Life in the Jungle

“Savage peoples are ruled by passion, civilized peoples by the mind.”

So wrote the famed Prussian general and military theorist Karl von Clausewitz referring to the motivation of nations that wage war against each other. But when savages employ the resources of the intellect to perpetrate their savagery, the civilized world suffers, and struggles for a suitable response.

That is the initial reaction to the latest profanation of humanity committed in the name of Islam, the kidnapping of three young Israeli children hitch-hiking home from school and now being held incommunicado, their fates still unknown. The ongoing debate whether these barbarians distort Islam or reflect Islam has probably passed the point of relevance, if indeed it remains unanswered. Suffice it to say that, although the politics and motives differ, there is really little distinction in kind between the kidnappings in Israel by Hamas terrorists or of hundreds of Nigerian girls by the Boko Haram terrorists; the unfortunate common denominator is that in all cases the kidnappers are Muslims and the victims are innocent children.

The sadder phenomenon to ponder, besides the horrific personal suffering of the captives and their families, is that we have made kidnapping, and to a certain extent, terror, a rational act. Evil can be rational, and still remain evil. The simple fact is that terror pays. These crimes provide a maximum

benefit to the perpetrators at a minimum cost. They inflict terrible pain on their captives and on society generally (the pervasive and accurate sense that these boys could have been anyone’s children, the refusal by the captors to make known their demands or even the condition of the victims, etc.) and fear no real repercussions. They will be martyred if killed and then enjoy the heavenly pleasures their delusions have fabricated, or they will be captured and eventually freed while in the meantime, they and their families are handsomely rewarded by the mainstream Arab leadership for their efforts. From a cost-benefit perspective, their actions are quite rational because the price they have to pay is minimal.

Again, Clausewitz: “If one side uses force without compunction, undeterred by the bloodshed it involves, while the other side refrains, the first will gain the upper hand.” While his point is that such a scenario would tend to lead each side to extremes but for other considerations, the point stands alone as well. The side without compunctions, that targets civilians, that seeks to disrupt normal life, that has no goal other than to weaken and demoralize the civilized society, will always have the upper hand – unless the moral majority makes such outrages extremely painful, unpleasant, and counterproductive for the perpetrators. (It is worth noting that the brutality the radical Arab-Muslims exhibit to those who cross them in their own societies is far more bestial than what they have done to Jews, to date, a most dreary thought.)

Part of the “problem” is Israel’s self-definition as a moral society that constrains it from responding fully or in kind to these criminal, terrorist provocations. That self-definition is not only a source of pride but is also perceived as a national asset, even if the definition of “moral” is not rooted in any Torah concept but in an amorphous internationally-accepted framework for morality that is largely ignored by all other countries when it suits them and is in essence a chimera. It provides purpose and context to the suffering. Additionally, Israeli doctrine clings to the illusion that a diplomatic solution is possible, or at least that the illusion of a “peace process” has its political advantages. This, a truly forceful reaction that will complicate the “peace” negotiations or cause Israel to forfeit that other fool’s paradise – world sympathy – is simply not worthwhile.

Consequently, Israel resists the imposition of measures that would reduce the ardor for terror among its Arab population – e.g., permanently eliminating the pleasures and freedoms that Arab prisoners  currently have (televisions, telephones, university education, frequent family visits, etc.), destroying the homes of the families of terrorists as was once done (how about entire villages?), categorically prohibiting exchanges of terrorists to gain the freedom of innocent captives, banning access of Arabs to the Temple Mount, the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hevron, and other restrictions that will get the attention of the Arab community who will either leave for more hospitable climes or apply counter-pressure on their co-religionists to halt their savagery. The silence of the Arab-Muslim world in the face of the depravity of their co-religionists is still the norm, itself an embarrassment and an outrage notwithstanding that such scattered protests in the past have often resulted in the unwanted detachment of the heads of the protestors from their necks. But there are a variety of measures that Israel can take and implement on a permanent rather than a temporary basis that would make incarceration a less attractive proposition and career choice even for a thug.

Furthermore, and without trying to sound crass or even critical, Israel benefits from these fiendish acts because it places inordinate value on propaganda, here meaning the attempt to generate sympathy for its narrative and plight. While the government and the people are rightly moved by the personal quandary of the victims and their families, and I trust doing everything to alleviate it, the political class has situated the kidnapping in the context of attempting to dissolve the new unity government of Fatah and Hamas. That reunification – as cynical as it was, and as ephemeral as it is likely to be – engendered a typically duplicitous and feckless response from the Obama administration but nonetheless can serve the Israeli purpose of defining the enemy without illusions. Instead, Israel seems intent on ending that partnership, which thankfully has put all diplomatic negotiations on hold, simply in order to resuscitate a diplomatic process that – in the best scenario – can only lead to Israeli concessions, withdrawals, vulnerability, more terror and public disenchantment. Far better to keep the unity government, define it as a hostile enemy, treat it accordingly (in terms of freedom of movement, provision of water and energy, and other measures) and focus on strengthening the Israeli polity.

That won’t happen, perhaps because it makes sense, and perhaps because Israel has no strategic concept of long-term victory. Its victories are measured in what we would call the simple joys of life – serving G-d, shopping, hiking, raising families and pursuing a variety of pleasures, notwithstanding the sporadic and repugnant interruptions of normal life that these outbursts of sadism provide.

Israel has reached an understanding of sorts with its nation-state neighbors, and could live quite well with the status quo. Its main threat – not an existential one by any analysis – comes from non-state actors (Hezbollah, Hamas, the PA) and the exception of Iran, which is not a neighboring state and is on the ascent due to the ineffectual response of the West, especially the US administration. And so, paradoxically, Israel has an interest in keeping the PA alive (but weak and ineffectual) and maintaining a diplomatic process in order to satisfy the domestic needs of its neighbors who still do not want a “Palestinian” state nor care at all about the lives of the so-called Palestinians, except insofar as they don’t want them living in their own countries. Thus, Israel could re-take Gaza within a day or two – but the Israeli government does not want it, not the people and not the responsibility for the people.

