Monday, September 29, 2003

Spent the last two days going to Rosh Hashanah services -- today was a treat, because we got to hear the shofar blowing (omitted yesterday because it was Shabbat). I would have liked to hear more of that call to "wake up! examine your life!" Some spiritual moments during the musaf service, especially during the Unetanneh Tokef and Kedushah. It's hard to focus and pay attention to the words -- so easy to get distracted by thinking about one's neighbors in the adjacent seats, about the rabbi, about the class I have to teach tomorrow, about the impression one makes on others....all the minutiae of life.

A sermon yesterday on new grandchildren, today on changes and newness -- interesting to hear what "traditions" people get used to and resent having changed. My synagogue a couple of years ago adopted the new Conservative prayerbook (an updated version of Sim Shalom) -- finally changing from the Silverman siddur. Of course, the Silverman itself contained some remarkable changes from the traditional liturgy, such as the elimination of mention of animal sacrifices and the prayers to reinstitute the Temple service in Jerusalem -- but we got used to those changes long ago, and now what exercises people is trying some gender-equity in the English translations....

Friday, September 26, 2003

Rosh Hashanah begins tomorrow night -- the new year of 5764 (since the creation of the world, according to the Jewish reckoning). Gershon Baskin, the director of IPCRI (Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information) sent these New Year's wishes:
To all of us and all of you we wish that this New Year coming before us is better than the one closing.
May this year be the year when we all come to our senses, when logic overcomes emotions of hatred and revenge
When we all understand that no violence is acceptable or tolerable
When we decide that we have had enough
When we all rise and stand up to say "no more!"
When we make peace a reality
When we decide to make it happen
When we no longer sit on the sidelines and just complain
When our hearts, minds, and actions rally for justice
When we can answer the question "how are you?" with a direct answer and with no reservations
That is the year we hope for.
Happy New Year and Peace to us all.


I'm listening right now to a special program on NPR for the Yamim Noraim (the Days of Awe, from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur), and they are discussing the meaning of forgiveness and of repenting of one's evil deeds.

What is repentance?

Rabbi Kalonymous Kalmish Shapira, in his Esh Kodesh, the record of his homilies from 1939-1942, which he gave to his Hasidim in the Warsaw Ghetto before his death at the hands of the Nazis, has this to say about repentance (teshuvah):
When a person repents only of a sin, whether it was committed, God forbid, in thought, in word, or in deed, he still finds himself back in the state he occupied before he committed the sin, when he was not engaged upon any great spiritual journey. So what if he is merely relieved of this particular sin? The chief principle of repentance, however, is "Return, O Israel, to God your Lord." Lest you think that contrition for your sins is all you need, the prophet cautions that the repentance must continue all the way, until you reach God, ". . . for in your sin have you stumbled." Only then will you be completely elevated, in holiness, in purity, and worship of God.


(from the English translation of J. Hershy Worch, Sacred Fire: Torah from the Years of Fury 1939-1942, edited by Deborah Miller [Jason Aronson, 2000]).

Shanah Tovah -- a good and sweet New Year.

Monday, September 22, 2003

An incredibly mealy-mouthed defense of the Washington Post's refusal to call Hamas a "terrorist organization" or to call its suicide bombings "terrorist acts." Apparently Al Qaeda can be called a terrorist group, but Hamas, which calls for the destruction of the state of Israel and tries to enact that destruction by murdering children, is not a terrorist organization. The thing that really gets to me about this article is its incredibly smug assumption of superior judgement. The Post's ombudsman says:
Making a general point, The Post guidance also says that "terrorism is real and identifiable, and we can identify it when that is appropriate." When it comes to the Middle East news report, however, that word is mostly used when describing one side's assessment of the other, and usually not in the descriptive voice of a reporter.

So apparently we are to wait for the Post to "identify" terrorism "when that is appropriate." Is only the Post (and other newspapers who refuse to call Hamas suicide bomb attacks "terrorism") authorized to decide that something is appropriately called terrorism? So reporters write or report only "descriptively"? They never write evaluatively, even in a strictly news story? Only when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict....

