Saturday 26 November 2011

Message To My Son

My son,

For the past fourteen years, we knew that this day would eventually come.  Somehow, I did not imagine that it would be like this.   When we decided all those years ago to make our home in Israel, you were only 6 years old.  The notion of you becoming a soldier in the Israel Defense Force (IDF) seemed so far removed from the reality of our everyday lives. We were living in the post-Oslo period, which gave us all a false sense of security that peace was about to break out in the Middle East.  The advantages of moving our lives to the Jewish homeland, seemed to far outweigh the disadvantages.  This was true even when we considered the fact that you would be obliged to serve in the Jewish army.  Now that your draft date has arrived,  I find myself revisiting those decisions taken on your behalf, and the events that have occurred since then.

Over the years, we have discovered that the hopes that we all had for peace, were simply a false facade for the duplicitous dealings of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.  We have been forced to endure wars, terror attacks and continued threats to destroy Israel and the Jewish people.  We have witnessed how any young man or woman in the IDF uniform has become a target for attack or kidnap by our enemies.  All of these things contribute to making your service in the IDF a much more dangerous and risky prospect than was previously the case.  In a perverse sort of way, it is also these events that make your service of greater value and importance to Israel and the Jewish people than before.

During the course of your schooling in Israel, you have learned about the numerous attempts to annihilate the Jewish people.  You have visited Auschwitz and other death camps in Poland where millions of Jews were put to death, only because they were Jews.  You understand very well, the context of the service that you are about to render in the IDF.  You know that 6 million Jews would not have lost their lives in the Holocaust if a Jewish army had existed at that time.  You also know that new Hitlers arise in every generation.  Given the chance, Ahmadinejad, Nasrallah and others would follow in Hitler's footsteps to try to wipe the Jews off the earth, even in our day and age.  There is only one thing that stops them from doing so, and this is the IDF.  The IDF not only ensures the safety and survival of Israel and her citizens, it also gives freedom to Jews around the world to exist as Jews in relative safety, freedom and security.  As a soldier in the IDF, you will continue to protect all Jews around the world against the numerous enemies that seek to destroy the Jews.  You understand the importance of agreeing to serve in order to ensure that the IDF continues to be a strong force and protector of the Jewish people, even in the future.

Even though the big picture is clear and a great motivating force, it does not necessarily make the day-to-day realities of military life any easier.  You feel unsure of what the future holds for you, and are not clear what your task in the IDF will be or where you will serve.  We feel nervous with you and for you, as you contemplate this great unknown venture ahead of you.  We all know that the army cannot necessarily accommodate every individual's needs and requests, and place each person in the position that is best suited to them personally.  The army's needs come first, and you will be forced to undertake a role which is not one that you would have chosen for yourself.  In spite of all of this, we have watched you approach your military service with tremendous maturity and a positive attitude.  You have done all that you can to guarantee that your rights are protected, and to try to find your way to a role that will keep you interested and well-utilised.  We have equally seen your willingness to do whatever is needed, even where this does not necessarily match what you want.

Today, as I watch these events before my eyes, and contemplate the next three years in which you will be a soldier in the IDF, I feel a tremendous pride.  I am enormously proud of the fact that you and your friends are willing to sacrifice three years of your life to serve your country and your people.  At a time when only one in two eligible Israelis are actually being drafted, every man and woman counts for a great deal.  You have stood up and been counted.  I am extremely proud of the fact that you are determined to undertake a role that will keep you challenged and allow you to make a real contribution.  Many have decided that they prefer to lay low and do as little as possible to allow the three years to pass in any uneventful way.  This is not for you.  You are determined to have a job that will keep you interested, and will allow you to make some use of the tremendous talents and skills that you have.  I am proud of the fact that you understand the necessity for you to play your role, at a time when many others are finding ways to escape this.

You have benefited over the past fourteen years from all the good things that Israeli society has to offer its children.  You have had the opportunity to walk the streets in relative safety whenever you wish, and to learn the independence that is typical of Israeli youth.  You have explored all corners of Israel, and connected to the Jewish homeland that was inhabited by your forefathers.  You have celebrated Jewish festivals and Israeli national holidays amongst your fellow Jews.  You have explored and developed your technical skills in an environment that is amongst the most technologically advanced in the world.  You have represented your country in an international competition, bringing great credit to your country, city, school and family.  You have volunteered to help underprivileged youth, and experienced the difficulties that so many people in Israel are suffering.  And now you are ready to take this further in making a commitment to safeguard your country and your people.