Of course, a nation under attack does not always get to choose its targets, and of course the land is still defined as the sacred land of Israel, but it will take a sustained assault from Gaza to induce the Israelis to return and recapture it. Israel has chosen – like with the occasional terror – to, in effect, tolerate a number of rockets per diem because the military option is less attractive and the damage caused in strategic terms (the personal is another matter) is negligible. That is a plausible approach, until such time as the terror becomes intolerable, but it solves nothing in the long term.

In the short term, we can only pray for Heavenly compassion, strength and courage to the victims, their families and the security forces, a swift end to their captivity, and the appropriate punishment meted out to their captors and supporters. While campaigns such as #bringbackourboys are well-meaning efforts to keep their predicament in the public domain, they are generally not successful in convincing the enemy (witness the utter disappearance from the news of the #bringbackourgirls for the Nigerians), simply because an appeal to the heart of heartless savages who consider their cruelty a religious devotion is futile. What should gratify but not surprise us is the outpouring of concern from across the Jewish world, a beautiful reminder that we are one family, the children of Avraham, Yitzchak and. Yaakov.

Far better to pray, remain strong and faithful, realize the enemy is not disappearing, encourage sanctions on the enemy population so they can feel real pain and hardship, react with righteous fury if the boys are harmed, annex Judea and Samaria, build more homes throughout the land of Israel, be vigilant that the government does not seek to revive its diplomacy with the brutes in suits who occupy parts of the Jewish homeland and threaten the remainder, and support the government in the use of all measures necessary to free these captives.

Perhaps then we will merit salvation, redemption, and good tidings. Am Yisrael Chai!

The Fruits of Disgruntlement

Prisoner exchanges have become bonanzas for modern politicians, a political trifecta: the “gains” are tangible and immediate, the “losses” are remote and speculative, and therefore the public usually approves. For President Obama, who has developed the reverse-Midas touch (everything he touches turns to dross, or worse), the repatriation of Bowe Bergdahl has brought no respite from criticism, and indeed has intensified it. And for good reasons.

Seeing as the Taliban suggested this exchange – five terrorist commanders for the one American soldier – exactly one year ago only to have the administration reject it would tend to indicate that the deal was primarily a political, as opposed to a humanitarian, endeavor. On one level, the US negotiated a numerically better deal than did Israel for the freedom of Gilad Shalit. Shalit was traded for more than 1000 terrorists, whereas Bergdahl fetched only five in that execrable marketplace. But, from another perspective, the terrorists exchanged for Shalit, notwithstanding that they had collectively murdered hundreds of Jews in cold blood, were field terrorists, not commanders who were responsible not for one attack but for planning, coordinating and executing hundreds of attacks. A moral case can be made for both but has never seemed that compelling. The potential for future attacks still lingers (more than two dozen of Shalit’s tradees have already returned to terror, and some have already been apprehended again) and the blow to the morale of the families of terror victims who are forced to watch their loved ones’ murderers feted as heroes is substantial. Such doesn’t exist in the American exchange, which involved unrepentant commanders whose return to terror is guaranteed, and whose initial apprehension was carried out with bravery and sacrifice – now for naught.

Of course, the other distinction is even more troubling. Shalit, whose failure to defend himself according to doctrine has been noted but muted by the Israeli military, was at least a patriot serving his country. The well-founded suspicion that Bergdahl was a deserter exacerbates the moral question and introduces another dynamic completely different from the Israeli analogy. Why would America trade murderers, enemies of civilization, in order to free a deserter?

Obama referred to the American “military code” that requires that no soldier be left behind on the battlefield, implying that such applies to a prisoner-of-war (understandably so) but even to a deserter. The latter, though, is less clear. I spoke this week with a Marine captain, still on active duty with two long tours in the war zone to his credit, and he knew of no such code, either formal or informal, that demands the repatriation of deserters. Nor did he know of any obligation to rescue a deserter, allowing, of course, for the possibility of an immediate rescue attempt due to the uncertainty regarding the motives of any soldier and the difficulty in ascertaining such motives immediately after a soldier’s disappearance. But, this case aside, assuming that a particular soldier announced to all verbally and in print that he hates America, the military, the mission and himself and wishes to defect to the enemy, the Marine captain was unaware of any code that would necessitate risking lives in order to rescue such a person, and certainly not to trade active terrorists for him, a good reason why his entire unit was vehemently opposed to this exchange. (He added, delicately, that the President is the Commander-in-Chief, but clearly doesn’t know much about the military.)

My working assumption – and it is an assumption – is that deserters are pursued because otherwise they get away with their treasonous crime. If they are just left to be, then there is no penalty and therefore no deterrence for desertion. Capture or repatriation is thus a law enforcement tool, not a military one; as such, the fact that so many American soldiers were killed, and many others diverted from their essential military mission, in attempting repeated rescues of this suspected deserter, is most unsettling. And even if Bergdahl is proven to be a deserter, it is highly unlikely that he will be prosecuted; this most politicized of White Houses will never allow it.

Thus, what usually becomes a politician’s win-win – freedom for an American, parents beaming, basking in the glow of the pretensions of concern for the welfare of the US military – has become for Obama another flashpoint of controversy, and another example of his ineptitude in the exercise of foreign affairs. Unless, of course, Obama’s objective was to thrust Bergdahl into the care of the VA medical system, a fate that might have him yearning for an expeditious return to Taliban custody.

