Thursday, January 22, 2009

Making the Cut

It's always around this time, when Israel is a little more in the news than usual, that I notice more discussions of the dangers and cruelty of male circumcision. A blog I follow went so far as to accuse parents of this "evil, ancient practice" of putting their own wants ahead of their child's rights.

No, I would say they do just the opposite. They place his spiritual needs ahead of their personal fears and reservations.

This is called parenting, which involves far more than ensuring a child has food and shelter. Any good babysitter can meet basic human needs; good parents create a human being. My parents confirmed my status in a 3,500-year-old community, and then gave me a basis in Jewish knowledge and family life. How could I make that decision for myself as a child? Thank G-d I didn't have to go through circumcision as an adult. By all accounts, it's a painful and much more risky operation.

Responsible parents make hard decisions. Why would a parent of any religion assume that their child would likely abandon the faith and not need to be a member? It makes no sense. It would be like a parent saying, "Well, let's not bother setting up a College Trust Fund since we don't know that he's going to go to college. We'll let him decide if he wants to start one himself when he's an adult." Now before you say, but a snipped foreskin isn't the same as a college education, both are investments toward a more fulfilled life. Good parents anticipate and create the foundation for a complete life - physical and spiritual - for their children. To do less would be an abdication of responsibility.

I'm not being sarcastic here; would the world really be a better place if everyone only looked out for themselves? This was the innovation of Judaism thousands of years ago: A covenantal relationship to a higher power, a land, and each other; a community separate and distinct, because we're not all the same, and a set of laws that were unprecedented at the time. It's easy now to dismiss this fact, because these laws have shaped the Western world, but thousands of years ago, the Jewish world was a haven of human rights in a region where child sacrifices were the norm. And every member of this society understood the responsibility to ensure the group's survival; every Jew was gladly willing to make personal sacrifices to ensure the survival of the group because the future of mankind was at stake. This was their perspective. For many, it still is.

Declaring publicly through the brit milah one's allegiance to this covenant is something we take great pride in. The covenental experience is really something difficult to describe, but I can tell you, I've never been to a brit milah where people, men and women, aren't crying. There's a lot of baggage attached to this ritual; we understand this. Through the ages, Jews have certainly died because they could be identified. It's not something that's taken lightly; just the opposite. But I know this: from the first week of my life, I belonged to this community, and it belonged to me. As long as I live, I will never be alone.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

War and Peace

Governments - indeed most people - will defer to the simpler, easier solutions whenever possible. There's a good reason why the US hesitated before entering both world wars: they're messy, expensive and cost many, many lives. So, I don't entirely blame those who say, shouldn't Israel have continued to pursue peace before looking at military solutions? But, there's also a point where we say, the pursuit of peace is a stalling tactic to avoid an inevitable conflict, not a sincere goal in itself. Every administration wants to put off expensive, difficult conflicts until the next government.

Look, the truth of the matter is neither Israel nor the Arabs (including the Palestinians) are seeking peace, as such. 'Peace' was attainable many years ago. Jewish Zionists could have recognized the White Paper of 1939, allowed immigration to slow to a trickle, and accepted permanent minority status in Palestine - with whatever reduced privileges that might have entailed, and assuming the Jews already in Palestine weren't expelled. Likewise, the Arabs could have long ago accepted a Partition Plan (which would have given them a much larger state than any negotiations today might produce). And there were certainly other opportunities for peace squandered by both sides.

Today, the reality is that Israel demands first-and-foremost a) security and b) recognition. The Arab world wants a) the restoration of Arab honour (through Israeli acknowledgment of culpability) and b) reasonable compensation for those displaced by the wars of 1948 and 1967. 'Peace' will be the result of these demands being met.

It's also worth noting that many polls over the years, since before 1948, have maintained that most Palestinians are actually more interested in economic and social stability than independence or autonomy. They want normalcy, which is not an unreasonable demand. Yet, there has been a minority element within the Arab world for years which has persisted in making impossible demands to the detriment of their own people. When the international community accedes to the will of Palestinian extremists, they are essentially spitting in the face of moderate Palestinians who want their voices to be heard, too. But, as I said, this is the easy way out: listen to the guys with the guns, because the alternative is to try to understand and maneuver through the complexities of the Arab and Islamic worlds. Frankly, I blame Edward Said, but that's another story.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Eyeless in Gaza

I received an interesting, but disconcerting email the other day. An old friend accused me of - wait for it - changing. He harangued me for my present political position on Gaza and Israel's need to attack Hamas, and suggested the guy he used to know would never have supported the use of force. Apparently, I was much more of a Leftist in my youth. True enough. I like to think of myself now as a pragmatist, that is, I believe governments and people should conduct themselves according to reasoned need and not based on rules in some out-of-date ideological handbook. He changed, too. The guy I knew back then would have done more research before making such uninformed comments. In fact, I still remember him chewing me out for speaking out of my backside on Northern Ireland. But he has been living in the UK for many years, so I suppose he can be forgiven.

