Archive for May 2017

Israeli Postcards 2017: Feeling Jewish

Coming of age in the 1970s when Israel was often in the news, usually battling for its survival, I developed a strong affinity to the Jewish state even though I knew little as a Catholic about the Jews. In high school the Jesuits exposed me to other religions including Judaism, and I remember coming away from my theology classes with the feeling that one had to be a lawyer to understand all the rules of that religion. A Jewish sounding name in my background led me to believe that I had Jewish ancestry*, but that wasn’t the reason why my support of the state of Israel survived my liberal phase (although I do remember writing some nasty things about Ariel Sharon on the Internet back in the late 1990s.) In a way I simply felt a strong attachment to the state of Israel even though I knew little about the Jewish religion. I even on rare occasion “felt Jewish.”

It turns out I wasn’t alone. There are 1.2 million non-Jewish Americans who feel Jewish. “On political matters, this cohort looks different from both secular and religious Jews. About 40 percent are politically conservative, compared with only 19 percent of Jews. Almost 42 percent of the “Jews by affinity” are Republican or Republican-leaning, compared with 41 percent Democratic or Democratic-leaning. In contrast, about 70 percent of Jews are affiliated with or lean toward the Democratic Party, with only 22 percent identifying as Republican or Republican-leaning. This group of Jews by affinity is also strongly tied to the concept of Israel as the Jewish homeland — as strongly as those who are actually Jewish. They are also about as likely as American Jews to believe the United States doesn’t support Israel enough.”

When I arrived in Israel on May 6, 2017 and visited the Western Wall in Jerusalem I was disappointed to feel no physical connection to the place. But I was fascinated with the Jews visiting there. The Wife and I stayed at the Wall for hours watching people come and go and the swallows pirouetting under the lights illuminating the Wall. Since it was shabbat orthodox men wearing the shtreimel, the overly-large fur hat, socialized with others or prayed at the wall. In the women’s section women did the same, many wearing the scarves showing they were married while others were bareheaded or towed along kids.

Temple Mount and Western Wall, May 7, 2017

And while a kippa would be perfect to cover up my male-pattern baldspot, and a shtreimel would just be a blast to wear on a Saturday afternoon in my neck of the woods in North Carolina, I wouldn’t consider converting to Judaism because I am not ethnically Jewish and doing so would feel fake to me and disrespectful to the Jewish people. During my visit I did not feel they were my people, but while I wasn’t a member of the Tribe, my respect for the Jews remained and even deepened during my visit to Israel.

A Bar Mitzvah celebrated at the Western Wall, May 11, 2017

Clarinet Player Carrying Shofar and Handgun at the Western Wall, May 11, 2017

I knew Israel was a small country but it wasn’t until I set foot there that I realized how small it was. That sliver of red in the map below? That’s Israel. Islamic states cover 19% of the world’s area, 25.9m square kilometers, yet they refuse to have 22,072 square kilometers or less than a tenth of a percent of the land they control. The idea this country was being pushed by foreign governments to give up land struck me as insane. It was the equivalent of a starving man being prodded by his well-fed neighbors to give away his food to them. Of course this assumes that the Islamic world views Israel as a territory issue when it’s really a religious issue, one that won’t be settled until Islam changes.

Map Comparing Israel and Islamic Nations – source: Sharia Unveiled

The guide we hired had served in Israeli intelligence in a previous career, he nevertheless believed in a 2-state solution. He believed the Israeli Arabs would provide the bridge to the Palestinians that the Israeli Jews were looking for. “It isn’t in our nature to rule the Palestinians in the territories, to subject them to indignities,” he said. “We need to make peace with them.” But how? The Israeli Arabs could help, he believed, though I didn’t understand his explanation as to how.

We talked in the car for hours during our travels and over drinks at the end of our tour, but I couldn’t escape a feeling of hopelessness that began to pervade my thoughts during the final days of our stay.

Israel was small, too small. The holiest site in Judaism the Western Wall, is technically on the Arab side of the Green Line and is considered “occupied territory” by the international community including the United States to the point where even today President Trump is being discouraged from visiting the place with Prime Minister Nethanyahu. Al-Aksa mosque sits literally on top of their temple. Al-Aksa is the third holiest site behind Mecca and Medina. Why are the Israelis being asked to give up so much when they have so little, while Muslims who have so much are asked to give up so little? It didn’t seem fair to me.

