Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Looking Glass War

As Israel begins its own investigation into events surrounding the Free Gaza flotilla interception that resulted in nine deaths, it faces objections from states and organizations that have been demanding an international inquiry.

These objections are based on two fallacies: one is that Israel is incapable of honest self-examination; the other is the belief that Israel will avoid asking the questions the international community wants asked, specifically concerning the legality of the blockade and Israel's means of defending it. Undoubtedly, they also fear that Israel will investigate matters the international community wants avoided, such as Turkey's complicit involvement in the provocative flotilla, and the relationship between so-called humanitarian organizations and groups such as Insani Yardim Vakfi (IHH) that have been identified as being linked to known terror groups.

Let's look at these objections. As for self-examination Israel has, in fact, repeatedly initiated investigations that have been both thorough and harsh. The investigation that followed the 1973 Yom Kippur War, for example, (Agranat Commission) was so critical the Prime Minister, Golda Meir, and Defence Minister, Moshe Dayan, stepped down.

Just two weeks after news of the Sabra and Shatilla massacre (the story was broken by an Israeli journalist in Lebanon, who incidentally, also covered the flotilla story), Israel announced an internal investigation. While the investigation concluded no "direct responsibility" (which was fair considering the killings were perpetrated by the Christian Phalangists and were committed with no Israelis present), it was still extremely critical of those who bore "indirect responsibility."
"It is our view that responsibility is to be imputed to the Minister of Defense for having disregarded the danger of acts of vengeance and bloodshed by the Phalangists against the population of the refugee camps, and having failed to take this danger into account when he decided to have the Phalangists enter the camps. In addition, responsibility is to be imputed to the Minister of Defense for not ordering appropriate measures for preventing or reducing the danger of massacre as a condition for the Phalangists' entry into the camps. These blunders constitute the non-fulfillment of a duty with which the Defense Minister was charged."
The Commission recommended that the Defense Minister resign and that the Director of Military Intelligence and other senior officers be removed from duty.

In 2008 the Olmert government saw its demise, in large part due to the blasting it got from the Winograd committee that investigated the Second Israel-Lebanon war. So critical was the report that even Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah praised it, saying: "It is worthy of respect that an investigative commission appointed by [Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert condemns him...When the enemy entity acts honestly and sincerely, you cannot but respect it." Significantly, he added: "Even though they're our enemies, it is worthy of respect that the political forces and the Israeli public act quickly to save their state, entity, army and their existence in the crisis."

That's not to say the government has always initiated independent investigations when it should have; I've argued before that Ben-Gurion opened the door to continuing massacre allegations by not holding open investigations with international participation after the War of Independence.

The second criticism of an Israeli-held inquiry, that Israel will fail to investigate the blockade itself, is wrong-headed. The legality of the blockade is a matter for an international court, not the kangaroo court known as the UN Human Right Council. International law isn't that cut and dry, but in its broadest sense it can be defined as the body of rules that nations recognize as binding upon one another in their mutual relations. I would expect the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea may want to initiate an investigation of its own but that may be dependent on a complaint being filed. Of course, this is unlikely since the most bombastic complaints against Israel come from states whose own behaviour is suspect, especially Turkey, which wouldn't welcome an investigation into its illegal blockade of Armenia.

The real issue isn't whether or not Israel had a right to defend itself with a blockade (of course it does, otherwise the US and NATO would have sent ships directly to Gaza right from the start and that would have been the end of it); it's not even if Israel had the legal right to board the vessels and direct them to a port for inspection. Even the most critical law experts have agreed this is a grey area, and a legal case would be prolonged and complex.

The International community's secondary concern, that an Israeli inquiry must investigate what they deem is Israel's use of disproportionate force, is based on a lack of understanding of the term, and the right of states to defend their sovereignty. Or willful ignorance. As the entity designated responsible for maritime border control under the Gaza-Jericho Agreement (1994), Israel has every right to inspect ships entering its waters, or in the case of the flotilla, ships that advertise an intent to violate a blockade. Embargo searches can be conducted outside 12-mile territorial waters as long as the vessel isn't in someone else's waters.

As for the use of force, it is appropriate that individual soldiers not be investigated by international commissions; their actions were either the result of orders from commanding officers, who then bear responsibility, or were individual actions of soldiers violating Israel's own Ethical Code of Behavior. These ethical instructions are a part of every soldier's training both during war and peacetime. Soldiers are instructed: "to use his arms and his power to subdue the enemy in the necessary degree, and will restrain himself in order to prevent unnecessary harm to human life, limb, honor and property."

Soldiers are also commanded to respect human life: "The soldier will protect human life to the utmost, out of awareness of its highest importance, and will only place himself or another at risk to the degree required to carry out the mission."

I believe the IDF has a special responsibility to prevent all abuses, report on them immediately, investigate the validity of accusations and most importantly, follow up with arrests and punishments if warranted. To Israel's credit, this often happens, as this week's disclosure that a soldier is about to be charged for murder for the deaths of two women during the Gaza mission proves. Regardless of any international investigation, Israel has, in fact, established three independent investigations into the flotilla incident, not for the sake of the UN, but because Israelis by the thousands have demanded it: the Terkel Committee that was announced this week, an investigation by State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss (who has promised to focus on the legality of the government's decision-making process), and an IDF inquiry headed by Major General (ret.) Giora Eiland.

Israel is actually one of the few countries in the world whose army even has an Ethical Code of Behavior. That's not going to prevent the unnecessary deaths of civilians, but who should be examining the actions of the IDF, and demanding strict adherence to its moral code, more than anyone, are the Israeli people themselves.

And that's exactly what is happening.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Secrets and Lies II

(read Secrets and Lies I)

What of the recently declassified documents themselves? Are they the long sought-after 'smoking gun' that some would believe? The Guardian's Chris McGreal ("Revealed: how Israel offered to sell South Africa nuclear weapons") is convinced, but even author Polakow-Suransky doesn't seem to think so. In fact, a more careful reading of these documents (and admitting that only a few of the thousands of documents Polakow-Suransky obtained have been published) suggests a less confident interpretation.

Are P.W. Botha and Shimon Peres discussing Israeli nuclear missiles? Polakow-Suransky suggests that the code 'chalet' refers to the Jericho missile, a short-range (500km) ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear payload. He interprets the heavily corrected documents to read: "Minister Botha expressed interest in a limited number of unit of Chalet provide [sic] the correct payload could be provided, Minister Peres said that the correct payload was available in three sizes. Minister Botha expressed his appreciation and said that he would ask for advice."

But the original documents clearly shows that the word 'provide' had been replaced (probably by Botha and Peres after reviewing a secretary's original version) with the phrase 'subject to.' The South Africans can use a Jericho missile, if they can obtain the desired payload. Peres, in a sentence also crossed out, informs Botha that the payload is available in three sizes; he does not say Israel can provide the payload in one of three sizes. He never identifies any payload as nuclear.

