Sunday 28 June 2009

Misguided Criticism

The newspapers last week were cautiously reporting the possibility that a prisoner exchange deal may have been struck between Israel and Hamas to allow for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit to be moved to Egypt. This would be the first stage of his ultimate return to Israel. Whilst Israel is denying any knowledge of this, the news is nonetheless more optimistic than it has been for some time. Along with this optimistic news is a related, and much less welcome story that has been published in a number of Israeli newspapers. The second story is one which essentially criticises the Shalit family for not having done enough to win Gilad's release. This criticism is, in my view, severely misguided.

Since his capture three years ago, Gilad Shalit's name and his image have become known and recognised by every citizen in Israel. His face has been plastered on billboards up and down the country reminding citizens that he is still alive in captivity. Stickers have been stuck on cars and T-shirts worn by schoolchildren showing the image of the captured soldier. Prayers have been said for him in synagogues throughout Israel. Many tens of meetings with government officials were held. Numerous and lengthy protests have been staged in all parts of Israel including outside the Prime Minister's residence. His parents have met with heads of state, representatives of the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross and numerous other international officials who may have been able to help to influence Gilad's release. His name has not been absent from the national press for even one day. I believe that his family has acted in a concerted, yet respectful manner to ensure that nobody can forget their beloved son. And all this has been undertaken during a time of real stress and suffering for them. There are others who may have been inclined to adopt a more traditionally Israeli approach which contains heightened levels of aggression. I don't believe that this would have added anything to the efforts that this family has undertaken.

I wish to take my argument one step further. Let us assume for a moment that the criticism of the detractors was justified. What if the Shalit family had not undertaken all of the above activities in the pursuit of the release of their son? Would criticism of this fact help anybody? Whose responsibility is it to ensure that Gilad is returned alive to his family? He was captured by virtue of his service in the Israel Defence Forces, not because somebody had something against him personally. Surely, any criticism should be directed at the government and the IDF, if at all. The truth is that we really need to stand united as a nation at this difficult hour. We need to show as much support to this family as we can. There is enormous stress in suffering the report and counter-report about Gilad and the current status of the negotiations to release him. Surely now is not the time for criticism and division, but for support and unity.

In a country where national service is compulsory, and each and every boy and girl is expected to serve in the IDF, one has to remember that such a calamity could befall any family. Gilad is as much the son of each citizen of Israel, as he is the son of Noam and Aviva Shalit. Every parent with a teenage son or daughter in Israel could say "there, but for the grace of G-d, goes my child".

Now is the time for unity, and for unconditional support to this family that has suffered so much. It is our prayer that Gilad will be returned home alive and well to his family and to us soon.

Sunday 21 June 2009

The Netanyahu Response

Almost a week has passed since Benjamin ("Bibi") Netanyahu delivered his long-awaited speech at Bar Ilan University. The speech was given a huge billing as it was presented as being a response of sorts to Barack Obama's Cairo speech. The eyes and ears of the international community were focused on what Netanyahu was going to say. In particular, there was much speculation about Netanyahu's response to the two key American demands i.e. the two-state solution and the settlement freeze.

The issue of the settlements was addressed towards the end of the speech, probably not entirely to the satisfaction of the American mediators. Whilst the Prime Minister conceded that there is no intention to build new settlements or set land aside for new settlements, he nonetheless offered support for the settler community. Indirectly, he alluded to the need for ongoing natural growth in the existing settlements.

On the issue of a two-state solution, his position seemed closer to what the Americans were hoping to hear. He recognised the rights of the Palestinians to have a state of their own. He described it as demilitarised, a fact which angered some. Nonetheless, he did acknowledge the right of the Palestinian people to have a state alongside the Jewish state.

Although many felt that the acknowledgement of the two-state solution was the significant moment in the speech, for me this was not the case. My main focus was on the first half of the speech which Netanyahu used to emphasize the rights of the Jews to have a state in the Land of Israel. Whilst Bibi seemed to be trying to be subtle about expressing this point of view, Saul Singer wrote a forceful article in the Jerusalem Post in which he argues that the problem with the two-state solution is not that Israel is denying the Palestinians a state. The problem is that the Arabs are continuing to deny Israel the right to be an independent Jewish state. This position dates back to long before the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, and has been the cause of the numerous wars and terror attacks, all of which are aimed at destroying the Jewish state.

