December 27, 2008

Last week, the number of rocket propelled attacks on Israel initiated from Gaza and falling on Israeli territory passed the 10,000 mark.  Someone, somewhere is obviously keeping score, despite the fact that the aggregate number of attacks seems to have little impact on governmental decision making.   The milestone would, in fact, go largely unnoticed if it wasn’t for the fact that Hamas has called an end to its six month old cease fire agreement with Israel and that Israeli intelligence had confirmed that the rockets’ range now allows them to penetrate up to 40 kms of Israeli airspace.   This brings hundreds of thousands more Israeli citizens within range of Hamas’ Kassam rockets.


The Israeli government’s virtual accommodation of the Gaza attacks reflects one of the strangest anomalies in international relations today.  A sovereign nation, possessing one of the strongest and most effective military capabilities in the world and aided by an unrivalled intelligence service, is either unable or unwilling to curtail terrorist attacks on its citizenry emanating from foreign soil.  Reaction to direct hits on houses, schools, playgrounds and commercial centers vary from threats backed up only by hyperbole, to little more than a shrug.  A prime ministerial candidate has even gone on record as describing the situation in Israel’s south as something the country “ must learn to live with.”


There is of course a certain torpid symmetry with what is happening in the country’s north.  Since the August 2006 ceasefire with Hezbollah, that terrorist organization has continued to amass considerable armaments for a renewed attack on the Jewish state, with missiles that can reputedly cover almost the entire country.  Given Hezbollah’s continued and unimpeded build up, a renewed Lebanon war, as almost everyone in Israel acknowledges, is simply a matter of time. 


Given the inertia of the Israeli military and the complaisance of the government on the  threats emanating from enemy territory, you could be forgiven for believing  that one of the prime matters over which the Israeli electorate would be asked to decide in its coming February election is the issue of missile defense.   But you would be wrong.  Missile defense is not seriously discussed or debated in Israel, despite the fact that the country has no effective short or medium range missile defense shield.  While the Arrow defense system is capable of intercepting long range ballistic missiles, the short range missiles, such as Kassams and Katyushas can be fired into Israel unimpeded.   And in the north, Hizbullah has obtained 200 new Fatah missiles against which Israel has no effective defense.


To be fair, the Israeli government has spent millions on the development of two missile defense systems.  David’s Sling would fill the medium range defense gap, in an estimated five to eight years.  Iron Dome is designed to address short range katyushas and kassams, and could be deployed in three to four years, though it is generally acknowledged it will not be useable against mortars or the shorter range kassams being fired against Sderot.


But, even if these defenses arrive on time and do the job, Israel may not have the luxury of time.  The July-August 2006 attacks by Hezbollah on the country’s north rained 4,000 rockets on the country within a 33 day period, at a cost to Israel of about $5.2 billion, taking with it 133 lives and forcing over one million people to evacuate their homes.  The physical, economic and psychological devastation wrought by that conflict would be multiplied exponentially in a war in which missiles from both the south and north would collectively reach every major Israeli population center. 


Simply put, in the next war, there will be nowhere to run.


Certain experts in Israel will tell you that no immediate solution exists to this existential threat and that the technology has yet to cope with the enormity of the issue.  But that is patently untrue.   For the shortest range threats, a working prototype of an active laser missile defense system exists and could be upgraded and deployed in Israel in approximately twelve months.  Another system – the Phalanx Gun – is already in use in the Green Zone in Iraq against such threats.  Although it has far less coverage than the laser, several systems could begin providing immediate capability.  For medium range, the new PAC3 missile has been tested with outstanding performance, and is now deployed in Japan, South Korea, Europe and in Arab states throughout the Middle East. 

Given the ongoing, severe problems Israel faces in the south, the existing Phalanx Gun and the demonstrated laser weapon system seem like obvious choices.   The short range laser weapon, known as Nautilus, or the Tactical High Energy Laser (THEL) actually began life in 1996 as a joint project between the U.S. Army and the Israeli Ministry of Defense. Nautilus/THEL focuses a high-energy laser beam on flying threats such as rockets, missiles, mortars and artillery shells, destroying them in flight.

