Sunday, June 28, 2009

Survivors and Obama

President Barak Obama is viewed with suspicion in Israel, according to most reports, especially among the Holocaust survivors. “I don’t know what he’s going to do, so I’m a little suspicious,” said Prof. David Halivni Weiss, 82, who survived the Wolfsberg subcamp during the Holocaust.

Professor HaLivni was commenting after meeting another survivor who it turned out had been in the same camp at the same time. Halivni went to meet the other man last Wednesday, and the two shared common threads of their experiences.

Zolly Schwimmer, 94, still has a firm grip on his long-term memory. He had set up a panel of papers taped to the dining room wall of his Netanya, Israel apartment, including what he claims is the only sketch of the outline of the camp.

Both men remembered the tin plates they carried for what little food they ate. Prof. Halivni, a Talmud scholar and Israel Prize winner, recalled a scan the SS guards used. “It was the potato peelers job. They said anyone who wanted to could peel potatoes. That sounded like a good job, a bit of potato to eat, even a peel. So I volunteered. And I was in line when one of the Kapos, who was from my home town, pulled me out of line.

I didn’t like that. So I volunteered again, and again he pulled me out of line. Later I found out he’d saved my life because there was no potato peeling job. It was a ruse. They took the volunteers out and shot them.”

Why did he think the guard saved him? “I think it was because I was an Eloui (child prodigy) in our town. That’s the only reason. Otherwise I didn’t really know him.”

Prof. Halvni was 16 when he was taken to the camps. Zolly Schwimmer was 29. Scwhimmer says he is used as a fact checker by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, and also the Holocaust Museum in Washington. “Some of the stories
About the camps are made up,” he said. “People remember what they want, and just keep repeating it.”

According to the men during the High Holidays a small minyan formed in a room using a prayer book, “Machzor” made up by one of the prisoners, who wrote what prayers he remembered on the inside of an abandoned paper sack that held the cement they used to build the underground ammunition bunkers.

The two disagreed if it were Yom Kippur or Rosh Hashanah, but Schwimmer said he was inside the room, while Halivni said he was kept outside because he was young. Still, prayers in the camps was something unusual.

Prof. Halivini also lectures on faith and the Holocaust. How could someone keep their faith in such an environment. The Holocaust, he said, taught him to be more critical of what man writes, not as accepting just because it is written down. This line of critical thinking is what distinguished him from most other orthodox Jewish Talmudists.

Both Zolly Schwimmer and David HaLivni married Holocaust survivors. Livni’s had passed away, but Mrs. Schiwmmer was busy setting the table for lunch, with potato salad, tuna, and other items. Fluent in Hebrew Mrs. Schwimmer told one of the luncheon guests she’d been in Auchwitz for a year and that her barracks were within meters of the crematorium.

At night some of the Kapos would come to an opening of the fence and yell the names of the families that were exterminated that day, so the information could be passed on to those who knew them. To this day, she said, she still wakes up with nightmares.

People like Schwimmer and HaLivni have learned to be suspicious of peoples’ intentions. There is clearly no comparison between President Obama and fascism, but just the hint of
Showing anti-Jewish bias is enough to make these men, as intelligent as they are, wary.

Some time back a contributor wrote about the ‘survival gene.’ Clearly, with experiences like those undergone by Mr. Schwimmer and Dr. Halivni, it’s no wonder that gene isn’t honed to a fine edge, and their survival antennae twitching as news pours out of Washington and other countries, like Iran.

Prime Minister Benjamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu is being criticized for making entreaties to Hamas in efforts to restart the cease-fire agreements. The critics come from the Kadima party, more liberal than Netanyahu’s Likud, which makes the comments somewhat ironic, according to pundits.

Netanyahu is, analysts say, responding to the lead set by President Obama to try to get some movement in the Middle East peace process. Recently former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, viewed by some as an anti-Semite, and others as a well meaning but na├»ve liberal, visited Gaza. Then came George Mitchell, the State Department’s special envoy to the Middle East.

Following these visits suddenly the press was filled with reports of the eminent release of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who was captured three years ago and is reportedly being held in Gaza. Reports of his imminent release have surfaced every few months over the last few years, but never were more than talk.

Some point out that if Hamas would release Shalit it would be a sign of good faith; something the Israelis would use to mollify critics of any Obama peace initiative. While the papers recently said the release was imminent, Hamas leaders have denied such a release. Shalit has been the carrot dangled before the Israelis for three years, and nothing seems to have changed.