Imagine for a moment how the original sentences might have sounded before being reduced into concise notes:
Botha: Mr. Minister, we might be interested in obtaining a few - we've agreed to use the term Chalet, yes? - We can use Chalet, if we can also acquire from somewhere the correct payload for our needs.

Peres: Yes, of course. It's my understanding that the payload you're speaking of is available in three sizes.

Botha: I appreciate that information. I will obviously need to seek more advice on the subject.
A follow-up memo by South African military chief of staff Lieutenant General R.F. Armstrong, titled "The Jericho Missile System" (not 'The Jericho Nuclear Missile System') corroborates this version of events.
"In considering the merits of a weapon system such as that offered, certain assumptions have been made...that the missiles will be armed with nuclear warheads manufactured in the RSA or acquired elsewhere." [emphasis added]
The inclusion of this caveat seems unnecessary if Israel was providing a nuclear-armed missile. In any event, Armstrong confirms South Africa's own nuclear program.

There's an inherent risk in speculating on past events: they're often verifiable.
  • Did Israel supply South Africa with nuclear missiles? No.

  • Would South Africa have used nuclear weapons against an internal or external enemy? Nope. The country possessed six atom bombs, never used them, and destroyed them voluntarily.

  • Did Israel give nuclear knowledge to a rogue state? Maybe, although it's unlikely South Africa used Israeli assistance in developing its nuclear devices, according to David Albright, who has written extensively on nuclear proliferation and South Africa. In any event, both countries were developing nuclear technology simultaneously. Israel surely knew this when it engaged in arms discussions. Not in dispute is the fact that both Israel and South Africa received nuclear know-how, technology and materials from the US, France, the Uk and West Germany.

  • Would Israel use nuclear weapons against a neighbouring state? Well, if Israel possesses nuclear weapons, it failed to use them when 1800 Syrian tanks were pouring over the border into the Golan and tens of thousands of Egyptian soldiers were crossing into the Sinai; nor did Israel use these weapons in response to Iraqi rockets in 1991 or Hezbollah rockets in 2006. It seems evident that Israel's nuclear threat is a deterrent only to the use of WMD's and not conventional weapons. As such, Israel's policy of ambiguity has likely prevented the use of chemical weapons, which several of Israel's neighbours (including Syria, Egypt, Iran ) are known to possess; nuclear ambiguity, then, has added to regional stability, not the other way around, preventing minor disputes from escalating into a regional war.

What is particularly conspicuous is the shamelessly convictive attitude of some journalists: in this case, it is Israel's dealings with the apartheid state (not in question) to imply that the two were 'birds of a feather' with a shared ideology (out of the question).

But nothing was further from the truth; most Israelis were (and are) disturbed, even outraged, by the relationship but recognized the need for investment capital while Israel's debt was skyrocketing after the Arab-instigated 1973 Yom Kippur War. A year later, Israelis were paying the highest per capita taxes in the world. Israeli officials were also concerned with maintaining healthy relations with a state in which 130,000 Jew lived. When Israel had previously funded black liberation movements, the Pretoria government retaliated by blocking contributions to Israel from South Africa's wealthy Jewish population. (Time, 26 April 1976)

Even within South Africa, the relationship was seen as paradoxical. The daily Johannesburg Star described it as "an enigmatic embrace." Said one South African expert: "Politics make strange bedfellows and fear and loneliness even stranger ones." (Time, 26 April 1976)

The reality is that despite voluntary bans, most Western states continued to sell arms and do business with South Africa throughout the 70's. Only Israel, apparently, should be reprimanded for this moral oversight. (And it's worth noting that these same countries also trade with Muslim states that have yet to grant women the right to vote; what's the difference?)

Then there are allegations that Israel is an irresponsible proliferator of nuclear weapons, a charge critics of Israel use as a defence, albeit petty, for Iran's nuclear program. But was Israel flogging nuclear weapons or was South Africa probing about the availability of such weapons? There's a world of difference. Israel never sold nuclear weapons to anyone, and if it exchanged knowledge, so have many others. Again, only Israel should be censured for an act that has yet to be proven.

If these aren't double-standards, what are?


Armament and Disarmament: South Africa's Nuclear Experience, Hannes Steyn, Jan Van Loggerenberg, Richardt Van Der Walt
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, April 1988
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January 1989
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July 1994
Ebony Magazine, August 1976
Israel and Africa: the Problematic Friendship, Joel Peters
The Israeli Connection, Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, 1988
Israel's Defense Line, I. L. Kenen, 1981
New Scientist, 12 Dec 1974
Nuclear Disarmament in International Law‎, Haralambos Athanasopulos, 2000
Nuclear non-proliferation and global order By Harald Müller, David Fischer, Wolfgang Kötter, 1994
Nuclear weapons and arms control in the Middle East, Shai Feldman, 1997
Out of (South) Africa: Pretoria's nuclear weapons experience By Roy E. Horton, USAF Institute for National Security Studies, August 1999
Relations between South Africa and France with Special Reference to Military matters, 1960-1990, Victor Moukambi, 2008
South Africa: Time Running Out, The report of the Study Commission on U.S. Policy Toward Southern Africa, 1981
The Samson Option, Seymour Hersh, 1991
Time Magazine, "ISRAEL: Into Africa via The Back Door," 26 April 1976
The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa, Sasha Polakow-Suransky, 2010 (Excerpt can be read online here.)
Yearbook of the United Nations, 1985 By United Nations, Department of Public Information, United Nations Staff

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Secrets and Lies I

This week's disclosure of a nuclear tie between Israel and South Africa, as Sacha Polakow-Suransky’s The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa, would have it, is nothing new. That hasn't stopped some from called the revelation "ground-breaking" and proclaiming with no uncertainty that Israel's nuclear program has, at long last, been revealed.

Rumours and allegations that Israel assisted South Africa's nuclear program have been floating around since the late 1970's. It was widely believed that a mysterious flash in August 1979 was a joint Israel-South Africa nuclear test. Further flashes were reported near South Africa on September 22, 1979 and December 16, 1980. Yitzchak Rabin, Prime Minister at the time, responded to the allegations then by saying, "There is not a grain of truth in the reports about nuclear cooperation with South Africa."

What is new is several declassified South African documents that Polakow-Suransky provides as proof that nukes were offered. The documents show that Shimon Peres (1923 - ), then Israel's Defense Minister met with P.W. Botha in 1975 to discuss a possible sale of Jericho missiles. Polakow-Suransky claims that the South Africans also believed that Israel would fit the missiles with nuclear warheads.