While planned for several years as the solution to Israel‘s problems with Katyusha fire and Kassam attacks, funding for the program was reduced following Israel‘s May, 2000 pullout from Lebanon and, for a variety of reasons, Israeli and American funding for the program was cancelled in January 2006.  In 2007 Northrup Grumman, the U.S. main contractor of MTHEL systems, offered to build and deploy in Israel a number of Skyguard systems – a special implementation of the MTHEL tailored for Israel’s needs.  Israel’s Ministry of Defense refused the offer, as they have refused to consider trying out the Phalanx Gun.

Why?  The answers are multifold.  The first is politics.   The millions of dollars which have been made available in research funds for the development of missile defense  system have been managed almost exclusively by Israel’s Ministry of Defense, which has, apparently, dealt with its concerns about competition for Iron Dome funding by suppressing other, more mature systems.  This reflects a fundamental compartmentalization of the problem – funding decisions might be made at the highest levels of the government, yet decisions on allocations of these same funds for critical programs are made by lower level officials who feel they must deal with existing budgets.

The second reason is one of constituency.    Israel’s army and airforce possess extraordinary influence in the country and have advocates both in Israel and abroad capable of bringing pressure to bear on the political establishment.  There is no comparable missile defense agency or a lobbying group advocating for it in Israel.  To exemplify the lack of political clout, the operational office responsible for Israel’s missile defense is located in a back corner of the Israeli Ministry of Defense and must make do with a very small staff.  With almost no one to approach for stories, the Israeli media has therefore not adequately broached the issue and no discussion or debate takes place regarding it on the country’s talk shows and news programs.

The third reason is ignorance.    Successive Ministers of Defense have not had adequate knowledge or felt the urgency to become extensively informed about the systems that could have effectively averted the last Lebanon War or made life immeasurably easier for the inhabitants of border towns such as Sderot.  The current Minister of Defense, Ehud Barak, a former chief of staff and a former prime minister as well, has shown only minimal interest in building missile defense systems of any sort– short, medium or even long range.

This tale of woe has its mirror, to a certain extent, in the United States.   While short range rocket fire is not an issue (providing Mexico’s drug cartels do not gain hold of missile technology) the country is very exposed to a short range ballistic missile attack launched by a terrorist commanded vessel beyond U.S. territorial waters.  To the country’s detriment, Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, known derisively as “ Stars Wars”, by which rockets launched at the United States could be detected and eliminated from space, was cancelled by the Clinton government.    This was a significant blow to missile defense in the United States and parallels, for many of the same reasons, the problems in Israel.

 Both countries must come to grips now with the accelerated need for effective missile defense.  There is no excuse for countries as technologically sophisticated and financially capable as Israel and the United States in not exploring every avenue possible for full protection of their hinterlands.  Without question it must be a high priority for the Obama Administration as well as the incoming Israeli prime minister, whoever he or she might be. 





December 19, 2008

Almost anyone who celebrates Chanukah today knows at least the rudimentary outline of its story.   A righteous Judaean clan in the 2nd Century BCE led a vigorous uprising against Greek- influenced Seleucid rulers who had desecrated the Temple and outlawed the traditional practices of Judaism.   The revolt led to the recapture of Jerusalem, the purification of the Temple and the establishment of an independent Jewish state.  A  small vial of oil found in the Temple, when no other could be located, burned for eight days, becoming an eternal symbol of the miraculous regeneration of the Jewish people.  The Maccabees, the name of the guerilla army, led by the five Hasmonean brothers who were its successive commanders, have gone down in history as symbols of Jewish endurance and revival.


 But there are a number of darker events related to Chanukah and its aftermath which have been swept away in the aroma of frying latkes and the whiz of spinning dreidels.   The first is that the war that Chanukah commemorates was in fact a civil war, fought between Hellenizing Jewish  reformers and Jewish traditionalists whose Temple-centric life had been severely compromised by Greek influence and rule. The fratricidal conflict consumed 34 years in the life of the nation and resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths.


