(Published in Haaretz - May 19, 2006)
Visit the “Talkback” sections of any Israel-related Internet site and you are likely to encounter Shalom Freedman’s name. Or browse the book reviews on Amazon.com and you might arrive at one of the more than 2,400 postings by this Jerusalem-based writer. Anglo File set out to discover what drives this ubiquitous man.
Shalom Freedman was born up in Troy, New York in 1942 and has lived in Jerusalem since 1974. “Essentially, I’m a writer,” he says of himself. “What I really consider myself to be is a writer on Jewish subjects,” he adds.
After completing a Ph.D. in English and American Literature at Cornell University, Freedman declined offers to teach, convinced that he had to be a writer. “Writing for me is a way of searching, of knowing the world, of understanding myself and others. It’s a way of thinking,” he explains in a quiet voice, sitting in his modest Jerusalem apartment, surrounded by the paintings of his London-born wife.
In addition to countless articles and Web postings, Freedman has published eight books, most recently a biography of former Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren. Other published works include “Life as Creation: A Jewish Way of Thinking of the World,” the autobiographical “Seven Years in Israel: A Zionist Storybook” and a book of poetry, “Mourning for my Father.”
Freedman did not enjoy quick success as a writer. In fact, after receiving his doctorate, he spent seven years working from his parents’ basement in Troy, collecting rejection letters. At one point, he went to New York City and met with a relative who was a publishing executive. “Kid, don’t be a writer. They’re all bums,” was the advice he received.
One of the things that drove him to write, Freedman says, was an effort to understand his father. This was the focus of his first, unpublished, work entitled: “A Journal on Suffering Written Against the Coming of Madness.” He struggled with each sentence, but ultimately found that “writing is a way of keeping me sane.”
Strong Jewish identity
Freedman grew up in what he calls a “nominally Orthodox” home and became more religiously observant later in life. But he says he has always felt a very strong Jewish identity. He recalls as a six-year-old seeing his grandmother weep when the State of Israel was proclaimed and says his father always dreamed of coming to live in the Land of Israel. Freedman decided to immigrate to Israel following the Yom Kippur War, which stirred deep-felt concerns about Jewish survival. “A real sense of possible destruction has always been with me, and is still with me,” he explains, attributing some of this sensibility to his boyhood friendships with Holocaust survivors.
“When I think of Israel, I think of the efforts of so many unknown people that have gone into building this country,” Freedman continues, emotions overtaking his voice. “The cemetery over on Tchernikovsky Street is devoted to those who came here from the Shoah and fought here, died here and left nothing behind, no families.” He apologizes and takes a moment to remove his large-framed glasses and dry his eyes.
Don Quixote in Jerusalem
This emotional attachment also fires his prolific Israel advocacy writing. “One of the reasons I do the public writing (yesterday I wrote to the People’s Daily in China) is just to say a word to correct fundamental misconceptions people have about Israel and about the Jewish people,” he says. “The bottom line for me is to continue the survival and existence of the Jewish people, and what bothers me is to see people who really hate Israel and hate the Jewish people.”
On one hand, Freedman is thrilled by the instant gratification of seeing his postings published online. “The life of a writer is mostly rejection,” he explains. “Most of us are people who have been disappointed over and over again. That’s what’s so great about the Web.” On the other hand, he notes, “Sometimes I feel terrible. You’re associating with people who very often can’t write or who really hate Israel and hate everything, so why are you bothering?”
But Freedman, who describes himself in one of his books (see box) as a “largely ineffectual, yet well-intentioned Don Quixote,” says he feels “that old thing, that you have to do your little part. You have to do it, especially if you see something that is evil. You have to in some way try to resist or contradict, on the assumption that there is someone out there waiting to hear your little word. It’s not going to change the world, but you have an obligation.”
Idealism and Realpolitik
Shalom Freedman, who is now in his mid-sixties, sometimes speaks and writes with youthful innocence and self-reflection. This is particularly evident in a book he published in 2004, entitled “Small Acts of Kindness: Striving for Derech Eretz in Everyday Life.” The book, in diary format, documents his efforts to practice derech eretz . (“Simple decency and kindness” is one of the several ways he defines this Hebrew term.)
Freedman agonizes over how to implement this ideal of human conduct in dealing with the teachers, friends, neighbors, beggars and others he encounters in his everyday life, and even considers the implications of jaywalking in terms of derech eretz.
On the collective and national level, however, his focus on compassion and sensitivity toward others gives way to a right-wing stance of realpolitik. He acknowledges that the political right’s “moral weakness is to disregard the other side, failing to take into account its humanity.” However, he is apparently more perturbed by what he regards as the moral weakness of the political left in Israel – its “failure to contend with, or even recognize, evil in the Palestinians.”
Freedman insists that it would “foolish” to unilaterally withdraw from the West Bank. “We must try to live with the uncertainty of a very unsatisfactory situation until there is some fundamental transformation in the overall Palestinian, Arab and Islamic attitudes towards the Jewish state,” he argues. Meanwhile, he emphasizes, “Our first priority must be Iran and Iran and Iran. These people are serious. They work hard. They truly aim to destroy us.”
(Published in Haaretz - May 26, 2006)
Opening Day for Israel’s professional baseball league is June 22, 2007. Game time is 1 PM. The only thing that remains is to find a place to play, and recruit 120 professional-class players to man the league’s six-team roster for a 48-game season. “You have no players, no stadiums and no fans – other than that you have every ingredient that you need,” acknowledges Larry Baras with a smile.
Baras, a Boston-based businessman, is spearheading the effort to establish a professional baseball league in Israel and has recruited an impressive list of partners, including former U.S. ambassador to Israel Dan Kurtzer, slated to become league commissioner, and former Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette, who has agreed to direct player development for the Israeli league.
In addition to his business background – including investment banking, corporate finance and strategic planning – Baras brings to the project a love affair with baseball and Israel. He spent the last week touring potential baseball venues and also had his “best baseball experience ever” – watching Israeli children play a game at Kibbutz Gezer: “to sit there with that panorama behind the field, a nice breeze, and all those beautiful panim (faces) running around the bases, hearing ‘Aminadav slide!’”
Baras, 54, was born in Brooklyn and grew up in Maryland. “I was probably the best center fielder the [Baltimore] Talmudic Academy ever produced,” he chuckles. “So I thought I was good until I got into the real world. Everyone had dreams of making the major leagues.”
After studying at NYU and the University of Maryland, Baras headed to Wall Street, and later transferred to Boston. In 1996, he decided to start a food business, producing hole-less bagels, pre-filled with cream cheese. “I had this cockamamie idea of filling a bagel,” he says. “The idea started to overtake me, just like this baseball thing.” Over the past decade, his company has experimented with various fillings for its UnHoley Bagels, from marshmallows to chopped liver. The company’s main client today is the U.S. military.
Baras traces his next outlandish idea –bringing professional baseball to Israel – to “a confluence of things.” He found himself with more time on his hands after outsourcing much of his company’s production activity and started thinking about ways to contribute to Israel. “I had always wished I had the luxury of doing more for Israel and more for my Jewish community,” he explains. But after meeting with various Jewish organizations, “I was reminded why I hated committees and boards. I decided I wanted to do something where I could make a personal impact, however small.”
Around the same time, his teenage son began working for the Brockton Rocks, a minor league team located 22 miles from their home in Brookline. “I used to have to schlep out there to bring him and pick him up. I’d usually get there to watch the last few innings and found myself coming earlier and earlier to the games, and I fell in love with that genre – it was just so wholesome and unadulterated.
“Brockton is known as a very tough city, and yet you looked at the crowd and everybody was having a blast. It just hit me – if I can bring the type of baseball I’m watching in Brockton to Israel, what a great mitzvah it would be. Israel deserves to have fun and this is about the greatest experience I can imagine, so I decided that’s what I’m going to do.”
Baras notes that his father’s death the previous year also played a part in the genesis of this idea. “My father was a huge baseball fan. Friday nights, we’d have our meal and he would go downstairs to the den and religiously read that week’s Sporting News. So baseball in Israel, what greater thing could there be in his memory than to do something like that?”
After locating appropriate sites for the games, the next item on Baras’ agenda is to start recruiting players. Baras expects to initially field teams composed primarily of American Jewish college players, but the goal is to develop native Israeli talent to fill at least a quarter of the rosters within five or six years. In addition to roundtrip airfare and help in finding accommodations, each player can expect modest remuneration of about $1,500. Baras does not expect this to be a hard sell: “You’re in your twenties and you have a chance not only to spend the summer in Israel, but to have someone pay for it – and to play baseball. If life isn’t good there, then life isn’t good.”
Baras realizes he faces a formidable task in teaching Israelis to love baseball. One of the ways he hopes to draw the uninitiated into baseball is to incorporate between-inning entertainment. Baseball is an “acquired taste,” he explains. “Little by little you learn the little nuances.”
He also is braced for administrative hurdles: “When I started this thing, I felt I’m going to do this for the long-term and I steeled myself for the personality, bureaucratic and political terrain that I knew I couldn’t avoid. I told myself, ‘You’ll just have to deal with it. Be Mr. Magoo and keep moving forward as if you don’t notice.’”
His latest visit encouraged Baras. “During this trip, I’ve seen how this baseball thing has been resonating among a lot of people.” He recounts a conversation he had this week with his wife, who suggested that people are naturally responding to something that sounds fun but that this could just as well be paintball. “No, I don’t think so,” he insists. “I think baseball really is America. It’s that which is most identifiable with America. And now someone is saying that they’re going to bring baseball to Israel and that’s why it’s hitting a chord.”
(Published in Haaretz - May 26, 2006)
The Hebrew Israelite community in Dimona marked the 39th anniversary of its “exodus” from the United States this week with a two-day “New World Passover” celebration. Hundreds of guests – including a number of foreign delegations – joined over 1,000 local participants in the festivities, which culminated last night with performances by two members of the local community: Eddie Butler, who represented Israel in the Eurovision song contest last weekend, and Shadahyah, a former singer in the 1960s-era Shirelles, who is about to embark on a world tour.