Some observers say that if Obama really had gained power with the Arabs from his Cairo Speech then he could pressure Hamas to release Shalit, just as he is pressuring Israel to freeze settlements and restart peace talks. But Obama, say the critics, seems more interested in making highly publicized demands of a pliable Israel than an obdurate Hamas.

Dennis Ross has been promoted from Special Envoy to the Middle East in the State Department to Middle East adviser in the White House. Ross recently published a book “Myths, Illusions, and Peace: Finding a New Direction for America in the Middle East” with former Jerusalem Post editor David Makovsky, now senior fellow and director of the Washington Institute's Project on the Middle East Peace Process.

The book takes the position that a settlement freeze or settlements in general were a red herring, and not the crux of the Middle East’s problems. Perhaps, some say, once Ross is in the White House he can pass on this message to President Obama. Others say Ross was only appointed to guard Obama’s flank from attacks by the pro-Israeli voices.

On the Syrian front, the statements swing between bellicose threats of war to regain the Golan Heights, to moderate messages that Syria is prepared to seriously negotiate peace with Israel.

In Lebanon Saad Hariri, a sunni Musliim, is the new Premier who replaces political ally Fouad Sinioras , in a power-sharing agreement. Hariri is the first son of the slain Lebanese Premier Rafik Hariri, blown up by a car bomb in 2005 in Beriut.

Both Syria and Hezbollah are suspected in the attack. Yesterday, Photos of the younger Hariri talking with Hizbollah strongman Sheik Nasrallah, were on the news. How this coalition will play out is something out of a Shakespearean play with all the court intrigues going on behind the backs of the prime players. Hariri and his later father were both prime movers in the pressuring Syria to withdraw from Lebanon. The younger Hariri has also been critical of Iranian influence in Lebanon.

With so many Holocaust survivors, and children of Holocaust survivors, in Israel, it’s no wonder that all of the machinations of the various parties in the middle east are looked up on with suspicion by those with bitter experience of power gone mad.

One observer stresses that President Obama means well, has surrounded himself with intelligent and liberal-minded advisers, including more than a few Jews; and says he only hopes that President Obama can keep a balance between what needs to be done to bring peace and what the temptations of appeasement could mean to Israel.

On the bright side, the World Bank has commissioned a feasibility study meant to finish in 2010 of a pipe or canal from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. The pipe would not only refill the quickly evaporating Dead Sea but also supply water to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian authority.

If nothing else this shows that the possibility of peaceful cooperation is possible. That’s assuming the canal ever starts to bring water from one sea to another, or if it won’t get stalled somewhere along the line much as the peace process and even the release of Gilad Shalit.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Waves of Sunshine

An estimated one million people will protesting in Iran today. (Thursday Sept 18). My guess is the ayatollahs will be sitting on their cushions with butterflies in their stomachs worried that the crowds will turn on them, not just Achmadinejad, either politically or even physically. Could this unrest spiral up to the top and spin those leaders out of office resulting in a new election, a regime change, even replacing the mullahs with 'normal' people? Then the 'normal' people would put the mullahs on trial an hang them, much as the mullahs did to the Shah's people. Wouldn't that be a nice way to end the Iranian nuclear threat?

(Karma, eh? Krishnamurti once wrote that revolutions should be avoided since they only insured the revolutionaries would ultimately be replaced by yet another revolution.)

Rabbi Doctor Gershon Bacon, professor of Jewish History at Bar Ilan University, once observed that Islamic fundamentalism comes in waves, with peaks and valleys, and now we're in a peak.

Will that momentum continue or subside? Will the storm abate leaving the seas quiet or continue to build in force until it floods the world? The latter is a scary thought, so let's hope that these demonstrations in Iran are a glimmer of sunshine through the clouds, signs the storm is passing.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Smart & Mean

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu spoke on Sunday replying in part to the now famous ‘Cairo Speech’ of U.S. President Barak Obama.

First Obama. Obama reached out to the Arab world with a branch of peace. He also began pushing Israel for movement on the peace process.

The Palestinian Authority’s Said Erekat responded to the Obama speech by saying the PA hasn’t had a friend as good as Obama in Washington in over twenty years.

Interviewed recently in the Jerusalem Post, neo-Con syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer said the now Israel has problems. He didn’t see peace with the Palestinians until they recognized the rights of Israel to exist. “Once they do that there’ll be peace in two weeks,” he said.