They attempt to justify the way they refer to Hamas in this way:
Critical readers also attempt to equate the U.S. battle against al Qaeda with the Israeli battle against Hamas. There are, however, differences. Hamas conducts terrorism but also has territorial ambitions, is a nationalist movement and conducts some social work. As far as we know, al Qaeda exists only as a terrorist network. It is composed of radicals from several Islamic countries. The Palestinian resistance is indigenous. Al Qaeda launched a devastating surprise attack on the United States. Israelis and Palestinians have been at war for a long time. Palestinians have been resisting a substantial and, to Palestinians, humiliating, Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza since they were seized in the 1967 war. That resistance has now bred suicide bombers. These are terrorist acts, not to be condoned. But the contexts of the struggle against al Qaeda and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are different. News organizations should not back away from the word terrorism when it is the proper term. But as a rule, strong, descriptive, factual reporting is better than labels.

So even by their own admission, suicide bombings are terrorist acts -- then why don't they label them as such in their news reports, and call their perpetrators "terrorists" rather than "militants" or "activists"? (My idea of an activist is someone who organizes for a particular political point of view -- not a murderer!). Even the European Union is prepared at this point to call the political wing of Hamas a terrorist movement! I have often been tempted to write on this issue but have refrained from doing so because it seemed like a minor point, in the face of real news about people dying from terrorist attacks, but this editorial piece is so outrageous I feel that I must write something.

I write not as a partisan of "Greater Israel" or a supporter of the settlement enterprise, but as a supporter of a two-state solution and opponent of the separation wall/fence now being built by Israel. I do not think that Israeli soldiers humiliating people at checkpoints and cooping Palestinians up in their towns and cities is the way to make peace. I believe that it is possible to make peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and the sooner the better, or we will end up with the results decried by both Thomas Friedman and Avraham Burg in recent editorial comments. My political beliefs are probably best described (with some modifications) by the founding principles of Brit Tzedek v'Shalom (although I think that they are still overly mealy-mouthed in their denunciation of Palestinian terrorism). However, whatever my opinions on what the solution to the conflict should be, I think that it is essential to call things by their correct names -- and Hamas and Islamic Jihad are terrorist organizations, regardless of any salutary social work they might engage in, and suicide bombings are terrorist acts, regardless of what the Washington Post thinks they are.

Tuesday, September 16, 2003

Here is an absolutely impressive article by John Burns, NYTimes reporter in Iraq --"There Is Corruption in Our Business". He says,
We now know that this place was a lot more terrible than even people like me had thought. There is such a thing as absolute evil. I think people just simply didn't recognize it. They rationalized it away. I cannot tell you with what fury I listened to people tell me throughout the autumn that I must be on a kamikaze mission. They said it with a great deal of glee, over the years, that this was not a place like the others.

I did a piece on Uday Hussein and his use of the National Olympic Committee headquarters as a torture site. It's not just journalists who turned a blind eye. Juan Antonio Samaranch of the International Olympic Committee could not have been unaware that Western human rights reports for years had been reporting the National Olympic Committee building had been used as a torture center. I went through its file cabinets and got letter after letter from Juan Antonio Samaranch to Uday Saddam Hussein: "The universal spirit of sport," "My esteemed colleague." The world chose in the main to ignore this.

For some reason or another, Mr. Bush chose to make his principal case on weapons of mass destruction, which is still an open case. This war could have been justified any time on the basis of human rights, alone.


Amen. That is why I still believe we were correct to overthrow the Ba'athist regime. It is positively bracing to read someone who speaks the truth as he saw it in Iraq and who doesn't engage in foolish moral relativism.

Friday, September 12, 2003

Lots of good links at We remember September 11 on Kesher Talk.
A good article (Lore shapes the 'Tablets') on the different translations & versions of the so-called Ten Commandments (aseret ha-dibrot in Hebrew -- the "ten sayings" or the "ten utterances"). (Pointed out by Paleojudaica).