In any event, the collapse of American foreign policy – notwithstanding all the miles traveled by Hillary Clinton (touted as her major accomplishment), and probably because of them – is a tragic story whose conclusion has not fully played out and whose deleterious consequences will be felt for year to come. Obama’s America has lost its ability to positively influence world affairs, and probably has lost the will to do so as well. He operates in an environment that prizes words and gestures, especially empty but high-sounding ones, orchestrated by his handlers and media acolytes and admired by his adoring public. And his contempt for Congress and his indifference to laws he doesn’t like reflect a high-handedness that will only encourage future presidents and leave the populace even more disenchanted with their government.

Meanwhile, America meanders between an indifference to the growing world anarchy and favoring the wrong side of a variety of conflicts: the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt; for Assad and then against Assad in Syria; the Palestinian narrative in the land of Israel; et al. History will record that Hillary Clinton’s infamous “reset” button actually worked; unfortunately, it was successful in re-activating the Cold War. One retired diplomat said recently to a private group that Obama’s diplomacy is drawn straight from the “Model UN” structures that are so popular today from elementary schools through universities, and is about as realistic: all problems can be resolved, and quite quickly at that, if only the Obama script for the proper functioning of mankind is followed. Since the real world does not operate that way, Obama’s naiveté only encourages rogue states in their roguery. A future American president will not have the resources to pacify every zone of chaos forged by Obamaplomacy, and even if he could, he would need to have the desire to reassert American influence. The vacuum is that enormous, and the global system today is that anarchic.

While it would be comforting in part to attribute all this to incompetence, it is likelier and infinitely more dangerous that it is a willful effort on Obama’s part to reduce America’s footprint in the world, a footprint that he has perceived since his childhood as wrong, criminal, imperialistic, wholly unjustified and worthy of serial apologies. He wanted to be and is a transformative president, in which America’s global position reflects his disgruntlement with the American way of life. And so his tenure threatens to leave the United States and the world unrecognizable, with nuclear weaponry in the hands of rogue regimes and their proxies, terror ascendant, imperial Russia reborn and revanchist, and liberty under siege – not to mention a health care system for all modeled on efficiency of the government-run veteran’s health care network.

For sure, there is a temporary benefit in all this ineffectiveness in the avoidance of immediate war, even if more protracted and deadlier conflicts in various points across the globe are the long-term outcome. Short-term gain leading to long-term harm?  Hmmm…

That sounds precisely like the Bergdahl case, one vivid detail in the tapestry of failure which we behold before our eyes.

Limits

When biblical heroine Ruth pleaded with Naomi not to send her back to Moav and its pagan existence, Naomi shared with her some of the commandments she will have to embrace as a Jew, like we do with converts today. As the Talmud (Yevamot 47b) relates, Naomi said: “You should know that Jews are not allowed to walk beyond a certain point on Shabbat, 2000 cubits from our domicile.  And Ruth responded: “Where you go, I will go.”

It is fascinating. Of all the mitzvot that Naomi could have shared with Ruth, that’s what she chose – Tchum Shabbat?! Why would she think that would make an impression on Ruth? The question itself is strengthened when we realize that there was another occasion – essential to our celebration of Shavuot – in which great emphasis was also placed on boundaries that could not be breached: at Sinai before the Revelation: “And you shall set boundaries around that mountain, warning the people not to encroach on the territory” (Shemot 19:12). They must keep their distance on pain of death. Later, G-d again told Moshe: “go down and warn them not to break through” (ibid 19:21), and Moshe answered that they won’t, they already heard “the boundaries of the mountain are delineated and sanctified.” But why does the Torah highlight this point – to keep our distance from the mountain, to always know our place?

In the past year, a new phenomenon arose in Jewish life that has already seemed to have exhausted the initial enthusiasm it engendered: the Ruth Calderon experience. Born and raised a secular Jew, MK Calderon remains a self-defined secular Jew but on her own admission filled a void in her life by studying Talmud, eventually getting a doctorate in Talmud and founding a secular Bet Midrash. She became renowned across the Jewish world because hundreds of thousands of people have viewed on You Tube her maiden speech in the Knesset, in which she taught a story from the Talmud (something unprecedented in the Knesset, and which, if done by a religious MK would have been castigated as inappropriate religious coercion…). It was very moving and very impressive, and her words were poignant.

And yet, at a conference I attended last year at which she spoke – and she is very earnest and affecting in her speech – she was largely booed by the audience. I didn’t heckle (it’s not polite) but what she said was disturbing. She spoke about same-sex marriage, and how she knows the audience won’t agree with her, but she hopes in a few years, maybe ten, Jewish law will recognize such a relationship. And people booed, and she said, I know you can’t accept it now, but maybe in a few years. And what was clear was that she doesn’t believe the Torah is divine. To her, the Torah is sublime and inspirational, but it is nothing more (and nothing less) than the cultural heritage of the Jewish people. And I wondered – and it has become a continuous discussion in Israel, as elsewhere – is there a value to such Talmud Torah, to Torah study divorced from its divine roots, to Torah study that does not lead to the observance of mitzvot because mitzvot – commandments – come from G-d, and G-d is not really part of that world view? This notion of Jews doing Jewish stuff not because they are serving G-d but for a variety of other reasons is not unknown to our world. But how should we relate to that?

It is not a simple matter. For sure we say that “a person should always learn Torah even for ulterior reasons, for by doing it not for its own sake one will come to do it for its own sake” (Masechet Pesachim 50b). And we say that when a person who learns Torah, “the light of Torah will bring them back” (Midrash Eicha Raba) if he has strayed. But does it always? Is there a value in Torah study not in order “to preserve and to do?”

