Lessons of Normandy

Normandy, France -
It was the battle that made them the “Greatest Generation.”
Seventy years ago last month hundreds of thousands of Allied troops, most of them Americans, landed on the beaches of Calvados and broke the Nazi stranglehold on Europe. It was therefore one of the epic battles in history, one that changed the course of history, and did not at all have a guaranteed outcome. The loss of life was horrific, the casualty rate enormous, but the planning, and especially the dedication and sacrifice, are worth recalling these days – when those days seem to most Americans to be ancient history. The lessons for the courageous Jews of Israel again suffering from the genocidal ambitions of their Islamic haters should also be noted.
I spent a few days this week in Normandy, touring the battlefields at Omaha and Utah beaches (where US forces landed) and Pointe du Hoc, where US Army Rangers scaled impossible cliffs to dislodge German artillery that was raining down on the invaders. My guides were two excellent books – the late Stephen Ambrose’s “D-Day” and a new e-book by Yagil Henkin, a teacher at Israel’s Military College (their officer trainees annually tour Normandy) entitled “Uneasy Red,” a self-guided tour of Omaha Beach. But seeing the sights and walking the beach offers a perspective that reading about it – even watching movies about it – cannot.
The Americans had the element of surprise. Even though the Germans knew a maritime invasion was coming, they did not know when and where. Hitler insisted on the construction of a fortified Atlantic Wall, with reinforced bunkers, artillery positions, mines on the beaches and the shallow water, steel rods in the water (Rommel’s “asparagus”) that impeded easy access and numerous heavy guns up and down the French-Atlantic coast. But the area was too large to be competely protected, a point that Hitler failed to accept, and, in any event, Rommel opposed the approach but was forced to implement it. In the end, it was the downfall of Germany. Hitler guessed wrong and focused his defenses closer to Calais, and Rommel himself was home on June 6, 1944 celebrating his wife’s birthday.
The attack was meticulously planned and rehearsed, which was Eisenhower’s strength as a general and the reason why he was selected as commander. (Perhaps how he was also able – a decade later – to build the Interstate Highway System.) Each small group of soldiers – less than a company level – even 2-5 soldiers – were given specific assignments carefully delineated on maps – capture this artillery outpost, seize this particular small territory, pilot the boat to this precise area, etc. Everyone had something precise to do and knew also,what everyone else in the unit was doing in case the expected casualties forced a change in the mission.
Much went wrong in the battle. Aside from the mines and the steel traps, there were other intelligence miscues. The battle began shortly after midnight on June 6 when paratroopers landed behind Nazi lines, followed a few hours by an intense offshore bombardment from Navy ships and Army planes – but most of the bombs missed the German positions because the bombers were warned to drop them in such a way as to guarantee they would not hit US forces landing ashore right after dawn. They missed the Americans – but also missed the Germans. Most of the objectives of D-Day itself were not achieved for weeks.

Omaha Beach is also, for the most part, completely flat and open, in some places 100 yards from shore to cliff. There was simply no place to hide. Because of the obstructions in the water, boats could not approach as close to the shore as was planned. Many sank. Much equipment was offloaded, and also sank to the water bottom. Reinforcements arrived without enough equipment to sustain them. Hundreds of soldiers were killed before they even fired a shot – before they even came ashore. Nazi machine-gunners rained down bullets on them. Others made it to shore but had already lost their weapons. But they persevered, and succeeded both because of their overwhelming numbers and weaponry (in some places, the Germans simply ran out of ammunition) and especially their bravery under fire. There was an eagerness to get to the top, not just to live but to complete the mission. They knew exactly why they were fighting and considered it a duty and a privilege.