The event in Dimona appears incongruous to a first-time visitor – a predominantly black-skinned crowd speaking American English but offering holiday greetings in Hebrew (hag sameah!), colorful African-style dress, feverous chants of “Halleluyah” like those of church revival meetings, together with Lubavitch-style references to their “anointed” spiritual leader.
The first group of African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem – better known as Black Hebrews – left Chicago in 1967, a year after their leader, Ben Ammi Ben Israel, announced he had received a message from God. “When the vision came, in February 1966, the angel Gabriel brought the message that it was time to start the journey back to the Promised Land and to establish the long-awaited kingdom of God,” Ben Ammi explains. “Like prophets before me, like Moses and Ezekiel – I wasn’t prepared for it.”
He waited for several weeks before sharing his vision with others. “I didn’t want to embarrass myself and didn’t want to be ostracized, but finally I realized that the only way to know if the vision was from God was to speak the words that were spoken to me.” According to Ben Ammi, the riots that erupted in American cities a few months later were part of the divine plan to convince people to join his exodus mission.
There was no direct flight to Israel in Ben Ammi’s vision: “We needed to sojourn in the wilderness, just as our fathers did not directly enter Israel from ancient Egypt.” Unlike the biblical sojourn of forty years, the Hebrew Israelites spent only two years en route to Israel, living during this period in Liberia. But it may take forty years for them to attain citizenship status in Israel: Only in 2003 were members of the community granted permanent resident status. This paved the way for army service, the next step toward citizenship status. But even without full citizenship rights, “We’re an integral part of the people of Israel in every aspect,” Ben Ammi insists.
“We’re always excited about representing Israel,” Ben Ammi responds when asked about the community’s singer, Eddie Butler, who was an enthusiastic envoy of Israel at the Eurovision songfest this month. Butler’s song finished next-to-last among 24 contestants. This was initially disappointing, Ben Ammi concedes, “but after we considered who won, we knew that the mindset of the people was not ready for the light from Israel.”
In fact, Ben Ammi says, Israel actually emerged as a winner by displaying a unique harmony on the stage: “They saw black, they saw white, they saw talent, they saw togetherness, they saw brotherhood. On that stage, they saw Israel in its fullness. That’s what we represented. And in that category, we won the Eurovision for Israel.”
On Capitol Hill
Immanuel Ben-Yehuda, who is addressed by the honorific “Prince” in recognition of his service to the community, serves as the Hebrew Israelites’ congressional liaison in Washington, DC, as well as its point man vis-à-vis the Israeli government. Originally from Oklahoma, he came in 1978 to Hebrew University in Jerusalem as part of his studies toward a master’s degree at Baylor University in Texas. He visited the community in Dimona and “found an affinity with the things my grandfather had told me – that we weren’t from the U.S., we were from Israel. I knew I had found my place.”
Prince Immanuel spends part of each year on Capitol Hill in Washington, where the community maintains an office, and he describes a close working relationship with Israel’s Foreign Ministry. In particular, the community is uniquely suited to serve as a bridge between the Afro-American and Jewish communities in the U.S., and between African countries and Israel, he explains.
The Hebrew Israelite neighborhood in Dimona - which was officially certified last month as an urban kibbutz and named Shomrei Hashalom [Guardians of Peace] – often hosts government officials and businessmen from Africa who study it as a model for modern African villages. Prince Immanuel also visited Africa recently on behalf of the Ben Ammi Institute for New Humanity, a new conflict-resolution center established in collaboration with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and aimed at pursuing Martin Luther King’s vision of international outreach.
Desiree Norens, a college student from Walla Walla, Washington, spoke about her impressions of the Dimona community as she worked through a large chunk of watermelon at the main tent on Wednesday. (Some 12 tons of watermelons were ordered for the event.) Norens, who is studying this urban kibbutz while spending a semester at Ben-Gurion University, notes that it is the largest vegan community in the world. “But not only this,” she continues. “They have a unique holistic lifestyle, including the clothing they wear (no synthetic fabrics), their music, non-violence.”
Arenda Troutman came to Dimona this week from Chicago, where she has served as an alderman for 16 years. She has not missed a New World Passover celebration in Dimona since being introduced to this community in 2000. “Once I came here and met the leadership, I was just mesmerized and was so delighted to be part of such a great village,” she says. “It’s very prophetic, very spiritual. I enjoy what they’re doing, preparing such a beautiful home for anyone who wants to leave Babylon,” she says with a smile. Is she leaving Babylon? “No, not just yet, but I’ll have a place prepared when I do.”
'Pray that I’m the messiah’'
Ben Ammi Ben Israel traces the distinct lifestyle his community has developed – including a vegan diet and Sabbath day fasting – to biblical verse. So how does he reconcile the biblical injunction to “walk humbly with your God” and the claim to being a messiah? “ I usually go back to a little parable,” he explains. “Two men – one foolish and one wise – are sitting on the side of a curb, and someone runs past at full speed shouting ‘They’re saying Ben Ammi is the messiah.’ The foolish man jumps up and shouts, ‘No he isn’t!’ The wise man gets up, looks around at the world and says: ‘I pray that he is.’ So I tell people – if you don’t believe it that’s fine, but pray that I am the messiah. The messiah will bring good things not only for Israel but for the world, and who would dare deny that today for Israel and the world?”
(Published in Haaretz - June 1, 2006)
“Be alive as long as you live!” Dr. Reuven Bruner urges in every email he sends with his “Fitness Tip of the Day from the Holy Land.” In Bruner’s case, being alive has included boxing for Canada’s Olympic team, working out with a young Arnold Schwarzenegger in California, and running 336 miles in two days in Australia. Along the way, he has also studied law, received two masters degrees and a Ph.D, and become a Hasidic (Lubavitch) Jew.
Bruner was born in 1938 in Montreal and attended Baron Byng High School, the inspiration for Mordechai Richler’s book “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz.” (William Shatner – see article above – is also a graduate of Baron Byng and was once Bruner’s camp counselor.) “I was always involved in sports – running, soccer, ice hockey, baseball, boxing,” Bruner says, sitting in his Jerusalem clinic under a large photo of a younger version of himself.
The whole concept of sports was foreign to his immigrant parents, he explains. Bruner wriggles in his chair, as he painfully recalls his mother confronting and embarrassing him after he had slipped out of synagogue one Saturday to participate in a race with the record-breaking miler Roger Bannister. When Bruner left home at 18 to study at the University of Toronto, his mother made him promise to stop boxing. But he was not yet ready to throw in the towel. He transferred to Idaho State University on a boxing scholarship and later moved on to California, where he became an NCAA champion and won All-American honors.
Bruner, fighting as a flyweight (112 pounds), competed for Canada in the Rome (1960) and Tokyo (1964) Olympics, and later turned pro, billed as “Battling Bobby” Bruner. He won all eight of his pro fights, but soon decided it was not the life he wanted. “I did very well, but was fed up on a mental level,” he says. “Thank God I was able to get out on time.”
He began studying law at USC and continued working out at Venice Beach with “lots of celebrities, plus all kinds of wrong people.” After two years of law school, he decided it “wasn’t my cup of tea,” and transferred to a masters program in political science at UCLA, concentrating on Eastern Europe and Russia. Bruner continued on toward a doctorate, but again decided to change course. He completed an MA in exercise physiology, and later added an MA in nutrition and Ph.D in health psychology and exercise physiology.
Meanwhile, Bruner was doing more and more running. (He ultimately ran in 29 marathons – his best time was 2:18:47 – and many ultra-marathons.) While competing in the London to Brighton race (54 miles), he was offered and accepted a job with a sports organization in South Africa. On the way to Johannesburg, however, he stopped in Australia and ended up taking a different job – as director of physical education at the YMCA in Melbourne. He later would run between Melbourne and Sydney (about 1,000 kilometers) three times.
Bruner became a well-known figure in Melbourne, appearing on radio and television programs and staging outlandish events. “I was a pretty cocky kid so I was creating all kinds of promotion stuff to get headlines and to educate people by doing crazy things,” he explains. On several occasions, he challenged horses to running races. He also organized a “Battle of the Sexes” against a team of ten women. “They each ran ten kilometers and I ran the whole 100 kilometers against them, and baruch hashem [thank God] I beat them,” he says. People called him a “fitness evangelist” but Bruner jokes that he was no Billy Graham: “He wants your soul, I want your sole.”
Bruner was not religiously observant during those years and declined invitations to attend synagogue in Melbourne. Eventually, however, he agreed to go to a service with someone he met from Montreal. This was the start of “a coming back again type of thing,” Bruner says, which eventually led him to settle in Jerusalem in August 1990. “It was a hard number coming from a place where you were a big shot,” he says about the move from Australia to Israel.
Today, Bruner lectures on exercise physiology and health psychology at the Wingate Institute and operates a private clinic in Har Nof, an ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood, offering consultations and assessments on a wide range of health and nutrition issues. “I work with people who have back problems, high blood pressure, cholesterol problems, feet problems, people who want to lose weight, who are depressed, who want to manage stress better, who want to run marathons, guys who want to recapture their youth in middle-age crisis – the whole aspect of health.”
Dr. B’s Fitness Tips for Shavuot
Just as the people of Israel received the Torah on Shavuot with the pledge to first “do” and only then to “understand,” the holiday provides an opportunity for people to “do” the first step toward a healthier lifestyle, Dr. Reuven Bruner suggests. And as people make exercise and proper nutrition a part of their lives, they will come to “understand” this in a more profound way.
Bruner notes that Shavuot (“weeks”) can also mean “promises” in Hebrew. “It is a good time for people to make a promise to improve their eating habits, to be active and to start exercising the proper way,” he says.
From a nutritional perspective, calcium and protein are prominent in the traditional dairy menu for Shavuot. “Calcium plays a very big part in building up bones, while protein helps to rebuild muscle tissue,” Bruner explains. “You have to eat right, but you also have to utilize it,” he adds. “If you don’t work out, it gets stored as fat eventually. Without exercise, it’s useless.”