Conversely, King David said (Tehillim 50:16) “G-d says to the wicked one, who are you to speak of My statutes and you keep My covenant (the Torah) just on your lips?” And our Sages implied that we maintain that studying Torah “not for its own sake”is a step in the right direction only when it is perceived as a mitzva. But if it is not perceived at all as a mitzva, it is better not to have been born (Masechet Brachot 17a). As the Talmud (Masehcet Yoma 72b) notes: whether the Torah is the elixir of life or a deadly poison depends on one’s attitude. Perhaps this new wonder – the secular Bet Midrash – could be part of a new wave of teshuva – or perhaps it could be part of a new type of rebellion. The attitude is key, and the book is still open.

And that attitude is shaped by one concept: limits. Sinai was partitioned off; man has to stay off the mountain, otherwise he would claim a partnership in writing the Torah. He would commingle his ideas and claim they too are G-d’s word. The whole Torah is about limits – where we can and can’t go, what we can and can’t do, what we can and cannot say, eat, think or be.

Ruth – the ancestress of Jewish royalty – was taught like all of us that Jews can’t go everywhere, do everything, or ay everything. And she answered correctly: “where you go, I will go. Your G-d is my G-d.” It all comes from Him.

On Shavuot we celebrate not just our cultural heritage, our intellectual gifts, or the treasure that remains ours, but the divine origin of Torah. “And G-d spoke all these words, saying, I am the Lord your G-d…” Without that, there is nothing special about us. But with that – G-d as the Giver of the Torah to the Jewish people and the Guarantor of our existence – we can exult, as the prophet Habakkuk did, that “G-d is my strength…I will exult in Him, and rejoice in the G-d of my salvation,” as we pray and hope for the day when all Jews come back to their G-d, their faith, and their nation.

Chag Sameach!

The Pope in Israel

At the end of the day – a long “day” in that the Pope’s visit to Israel lasted barely 30 hours – the papal visit was short on substance and long on theatrics, unless one considers, and with some justification, that theatrics is substance in the thinking of many. Certainly, the Pope has influence but not power (still lacking the military prowess to enforce his will, to paraphrase Stalin), but even his influence is limited. As his public appearances here in Israel were limited to select audiences, and naturally heavily weighted to visiting official or Christian sites, the impact to the average citizen was mainly in the form of snarled traffic and closed roads, all due to the intense security generated by his brief stay.

While security is always warranted, and no one desires any unfortunate incident, from my vantage point it tends to be exaggerated. (Did the Kotel – the Western Wall – have to be closed to the public for five hours?) Much ado was made about the childish pranks of mostly young people spraying graffiti and making idle threats, with a handful of people even being placed in administrative detention to prevent them from indulging any negative inclinations. It does give them more attention than they deserve. But much of that even marginal hostility is just the legacy of a bitter and painful history that Jews have had with the Christian world for the better part of two millennia. And it is marginal. Jews properly remember the past, but we need not be paralyzed by it.

Such is easier felt by American Jews today whose experiences with Christians, especially for at least the last half century, have been amicable, if not even amiable. As noted here in the past, and citing the late Irving Kristol, “the danger facing American Jews today is not that Christians want to persecute them but that Christians want to marry them.” That is even truer today than when he said it forty years ago. Thus, the American Jewish experience with Christianity is unique and unprecedented. It has much to do with the First Amendment’s proscription on an official national religion, and even more to do with how American Christianity has evolved.

That relationship never existed in Europe where the scars are real, and does not generally exist even today in Europe where Christianity is in decline due to rampant secularism and the rise of Islam. But for Jews of European background who endured only the hardships of life with Christians and never enjoyed the American experience, the history is still painful, even agonizing. Hence the fringe opposition to the Pope’s visit, which of course passed without any significant protest, but also the ongoing opposition to any cooperation with Christians on any project of joint interest and even the rejection by some of Christian charitable endeavors. The fears of past persecution and proselytizing loom that large.

Of course, the visit – simply by virtue of the fact that it took place – was not innocuous, and these celebrity summits always carry the potential for more mischief for Israel than for any meaningful achievements. And so it was here, aided by an exasperating moral equivalence that is the Pope’s (perhaps any pope’s) stock-in-trade. Anything that presents the Palestinian Authority in the guise of a state, or even as a reasonable interlocutor, hurts Israel. Worse, the Pope’s brief stop – for prayer – at the border wall that surrounds Bethlehem played into the Arab narrative as victims of an oppressive Israel. Certainly, Israel’s countermove by having Pope Francis make a similar stop at the terror victim’s memorial at Mount Herzl Cemetery was a brilliant stroke. But it didn’t quite erase the moral obtuseness implicit in lamenting a barrier that has aided in the prevention of Arab suicide bombings of Jews. Is such inherently unfair? Is it not sporting of Israel to give the Arabs a better shot at killing Jews? If indeed the Arabs seek an independent state, do not most states have borders with fences, walls and official crossings? Would the Pope also lament the imposition on mankind of searches at airports, all because of the threat of Muslim terror?

There is a certain unwordliness that surrounds the Pope’s pronouncements, but each call for a two-state solution is oblivious to the reality on the ground. Neither party wants two states, although Israel in its weakest and foolish moments would settle for two. But no one believes it would last, and so the call for the creation of a Palestinian state remains a codeword for the destruction of Israel, as it always has been.

Indeed, the greatest danger the Pope faced here was being inundated by the deluge of clichés and platitudes, much of his own making. The persistent desire to split the difference, to see everything in balance, and especially to never, ever distinguish between aggressors and victims does an injustice to Jews and to history. It reminded me of an encounter I had many years ago as an attorney, representing a young woman expelled from her Catholic high school because an ex-boyfriend showed up at her school carrying a knife and up to no good. She was expelled because her mere presence brought the boy with the knife into the building, even though she didn’t invite him, didn’t want him there and was likely to be the target of his wrath. When I said that she was the victim here and did nothing wrong, I was told by the chief nun: “Victim or aggressor, what’s the difference?” To which I responded: “If you do not distinguish between the victim and the aggressor, then that certainly explains a lot about our history.” (By the way, my entreaties fell on deaf ears.)