(It helps to be young, naive, and deem oneself invincible. Ambrose tells of one young soldier, who, when his unit was informed that they anticipate that two-thirds of the group would be casualties, looked to the men on his left and on his right, and thought to himself, “you poor b——s.”)
No place is more hallowed than Pointe du Hoc, famously memorialized by President Reagan’s speech in 1984. It is simply unimaginable how these young men climbed a 100 foot cliff under heavy fire carrying heavy equipment, while sustaining heavy casualties (some units as much as 90%!), and succeeded in repelling the German forces. Less well known is that when they reached the top the heavy guns were gone (!), ostensibly their purpose in the mission. They were found an hour later; the Germans had hidden the guns in a field fearing they would be overrun.
The price in human life was enormous, and a walk through the American military cemetery at Omaha Beach is a sobering experience. In all, more than 9300 soldiers are buried there, although most were not D-Day casualties. The endless rows of crosses recalls not only the sacrifice but also how there was a time in recent American history when soldiers were routinely buried with crosses. No matter how pious they were, they were default Christians – willingly so – and thankfully there was no ACLU to argue for sectarian burials. Because the layout is perfectly spaced, it was relatively easy to spot the dozens of Stars of David signifying the American-Jewish soldiers who fell in combat. I stopped at more than a dozen, and recited the (K)El Maleh prayer. Almost all the fallen had their lives ended before they really began, dying before they married or had children, and all – as the inscription above the chapel reads – so that justice should prevail and their fellow man should be able to enjoy freedom and embrace peace. That alone is worth the visit – in retrospect, I spent more than 90 minutes in the cemetery itself.
(There are about a dozen US military cemeteries in France, the final resting places of American soldiers from both world wars. Oddly, less than a half hour’s drive from Omaha Beach and slightly inland is the German military cemetery, with even more graves than at Omaha Beach. For the most part, Germans fought bravely, although the Normandy beaches were also defended by forced laborers from Korea, Russia, Poland and elsewhere, and they were more interested in surrender and survival than the German fatherland or Nazi ideology.)
It was a different world then, just 70 years ago, with different leaders who represented an ethos that reflected the best of America and inspired the world for decades. Eisenhower’s D-Day message to the troops was brief and inspirational. Less known are the alternate words he had drafted in case of failure and composed on a piece of paper he kept that day in his pocket, taking full and personal responsibility for the defeat and thanking the soldiers for their bravery and sacrifice. A president – a general – taking responsibility for a failure? What a novel concept.
Had television been present then, and had journalists the same (lack of) ethics then as many have today, the story might have had a different ending. Many things went wrong – and unreported. Many soldiers died unnecessarily – but all were treated as heroes. The journalists saw themselves as part of the crusade – not as objective observers without an interest in the outcome. Casualty figures – more than 9000 on D-Day itself – were concealed from the public for some time so as not to impede the war effort. That simple patriotism no longer animates much of elite American society, and the sense that it is America’s obligation to seek to better the world – because only America can create a better world – is missing in too many people, from the President on down.
Finally, it was FDR and Churchill’s insistence on unconditional surrender that provided their societies with a clear metric by which to measure success or failure, even though such prolonged the war and caused more casualties. Such clarity is absent today, in America’s recent wars and even Israel’s wars against Arabs and their terror. It should not be enough – in fact, it is inherently defeatist – to state that if the evildoers halt their evil, even temporarily, then the virtuous will cease trying to eliminate that evil. That is a recipe for failure, for kicking the can down the road until the enemy becomes too powerful to stop. Today’s goal should be the elimination of the Hamas leadership and their supporters, with the first step necessarily being deeming all Gazans an “an enemy population,” period. One need not feed their enemy, or provide them with the fuel or electricity that facilitates their firing rockets and missiles. The PM’s excuse that “the lawyers” tell him he must is…not leader-like, and sounds as lame as it is illogical. Not all Germans were Nazis or supported the Nazis, but the enemy was Germany, and even some innocents were collateral victims.
Two factors inhibit that obvious declaration which would make the conduct of the war easier (especially since the enemy combatants dress as civilians, hide among civilians and for the most part are civilians): first, it is part of the Israeli narrative – and nature – to be magnanimous, to treat the enemy as a potential friend, to show that Jews are better than them, more moral than they are, because frankly, we are. Second, for both domestic and foreign reasons, Israel has to propagate the sentiment that peace is possible, which declaring the enemy society an “enemy society” undercuts. But refraining from stating the obvious just makes the political and diplomatic rut even deeper as well as more dangerous.
Israel today needs a propaganda D-Day, an all-out assault on the false Arab narrative, on the phony claims of victimization, on the catastrophe that the Arabs are again bringing on themselves, and on the legitimacy of Hamas as players on the world scene. A restoration of the failed status quo is a defeat for Israel. The world is now primed for the defeat of a terror organization – any terror organization. Israel can provide that. People are aware that the world is engulfed in violence because Arab terror is uncontrollable – and because the good people (the US and others) are tired. Let Israel play that role, change the dynamic, and strike its enemies a vigorous blow that forces them and their supporters to flee or cower in fear, and absorb the wrath of own people. This will only be possible if Israel ignores its left-wing media (and the cliches of the US/UN/EU), sees beyond the immediate consequences of its actions to the long-range goals it should intend to achieve, believes in the justice of its struggle, and, above all, perseveres and doesn’t turn back at the first dissonant or discouraging sign.
Those were the lessons of D-Day enshrined forever in history on the beaches of Normandy. If the desire is there, evil can be defeated – with G-d’s help, strength, courage and commitment. It would be the dawn of the next “Greatest Generation,” which the world today both needs and deserves.