(Published in Haaretz - June 1, 2006)
In a press conference in Jerusalem this week, actor and horseman William Shatner, best known for playing Captain Kirk in Star Trek, announced a $10 million campaign in partnership with the Jewish National Fund to support therapeutic riding programs in Israel. In addition to providing funding and scholarships for the nearly 30 therapeutic riding programs already operating in Israel, Shatner emphasized that the new endowment will also seek to play a small part in promoting cooperation between the peoples of the region.
Accompanied by his wife Elizabeth, a professional horse judge and instructor, and Los Angeles philanthropists Marvin and Libby Markowitz, Shatner traveled to the Arava Valley on Wednesday and spent several hours at the Red Mountain Therapeutic Riding Center at Kibbutz Grofit. The next stop on their itinerary was the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies at Kibbutz Ketura, where Shatner spoke with students from Israel, Jordan and the U.S. and learned about the institute’s experiences in cross-border cooperation.
Shatner has spearheaded fundraising efforts for the Ahead with Horses therapeutic riding program in California for many years. He became involved after seeing a demonstration of their program. “There was a child sitting on the horse who had no arms and one leg and was holding the reins with her toe,” he recalls. “The spirit of this human being in attempting to overcome this handicap was so overwhelming that it became a cause to follow.”
During a conversation at Markowitz’s restaurant in LA, Shatner began thinking: “Wouldn’t it be great to bring this type of program to Israel?” He was surprised to discover Israel already had therapeutic riding, but speaks passionately about the “additional idea” he hopes to promote with the new endowment: “We came up with a dream, a fantasy and yet one that is capable of being made practical. We want to add the international flavor.”
Programs that wish to benefit from the new fund, Shatner insists, will have to “encourage every nationality in the area to come – Druze, Bedouin, Israeli Arab and Jordanian, Palestinian, Egyptian kids. So in addition to healing the minds and bodies of the people in the riding therapy program, we also seek in some small, tiny way to heal the nations of the area, and that’s what our dream is in this riding program.”
South African-born Anthony Lipschitz, the proprietor of King David Stables at Moshav Shoresh, told Shatner that his own cross-cultural efforts to include Arab youth from nearby Abu Ghosh have actually made it more difficult to raise money for his therapeutic riding programs. “I know it’s a minefield,” Shatner responded. “But we all realize that sooner or later peace has to happen, and we wish to include ourselves among those first steps to stretch our hands out to our neighbors.”
Magic at Grofit
“If someone would have approached me as a child growing up in Brooklyn and told me that one day I’d be meeting with William Shatner and talking with him about therapeutic riding in a far-off place called Israel, I probably would have said there are greater chances of me being beamed up to a starship in outer space,” says Ellen Reisel, the director of the therapeutic riding program at Grofit. Reisel, who immigrated to Israel 30 years ago, speaks about the “magic” in the interaction between man and horse – about a child, for example, who had never uttered a complete sentence until exclaiming “Look Mom, I’m riding!” while on horseback.
Reisel also shares Shatner’s dream about cross-border cooperation. Two years ago, she visited a school for children with special needs in Aqaba, just over the Jordanian border from Eilat, but says her plans to bring Jordanian children to Grofit “always gets stuck at the political-security level.” She hopes Shatner’s initiative “will really help us get the Jordanians here.”
During their visit to Grofit, the Shatners and Markowitzes participated in the riding lessons of a special ed class from Eilat. “We spent the day crying together. I don’t know how to put it in other words,” Reisel says. “They didn’t want to leave and we didn’t want to let them go.”
Since 1996, the Arava Institute at Kibbutz Ketura, just down the road from Grofit, has brought together about 400 students from Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia and other countries to study the environment. Shatner wanted to visit the institute “to learn from them what it takes to have a dialogue with someone who is no longer your friend.” He and his companions spent over an hour on Wednesday afternoon meeting with institute students and faculty.
During the past decade, Rabbi Michael Cohen has spent several years as a teacher and administrator at the institute. As the director of recruitment for Palestinian students, he also knows something about the political vagaries that cross-border programs encounter. Cohen, a Reconstructionist rabbi based in Vermont, says the students explained to Shatner that their program is unique in that Jews and Arabs not only study together, but also live together in the middle of the desert and really get to know each other. “We were able to show the Shatners that the program is real, not fluff, with tangible long-term results,” Cohen says.
Advice from Captain Kirk
The Shatners were determined to keep their visit to Israel focused on their current mission and reporters at the press conference on Monday complied, refraining from asking about Captain Kirk – until the very last questioner: “As the captain of the Enterprise, you’ve seen so many cultures. Can you give us some advice for this small country?” Shatner responded: “Your country is a huge country in spirit and I wouldn’t have the temerity to advise anybody about anything other than to get behind this charity and make it work.”
(Published in Haaretz - June 9, 2006)
Steven Plaut, an economist at Haifa University's Graduate School of Business Administration, calls Neve Gordon of Ben-Gurion University's Department of Politics and Government a "fanatic anti-Semite" and a "Judenrat wannabe." Such statements overstep the bounds of free speech and constitute libel, Nazareth Magistrate's Court Judge Reem Naddaf ruled last week, ordering Plaut to pay Gordon NIS 80,000 in compensation, plus NIS 15,000 in legal fees.
Plaut, 55, is originally from Philadelphia and received his doctorate from Princeton University before immigrating to Israel in 1981. Besides his academic work in economics, he writes scathing right-wing commentaries that appear in a number of print and online publications. Gordon, 41, is a third-generation Israeli and left-wing activist who completed a Ph.D. at Notre Dame University and began teaching at Ben-Gurion University in 1999.
Judge Naddaf emphasizes in her ruling that the court's role is not to adjudicate the opposing political views of the plaintiff and defendant, but rather to decide whether the things Plaut has written about Gordon are libelous. After reviewing several of Plaut's articles in her ruling, the judge writes that Plaut has indeed crossed the "red line" between legitimate criticism and unlawful defamation of character.
Plaut plans to appeal the verdict, and for that reason is reticent to speak about the case. "Because it will go to appeal, I prefer not to go into detail about it," he explains. "I will just say that the judgment amounts to selective protection of freedom of speech in Israel, under which the most outrageous and even illegal behavior and statements made by anti-Israel extremists is always protected speech while denunciation of the public political activities and behavior of such people is deemed 'libel.'"
Earlier in the proceedings, Plaut unsuccessfully appealed against convening the trial in Nazareth, where there is a greater likelihood of an Arab judge presiding. "Neither defendant nor claimant live in the Nazareth region," he notes. His attorney, Haim Misgav, argued that Gordon had "shopped" for a sympathetic forum for his case. But Gordon explains that he filed his lawsuit in Nazareth primarily because it was the most convenient venue for his attorney, Farid Ghanem, who does almost all of his court work in Nazareth. The notion that an Arab judge would be automatically biased speaks volumes about Plaut's illiberal worldview, Gordon suggests.
'Jews for Hitler'
One of Plaut's articles, published in 2001 and still posted on the Internet (conservativetruth.org) is entitled "Haaretz promotes the 'Jews for Hitler.'" He wrote this article in response to Gordon's review in Haaretz of Norman Finkelstein's book "The Holocaust Industry." The judge ruled that the title of Plaut's article clearly implies that Gordon is a "Jew for Hitler" and that this constitutes libel.
Judge Naddaf ruled similarly regarding Plaut's article entitled "Judenrat for Peace," in which he describes Gordon's visit to "his guru Yasser Arafat" in Ramallah in 2002. Plaut tells his readers: "You might want to mention the antics of Comrade Neve to anyone you know who is considering making a donation to Ben-Gurion University."
The third example cited in the ruling is a sarcastic "condolence" e-mail Gordon received following the IDF's targeted attack against Hamas bomb maker Mohammed Def in September 2002. Gordon traced this message to the "Kahane Lives" Website, where an op-ed (still) appears under Plaut's byline, entitled: "Urgent! Send Out a Condolence Note to an Israeli Leftist!" Gordon's email address is listed among those of other left-wing academics.
Plaut told the court he did not author this message. He says he simply passed it along to others "as a citation," clearly indicating that he was not the author. Here the judge ruled that no proof of Plaut's authorship had been established, but that he was guilty of libel nonetheless because he had disseminated the message. This ruling particularly riles Plaut: "A sarcastic piece mocking the political views of some people, which I did not write, was grounds for ordering me to pay Gordon damages because I had passed it on to others! Really!' "
Gordon says that he decided to pursue a lawsuit against Plaut after his department head returned from meetings in the U.S. with supporters of Ben-Gurion University who had asked him: "Who is this Neve Gordon, the Holocaust denier, who teaches with you at the university?" According to Gordon, Plaut was orchestrating a campaign – including letters to donors and members of the university's appointments committee – aimed at blacklisting him and denying his bid for tenure.
The use of the Holocaust motif against him was a decisive factor in Gordon's decision to sue Plaut. "Once someone is labeled as a Holocaust denier, that person becomes illegitimate and rightly so," he explains. "Israeli society tolerates a relatively wide range of political views and that is why Plaut had to resort to this Holocaust mechanism to try to shut me down," Gordon says.
Gordon notes in his affidavit to the court that he served in the paratroopers' brigade and was seriously wounded during a battle at Rosh Hanikra in 1986, leaving him with a 42 percent disability. This "demonstrates the depth, seriousness and severity of the injury that the defendant has inflicted upon me through his publications," he says.
While pleased by the "strong" ruling the judge delivered last week, Gordon has one major disappointment. "We requested a certain sum of money, and not less important, we requested an apology in all of the places where his articles appeared. And for some reason, the judge decided not to address this in her ruling." If there is an appeal, the district court might add this, he hopes.
(Published in Haaretz - June 16, 2006)
The biennial assembly of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA) convened in Israel this week for the first time in its 28-year history. The assembly opened in Jerusalem on Wednesday night and will continue through Sunday. Many of the 70 American rabbinic and lay leaders attending the assembly will stay on for the World Zionist Congress next week.