We wish you success and happiness during the time that you will serve.  We hope that you will find a way to make a meaningful contribution, and that will allow you to develop yourself in the process.  We pray for your health and safety, in mind and in body, and for the safety of those serving alongside you.  No matter where you are or what you are doing, we will be supporting you all the way, and eagerly awaiting the hours that you will be allowed to spend with us at home.  May Hashem guide and protect you in all that you do, wherever you may be.  I am extremely proud to be your father.

Monday 21 November 2011

Assad Keeps Fighting, But Cannot Survive

The uprising in Syria has continued unabated for the past 8 months.  Despite the fact that thousands of people have already been killed in the process, the uprising shows no signs of being quelled by the strong-arm tactics adopted by President Bashar al-Assad.  Despite Assad fighting the civilian uprising using all military options available to him, he cannot survive this challenge to his leadership.  In the interests of preventing further loss of life, Bashar should accept the inevitable as soon as possible and leave office.

The Syrian uprising has progressed in a substantially different way to the uprisings that took place in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya.  The biggest difference in Syria is the fact that the regime has managed to survive for as long as 8 months, despite constant protests by the opposition and Syrian civilians over this time.  We all know that the long-ruling and well-established governments of Gadaffi, Mubarak and others were unable to survive the attacks that they came under for more than a few months.  So what is it about Assad and Syria that has allowed him to survive for this period of time, despite having already killed more than 3,000 civilians (according to the UN) in his attempt to put down the uprising?

Despite the fact that the uprisings in other countries in the region proved to be the catalyst for the demonstrations in Syria, Assad has benefited from the fact other countries have been suffering unrest.  This has diverted the attention of the world and the international media elsewhere, while he tries to take care of his own back yard.  So far, he has managed to escape the fates that Mubarak and Gadaffi suffered when the world's leaders and media were focused on the events in these countries.  While there have been a few reports and international condemnation of events in Syria, these have not been anywhere as directed as those that were directed at Mubarak and Gadaffi before the demise of these two leaders.  In Assad's case, there are indications that this is about to change over the coming weeks and months now that Syria has been brought into target by the international community.

In the case particularly of Libya, oil had much to do with the decision by NATO to take an active part in Libya's uprising.   There can be no doubt that Gadaffi would probably still have been in power, if it was not for the role played by NATO war planes.  Even though oil exploration and export is an important part of the Syrian economy accounting for as much as 25% of the government's income, Syrian oil only makes up about 0.5% of the world's oil production.  As such, the world has not looked upon Syria with the same concern for its stability as it did when chaos ensued in Libya.  It also means that NATO has no interest in getting involved in Syria.  It enjoys little strategic relevance to the world, either in terms of its location or in terms of its production of oil.  The only possible point of strategic relevance relating to Syria is its ongoing dispute with Israel over the Golan Heights.  It is clear that the world would wish for this issue to be resolved in order to reduce the threat of a war between Syria and Israel which would, undoubtedly, drag other countries in the region into conflict.

Perhaps the most important reason why the world has not come down more harshly on Syria until now, relates to its connections with Iran.  Despite not sharing a common border, Syria and Iran have forged extremely close links over the past few years.  Ahmadinejad's Iran has proved to be the "catching net" for those countries seeking international links, but which have been rejected by countries in the west.  As one of the world's major sponsors of terror, Iran has cast its influence far and wide.  It has also stood up to huge criticism by the international community over its nuclear program, thereby showing itself as a leader of the renegade countries which oppose the influence of the USA and other western powers.  In this respect, Iran has shown itself to be quite an attractive ally for Turkey, Syria and other countries that are struggling to gain acceptance into international circles.  The world has realised that any action against Syria, effectively equates to action against Iran.