 

A Strong Nation

The Jewish people, too familiar with mourning the murder of our innocents, has again been plunged into national grief over the unsurprising discovery that the three teenagers kidnapped more than two weeks ago were murdered in cold blood shortly after they were seized. Once again, faithful practitioners of the “religion of peace” have trampled on the flower of Jewish youth and, as has happened across the globe, become celebrities within their large circle of co-religionists. As PM Netanyahu said today at the funeral, “we sanctify life while they sanctify death.” If there are Muslims with a conscience and sense of decency, their voices are drowned out – or perhaps they too have been smothered – by the evil wind that blows through their faith.

Reactions, for the most part, have been predictable. President Obama, whose name apparently begins not with an “O” but with a zero, waited weeks to react and then offered a generic denunciation even though one of the murdered youth was an American citizen. Other administration entities decried the “cycle of violence” and pleaded for “restraint on both sides,” as if there is some moral equivalence between the murderer and the victim, or between the murderer and the victim who wishes to defend himself against future homicides. That moral obscenity stains the American government, and those Europeans who embrace that notion as well. The people of Israel are truly a “nation that dwells alone.”

We are also an inherently decent people that has never fully developed the tools to deal with absolute evil. And so as Israel’s government struggles for a response, it has unfortunately fallen into one of its bad habits – that of distinguishing between the “good enemies” and the “bad enemies.” Hamas serves the desirable purpose of being the bogeyman of choice, a convenient (and deserved) target. But Hamas is largely supported by a society. Hamas is not operating in defiance of their national consensus but in furtherance of it. The Palestinian Authority, a terrorist entity propped up by Israel so – for unclear reasons – there should be a “partner” with whom to negotiate Israel’s gradual surrender, or at least maintain the illusion that there is a diplomatic solution, is as guilty as Hamas. After all, it is the PA that has tried to rehabilitate Hamas by bringing them into the government through their unity agreement. It is the PA that pays terrorists and their families a salary (partly with American money) which rewards, encourages and incentivizes the murder of innocents.  The Arabs who dwell in the land of Israel are a pathologically sick society in which mothers rejoice over the homicidal and suicidal madness of their children. It is not human.

Conversely, the faith of the people of Israel has been profoundly moving. The grieving families are symbols, because Jews rightly sense it could have been anyone. The three boys – Eyal Yifrah, Gil-ad Sha’er and Naftali Fraenkel hy”d– are everyone’s sons, a point underscored by their burial together in the city of Modiin which is roughly equidistant from their three homes. Although the entire nation mourns, we can’t escape the fact that the three precious families bear the bulk of the grief and the loss affects them the most. And yet, their grace under pressure has been consistent, and their messages affecting and pointed. Uri Yifrach, father of the slain Eyal, eulogized his son by saying that “We cry not because we are afraid but because we are human. We have hearts of flesh. We have love and love will triumph.”

And their faith, their strength, has been astonishing and inspirational, even through the pain. Few will forget Rachel Fraenkel’s message sent especially to young people  that “G-d is not our employee.” We can pray, make requests, and storm the heavens but G-d has His own calculations to which we are not privy. It is especially heartrending to realize that all the prayers for their safe return occurred after they were already murdered. Many have understandably questioned G-d’s role and justice. Perhaps we should first look closer to home.

