Saturday, September 30, 2006

A tribute to my cousin Bea Fox at 90

My first cousin, Beatrice Rabinowitz Fox, celebrates her 90th birthday this weekend. Her son David is hosting a party in her honor near his home in the Annapolis, Md. area. Beattie, as I and her closest relatives have always called her (most everyone else calls her "Bea"), attended my 80th birthday celebration two years ago at my home. I regret that, for medical reasons, I am unable to attend hers. I wish I could have attended as Beattie basks in the joy of being with her offspring and friends.

Beattie has two sons: a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and a businessman who is visiting from his home in Australia. Beattie has 5 grandsons and 4 great-grandchildren. Much to Beattie's belated joy, there are finally girls among the great-grandchildren. She has been a widow since the death of her husband Hy in 2003 at age 87. They had been married for 65 years. Her brother Herbert died earlier this year at 82.

Beattie's father, George (Gedaliyah) Rabinowitz, was my mother's brother. Both were brought to this country in 1903 as children from a village near Minsk in what is now Belarus. Beattie's mother, Gertrude (Gittel) Fytelson arrived seven years later from the town of Mogilev, also in Belarus, at age 15.

As a first-generation American, Beattie has had a life that provides a case study of a Jewish immigrant family's integration into American society. Her ancestors lived for centuries in East European ghettos as second-class citizens in a repressive culture that prohibited them from owning land, persecuted them for their religion, and limited their freedom to travel and to enter certain occupations. This country allowed the family to expand its cultural and economic horizons and to enjoy privileges that had been traditionally denied them in Europe.

Like many American families, Beattie's has spread itself in this country and abroad. She was born and raised in the Bronx, N.Y., later settled with her husband in Stamford, Conn., where her sons were born, and in retirement moved to Florida. In recent years, she has lived in a retirement home in Maryland.

Beattie and I are among four grandchildren of Beattie's paternal grandmother. Beattie bears the Hebrew name of Grandma's mother and I bear the Hebrew name of Grandma's father. In a Jewish cultural context, Beattie was the product of what might be called a "mixed marriage."

Her paternal side was dominated by our grandmother, a longtime widow, who was a devout Orthodox Jew. Her maternal grandparents were free-thinking Jews who, like many Russian Jews of that era, were non-religious and Bolshevik sympathizers. Their political views were based on the principle that the enemy of my enemy (the repressive Czarist Russian regime) is my friend.

According to family lore, Beattie's maternal grandfather was a business partner of Leon Trotsky, the top-level Bolshevik leader, during the latter's brief stay in the U.S. prior to the Russian revolution in 1917. Today, Beattie's son is a Republican, as is his son, who has run for political office.

From Bolshevik to Republican in three generations. Only in America! To my cousin Beattie: A happy and healthy birthday!

Monday, September 25, 2006

How the Iraq invasion hurt the war on terrorism

Ever since I began this blog about 18 months ago, I have argued that the invasion of Iraq has damaged the Bush Administration's war on terrorism. The Sept. 24 issue of the New York Times contains an exclusive article that confirms my argument. It cites a new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) which reports that the invasion and occupation of Iraq has created a new generation of Islamist extremists and that the terrorist threat has grown since 9/11.

The report contradicts the Bush Administration's consistent optimism that we are winning the war against the jihadis and that the U.S. is now more secure. There is a simplistic quality to the Administration's claim; its supporters note that the nation has not suffered any new Islamist attacks during the past five years, as if that alone proves that the war against terrorism has been a success.

The Administration claims that the leadership and infrastructure of the Al-Qaeda organization responsible for 9/11 has been virtually destroyed and is in retreat. The argument disregards the fact that, as the Times report puts it, Islamist radicalism "has metastasized and spread across the globe." New jihadi cells, not necessarily linked organizationally to Al-Qaeda but possessing he same objectives, have proliferated.

Just as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan more than a decade ago emboldened aspiring jihadis to fight the Russians, so has the U.S. invasion of Iraq inspired countless Muslim radicals, many of them living in European countries, to become fighters in a "holy war" against Western democracies. Iraq has replaced Afghanistan as the major training ground for Islamist terrorists.

I expect that the pro-Bush media-baiters who regard the New York Times as biased against the Administration, will be denouncing the paper for spreading defeatist propaganda. But the new NIE officially confirms what so many military intelligence professionals have charged for years: The Iraq invasion was not justified and it distracted U.S. forces from the vital war in Afghanistan, where the Taliban--Al Qaeda's host before 9/11--is making a ferocious comeback after being defeated four years ago.

