- Jul 26, 2010
So, courtesy of Wikileaks, we once again have evidence of the enormous number of civilian casualties killed by US/Nato forces in Afghanistan.
Some of these casualties come from the controversial air strikes that have led to Afghan government protests, but a large number of previously unknown incidents also appear to be the result of troops shooting unarmed drivers or motorcyclists out of a determination to protect themselves from suicide bombers.
At least 195 civilians are admitted to have been killed and 174 wounded in total, but this is likely to be an underestimate as many disputed incidents are omitted from the daily snapshots reported by troops on the ground and then collated, sometimes erratically, by military intelligence analysts.
Bloody errors at civilians' expense, as recorded in the logs, include the day French troops strafed a bus full of children in 2008, wounding eight. A US patrol similarly machine-gunned a bus, wounding or killing 15 of its passengers, and in 2007 Polish troops mortared a village, killing a wedding party including a pregnant woman, in an apparent revenge attack.
Questionable shootings of civilians by UK troops also figure. The US compilers detail an unusual cluster of four British shootings in Kabul in the space of barely a month, in October/November 2007, culminating in the death of the son of an Afghan general. Of one shooting, they wrote: "Investigation controlled by the British. We are not able to get [sic] complete story."
A second cluster of similar shootings, all involving Royal Marine commandos in Helmand province, took place in a six-month period at the end of 2008, according to the log entries.
As I have stated here before, I believe that civilian casualties are part and parcel of any war and - whilst always tragic - are not necessarily evidence of neglect or of deliberate targeting of civilians (of course, sometimes it is). So unlike the Guardian, for example, I don't see all of this as evidence that the campaign is immoral.
But I can't help wondering how the "international community" would have reacted had Israel been accused of similar actions. Many people, at the moment, are focused on the question of whether the documents should have been leaked, entirely skirting the implications of what they actually say; the American administration is currently busy brushing off responsibility, emphasising that this was all under George W's watch. Because yes, this stuff has been going on for years with hardly anyone showing any concern at all; for all the Guardian's fury now, it has taken it years to work itself into this lather of righteous indignation. The numbers were there ages ago, if only they had wanted to see them.
Meanwhile, Israel is being put through investigation after investigation following Operation Cast Lead and the flotilla affair - forced to answer for every civilian killed under its watch. Funny that.
- Jul 26, 2010
Shimon Peres looks on the bright side:
How do you explain the rise in the delegitimization of Israel in the world in recent years? Do you agree that this is happening?
Let me give you a contrary picture: Israel is the most popular country in the world... For 2,000 years there was friction between the Vatican and the Jews. There are, what is it, 1.3 billion Christians? Now we have excellent relations with the Vatican. This is no small thing. And we have good relations with India, also hit by Muslim terrorists. And that’s together 3 billion. And [we now have] excellent relations with China.
That's another 1.3 billion people, FYI - 4.5 billion in total.
I suggest you don't think about the holes in the argument too much and just enjoy, for a moment, the feeling of Israel being popular. It's been too long.....
- Jul 23, 2010
When I first read this I was sure it was a spoof, but here is a real summary of the plot of Eastenders next week:
Returning from the bathroom, Jodie's horrified as Darren's stood there in his boxer shorts. Jodie screams 'Oh My God!' before rushing out. Darren stares down at his nether regions, bemused by her reaction…
Rushing to the front door, Darren's delighted to see Jodie. The pair awkwardly attempt to talk about what happened but she soon reveals the reason behind her reaction - he's not Jewish enough.
Fighting back the tears, Jodie admits that even though she's not truly religious, she can't be with him.
Meanwhile, Max is curious to know why Darren's been using his computer and when he delves into the browsing history, he finds websites about circumcision. When confronted, Darren protests that he's considering the procedure for Jodie. Max, however, explains how it's a step too far for anyone and suggests that he end their relationship.
Well, I'm going to reveal something fairly embarrasing here. Eastenders and I go back a long way. And I have to say, the prospect of spending August watching Darren agonising over whether he should go through with a brit milah makes me think one thing: Thank G-d I'm away for the summer.
I suppose that after doing a sensitive Muslim plotline (Syed) and a rather less sensitive Christian plotline (Lucas), the Eastenders producers had to round off their summer of Abrahamic faiths with a ludicrous Jewish plotline. Now, I don't want to lose my sense of humour here, but to be honest, I'm cringing. The Square's first Jewish family in years (if ever? Did Dr Legge and Felix have families?) are textbook stereotypical Jews: flush with money and completely vacuous. Their last name is Gold, for G-d's sake. They film this stuff in Borehamwood, couldn't they have come up with a more realistic family?
Daughter Jodie is so dumb it took seeing Darren with his trousers down for her to realise he wasn't Jewish. (Sorry, not Jewish "enough". I'd love to know what part of Darren she thinks is Jew-ish.)
And in all seriousness, the subject of intermarriage is very sensitive and this takes a stab at it with a butcher's knife. Essentially - and I hope I'm proven wrong here - Jodie is going to come across as a complete racist for wanting to date only other Jews "even though she's not truly religious". I hope the producers allow her to make a more substantial argument but somehow, seeing as there's nothing "Jewish" about her family other than the crudest stereotypes and seeing as she has the brain the size of a pea, it's unlikely.