With the conquest of Jerusalem in 164 BCE and the complete defeat ( although “annihilation” would be a better description) of the Hellenizers twenty-two years later,  the lone surviving brother, Simon the Maccabee, stood widely recognized  as ethnach and high priest of the first independent Jewish state in 440 years. It would, then, be his progeny and descendants who would dominate Judean life over the next century. 


After Simon and his two oldest sons were murdered by a son-in-law in 134 BCE,  Simon’s third son John Hyrcanus( 134 BCE -104 BCE) took power.   A man in the mold of his father, he was an able administrator and a brilliant military tactician who extended Judean rule to many neighboring tribes, forcibly converting whole populations.  Although his 30 year reign has been looked upon kindly by Jewish history, the fact that Hyrcanus took a Greek name as monarchical title, was a portent of things to come.


It was during the reign of his son and successor Alexander Janneus (104 BCE – 76 BCE)  that the Hasmonean legend began to disintegrate. Alexander had no interest in the religious fervor of his ancestors and exhibited a particular hatred for religious rigorist sects such as the Pharisees and Essenes.   He carefully aligned himself with  the upper class Sadducees and in one incident massacred 6,000 Pharisee worshipers in the Temple courtyard after receiving a personal insult from them during the Festival of Sukkot.  The incident spurred the renewal of a civil war which resulted in 50,000 Jewish deaths. In one further event, after returning to Jerusalem following a victorious campaign in the north, Alexander had 800 of his Jewish male prisoners crucified, but not before murdering their wives and children before their very eyes.   


The Hasmoneans continued as rulers of Judaea after the death of Alexander Janneus for another forty years – in and out of civil war – until finally being all but eliminated by Herod the Great (37 BCE – 4 BCE), an Idumean usurper who feared the family as a threat to his rule.


The point of recalling this gruesome tale is to illustrate a historical truism.  History often comes full circle, rendering meaningless the achievements of previous generations because memory has lapsed and the commitment to former ideals is absent.  The Hasmoneans began as liberators and ended as oppressors.  They started as fervent adherents to Judaism and concluded as its deniers. In the end, they far more resembled the Greek inspired Hellenizers they had fought to eliminate than the vaunted redeemers portrayed in legend.


Many of the world’s democracies have much to learn from the terrible events of 2,000 years ago.  As we know, the institution of the modern democratic state is only of relatively recent origin.  Thousands of years of political struggle against oppression and denial of human rights were necessary to achieve the currently unprecedented level of human dignity enjoyed by individuals and societies around the world.  But we have also seen how revolutions and their movements, seeking at their core to elevate human dignity  in much the same way, have achieved exactly the opposite.   The French Revolution, Russian Revolution and more recent Iranian Revolution are all examples of the absolute corruption of ideals and abandonment of principles following an accession to power.  If there is one commonality to these historical events it is the notion that tyranny is not exclusive and  can be the stock-in-trade of oppressors and reformers alike.


Ancient Judaea’s contemporary political incarnation, the State of Israel, also has much to glean from the historical lessons of the Hasmoneans.   As a country which formed 60 years ago with high ideals and the promise of Jewish renewal, the current state is transforming into a bitter parody of itself.    Rampant political corruption, an incompetent and self-serving echelon of leaders, an oligarchical economic structure which places 60% of the country’s assets in the hands of less than 1% of its population and a poverty level which hovers around 33%, are all signs of the imminent collapse of idealism and foundational principles.    The abandonment of the Jews of Gaza in 2005 and last week’s disturbing IDF attack upon a Jewish owned building in Hebron, are sad  examples of how deeply bruised is the Israeli notion of respect and protection of Jewish dignity, life and property.