Then Bibi: A Palestinian journalist from Ramallah told Sky News that he was shocked at the new demands made by Netanyahu, mainly that the Palestinians recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.

What seems obvious to Israelis is that if the Palestinians don’t agree prior to negotiations that Israel has a right to exist, why sit down and talk at all? A recent pole showed 64% of Israelis support a two-state solution.

Bibi in his speech accepted a Palestinian state. Some say he put so many obstacles in the way that actually agreeing on a Palestinian state would be impossible. No Palestinian right of return to “Israel.” Continued ‘natural growth’ of settlements. A demilitarized Palestinian State.

According to experts these terms have already been bandied about in the past, and are the agreed diplomatic starting point for present negotiations.

According to Krauthammer, when Ehud Barak was Prime Minister he mistakenly agreed to divide Jerusalem, something that no other Israeli leader had ever done. Krauthammer said that the compromise could never be withdrawn once it was put on the table. Netanyahu withdrew it, stating that Jerusalem would remain the undivided capitol of Israel.

What seems obvious is that Netanyahu and Obama are negotiating over Middle East Peace through the media. And like any negotiations, these will go on for a while as offer and counter offer are made.

David Grossman, one of Israel’s leading novelists, bemoaned Netanyahu’s speech, saying he missed an opportunity to step forward and lead the Jewish people to peace. Grossman mainly objected to continued existence of the West Bank Settlements as the obstacle to peace. He thought Netanyahu should have taken the window of opportunity Obama offered and declared a freeze of settlements with an ultimate withdrawal once peace was achieved.

But Grossman didn’t address the issue the Ramallah journalist thought penultimate: the precondition that Palestinians accept the right of a Jewish state to exist. For him settlement was the issue.

Opinions similar to Grossman’s were also heard from former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, now visiting Israel. Carter met with the Hamas representatives and said that Hamas should be taken off the US list of terrorist organizations. Carter also said Israel should completely evacuate the West Bank.

A cartoon showed Jimmy Carter and Barak Obama standing beside a tree talking while a teenager wearing an Israeli flag was hanging by his thumbs. The caption: "But it's for his own good." Actually there was no cartoon, but there should be.

There is more behind President Obama’s olive branch to the Arab world that obvious to most of us on a lower pay grade. What he is ultimately up to can only be pondered from afar. It seems he is playing chess with the Arabs, realizing that Israel is a pawn, and that the opposing king is the sweep of Islamic fundamentalism that crosses borders and supplants regimes, as in Lebanon. If Obama can divide the Arabs, the moderates from the fundamentalist, then he may be able to set back the current anti-western tide, check-mate the opposing king.

Like any good surgeon Obama, or his military advisers, realize that one can always operate, but as a last resort. The current Obama strategy seems to be trying trickery and guile before firing missiles and ordering bombers into the sky. Of course the risk is the opponent may be a better chess player, in which case, pundits say, the west is fried hominy grits.

Natan Sharansky the former Soviet dissident and now famous Israeli, was reputedly a master chess player. Now in his bid for head of the moribund Jewish Agency, he has been out maneuvered. The JA board won’t appoint him. His buddy Bibi Netanyahu has responded by canceling an address before the group’s annual General Assembly, a slap in the face to that ruling board and Bib’s way of getting them to approve Sharansky to the position. Sharansky was Bibi’s choice.

History has shown that the best strategies don’t always work out. A missive making the rounds on the Internet espouses the great and wonderful deeds of the Jewish people throughout history, blaring proudly how the Jews have outlasted all of their enemies.

Truth is the Jewish people were lucky to have escaped many of the tragedies with enough people to start over. Clearly if one is a believer then the hand of God is evident; and if one is an atheistic agnostic then the survival of the Jewish people is simply because of the natural growth of those people not part of the tragic event, (the invasion by Persia, the invasion by the Greeks, Romans, expulsion from England, Spain, the Holocaust,) to regenerate itself over the millennial span of time.

The success of Israel is simply because of the applied intelligence and perseverance of the Jewish men and women attacking a problem with vigor. The worst fear of any enemy is finding not only an intelligent foe but a mean one. So far Israel's leaders have shown how to harness Israel's best resource, brainpower, and develop a fierceness to go with it.