The Israelis could have done in Jerusalem and the West Bank in 1967 what the Serbs would do to the Croats and Bosnians in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s: They could have forced the Arabs out of the entire “occupied territories” at gun point, ethnically cleansing the region of Arabs and making it impossible for UN Resolution 242 calling for two states in the area to ever come to pass. Israel would have paid a terrible diplomatic price in the short term, but in the long term it would have had the room it needed to build a secure and viable Jewish state. But the Israelis played by the rules, and now they find themselves in an impossible situation where they must occupy the Palestinians to protect themselves. They don’t want to do it and the Palestinians don’t want them to do it, but the Palestinians aren’t willing to leave them alone if they stop.

Roman Coin Commemorating Emperor Vespasian’s Conquering of Judea AD70 - “Judaea Capta” Silver Denarius Showing Mourning Jewess and Captured Armor

Jerusalem is the Mecca of the Jews. Their ties to the city go back 3,000 years and are well documented by the ancient historians including Tacitus and most prominently, Flavius Josephus. The archaeological record places the Hebrews in Jerusalem and Israel 1,600 years before Mohammad founded the religion of Islam. The ancient Romans called the area by its name “Judea – the land of the Jews” until emperor Hadrian renamed it Palestine and massacred and exiled the Jews from their land as punishment for the Bar Kokhba Revolt in AD136.  The Jewish claim to Jerusalem is historically and culturally stronger than any American claim to the land of the United States barring those made by native Americans. Yet western Leftists are determined to steal this birthright for every living Jew and send them back to the ghettos and pale settlements, living at the whims of gentiles.

Jerusalem looking westward from the Mount of Olives, May 12, 2017

On a tour of the City of David, several of our group were young married orthodox Jews from New York who spoke a mix of Yiddish and English to each other. When our guide asked us where the Wife and I were from and we said North Carolina, one of the Hassidim brought up the topic of politics. “Oh you must have voted for Trump,” he said somewhat condescendingly. How could an orthodox Jew be a liberal, I wondered. I answered I had, but that when I was his age I had been a liberal. “So what happened to change your mind?” he asked. “9-11,” I said. “I decided I wanted to grind our enemies into dust instead of trying to make them like us.” I realized he was probably less than 12 years old when that event happened, and he seemed surprised that I was unabashedly a strong supporter of the State of Israel. I was somewhat taken aback by his lackadaisical attitude on the subject. How could a young Orthodox Jew not back Israel? “You Jews have to trust yourselves,” I told him. “You can’t trust gentiles. We’ll eventually sell you out,” I said remembering the various pogroms in Russia, the expulsion of Jews from England and Spain, and the West’s immigration bans on Jews from Europe during the Holocaust. “You have to protect this country at all cost regardless of what the UN tells you.”

We left the city at 3am in a taxi that sped through “occupied territory” and a military checkpoint at the border for the 40 minute ride to the airport outside of Tel Aviv where we were questioned in the taxi by well-trained Israeli soldiers as they examined our passports. We had been told to arrive 3 hours early at the airport to account for security checks, but after the initial questioning at the entrance to the airport we didn’t encounter any more intensive screening. “Israeli security is based on two principles: intelligence and profiling,” our guide had told us. I had mentioned to him the controversy in the US over profiling, and how TSA felt the need to pat down geriatric passengers and infants. Wasn’t it racist? I asked. “Perhaps but it works,” was his answer.

So what did I learn from this trip? I learned that while Israel bristles with nuclear weapons and is protected by its strong and healthy youth, it is too small and has little room for mistakes. I learned that I have a deep smoldering anger towards American Jews who continue supporting the Democratic Party as it sinks into anti-Semitism. I learned that I don’t have a clue how peace will descend on that country and its neighbors, and that UN resolutions and settlement bans have no relationship to what’s in or under the ground.

I also learned while sitting outside al-Aksa mosque during the call to prayer that I didn’t hate Muslims. There was a beauty in Islam, a profound and spiritually moving force that came through the voice of the muezzin that I found frustrating. Did Islam really have to be incompatible with modernity and the existence of other religions? Isn’t there a way we could have both the call to prayer and the sounding of the shofar in this world, and perhaps even in this very land**? The takeover of Islam by Wahhabi clerics is a relatively recent phenomenon. Is there hope for a less lethal, less intolerant strain of Islam to reassert itself, one that would allow the religion to coexist with others?