Wednesday, September 10, 2003

In my old neighborhood in Jerusalem, on Emek Refaim St. in the German Colony, there was a suicide bombing today--At least 6 dead in suicide attack in Jerusalem cafe. I just got home and spoke to a friend on the phone who asked me if I had heard from friends in Jerusalem yet -- which I hadn't, since this was the first I had heard of the attack. It's too late now to call anyone. A couple of years ago there was an attempt to bomb another cafe on Emek Refaim, Caffit -- an attempt that was foiled by alert customers and waiters. That was when it truly came home that my closest friends could be murdered. And then last summer Ben Blutstein, a student at the Pardes Institute and son of friends of mine from Harrisburg, PA, was killed in the bombing at the Hebrew University Frank Sinatra cafeteria. This time the security guards tried to get the suicide bomber out of the cafe, but then he blew himself up in the entrance. Will this killing ever stop? "The unmentionable odour of death/ Offends the September night."

An update, from 9/11/03 -- All seven victims of Jerusalem bombing identified. Their names are:
Dr. David Appelbaum, 50, and his daughter Nava, 20, were buried Wednesday at 10:00 in Jerusalem. Applebaum, born in Detroit, raised and educated in Cleveland, was head of the emergency department in Shaarei Zedek Hospital and founder of the Terem 24-hour emergency clinic in Jerusalem. Nava Applebaum, a volunteer with children suffering from cancer as part of her national youth service, was to be married Wednesday evening. She and her father were celebrating their last night together before the wedding.

Applebaum, well-trained in treating bombing victims after years working as a hospital emergency room director, was usually the first to report to the hospital after a bombing. There was no sign of him Tuesday night.

"It was clear to me from very early on that David Applebaum - when he didn't show up and I knew he was in Jerusalem and he hadn't called - that a terrible tragedy had occurred," said Shaarei Tzedek Hospital Director Yonatan Halevy. "Confirmation of my suspicions came shortly." A paramedic on the scene recognized Applebaum, and notified the hospital. The nurses and doctors, shocked and grieved, kept on treating the stream of casualties. "Thousands of Jerusalemites owe Dr. Applebaum their lives," said Halevy. "This is a terrible loss."

"Dad dedicated his life to saving others," Applebaum's eldest son Natan told the web site ynet. "Dear Nava should have been married today. They went out for a last night before the wedding to talk."

Alon Mizrachi, 22, Jerusalem. Alon was the guard on duty at Hillel coffe shop at the time of the attack. He attempted to bodily prevent the terrorist's entrance to the Cafe. His brother-in-law, Avi Levi, said he "had a soul of a hero."Following his army service, as a mechanic in the IAF, Alon became a guard at Hillel coffee shop, where he had worked for the past three months. "He loved his job," Levi told ynet. "Alon always had a smile on his face. Even when things were hard, he always laughed He was everybody's friend." Alon left behind him parents, three brothers and three sisters.

Shafik Karim, 27, from Beit Haninah. Karim was a waiter at Cafe Hillel, and a friend of Alon Mizrahi.

Gila Moshe, 40, Jerusalem. A mother of two, Gila was out with a friend on the night of the attack. Her worried son asked Gila to stay home, but "in a moment's decision she decided to go out and have fun," said her sister, Orna Ben Yishai. Gila's relatives spoke of a woman who "loved her family so much." "She was a devoted mother, full of life. She used to play with her children as if she were their own age," her sister said. Gila left behind a husband and two sons.

Yechiel Emil Tubol, 52, from Jerusalem. Yechiel owned a building business. "He had hands of gold," said his brother, Chaim. "He was very hardworking, and was always looking after his family." Alona Angle, an architect who worked with Yechiel, called her friend's death "terribly ironic. A man who built and worked with Arabs, to be killed like that. It's so easy to ruin, in a split second, everything this man spent a lifetime building. He was intelligent and gentle, a man of wisdom and honesty. Everybody trusted him." Yechiel left behind a wife and three children.

