Saturday, 13 April 2019

Crash But Not Burn

It felt a little like déjà vu on Thursday night.  My mind was transported back to February 2003 when the whole of Israel waited with baited breath as the Space Shuttle Columbia re-entered the earth's atmosphere with the very first ever Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon on board.  Despite feeling immense pride at the amazing achievements made by a tiny country and its first astronaut, the day was not to end well.  The space shuttle burned up during its re-entry to the atmosphere killing all on board in the process.  Ilan Ramon's memory remains a folk legend in Israel.  And so, too, there was disaster last night as Beresheet, Israel's first ever lunar craft, made its final approach to the Sea of Serenity.  Unfortunately another failure along Israel's route to becoming a superstar country in the area of space travel and exploration.  The quest to become only the world's fourth country to safely land a craft on the moon was not achieved yesterday by the Israeli lunar lander.

In spite of another setback for Israel in the field of space exploration, there were so many positive things that came out of Beresheet's trip to the moon that it is really difficult to see it as a failure at all.  Coming at the end of a week that also saw a general election that proved to be very divisive in many respects, it was heart-warming to see how the country and the Jewish world united in support of Beresheet.  Willing it to safely land on the surface of the moon.  Willing Israel to take up an important place as one of the handful of nations to achieve this.  This unified support was in such contrast to the previous few days over the period of the election, and would have seemed impossible only two or three days earlier.  This extended not only to those in Israel, but to Jews around the world.  We could feel a real sense of support from Jews around the world during the time of this project, something that is not taken for granted at all.

The fact that Israel became only the seventh nation on earth to send a spacecraft into orbit around the moon, is a huge achievement in itself.  And this was the very first project not sponsored by a national government, making the achievement quite unique.  This is a great response to those who use every opportunity to criticise Israel and to those who wish to destroy her.  This is the way to answer those who accuse Israel of being an apartheid state, and to demonstrate to BDS and its supporters that there is tremendous depth to Israeli ingenuity and huge desire to develop, to build and to make a real difference in science, technology and other fields.  This is the way to show that the Israel that is seen on BBC and CNN and that is castigated at the UNHRC, is not the real face of Israel.  Beresheet is a much truer face and a fairer reflection of what Israel really stands for and what she is truly about.  This shows Israel to be a nation that builds rather than destroying, and this stands in stark contrast to the lack of any positive achievements by many of Israel's enemies.

The attention that this project has drawn to the field of space travel and space exploration in Israel is almost on the scale of the attention drawn to it by Ilan Ramon and his exploits.  Surely, the interest of the next generation is almost assured in the process.  In spite of the slip-up at the final hurdle, young Israelis have been excited by this story sufficiently to ensure that they will be seeking ways of succeeding where Beresheet failed.  In the same way that we did not hear the last of Ilan Ramon when Columbia disintegrated and  he went on to become a household name and a legend, I am sure that we have not heard the end of an Israeli lunar landing.  It seems not to be coincidental that the name chosen for the spacecraft was Beresheet, the first word in the Torah with the meaning of "in the beginning".  Just as the name signifies, this seems to be just the beginning of great things to come.

Huge credit needs to go to the SpaceIL team, to sponsor and president Morris Kahn and to all those involved in the project.  They gave Israel and Israelis a dream and something around which to unite and feel proud.  And they gave thousands of Israeli children the little flame to ignite their interest and their desire and determination to ultimately succeed in the quest to have Israel successfully land on the moon.  This is a huge achievement and a very positive island in a huge sea of negativity that often surrounds Israel.

The Israeli flag and the Torah are on the moon.  They landed there with a crash rather than in the elegant way that we would have preferred.  But they are there to stay.  They may have crashed, but they did not burn.  A marker has been established, and this is certainly not the last that we will hear of Israeli ventures in space.  It is just the beginning.