While not denying that the two men met to discuss conventional weapons, Shimon Peres, now Israel's President, has vehemently denied that nuclear weapons were offered. Former South African President F.W. De Klerk has called the allegations "simply ludicrous." De Klerk has flatly denied the story, saying, "I have no reason to question the information that was consistently conveyed to me by the relevant authorities that South Africa developed nuclear weapons on its own."

But what of the allegations? To really understand the complex rapport between Israel and apartheid South Africa, we need to go back and consider the context of mid-century realpolitik and international relations.

Long before allegations of cooperation began to circulate, South Africa was already pursuing its own nuclear agenda. By 1961 (two years before Israel's Dimona facility was activated) construction of SAFARI (SA Fundamental Atomic Research Installation), a nuclear research facility, had begun in Pelindaba with assistance from the US, France and West Germany. The Americans were also supplying enriched uranium to run the reactor.

Despite protests from some American quarters that Pretoria could utilize the enriched uranium for military purposes, the IAEA permitted a second reactor in Pelindaba, called SAFARI II. South Africa was also able to contract for the construction of two large nuclear power reactors with France (these two facilities didn't become operational until 1984 and 1985).

In 1970 South Africa announced that it had successfully achieved enriched (but not weapons-grade) uranium production on its own, and expressed an interest in "peaceful nuclear explosives" (PNE). According to Al J. Venter, author of How South Africa Built Six Atom Bombs (2008), Prime Minister John Vorster, in 1974, "approved the development of a limited nuclear explosive capability and the construction of an underground test site" at Vastrap, north of Upington. In 1975 work began on the two test shafts in the Kalahari Desert. The first nuclear device was completed in 1977.

In July 1977 both the USSR and the US (which according to some sources had been informed beforehand of the test) accused South Africa of preparing to detonate a device in the Kalahari desert. In a letter to President Carter, South Africa President Vorster pledged that "South Africa does not have nor does it intend to develop a nuclear explosive device... there will...not be nuclear testing of any kind in South Africa." The Kalahari test never happened.

But two years later, on 22 September 1979, a mysterious flash, similar to those seen during French and Chinese nuclear tests, was spotted over the south Atlantic Ocean near South Africa by a US VELA reconnaissance satellite. A commission established by President Carter concluded that the flash "was probably not from a nuclear explosion. Although we cannot rule out that this signal was of nuclear origin." But security agencies, in particular the CIA, were convinced that a joint Israel-South Africa nuclear test took place. Former President F.W. De Klerk has confirmed that South Africa had produced six bombs during this period but says they were voluntarily destroyed in the early 1990's.

According to the historical record, then, regardless of a meeting between South African and Israeli representatives, in 1975, when P.W. Botha and Shimon Peres met, South Africa was well on her way to testing an operational nuclear device.

This was also a period in which South Africa was feeling increasingly threatened by her African neighbours. In 1970 the International Court of Justice declared that South Africa's Mandate over Namibia, which it had held since the end of the First World War, was illegal. South Africa was particularly concerned with the influx of tens of thousands of Cuban troops and Soviet advisers into Angola who were intervening on behalf of Angola's Communist Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola - Party of Labour. South Africa, meanwhile, moved troops into Angola (Operation Savannah) to assist the pro-Western National Front for the Liberation of Angola. NFLA was receiving financial support from South Africa, the US and Israel, which also provided training and arms during the 1970's.

Around the same time, The Organization of African Unity (OAU) began to push the international community for sanctions against South Africa, specifically an arms embargo. A voluntary embargo, observed by the US and the United Kingdom, had been in place since the early 1960's. France had seized the opportunity to become South Africa's most important arms supplier; undoubtedly, Charles De Gaulle was also interested in obtaining South African uranium for France's own nuclear program.

In 1970 UN Security Council Resolution 232, a non-binding resolution, called "upon all States to strengthen the arms embargo." The US, France and the UK, all of whom had close economic ties to SA, abstained.

In the face of growing Soviet influence throughout Africa, the US was keen to push South Africa into anti-Communist interventionism. Despite the voluntary arms embargo, in 1975 the US would have likely given a sale of arms to Pretoria its blessing.

However, rising internal strife in South Africa a year later forced major powers to reconsider military and other economic agreements. From June to December 1976, a number of major protests, known as the Soweto riots, erupted in several major centers resulting in hundreds of deaths and thousands of arrests. France publicly announced that no new military contracts would be signed with the apartheid state. Several previous contracts were cancelled. West Germany, which had been supplying South Africa with experts and technical know-how also ended nuclear cooperation in 1976 (although production continued). In 1976 the OAU condemned France for its sale of nuclear technology to South Africa.

It was in this atmosphere of increasing conflict both within and outside South Africa, and in light of a tightening international arms embargo, that South Africa and Israel were undeniably pushed toward a closer military relationship. South Africa needed weapons and Israel, just two years after the Yom Kippur War, was desperate for money. A reluctant alliance was struck.

Such a relationship, however, should in no way suggest that Israel condoned Pretoria's racist internal policies, despite suggestions by some critics of Israel that these arrangements represented more than just a marriage of convenience between two ostracized states, that there were ideological similarities between Israel and South Africa. Premier David Ben-Gurion had previously condemned South Africa as a "deplorable regime of racial discrimination." Under Ben-Gurion Israel worked to establish relations with black African states, offering technical and economic assistance. After the 1973 October War, however, most of Israel's African friends broke off relations at the behest of the USSR and the Arab states (29 of the 33 black African countries that once had diplomatic ties with Israel broke them off at the time of the 1973 Middle East war) which consistently equated South Africa's racist policies with Zionism. Nevertheless, "Israel joined in UN resolutions condemning apartheid and voted for sanctions against South Africa." (South Africa: Time Running Out, pg 307)

To his credit, author Polakow-Suransky correctly concedes (in an interview at Middle East Analysis) a wide range of ideological thought by Israel politicians.

"[T]he founding fathers and mothers of the nation who were not just queasy but outright opposed and viciously critical of apartheid. These people spoke out against it, they allied with black African states," says Polakow-Suransky. But others, including Shimon Peres, "were willing to make moral compromises that the previous generation wasn't willing to make. It was strict realpolitik."

A third group, the Revisionists, were even more cynical. He adds, "In certain circles there was an ideological affinity. The correspondence between leading Israelis and their South African counterparts during this period bears this out. [Ariel] Sharon and [General Raphael] Eitan (1929-2004) were writing letters to their counterparts and saying we face a common threat and common enemy." [Note: Polakow-Suransky is not quite right about the political backgrounds of these two warriors; in 1948, both were members of Haganah, not the revisionist Irgun. Sharon was a Labor-Zionist. Eitan formed the Tzomet (Movement for Renewed Zionism) party and served as Agriculture and Environment Minister and also as a Deputy Prime Minister (1998-1999)]

In truth, while celebrated in the military establishment, in 1975, neither Sharon nor Raphael were in any position to influence government policy. After the near-disaster of the October War, a new government was established with Yitchak Rabin, a former Ambassador to the US and Chief of Staff, as the new Prime Minister and Shimon Peres, a former protégé of Ben-Gurion who had held a variety of cabinet positions, the Minister of Defense. Eitan was occupied with reorganizing the army in the North; Sharon had been elected to the Knesset in January 1974, but resigned in December of that year and returned to his farm in the Negev.