And then the realization hit me. In my heart I wanted diversity, true diversity. I wanted a world where people believed different beliefs, wore shtreimels and kufis, ate halal, kosher, vegan or barbecue, spoke different languages, even impossible-sounding ones like Hebrew and Arabic and lived differently. I saw the Left as demanding conformity, trying to place the world in an ideological straitjacket where people were supposed to have the same correct beliefs, eat the same vegan and gluten-free foods, and live the same low-carbon footprint way. The Left had hijacked the word “diversity” and like so much of what it touches it corrupted it, turning it into its opposite. The Left once worried about the cultural imperialism of the United States and the Americanization of the world, but now it offered its own ideological  imperialism and encouraged the cultural imperialism by Wahhabi Islam over the native cultures of Europe.

I realized that even after everything I’ve seen in this world I remain at heart an idealist. I really do want to see the Jews and Muslims live together in peace in the Middle East although I recognize I will never live to see such a day.

I left Israel with more questions than answers but that’s okay. Israel is there and I will go back to her when the time is right. And until then I will continue doing everything in my limited power to support her.
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*The name turned out to be 100% ethnically German. I was able to trace it back to the 16th century and found no traces of Jewish ancestry in the line. It is possible the line converted to Christianity prior to that, which brings up an interesting question: Would I convert if I learned I was ethnically Jewish? It’s an entertaining question because my honest answer surprises me. I could hear my wife asking “One word: Bacon.” Or the shtreimel? My choice surprises me but thankfully it’s just a hypothetical. For now I remain 100% gentile Irish and Slav.

**It’s worth noting that today in Israel you can hear both the Muslim call to prayer and the Jewish shofar horn sounding the beginning of shabbat. Israelis don’t ban Muslims from practicing their religion, say, by visiting al-Aksa mosque, something one might expect “occupiers” to do. Yet the Waqf that controls the Temple Mount bans Jews from visiting there in the same way that Muslim authorities ban Christians and Jews from practicing their religion in Muslim countries. Proof that the Jews stink at being “occupiers” and Muslims have a ways to go before they accept the existence of other religions no matter how many “COEXIST” bumperstickers liberals slap on their Priuses.

Israeli Postcards 2017: Jewish Stories

In the Machane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem at the craft beer stall the bartender’s accent gives him away. “I’m from Baltimore,” he says, and he’s lived in Israel for 7 years. I ask him what brought him to Jerusalem. “I wanted to be part of the Jewish Story,” he says, then adds looking at the Wife and me. “Everyone can be part of the Jewish story. Even those who hate Jews, they are part of the Jewish Story too.”

The Machane Market May 8, 2017

We find a grocery store as Shabbat looms and closes the local restaurants. As the clerk struggles with my worn-out credit card, the woman waiting behind us cracks a joke about it. We get to talking and she says, “You don’t need to eat with Arabs,” and invites us to shabbos dinner at her apartment. Over dinner preparations she tells her story, about converting to Judaism after leading a dissolute life in the American Midwest and finding freedom and comfort in her adopted religion. Her daughter, American born, now volunteers with the IDF and studies to become a medic. Like so many Israeli youngsters I find the uniform she wears makes her look taller and stronger than American girls her age. “I wish you could meet my son,” I sigh, and I tell her about the looming responsibilities waiting him. She nods politely but clearly the two have their feet in completely different worlds.

Prayers in the Kotel wall, underground tunnels May 11, 2017

Our guide is ex-Israeli intelligence. As he drives us back to our hotel we are stranded for an hour in a traffic jam outside of Jerusalem. For two days I’ve avoided asking him much about his background, but with our employment of him drawing to a close the Wife and I ask him about it. He tells the story of being hired as a consultant for the Mexican government. The Mexican police official who hired him wanted him to examine the police force and come up with a package to create a completely corruption-free force. For a year our Israeli guide alternates between Israel and Mexico City. He comes up with a plan and the police official signs off on it, asking him to begin implementing it immediately. So he spends several weeks teaching his plan to three Mexican police officers with the intent that they would then teach others, and within a short time the police official would have a core of corruption-proof police officers he could build an entire force around.

One day while the Israeli guide is back in Israel, the three Mexican police officers he had trained are confronted by a large group of police officers from other divisions. Their guns are taken away and they are stood against a wall at gun point. But instead of shooting them, the officers take their pictures with cell phone cameras. The officers get the point and resign on the spot.

Our guide is told his services are no longer needed since the report had been accepted and would be implemented “in due time.” Our guide says, “I had created a completely corruption-proof plan, but it turns out it wasn’t implemented the way I demanded.” Evidently the official who had hired him had trusted one of his own people instead of maintaining secrecy our guide had required.

The traffic jam frees without reason and we are soon back on our way, the guide expertly driving the car through the freed up blocks of cars and trucks on the highway with lampposts festooned with Israeli flags, the horror of the scene he described hanging in the cool night air.