On the basis of the close links between Syria and Iran, it is difficult to separate action against Iran's nuclear program from action against Syria's extreme crackdown against protestors.  There is a view that says that the world, by escalating Iran on its nuclear program, is trying to divert Ahmadinejad's attention away from Syria in order to allow the world to take a separate position on this.  There seems to be an attempt to divide and rule.  The Arab League has taken a bold and significant stand against Syria over the past week, by suspending it from the organisation, and threatening to take further diplomatic actions against Syria if Assad does not pull his military forces out of civilian areas and halt the violence.  Although there is no love lost between the Arab League and Iran, the Arab League has taken its time in adopting this stand against Syria in view of the fact that it clearly represents taking a stand against Iran at the same time.

Despite Assad's closeness with Ahmadinejad, he will not be able to survive this uprising against his leadership.  He is destined to go the same route as Gadaffi, Mubarak and other casualties of the Arab Spring.  The question is whether he has learned any lessons from those that have fallen before him.  By hanging on to power longer than he should have, Gadaffi issued a death sentence for himself.  When his demise came, the hatred against him was such that he was never going to survive being captured by the opposition forces.  If Assad is sensible, he still has the opportunity to remove himself from power, thereby saving his life and that of his young family.  Continuing to direct his military forces to kill more civilians will make this outcome less likely, and will endanger his life further at that moment when he is driven from power.

Israel is watching carefully to see where events in Syria will lead.  The fall of Assad's regime will surely weaken Ahmadinejad's influence in the region.  Equally, any action taken against Iran's nuclear program will weaken Syria.  Assad has warned that any action taken by the international community against Syria will cause an earthquake in the region.  He knows that this is likely to drag Iran into a broader war in the Middle East, and the international community knows this too.

Ahmadinejad, it seems, is the big winner in all of this.  Leaders like Assad are running to him like little puppies in order to gain his acceptance and support.  He is standing up to the international community with his continued defiance of their calls against his nuclear program, and by continuing to fund international terrorism.  His name is on everyone's lips in the international press, and at organisations like the UN and the IAEA.  He is the modern-day version of Stalin that all seem to fear.  Even Ahmadinejad, however, cannot save Assad's head.  Assad will need to decide whether he is prepared to jump, or whether he is waiting to be pushed.  The latter option will not be without its consequences for him and his family.  Either way, Assad's eventual downfall can only be good for the region and the world by weakening Iran's influence.

Monday 14 November 2011

Iran Back in the Headlines

Following an eventful summer which has seen the Arab Spring dominate the headlines, Iran's nuclear program is back in the headlines again.  And not too soon.  The fact that the Iranians have had a period of peace while world attention has been focused elsewhere, has allowed them to stay under the radar while continuing to build a nuclear bomb.  The report delivered by the International Atomic Energy Agency last week confirmed this fact, and the world is no longer in a situation where it is forced to rely on seemingly biased intelligence produced by the Israelis or the Americans.

I have heard it said that Iran has the same right as anybody else to build a nuclear bomb.  Nuclear countries, including Israel which continues to maintain nuclear ambiguity, have been accused of double standards by keeping nuclear weapons themselves while trying to deny the Iranians a right to run a nuclear program.  The question is why some countries have the right, while others come under huge international pressure to prevent them from building a nuclear arsenal?  The answer is fairly simple.  It is all down to who has his or her finger on the trigger.  It seems obvious that there is a huge difference between allowing the leader of a democratic country to hold the trigger, and allowing the likes of Ahmadinejad, Saddam Hussein or Colonel Gadaffi to have this right.  Ahmadinejad has succeeded in clinging onto power in Iran only by rigging elections to cheat his rivals, and by silencing and eliminating those who oppose him.  He spends little or no effort dealing with the main issues which confront his country i.e. dealing with economic challenges.  Instead, he spends most of his time and energy on the international stage trying to create some sort of an international personality for himself.  He never misses an opportunity to threaten the destruction of Israel, the USA and other western countries.  Is he the sort of person that we can trust to hold the trigger of a nuclear weapon?  I don't think so.