The call for peace, an end to war, violence, unfriendliness and the like is always welcome but ultimately meaningless when confronted by an evil enemy that literally sacrifices its own children to murder other children. “Turn the other cheek” is great advice in theory, but Christians have never practiced it and Jews have not fared well under those regimes which advocated it. Mourning the Holocaust and proclaiming “Never Again!” – as the Pope did, and even sincerely – will not prevent the murder of one Jew, or for that matter, the murder or terrorization of Christians who are also targets of radical Islam across the world, in Nigeria and elsewhere.

Yet, this new custom of every Pope visiting Israel will endure, and these encounters do buttress Israel’s self-image. Pope Francis is a man of contrasts – CEO of a multi-billion dollar enterprise who embraces a simple lifestyle, and yet advocates for a redistribution of wealth that plays well in the Third World but would undoubtedly harm his major donors. As an outsider, it is interesting for me to watch the aura that surrounds him, in which the faithful immediately ascribe perfection to him and deem him a welcome improvement over his predecessor – who of course received the exact same treatment when he was invested with the office. This is an observation, not a criticism. It is an office that is replete with symbolism, and at the top of the list of symbols on this trip was the Pope laying a wreath at the grave of Theodor Herzl, a sort-of apology for the dismissal of Herzl and his vision by Pope Pius X in 1904. I am not sure the wreath did much good for Herzl, or, for that matter, for the course of Jewish history in the 20th century, but I assume he meant well.

It is fascinating that for all the disruptions and all the hoopla, nothing changes. The Pope has come and gone, the hopeful rhetoric enunciated but just as far from realization.

Ironically, for some Israelis less committed to Torah, the Pope represents a religion that they can take seriously. I still recall Leah Rabin visiting John Paul II in Rome, demurely covering her head with a scarf in his presence, a courtesy she certainly never extended to Israel’s Chief Rabbis. Shimon Peres actually fawned over Pope Francis, and it was somewhat unsettling to see that, on the receiving line at Ben Gurion airport, the only person wearing a yarmulke was the Catholic.

But perhaps, amid all the diplomatic theater, the Pope’s visit will cause some Jews to better tend to their own vineyards, take a second look at the Torah, and recall that G-d’s word emerges from Yerushalayim, and nowhere else. It is that word that shapes, sustains and enriches Jewish life, not the slings of our foes or the praise of our friends.

Preserving Shabbat

Here in Israel, the festive month of Iyar is bracketed by the two special days, Yom Haatzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim. Flags flutter the entire month, which is one long celebration. One issue that takes center stage is the role of Shabbat in these celebrations, and the extent to which Shabbat observance is encouraged or protected in society generally.

      It is well known and appreciated by many that the celebratory days are shifted annually – so the official reason goes – in order to avoid Shabbat desecration. Preparations, building, driving, etc. would all serve to undermine this cardinal Jewish value. So, for example, Israel’s independence – the first declaration of Jewish sovereignty over part of the land of Israel in almost nineteen centuries, an incredible, unprecedented and  majestic event – came into effect on the fifth of Iyar in 1948. As 5 Iyar fell this year on a Monday, that necessitated (by virtue of rulings of the Knesset and the Chief Rabbinate) that Independence Day be postponed to Tuesday. Otherwise, Yom Hazikaron would have been observed on Sunday, and the preparations for that day might have entailed desecration of Shabbat (for those pre-disposed to desecrate Shabbat).

   The same holds true for years when 5 Iyar falls on Shabbat, or on Friday; then, Yom Haatzmaut is advanced to Thursday, and Yom Hazikaron to Wednesday. It comes out the only time Yom Haatzmaut is ever observed on its original day – 5 Iyar – is when it falls on Wednesday.

    Cynics note another possibility. To take this year, as an example, if Yom Hazikaron – a day of intense mourning in Israel – had been observed on Sunday, that would have required the closing of places of entertainment the night before, the busiest night of the week in those industries, and the same would have pertained the week before, as Yom Hashoah is invariably observed on the same day of the week as Yom Hazikaron. That loss of business for two consecutive weeks would certainly harm the bottom line. What is stranger is when Yom Haatzmaut coincides with Friday; by the time Shabbat arrives, the festivities are over. So why should a Friday 5 Iyar demand that the celebrations be advanced a day? People who desecrate Shabbat tend to desecrate Shabbat fairly consistently, so who or what is being protected?

  One issue that compounds the problem is the strong desire to juxtapose Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut, for some very sound reasons: catharsis, a longing to link the celebrations to the sacrifice, and the like. All plausible, but the linkage does understandably trouble bereaved families who cannot easily turn off the spigot of tears when Memorial Day ends.  De-linking the two days would bestow 5 Iyar with greater gravitas as an historically memorable moment. (To use this year as an example: observe Yom Hazikaron on Thursday night and Friday, and then Yom Haatzmaut on Sunday (even Monday).

The purists note something else. It is rare for countries to shift their independence days, one of the most – if not the most – fundamental days in any nation’s narrative. For example, in the United Sates, Independence Day is always observed on July 4. That is the official day of celebration and public events. If it happens to coincide with a weekend, then another day is added as the official day off, either Friday or Monday.         Israel is different, and the good news is that if the reason for all the shifting is to safeguard the proper observance of Shabbat, such speaks very well of the Jewish state.

     The bad news is that, apparently, not everyone got the memo.

     The esteemed columnist for Besheva, Yedidya Meir, reported two weeks ago that he and others were disheartened and then horrified to see a scaffold being erected at Yad Labanim in Yerushalayim on Shabbat itself, for memorial ceremonies not scheduled to begin until Sunday night. A crowd, part aggressive but mostly plaintive, gathered to inquire of the workers as to how they can be desecrating Shabbat for Yom Hazikaron when the whole point of moving the day was to avoid Chilul Shabbat. The foreman sheepishly explained that he was ordered to have the job finished by the night before – Motzaei Shabbat – that he would rather not be doing it, but was given no choice.