G-d’s Torah is quite clear that hostile elements must be removed from the land of Israel, or “they will be pins in your eyes and a thorn in your side” (Bamidbar 33:55). G-d’s Torah is quite clear that murderers are to be executed, so that there is atonement for the spilled blood and atonement for the land in which the blood was shed (ibid 35:33-34). We are admonished several times “to burn the evil from your midst.”

When the government of Israel serially negotiates with terrorists, gives terrorists a territorial stronghold in the land of Israel, provides terrorists with weapons, arrests terrorists and then coddles them in prisons with color TVs and advanced academic study, supplies a terrorist society with its water and electricity, captures terrorists and then releases them back into a society which welcomes them like heroes, and makes terrorism a worthwhile, even lucrative, career choice, then perhaps the problem is not G-d but man, and not just any man but those men and women who have propounded and implemented such policies, and of course never been held accountable for them.

That the Jewish people unify in times of tragedy is as welcome as it is typical, as typical as are the calls that such unity should carry over when the immediacy of the tragedy fades. We can hope, but as always, this unity also won’t carry over. People’s political positions are usually hardened by tragedy rather than transformed by it. The monstrous evil of our enemies confirms our world view, whatever it is. The kidnapping and murder by Arabs (never caught, by the way) of two other teenagers, Koby Mandell and Yosef Ish-ran in May 2001, changed no minds. The televised and gruesome lynching of two Israeli soldiers in Shchem in October 2000 shocked and horrified Israelis but ultimately changed no minds. (One of the lynchers was released in the Shalit exchange.)  There are many other such incidents, too macabre to mention. I fear it will be the same here and I have no reason to assume it will not be the same.

Those who see no use for negotiations and no hope for peace are justly bolstered by the recognition that Jews are surrounded by a barbarian society that has spawned such beasts with two legs that murder children and then celebrate their accomplishments. On the other hand, peaceniks are even more emboldened to pronounce elements of that evil entity – the “good enemies” – as true partners for peace and rush even more headlong into oblivion. After all, nothing can stop a “process;” it just goes on and on.

Yet, two events give me hope that something has changed and can make a profound imprint on Israeli society. For all our flaws, it turned out that the default position of Jews is faith and prayer, no matter how estranged from tradition some people seem on the surface. It was natural, and moving, to see secular Israelis don kippot, pray in public, recite tehillim and join all of Israel in beseeching G-d’s compassion. They may not pray tomorrow but they will surely remember that during a crisis they, like all Jews, reached out to G-d in prayer. They will remember that this heinous act served as a catalyst to reinforce their Jewish identity, not just their Israeli one. That can only have an ennobling effect, even if we soon return to the political shenanigans of old.

And, even if we didn’t need the reminder, it was rewarding to feel (here and in Israel) the overpowering sense of family that is the Jewish people. We all hoped and prayed together, as we all mourn and grieve together. Everyone in whom a Jewish heart beats feels the loss intensely. In the rest of the world people are preoccupied with soccer and in the United States with Obama’s endless scandals and missteps. All of that pales before the Jewish people – the family of Yaakov – coming together, overcome by the brutal and senseless murders of three of our children.

It was moving to see Yair Lapid state at one funeral yesterday that “behold I accept upon myself the positive commandment of ‘And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” Notwithstanding that we all accepted that commandment (and 612 others) at Sinai some time ago, it was poignant. Whether or not it carries over, and perhaps it will, it perfectly captured the spirit of the moment that gripped an entire nation, one family.

The day of reckoning is to come. Terror cannot be defeated because it is rooted in a depraved ideology that will endure, but it can be deterred by inflicting such pain on their society that the murderers are restrained by their own population, admittedly a tough call in a world that glorifies suicide bombing. But terrorist prisoners can serve their terms under harsh conditions; hunger strikers can be allowed to die, thereby purifying some of the world’s air; their leadership can be terminated, as can their successors; disputed land can be annexed, new settlements can be built and negotiations can cease, for a generation or two; riots can be suppressed, forcefully, the world’s outrage ignored; the IDF’s rules of engagement can be relaxed; each rocket attack (the recent upsurge is Hamas’ attempt to deter Israel from retaliating for the murders) can be responded to with proportionately overwhelming force. Their atrocious society can be broken, such that those who aspire to a normal life for their children will want to leave.