Tomorrow: The documents!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Big Story in a Small City

It's Yom Yerushalyim (Jerusalem Day) in Israel. I've written on Jerusalem a number of times on this blog:

On the Destruction of the Hurva Synagogue and the Jewish Quarter of the Old City in 1948 here.

On Jerusalem's special status and international law here.

On the recapture of Jerusalem in 1967, which includes links to a radio report by CBS reporter, Michael Elkins on the battle for Jerusalem, and audio of Israel Defense Forces entering the Old City of Jerusalem and reclaiming the Western Wall on June 7, 1967 here .

Jerusalem, one of the oldest cities in the world, has its share of issues. There's also no doubt that Israel inherited a lot of baggage from the British and the Turks.

Before 1918, anyone born in Palestine was a citizen of the Ottoman Empire. In fact, the Arabs complained that many Jewish newcomers did not apply for Turkish citizenship but attempted to retain their European passports. This was a fair complaint as it meant Jews could avoid military conscription and other obligations. The British, when they took over the region, did not grant British citizenship to those born in Palestine between 1918 and 1948 even though they were an occupying power. Instead they provided resident status to Arabs, but Palestinian citizenship to Jews, according to the British Mandate given by The Council of the League of Nations:
"ARTICLE 7. The Administration of Palestine shall be responsible for enacting a nationality law. There shall be included in this law provisions framed so as to facilitate the acquisition of Palestinian citizenship by Jews who take up their permanent residence in Palestine."
In 1948, Palestinian Arabs found themselves scattered between various administrations. All those that remained in Israel were automatically given Israeli citizenship, if they so desired.

Palestinians in the West Bank and east Jerusalem (and the Old City) were given Jordanian citizenship when Jordan illegally annexed this territory on April 4,1950. (I'm actually not sure the status of those under Egyptian rule in Gaza between 1948 and 1967.)

In 1967, as a result of Jordan shelling Jerusalem during the first day of the Six Day War, Israel conquered these territories, and allowed an open border for the first time in decades between the formally divided city (against the wishes of mayor Teddy Kollek, incidentally. It was actually Moshe Dayan that insisted on this.)

Arabs in east Jerusalem were offered full citizenship when Jerusalem was reunified, but most refused at the insistence of the Arab League opting instead for Permanent Residence Status, an accommodation worked out with the Arab residents themselves. Every resident of Jerusalem can apply for citizenship at any time; Arabs who have been residents for years would be granted this almost automatically.

One might ask why Jerusalem's disassociated Arab and Jewish neighbourhoods even continue to exist. In fact, this was a policy inherited and maintained by Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek.
"In 1971, four years after the reuniting of the city of Jerusalem in the Six-Day war, reporter Arnold Forster interviewed Teddy Kollek, then Mayor, for Dateline Israel . Kollek regarded the issues of the development of the newly formed city, which at the time received world attention and was highly controversial." -
You can listen to the Exclusive Teddy Kollek Audio Interview on IsraCast.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010


For the past few months, I've been writing and editing a new English-language magazine called Essential Ra'anana. Here's a piece from the Purim 2010 issue.

To Haiti With No Hesitation

Moved by the devastation and desperation after the earthquake, a Ra’anana doctor takes action.

By Morey Altman

It was his teenage son Daniel who first asked, “So are you going?”

Watching reports on the devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake in Haiti with his family, Dr. Harvey Belik was moved by what he saw. He had seen the aftermath of the Tsunami in Indonesia when he was there as a volunteer in 2005, and he thought of the long-term rehabilitation that would be necessary in Haiti. While IsraAid and other international groups were concentrating on emergency care, there would be thousands of patients requiring everything from childcare to psychological counselling for PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) while shattered Haiti slowly rebuilt.

A well-known family physician in Ra’anana, Dr. Belik served as Medical Director of Maccabi Health Service until two years ago, but now concentrates on his private practice. He and his wife Loretta made aliyah from Australia in 1988.

Belik contacted several groups in Israel and received a positive response from Natan: the Israeli Coalition for International Humanitarian Aid (Natan I-Relief), which was named in memory of legendary Israeli activist Abie Nathan (1927-2008). Within days of the earthquake Natan I-Relief organized a program “to deliver life-saving materials and to launch a monthly humanitarian aid delegation comprising of Israeli volunteers providing medicine, trauma care, child care and social and community rehabilitation.” The first delegation left just three days after the earthquake. The second delegation was scheduled to leave on January 22. That gave Belik only two days to prepare. And he knew the trip would be no picnic. A long flight to the Dominican Republic, an uncertain bus ride from Santa Domingo to Port-au Prince and no idea what conditions they’d be operating in. In retrospect, jokes Belik, “it was pretty gutsy of me.”

The Natan I-Relief delegation was led by social worker Dr. Moshe Farchi, head of trauma at Tel Hai Academic College and consisted of one medical doctor (Belik), Nurse Tamara Dolgin and a psychologist and social worker. They were met in Santo Domingo by Alexander de la Rosa, the Dominican Republic’s Ambassador to Israel, a friendly, Hebrew speaker who happened to be home at the time.
Back row (from left to right) Sister Marie, Dr. Harvey Belik, Magay (interpreter), Dr. Moshe Farchi, Dr. Eitan Shachar, Nurse Tamara Dolgin

The bus ride took 18 hours – the bus broke down twice – before it approached the battered Haitian capital. “It was like a war zone,” says Belik. “As we got nearer, we began to see rubble. One building was up, another down. The smell of death still lingered.”

A charity group hooked them up with a beleaguered Catholic retreat center in the heavily damaged neighbourhood of Sainte Marie. When they arrived at the center they found a 70-year-old German nurse, Sister Marie, working alone in desperate conditions. She would continue to run the show, with the Natan I-Relief team tending to the gathering patients. She introduced them to visitors of the camp as her ‘miracles from Israel, sent by Abraham and Moses.’

They focused on family medicine, treating infections, broken bones and malnutrition while coping with sporadic electricity, water shortages, hungry mosquitoes and the heat. Despite the conditions, the team, which debriefed every night to share experiences and plan ahead, set out to build a model community and address wide-ranging health concerns, especially the prevention of contagious diseases. There was a general awareness that while their stay may be short, it would be possible to promote well-being activities that would continue to serve that Haitians long after the Israelis left.