   For all the healthy interest in avoiding Chilul Shabbat in the abstract, it strikes me that those who regularly desecrate the Shabbat do so irrespective of the changing of the dates, and those who don’t would not violate Shabbat if Yom Haatzmaut was observed on Shabbat itself. Those who do will, sadly, find other ways to desecrate Shabbat if the option of preparing for Yom Haatzmaut or Yom Hazikaron is precluded.

   The columnist continued that the Sabbath desecration in this instance reflects a lamentable and quite recent pattern in Israel, in which the laws that prohibit work on Shabbat are routinely violated and routinely not enforced. Tel Aviv is notorious for its Shabbat desecration, and there are chain groceries that are open on Shabbat. Every few months those stores pay a small fine that amounts to a joke when compared to the revenue earned on those days. A major court case not long ago decided that enforcement of Shabbat laws was not religious coercion (if so, they would have ruled against Shabbat!) but rather that the shameful non-enforcement fell under the rubric of labor laws – workers’ rights laws – that had to be enforced. As the plaintiffs argued, they do not want to have to work seven days a week, and smaller groceries that are closed on Shabbat have a harder time competing with those stores open for seven days.

   That is something to which denizens of the exile should be sensitive. Often, prices are lower in large supermarket chains that sell kosher foods (Pathmark, Shoprite) not only because of greater volume but also because they are open seven days a week, and sometimes 24/7, whereas the “Jewish stores” can only be open for fewer than six days a week. And Jewish-owned stores largely appeal only to Jewish clientele, who can jeopardize the viability of those stores by trying to save a few pesos elsewhere.

     The court ruled that the dignity of man, and not the laws of Shabbat, required that stores remain closed on Shabbat. Unfortunately the secular government of Tel Aviv has decided not to enforce the court ruling (only in Israel; so much for the “rule of law,” a club with which the right is regularly clobbered) and is attempting to enact new legislation permitting public Shabbat desecration.

        But as the column points out, the implications are ominous. Most traditional Israelis, even those who do not completely observe Shabbat, enjoy a family Shabbat dinner, complete with candle-lighting and kiddush. But the peace of Shabbat and family harmony are impaired when some people are literally being forced to work. He mentioned two painful anecdotes – of a makeup artist at a television station lamenting to Yedidya’s wife that she was told she has to work Friday night or she will lose her job, so she cooks all the traditional foods on Friday morning and her family has Shabbat dinner without her. Another technician at a radio station, anguished, asked him one Friday afternoon to please think of him when he is making kiddush that Friday night, as he too is being forced to work against his will. Both are what is called here “masorati,” traditional, with good Jewish hearts, but lacking the willingness to sacrifice for Shabbat because their observance, although respectful, is not rooted in abstaining from the 39 forbidden labors and their corollaries.

   For sure, it is bitterly ironic that in most instances there is more legal protection for the Sabbath observer in America than there is in Israel! While jobs that specifically call for work on Shabbat are understandably not accessible to Jews (something that effectively ended my professional baseball career before it began; it was never a question of talent), Jews are regularly accommodated by non-Jews and allowed to take off, or make up hours Thursday night, or Sunday, or some other time. That is both fair and just. Anecdotally I have long heard that Jewish bosses (of the not-yet religious variety) are usually much less understanding about the Shabbat needs of the observant Jew than are non-Jews.

  Hence the Shabbat problem in Israel. It is almost a throwback to the America of one century ago, where immigrant Jews were told that if they did not show up for work on Shabbat, they need not come back on Monday. Many (most?) succumbed and paid a very stiff spiritual price for it in terms of their children’s commitment to Torah. The minority that persevered, suffering penury and anxiety in the process, became the backbone of today’s Torah world. It is simply incomprehensible that Shabbat – the focal point of the Jewish week, the pride of the Jewish nation, and the essential definition of the pious Jew- should be trifled with in the Jewish state, of all places.

  In 5774, it is elemental fairness that a full time employee who works a five-day, 40 hour or more week, should not be compelled to work on Shabbat. If employers deem it necessary to conduct their business on Shabbat (life would not end if there was no television on Shabbat, certainly not for me, but even for non-Shabbat observers) then there is no shortage of non-Jews or even (sad to say) Jews not yet aware of the gifts of Shabbat who can fulfill those non-essential tasks and not oblige Jews who desire Shabbat to desecrate it and violate their conscience.

  I am told that resolutions here are in the works, grinding through the coalition, courts, government and rabbinate. The people that accepted Shabbat from the Creator as His gift and shared it with the world in one form or another should be the very first people to protect the Shabbat as much as it has protected us. Then, even Yom Haatzamut on Shabbat itself will entail nothing but joyous and holy festivities.

The Obama Doctrine

Many of those in the US and across the world who resented America acting as the world’s policeman are already seeing the consequences of a world that has no policeman at all. President Obama’s policy of US retreat from engagement with the world’s rogues has been a boon for those rogues, and has not resulted in any domestic dividends either.

The foreign policy debacles are obvious and ongoing. Russia is eating Obama’s lunch and gradually reconstructing the Soviet empire.  As Ukraine is whittled down in size, the Baltic States (all hosting substantial “Russian” populations) fear they will be next, followed by the Eastern European states that will seek shelter under a Russian sphere of influence in order to deter a clandestine invasion. (A new phenomenon that challenges the willfully blind: soldiers who wear masks so we don’t really “know” –wink, wink – from which country they come. That ensures the passivity of the countries that have an interest in freedom but a stronger interest in maintaining cordial business relations with the Russians.)