However, I felt his comments deserved a response. Gaza, after all, is a very complex situation.

If anything, I wrote, Israel has been far too patient with the Gazan Arabs. Border cities in Israel have been under constant rocket bombardment for 8 years; well over 6,500 rockets have fallen on Sderot alone since Israel withdrew completely from Gaza in 2005. In fact, my wife was there the other week. She had to take shelter TWICE during a 3 HOUR visit. Residents get only 15-seconds' warning before a rocket strike (residents of nearby kibbutzim get 6 seconds warning). One kassam struck close enough that the building she was in trembled.

Residents of Sderot and nearby kibbutzim go through this every day. Despite incessant terror attacks, only a few dozen people have been killed (and many Arabs have been killed in Gaza by rockets falling short - two young girls were killed last week - or blowing up while being built), but this is only because we all have 'safe rooms' lined with metal and concrete. As well, cities like Sderot have bomb shelters everywhere. Most homes and business have shelters, so the argument that not that many Israelis have died (and therefore some will claim the response is disproportionate) is unfair and disingenuous. We have bomb shelters BECAUSE people are trying to kill us with rockets. And while a miraculous few have been killed, hundreds have been injured, many disfigured and paralyzed; a recent study found that 1 in 3 kids are suffering from PTSD.

It's important to talk about "proportionality." This has little to do with how many people have been killed or injured (this would make reprisals nothing but acts of revenge), but are based on assessments of threat. Hamas has been primarily using Kassam rockets, which aren't meant to cause widespread death and destruction, but rather are weapons of TERROR, deliberately filled with metal ball-bearings and shrapnel, with the specific goal of maiming and injuring civilians. How many children need to have legs and hands blown off before a government must act? They're now firing Grad rockets - 3 meters high! - capable of blowing the top off an apartment building, and with much more range than Kassams. IDF Home Command informed us a few days ago to take precautions as we are now in rocket range.

But believe it or not, I'm also very concerned for civilians in Gaza. They've been seriously short-changed by an evil regime that sees their deaths and suffering as nothing more than fuel in a PR campaign. Nevertheless, Israel has been doing its best to minimize civilian suffering, permitting humanitarian aid to enter Gaza on a daily basis; Israel is providing medical assistance for Gazan civilians (and paying for it since the Palestinian Authority is unwilling to pay for their medical care in Israel because they say Hamas is responsible). Israel is even informing, with phone calls and leaflets, neighbourhoods before IAF attacks. As such, the vast majority of those killed, according to the Palestinians themselves, have been members of Hamas.

Sadly, civilians are still going to be killed and injured as long as Hamas hides its forces and weapons in schools and mosques, and in crowded residential neighbourhoods (all War Crimes, incidentally).

That's the problem with fighting asymmetrical warfare with an enemy that lauds death and loathes weakness. It's almost a no-win scenario, but that doesn't mean Israel shouldn't try. The alternative would be for the government to ignore its responsibility to its own citizens, and permit constant attacks against its sovereignty. This is, obviously, unacceptable.

I'm especially disappointed in the international community that has all but ignored years of rocket attacks on Israelis, but is suddenly concerned about civilians in Gaza. Why, I ask, aren't the Gazans responsible for the government they elected? They knew full well what Hamas represented (the destruction of Israel and death of Jews everywhere - it's actually in their Charter), and voted for them anyway. Why are so many people willing to treat the Gazan Arabs like children? Isn't collective responsibility a basic principle of the democratic process? I'm responsible for the actions of my government; why aren't they? Frankly, coddling the Palestinians and absolving them of responsibility for acts of terror is condescending, if not racist.

It is well past time for Hamas to live up its obligations as a democratically elected government (this is actually arguable as the President of the PA has denounced them as usurpers, and has even blamed them for the current conflict). A democracy, despite what most in the Arab world seem to believe, means far more than simply 'a vote.' As the elected rulers of Gaza, Hamas has responsibilities under international law: first and foremost, is an obligation to respect international treaties and agreements signed by previous governments, such as the Oslo Agreement in which the PA recognized the State of Israel. Hamas has failed to fulfil this obligation. Hamas also has an obligation to secure its borders. Again, Hamas has failed to do so, permitting militants to kidnap an Israeli soldier, and allowing the firing of rockets into Israel.

Hamas had an opportunity to renounce the use of violence and agree to negotiate in good faith with Israel for normalized relations; they failed to do so and are now being brought to task. They're really a gang of well-armed thugs that have managed to elevate themselves (in part, due to Israeli and international mismanagement of terror groups and thanks to the sponsorship of the neighbourhood psycho, Iran) to real power. Think Al Capone, with heavy weapons and clan connections at every level. They're also prepared to sacrifice thousands of civilians for the cause. They truly don't care, as long as they emerge victorious in the end. And anyone who believes that "the end justifies the means" is very dangerous indeed.

The difference between me today and 20 years ago is simple. I'm now much better informed. I hope my friend will still be visiting next month. I'd like to continue this discussion over a beer, like the good old days when the world seemed much simpler.