Friday 17 May 2013

The Importance of Preemptive Strikes

Israel's recent double strike on Syrian weapons storage facilities has, once again, raised the issue of the validity of preemptive strikes.  Israel has used this tactic on more than a number of previous occasions, has already struck Syria already a few times this year.  There are those who go as far as attributing Israel's continued existence to the fact that she has been prepared to go out and defend herself even before the attack materialises.

The issue of preemptive strikes as a defense mechanism to counter a potential threat has a number of inherent problems attached to it, particularly when this encroaches on the sovereign territory of another country.  Firstly, there is always the question as to whether the perceived threat is real and credible.  We saw the consequences of a bad call on the perceived threat when it was revealed that intelligence information was incorrect prior to the Second Gulf War.  This dogged both Tony Blair and George W. Bush until the end of their respective tenures, and continues to dog them in their personal capacities to this day.  Secondly, there is the question as to whether one sovereign country has the right to attack another sovereign country in defense of itself even where the threat is sure.  It could easily be argued that there is an element of hypocrisy in this concept.  Does it make a difference if the perceived threat is not an immediate one, but rather a perceived future threat?  This is the case with Israel's strikes in Syria last week, where the rationale for the strike was that Hezbollah may use these arms against Israel at an undetermined time in the future.  There are no firm answers to these questions, and the international community has historically judged such deeds on the basis of the parties involved, rather than the act.  On this occasion, Israel succeeded in capitalising on the negative views currently held by the international community towards Syria and Hezbollah, and escaped with little or no censure by the international community - something quite rare for Israeli attacks.  But this has not always been the case in the past.

Israel, a small island located in a sea of aggressive and hateful enemies, has been forced to employ the tactic of preemptive strikes in order to survive.  Some of Israel's most famous and important victories - most notably that in the Six Day War - were achieved by surprising the enemy before they were able to inflict damage.  The Egyptian air force was destroyed while on the ground in 1967.  This surely paved the way for the famous Israeli victory.  Israel was roundly criticised for sending its air force aeroplanes to destroy the Osirak nuclear reactor site in Iraq in 1981.  It was only many years later in 2005 that President Clinton finally acknowledged for the first time that the strike on Osirak by Israel was a "really good thing".  Similarly, the strike on the Syrian nuclear facility that was carried out by Israel in 2007, attracted criticism from Mohamed ElBaradei, then head of the International Atomic Energy Agency.  Imagine if the civil war in Syria being waged at this time involved the added concern of nuclear weapons.  With the benefit of hindsight, the Israeli strike in 2007 has potentially saved massive consequences.

These historical experiences also put a context to the ongoing standoff with Iran concerning the development of its own nuclear facilities.  A preemptive strike against Iran's nuclear facilities would be much more difficult, and would have far greater consequences than the ones carried out against Iraq and Syria.  Both of the previous attacks solicited no military response at all.  This miraculous escape, after catching each of these countries off guard, is highly unlikely in the Iranian context.  It is almost assured that any attempt to carry out a military strike against the Iranian nuclear facilities would include a substantial response.  It is for this reason that Israel has tried using different tactics against Iran, including mounting a concerted campaign to assassinate key personnel employed in the Iranian nuclear industry and using cyber warfare to destroy software and hardware in use by the Iranian nuclear facilities.  Until now, these tactics have served to slow the processes down at best, and have not been effective in halting Iran's march towards becoming a nuclear power.  Israel is still considering a game-changing strike that will kill off Iran's nuclear push once and for all.  The threat posed by a retaliation to such a strike is surely much lower than the threat presented by a nuclear Iran.  Despite this fact, the threat presented by retaliation is substantial.

While not completely invincible, Israel's military and intelligence establishments have proven themselves over and over again.  Mistakes have certainly been made, but reports of potential threats which are reported by these organisations are always taken seriously by the Israeli government.  This is based on its amazing track record of getting things right more often than getting them wrong, and managing to sniff out information in a seemingly impossible way.  The way that the Israeli organisations work seems somehow to be different and more effective than similar intelligence agencies elsewhere in the world.  A potential threat to Israel which is reported by Israeli intelligence will almost certainly be taken seriously.  Equally, the Israeli intelligence community is well aware of the importance of the advice that they offer, and the consequences of giving bad advice or making mistakes.

It seems highly unlikely that Israel will reverse its tactic of preemptive strikes against enemies in the near future.  This tactic which has proved very effective in the past, and critical to Israel's survival. Despite the fact that a great deal of Israel's focus is on defense rather than attack, as evidenced by new developments such as the Iron Dome, the tactic of attack is often the best form of defense.  Despite this fact, we all wish to believe that this will always be used sparingly and very cautiously.  Ultimately, however, it is one of the ways that Israel will be able to maintain any superiority over its enemy neighbours around the Middle East.  If attacks and threats against Israel persist, Israel will be forced to employ measures to protect herself.  These measures include preemptive tactics to prevent the possibility of attacks taking place, and to prevent loss of innocent lives.  Extreme circumstances demand extreme measures.  It would be difficult to argue that Israel is not living under extreme circumstances.

Sunday 12 May 2013

War Against Women of the Wall

The group known as "Women of the Wall" have elevated themselves onto the front pages of the Israeli press in recent times.  They have clashed with police in Jerusalem over their desire to have the right to pray at the Kotel, the Western Wall, in their own way and style.  For them, their way and style means wearing a talit (prayer shawls) and tefilin (phylacteries), and undertaking other prayer-related activities which are usually the preserve of males in Orthodox Judaism.  Their mission says, "........ our central mission is to achieve the social and legal recognition of our right, to wear prayer shawls, pray, and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall".  Why does this lead them to become criminals in the eyes of the Israeli justice system?