Friday, 29 March 2019

State Sponsored Anti-Semitism is Rife

Norwegian Attorney General Tor Aksel Busch last week decided that a comment cursing Jews, that was made by Norwegian Muslim rapper Kaveh Kholardi during a concert last year, is not anti-Semitic hate speech but rather legitimate criticism of Israel.  Kholardi made the comment "f*cking Jews" at a family-friendly concert in June 2018 to promote diversity.  It was not bad enough that Iranian-born Kholardi thought it was acceptable to make this comment at his concert.  This has been exacerbated by the fact that two different public officials in Norway have ruled that this comment does not constitute hate speech.  State Prosecutor Trude Antonsen found that,while derogatory and offensive, the remark did not constitute a criminal act.  This may well be the case under the laws of Norway, in which case the laws need some adjustment.  But the fact that the attorney general decided that this constitutes legitimate criticism of Israel, is perhaps more offensive than the original comment.

I am enraged by this decision for a number of reasons.  When a performing artist stands up at a public concert and says "f*cking Jews", it seems to me that his comment is clear and speaks for itself.  The fact that he may say afterwards that he was only joking does not unring the bell or make his statement any more acceptable.  Surely there can be no clearer example of anti-Semitic speech than this statement.  There is no interpretation required, and there can be no accusation that the statement was taken out of context.  Such a statement is anti-Semitic no matter what the context.  It is offensive, unacceptable and illegal in many countries around the world.

Why would anybody believe that this statement translates into criticism of Israel in any way?  Aside from the fact that Israel happens to be a Jewish state, and that many of the Jews there would be extremely offended by the statement, there is no link between this curse of Jews and criticism of Israel.  In my view, criticism of Israel may refer to particular policies of the government or actions of those acting on behalf of the state.  A blanket curse of all Jews in this way has surely nothing to do with legitimate criticism of Israel.  If, for one fleeting moment, I was to accept the fact that this curse was an act of criticism of Israel, could it in any way be considered to be legitimate?  I have my sincere doubts.  Just because I feel that the Norwegian attorney general has acted to embarrass his country and insult me and my people, I would not be justified to say "f*cking Norwegians" as a response.  And I would not do so.  Instead, I would be happier and more justified to say "f*ck Tor Aksel Busch for being an anti-Semite".

The notion that anti-Semitism can be justified and made politically correct by dressing it up as legitimate criticism of Israel needs to be opposed as strongly as possible.  It is becoming more and more accepted that anti-Jewish rhetoric and actions are OK because Israel is deserving of criticism.  It is equally common-place that anti-Semitism is expressed as criticism of Israel.  This legitmisation is reinforced when international bodies and representatives of national governments confirm its acceptability.  It should be clear that this is not acceptable, and that Jews and Israel will not tolerate it.  The fact that Israel gets involved in the protection of Jews and Jewish rights around the world, does not justify anti-Semitism being disguised as legitimate criticism of Israel.

Mr. Busch should be ashamed of his position and his statement on this matter.  He is clearly part of the problem, and not part of the solution.  It is shameful that people like him are left to be the guardians and judges of what is hate speech and what is acceptable.  This act requires the Norwegian government to fire him from his position without delay, and condemn him in the strongest possible terms.  The Norwegian government and Norwegian people should be embarrassed of this decision, and they become complicit by not acting to reverse it.

As Jews, we have come to expect anti-Semitic rhetoric from the general public, particularly those who come from backgrounds that typically hold an entrenched and natural hate towards Jews.  In recent years, laws have been enacted to protect us from having to tolerate hate speech, laws that also serve to protect other minority groups.  These laws become a joke if they are left under the auspices of people like Tor Aksel Busch to interpret and implement.  This effectively reinforces anti-Semitism at an institutional and governmental level.  The last time that this happened was in the lead-up to the annihilation of 6 million Jews as part of an anti-Semitic genocide sponsored by states and governments,  This will never be allowed to happen again, in spite of haters like Tor Aksel Busch.

Monday, 4 March 2019

The Polish Dilemma

The recent diplomatic spat between Israel and Poland unfortunately raises a long, ongoing issue about Holocaust denial, and the denial by certain groups of their involvement n the perpetration of acts of genocide against Jews during the Shoah.  The Polish denial is already not new.  Israel finds it has something of a dilemma about how to respond to the unacceptable Polish position.