It is important to remember that men cannot predict how their descendants will act or how their legacy of achievement will be treated.    But the burning question the full Hasmonean story presents to us is how can nations protect the memory of past struggles and make them meaningful and relevant for the current generation?  Ironically, the institution of the Festival of Chanukah was such an attempt.  And in large part it succeeded.   But the nagging question remains – why did  things go so terribly  wrong in ancient Judaea within such a relatively short period of time?  This Channukah, that question, given many of our current global challenges, should be firmly on our minds, as much as it is on the great Hasmonean triumphs of 2000 years ago.




December 12, 2008

The Chicago Tribune reported this week that Ohev Shalom, one of the oldest  and most distinguished orthodox synagogues on the Westside of Chicago has decided to close its operations.  The decision, according to spokesman David Hacohen, came in response to its loss of  two five-year-long law suits filed by the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of West Rogers Park.   


The first suit claimed that the synagogue had unfairly discriminated against  two gay applicants who had responded to a publicly advertised cantorial position at the synagogue.  A second claimed that the synagogue’s religious school’s refusal to teach the sanctity of same-sex unions violated State anti-discrimination laws.    Hacohen told reporters that since the law suits were launched, the synagogue had been the subject of a continuous stream of threats and picketing from the surrounding gay community.  The synagogue had also spent millions in defending the cases.  “Rather than violate our principles and beliefs by considering gays and lesbians as applicants or agreeing to teach same sex marriage in our school,”  he said, “we have decided to close down the synagogue and religious school altogether.”  


These draconian measures come just three weeks after an Amish group in Lancaster County, PA decided to close down its three general stores because of a successful discrimination law suit brought it against it by a nearby gay community.  Representatives of that community had complained that signs which prohibited “ untoward fondling and kissing” on the store premises were discriminatory and insulting.


OK…….relax.  This never actually happened.   There is no Ohev Shalom in West Rogers Park and the Amish general stores are still, thankfully, open.   But if you think that these scenarios are far fetched, you might consider what has been happening in California since Proposition 8 passed six weeks ago.  Proposition 8 proposed an amendment to the State constitution which effectively banned gay marriage.   It passed by a 52%- 48% majority.   Since then, hundreds of individuals, businesses, non-profit organizations and religious groups publicly listed as financial supporters of the measure, have been the subject of a vindictive campaign of harassment by gay and lesbian activists.  Churches have been daubed with graffiti, the Mormon Center near my home has been continuously picketed, businesses have been boycotted, individuals have received threatening letters and a vicious email campaign has spun into existence, denouncing all contributors.    A  law suit has even been launched by gay activists to urge the California State Supreme Court to overturn the popular will and  restore an earlier Court decision sanctioning same sex unions.


A few high profile individuals have even lost their jobs.  Take the case of Richard Raddon, former director of the Los Angeles Film Festival.  Within days of the proposition’s passage, Raddon, a practicing Mormon, was “outed”  as a financial supporter.  Angry calls began to pour into the Festival’s offices demanding his resignation.   By his own count he received over three hundred threatening telephone calls and email messages describing him as a bigot and covert racist.  The Festival then began receiving communications from distributors and film makers, threatening that if Raddon was not terminated, their participation in the festival would end.   Raddon, responsibly recognizing the threat to the Festival’s future, graciously offered the Board his resignation.   They refused.  But as pressure mounted and the Festival looked as though it would not survive, they relented and Raddon went down in flames. 


Now remember that Raddon was an individual exercising what his country has commonly referred to as freedom of conscience.  He had supported, both with his vote and his pocket book, a cause in which he believes passionately.  That was not just his democratic right.  It is the foundation on which our civil society is built.    If men and women cannot express their opinions and beliefs without fear of harassment or losing their jobs, our democracy itself becomes a farce and free expression nothing but a code word for political correctness.


The tar and feathering of Richard Raddon didn’t seem to elicit much response from the city’s liberal press.    In an editorial last week, the Los Angeles Times opined that the civil disturbances which had attended the passage of Proposition 8 had come “ too little, too late,”  a surreptitious sanctioning of the campaign of harassment.   No civic leader has chosen to take a stand defying the powerful gay and lesbian interests on Los Angeles’ Westside and the governor, a would-be conservative, has even gone on record as urging them on.  