They also worked to open a school for the neighbourhood children, whose own school had collapsed killing two students. Belik, a strong proponent of Jewish education, and founder and board member of Ra’anana’s Tali and Meitarim Schools, recognized the importance of restoring some normalcy in the lives of the traumatized children. Working with local teachers, the Israeli team helped set up makeshift classrooms, using donated IDF tents, around the center and even in the adjacent cemetery for 400 local kids. They also advised the teachers, many of whom had also suffered in the quake, on strategies to help the children better cope with what they had experienced.

“It was personally very fulfilling,” says Belik. “I had tremendous support from home and really felt like my family was with me the whole time. It was also nice to be able to show a human side of Israel. We were there to help, but I’m happy the positive PR was a by-product.” Dr. Belik, who is also a Major and medical officer in the IDF, says it was “an amazing feeling to see the Israeli group in action.”

He was particularly inspired by the strength and dignity of the Haitians. “They were incredibly resilient,” says Belik. “There were thousands of refugees with next-to-nothing, but they would come to us well-groomed, singing prayers. But culturally, we were very different. Some might ask, ‘Why care about Haiti? We have nothing in common other than being people.’ But that is everything.”

Throughout 2010, the Natan coalition will send eleven more delegations to assist with the multidisciplinary rehabilitation needed in Haiti. Individuals and organizations that are willing to mobilize and help are asked to directly contact Natan's representatives:

Cheques can be sent to Brit Olam's offices: P.O.Box 53316, Tel Aviv, 61533

Direct donations can be made to Brit Olam's bank account: Israel Discount Bank Ltd (11), Branch No. 105, Tel Aviv University. Account No. 27470.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Return to Life

Last night, the Hurva Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City was rededicated after four years of rebuilding. The synagogue, which was built in 1864, had been destroyed by the Jordanian army in 1948. While the story has had international media coverage, most outlets have been conspicuously vague on the destruction of this important shul. AP wrote that Hurva was destroyed "during Israel's 1948 war of independence", while Reuters simply acknowledged that it was destroyed "during a war in 1948." Neither outlets mentioned the Jordanians or the destruction of the Jewish Quarter.

The battle for the Old City, and subsequent destruction of the Jewish Quarter and its synagogues is an important element in the Hurva story.

Hurva Synagogue, C. 1939

The residents of the Jewish Quarter, almost all of whom were religious Jews who had lived in the city for generations, had ample opportunity to flee while the Old City was still under British jurisdiction. The majority chose to stay until the bitter end. The day before the surrender had been Lag Ba'Omer. The beleaguered Jews prayed for reinforcements. They were almost out of food and water; there was no electricity; the Haganah garrison had expended almost all of its ammunition; 300 soldiers had been killed, most of the others were injured but refused to leave their positions. The Jewish Quarter had endured two weeks of shelling and gunfire.

On Friday, May 28, 1948 the Arab Legion succeeded at controlling the main Jewish street of the Quarter and immediately destroyed the Hurva Synagogue (in anticipation of the arrival of King Abdullah).

The International Red Cross had - to their credit - been trying to convince the Legion, at the request of the Haganah, to permit women and children to leave. The Legion repeatedly refused, demanding that there be a complete surrender of all Jews. All attempts to stop the Legion had failed, and with fighting now raging along a 20-mile front between Latrun and Ramallah, reinforcements were unavailable.

By Friday morning "only Batei Machse, the Sephardi synagogues and Shaar Hashamyim Yeshiva remained in Jewish hands." More civilians were killed, including several women, a shopkeeper and a man helping the soldiers but the garrison refused to give up; and the Jordanians refused to permit civilians, now holed up in the synagogues, to leave unless there was a complete surrender.

With no other possible recourse, Rabbi Reuven Hazan and Rabbi Israel Mintzberg put themselves into the line of fire to negotiate a surrender. They were shot at by a few of the Haganah boys - Haganah leader Moshe Rusnak was afraid their action would lead to a massacre of the residents - and forced back; but, everyone knew the situation was hopeless. After brief discussions, they were back on the streets 30 minutes later with their white flags (only to be shot at by Jordanians). They might have been killed on the spot. The Jordanians were only meters away from the Jewish positions. Instead, their intervention managed to convince both the Haganah and Arab Legion to temporarily stand down while civilians were evacuated, and the captured soldiers and men were returned to Israel in exchange for Jordanian prisoners several months later.

"At 11:00am on Friday, Rabbis Reuven Hazan, 70, and Israel Mintzberg, 83, walked from one of the Jewish positions toward the Arab lines. They carried a white flag made out of a bit of once-festive tablecloth tacked to a stick. Although he was shot and wounded by a sniper, Rabbi Hazan called out in Arabic, 'Good morning. We have come to talk to you, and we want to see your commander.'"

Mitzberg was held hostage while Rabbi Hazan retrieved the Haganah representative to negotiate the surrender. After 13 days of shelling (which killed or injured hundreds of civilians) and hand-to-hand fighting, "the exhausted Jewish garrison in the Old City of Jerusalem accepted the Arab Legion's surrender terms."

On Friday afternoon "290 able-bodied men from 15 to 50 were taken prisoner and 1,200 women, children and aged were passed to the Jewish lines outside the walls with the cooperation of the U.N. representative and the Red Cross....the evacuation of civilians through Zion gate began on Friday evening and lasted until 2 o'clock on Saturday morning." Fifty-one of the captives were injured; three physicians and four nurses volunteered to stay with them.

There are some reports that Jews were, in fact, invited to stay in the Old City if they promised allegiance to King Abdullah. I haven't been able to find out if anyone accepted the offer.

An excellent first-hand account of the surrender can be read in 'Forever My Jerusalem' by Puah Shteiner. Further accounts are now online in archived editions of The Palestine Post.

Photos of the destruction of the Old City and the surrender of the Jewish residents can be seen here.

Emet m'Tsiyon also features an excellent photo essay called "The Hurvah Synagogue before Being Blown up by the Arab Legion of Transjordan, Courtesy of His Britannic Majesty's Generals and Officers" available here.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Hot Docs

Way back in 2003 (when cell phones were used mainly for phone calls and a 10 lb. laptop was considered "conveniently light"), I was serving as Executive Director of the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival. I was asked to write an article for Vancouver's Jewish newspaper in response to a controversy over a documentary film on the festival circuit called, "Palestine is Still the Issue." The subject is still relevant, and I've never posted the article so here it is, as it appeared in the April 11, 2003 edition of The Jewish Bulletin:

Is every documentary propaganda?

A filmmaker can use myriad techniques, including omission of facts, to support or refute practically anything.

Film analysis is a tricky business. As Greg Felton, in a letter to the editor ("An exercise in propaganda," Bulletin, March 14), suggests, even a review of a slanted film might itself be slanted. Such is the case with the provocative British documentary film Palestine is Still the Issue, Pat Johnson's problematic review and equally problematic rebuttal by Felton.