In early 2018, Poland passed a law that criminalised  any reference to Poland or Poles being involved or complicit in crimes committed during the Shoah.  In particular, the law criminalised use of the term "Polish death camps".  In essence, the Poles have denied that crimes committed on Polish soil during the Shoah were anything to do with Poland or Polish people.  Instead, the blame is being laid squarely at the door of the Nazis and the Third Reich, which occupied Poland at that time.  While the acts and influences by the Nazis is undeniable, there is also little doubt that Poles were complicit in some terrible crimes that were perpetrated in the Shoah against Jews.  This is true both in the death camps and ghettos that were on Polish soil, and in individual events that took place elsewhere.  Former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, whose father was killed during the Shoah by Poles, adamantly claimed that "Poles suckle antisemitism with their mothers' milk".  This statement is considered to have significantly delayed the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and Poland, but also shows the strength of his hatred towards the antisemitism shown by Poles.

The official Polish position on all that took place during the Shoah in Poland is that it was either perpetrated by the Nazis, or was perpetrated at the instigation of the Nazis.  This effectively absolves Poland and Polish people of any crimes committed against Jews, as the Nazis are blamed even for the crimes committed by Poles.  Why does Israel care about what Poland says now about acts that were committed more than 70 years ago?  Why does Israel feel that it has a dilemma about how to respond to Poland's position on Shoah-era actions?

Antisemitism is increasingly visible and rife around the world.  Much of it is dressed up as anti-Israel activity in an attempt to make it politically acceptable to express in public.  But the age-old antisemitism that was so prevalent in the years leading up to the Shoah and during the Shoah, is very visible again today.  And it is being too easily and broadly tolerated.   Poland is not exempt from this phenomenon, with highly visible signs of antisemitism evident all around Poland.  It is incumbent upon the Polish government to acknowledge and accept the actions of Poles during the Shoah as a platform to oppose it in the current day.  If Israel was to simply smooth over the role of the Poles during the Shoah, this would serve not only to insult the memories of numerous Jews and non-Jews who were killed or abused at the hands of Poles or where Poles were complicit or indifferent, but it would also serve to dilute the fight against antisemitism in Poland in the current day.

In spite of this, we cannot forget that there are more Poles who have been declared "Righteous Among the Nations" by Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre, than any other nation.  This is a title bestowed upon those who helped Jews in spite of the overwhelming social pressures that influenced them to be antisemitic.  There is no attempt to paint the Polish people as universally antisemitic.  It is important to recognise both right and wrong.  The real dilemma for Israel presents itself in the form of the opposition to this by the Polish government that has an impact on diplomatic relations between the two countries.  Cordial diplomatic relations with Poland have helped Israel to educate many of its younger generation and young leadership by sending them to Poland to witness first-hand the atrocities that were committed at the death camps on Polish soil.  This education process culminates each year in the annual "March of the Living" during which Jews return to Auschwitz-Birkenau with Israeli Air Force planes flying overhead to proclaim "never again".  If this is all that Israel manages to get out of its diplomatic relations with Poland, it is a great deal.  And probably enough to justify maintaining diplomatic relations almost at any price.

The law in Poland has now been changed such that it is no longer a criminal offence to implicate Poland in the Shoah, but now "only" a civil offence.  The denial has been diluted in its severity rather than being cancelled, which is surely not enough.  This denial is unwelcome, and is supporting the resurgence of antisemitism in Poland, Europe and around the world.  The Polish government stands accused, once again, of being complicit to antisemitism.  And, while the Israeli government and officials will continue to speak out on this matter, this opposition is unlikely to be allowed to derail the diplomatic relations between the two countries.  With some justification.

Under current circumstances, I would forego diplomatic relations with Poland to protest their denial.  I would make a statement that requires Poland to recognise the role played by Poles in persecuting Jews, even if this comes at the expense of diplomatic relations with Poland.  I support Prime Minister Netanyahu in his insistence on taking the difficult decision to talk about this during his recent trip to Poland.  Anything less would be a statement condoning antisemitism.  Even though more than 70 years have passed since the Shoah, Poland should be forced to acknowledge the role played by Polish forefathers in this black period in Poland's history.