The program for the ARZA assembly includes meetings with Israeli politicians and U.S. Ambassador Richard Jones, tours of Yad Vashem and the Jerusalem envelope fence, Shabbat options in Haifa or Kibbutz Yahel, and discussions with representatives of the local Reform movement – the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism. Professor Moshe Halbertal will deliver a keynote presentation entitled "Ethical and Political Challenges in the War on Terror."
Rabbi Andrew Davids has served as the executive director of ARZA for the past two years. He describes his role as "a living bridge between the Reform community in America and Israel." Davids, 41, is based in Manhattan, but travels to Israel frequently. He spoke with Haaretz this week about the growth of Reform Judaism in Israel, ARZA's approach to aliyah and the organization's initiative to double the number of American Jews visiting Israel on Reform-sponsored programs.
ARZA was established in 1978, but has never held its assembly in Israel until now. Why?
"Already two years ago, when things were still pretty rough in terms of tourism, we thought we'd make an important political and ideological statement to plan our next conference here. A second goal is for our top leadership to come and meet with the Reform movement in Israel, which has gone through an unbelievable transformation, and it is important that our leadership have much more familiarity with the situation … Just as important, we will have a delegation of over 70 representatives to the World Zionist Congress and by scheduling the assembly immediately prior to the congress it also ensured that we'd have our top representatives from the U.S. here.
"In the past, ARZA spent much of its energy raising awareness about the need for supporting pluralism here in Israel, and in many cases we had to present Israel in somewhat of a negative light to the American Jewish community. Over the last few years, we've really tried to transform that, with an understanding that there are many other things that need our support tremendously and not just that narrow focus. And given that we wanted to present a broader picture of what Israel is like today – that really motivated us to bring our leadership here."
Davids speaks enthusiastically about the growth of the Reform movement in Israel, noting that there are now 25 congregations, nearly 60 kindergartens and "literally tens of thousands of Israelis finding their way into our congregation as they try to seek out some sense of Jewish identity that speaks to them, both with the richness of tradition and an outlook that is modern." Last year, he says, the local movement conducted over 1,500 bar or bat mitzvah ceremonies and more than 700 weddings.
To what do you attribute this growth in Reform movement activity in Israel?
"I would point to three different things: First, Israel is maturing as a society. When you're an adolescent, the world is black and white. As you mature, you realize there are a lot of nuances to life, and people are realizing that the categories of secular and religious are insufficient. Second, I think there is now a general consensus around security issues and this has allowed other issues to move further up on the agenda. Third, if you were to walk into one of our congregations 15 years ago, you would hear Anglo-Saxon Hebrew. When you walk into most of our congregations today, there are Israeli-born rabbis, Israeli-born lay leaders, Israeli-born congregants. These Israelis have been able to reach out to their friends, families and community speaking a local idiom and talking about Reform Judaism not as something that was imported from abroad, but really something that has taken on its own natural place here in society."
Still, Davids acknowledges that the Reform movement is perceived by many Israelis as foreign and elitist. A recent marketing survey conducted by the movement confirmed that Israelis "very much like the product we offer, but are very unfamiliar with the brand," he explains.
As the Reform movement in Israel becomes more Israeli, will this widen the gap between Israeli and American Reform Jews?
"In the U.S., if we were able to have most of our congregants feel connected to the Land of Israel and the Jewish people, have some sense of what it means to live in Jewish time, of what Hebrew is about, of Jewish history, have some sense that their children were going to remain engaged in Jewish life, we would be leaping up and down, saying we have completely succeeded. Here in Israel, we start off with that premise. So obviously, the way Reform Judaism is going to be manifesting itself in Israel is going to be different than in the U.S. or in any other Diaspora community."
Davids suggests that building personal relations between Israel and American Jews is the key to bridging this gap. ARZA, in conjunction with the Tourism Ministry, has declared a "Year of Reform Pilgrimage to Israel" as part of an effort to foster such personal relations. "We will see a growing gap between Israelis and America Jews if we’re not visiting one another. You know, there was a time when we talked about our Israeli brothers and sisters, and now we talk about our Israeli cousins. And if we let another generation go and we don’t build meaningful relationships, we'll be talking about our Israeli third cousins once removed. And all we'll have to talk about is whether a Big Mac costs more in Mevasseret Zion or Indianapolis."
What is ARZA's approach to aliyah?
"At the assembly, we will be voting on a resolution focusing on aliyah. We would like to see a renewal of aliyah within the Reform movement and believe we can bring a more sophisticated understanding of aliyah. There was a time when aliyah was seen in a binary manner – either you went on aliyah or you didn't. But if we can begin to see aliyah as a continuum – from coming on a periodic basis to Israel, a family buying a home and spending a few months here every year, or a few years here …
"There are other ways of seeing aliyah than just getting on a plane with a one-way ticket and either you have a successful absorption and you're an Israeli, or you go back and you're a failure. If we instead begin to create a whole range of opportunities for people to begin the process of building that lifelong connection, the stronger our impact will be on shaping what Israeli society looks like."
(Published in Haaretz - June 22, 2006)
The 35th Zionist Congress, which convened Monday night in Jerusalem, devoted the morning yesterday to the nitty-gritty of committee work, discussing over 100 resolutions aimed at revitalizing the movement Theodor Herzl founded in the 1890s.
The 750 delegates split into eight different committees, fielding proposals ranging from structural changes in the Zionist bureaucracy to declarations on Iran and Darfur. In a plenary session today, 510 delegates with full voting rights will be asked to approve the resolutions that made it through the committees.
Some of the proposals were hardly revolutionary or controversial. For example, the committee with the imposing title "Examining the Structure and Constitution of a Revitalized Zionist Movement and Reciprocal Relations with the National Institutions," passed a resolution to encourage members of the Zionist Executive to use conference calls and other technology when unable to personally attend meetings. Other proposals stirred more spirited debate, including semantic discussions of whether to "recommend" or "mandate" the implementation of particular policies.
For some delegates, the experience of sitting and discussing Zionism with a diverse assortment of Jews from around the world was an end in itself. Judy Porath, an American immigrant who has lived in Israel for 36 years, is attending her first Zionist Congress, representing the religious women's movement Emunah. "The resolutions themselves don't even hold water," she says. "But it's a forum for issues that you never get to discuss, all of the religious streams, all the different factions of the Jewish people, coming together and discussing things that are very close to our hearts."
As a delegate to the "Zionist Movement – Innovation and Revitalization" committee, Porath helped craft an anti-poverty resolution originally sponsored by Meretz and Labor. This cooperative spirit enabled the committee to successfully negotiate a number of potential minefields, including a call for the Israeli government to urgently address the disparities between Arab and Jewish citizens, and a resolution to call on the Knesset and government to establish "additional means of marriage and divorce." (Both resolutions were approved by the committee.)
Renowned actor and singer Theodor Bikel was also on this committee, representing Meretz USA. "I was a delegate eight years ago and tempers flared much more heavily then," he recalls, noting that settler representatives at the earlier Congress "wanted to hear nothing about territories and Arab rights." Kenneth Bob, who serves as president of Ameinu (formerly the Labor Zionist Alliance), suggested that the calmer atmosphere might also be attributed to the shift in the Israeli consensus in recent years.
The atmosphere at the "Settlement and Aliyah" committee was not as cheery. Morton Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America, argued that a proposal submitted by the World Labor Zionist Movement, calling for increased assistance for Ethiopian Jews in Israel, be expanded to include Jewish settlers evacuated from Gush Katif last summer. "This resolution is really about resettlement and absorption of people," he declared with great emotion.
Jamie Levin, the executive director of Ameinu, was equally vehement in objecting to Klein's manuever. Levin noted that the Disengagement Authority has spent "billions" is facilitating the relocation of former residents of Gush Katif. While expressing sympathy for the upheaval they have experienced, Levin insisted that their plight is much different: "The difference is that the Ethiopians are still languishing, the Ethiopians are dying of curable diseases, Ethiopians are not getting enough food. That cannot be said of Gush Katif."
A Green morning
Rabbi Michael Cohen of the Green Zionist Alliance (GZA) was very excited yesterday after three environmental resolutions were approved in committee. The proposals included a call for sustainable development, the use of recycled paper by the World Zionist Organization and its associated institutions, and a requirement to conduct environmental impact studies for all new projects.
"These are powerful resolutions that are not just going to just sit and collect dust," Cohen insists. The GZA is aligned with the Conservative movement's Mercaz, which signed an agreement with Kadima this week to form the largest faction at the Congress. Cohen says that this coalition pact includes a commitment by Kadima to fill key posts at Keren Kayemeth (the Israeli partner of the Jewish National Fund) with environmental professionals.
The Congress continues this morning with an address by opposition leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu. The plenum will then hold elections to confirm a new leadership slate for the WZO and vote on the resolutions adopted by the committees yesterday. The 35th Zionist Congress will conclude this afternoon, with the 36th Congress set to convene in 2010.
Mom and apple pie in the territories
After a morning of committee work yesterday, the delegates to the 35th Zionist Congress boarded buses for a variety of field trips, including a tour option entitled "New Trends and Zionist Challenges in Settlement." Jamie Levin, the executive director of the Labor-affiliated Ameinu movement, figured this would be a tour of the Negev or Galilee. "No, they're taking us on a nice motherhood and apple pie tour of Eli and its surrounding illegal outposts," he complained yesterday morning.
"They shouldn't get away with this. This is contrary to Israeli law and contrary to the mission of the WZO and the Keren Kayemet," he argued. Levin, 29, said he was not looking for a fight, but was determined to make sure the other side would be heard during the settlement tour. "Here is something where I think I can make a difference."
After the trip, Levin was upbeat: "We had a very interesting dialogue with the people on the bus. I think people left with a very critical view, and that was the goal."
The tour included not only the settlements of Eli and Shiloh, but also several adjacent outposts, which their hosts insisted on calling "neighborhoods." Levin notes that one of these outposts, Hayovel, which the Supreme Court had declared illegal, is three kilometers from its parent settlement. "So I said, I also live in a neighborhood. I live in Brooklyn and three kilometers away is Manhattan – but I'm pretty sure we all agree they're different places."