All that said, I can't wait for the episode where Jodie takes Darren to meet the London Beth Din. Just kidding. I wish!
- Jul 23, 2010
Re: my post on who gets to speak at funerals, a rabbi writes:
Listening carefully to some colleagues always gave me the impression that they thought it their God-given exclusive right to speak at funerals, as though this was, somehow, an indispensible rabbinical duty. They seemed to object to lay speakers on the grounds that it was depriving them of an important part of their job, something I found to be incomprehensible.
In most cases, I offer the family the opportunity to speak, which they sometimes accept, but always offer to speak if they prefer.
- Jul 22, 2010
Journalist Michael Totten writes:
The warm welcome travelers experience in the Arab world is so well-known it has become a guidebook cliché, but the Arabs have earned it. Their part of the world seems to suffer from no end of grave and serious problems, but a dearth of manners and kindness for strangers isn’t one of them. Everything you have heard about their hospitality code is true. Even first-time visitors who expect it are often astonished — especially Americans who might be used to frosty receptions in Europe.
Less well-known is the hospitality of Israelis. Their reputation is on-par with that of New Yorkers. Aggressive security officials at the airport, yelling taxi drivers, and occasionally abusive wait staff can put people off. That sort of thing, though, accounts for less than 1 percent of my experience when working in Israel.
A few days ago, I announced that I’m leaving for Israel this week now that I’ve finished and sold my book, and the same thing happened that always does when I mention in public that I’m on my way over there. My in-box filled with offers of generous assistance from Israelis whom I’ve never met or even heard of. Most offered to buy me dinner. Some said I could sleep on their couch or in a spare bedroom. A few even offered to show me around, introduce me to people, and set up appointments for me. Some of these offers even showed up in my comments section.
This rarely happens when I go anywhere else in the world. It happens every time I’ve announced a trip to Israel, though, in times of peace and during war, and it has been happening to me for years.
I get these sorts of offers from the entire range of Israeli society, from people affiliated with Peace Now to the settler movement. I can always count on kind and generous people in Arab countries to help me out once I’ve arrived, but only Israelis reach out so extensively, so consistently, and in such large numbers before I even get off the plane.
I've never understood why people who have visited the Arab world drag out Palestinian hospitality as evidence of their innate goodness and - therefore - worthiness as a political cause. It seems perfectly clear to me that on a personal level, you can be a warm, generous, hospitable human being - while on the political level, have malign and even murderous intent. You only have to look at all those mass murderers and terror suspects whose neighbours swear they are quiet, good citizens.
I have always wanted to send those who seem to equate "Palestinians offered me coffee" with "Palestinians are wonderful people who are being cruelly repressed by an evil Israel" to visit the most radical Israeli settlers. The fact is that some of the nicest people I know - on a personal level - are settlers and would doubtless be just as kind, just as caring and just as welcoming to any foreign guest as are their Palestinian neighbours. Does that exclude them from having mad or dangerous politics? I doubt most Western visitors would think so, but they seem mysteriously incapable of following the same logical path with the Palestinians.
- Jul 22, 2010
When, last year, the United Synagogue changed its rules barring laypeople from delivering eulogies at funerals, I was strongly behind it. I had been frequently shocked by the impersonal nature of funerals here, with rabbis who did not know the deceased, or who did not know them well, giving a few biographical details and saying little else of interest. (I remember in particular one funeral of a young woman, where the rabbi referred to her throughout the eulogy by her Hebrew name, although she was not known by it at all.) It struck me as offensive to the person who had died - surely everyone deserves something meaningful and heartfelt to be said about them at their own funerals! - as well as to the mourners, who very often want to express their feelings about their spouse or parent at this most important of times.
But here comes a word of warning from Eric Yoffie, the head of the Reform movement in the United States. He argues that American Jewry has gone too far the other way, and has written a piece about how laypeople speaking at funerals (the norm, not the exception, in American Jewish funerals) has caused problems as well as solved them:
Family members discovered that when a close relative died, there was an expectation that one of them would speak -- even if they had no desire to do so. Since Jewish burials take place as soon as possible after the death, individuals still reeling from the impact of a loss find themselves under pressure -- real or self-imposed -- to talk at the funeral and represent the family to the community. Some refuse and feel guilty. Others agree but find the task difficult and painful. Either way, an unfair burden is imposed on those who are in profound distress.
Another problem -- delicate but unavoidable -- is that not everyone is suited to offer a eulogy at a funeral. The issue is not whether a mourner has public speaking experience or can give a polished talk; the absence of experience and polish is often an advantage. But someone who is uncomfortable in front of a group under favorable circumstances is likely to be completely overcome in the highly charged atmosphere of a funeral. The result may be a talk that is exceedingly emotional and barely coherent -- one in which the feelings of the speaker rather than the character of the deceased are primary.