David Shimon Avizadris, 51, from Mevaseret Zion. David was the eldest of seven and, when his father died, took his siblings under his wing. "The entire family was dependant on him," said his brother, Eli. On Tuesday night, David and his wife, Hadas, were sitting with friends in the cafe. "He was such a friendly type," Eli said, "and in the cafe he got up to say hello to some friends. At the moment of the explosion he happened to be standing between the terrorist and his wife, and she was miraculously saved." David left behind a wife and three children.

Tuesday, September 09, 2003

In this article, The Hidden Roots of 9/11, Robert Wistrich lays out the anti-semitic roots of Al Qaeda and argues that we ignore it them our peril.
The 11th of September was, of course, a blow against America and its symbolic citadels of power: Wall Street and the Pentagon. But the violent anti-Americanism which the mass murder expressed was also strongly colored by antisemitism, largely suppressed at the time by the Western media and downplayed ever since. Even in Israel there is insufficient awareness - despite the suicide bombings of Hamas and Islamic Jihad - of how closely linked terror, "holy war" and genocidal antisemitism have really become.

For Mohammed Atta, the Egyptian mastermind of 9/11, it was self-evident that the Jews control the global media, international finance and the politics of the infidel West. In his eyes, they were to blame for the American crusade against Saddam Hussein, the Russian war in Chechnya, the world-wide assault on Islam, permissive morals and decadent "Westernization" in his native Egypt. The dream of Atta and many other Islamists was to create a Muslim theocracy from the Nile to the Euphrates, "liberated" from any Jewish presence. To achieve this goal, the Al-Qaida fanatics based in Hamburg struck at New York City, the "center of world Jewry" and the "Jewish-controlled" international financial system. In this ideological sense, they showed themselves to be direct heirs of Hitler and his genocidal mind-set. The failure of so many people, including Americans, Jews and Israelis, to grasp this crucial fact about the motivations for 9/11 is a stunning example of how little has been learned from history.

Anyone who has read bin Laden's diatribes against the "Jews and Crusaders," which he outlined several years before 9/11/01, knows that for him (as for Hamas and Islamic Jihad) anti-semitism is key to his ideology.

Last night when President Bush spoke, I found it troubling that he referred to Iraq as the "the central front" in the war against terrorism. Saddam Hussein was not responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Iraq is currently the location where terrorists of all kinds can most easily strike at American troops, UN aid workers, and ordinary Iraqis -- but it's not the source of Al Qaeda and other jihadist groups. I think we are deluding ourselves if we think that bringing peace and prosperity to Iraq will stop anti-US terrorism. It is a very worthwhile goal in its own right, and I am still very glad that we overthrew Saddam Hussein, but rebuilding Iraq is not the same thing as fighting Al Qaeda.

Monday, September 08, 2003

In response to the NYT story about the new footage about 9/11, here are some personal stories posted on the little green footballs weblog about people's memories of 9/ll -- 9/11 Stories.
I don't agree with everything they say, but little green footballs is wonderful in their insistence on remembering September 11.

Sunday, September 07, 2003

Did you know that, according to Abdel Rahman al Tamimi, director of a Palestinian hydrologists group, in a Boston Globe article published today (USAID Palestinian funds frozen), "USAID is the largest aid provider for the Palestinians." USAID has recently begun to require Palestinian groups receiving US aid to sign "an agreement with the US government committing themselves not to provide resources to individuals or groups identified as terrorists by the US State Department." Most groups are refusing to sign this agreement.
"This demand has become the personification of the US policy of regarding the Palestinian struggle for freedom and independence as a form of terrorism," said Dr. Rabah Muhanna, chairman of the Union of Health Work Committees in Gaza. "USAID wants to control our NGOs and civil society after it has controlled completely the political Arab system."

In addition to his nongovernmental organization work, Muhanna is a member of the politburo of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a Marxist group devoted to the destruction of Israel. Israelis tracking the issue say the Palestinians' refusal to commit themselves to avoid working with the listed groups demonstrates that they condone suicide bombings and other deliberate killing of noncombatants as legitimate tactics in the Palestinian struggle to end Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

The antiterrorism agreement is part of a broad US government effort to choke off funds and other support for terrorism after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington. USAID grant applicants around the world are being asked to sign it.