(Published in Haaretz - June 23, 2006)
As bloodshed continued in the Palestinian territories and Qassam rockets fell on Sderot last week, a very different type of Israel-Palestinian encounter was held in a quiet corner of Jerusalem. Several dozen Israelis, Palestinians and visitors from abroad gathered for a discussion of contemporary Palestinian and Israeli art as part of the Seeds Café program sponsored by the Seeds of Peace organization.
The organization's Center for Coexistence in Jerusalem serves as a meeting place for local graduates of the Seeds of Peace camp in Maine, which has hosted hundreds of Israeli and Palestinian teenagers during the past 13 summers. On the first Sunday of every month, the Jerusalem facility is also the venue for Seeds Café, launched in February.
The Seeds Café program is coordinated by Dorothy Harman and Mohammed Dajani, an Israeli-American and a Palestinian, who both have long experience in peace-building efforts. While Seeds of Peace focuses on teenagers and includes an explicit emphasis on conflict-resolution, the Seeds Café program seeks to attract a broader audience in an informal people-to-people setting.
"The idea behind the Cafe is to provide an opportunity for [Palestinian and Israeli] adults in Jerusalem to meet regularly on a social-cultural level. This is not so easy to accomplish in today's environment," Harman explains. "And it is not a platform for politics, lobbying or academics," she adds.
"The idea is to build bridges," Dajani says. "We feel that we don't know much about each other's culture and this could be a forum where people come to learn about each other's culture as part of peace building."
The Seeds Café program last week, entitled "Two Women Living with the Arts," featured presentations by Salwa Mikdadi, a Palestinian-American curator and art historian based in California, and Linda Zisquit, an Israeli-American poet and translator, who operates an art gallery in part of her home in Jerusalem.
Mikdadi and Zisquit each presented the work of four artists, portraying a wide range of themes. For example, Mikadi showed slides of the Jerusalem-based artist Sliman Mansour's idyllic rural scenes and his iconic painting "The Camel of Hardships," as well as conceptual pieces by New York-Ramallah artist Emily Jacir, including her "Sexy Semite" series of personal ads placed in the Village Voice.
The Seeds Café will resume its monthly meetings after a summer hiatus. Harman and Dajani still believe in the importance of such people-to-people efforts, despite the setbacks of recent years. "This is a small, little effort among lots of other things," Harman says. Dajani notes that less than $20 million was allocated for people-to-people activities during the past decade and compares this to the billions of dollars Israel is investing in the separation fence.
Two days after the Seeds Café gathering, another event took place in Jerusalem whose basic premise was that people-to-people efforts have failed. At a forum organized by the Palestine-Israel Journal, Yossi Beilin and Yasser Abed Rabbo were scheduled to address the question: "People-to-People: What Went Wrong and How to Fix It?" But neither Abed Rabbo or Beilin showed up. Abed Rabbo did not receive an entry permit in time and Beilin was delayed at that Knesset.
(Published in Haaretz - June 23, 2006)
For nearly thirty years, Phil Blazer has produced the Jewish Life television program, broadcast every Sunday in Los Angeles and other metropolitan areas in the United States. About six months ago, he decided America is ready for an around-the-clock Jewish television channel. On Monday evening at Tel Aviv's Hangar 11, he spoke to about 70 friends and supporters about his Jewish Life Television Network (JLTV) initiative.
"I guess I got kind of frustrated watching the Christian channels, the African-American channels and the Spanish-speaking channels," Blazer told Haaretz. "And I realized, if Jewish Hollywood is so powerful, why don't we, the Jewish people, have a channel for ourselves?"
He consulted with some of his friends in Hollywood, including movie producers and studio heads. They found that there are more than 400 films with Jewish content and over 1,200 documentaries on Jewish subjects that could serve as a basis for JLTV's 24-hour programming. The plan is to complement these films with "a whole potpourri of content," Blazer explains.
The official launch of JLTV is scheduled for July 4th, America's Independence Day, and satellite broadcasts are slated to commence in September. A broadcast facility is planned in Tel Aviv, as well as Los Angeles and New York. Programming plans include: To The Point (a nightly one-hour TV magazine), Israel Today, World Jewish Life, Rabbinical Roundtable, Sunday Night Live (billed as "the Jewish alternative to Saturday Night Live") and Captain Halava (a children's program with "Jewish principles and ethics as its foundation.")
According to Blazer, the new TV network aims to educate viewers about Jewish life, including those who cannot afford Jewish schooling or who live in remote areas. Part of the network's mission statement is to perpetuate the memory of the Holocaust by showing films and other programs on this topic. JLTV will also include programs on business, sports, cooking, and exercise, as well as a unique gimmick – weather forecasts in Yiddish. The channel will operate on the Jewish Sabbath, but without live programs. "If Israeli television can broadcast on Shabbat, I don't see why we can't," Blazer explains.
A career in media
After high school, Blazer turned down a professional baseball contract with the Detroit Tigers, opting for college instead. In 1965, at age 21, he started his media company, producing a radio program called "Jewish Soul" for a station in Minnesota. His television program debuted in January 1977.
Blazer's long relationship with Israel was inspired by a trip he made when he was 17. "The visit to Israel changed my life," he says. He has since traveled to Israel dozens of times, occasionally bringing celebrities with him, including Elizabeth Taylor and Jane Fonda. In the 1970s, he became involved in efforts to assist Ethiopian Jews immigrate to Israel and started a monthly Jewish newspaper, The National Jewish News, to help promote this cause.
Over the years, Blazer was approached a number of times by entrepreneurs who wanted to include his program on a Jewish television network they planned to create. But nothing ever came of these plans. Now, Blazer is convinced that he is the right person at the right time to make this dream a reality.
(Published in Haaretz - June 23, 2006)
"Everybody understands now that the Reform movement is a part of Israel and the Zionist community," Rabbi Andrew Davids, the executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA), declared yesterday as the 35th Zionist Congress was coming to a close. After convening ARZA's biennial assembly for the first time in Israel last week, and participating in the Zionist Congress this week, "any 80-year old misconceptions that somehow this is not of interest to us, have been dispelled," he says.
Davids notes that the Reform movement's Zionist image received a major boost from "the gift given to us by President Katsav" – the president's refusal to address Reform leader Eric Yoffie as "rabbi," which placed the Reform movement in the media spotlight this week.
During the five-day ARZA assembly, which concluded on Sunday, the 70 delegates from the U.S. interacted with nearly 20 Reform institutions in Israel, according to Davids. "This gave our delegates a better opportunity to see where the Reform movement is today, and it gave the leadership of the institutions a sense that there are people who are real partners for them."
One of the highlights of the assembly, he says, was meeting with "newly minted" Reform rabbis and rabbinic students in Israel. "They're interested in how to bring a spiritual message to the Israeli public, how to engage people in acts of social justice and how to build partnerships – even with the Orthodox – to strengthen Jewish identity in Israel. That was very exciting to hear, rather than: 'This is a terrible place for Reform Jews' or 'We need more money.'"
Many of the delegates to the ARZA assembly stayed on for the Zionist Congress. More than 25% of the Reform delegates to the Congress are under the age of 30, he notes. "We have exposed these young people to so many other Jewish perspectives, and I think that's something they'll bring back with them and help connect them with the Jewish people."
David also expressed satisfaction with the Reform delegation's role in forging a coalition agreement at the Congress with Kadima, Labor-Meretz and Mizrahi. This coalition, he says, "is a framework that has allowed the Reform movement to sit at the table and help shape the future direction of the national institutions. And, unfortunately, this continues to be the only framework where we have that type of access and impact. We're helping to set budgets – of the Keren Kayemet, Jewish National Fund and Jewish Agency – that when combined are almost $1 billion a year. This is very serious."
(Published in Haaretz - June 30, 2006)
The abduction of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit near the Gaza border this week stirred "all of the old memories from the first days," says Yona Baumel, whose son Zachary has been missing since the battle of Sultan Yaaqub in Lebanon in June 1982. The government's response this week has also done nothing to dispel the anger he harbors toward Israel's political and military establishment. "The life of an Israeli soldier is no longer sacred to anybody because of all the lies they tell and all the promises they make that they know they can't keep," he says bitterly.
"My heart goes out to the Shalit family," says Baumel, who immigrated to Israel from Brooklyn in 1970. But he has not contacted the family. "The last thing in the world they need is for somebody whose son is missing for 24 years to contact them," he says. "I just hope and pray that this boy returns to his family – today, the sooner the better." Baumel also notes that the circumstances of the two cases are different. "Zack went missing in the middle of a war. There weren't spotlights on us like there are today. Maybe that was a blessing."
In a February 2004 interview with Anglo File, Baumel said that he had come to learn that the redeeming of Israeli captives is a "do-it-yourself" task. Now in his late seventies, the pace of his own activities has slowed a bit, but Zachary's friends are taking up the slack. This includes childhood friends from New York, some of whom are "well-placed internationally," Baumel says. "It's an interesting phenomenon – some of these people we haven't heard from in 30 and 35 years, and suddenly they say: 'We're here, we can do this and this.'"
Baumel notes that he is still receiving reports from Syria, partly via the personal and business connections of Syrian-American Jews. These reports suggest that Zachary is being held near the Syrian-Iraqi border, but "I have not received satisfactory proof," he says. Meanwhile, the families of the three Sultan Yaaqub MIAs – Zachary Baumel, Yehuda Katz and Zvi Feldman – remain in "never never world," Baumel says.
The bottom line
Unlike the other two families, Baumel has refused to cooperate with the Born to Freedom Foundation, which is offering a $10 million reward for information on Israeli MIAs. The foundation's Web site lists four MIAs: Katz, Feldman, Ron Arad and Guy Hever – but not Zachary Baumel. "The $10 million sounds good, but it's not a solution and frankly it interfered with our work," Baumel explains.
More pointedly, Baumel claims that this foundation was formed by "opportunists" and remains focused on Ron Arad, even after a High Court petition by Katz's family forced it to include the other MIAs in the reward offer. "The ways these boys [the Sultan Yaaqub MIAs] were discriminated against is a shame to anybody who sends his son to the army," he complains.
