff's private office. Pope Pius XII was seated on a throne-like chair surrounded by several aides. He was then 82 years old and had been the Pope for 19 years. As I recall, he was a tall, gaunt man who was obviously not in good health.

Before being introduced to the Pope, the American monsignor guide informed our group about the traditional protocol on being introduced to the pontiff. Whether or not we were Roman Catholics, he said, visitors were normally asked to genuflect before the Pope and to kiss his ring.

We lined up to approach the Pope on his chair. A handful of those in our group were Catholics, and they agreeably followed the monsignor's instructions. But when the first Protestant walked up to the Pope, he hesitated for a moment. He bowed down as if to genuflect and slipped to the floor, breaking his fall with his hand. It was an embarrassing moment.

I was the next in line. As a non-Catholic, I felt uncomfortable about genuflecting and kissing the Pope's ring. I decided to simply shake his hand. He smiled at me and did not appear offended. All the other non-Catholics followed my example.

When we had all been introduced to the Pope, he stood up from his chair. The monsignor handed him a paper, and the Pope began to address us. Strangely, he started talking in German. He had apparently been misinformed about our group's nationality. The monsignor hastily whispered to him that we were Americans and handed him another paper.

The Pope then started to speak in an Italian-accented English. His heavy accent reminded me of Henry Armetta, a short, stocky character actor who was then a popular figure as an Italian immigrant in Hollywood movies requiring such a role.

The Pope talked about the responsibilities of a free press. His remarks were pertinent and articulate and impressed the journalists with his sophisticated understanding of media operations.

After his brief address, he sat down, and we again lined up to approach his chair. He handed each of us a medallion bearing his image and blessed it. The Papal audience was thus formally closed. A picture of the Pope and our group appeared the following day on the front page of L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican's daily newspaper.

By that time our group was flying to our next destination, Wiesbaden, West Germany to visit the U.S. Air Force's European headquarters.

When I returned home to Silver Spring, Md. I gave my Papal medallion to my next door neighbor, who was a devout Catholic. He was deeply appreciative of my gift. But I was surprised when he told me several days later that he had presented the medallion to the mother superior of the local St. Camillus parochial school. Probably it meant even more to her than to him.

Four months after my audience with the pontiff, Pope Pius XII died. I was pleased to have had the opportunity to meet such an historic figure before his death.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Israel, Iran & Iraq: A crisis point in the war on terrorism

It has become evident that Iran and--to a lesser extent--Syria are behind the current war waged against Israel by Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. Iran has been emboldened by the Bush Administration's unwise invasion of Iraq and the quagmire it has created there. With the defeat of its enemy, Saddam Hussein, Iran has been able to assume the leadership role in the Islamist jihadi war against Western democratic society.

Israel is the most convenient target of the Islamist terrorists because the Iranians recognize that only the U.S. is displaying any understanding of Israel's current plight. The European Union seems more concerned with Israel's "disproportionate" defense against Hezbollah and Hamas rocket attacks on civilian communities and territorial incursions than in Israel's right to defend itself. The obvious question is how Great Britain, France, Italy, and the others would react against similar foreign attacks on their lands.

Saddam Hussein's secular but tyrannical Iraqi regime was a horrendous government. But it served as a barrier against Iran and other Shiite jihadis. Saddam's defeat brought a Shiite-dominated government into power in Iraq.

For the moment, some of its leaders appear to be pro-American. But they are threatened not only by Sunni insurgents but by fellow Shiites eager for an alliance with Iran's Shiite regime. Polls have shown that most Iraqis want the U.S. to get out now.

According to an American general's recent assessment, our forces in Iraq are now tied down in civil wars between Sunnis and Shiites and between different Shiite factions. He said that this communal strife is now more responsible for the violence that has brought chaos to Iraq than the fight against the Sunni insurgency. This is a formidable argument for redeploying U.S. forces out of Iraq and basing some of them in nearby friendly Arab states.

It is extraordinarily ironic that after defeating an Iraqi army three years ago, the U.S. is now training and equipping a new Iraqi army. The new force is dominated by the Shiites, many of whom were recruited out of anti-American militias. They are apparently more loyal to pro-Iranian interests than to the Americans who liberated them from Saddam.

It is conceivable than in any U.S. confrontation against Iran, the new Iraqi army could turn against us. Once American influence in Iraq is weakened, it is also conceivable that Iraq's new army would join the Islamist jihadi war against Israel.

The only positive element in the current Middle East crisis is that the so-called moderate Arab countries of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states have surprisingly criticized Hezbollah and Hamas for heating up the situation. Amazingly, some of these Arabs have even shown more understanding of Israel's plight than many Europeans.