That the film Palestine is Still the Issue is propaganda should come as no surprise to anyone, even Felton. After all, propaganda is simply the dissemination of a particular view or outlook with the aim of altering other people's beliefs. A quick review of filmmaker's John Pilger's 25-year career in journalism provides ample evidence of his political leanings. His film simply reflects those opinions. Incidentally, his boss, the chairman of Carlton Television, Michael Green, has suggested even bigger problems with the film: "We do present programs that give differing points of view. It [Palestine is Still the Issue] was factually incorrect, historically incorrect. Unfortunately, you can't always agree with him [Pilger]." ("Carlton chairman criticizes its own documentary on Israel," Paul Peachey, the Independent, Sept. 20, 2002) But it should be noted that this opinion has been seriously challenged.

But, so what? It's not like this is the first propaganda film ever made. In fact, it could be argued that every documentary is propaganda of sorts. There is a certain misconception that a documentary film is, in fact, a document, with an obligation to be balanced. Although documentaries are expected to adhere to certain conventions – real people, real events – this is not always the case. Robert Flaherty, director of the landmark documentary Nanook of the North (1922), believed, "Sometimes you have to lie. One often has to distort a thing to catch its true spirit." ("Robert Flaherty: Nanook of the North," by Derek Malcolm, the Guardian, April 13, 2000)

A skilful filmmaker can use myriad techniques, from selective omission of facts to a careful choice of quotes, to support or refute practically anything. Simply by diverting our attention towards or away from a subject, a filmmaker can alter our emotions and impressions. The camera sees only what it's supposed to see. Or not see.

But there's a big difference between works that are simply unbalanced as opposed to deliberately dishonest, despite Flaherty's admission. A good documentary must have a voice; otherwise it's merely a news story. No one could debate the ferocity of German pride celebrated in German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will. Using brilliant camera work, lighting and staging techniques, she created one of the most powerful political films ever made, but make no mistake; fine camera work doesn't make Triumph of the Will any less a propaganda film. In fact, it is what makes the film even more seductive and appealing.

The same could be said of any of the recent works of Oliver Stone. In films such as JFK and Nixon, Stone masterfully manipulates and even recreates actual events to support his particular visions of these political figures. Was JFK historically accurate? Of course not. But, it was damned entertaining.

All of these films are visually stunning and, without a doubt, unbalanced. But are they untruthful? In the case of Triumph of the Will, Riefenstahl herself has revealed that "the preparations for the party convention were made in concert with the preparations for the camera work." In other words, the city of Nuremberg became a huge set for the film. All of the activities and movements were staged for the camera. It is this combination of purpose and technique, and not just the one-sidedness of the film, that makes it true propaganda, as we know the term.

It is also impossible to analyze propaganda without appreciating the context in which the film is created and exhibited. Palestine is Still the Issue was produced by a man with a record of imbalance (or strong opinion, depending on how you look at it). Since its original and highly controversial broadcast, the film has only been exhibited by political organizations whose mission is the distribution of information supportive of a very specific political belief, that is, the end of Israeli occupation of the disputed territories. These are relevant facts in any review. It might be true that the film is "propaganda" but the imbalance must be proven. This is especially true with a film that is defamatory and deceptive. Ultimately, the responsibility is on the journalist to choose words carefully, and back them up with facts and not just opinion.

Two recent films from Israel illustrate the subtleties that distinguish between films that are simply unbalanced as opposed to bona fide propaganda. Purity (Tehora) by Anat Tzuria examines some of the difficulties Orthodox women face in adhering to the Jewish purity laws. All of the women featured in the film are real. The film offers little in the way of rebuttal from religious authorities or even women who embrace the purity laws with pride. There is no question that the film is unbalanced, but is it dishonest? Well, in a sense. The director neglects to mention in the film that she interviewed more than 100 women who observe tehora until she found three willing to speak against it. Nor does she mention that she herself was raised in a secular Jewish home and only follows the purity laws to please her Orthodox husband. In a world of diverse opinion, it's possible to find three people to support or refute almost anything. Watch any episode of the Jerry Springer show if you don't believe me.

Jenin, Jenin is another matter altogether. The film looks at recent operations in the town of Jenin by the Israel Defence Forces and the allegations that a massacre took place there. The subject of a ban by the Israeli Film Censorship Board, the film is now being seen outside of Israel at various festivals and special screenings by pro-Palestinian organizations. The board banned the movie "because it presents the events in a distorted way under the guise of a 'documentary.' " In an interview in the Jerusalem Post, Muhammad Bakri, the director of the controversial film has said he hopes to "open eyes and minds and make people think about what's going on." Perhaps, but this hasn't stopped five reserve soldiers who served in Jenin from filing suit for libel against Bakri and the two Israeli theatres that screened the film. There is also some indication that the film has now been highly self-censored by the director (or distributor) before being released internationally, possibly to avoid having to defend the more obvious distortions of truth.

As the director of a Jewish film festival, I can tell you that these are the sorts of concerns that come up when we select films for the festival. To minimize bias, every submission is seen by at least four people. We then compare notes and make decisions based on the festival's mission and mandate. But even this process creates challenges. If we screen a film that explores a particular political position, are we irresponsible if we do not provide a forum for discussion following the film, or is it preferable to let viewers arrive at their own conclusions? What about films that are hurtful to only one segment of the audience? Can a film be useful for some but misleading for others? Whose responsibility is it to ensure the accuracy of the information in the films we screen? What role does a film festival play in the community? To entertain? To educate? To inform?

Although it's impossible to verify every detail of every film we screen, we do make a concerted effort to "background check" our films; it's not too difficult to find information on the more contentious ones. Since exhibitors can be held liable for their presentations, we don't screen films like Jenin, Jenin or Palestine is Still the Issue. On the other hand, we have shown controversial films like How I Learned to Overcome my Fear and Love Arik Sharon and Time of Favor (Ha-hesder), a film touchy enough to be dropped from the schedules of a number of other Jewish film festivals. For the record, we've also rejected films that are blatantly deceptive in favor of Israel. The goal is to avoid propaganda for either side and find films whose artistry and integrity speaks for itself.

But, as I've said, all of this is tricky business. The hope is that by educating ourselves, and challenging our biases, we can tell the difference between a documentary with a slant and a film that needs lies to support its argument, which makes it no documentary at all.

Morey Altman is director of the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Auntie's Money Bag

Canada has just taken a bold, unilateral step by announcing it will no longer fund the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). This move will undoubtedly draw the ire of Palestinian supporters who consider such financial aid essential and sacrosanct. Nevertheless, UNRWA has drawn criticism for decades, and at the very least, the organization has needed a shake-up for a long time.