Iraq – as was predicted and predictable – has descended into chaos, with parts of the country already dominated by the Iranians and other parts functioning as al Qaeda strongholds. American influence is nil and all so that Obama could say he ended Bush’s war. Imagine, for a moment, that Harry Truman had sued for peace with Germany and Japan after assuming office, claiming that he did not want to fight FDR’s wars, because both countries posed no further threat to the United States. Continuity in diplomacy makes for greater coherence in international relations and more stability among allies. That continuity has been shattered, and today, few allies, if any, rely on the US in any meaningful way.

The question posed this week in the Economist – “What would America fight for?” – is a good one. One would assume an attack on the homeland would generate some response, but even that is not entirely clear given the present difficulty in determining with any certainty the provenance of an attack.

Iran openly mocks the US diplomatic efforts and has no intention of halting its march to a nuclear weapon. Negotiations per se are considered a worthy diplomatic accomplishment even if America’s strategic positions are degraded as a result. Talk is great if it prevents war; these talks will prevent war in the short term, as the enemy’s intention is to achieve their objectives without war and through those endless talks.

Ditto for Iran’s ally Syria. That rogue state is openly contemptuous of Obama’s threats and red lines. By many accounts, it has recently used chemical weapons against its citizens – again – but the Obama administration’s tactic is to turn its head, as if to say, if we don’t acknowledge it, then it hasn’t happened. That is not a policy as much as it is an incentive to evildoers, who, strange it sounds, occasionally lie about their intentions as well. Unquestionably Obama’s unctuous backtracking, and his enlistment of Russia to bail him out of that self-created predicament, emboldened Putin to execute his plan, now armed with proof that Obama is a lightweight.

Israel has wisely rejected America’s entreaties to surrender its land and make more concessions to its enemies. One can only pray that it will retain its backbone, national pride and patrimony. More interestingly, Israel has in the last few years re-oriented (literally) its trade policy, and within less than five years Asia (primarily China and India) will surpass North America as Israel’s leading trade partner. And so it goes across the globe.

Is there a place in the world where America today is more feared, respected or admired than, say, six years ago? I haven’t found it. Nations that are isolationist tend to find themselves isolated over time, as other nations seek out more reliable partners in order to promote its national interests. The Obama Doctrine, apparently, has only one principle: he wants to be the first president in memory not to send any American soldier into battle in a conflict of his own choosing. Our foes have realized that, and the liberties they are taking within their own countries (Syria, Iraq, Iran) and outside their borders (Russia, China) are the natural consequence.

For sure, Obama sees no primary role for America on the world scene, a corollary of his discomfort with the notion of American exceptionalism. A nation like all nations – as exceptional as is Greece – does not intervene in the domestic affairs of other nations, no matter the brutality of those nations to their own people or the jeopardizing of American interests. Thus, the arsenal of US diplomacy, which once ranged from guns to butter, now consists of several weapons: sarcasm, supplications, nasty words, and the nuclear option, nasty words accompanied by a scowl.

Most international problems are thwarted through deterrence because, as in many of crisis points listed here, once the bad guys act, options become very limited. It is thus the deterrence which has the most effect, short-term and long-term, and America’s deterrence capacity is moribund. Obama’s hackneyed and repetitive response – “which war would you like to start?” – underscores his indifference to governance and the loss of America’s international esteem. A recent poll, for the first time, failed to list the American president as among the world’s top ten leaders. That is as unsurprising as it is dangerous and humiliating.

Obama seems most comfortable in the ceremonial aspects of his job, and the perks of travel, hobnobbing with celebrities and the ubiquitous fund-raising. He is ill-suited to the tasks of policy-making, consensus-building, negotiation or challenging any group in his constituency for the greater good of the nation. The half-decade stall on the Keystone pipeline or this week’s announcement that the government wishes to revert to relaxing credit requirements so housing loans can again be made to people who cannot afford to repay them do little more than solicit the votes of two important Democratic voting blocs (environmentalists and the poor, respectively). The war on women and the income inequality scam are hardy election year perennials that continue to succeed in a populace undistinguished by its faculties of critical thinking. Obama seemed more outraged by the rhetoric of Donald Sterling than by the actions of Vladimir Putin.

But these domestic issues pale before the dangers on the world scene. Like many bad presidents, he likely will have the luxury of eluding the inexorable consequences of his incompetence while still in office (think Fillmore, Pierce and Buchanan, whose lassitude made the Civil War inevitable, but that erupted under Lincoln’s watch). For example, unless there is some military action from a third-party, the next president will have to deal with an Iranian bomb. Gentlemen all, the Iranians will at least have the courtesy to refrain from exploding their nuclear device until their patron’s term is over.

Then it will be someone else’s problem. Like all the rest of us. No Churchill or Thatcher, no FDR or Reagan, loom on the horizon. America, and the free world, deserve better.

The Special Month of Iyar

Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook frequently cited the prophetic statement that, in the future, all our national days of sadness and mourning will be transformed into days of joy and celebration. As examples, he noted that Yom Haatzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim commemorate joyous events that occurred during the tragic period of the Omer. Both are, in effect, sad days that in our time became happy days – and, to satisfy the needs of adherents to each of the primary mourning customs, one holiday falls during the first 33 days of the omer and the second during the last 33 days of the omer.

As we reflect on the special days of Iyar – Yom Haatzmaut on Iyar 5 and Yom Yerushalayim on Iyar 28 – it is inspiring to re-live these events through the contemporaneous words of Menachem Begin, one of Israel’s founding fathers and greatest leaders. Begin, a masterful orator throughout his life, used his eloquence to move crowds, maintain allegiances, guide the faithful, and especially, define the events in terms of the greater history of the Jewish people.