Last year, the High Court also blocked an effort by the IDF to declare that Baumel, Katz and Feldman are dead. The court ruled that there is insufficient information to support this declaration. Baumel says that IDF Chief Rabbi Yisrael Weiss acted with "malfeasance" in this case, failing to live up to his word.
Baumel: "Twenty years ago, I said: 'If you've got proof Zack is dead, declare him. If you don't have it, look for him.' And they don't have it. That's the bottom line."
(Published in Haaretz - June 30, 2006)
Professor Robert Solow, a pillar of the MIT Economics Department for decades and the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1987, delivered the keynote address at the Israel Democracy Institute's Caesarea Forum, which convened in Jerusalem last week. During his visit in Israel, Solow also participated in a two-day seminar held in honor of a former student, Professor Eytan Sheshinski, marking his retirement from Hebrew University.
Solow spoke with Anglo File at the Mishkenot Sha'ananim guest house, overlooking Mount Zion and the Hinnom Valley. Now 82, Solow seems content with his life choices and says he especially appreciates the opportunities he has had to work with "close-knit, high-morale" colleagues – in his army unit during World War II, on the faculty of MIT, on President Kennedy's Council of Economic Advisors. He emphasizes that he is not an expert on Israel, but says "there's a sense that Israel at its best is just that – a high morale, well-functioning group."
Of course, he is aware that Israel is not always at its best and was "shocked to learn the nature and extent of poverty in Israel." Solow also noted in his Caesarea Forum presentation that he was astonished to discover how poorly Israeli students perform on standard international tests. "This is a big-league problem," he said. "Something is broken and must be fixed."
As someone who describes his political views as "on the left wing of the Democratic Party," he is critical of the way both the U.S. and Israel are addressing the problem of persistent poverty. "I'm pretty much egalitarianism," he explains. "Not that I think the world should be one kibbutz – it might require a little bit of inequality to grease the wheels of a private enterprise economy. But I don’t think it needs nearly as much inequality as we have."
From Brooklyn to Harvard
Solow was born and raised in Brooklyn ("just off 28th Street and Avenue P") in a thoroughly American and completely secular family. "I knew I was Jewish, but I was brought up just as an American," he explains. "I'll go to bat and bar mitzvahs of my friends' children, but I was not bar mitzvahed and my children were not. We're just non-religious people."
One of his teachers at James Madison High School encouraged him to apply to Harvard and in 1940, at age 16, he left Brooklyn for Boston. He did not encounter anti-Semitism at Harvard, he says, but recalls interviewing for a scholarship with the Harvard Club of Long Island and being asked: "You're a Hebrew, aren't you?" He did not get that scholarship. "I suspect that if I had not been a Hebrew, I might have," he says with a smile. "On the other hand, the Harvard Club of New York gave me a scholarship – otherwise, I couldn’t have gone."
When Solow turned 18, in 1942, he signed up for the army. As a Harvard man, he could have opted for officers' candidate school, but chose to enlist as a private. "I just wanted to get into the army and fight Hitler, and I'm not much of a boss," he explains. He was assigned to a company engaged in intercepting German radio traffic. "The company was extremely competent and the company commander was just a superb human being," Solow recalls. "I grew up in the army. I think my character was formed in the army – so I've always had sympathy for guys in uniform."
As soon as Solow returned from overseas, in August 1945, he married Barbara, a woman he had met before joining the army. Before registering to resume his undergraduate studies, he had to decide on a major. Barbara, who later became an economic historian, had studied economics at Radcliff. "So I asked her if economics was interesting. She said yes. 'Okay, let's do that,'" the future Nobel Prize economist decided.
JFK is calling
After completing his doctorate at Harvard and a fellowship at Columbia, Solow was offered a job teaching economics at MIT. "I have never had or wanted any other job," Solow wrote in his autobiography for the Nobel Prize ceremony. He was persuaded, however, to take a one-year leave of absence from this job to serve as "the sort of chief economist" of President Kennedy's Council of Economic Advisors in 1961.
"The Council was another one of these tight-knit, high-morale groups – and I never worked so hard in my life," Solow says. "It was very educational for me. I learned how economic policy is made, first-hand, and I stored up a lot of interesting things to think about when I got back to the university."
Solow says he can understand those who are driven by the adrenaline of policy making, but that he personally prefers academic life: "I love teaching and working with very bright graduate students, and I like thinking about problems at leisure. I like writing scholarly papers. I've had opportunities to be in high positions – for an economist, that is – in the Carter and Clinton administrations, but I turned them all down. It's not my thing."
Solow speaks admiring of President Kennedy: "The lovely thing about Kennedy from the point of view of someone like me was that he read the memos. In fact, it was not unusual for my phone to ring and a voice tell me that the president wanted to talk to me – me! a 37-year old punk – and Kennedy would say things like: 'I've come to the third paragraph on page two and the memo says such and such, and I don’t understand this. Can you explain it to me?'"
The Council was effective in promoting two major economic policy decisions: an investment tax credit and a substantial reduction in personal income tax. (The latter only became law after Kennedy's assassination.) "And, of course, as I think every economist who ever worked in the government knows," Solow adds, "it's not so much the things you get done, but the things you stop being done. Every government turns up crazy ideas and it's very important to stamp them out in a hurry before they take root."
One of the colorful people Solow met at MIT was John Nash – a fellow Nobel laureate who became the subject of the book and movie A Beautiful Mind. "John would hang around the Economics Department a lot because he was fascinated by the stock market and he thought we might know the secret of the stock market. Well, the secret of the stock market is that there is no secret to the stock market. We all knew he was a superb mathematician and we also knew that he was an oddball, though we didn't know he was schizophrenic."
In general, Solow says, "MIT is not a place for picturesque characters. Mostly it's a place for hardworking, laboratory scientists." This suits him just fine: "I like engineers – they don't have any metaphysical angst. If an engineer has a problem, he'll try to solve it as best he can and then move on to the next problem. He doesn’t stay up at night worrying about the philosophy of this or that. It's a refreshing mentality."
Stan and Bob
Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer introduced the keynote speaker at the Caesarea Forum last week – his former MIT teacher and colleague Professor Robert Solow – as "one of the legendary economists, but also a mensch."
"Bob is known as an economists' economist, which means he's at least as smart as anyone else in the profession, and he is someone whose integrity is beyond question," Fischer effused. "The contributions Bob has made are so fundamental, that they look simple at this stage." Fischer told the audience at the Caesarea gala that he decided to do his graduate work at MIT because of "[Paul] Samuelson and Solow."
Solow was not sparing in reciprocating the compliments. Before beginning his keynote lecture on poverty and economic growth, he said he would like to take a few moments "to explain to this audience what gems Israel has acquired in Stan and Rhoda Fischer." Solow, who received the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1987, noted that he has known the Fischers for about 35 years – "first, when Stan came to MIT as a Ph.D. student and then as a colleague at MIT." He described Fischer as an "excellent economist, with a strong mind and unquestioned integrity." Referring to Fischer's laudatory introduction, Solow said: "I've never heard him say anything silly, except for perhaps what he said now."
(Published in Haaretz - August 18, 2006)
At age 22, Dan Abramson was already managing a team of mathematicians and physicists analyzing the securities market for a Wall Street investment bank. But then "a little voice started speaking in my head," he says, recalling the course of events that led him to pursue a career in sport and move from Wall Street to Hashmonaim Street (in Tel Aviv), where he now operates one of Israel's largest bicycle stores and a sporting goods distribution business.
"The voice told me that I’d always been a reasonably good athlete, the champion of the neighborhood in just about every sport, and wouldn’t it be a shame if I had real talent and never really applied myself," he says. "Then over the years, it started adding the following phrase: If you don’t do it now, you’re going to be too old and it’s going to haunt you for the rest of your life."
Abramson played a number of sports in high school in New Rochelle, New York. And besides being a "jock," he was also part "nerd" – leading the school's chess team. Due to an unusual form of dyslexia, Abramson had trouble reading and almost flunked out of school. "All I really did was play chess in the halls in high school," he says. Nonetheless, he was accepted by Princeton University, and resolved to focus on his academics at college. "That meant no playing chess and no playing sports," he says.
During the summer before college, however, he found a lucrative outlet for his chess prowess. He had started working in Manhattan in a job that was "boring as all hell." Then, one day during his lunch break, "a big black man stopped me at Times Square and asked me if I know how to play chess." The man led him to a set of tables and explained that they would "make a small wager." After winning several games, Abramson was invited to join the chess enterprise. "I quit my other job and worked on the street at Times Square for the rest of the summer. I was the only white person and I was the only person who had not been in jail. All the other players learned how to play chess while in jail."
Abramson developed an interest in the triathlon during his last year in college and trained several hours a day while working on Wall Street. "But that is really not enough if you want to get anywhere, if you have those aspirations, and I did," he explains. "At some point I basically made a decision to stop my life in investment banking and try my luck as a full-time athlete."
Several months later, Abramson's father, who was active in Jewish Agency projects, invited him to come on a two-week trip to Israel. "After two weeks, I told him he should go back alone and I’ll come in about a week," Abramson says. "A week became two, a month became two months, and things just kind of found their own momentum. I found a kibbutz in the north that was willing to adopt me under very wonderful terms – sort of a volunteer, but as an athlete, and I didn’t have to work too much. I ran and biked and swam in the Golan for about four months."
The next station in his quest to become a professional triathlete was the Wingate Institute. He was invited to train there and also helped develop analytics at the institute's exercise physiology lab. Abramson lived at Wingate for two years and became one of the top 20 triathletes in Israel, but recurrent health problems convinced him to abandon his athletic career. Abramson sums up this chapter of his life: "I feel that I did as much as I could under the circumstances so in that sense I have some closure and I feel good that I went that route and tried it."
With no family in Israel and only rudimentary Hebrew skills, the easiest thing for Abramson would have been to leave Wingate and return to the United States. "But I thought it might be interesting to try to make another challenge for myself here," he says. "I thought long and hard about my experiences here and found two interesting observations: First, every time I brought triathlon sporting goods over from the States, my teammates would say – 'Wow, what is that? Where can I get it?' Second, the elite athletes in Israel, with the exception of basketball and soccer, were not being harnessed by commercial companies for their marketing ability."