The agreement states that as a condition for receiving a USAID grant, the recipient organization "certifies that it has not provided and will not provide material support or resources to any individual or entity" that it knows is sponsoring, planning, or engaging in terrorist activity. All the leading Palestinian groups that dispatch suicide bombers and launch attacks on civilians -- Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine -- are identified as terror organizations by the State Department, as are other Middle Eastern extremist groups such as Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, and Al Jihad.

This is very depressing, I must say. Even when the U.S. government is trying to do the right thing (fund Palestinian NGOs that actually help ordinary Palestinians), it runs up against the refusal by Palestinians to condemn the killing of innocent Israeli civilians.
An amazing new video of the attacks in New York on September 11 -- A Rare View of 9/11, Overlooked. A Czech immigrant videotaped both planes going into the World Trade Center towers, entirely by accident, as he was making a "video postcard" for family and friends back home.

Wednesday, September 03, 2003

I don’t know about any of the rest of you, but my mind is very much on the fact that September 11 is coming up next week. Next Thursday, to be exact. Do any of you remember that incredible blue sky? The blue sky to which it seemed nothing bad would happen? The clear blue sky all up and down the eastern coast of the United States?
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.
(W.H. Auden, Sept. 1, 1939)
To me, September 11 is ineluctably connected to the beginning of the academic year. This year I’m teaching a course I last taught two years ago – ancient and medieval Jewish history. I’m looking at the old computer files, trying to see if they’re useful for this year’s version of Jewish history – and I see the ones saved on September 10. That year, I taught the course on Mondays and Wednesdays. How sweet that September 10 was, when I tried clumsily to explain to the students about Jewish sectarianism in the Second Temple period.

The next morning, in my Hebrew Scriptures class (where I assure you we did not discuss the Hebrew Scriptures, although just reciting a few Psalms would probably have done some good), one of my students asked me who Osama bin Laden was. You see, she had heard the name vaguely at some time in her high school years, but she had never had to remember the name as something useful to know. I did my best, with my limited knowledge, to explain who he was, and also where Afghanistan was, and who the Taliban were. I felt it necessary to explain to my students that if we were going to invade a country, they should at least know where it was and who ruled it.

This year, since September 11 falls on a Thursday, and since I’m also teaching ancient and medieval Jewish history on Tuesdays and Thursdays this year, I wonder if I should say something to my students about what happened two years ago. I’m sure many of them will also be thinking about the date. Is there a relation between ancient and medieval Jewish history and the September 11 terrorist attacks? Or is there only a relation between modern Jewish history and the September 11 attacks?

In the course this semester, we will eventually talk about the Crusades – should I mention to the students that Osama bin Laden proclaimed a couple of years before the terrorist attacks that he was fighting against the “Jews and Crusaders”? A strange juxtaposition for anyone who knows even a bit of medieval history, since the Crusaders and the Jews assuredly did not fight on the same side then. What amazing permutations of history have occurred to allow someone to put Jews and Crusaders together as allies! In this respect, bin Laden certainly belongs to modern Jewish history and not to medieval, since the anti-semitism he espouses has its roots in the modern world, and not in the medieval Islamic world, which put both Jews and Christians into the status of dhimmi, protected peoples – a second-class status that protected them from extermination, at the very least.

Well, tonight I am weary of thinking about death. It seems sometimes as if that is all our world offers. I do not want this "war on terrorism" (however well or badly conceived) to last as long as the Cold War did. Isn't it ever possible for we humans on this earth to figure out how to struggle with each other without violence?


Monday, September 01, 2003

I keep forgetting to recommend this book, but Adele Reinhartz has written an excellent book on a Jewish response to the Gospel of John -- Befriending the Beloved Disciple: A Jewish Reading of the Gospel of John. Using the techniques of reader-response theory, she sketches out four possible Jewish responses to John -- a compliant reading, a resistant reading, a sympathetic reading, and an engaged reading. I recommend it for anyone who is interested in a more indepth grappling with the issues of Christian anti-Judaism and Jewish responses to it than the discussion arising from Mel Gibson's movie, The Passion.