On Friday, the 4th of Iyar in 5708 (1948), Begin had recently emerged from the underground, but feared and loathed by David Ben-Gurion, he was not invited to the declaration of independence ceremony that took place in Tel Aviv that afternoon. As independence became official on Shabbat, Iyar 5, with the end of the British mandate and the departure of British forces, Begin first addressed the nation on Etzel radio (the “Voice of Fighting Zion”) on Motzaei Shabbat, May 15, 1948. He said as follows, in part (translation mine):

Citizens of the Hebrew homeland, soldiers of Israel, Hebrew youth, my brothers and sisters in Zion,

After the many years of the war of the underground, years of persecution and torment, physical and spiritual torment, we stand before you, those who rebelled against the evil kingdom, with thanksgiving on our lips and prayer to Heaven in our hearts. It is the blessing that our forefathers recited on every festival and holiday, and that their lips uttered for every new fruit.

   We have paved the way for a massive return to Zion. The foundation has been laid – only the foundation – for a substantive Hebrew independence. Just one stage is over – one stage – of the war for Hebrew freedom, whose permanent aim is the restoration of the Jewish people – in its entirety – to its native land, and the restoration of the land of Israel – in its entirety – to its nation, its owners.

   The State of Israel has risen. And it rose “only thus:” with blood and fire, with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, with suffering and casualties. It would not have risen otherwise. And behold, even before the State can establish its appropriate institutions, it will be forced to fight aggressively against a Satanic and bloodthirsty foe, in the land, sea and air…

    The beginning of the wisdom of state policy is the return to Zion. Boats, for G-d’s sake, bring boats filled with olim… Quickly, quickly! Our nation has no time. Bring in myriads. Bring in hundreds of thousands. If there won’t be houses for all of them, we will find tents. If there are no tents, there is the heaven above, the azure sky of our land. No one dies from difficult living conditions…

   Internally, justice will be the primary ruler, the ruler even over the rulers. There will be no dictatorship… We will not allow in our home any person, citizen or stranger, to be hungry for bread, without a roof over his head, without clothing or a primary education. “Remember that you were strangers in the land of Egypt” – this supreme command will determine our relations with our neighbors…

    The State of Israel has risen. But we should remember that the homeland is still not liberated. The war continues. Your eyes see that the fighters did not speak in vain: Hebrew weapons will delineate the jurisdictional boundaries of the Hebrew rule. It is so in this campaign and will be so in the future. The homeland will be whole. The experiment to chop it into pieces is not only criminal, it will also fail. The homeland is historically and geographically whole. Whoever does not recognize our rights to the entire homeland does not recognize our rights to any part of it. And we will never forego our natural and eternal right to it…

    We will not purchase peace from our enemies at the price of giving up our independence, or our land. Only one type of “peace” can be purchased that way – the peace of the cemetery, the peace of a new Treblinka. Therefore, stand strong and prepare for definitive tests ahead. Stand! We will all stand. The Lord of Hosts will come to our aid, and the bravery of the Hebrew youth and the Hebrew mother, who offers her son, like Hanna, on the altar.

     Lord, G-d of Israel, watch over Your soldiers, and bless their swords that are forging anew the covenant that You enacted with Your treasured people and with Your chosen land. Judah is a lion cub! For the sake of our people, for the sake of our land, forward to battle, forward to victory!”

      Begin spent 19 years in opposition, until he was invited to join the National Unity Government led by Levi Eshkol on the eve of the Six Day War in June 1967. While serving as a Minister without Portfolio in the Cabinet, Begin pressured Eshkol to liberate the Old City of Yerushalayim, something that seems obvious in retrospect but at the time encountered sustained opposition in the Cabinet, and even from some religious Ministers.

After Yerushalayim was fully liberated on Wednesday, Iyar 28, Begin went to the Kotel and said the following, a prayer he composed himself that is replete with biblical allusions (translation mine):

G-d of our fathers, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, the Lords of Hosts came to our aid. We were encircled, completely encircled by our enemies, and they came to eradicate us as a nation. But their plans were thwarted, and their intentions will never come to pass. [This is] because a new generation has risen in the homeland, a generation of liberators, a generation of fighters and heroes. And when Israel went forth to battle the enemy, the proclamation of the father of prophets – that echoes throughout the generations – went out from their hearts: ‘Redeemer of Israel from the bondage of Egypt: Rise up, Hashem, and let Your enemies be dispersed, and let those who hate You flee from before You.’ We shall scatter them, tower over them and they shall flee.

     The routed enemy has not yet laid down its arms. The Army of Israel continues to pursue him and smite him. Lord, G-d of Israel, watch over Your soldiers, and bless their swords that are carrying out in their eternal conquest the realization of the ‘Covenant between the Parts’ that You enacted with Your treasured people, so that sons may return to their mothers, and fathers to their children, and husbands to their wives. For we are but the survivors of a harassed and devastated people who blood was shed like water from generation to generation.

    Today we stand before the Western Wall, the remnant of the House of our glory in redeemed Yerushalayim, in the city that is united together. And we lift up our hearts in prayer that the Bet HaMikdash may be rebuilt, speedily and in our days.

    And we will yet go to Hebron, which is Kiryat Arba, and we will prostrate ourselves on the graves of the

fathers of our people. And we will yet go on the road to Efrat, en route to Bet Lechem Yehuda and pray at the grave of Rachel, our mother, and surely remember the words of the prophet: ‘A voice is heard on high, wailing, bitter weeping. Rachel weeps for her children, refuses to be comforted for her children, for they are not there…Restrain your voice from crying and your eyes from years, for there is reward for all your actions, Hashem says, and they will return from the land of the enemy. And there is hope for your future, Hashem says, and the children will return to their border.’”

May we yet see other days of sadness and mourning transformed into days of celebration, “joy and happy festivals. Love truth and peace” (Zecharia 8:19).