All of which underscores the fallacy of the Bush Administration's naive obsession to "promote democracy" in the Arab world. Were open elections to be held in these nations friendly to the U.S., the bad guys--the Islamist terrorists--would undoubtedly acquire considerable new influence or even complete control. This was demonstrated in the recent elections in the Palestinian Authority, where Hamas was triumphant, and in Lebanon, where the Hezbollah members were elected to the parliament for the first time.

In assessing the Middle East, it is striking that Israel is a tiny sliver of land, populated with only slightly more than 5-million Jews--virtually all of them refugees or descendants of refugees from European and Muslim countries. Nevertheless, as outnumbered as they are, the Arabs and even some Europeans depict Israel as the villain in the Middle East and as a menace to world peace.

Yet the Israelis are surrounded by more than a billion Muslims in 22 Arab nations and more than a dozen other Islamic countries, most of them historically dedicated to Israel's destruction because of the alleged mistreatment of the Palestinian people.

The Palestinians have indeed suffered because of the establishment of Israel in 1948. But the Palestinians suffer from self-inflicted wounds. As history shows, they have passed up opportunity after opportunity to have their own independent nation, largely because they are unwilling to accept compromise. Their primary objective is to destroy the tiny Jewish state.

Note that the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was organized three years before the 1967 war. Only after that war did Israelis take control of the West Bank and Gaza. With no Israeli territory recognized by international law as "occupied" land before 1967, the PLO's obvious goal was to "liberate" the state of Israel itself.

The result is that Israel, contrary to historic Jewish traditions and values, has been forced to become a garrison state, constantly forced to defend itself--as no other nation in the world does--to simply survive.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

The war against Israel

For decades, the Palestinians and other Arabs have accused Israel of occupying their territory. Six years ago the Israelis unilaterally withdrew from southern Lebanon, where it had deployed troops to prevent Hezbollah terrorist raids across the border.

Last year, the Israelis made a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza strip. It also announced that it was preparing to withdraw from much of the West Bank, which it acquired in 1967 in retaliating against a Jordanian attack.

The hope in Israel and elsewhere in the democratic world was that the two withdrawals would be recognized by the Palestinians and other Arabs as measures that could lead to the establishment of meaningful peace in the region. But that was not to be.

In Gaza, the reaction to the withdrawal was an attack by the Hamas terrorist militia on a military base within Israel and the launching of rockets at Israeli towns. The expectation had been that Hamas leaders, who now control the strip, would use their new autonomy and outside financial aid to promote the local economy and to expand the local infrastructure. (Among the sources was $12 million donated by a group of American Jewish philanthropists for the purchase of agricultural facilities built by Israeli farmers in Gaza.)

But instead of trying to strengthen Gaza's economy and to demonstrate an ability to govern, Hamas began to smuggle weapons in from Egypt and other sources. The goal was to resume battling Israel. As expected, the Israelis have moved back into Gaza to destroy the rocket launching sites and to rescue a soldier kidnapped by the Palestinians.

Taking advantage of Israel's preoccupation with Gaza, Hezbollah raided an Israeli military base across the border, captured two Israeli soldiers, and began a rocket bombardment of Israeli population centers.

There is an apparent collaboration between Hezbollah and Hamas to attack Israel. Interestingly, the kind of sectarian differences that plague Iraq have not interfered with their alliance. Both terrorist groups are Islamic extremists aiming to establish fundamentalist theocracies. But Hamas is composed of Sunni Muslims while Hezbollah is a Shiite organization.

The Israeli response to the attacks from Gaza and southern Lebanon has been severe. Unfortunately, there have been heavy civilian casualties and extensive damage to Lebanon's airports, roads, and other important facilities.

Russia and the European Union, both perennially critical of Israel, charge that Israel is using a "disproportionate use of force" against Gaza and Lebanon. They evidently do not recognize Israel's right to defend itself against unprovoked aggression. Considering Russia's brutal campaign against rebels in Chechnya, the hypocricy is overwhelming.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

MEMOIR: Seeking my grandfather in Jerusalem

My paternal grandfather, who was born in Poland and settled in the U.S. in 1906, was a Hasidic rabbi. In the mid-1930s, when he was in his sixties, he moved to Jerusalem. His desire, like that of many ultra-Orthodox Jews, was to die in the Holy Land.

My grandmother declined to go with him, preferring to remain in this country with their five adult children. Actually, they had been separated for several years before his departure. I do not recall ever meeting my grandfather when I was growing up. My father's relationship with him was a bit strained; my father's level of religious observance was apparently not up to my grandfather's expectations.