The new NIE report also confirms the long-standing warning by many intelligence professionals that the Iraq invasion would provoke widespread support in the Muslim world for the Islamist's holy war against the West. Recent episodes of Islamist terrorism in Great Britain, Spain, India and other democratic nations show how valid that warning was.

The Bush Administration's pathetic effort to "win the hearts and minds" in the Muslim world has failed miserably. The radicalization of Islam is expanding, the influence of moderate Muslims is weakening, and the threat of terrorism has worsened--all because of the decision to invade Iraq.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The Pope and the Islamist threat

In its frenzied reaction to Pope Benedict XVI's critical remark linking Islam with violence, the Muslim world has unwittingly demonstrated the validity of what the Pontiff implied. The Pope had recently delivered a scholarly address at a German university in which he argued that violence in the name of religion is contrary to God's nature and to reason.

In his address, the Pope referred to a 14th Century Byzantine emperor who had argued against the concept of "jihad' or "holy war" in a dialogue with a Persian scholar. The Pope quoted the emperor as saying: "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman."

Quickly, there has been a fiery backlash from Muslim religious and political authorities. A Somali imam called for the assassination of the Pope. In a rally outside London's Westminster Cathedral, a local Islamic cleric seconded the motion. In Basra, Iraq, angry demonstrators burned an effigy of the Pope. Protests raged elsewhere in Iraq and in Kashmir, Indonesia, Turkey, Egypt, and other Muslim countries. Al-Qaeda warned the Pope that he is "doomed," and vowed to continue its holy war against the West. In effect, the Pope's critics were protesting his inference that Muslim extremists are violent with violence.

There is an extremist element in the Muslim world that media pundits and others call "Islamist" to distinguish it from a more moderate "Islamic" element. To control the growth of Islamism and to reduce the threat to peaceful co-existence with non-Muslim countries, the Muslim world needs a religious movement comparable to the Protestant Reformation of the 16th Century to separate the radical Islamists who do not tolerate "infidels" from the moderate Islamic element.

It may not be politically correct to say, but there are elements in the Muslim world that are obviously prone to violence. They represent a faith and a culture that differ markedly from Christianity and Judaism. When a Danish newspaper publishes a cartoon that the Islamists regard as defamatory to their Prophet, the Islamists riot in the streets and burn churches and synagogues.

To my knowledge, far more blasphemous references to Christianity and Judaism by Muslim leaders and media have not provoked Christian or Jewish mobs to take to the streets in protest or to attack mosques.

Friday, September 15, 2006

How a Senator's father's photo led to a war veterans' reunion

While recently browsing through a box of photos dating back to my Army service during World War II, I came up with a photo of a man named Abe Schumer. I remember him as a friendly, good-humored guy from Brooklyn who served with me at the Bengal Air Depot, a U.S military base in eastern India. Sixty years later, I also remember that at that time, although he was only in his early 20s, Abe was already bald. That apparently was enough to have Abe firmly embedded in my failing memory bank.

In the photo, Abe is sitting on the edge of a charpoy, an Indian wood-framed, rope-laced bed, in front of a tent. Apparently there were no chairs available. Another GI is seated next to Abe, but I do not recognize him. The picture was taken in Kanchrapara, which was a U.S. Army staging area for troops arriving in and departing from the port of Calcutta. The photo is dated in January 1946, and we were at Kanchrapara patiently awaiting for a troopship to take us back to the States.

I quickly realized that Abe is the father of the senior U.S. Senator from New York, Chuck Schumer. I had learned about Abe's relationship to the Senator several years earlier in a newsletter published by a group of veterans of the 893rd Signal Co. Depot (Aviation).

The 893rd was one of three different signal companies based at the Bengal Air Depot. I was assigned to the 903rd Signal Co., not Abe's outfit. There was also the 886th Signal Co., which was eventually merged into my company. The three outfits lived and worked together, and I could never figure out why we were not simply consolidated into a single battalion.

Abe's outfit, the 893rd, had a cohesive background which made it relatively easy for its members to create a sort of an alumni association after the war. They had trained together in the U.S. and were shipped overseas as a unit. Many of them eventually were shipped back to the States as a group. Ever since the war's end they have had annual reunions and have periodically published a newsletter.