The enemy will use every means available – including that old standby, the blood libel – in order to lessen the impact of the moment, in order that our memories should fade. We cannot let that happen, but we must rather crush evil even as we fill the world with good.

As the three boys take their place among all the holy martyrs of Jewish history, we all pray that G-d should grant strength and comfort to the families, and to His people, enable us to retain our goodness even in the fight against Israel, and send His righteous Moshiach to redeem His turbulent world.      And soon.

A Teen’s Lament

This essay, written by a teenage girl and now several years old, came to my attention recently. It is a window into a certain part of our world, but a darkly-tinted, grotesquely-distorted window. Here are relevant excerpts:

   “The service ends and one of the boys rises and begins to dole out aliyot for the boys to read next week: “Who will be here next week?” he asks. (I will.) “Who can layn?” (I can.) “Who wants shlishi (the third aliyah)?” (I do.) “OK, great, we’re done. Who wants to say Kiddush?” (Me.) None of these silent cries for religious participation are ever heard, of course, and kiddush is served without anyone wondering why the ratio for guys to girls is almost three to one.

What I don’t understand — it really does baffle me — is how we call ourselves Modern Orthodox. This patriarchal design we call a religious experience is not reflective of modern society; it’s as anachronistic as possible. The few allowances—the girls’ dvar Torah and the prayer for the State of Israel—take some of the sting out of the experience of invisibility, yet I still find myself perpetually irked. The caging restrictions are conducive to the small number girls present — why come when you mean nothing to the service?   …….

I know in my case certainly, and in the cases of many of my female peers, that this is an age where we will either fall into religion — or out. Thus I really don’t know how we can call ourselves Modern Orthodox and let every teenage girl grow up with no interest or opportunity and condone rabbinic indifference.

In modern society, we have women’s suffrage — women vote, women run organizations and women speak in public. So why should it be that suddenly the shul is the only area where women are denied such rights? When girls live in a time where gender roles are being demolished, no one associated with such modernity is going to want to connect to religion. As members of Modern Orthodoxy, we care so much about not upsetting the boundaries set up by the other more stringent sects of religions that we lose ourselves — and our girls……

Does anyone realize that if this keeps up, there will be no future movement because there will be no girls who know or care about any of this religion — and that it is your fault, Modern Orthodox society, not ours!”

I do hope in the ensuing years she has made peace with G-d’s Torah, but I assume there are others who have not (I pray not too many). We have to excuse the narcissism, the self-centeredness, of her generation; they were raised being told that they were all “special,” and they actually believe it. Life has not yet taught them that if everyone is “special,” then no one is special. That mistaken proposition also ignores the truism that “specialness” is earned by some unique ability or contribution to society, not acquired merely by virtue of respiration and ambulation.

I hope as well that she learns the meaning of Kabbalat Ol Malchut Shamayim – the acceptance of the yoke of G-d’s kingship – a recognition that we are just servants of the Master, and not in a position to dictate to the Master what we think His Torah should decree, or else. As Rachel Fraenkel, for whose son’s freedom, and his two friends, we pray daily, said this past week: “G-d is not our employee.” We don’t get to prescribe to G-d how He is to be worshipped. And it is the implicit threat – “if I don’t get my feminist way, I will take my toys and go elsewhere”– that is so off-putting. But, again, that can be attributed to youth and an overestimation of the self. Perhaps she will outgrow it – but not if she does not receive guidance from her mentors.

And here’s the most troubling aspect of her writings, for which she is not at all to blame. In all her years of “Modern Orthodox” education, hasn’t there been even one person – parent, teacher, rabbi – who taught her that a shul is different, indeed, that Judaism is different, because its value system is not premised on nor beholden to the values of the modern non-Jewish society? Has she never been taught that Judaism has its own divinely-based system, and we do not judge the worth of that system or its precepts by measuring it against the prevailing mores of the rest of the world?