Nevertheless, my father was fond of my grandfather and had great respect for him. He would proudly boast of my grandfather's reputation as a great Talmudic scholar. My grandfather was the founder and leader of what was probably the first Hasidic congregation in the U.S. As a boy, hearing stories about his role in the Hasidic community made me curious about this grandfather I did not know and eager to meet him some day.

In late 1945, I was serving in the U.S. Army in India. I had been stationed there for nearly two years, and was awaiting shipment back to the States after the Japanese surrender. I decided to apply for an emergency furlough to visit my grandfather in Palestine while en route home.

If I could get a furlough, I figured it would be easy to get to Palestine. The army's Air Transport Command had a regular route that began near my base in Bengal Province, with stops in Karachi, then still part of India, Tehran, Iran, where U.S. troops were stationed, and Alexandria, Egypt. From Alexandria, the British operated a railroad that went to Palestine.

But before I could apply for a furlough, I needed documentary evidence that I had a grandfather in Palestine. My father sent me his address in Jerusalem, where he lived in a home for the aged. With the help of a Jewish army chaplain, I composed a Yiddish letter to him, explaining that if he could confirm our relationship, I might be able to visit him. He had 12 grandchildren, most of whom he had never known. I enclosed a photo of myself in the letter, and identified myself as the son of his second son.

About a month later, I received a response in Yiddish, accompanied by a broken-English translation, obviously written by some one else. (Both my name and my grandfather's were misspelled.)

The English letter read as follows:
"My dear Mortin [sic]!
"I received your letter which gave me much pleasure. Great thanks for the picture. As I learned from your letter you are returning to America soon. I must ask you something and I hope you won't disappoint me. I am ankious [sic] to see you about some important matters and would be delighted to see you before my death.
"Ask your commander for a permission to pass through Palstine [sic] on your way and stay here for some time. I beg you again to do as I asked, and I hope to see you soon.
"Your grandfather, Samual Richik [sic]"

The Yiddish letter, which my chaplain translated, went into greater detail. My grandfather explained that he had matters of estate to settle and that his death was imminent. Actually, he was penniless and completely dependent on his children back in the U.S. for support. He was shrewd enough, however, to make an impressive argument to support my furlough request. In the Yiddish letter, he began by blessing the U.S. Army, my commanding officer, the chaplain, and--of course--me.

I quickly submitted a formal application for the emergency furlough, attaching the chaplain's translation of my grandfather's letter. I explained that my grandfather was a very old man and that I would be the last close relative that he would ever be able to see.

My application was officially approved and then rescinded several days later before I could arrange transportation. The guerrilla war waged by the Jewish underground militias against the British authorities had reached a critical stage, and the U.S. Army had declared Palestine out of bounds for American troops.

Sadly, I had to write another letter to my grandfather, explaining that I was unable to visit him. I sailed home to the States a month later, in February 1946. My grandfather died about five years after that.


Saturday, July 01, 2006

Screwing the working man

The Republican-led Congress has once again refused to increase the Federal minimum wage of $5.15 an hour. So while GOP leaders argue to exempt the ultra-rich from the estate tax and to cut their income taxes, they continue to screw the nation's working men and women.

The Federal minimum wage, which now has less buying power than in the 1950s, has not been increased in nine years. Boosting the minimum wage, of course, would also put needed upward pressure on the wages of other working-class people who earn less than $10 hourly and who struggle to keep up with the rising cost of living.

The minimum wage has been increased above the Federal level in 21 states. Recent studies in several states have debunked the standard argument raised by opponents of an increase that an hourly wage hike has a negative impact on job opportunities.

The opponents also argue that, rather than boosting the minimum wage, the best way to help low-paid, unskilled workers is to train them to take on skilled jobs that pay higher wages. Considering the rising number of plant shutdowns and corporate mergers, which have destroyed the jobs of countless skilled workers, job-training seems like a very limited means of helping those earning no more than the minimum wage--except, perhaps, in those rare regions where there is a worker shortage.

There is a tremendous irony that millions of working-class people don't know who their friends are and who continue to vote for the Republicans to screw them. There are enough of them to have elected President George W. Bush twice and to have voted in Republican majorities in Congress. They are apparently swayed by such symbolic issues as flag-burning and gay marriage and the synthetic argument that the Democrats are weak on defense and the war on terrorism.

It should not go unnoticed that on June 13 the members of the Republican-ruled House of Representatives received a $3,000 annual pay raise.

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