My outfit, the 903rd, had a different kind of history. Activated in Oklahoma, the company was shipped to Deversoir, Egypt very early in the war. In 1944 the company was transferred to India, where I and about a dozen other newcomers joined it to fill what had become an under-strength unit. Over the next year, those who had served in Egypt were rotated back to the States and were continually replaced by new men. The outfit thus lacked the cohesion that would lead to the creation of a post-war alumni organization like the 893rd's.

Several years ago, two friends of mine in the 893rd, with whom I had remained in contact after the war, made me an "honorary" member of their group, inviting me to their reunions and mailing me their newsletter. I never did attend any of their reunions, but I enjoyed reading the newsletter. In recent years, the newsletter was edited by the company's former commanding officer. He did his best to keep the organization functioning. But this year, there is no reunion scheduled, and the newsletter that I received last year was apparently the final issue. Sadly, there are not enough 893rd veterans still around to keep the organization alive.

Abe Schumer, fortunately, is one of the outfit's survivors. After finding his photo, and reassuring myself that I had identified him correctly, I mailed the picture to the Senator Schumer's office in Washington. A week later, I received a phone call from Abe himself. We reminesced at great length, covering our respective lives over the past 60 years. Like me, he could not recognize the man with whom he is seated in the picture that I had sent him via the Senator's office.

Abe told me that he was retired from the exterminating business and that he lives in Queens. He asked me where I live, and was stunned when I told him that I live in a retirement community named Concordia in Monroe Township, N.J. It was an extraordinary coincidence. Even before phoning me, he said that he and his wife had planned to visit Concordia the following week. They get together for lunch frequently with former Long Island neighbors who are now scattered through out the New York/New Jersey region.

One of their former neighbors, a widow, lives in Concordia, and it was her turn to host the group. The following week, Abe phoned me as soon as he and his wife arrived in her home. She lived only a few blocks from my home, but we did not know each other. I quickly walked to his friend's home, and so Abe and I had another opportunity to review our lives over the past six decades, this time in person.

Abe Schumer was the last man who served with me in the Army during World War II with whom I have had contact. It is highly unlikely that I will ever meet or talk with any others again.

Friday, September 08, 2006

When I helped count the fish in the Atlantic Ocean

For a guy who has never gone fishing in his life, and who is puzzled that so many people find pleasure sitting with a fishing rod in their hands while dangling a worm or other bait on a hook, I found myself in a bizarre situation during the late summer of 1948.

I was aboard a U.S. Government research vessel sailing on the Georges Bank, located off Massachusetts' Cape Cod. The Georges Bank, which is 22,000 square miles in size, is the chief commercial fishing grounds in U.S. waters. The boat's mission was to take a "census" of the haddock, herring, cod, flounders, and other valuable commercial fish. Our voyage was the ninth of 10 scheduled trips devoted to finding ways for New England fishermen to produce more food from the sea.

I was there on an assignment from the U.S. Department of the Interior's Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS), my first post-college employer. My job was essentially that of a press agent, and my task was to write a press release explaining the importance of what we were doing. After years of lobbying by the local commercial fishing industry, New England Congressmen had finally succeeded in getting a Federal appropriation for the program. But the project was ridiculed as a Federal boondoggle by critics who regarded the counting of fish as wasteful government spending.

My job was to defend the project. In my press release I explained that, in addition to counting fish, the project involved the measuring of hydrographic conditions on the Georges Bank that affect fishing, the testing of new methods to handle and preserve fish, and evaluating new fishing gear and the design of trawl nets to save small fish.

On my voyage, we just counted fish. We sailed from the FWS' laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., and were out to sea for nearly a week. The fish census-takers were primarily marine biology graduate students hired for the summer. For most of the week, the students and I were sea sick. Unlike the vessel's operating crew, we did not adjust well to the rocky waters and the dreadfully combined smell of fish and the vessel's diesel fuel.

Nevertheless, we did our job, although I assume that many of the students finally went into a different line of work. The census was conducted on a random sampling method designed to obtain an average. The Georges Bank was divided into "stations." At each one a trawl net was thrown into the sea. When a haul was made, the biologists segregated the fish by species and counted and measured them. Samples were taken to determine the ages of the fish, their stomach contents, and their sex. Some of the fish were lucky and escaped this fate. To study migratory habits, these fortunate fish were simply tagged and released.

According to a press release that I wrote when I was back on land, "information collected on the number, size, and species of fish taken at each station was analyzed by statistical methods similar to those used in the popular public opinion polls."

Considering that such polls are not infallible, 58 years later I still wonder whether our effort to count fish contributed very much to the welfare of New England's fishermen or to the nation's seafood consumers.

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