Is it too much to expect that a yeshiva or day school – wherever, and run by whomever – should at some point introduce the notion to its students that the Torah, both written and oral, is of divine origin; that there is a Mesorah that has guided Jewish life since Sinai; that its values represent the Divine will and were given to us to provide us with the means to actualize our human potential and live fulfilling lives as divine servants? Is that too much to ask for $20,000 per year?

That is the biggest failing in her education, and that of her like-minded friends. We have to ask ourselves what is happening in these communities that children are not taught that, or that Rabbis are not preaching that when necessary. And why not. What is the fear or hesitation?

Obviously, those in the camp of the discontented have an a priori conception of what Judaism should be – even what Modern Orthodoxy should be – that bears little relation to what it actually is. Here’s a news flash: there is a system that was entrusted to us in which we are mandated to both observe its laws as the faithful and preserve it as the guardians for future generations. A Torah that changes with the times to conform to modern sensibilities is not only not divine but also not worthy of preservation. It could not – and should not have survived – the Babylonians, the Persians, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Christians, the Muslims and a host of others. (Indeed, the values of modern America are uncannily similar to those of ancient Rome in its decadence, to a great extent in its emptiness and its yearning for distractions from real life – World Cup? Who cares! – and even in the decay that has already set in.) What does any of that have to do with Judaism, and why would we want to import the failures of Western morals into our system, even if we could?

There is “unfairness” in the world with which we all must reckon in shul, in the workplace, and in life. For example, in baseball, a batter is out after three strikes, but takes first base after four balls. Unfair!! That gives the advantage to the pitcher and should be unacceptable to any thinking egalitarian. Why should the pitcher be advantaged? Alas, that is the system of baseball. We either accept the system or create a new game. Why is this so complicated?

It is further troubling that our young writer perceives Modern Orthodoxy as inherently capable of deviating from the Mesorah in order to accommodate her personal needs, or else it must be construed as hostage to the “stringent sects of religions” that clearly have no appeal to her. But a Modern Orthodoxy in which the veneer of ritual is superimposed on a degenerate lifestyle – as in the yarmulke-wearing off-color young comedian who recently appeared on American television, clearly clueless as to the boundaries of propriety in Jewish life – is less orthodox than it is modern, and in the worst sense of the term “modern.” Young girls who obsess over Tefillin and ignore the strictures of tzniut are really living in a different reality and have abandoned the pretense of serving G-d in favor of self-worship. One might as well daven in front of a mirror.

Indeed, Torah Judaism, modern or otherwise, is “not reflective of modern society.” That is to be celebrated, not lamented, for that is the whole point. We wouldn’t need the Torah if we could determine how to live – what G-d expects from us – by reading “The Feminine Mystique” or some female teen magazine. That is what is unique about Judaism and Jews. And so her explicit threat – if she and her friends are not accommodated, they will opt out – leaves me sad but also detached. I think of what Queen Esther was told by Mordechai at a critical moment in Jewish history and paraphrase it here: if indeed you want to establish your own religion or your own version of Judaism because you find the Torah unsatisfying at present, good luck with that. “Relief and salvation will come to the Jews from some other place, and you and your father’s house will be lost” (Esther 4:14). It has happened before; indeed, it has happened in every generation since Sinai. It is your choice whether or not you want it to happen to you.

Consider this not the “rabbinic indifference” that you castigate but the rabbinic truth to which you have apparently never been exposed. The answer to your complaints is intellectually straightforward even if it is emotionally unappealing to you. Orthodoxies that pander to the masses are not orthodoxies, even if they claim the name for themselves. Orthodoxies that have fluid belief systems are oxymorons with short shelf lives. The embrace of leftist political doctrine has already permeated the newest attempt to reform Orthodoxy, and with predictable results. That decline has already started, as the Torah faithful have retrenched and defined what is inside and/or outside the Mesorah. That flash in the pan is already fading, despite the repeated hoopla in the media.

I would not worry at all whether there is a future for Torah; that is guaranteed.

I would only worry whether you and those like you will be part of that future.

 

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.