Some of these actions on the part of the Women of the Wall have attracted attention from Jerusalem police officers, and even led to some of the women being arrested.  The legal system has relied on the law in Israel that requires respect for "local custom" at the site, which in this case refers to the Kotel.  The police have been called to arrest Women of the Wall on the basis that their actions do not respect local custom.  Clearly, the "local custom" is determined by what the Orthodox establishment demand.  Such arrests have been made on more than one occasion.

While we understand that, in most Orthodox Jewish custom, women do not wear prayer shawls and do not read from the Torah in public, the question is whether there is any actual prohibition on women doing these things?  It seems as though the customs of women not undertaking these activities stems from the fact that, in Orthodox Jewish law, women are not obliged to fulfil them in the way that men are.  In the case of the talit and tefilin, these are precepts (mitzvot) that are time-bound.  This means that there are certain times that the mitzva should be undertaken, and other times when it should not.  As a general rule, such time-bound mitzvot are not required to be undertaken by women in terms of Talmudic law.  It is not exactly clear why this is this case, but there are views that it is because women have a higher spiritual wisdom (bina) than men, and this exempts them from time-bound mitzvot.  Others contend that it is a more pragmatic issue of women having so many other household chores to take care of, that they can be exempted from time-bound mitzvot.  Our Talmudic sages are divided as to whether women are prohibited from performing mitzvot from which they are exempt.  The Rambam, one of the most famous of the Talmudic sages seems to accept that there is no prohibition on women performing mitzvot that they are not obliged to perform, and chooses instead to discuss whether women should pronounce the blessing which states that they are obliged to perform the mitzva before actually performing it.  He is supported in this discourse by Rabbi Yosef Karo and others.  This seems to give sufficient doubt to indicate that women are not entirely without justification when choosing to perform such mitzvot, and there is a strong case which supports women being free to carry them out.

Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky was drafted in by the government to try to help the situation. The actions to prevent the Women of the Wall from expressing themselves during prayer have served to alienate many US Jews from Israel.  The US community, which is notoriously heterogeneous in its interpretation of Judaism and which values pluralism in Jewish thought and practice, has reacted extremely negatively to the standoff at the Kotel.  It was hoped that Sharansky will be able to use his balanced approach to suggest a compromise solution, and that he can use his links with the US Jewish community to heal the rift which has developed.  Sharansky recommended allowing the Women of the Wall to use a separate section of the wall, known as Robinson's Arch, to allow the Women of the Wall to express themselves and carry out their practices without others being offended.  While this was originally accepted as a possible compromise by the Women of the Wall, their position has hardened recently and they are now rejecting this solution.

The hardening of their position coincided with the ruling by an Israeli court a few weeks ago, which decided that these actions by the Women of the Wall do not actually constitute disrespect for local custom at the site.  This reinforces the lack of agreement by the Talmudic sages.  This court ruling means that their actions no longer constitute an offence for which women can be arrested.  The Women of the Wall were emboldened in their view that their actions are entirely acceptable, and decided that there is much less justification in accepting a compromise solution that means they are forced to pray hidden from general sight.

The influence of the ultra-Orthodox in Israel has been substantial over the past few years, particularly during the years that successive governments owed their continued existence to the support of the ultra-Orthodox parties in the Knesset.  The ultra-Orthodox influence has pervaded many aspects of Israeli society.  Numerous concessions have been granted to the ultra-Orthodox community to keep them supporting the government, the most famous of which is the exemption of young ultra-Orthodox boys and girls from serving in the IDF.  This has granted disproportionate power to ultra-Orthodox groups.  With the construction of Prime Minister Netanyahu's most recent government that excludes the ultra-Orthodox parties for the first time in many years, ultra-Orthodox power has been substantially reduced.  Many in Israel are happy about this, as the influence of the ultra-Orthodox has permeated the lives of so many individual Israelisl.  Perhaps the drama at the wall is an attempt for the ultra-Orthodox establishment to exert their power where they can.

Even though the ultra-Orthodox establishment has been given control over the Western Wall, and Chief Rabbi of the Wall Shmuel Rabinovitz has rabbinic jurisdiction over this site, it should be understood that the Western Wall is a public asset for Jews in Israel and around the world.  As such, decisions such as those affecting the Women of the Wall should not be taken lightly.  It is not as in an individual synagogue where congregants are free to move elsewhere in the event that they do not wish to accept the rules pertaining to the synagogue.  The Western Wall has no alternative in Judaism.  To the extent that there is even the slightest doubt about the interpretation of a particular element of Jewish law, as is the case here, the rabbi has a responsibility to consider the national and international ramifications of his decision.

I salute the Women of the Wall for standing by their convictions, and for being prepared to take on the ultra-Orthodox establishment.  This is not an easy decision, and life has been made extremely for them as a result.  Ultimately, I believe that they will prevail, and that they will be granted the right to pray as they wish.  In reality, anybody who does not like this is not obliged to be present at the Kotel when the women are there.  Until now, the Women of the Wall have conducted their prayers monthly on rosh chodesh at a time known in advance.  This allows plenty of alternative opportunities for those who wish to attend the wall, without being forced to endure anything that they do not wish to see.  This simply demands a little tolerance and understanding by all parties, something that is unfortunately in short supply in Israel, especially in the ultra-Orthodox establishment.

The time has come for the government to exercise its control over the Kotel, and ensure that all who wish to pray there are able to do so.  It is ironic that the IDF, without the support of the ultra-Orthodox youth, was responsible for liberating this holy site during the Six Day War, only for the site to then be turned over to the control of the ultra-Orthodox.  This is a national holy site, and all Jews should have the right to worship there.  Bravo Women of the Wall.