Canada, it should be remembered, was present at UNRWA’s birth in December 1949; indeed, the agency’s first director was a Canadian*. That Canada should be the first major donor to pull out of UNRWA funding is significant at many levels, and the move will undoubtedly affect G8 support of the organization.

The real challenge, however, may be the present Conservative government's ability to survive long enough to see any change. Many expect the Conservatives, whose draconian domestic policies have ruffled feathers across Canada's left-leaning populace, to lose the next Federal election. Support for the Conservatives, which presently rules with a minority government, has been falling. A recent poll shows them essentially tied with the Liberals who, if in power, would almost certainly reverse the UNRWA decision.

* "Canada subsequently voted for the establishment of the Relief and Works Agency (UNWRA) in the General Assembly resolution of 8 December 1949 whose first director was General Howard Kennedy of Canada. ..." (Zachariah Kay, The Diplomacy of Prudence: Canada and Israel, 1948-1958 (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1996): 24-28.)

The National Post has an editorial on the decision here.

In this still from a Reuters video, terrorists are seen
loading weapons into a UN ambulance.

Here are a few articles for background information on UNRWA's controversial history.

How UNRWA became a barrier to peace

Jerusalem Post
By Jonathan Spyer, 27 May 2008

Gaza Bedfellows UNRWA And Hamas
Forbes Magazine
by Claudia Rosett, 08 January 2009
How they keep each other in business.

Ex-UNRWA official blasts agency for politicizing Palestinian refugee issue
by Natasha Mozgovaya, 08 February 2009

James G. Lindsay's report, mentioned in the above article, can be read here. (Note: a pdf file will open)

The UN’s Palestinian Refugee Problem
Azure Magazine,
Arlene Kushner, 2005 (Note: a pdf file will open)

UNRWA`s Gina Benevento responds to the Kushner article here. (Note: a pdf file will open)

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

When Disaster Strikes

Israel has been getting some much-deserved attention for its relief efforts in Haiti, as well as the usual small-minded aspersions. While most of the reports on Israel's rapid deployment to Haiti, following the devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake that leveled Port-au-Prince and killed thousands, have been positive there have been some that have rushed just as quickly to say that Israel's efforts were nothing but a PR stunt. A few crackpots have even suggested that the earthquake was a man-made attack by the US and Israel. That sort of nonsense obviously doesn't deserve a response.

Israel's forté, earned through the blood of her injured and killed soldiers and civilians, is battlefield trauma aid and logistics. That an Israeli IsraAid team is able to arrive at a moment's notice with doctors and equipment is something which we can take pride in, however, not at the expense of others who have also been doing what they can. Look, we have doctors; we have state-of-the-art medical equipment (we invented much of it) but that should in no way diminish the contributions of other countries.

Both the detractors and the devotees need to keep things in perspective. While Israel's advanced set-up was impressive, there were other field hospitals; Cuba had several but they were handling basic first-aid (and amputations). Norway also had a small set-up with around 20 staff. Argentina was able to provide immediate aid because they had a an medical station in Haiti before the earthquake. There were also a number of doctors already in Haiti whose three Doctors Without Borders aid stations were destroyed by the earthquake. I believe they joined up with the Israeli unit but I'm working on confirming that. Canada, for its part, dispatched two warships - the HMCS Athabaska and HMCS Halifax - loaded with humanitarian aid, as well as several military transport planes.

I was in close touch with the Jamaicans, who were flying aid into Haiti and preparing to receive refugees (and I'm going to write more on Jamaica's efforts over the few days). It's worth remembering that a number of Caribbean nations provide on-going support to the beleaguered nation. They were there before the cameras showed up, and they'll be there, I expect, long after. That they can't provide the kind of high-tech care that Israel can provide is irrelevant; they do what they do and it deserves to be acknowledged.

But the Israeli hospital was receiving (indeed, it was seeking) the most difficult cases, and because they had electronic equipment probably better than many hospitals in the area, they got a lot of press. Frankly, much of the coverage has been, in my opinion, more the result of American hurt pride than any desire to promote Israel; they just don't like when others show them up. (and most of the over-generous reports are coming from the US, not Israel. Who in the international community watches Israeli TV? Even most Israelis don't!)

Criticism of the US (and other western states) has not been fair; they've been prepping the USNS Comfort, a massive hospital ship capable of handling hundreds of patients, which has just arrived in the region. The US could take the time to adequately prepare the ship (which includes a crew of 900, and helicopters for ferrying victims) because they knew the Israeli team would be there within hours (and the recon team was there before doctors arrived).

And now that US (and Red Cross) relief is arriving en masse (and it should be noted, A French hospital ship, the Siroco, has also arrived), the Israelis, and other teams, will go home. In the words of one Israeli officer, "We provided timely medical care to about 1,000 people, we conducted 300 operations and delivered 16 babies. In the past few days the Americans arrived and then you can put things in proportion and become more modest in the face of their airlift and the scope of their aid. You need to understand that those who will continue to treat the main suffering there are the Americans." It's exactly this sort of cooperation between the US and Israel that highlights the importance of the relationship, a fact often lost on those who dwell on financial support or Arab intransigence.

A bigger issue is the future of Haiti as a society, as a people. The earthquake was really just rubbing salt in the wound of a place already knocked down time and again. Haiti, ultimately, isn't Israel's responsibility but everyone's, and how the world continues to support this place, after the cameras and temporary aid stations have packed up and left, will be the real test. Long after emergency teams have returned home, it will be countries like the US and Canada which will be providing long-term assistance to Haiti; indeed, Canada is hosting an international conference in Montreal today aimed at coordinating rebuilding efforts and to "physically get the Haitian government back on its feet." Haiti is already the largest recipient of Canadian long-term development assistance in the Americas and the second largest in the world.

What's really been missing is a coordinating agency that assigns nations in emergency situations according to their special capabilities. This was recognized after the Tsunami in Indonesia in 2004, when poor coordination between international aid agencies resulted in surpluses of some supplies and equipment and acute shortages of others. That this sort of coordination is still not happening is yet another failure of the UN, which would rather spend its money (which is really G8 money) on canapés and Landcruisers.

One can be proud of the Israeli team, and cognizant of the tremendous efforts of others; the two aren't mutually exclusive. In fact, I was told there were representatives of 30 countries (now numbering in the thousands) working in Haiti as of a few days ago. Many flew there on their own dime and are working with little support. That also deserves some praise. If not more.

As for those who choose to diminish Israel's humanitarian work for partisan reasons (or the breathtakingly petty: "they're acting TOO proud!"), it really just points to a pathological need to sully the Jewish state, and an inability to proffer any sort of mature line of reasoning. Not the first time, either.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A Caribbean Mystery

Slightly jet-lagged, but otherwise unscathed, I'm back in Israel, back on the computer, back at work. I was covering a conference in Kingston, Jamaica ("The Jewish Diaspora of the Caribbean") for the Jerusalem Report but took the opportunity to investigate other interesting and relevant stories. Of course, the biggest story of the week occurred nearby while I was there: the devastating earthquake in Haiti. We felt the earthquake in Kingston, but it was no worse than a minor Vancouver rumble, and most people didn't even realize that's what it was until reports started to come in a few hours later.