The only reason why there is any hesitation by the government and the people of Israel in welcoming the establishment of a Palestinian state with open arms, is because of the suspicion and fear that this state will be subversively used to try to destroy Israel and the Jews living here. It is my contention that unconditional recognition by all Arabs of the right of Israel to exist as an independent Jewish country will bring an immediate end to the Arab-Israeli conflict. If this is so, then surely the Americans are concentrating their efforts in the wrong place? They should be convincing the Arabs of Israel's right to exist rather than convincing the Israelis of the rights of the Palestinians to have state.

Although Bibi conditioned the existence of a Palestinian state on it being demilitarised, I think that he got the condition wrong. He should have conditioned it on the Palestinians unequivocally signing up to the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state. Nothing less will be acceptable.

Saturday 20 June 2009

Counting Blessings

It has often been said that it takes a real crisis to learn certain truths in life. Things that seem true during the course of a regular day, week or month often turn out to be a smokescreen for what is really true. And a crisis somehow seems to bring the truth into sharp focus, and dispels any myths that may have been dressing up as the truth.

It would be safe to say that I have been through the toughest week of my life so far. The difficulties were largely self-inflicted, but this unfortunately does not make it any easier. A difficult time is not made any easier by virtue of the cause of the problem. Equally, any support that is received during a tough period is welcome no matter the source of the problem or the source of the support.

I have been fortunate enough to receive support from many different sources and directions during my moment of difficulty. This gave me immense strength to get through the week. The greatest support surprisingly came from the source which was the least expected.

It took a crisis in my life to really learn a few truths about those who surround me. In particular, I learned not to take anything for granted. But most of all, I learned who I can really rely upon in when in a tight spot.

You guys know who you are. Thanks !!

Sunday 14 June 2009

Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder

The Torah reading that was read in Israel over last Shabbat was "Shelach Lecha". Although many readings are closely associated to the Land of Israel, this reading is probably most closely associated with our homeland.

This is the reading where Moses sent his group of spies to "scout" or reconnoitre the land. One spy was sent from each of the twelve tribes. They spent 40 days on their mission to investigate the promised land, after which they returned to Moses, Aaron and the Children of Israel to report back on their findings. One by one, the spies provide pessimistic reports about the land and the people living there. This caused panic amongst the listeners. All the spies brought similar stories except for Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Yefuneh. Not only did they provide an upbeat report, they declared that the land is "very very good", using superlatives that are seldom used in the Torah.

It is clear that all twelve spies went to the same place. So, there was no case of some parts being good and other parts being bad. It is a classic case of "beauty is in the eye of the beholder". Everybody saw the same things with their eyes. Some liked what they saw more than others. It seems to me that the first recorded "aliyah pilot tour" in history set the tone for all future pilot tours, and indeed for the experiences of people making aliyah to live in the promised land.

If we fast-forward approximately 3,000 years, it would appear as though nothing has changed since the twelve spies first set foot in the Land of Israel. Those who were somewhat sceptical or indifferent before their arrival to investigate, reported back in a sceptical and indifferent manner upon their return. Those who were believers and enthusiastic before their trip returned with an enthusiastic and optimistic report of what they had seen. In this case, the lower the enthusiasm and the expectation, the lower the outcome. The same is also true once people come to live in Israel. The more positive and optimistic the outlook, the greater prospect of success.

Israel is undoubtedly a difficult country to survive in. The combination of constant security threats, so many diverse cultures and culture clashes, language difficulties and economic challenges make this country tougher than most to survive in. And yet, there are so many positive aspects of living here, as a Jew and a human being. As much as I know that there are people who arrive with a positive outlook and who are ultimately broken down by the system, I am pleased that there are more people who manage to survive and raise children and grandchildren in the Holy Land. I am also often astonished to hear even about non-Jewish people who choose to make Israel their home, and love every moment of living here. Fortunately, and unlike the spies, those with good stories are in the majority.