A 900 person Delegation of Canadian Jews Parade to the Western Wall near the Zion Gate, May 11, 2017

Israeli Postcards 2017: Preparations

My first awareness of the Jews and Israel probably was typical for Catholics, the stories of the Bible told to us as children at school and church. But my first awareness of the State of Israel and the Jews fighting to keep their state alive was in October 1973, in the TV news pictures and videos coming out of Israel during the Yom Kippur War. I wasn’t very old at that time, but I had been sensitive to political events starting with Nixon’s visit to China the year before as well as the snowballing Watergate hearings that gradually preempted weekday afternoon soaps and game shows. Although young the importance of far away events in and around Israel made an impression upon me, and my admiration for the country and its people quickly took root. Those feelings grew the older I became and the more I studied about the Jews and their religion as well as the politics of the region in high school, and especially while pursuing a degree in political science in college. Even in the years afterwards through my liberal phase and as I aged into conservatism and libertarianism I never wavered in my respect and admiration for the Jews and their fragile state in the Middle East.

But I had never been there and seen the place for myself. Until now, deep into middle age.

Jerusalem, The Western Wall, May 6, 2017

The seeds of our next trip are always planted in our last, and I remember the Wife mentioning Israel while we were roving the streets of Rome last October. A few days after our return she began tracking air fares and reading about the best times to visit, and when prices dropped soon after Trump’s election we had our tickets. A few weeks later we had our hotel, a highly-rated hotel in the Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem. Over the next few months the Wife developed an itinerary centered around Jerusalem with day trips to Masada (a must given my interest in ancient Rome), the Dead Sea, En Gedi, Caesarea (more ancient Roman stuff), and Acre. Due to the necessities of our careers we couldn’t spend much time on the trip – only 7 days in country – so we made an important decision: we hired a private guide and car for 2 days. Traveling is always a balance between time and money, and being tight with money I balked at the expense. But like so often in Life in the end the Wife was right.

I’ll admit I was nervous about our safety on the trip. Every news event involving Israel or happening in Israel caught my attention. I queried my Jewish friends and others about their experiences in Israel. Was it safe to walk through the Arab Quarter of Jerusalem? How about Mount of Olives and the pilgrim’s walk to the various sites on its slope? I figured that our Israeli private guide would avoid taking us through the so-called “Occupied Territories”. In the end I would bathe in the Dead Sea outside of Israel proper, travel numerous times in and out of the “Occupied Territories,” and experienced the Arab Quarter like so many tourists who travel to Jerusalem without incident. And besides, I was with the Wife, my best friend in the world. If anything happened to us we were together – and what better way to exit the world than with your best friend in the holiest country on Earth? I’m sure G-d awards extra points for that. But being the cautious man I am, I did make sure the Kid knew our itinerary and knew where important papers were (those of us deep in middle age need to pay more attention to that even when we’re not traveling abroad). For the past several trips I carry my Verizon cell phone and for $10/day I can use it abroad without difficulty except for things like getting woken up by a US originated junk call at 2:30am in Jerusalem.

Israeli soldiers waiting to be taken on a tour outside the Jaffa Gate, Jerusalem May 7, 2017

Our itinerary had us arriving on Saturday afternoon and leaving the following Saturday morning. Traveling on Shabbat limits choices in terms of restaurants and activities, but in the end we managed just fine. The New Israeli Sheckel (NIS), the currency of Israel and the Palestinian Territories, was a new experience for the foreign currency desk of our regional bank (I’ve yet to meet a practicing Jew in North Carolina after living here almost 8 years), but a few quick Google searches got us a few hundred dollars in local currency to start our trip off. There are a handful of bank ATMs in Jerusalem that Americans can use their ATM cards in without getting killed by fees, none in the Old City, and our guide took us to one after I’d exhausted the sheckels I’d brought into the country.

The big preparations for the trip had been made during the Winter, and we made the final preparations as the months remaining turned to weeks then days. For once we were packed and prepared in advance, so our last hours at home passed leisurely instead of the stressful, panic-filled way they usually do.

So here I was, a self-proclaimed non-Jewish Zionist, heading to Israel for his first trip. All the articles I’d read over the years. All the classes I took in college. All the Bernard Lewis lectures and books, all the media I’d consumed discussing the Jews and the Muslims and Arab-Israeli conflict I’d devoured over the decades would now be put to the test.

And what would this trip to Israel teach me?

That I didn’t know jack about any of it.

Desert near Ma’ala Adumim (West Bank), May 9, 2017

Just back from Israel

Israel – the land of the Jews, Druze, and happy goats.

More to come