And finally the practice of having family members and friends speak at a funeral can quickly get out of hand. The spouse of the deceased, not certain whom to invite and afraid of leaving someone out, feels that all of her children, or perhaps even all of her grandchildren, should say something. Friends, seeing that other friends are participating, come forward and offer -- sometimes quite insistently -- to participate as well, and it is awkward to turn them down. Many end up sharing anecdotes that are more about themselves than about their late friend, and -- yes, it happens -- trying to outdo the other speakers. The result? A funeral like the one mentioned above that leaves the members of the congregation both uncomfortable and bored, shifting in their seats and surreptitiously looking at the watches. Most important, the closest relatives cannot help but sense what is happening, and they suffer as a result.
Of course, these are the things that the US always warned about. Hopefully our British reserve and sense of propriety, as well as the continuing close involvement of our rabbis in all funerals, will prevent many of these problems. Certainly the rabbis conducting the funerals should emphasise to the mourners that they are under no obligation to speak if they don't want to (perhaps they already do, I don't know).
I have, sadly, been to several funerals since the laypeople rule was relaxed and they have all been highly dignified, very touching services.
- Jul 19, 2010
- Jul 16, 2010
My colleague Anshel Pfeffer has written a thought-provoking piece in Haaretz, in which he argues that we no longer need to fast on Tisha b'Av (which falls next week) because we have returned from exile, and because - he says - it would be perfectly possible to re-build a temple nowdays, if only there was the political will and religious interest (which there isn't).
Mourning on the Ninth of Av in this day and age flies in the face of both secular Zionism and religious Zionism. It contradicts the right of Jews around the world to decide where they prefer to live. The exile is over, and the temple has not been rebuilt because we don't want to do it.
The only ideologies that can justify continuing this observance are those that see democratic Israel as a heretic entity defying the majesty of God on earth. But if you are not a member of the Eda Haredit or a settler from Yitzhar, how can you mourn on Tisha B'Av in good conscience?
Well, let me explain why I still fast on Tisha b'Av - beyond the fact that it is a religious obligation - and why I believe it is still a fast which is relevant for each and every Jew, no matter where they live, what their religious or political orientation and whether they are interested in the return of Temple life or not.
For me, Tisha b'Av is not about the destruction of the Temple and the exile per se - but about the reasons why both these things happened. Traditionally, we ascribe them to needless hatred, as well as to idolatry, adultery and murder. But if you look closely at the biblical sources, there is something else at play.
In several different convenants with God, the Jewish people are given the mission of building a just and moral society, where the needs of the weak - the stranger, the orphan and the widow - are paramount and which can serve as a 'light unto the nations'. The land of Israel was given to us as a place in which to build this society; the Temple, in which God dwells, is the centre of all this.
We are thrown into exile when our society is corrupt. Indeed, a close reading of Jeremiah, before the destruction of the first temple, makes it abundantly clear that the Jews in the land of Israel before the destruction of the temple (the majority were already in exile many years beforehand) were what we would consider today 'frum'; they were dedicated to the Temple, they brought sacrifices, celebrated the festivals etc. However, they were unethical, and this is ultimately what forced them out of the land and brought about the destruction of the Temple. God, Jeremiah explicitely says, does not want sacrifices from such people.
These themes were explored in detail in a fascinating course by Rabbi Menachem Leibtag on exile and return, which I took recently at the brilliant London School of Jewish Studies. But Rabbi Shlomo Riskin expresses much the same sentiments:
So what is it about the loss of the Temple which engenders such national mourning? I would submit that the Holy Temple was inextricably intertwined with our national mission: to be God's witnesses, and thereby serve as a light unto the nations, bringing humanity to the God of justice, morality and peace. Our prophets saw the Temple as the living example from which all nations could learn how to perfect society. With the loss of the Temple, we ceased to be "players" on the world stage; we lost the means by which our message was to be promulgated. And a world without compassionate righteousness and just morality - especially with the possibility of global nuclear destruction - is a world which cannot endure.
Read the whole thing here.
Ultimately, what we should be mourning on Tisha b'Av is not the effect - the exile - but the cause, our failure to build a society where justice and morality are the guiding concerns, and our misguided emphasis on religious practice without the accompanying ethics.
Surely this is as relevant as ever today?
- Jul 16, 2010
On the Main Line has posted a few pages from an 18th century book on Anglo-Jewry before the expulsion in 1290. It includes a picture of a bowl, found by a fisherman in a brook around 1700, with a Hebrew inscription (which seems - as far as I can tell - to dedicate it to one Joseph, son of Rabbi Yechiel from Poland / advisor to a Polish community). Jews at the time could not explain its usage; he suggests that it is an ancient version of a pushke, or tzedakah box.
Any other suggestions?
- Jul 15, 2010
Brilliant set of photos taken by the Israeli delegation to the Camp David Summit, 10 years ago this week. (Link takes you to the FB page of Noah Slepkov, an advisor to MK Einat Wilf.)
With hindsight, it's interesting to see Barak's body language - he is clearly most enthusiastic, while Clinton seems more reserved. But they do seem to have all the chemistry. Arafat - in the few pictures in which he appears - looks like a third wheel who is just playing along.