Perhaps the story of the 12 spies was a precursor and warning of what would come in the future? The naysayers of the spies were condemned in history as "sinners" for speaking out against the promised land, and for doubting G-d's promise.

Whilst I don't necessarily feel that those in the modern day who have not succeeded in making their lives here should be condemned in the same way, it is my hope that the followers of Caleb and Joshua will continue to be in the majority.

Saturday 6 June 2009

Oh Dear Obama !

Barack Obama's visit to Egypt this week and his speech entitled "A New Beginning" is part of a policy pursued by the new US President that worries me a great deal. Whilst many newspaper inches have been filled up dissecting each and every word that was uttered, my concern is more of a big-picture one. Why is it that the President feels the necessity to be so apologetic towards the Muslims, and to now actively court the Muslim world?

Just to dispel any misunderstandings, I have no issues with Islam, the Islamic religion and the Muslim nation. As one of the world's monotheistic religions alongside Christianity and Judaism, I have a great deal of respect for Islam, its writings and prophets. My problem is with certain elements who use Islam as a reason to promote anti-western behaviour, and those who use Islam as a means to transfer their anti-social and terrorist activities around the world. In many instances, this behaviour is in the form of terrorism against legitimately elected governments and against private individuals who are unknown to the terrorists and have never wronged them. Surely, private citizens have the right to continue their lives without the fear of such disgraceful threats against their personal safety? In many instances, these threats and actual attacks are carried out in the name of Islam, or by people who actively preach Islam as part of their terrorist activities.

It is more than just a passing coincidence that all the individuals involved in the September 11th attacks in the US were Muslims. The same is true of the perpetrators of the July 7th attacks in London and numerous other attacks that have been carried out (and prevented) around the world. What is also noticeable is the fact that these people make an open point of linking their terrorist activities to their Muslim faith. On the most recent State Department List of Foreign Terrorist Groups issued in April 2008, 26 of the 44 organisations on the list are obviously Muslim groups that can easily identified as such just by the name of their organisation. It is possible that others are also Muslim organisations that are not obviously so from their names. From this I have concluded that, whilst all Muslims are not terrorists, the majority of terrorists seem to be Muslims.

The USA has offered a home and citizenship to many millions of Muslims in the same way as it has offered to other religions and people from other countries. This is also true of many European and other western nations who have admitted Muslims from all around the world to be citizens. The notion that the west has an axe to grind with Islam, or has embarked upon a policy of treating Muslims around the world in a less than fair manner is surely recognised by most reasonable people as pure fiction. Current military actions in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere were initiated in response to attacks or threats on the west's freedom and democracy, rather than as an attack on Islam. Maybe freedom and democracy is not a relevant style of government in the Muslim world, but this does not give Muslims the right to deny others the right to live like this. Equally, the west has a right to defend its freedoms and its rights when they come under attack from outside forces.

Surely President Obama recognises the fact that the USA has not actively pursued a policy of discrimination against Muslims? If he does recognise this, why does he feel the necessity at this time to apologise for the way in which Muslims have been treated? He seems to be blaming the Bush administration for maltreatment of Muslims. And now, President Obama arrives in the form of a superhero to apologise for the wrongs of his predecessor and to bring peace upon the planet. The timing and manner of his "New Beginning" seem to me to be fatally flawed.

My fear is that the "New Beginning" will show a weakness on the part of the west that will be exploited by the Muslim terrorist organisations. At a time when the free world should be standing shoulder-to-shoulder and pursuing a zero tolerance policy, a key player is opening up a weak front. This can only encourage those that wish to undermine peace and democracy to try to take advantage of the lack of unity and resolve that now seems to exist amongst western countries.

For more than 60 years, many highly intelligent and capable people have applied themselves to try to solve the conundrum of achieving a lasting peace in the Middle East. Obama displays an alarming level of arrogance when he makes statements indicating this he can insist that the parties reach a peace deal within two years. His people may indeed be smart and talented, but it seems as though his arrogance can only be detrimental to efforts to bring peace. I fear that his "New Beginning" will be a beginning of something that will make the situation worse rather than better. To my mind, a more appropriate message to the Muslim world would be that we will respect and embrace those who respect and embrace us, and that we will single-mindedly act to eliminate those who do not.