Further evidence of the clout of the gay movement arrived about the same time from New Jersey.  The on-line dating site, eHarmony, created by evangelicals and one of the largest businesses of its kind, was coerced by the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights into starting up a gay dating site. This occurred after the business lost a law suit  filed by a gay man who claimed discrimination by the site against those seeking same sex partners.  It was the first instance in this country of a private business being forced to cater to same sex mores in defiance of an owner’s own moral positions. 


How dangerous is this?   Well if you are a religious Jew, a practicing Christian or a devout Muslim you should be very concerned.   Because the acquiescence to such a campaign of intimidation (reminiscent of the darkest days of  McCarthyism) opens the door to  much graver perils in the future.  It is a future where an unwillingness to countenance gay marriage or gay lifestyles as normative conduct will be seen on all levels   political, social and legal – as discrimination.   It is a window on a world where freedom of conscience on a given moral attitude is actually not tolerated.


And thus I refer you to the scenarios I painted above.   The result of a successful movement for gay marriage in California will be to flush the purveyors of intimidation and harassment with a deep confidence that such tactics work.    Not immediately perhaps, but over the next ten to twenty years, the movement could seek to coerce religious institutions to abandon entrenched moral positions and adopt inimical moral points of view.  Given the absence of a supporting political and intellectual environment which vouchsafes freedom of conscience, many religious institutions may seek to fall on their swords, rather than succumb to the terror of political correctness.

You may have already begun to suspect what I have been alluding to for some time in this and previous columns: That the campaign for gay marriage is less a struggle for the rights of homosexuals for equality before the law, than it is an attack on religion and the moral superstructure of our society.   Support for this view finds vindication in the way the opponents of Proposition 8 conducted their campaign    In a television advertisement which ran in California on the eve of the vote, two Mormon missionaries are seen knocking on the door of a lesbian couple. “Hi, we’re from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints,” says the first one, “and we’re here to take away your rights.”  Without further ado, the Mormons smilingly yank the couple’s wedding rings from their fingers and tear up their marriage license.  As they leave, one says to the other, “That was too easy.” His smirking comrade replies, “Yeah, what should we ban next?” An ominous voice-over implores viewers: “Say no to a church taking over your government.”

The reverse discrimination of this ad is self-evident and speaks volumes about the sneering campaign and abiding contempt that gay activists and their supporters hold for religious institutions.

The great saving grace of a democracy is that debate and dialogue allows for all points of view on any matter of public concern to be heard.  But the debate on gay marriage can never effectively take place while its proponents refuse to acknowledge that millions of Americans harbor deep apprehension about the moral implications of same sex unions.   The absence of respect for that position, the hectoring attitude that all opposition to their point of view is simple bigotry and the increasing willingness to turn political discourse into harassment, intimidation and violence is an augury of profound concern.   It should make all Americans think twice about a movement  whose quest for civil rights may have as its ultimate objective the destruction of rights for millions of others.


December 5, 2008


I didn’t know Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg.  But I feel as if I did.   Their lives and mission duplicated that of dozens of other Chabad emissaries throughout the world with whom I have enjoyed many long hours.  In Melbourne, London, San Juan, Lima, Cambridge, Hong Kong, Jerusalem, Rabat, Providence and Los Angeles I have been received as their guest, sharing in the warmth of their homes, participating in their family life and relishing sumptuous meals. Through all these years and visits,  I have never failed to be impressed by  one universal trait:  a sense of wonder at the beauty of life.  Searching back through my memories then, I have been able to form a composite portrait of the slain couple:  the twinkle in the eye upon the greeting of a stranger; an intense curiosity about the traveler’s journey; the proud affirmation of a shared Jewish identity and the expression of a quirky, self deprecating humor, which all seems to emanate from a profound  lightness of being.   I have always left their homes elevated by the couple’s display of deep faith and won over by their enthusiasm to share whatever they have with someone they may have known for as little as an hour.