Several colleagues and I immediately assessed ways of getting there, and that story will follow in a few weeks, when I'm able to freely describe the bureaucratic rigmarole that tripped us up. Over the next few days, I'll be writing fairly extensively on Jamaican relief efforts, and on an interesting Shabbat. What do you get when you put together a Baghdadi Jew from the US, an Israeli/Canadian Ashkenazi, a Sephardic Panamanian and a Jewish Reggae artist from New York. Not the beginning of a joke; I'm describing last week's Kabbalat Shabbat service!

In the meantime, I invite you to consider a question: why would a 320-year old Jewish gravestone feature a skull and crossbones?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Our Man in the Caribbean Day 3

Good morning, afternoon or evening.

Unfortunately, we've been moved to a different meeting hall where internet access in unavailable so no live blogging today. In stead, I'll do a short wrap-up next week, and of course, there will be a much more in depth review of the conference and feature on the Jewish diaspora of the Caribbean in a future issue of the Jerusalem Report.

For those who were following for my updates on the Haiti disaster, it is, of course, an ongoing concern here in Jamaica. There's a tangible concern and outpouring of grief and love for their fellow islanders; Jamaican businesses (including ScotiaBank which has a presence in Jamaica) are actively fundraising and collecting emergency aid for survivors. As well, this morning Jamaica's PM and staff are on route to Port-au-Prince to do a first-hand assessment. The expectation here is that Jamaica, and other islands, are about to receive refugees numbering in the thousands. At the very least, we're expecting that the UN, and other agencies, will have to set up tent cities in Haiti and neighbouring Dominican Republic. Confounding this effort will be destruction the UN itself has suffered. Dozens of UN peacekeepers have been reported dead, including the UN's mission chief, Hedi Annabi, and his chief deputy, Luis Carlos da Costa.

I'll try to post more on this later. Back to the conference.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Our Man in the Caribbean Day 2

There's only one synagogue left in Jamaica, Sharei Shalom Synagogue, the United Congregation Synagogue. After a devastating earthquake in 1882 destroyed the Sephardic and Ashkenazi synagogues, these groups came together and founded a new congregation. A synagogue was built but destroyed in a fire in 1907. A new building was completed in 1912, and it's still in use today, although the community has diminished and changed over the years. I'll be writing much more on this beautiful place, one of a handful of synagogues with a sand floor, in the near future.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Our Man in the Caribbean

Welcome to everyone from Kingston, Jamaica. I'm doing something new, liveblogging from the Jewish Diaspora of the Caribbean conference at the beautiful and impressive Pegasus Hotel.

If you have any questions for the participants, add a comment here, and I'll do my best to get an answer. I think tomorrow, I'm going to add some sort of live blogging software to the page, perhaps Coveritlive. What do you think?

Day 1, January 12, 2010

The conference started this morning and runs the next two days. It's an amazing coming together of academics, genealogists and local Jews interested in sharing their stories.

Ainsley Henriques opened the conference with a shehecheyanu blessing and a welocme to everyone.

Jane Gerber, conference co-chair and Professor of Jewish history and former director of the Center for Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York spoke on the importance of this sort of event. Most importantly, the importance of having the conference in the Caribbean rather than, for example, New York. it's vital to not only talk about the synagogue of Jamaica but also to walk on its sandy floor; there is the hope that the conversations that are generated by the event will be open-ended, flow from the room to the coffee break and beyond....also papers will come from these deliberations. There are many subjects to discuss: we hope to engage in discussions on forms of identity..multi-dimensional, multiple jewish identities; building of nations of the peoples in the area. what roles did the Jewish community play in the development of the region?

Swithin Wilmot is the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Education and Senior Lecturer at the University of the West Indies: Dr. Wilmot welcomed the guests and asserted that "there's no doubt that the Jewish community is at the heart of the history of Caribbean history and culture." We will explore so many aspects of this history over the next 3 days.

11:30 am

Speaking now is Gerard Nahon from the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, in Paris. He's discussing Amsterdam and the Jewish nation in the Caribbean during the 17th century.

Holly Snyder from Brown University is now speaking on the subject: What Jewish Merchants contributed to Jamaican culture, 1670-1831.

Ms. Snyder is North American History librarian at Brown University's John Hay Library where her responsibilities include Modern Judaic Studies. She's currently working on a book-length manuscript entitles "Geographical Destinies: jews, Conversos and Crypto-Jews in the Age of Mercantilism, 1500-1800.


2:00pm Rachel Frankel is talking about new technologies DIARNA, and the importance of cemetery research.

Diarna is an initiative of Digital Heritage Mapping, a 501c3 non-profit organization using technology to map and preserve cultural heritage sites around the world. “Diarna” means “our homes” in Judeo-Arabic, a version of Arabic mixed with Hebrew spoken by Jews across the Middle East in numerous local dialects. Read an overview article about Diarna in AJS Perspectives, the magazine of the Association for Jewish Studies. (from the Diarna website)

The International Survey of Jewish Monuments (ISJM) has an interesting page on the Jewish Cemetery of Hunt’s Bay and Orange Street Cemeteries in Jamaica.

There's a fascinating new book on the subject called: The Knell of Parting Day, by Marilyn Delevante.

Are you a descendant of Caribbean Jews? Let me know. Have a question for an expert IN JAMAICA? Send me a message or comment here.


Naomi Feuchtwanger-Sarig speaks on the mourning customs of Portugeuse Jews, their rituals, including the use of the colour black. The iconography of Jewish grief suggests the use of black as a sign of mourning is very old; but its origin as a ritualistic colour is vague. Texts in the mishnah record the use of back during the 30 days of bereavement (sheloshim); this custom was maintained in Spain for generations, and continues in Sephardi Jewish communities to this day. Some really interesting questions coming out of this talk: what is the origin of the iconography of the skull and crossbones in the Caribbean, and about the image of a tree being felled common on tombstones in Jamaica. I'll address these questions later, perhaps in the Jerusalem Report article.

That's it for today. This has been fun, and tomorrow I'll be set up a little differently. If you know anyone else who may be interested, please pass along the web address. I'm hoping I'll get a few questions tomorrow which I'll bring to the attention of the relevant guest speaker. Tomorrow's speakers include: Mordechai Arbell, Ronnie Perelis, Hilit Surowitz, Judah Cohen and Ed Kritzler, whose book Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean, I reviewed for the Jerusalem Report last year. I'll try to add pdfs of the review later.