Abramson decided to take a chance on opening a company. "I started making connections with manufacturers of sporting goods that I already knew and believed in, and forged partnerships with some of the athletes here in Israel who would help promote the products." Today his company, DAA Sport Marketing, represents 30 different bicycle and sports nutrition manufacturers from around the world, operates two retail stores (with a third under construction) and employs about 15 people. Olympians Gal Fridman and Oren Smadja are among the local athletes he has recruited to help promote the company's products.
Several years ago, with the sporting goods business already firmly established, Abramson decided he would like to also return to the financial world and pursue his interest in technology. He became involved in seed-stage investing in Israel, forming investor groups to fund startups. "I sit on the board of these companies and help guide them through the rough waters of getting started," he says. This includes bridging gaps between Israeli inventors and American businessmen, "who speak completely different languages," Abramson notes. "It's a fascinating thing, and I hope to be able to continue to do that in the future as well."
Healthy lifestyle in Israel
Dan Abramson says that when he decided to start his sports product business in the mid-1990s, the concept of "healthy lifestyle" was prevalent in America, but largely non-existent in Israel. He recalls thinking: "Like most trends, it probably will come here in five to ten years, and wouldn't it be neat if I could position a business that could leverage off that trend when it finally comes."
Today, healthy lifestyle is here, he declares. "We can see it every day. People are more attuned to what they eat. People understand that a combination of proper nutrition and physical activity is a ticket to a physically happy life that transcends to an emotionally healthy life."
Triathlons and longer Iron Man races have also gained in popularity during the past several years, he notes. "Triathlon is a sport that’s very well-suited for the Israeli mentality – it's a very macho sport. And climatic conditions here are excellent for the sport." The bicycle market has also doubled during the past few years, "but still has a long way to go." While there are 1.1 bicycles per capita in Holland and 0.8 in the U.S., Israel lags with an estimated 0.3-0.4 bikes per capita, he says.
(Published in Haaretz - June 30, 2006)
After an intensive series of meetings and tours in Israel last week, a 25-member delegation from Americans for Peace Now (APN) left feeling less depressed and more confused about the current situation and prospects for the future, APN's founder Mark Rosenblum says. This confusion, he explains, is related to the internal power struggle in the Palestinian Authority, as well as a lack of detailed information about the Olmert government's intentions and questions about how to reconcile a negotiated process with unilateralism. Despite this confusion, "Peace Now is not in paralysis," he insists.
The APN mission began and ended with briefings and strategy discussions with the Israeli leadership of Peace Now. In between, the American activists and donors toured Jewish neighborhoods in Hebron, the Jerusalem seam line and West Bank outposts, and met with a long list of prominent Israeli and Palestinian academics and journalists, the U.S. ambassador, and Israeli politicians, including a number of key ministers.
"We understood by the end of our five days of intense meetings that we had come at a time when the kaleidoscope was possibly going to change very rapidly because there were so many unresolved strategic questions," Rosenblum says. The range of possible outcomes in the PA power struggle includes some room for hope, he suggests, explaining why the APN members left feeling less depressed than when they arrived.
"It's not hopeless. There is still a battle that Abu Mazen is fighting and we're looking for ways in which people in Washington can not only take the Hippocratic Oath and do no harm to Abu Mazen but to actually look for ways of helping him, encouraging him to do battle and to put effective pressure on Hamas to evolve." As an example of APN's political clout in Washington, Rosenblum cites the successful effort to moderate pending legislation that imposes sanctions on the PA.
But Rosenblum's optimism is very guarded. "We understand that Israel and the Palestinians are not on the brink of renewing negotiations on permanent status," he says. "We're very far away from that. And the prisoners' document, I think, suggests that too." At best, the prisoners' document is a step toward a more "robust and conciliatory" document, he says, and clearly does not constitute a platform for negotiations with Israel.
Here, Rosenblum encounters one of the areas of confusion. One on hand, he explains that conditions are not ripe for negotiations due to the instability on the Palestinian side. On the other hand, he believes Peace Now must pressure the Olmert government to sincerely pursue negotiations before resorting to unilateral moves. "Our first job is to say 'yes' – negotiations first; heartfelt, not lip service and real, not pretend," he says.
He tries to clarify: "For now, the issue is not the light we know is at the end of the tunnel, but rebuilding the tunnel." Peace Now's role in this rebuilding effort, he explains, is "to continue to insist that the government do what it is legally required to do vis-à-vis uprooting all of these outposts, to pursue a settlement freeze and to expedite some kind of plan to the Israeli public." The plan, he emphasizes, should not include the relocation of evacuated settlers to other West Bank settlements, but should offer effective incentives to bring settlers out of the territories voluntarily.
Rosenblum, a professor of history at Queens College in New York, met the founders of Peace Now, a group of IDF reserve officers, when the organization was just being formed in 1978. "I thought these people had a moral sense of what progressive Zionism needed to be, but I also had a sense that these people were Machiavellian, with enlightened self-interest," he recalls. "I was very attracted to the notion that they knew that Israel lived in a bad neighborhood and had to defend itself, but also that it had to defend itself not only with the force of arms, but with the force of values." He started a support chapter in New York and was asked in 1981 to found and direct APN.
"We understand how uphill and sometimes 'upmountain' the struggle is, but we're also inspired by people who are still thinking strategically and intensively about how to continue to struggle for what we think at the end of the day is an existential issue for the State of Israel – and that is to continue and complete a secure de-occupation process for Israel's own sake," Rosenblum says.
(Published in Haaretz, July 7, 2006)
Yitro Asheri, born as Clifford Gilbert Harris, sat shiva this week for his 18-year-old son Eliyahu, who was kidnapped and murdered last week in the West Bank. Yet the former Australian electrician says he has no regrets about converting to Judaism, moving to Israel and settling on a hillside in Samaria, in the settlement of Itamar.
"Nothing is by coincidence; everything is from the hand of Heaven," Asheri asserts. While acknowledging the pain of his loss, he says that the challenge for the believing Jew is not only to accept God's will, but to try to even anticipate and embrace it.
A soft-spoken man with blue eyes and a wispy beard, Asheri also has no complaints about the IDF's response after Eliyahu was reported missing. "When they knew about it, it was already too late," he says, referring to evidence indicating that his son, who had been hitchhiking in the West Bank, was murdered soon after being abducted. "I think the army in this particular case did everything they could have done," he says.
Asheri and his wife Miriam settled in Itamar when Eliyahu was four years old. Established in the mid-1980s, Itamar now has about 110 families, including those living on adjacent outposts. Just a few kilometers away is the southern entrance to the city of Nablus. ("The Arabs call it Nablus; in the Bible, it's called Shechem," Asheri makes a point of noting.)
His light blue shirt ripped as a sign of mourning, with a pistol latched to his belt, Asheri sat outside his home this week, speaking about his son, life on Itamar and his own spiritual journey. "My son had very many close friends of his own age in our village, which has known many tragedies." In particular, he notes the terrorist infiltration in 2002 that took the life of five Itamar residents, including Nerya Shabo, a classmate of Eliyahu. "This influenced all of the children in his age group, and many of them became decidedly 'anti' – anti-establishment, anti-religion, whatever – but I think the first to recover from this was my son."
Asheri says that Eliyahu really began to blossom and to "radiate inner happiness" during the past year, which he spent studying at the Elisha pre-military yeshiva. "My son started growing spiritually at almost an abnormal pace," his father says. "You saw that the wellsprings of his inner being were very, very deep and for any father who is connected to the Jewish tradition – this can only be happiness."
Nonetheless, the intensity of Eliyahu's fervor worried his mother. "During the last couple of months, my wife expressed feelings that it was frightening to see him pray." She called upon God: "He's so close to You, please don’t take him," Asheri recalls.
From Adelaide to Itamar
"Most of my past was really a quest," Asheri says of his own personal history. "When I was ten years old, I had already discounted the mainstream Australian religion," he notes. He later explored Eastern religions: "They had their moments of interest, but like gold plate, you rub it too much, and the shine comes off."
After training to be an electrical tradesman, he worked for two years in Papua New Guinea for an organization called Australian Volunteers Abroad. There he met a woman from Kibbutz Metzuba who piqued his interest in Israel.
In 1982, at age 25, he came as a volunteer to Kibbutz Metzuba, located on Israel's northern border. He witnessed the beginning of the Lebanon War and was struck by "the spirit of might and heroism of the Israeli state." He was also impressed by the "moral straightness" of the Israelis he met on the kibbutz, though they were "not religiously observant Jews," he notes. "It was ethics from within, not something learned. I asked: 'Where is this from?' and somebody gave me a translation of the Ethics of the Fathers. I lapped it up. It was like giving water to a man half-dead in the desert."
Asheri returned to Australia and began studying Judaism with a rabbi in Adelaide. Thirteen months later, after completing his conversion process, the rabbi said to him: "It's time to think about going back to Israel for good. Don’t stick around here too long and don't even think about looking for a Jewish girl here." Asheri returned to Israel in 1985, this time to a religious kibbutz, Sde Eliyahu. In 1987, he moved to Jerusalem and enrolled at the Machon Meir yeshiva.
"After about a year there, the rabbis decided that it's time to find me a wife, so I started going on shidduchim. ("I don't think the English word 'dating' gives any justice to that whole idea," he chuckles.) After the third meeting with Miriam, they decided to get married. Asheri explains that Miriam is originally from a non-religious kibbutz, Tel Yosef, but found a "spiritual home" with the family of Rabbi Druckman, a former MK and leader of the settlement movement.
Asheri is confident he is doing the right thing by helping to "make the Land of Israel come alive with Jewish settlement." For those who think otherwise, he recommends: "Read the Bible very, very carefully. No place in the Bible does it say that the Land of Israel was given to any people other than the people of Israel." In addition, he asks that people check very carefully before contributing to international non-profit organizations: "Make sure that your money does not get to organizations like the one that murdered my son."