It has been interesting to watch the development of the Iranian nuclear story.  Initially, there were many denials about whether Iran has a nuclear program at all.  Later, when it was proved beyond a doubt, there was disagreement whether this was focused on civilian or military purposes.  In 2007, US intelligence announced that Iran had ended "nuclear weapon design and weaponization work" in 2003.  Last week's IAEA report has shown that statement to be completely inaccurate.  And now, even when it is proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Iran is building a nuclear bomb, the world seems to stand by and watch from a distance.  Sanctions have proven to be wholly ineffective, and world events such as the Arab Spring and financial crises have served to divert attention elsewhere.   This week, when Iran is back in the headlines, a survey conducted in the USA shows that 57% of Americans think that Israel should attack Iran.  I know that  the Americans are war weary, but surely this seems a crazy expectation?  Why should it be Israel's responsibility to protect the world from one crazy, unpredictable mad person who is building a nuclear weapon?  It is well understood that Iranian missiles can easily hit American targets, and those of many other countries.  The answer may have something to do with the fact that Israel has proved itself capable in these types of attacks before, and has shown sheer audacity in carrying them out on two previous occasions.

As it turns out, the Israeli government also seems to be warming to the idea.  It is well-known that PM Netanyahu is a supporter of such an attack.  Defence Minister Barak, previously opposed to the idea, now seems to be won around.  Indications are that, if a cabinet vote was taken today, the Israeli cabinet would support such a move in principle.  The real challenge is to conceive a plan that would succeed in doing the required damage, and not place Israel in mortal danger of her existence at the same time.  The Iranians have more than a few Shihab missile launchers trained in Israel's direction.  They could do a great deal of damage and result in high numbers of casualties, and would certainly be used to retaliate any strike by Israel on Iran.  It is not clear what sort of attack the Israeli government could approve that would achieve the objective of eliminating Iran's nuclear reactors, while not bringing undue harm to Israel and her citizens.  This is particularly true under the current circumstances, where every newspaper and TV news station in the world is filled with speculation as to what Israel will do next.

And yet, the IDF has a reputation for being highly inventive as well as daring.  The rescue of the hostages under the noses of the terrorists at Entebbe is probably one of the best examples.  The destruction of the Iraqi nuclear at Osirak in 1981 is another example.  Could it be that the IDF has dreamed up something so unexpected and unusual, that the Iranians will not be ready for it when it hits them?  I wouldn't rule this out completely, although the response by Iran when they finally discover what has happened, will be a magnitude larger than Iraq's reaction 30 years ago.

The willingness by Ahmadinejad and his Ayatollahs to fly in the face of world opinion in the construction of the nuclear program, shows that they will stop at nothing.  No sanctions, international condemnation nor diplomatic actions will make any difference to what they are doing.  The only language that they will understand, is the language of force.  This requires a short, sharp strike that will entirely destroy the heart of the program pursued by Iran.  It is true that Israel seems the best qualified, and the country with the greatest incentive, to carry out this attack.  As a very minimum, I would like to believe that other NATO countries will provide some sort of backup, and give Israel all the help and support that she needs to succeed in this highly risky mission.  The consequences of not carrying this out, or not succeeding with such an assignment, seems a much more risky option.  But, who will have the guts to take the required decision, and to carry out the mission?  If this responsibility lands on Israel, will the support there in the way that it should be?  Time will surely tell.

Sunday 6 November 2011

A Spitting Shame

I was horrified to read the details of the trial of Johannes Martarsian, which took place in the Jerusalem Magistrates Court last week.  Martarsian, an Armenian priesthood student, was charged with assault after he punched an ultra-orthodox Jew in the face and made him bleed.  The incident took place in Jerusalem's old city after the ultra-Orthodox man spat at Martarsian.

Judge Dov Pollock annulled the indictment against Martarsian and wrote, "putting the defendant on trial for a single blow at a man who spat at his face, after suffering the degradation of being spat on for years while walking around in his church robes is a fundamental contravention of the principles of justice and decency."  Fortunately, in this case, the judge had the good sense not to waste any more taxpayer money on proceeding to a trial.  Throwing the case out of court was exactly the right response to such a disgraceful situation.