Those who were ravaged, decimated, exiled didn't see the hand of God nor hear the wings of history beating during their suffering. Those who fought and died, and left behind grieving families may not share the jingoist’s zeal. Should God become displeased He could just as easily withdraw His support from the Jewish people as lend it. A positive destiny is not a given. Iran can gather allies and destroy Israel, that must be hopeful, but vigilant. Pride alone isn't going to stop any rockets. Maybe Prayer and Faith will help, though. Fierceness, intelligence, flexibility, good planning and hardware, like anti-missile missiles and perhaps even bunker busters, may be the real solutions.

Obama is putting out a feel good message, one that carries a promise of a very happy Hollywood ending. Its the meanwhile that's the trouble.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Good And Bad

U.S. President Barak Obama has tightened the screws on Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu’s thumbs.

In the pivotal “Cairo Speech” last Thursday, Obama hinted at a new Middle East initiative. Yesterday Obama’s Middle East envoy George Mitchell arrived in Israel. The press reports that Mitchell will try to push Israel into concessions as part of what the US sees as a window of opportunity presented by Obama’s new presidency. The push is on, he press reports, to get something signed before the shine wars off Obama’s glamour and his popularity dips.

According to the Israeli media Obama’s Chief-of-Staff Rahm Emmanuel and political adviser David Axelrod, both Jewish, are behind the latest maneuvers. Pundits believe this move is meant to allow Obama to reach out to the Arab world in an effort to sway moderate Arabs away from radical Islam.

Obama is demanding a freeze on all Israeli settlement activity, as well as Netanyahu’s acceptance of a two-state solution agreed upon by his predecessor Ehud Olmert. So far Netanyahu and his right wing and religious coalition have rejected the call.

As of now Netanyau is backed into a corner, and growling. Many columnists write about the perception in Israel that Obama is trying to dictate Israel’s policies to benefit the Arab world. While this is understandable, given the Arab distrust of the US after Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, a two-state solution, analysts say, would require Israel to cede land to the Palestinians but no Palestinians are around that are both acceptable to Israel and have the power to implement a Peace agreement.

Some pundits believe that the Obama two-year plan seems at this juncture to be putting an inordinate amount of emphasis on the Arab-Jewish conflict as if solving that problem will solve all the problems of the world.

Observers point out that the settlement issue is as old as Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. Under the George W. Bush administration Israel was allowed to continue what is euphemistically called ‘natural growth’ brought about by expansion within the settlement as families have more children and the needs of the community require more housing.

The concept allowed the large established settlements like Ariel and Maaleh Adumim to develop into cities with populations in the tens of thousands, replete with shopping centers, movie theaters, gas stations and medical clinics.

New construction in these cities has been taken for granted. Homes, apartment buildings and subdivision are put up by entrepreneurial contractors and usually the units are bought quickly.

The new reality President Obama is pushing stops this ‘natural growth.’ Obviously, a settlement freeze, according to analysts, can never be implemented in the West Bank until the Netanyahu government adopts the plan that President Obama is selling.

Optimists say that if this new reality works, the world will be a much better place. If it doesn’t the world will suffer. But skeptics say that Israel and the settlements are not the lynchpins to the new effort, but may well be the scapegoats let loose in the desert as sacrifices.

Israel, say these skeptics in Israel, unilaterally withdrew from the Gaza Strip, and received rockets and mortars in return. Israel, they say, unilaterally withdrew from the 25-kilometer security zone it had occupied in S. Lebanon, and received thousands of Hezbollah’s Katyusha rockets as payment.

Analysts say that today Israelis are calling for some quid pro quo before agreeing to anything more. So far nothing substantive has been put on the table. Hopefully when something is offered it will be to the advantage of all parties concerned, and help move the region closer to peace.

The only problem, the skeptics say, is that after more than sixty years of fighting between Israel and the Arabs, and hundreds of years of fighting between Arabs and Arabs, or Arabs and Christians, the odds of anything significant happening just because President Obama wants it are slim.

To which the optimists say, ‘But better slim than no chance at all.’

Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu is planning to outline his own diplomatic initiative for Israel next Sunday. Only time will tell how far apart he and President Obama are in their
positions, and how close they can come to some resolution of their differences.

When one veteran Israeli journalist was asked to comment on Obama’s ‘Cairo Speech’ and the Obama plans for the Middle East he waved his hand from side to side. “Good and bad,” he said. “Good and bad.” This from a man who has covered the Middle East since the 1940’s.

“Good and bad.”

But which will win? Stay tuned.