(Published in Haaretz, July 7, 2006)
Two former major leaguers, Elliott Maddox and Bob Tufts, worked on baseball fundamentals with Israeli youngsters this week in Petah Tikva as part of a program sponsored by the Israel Baseball Association and the U.S.-based Israel Baseball League initiative, which aims to inaugurate a professional baseball league in Israel next summer.
Maddox is well-known to baseball fans old enough to remember when Nixon was president. He played over 1,000 games in an 11-year major league career, beginning in 1970. His best year was 1974, when he led the New York Yankees with a .303 average. Tufts had a shorter and less illustrious career in the big leagues. A 6' 5" southpaw, he pitched 42 innings in relief for the San Francisco Giants and Kansas City Royals in the early 1980s.
"The kids are hungry for the game," Maddox says of the group of about 45 young players gathered at the Baptist Village fields in Petah Tikva. "They're just soaking up all the knowledge that is given out to them, which is all a coach could want, so I'm having a good time," says Maddox, who coached with the Yankees for two years (1990-91) and now coaches a high school team in Florida. He also helped establish a Little League program in Poland in the late 1980s.
Tufts, a loquacious giant whose home turf is now Wall Street, says he was "pleasantly surprised" by the baseball skills exhibited on the field in Petah Tikva. "They actually have a pretty good grasp on the fundamentals," he says. "They're not as experienced as many of the other countries they'll play," he adds, referring to Israel's all-star youth teams, which are slated to participate in European baseball tournaments later this month. "But if they concentrate on 'small ball' – bunting, sacrifice, running bases properly and aggressively – they could surprise people," Tufts suggests.
Jews in America's Game
Bob Ruxin, a Boston-based sports attorney, recruited Maddox and Tufts to come to Israel to help conduct the two-week program of baseball drills. Ruxin had worked with the two former players as a director of Jewish Major Leaguers, Inc. – a non-profit organization whose mission is "to document America’s Jews in America’s Game." His association with Bob Tufts dates back to their days as undergraduates at Princeton.
Maddox and Tufts met for the first time two years ago at an event organized by the Jewish Major Leaguers organization at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. It turns out they have more in common than baseball: Both converted to Judaism when they were in their mid-twenties, during their professional playing days.
Maddox traces his interest to Judaism to his first Little League coach, Mike Shapiro, and the Jewish friends he had while growing up in New Jersey. He also studied some Jewish history while a student at the University of Michigan. Ultimately, he explains, "It wasn't that I changed my beliefs to become Jewish, I simply gave my beliefs a name." Tufts says this description also applies to his own "evolving decision" to convert.
Since converting in the mid-1970s, Maddox says he has not encountered any problems as a black Jew –– except when arriving in Israel on an initial visit in 1979. He was pulled out of line by airport security and suffered humiliating treatment, he says. "I went ballistic. I had a very tough time dealing with that."
His current trip is his third to Israel, but the first baseball-related visit. Maddox says he would be interested in spending several months here to help strengthen baseball in Israel – especially if he could arrange a summer job at Teva for his son, who is studying biomedical engineering.
Tufts is making his first visit to Israel. (His daughter was here last year competing in the Maccabiah Games for the U.S. volleyball team.) "I got to see Americana playing baseball," he says, referring to his travels as a minor leaguer, "and now I'm getting to see Judaica through baseball."
The baseball instructional program will continue next week at Kibbutz Gezer. For information, contact Bob Ruxin: 052-5255291
(Published in Haaretz, August 11, 2006)
"Barrier: The Seam of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict" by Isabel Kershner, 232 pages Palgrave Macmillan, $16
Israelis call it the "fence." Palestinians refer to it as the "wall." Isabel Kershner set out to write a book portraying the human reality and historical context on both sides of the divide expressed in these semantics. Her publisher, Palgrave Macmillan, wanted to call the book "The Wall." But Kershner, who covers Palestinian affairs for The Jerusalem Report magazine, was adamant about choosing a title that would not immediately align the book with either of the sides. "The whole point of the book is that it's actually on both sides," she explained in a recent interview with Haaretz. After some weeks of persuasion, the publisher suggested a more neutral title:
Kershner acknowledges, however, that she is not entirely neutral. The 41-year-old
author is a Jewish Israeli who understands the rationale for the barrier. "People ask me: 'Are you for or against it?' There's not a simple answer. I can't be against it, for God's sake. I live in Jerusalem, with children. You can't be against a country defending itself."
But she is hardly enthusiastic about it, either: "I think most of us here as Israelis wish we didn't have to have this barrier. It's just a kind of last resort measure. Is it our salvation? Absolutely not. Do I think it has been built in the best way possible? Absolutely not."
Born in Manchester, England, Kershner studied Arabic at Oxford - including a year in Egypt - and worked for three years in risk analysis for a London consulting firm before immigrating to Israel in January 1990. She promptly landed a job at the then newly established Jerusalem Report and began reporting on Palestinian affairs. After 16 years on this beat, she says "with modesty" that she feels "very tuned in" to Palestinian thinking.
The idea for "Barrier," Kershner's first book, was initiated by a telephone call from an editor at Macmillan. "In that first phone conversation," she recalls, "I immediately said if it's the fence and the conflict, using it as a microcosm and where it all fits in - that's something I'd be interested in doing." Her thought was to weave historical background information together with human stories to illustrate the complexity of the situation.
This model, reflecting an empathy that straddles both sides of the barrier, is already evident in the first two chapters. In the first chapter, "The Stolen Sunset," we meet Sami Khadar, the veterinarian at the zoo in Qalqilyah, the West Bank city bordering Israel's narrowest point, just 14 kilometers from the Mediterranean Sea. The dingy cages at the zoo can be seen as a metaphor for Qalqilyah, Kershner writes, explaining that the city is almost entirely surrounded by the barrier, "in virtual solitary confinement."
She notes that this situation developed as a result of suicide bombings that "posed an existential threat to the Israeli way of life," and adds that Qalqilyah "spawned one of the worst outrages of the intifada": A 22-year-old resident, Sa'id Hassan Hutari, detonated a bomb strapped to himself outside the Dolphinarium discotheque in Tel Aviv in June 2001, killing 21 young Israelis. Still, as she watches a spectacular sunset from a nearby Jewish settlement, Kershner cannot help thinking of another resident of Qalqilyah, Hassan Kharuf, who also used to sit on his porch and watch the sunset. Now a concrete wall, eight meters high, blocks his view. "The Jews have stolen the sunset," Kharuf declares.
So near, so far
In the second chapter, "Paradise Lost," Kershner visits Kibbutz Metzger and its neighbor to the east, the West Bank village of Qaffin. The two communities are only about a kilometer apart, she notes, "but the distance between the village and the kibbutz cannot be measured in ordinary dimensions of time and space." Here it becomes clear, she adds, "that even with the best intentions in the world, the line between accommodation and enmity is very thin indeed."
Members of the left-wing kibbutz made efforts over the years to foster neighborly relations with Qaffin, including participation in a joint demonstration against the original route of the fence-wall, which cut the villagers off from most of their farmland and olive groves. But a 19-year-old from Qaffin, Sirhan Sirhan, shattered these relations when he infiltrated the kibbutz in November 2002, and murdered five people, including Revital Ohion and her two sons, Noam, 5, and Matan, 4.
Later in the book, we learn that the murderer's father, Burhan Sirhan, has asked Kershner to convey a message of reconciliation to Avi Ohion, the father of the slain children. Avi Ohion is not interested in a dialogue - except to respond to Burhan's contention that his son did not intend to kill the children: "Tell him his son didn't fire at random ... He shot Noam in the eye, Matan in the mouth, and Revital in the head. I know, because I saw."
After this encounter with bereavement, Kershner states: "However undesirable this curtain of concrete and wire may be, it is impossible to sit before Avi Ohion and not understand the need [for it]."
Is the barrier really an effective defense against such infiltration? Can the sharp reduction in suicide attacks in Israel indeed be attributed to the barrier?
Kershner: "Only about 40 percent of the barrier is now up and operational, so one would have to assume that a determined bomber can still get in. Therefore, there must be other factors as well, including the work the Shin Bet [security service] and army are doing on the other side of the barrier, trying to nip the cells in the bud in Jenin and Nablus before they get anywhere close to the barrier. And, of course, Hamas has stopped sending suicide bombers. The barrier has obviously played a significant part, but I question whether it should be given 100 percent of the credit."
You note in your chapter on Gaza that Uzi Dayan (a former Israel Defense Forces general who supports the barrier) "snaps impatiently" when asked about the usefulness of such a divider when Qassam rockets can easily be fired over it.
"You can have a perfect fence that keeps out 99.9 percent of potential suicide bombers, but you solve one problem and people manage to create another, and we've seen it in Gaza. The army's general response is that the fence is not there to solve every security problem. The fence surrounding the Gaza Strip, which was not disputed by either side because it runs on the old [pre-1967] Green Line, is useful to an extent, but is not going to take Gaza out of the conflict. I don't think anyone was naive enough to think that."
You also tell the story of your own cousin, Ruthi Gillis, a Jewish settler whose husband, Dr. Shmuel Gillis, was shot to death by Palestinian gunmen on his way home from work at Hadassah University Hospital.
"Yes, besides full disclosure, I think it also says something, that we're all kind of family here. As someone who goes around covering Palestinian affairs, people often categorize me one way and then are surprised to hear that I have close relatives and friends who are on the other end of the spectrum. This is a message in and of itself: that we are family and might disagree, yet we might find in ironic ways - as I do with Ruthi - that we have a lot of common ground."
It seems you made an effort to end the book on a positive note.
"I tried. I very much didn't want to leave the book in a black, depressing place. If you don't have hope, it would be a very depressing place to live and bring up your children. And in my short 16 years here, I've seen tremendous changes from people you would not imagine. I have genuinely met people of good will and courage on both sides, and that in the end is what has to keep us going. "What I try to do in the book is to show the gray, the maddening complexity of the situation here. And within that gray you can decide to just be pessimistic. But I do see the capacity for change. I don't think we're doomed to live in eternal war and for that reason, that's how I decided to end the book."