It was therefore more than heart rending to hear the news that the Holtzbergs had not only lost their lives in the Mumbai terror attack, but had suffered brutal torture and mutilation before their deaths. Reports have filtered back to the United States that the couple may have actually played host to their murderers a few months before as the assassins conducted their reconnaissance for the attack.   If this was indeed the case then the irony that the renowned Chabad hospitality had contributed to such a grisly fate, is perhaps one of the more depressing aspects of the many horrific events of last week.  An attack of such wanton hatred could barely be conceived by a couple who practiced loving kindness as an article of faith.  Their lack of preparedness for the catastrophe that befell them then only adds to its inexplicability. Such absolute depravity seems beyond human understanding.


Yet we must force ourselves to confront the reality that such a menace is alive and growing in our world.   It has infected  vast swathes of the Arab and Muslim world and shows no sign of abating.  There is little doubt that had their two-year-old son not been saved by his caregiver, he would have been put to death just like them, without compassion or remorse.   A report in the Los Angeles Times comments that the Indian police are still flummoxed that the terrorists would dispatch a terrorist crew to an obscure house in a Mumbai suburb in order to attack a couple of ultra-Orthodox Jews. What they don’t appreciate is that the Holtzbergs were not only targets because they were Jews, but  because they displayed a level of humanity that was anathema to their killers.   They were symbols of the kind of world the terrorists had forsaken and notoriously revile.   It is a world in which life is revered above death; where openness and tolerance are still key aspects of  one’s sense of humanity; where awe at the beauty of life cannot be subsumed by adherence to a supremacist ideology or the worship of violence.      


Of course the Holtzbergs were not the only individuals or families who were unprepared for the attacks and whose sudden extirpation seems so unfathomable.   We should grieve the many innocent lives lost, including the three others taken with them in Nariman House.   But the 400,000 mourners, from all walks of life, who attended the couple’s funeral in Israel last week knew that their tragic deaths could not be explained simply as an attack on Jews. It was an attack on Judaism itself.  It was a denial of Judaism’s life giving force and the form of loving kindness that the Holtzbergs exhibited and that the Chabad movement so earnestly promotes.


Lets  also not forget how others are now seeking to explain the attack on Chabad House.   T. K. Bhat, an Indian neighbor who lives close to  Chabad House, was reported by the Times of London as commenting: “It could be that the attitudes of the Chabad, which gives the sense of an elite club for Jews alone, is part of what provoked the terrorists to target them for the attack.” Really?  Would that all elite Indian clubs now remember that close association and exclusionist policies will almost certainly render them instant targets of Islamic aggression.  Perhaps the Times of London, which allowed such a noxious, anti-Semitic comment to pass without comment or criticism, has suddenly realized that their own Mumbai bureau is now as vulnerable as Nariman House was last week.  The palpable nonsense that Jews bring attacks upon themselves merely by expressions of solidarity or mutual commitment should be revealed as trucking in the same  kind of suspicion, jealousy and hatred that fuels the engine of Islamic terror.


It is said that killing as retribution for an earlier murder does everything to satisfy one’s demand  for justice except to bring the dead back to life.   That stated, we might remember that while the 170 innocent lives lost in India might be avenged one day by the capture and execution of the terrorist masterminds, that act in itself will do little to restore spiritual equilibrium to a shattered world.  The ultimate victory over these purveyors of hate will come when we reaffirm our values and moral commitments in the face of their cruelty.  It will come when Mumbai’s Chabad House is restored and the work begun by the Holtzbergs is taken up  again by a vibrant young couple equally committed to the Chabad mission; It will come when more of us, deeply inspired by  the courage and tenacity of the Holtzbergs, recognize that loving kindness is the most potent antidote for the nihilism and loathing with which the perpetrators of Islamic terror now seek to inject all humanity.


If this occurs, the young couple will certainly not have died in vain.






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