The trial has brought to the fore some of the bad behaviour which is prevalent amongst the ultra-Orthodox community.  It seems as though the spitting incident is not an isolated one.  Clergymen from the Armenian church who are based in Jerusalem report that they are frequently subject to being spat and cursed at by ultra-Orthodox Jews.  One Armenian priest said that he wonders to himself if he will be spat at each time he walks by an ultra-Orthodox Jew in the street.  For some priests, it is difficult to simply ignore the repeated incidents of bad behaviour that they are forced to endure.  Johannes Martarsian is an example of one who decided to respond rather than to simply turn the other cheek, despite the fact that Armenian priests are encouraged by their church not to respond to these incidents of gross provocation.

The ultra-Orthodox community in Jerusalem has an unfortunate reputation for bad behaviour in many different situations.  Women who venture into ultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods in Jerusalem like Mea Shearim, and who are not dressed according to the ultra-Orthodox conservative dress code, will already know that they also become spitting targets.  Equally, cars driving through religious neighbourhoods on Shabbat have been subject to stoning attacks.  This has given rise to the famous T-shirt that has been sold in Jerusalem and purchased by thousands of tourists stating, "I got stoned in Mea Shearim"!  Although these types of attacks are unacceptable, there may be some part of a reasonable person that could condone such behaviour where people enter religious neighbourhoods without respecting the norms of the people that live there.

The attacks on the priests seem of a completely different nature.  There is no disrespect of the ultra-Orthodox lifestyle involved, and no violation of the norms by which they live.  Jerusalem is a city which is open to all religions which wish to be present there.  Not only is this a policy which is rigorously adhered to by the Israeli government and the city of Jerusalem, it is also the source of a great deal of tourist Dollars into the city.  At times, it seems as though the ultra-Orthodox community are completely divorced from the society in which they live, and their actions cannot be tolerated by other reasonable people.  The truth is, that some of their actions are so intolerable, that even those who have grown up within their sects and have become used to their social norms, cannot accept the way in which some situations are dealt with.

The types of insults that these young men give by spitting at others created in G-d's image, have caused me to wonder how they can reconcile this behaviour with their religious beliefs.  The Jewish religion believes in 613 mitzvot (precepts) that observers are required to adhere to.  They are split into mitzvot concerning man's relationship with his G-d, and mitzvot concerning man's relationship with his fellow-man.  Neither group has precedence over the other - they are both equally important.  On many occasions such as stoning a car that is transgressing the Shabbat, the justification for the action taken by somebody against his fellow-man is to protect his relationship with his G-d.  In light of the fact that these mitzvot do not enjoy precedence, there is a view that says that the transgression against the fellow-man cannot be justified, even if it is an act to protect his relationship with his G-d.  The act of spitting at the priests, however, seems to serve no religious purpose at all and has no positive side to it.  Rather, it represents an act of unjustified discrimination.  So how much less can this be justified in religious terms?

What is even more unfortunate about this sad situation, is the fact that priests say that reports made about these incidents to the police fall on deaf ears.  Perhaps it is because the police feel that it is impossible to catch the perpetrators and bring them to justice, that no action is taken.  It is also fair to say that Jerusalem's police force has its hands full with high-level security threats which it is required to take care of on an ongoing basis.  Whatever the reason for the lack of action, it is sends an entirely wrong message about the acceptability of this behaviour.

The ultra-Orthodox community present themselves as representing all that is good when acting in strict observance of the Torah.  Too often, however, the pursuit of individual points of observance causes the individual to lose the wood for the trees.  There seems to be no broader perspective, or ability to see the bigger picture.  This is extremely damaging to the standing of the ultra-Orthodox community in the world in which they are forced to live.  The time has come for concerted action to be taken to change the bad behaviour.  The yeshivot (institutions of religious learning) need to be responsible for teaching their students about the unacceptability of spitting at others.  The police on the streets need to keep their eyes open for such incidents, and act upon them immediately. 

Jerusalem is a city that is open to people of all religions to visit and to live in.  While it serves as the capital of the Jewish State of Israel, the government has undertaken that the city will be open to all religions for tourism, learning and worship.  This means that it is not the private domain of ultra-Orthodox Jews, even though it is their religion's holiest city.  There should be no reason why priests who have come to Jerusalem for the purpose of furthering their religious studies and experiences, should be subject to any sort of bad behaviour by ultra-Orthodox Jews or anybody else.  The time has come to take action to stop this intolerance and insulting behaviour.