Giddy about killing 

Sunday, December 23, 2007

(Published in Haaretz, December 28, 2007)

"How are you?" Uri Orbach asked his co-host Irit Linor at the beginning of their public tête-à-tête on Army Radio's "The Last Word" program, one day last week. Linor, who supposedly fills the left-wing/secular slot opposite her right-wing/religious counterpart on this current events program, did not respond with a simple, "Fine, how are you?" Instead, she launched into a description of her upbeat and tranquil mood following reports that the Israel Defense Forces had killed some 10 Islamic Jihad fighters in Gaza the previous night.

"When we liquidate all sorts of Jihadists and Hamasniks, I'm better," she explained. "And when we don't liquidate all sorts of Jihadists and Hamasniks, I'm not as well." After the liquidations of the previous day, she said: "My emotional state feels more in sync with the world. I feel more synergic." In short, she cheerfully suggested, the liquidations create "an excellent atmosphere."

I don't want to pick on Linor (who publicly canceled her Haaretz subscription in 2002, claiming the paper had become anti-Zionist) or dwell on the fact that her rapture of synergy reminded me of the famous line from "Apocalypse Now": "I love the smell of napalm in the morning." Instead, I'd like to consider how we relate to killing.

On this page last week, Bradley Burston justified killing the Islamic Jihad men in Gaza: "They were war criminals. More to the point, they were soldiers. Soldiers in a war in which they are declared combatants ... It was our right to kill them. It was our responsibility."

Okay, let's assume that Israeli citizens would be correct in feeling proud and grateful for such IDF operations. But should they rejoice over the killing of their enemy?

There is a well-known Talmudic story suggesting that any celebration of victory should be tempered when it comes at the cost of human life. In this story, God scolds the angels for bursting into song after the Israelites' miraculous crossing of the Red Sea, which then crashed down upon the Egyptians: "The work of my hands is drowning in the sea and you want to chant a song before me?"

The giggly banter on Army Radio about the killings in Gaza expresses the dehumanization of God's handiwork, a process that has fueled wars throughout human history. After all, it is easier to kill our enemies if we regard them as less human.

In fact, most people must be trained to disregard the humanity of others in order to be capable of killing them, argues Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, a former U.S. Army paratrooper. In his book, "On Killing," Grossman cites studies indicating that only 15-20 percent of American riflemen in World War II actually fired at the enemy in combat situations. His conclusion: "There is within most men an intense resistance to killing their fellow man."

According to Grossman, the U.S. military developed sophisticated methods of training soldiers to overcome this instinctive aversion, and firing rates reached 90-95 percent among American combat soldiers in Vietnam. Part of this process, which he calls "psychological warfare conducted upon one's own troops," involved dehumanizing the enemy. This included replacing bull's-eye targets in marksmanship training with man-shaped silhouettes, and screening films that desensitized recruits to violence and indoctrinated them with contempt for the enemy.

Assuming Israel's soldiers must also dehumanize an enemy - much closer to home - in order to be effective in their role, we must also ask: Once this dehumanization process starts, where does it stop? Burston's op-ed argues that the IDF has a duty to kill those Palestinians who seek to kill Israelis at any cost. But reports in this newspaper and other media outlets suggest that the IDF frequently kills innocent Palestinians.

Perhaps it is unreasonable and unfair to expect our young soldiers to maintain a perfect balance in the way they relate to the enemy - dehumanized enough to kill when necessary, but not enough to spill over into wanton killing. This is indeed the high standard set in the IDF code of ethics, which emphasizes that "every human being is of value, regardless of his or her origin, religion, nationality, gender, status or position," but also recognizes that "the complex nature of military activity in general, and combat in particular, may generate tensions with the values and basic principles" the code expresses.

That is, our soldiers, some still teenagers, are expected to be both humane and to kill, and to know how to reconcile the tensions between these two missions in a complicated and imperfect world. It is much easier to sit in the broadcasting booth at Army Radio. Still, the hosts of "The Last Word" would do well to re-read the IDF code of ethics and swallow a dose of humility before again making giddy comments about the "excellent atmosphere" we create when killing.

Uncharted territory for Red Sox fans 

Sunday, November 11, 2007

(Published in Haaretz, October 31, 2007)

American immigrants to Israel carry two passports. Some, like me, have a third nationality: Red Sox Nation. Until 2004, it was a beleaguered nation, deprived of a World Series championship since 1918, while recording a string of heartbreaking denouements along the way (Bucky Dent, Bill Buckner, Aaron Boone, ouch…).

However, after capturing the 2007 World Series crown this week, Red Sox Nation is being touted as a superpower, a dynastic regime. This poses a bit of a problem for me. If I had wanted to root for an empire, albeit an evil one, I would have been a Yankee fan. Part of the peculiar charm and character-building experience of being a member of Red Sox Nation has been to weather the slings and arrows of outrageous, or even accursed, fortune.

Perhaps it is too soon to look back nostalgically at the foibles of a team that is now indisputably the best team in baseball. Perhaps the Red Sox will find a way to falter next year. But membership in Red Sox Nation today somehow seems too easy, too painless and too fashionable.

Unfortunately, our other lives, as Israelis, provide a full share of difficulties and pain. Indeed, baseball is a welcome diversion from the anxieties of Israeli life. It also enables American immigrants in Israel to share an experience with friends and family they left behind. (It can get on your nerves, however, when your sister in Boston starts complaining about being sleep-deprived when the games go past midnight in the U.S., while you are getting up at 2 AM in Israel each night to watch the games.)

Much has been written about baseball as a link between the generations. This might be particularly true of Red Sox families, who lived under the "Curse of the Bambino" for a span of 86 years. My son, for example, despite growing up in Israel, had imbibed enough Red Sox heritage to understand the poignancy of the moment (and surprise me with a cigar) when Foulke flipped the ball to first to clinch the title in 2004. If the Red Sox had been perennial champions, perhaps his experience of baseball (and life) would have been less profound?

This year, as the Red Sox won the title, my son is serving in an IDF combat unit and we could only share the victory via SMS messages. "Your son is in a combat unit and you are worrying about a baseball game?" you might ask. Yeah, it is silly. But I can't wait for Spring – and if the Red Sox win again next year, I guess I'll learn to live with it.

Play ball! (IBL tryouts in Israel) 

Friday, November 24, 2006

(Published in Haaretz Magazine, November 2006)

For some of the older folks, it was a last chance to pursue a dream from their childhood in America - to become a professional baseball player. For the teenagers, it was an opportunity to showcase the baseball skills they have developed, even while growing up in Israel. For Dan Duquette, the former general manager of the Boston Red Sox, it was all business.

"We're going to build a league, we're going to build an elite academy for the very best players and we're going to build up your baseball from the grassroots level," Duquette told the 68 players who came to Petah Tikva on November 10 to try out for the Israel Baseball League (IBL), a professional league slated to debut on June 24, 2007. Duquette is the director of player development for the new league.

"I'm glad that we have Duquette, who is dispassionate about this," says Larry Baras, the entrepreneur behind the seemingly outlandish idea of bringing professional baseball to Israel. "The rest of us are sentimental," he admits, referring to the core group of Jewish-Americans he has mobilized in his quest, including former U.S. ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer, sports economist Andrew Zimbalist, and Marvin Goldklang, a part owner of the New York Yankees.

Baras, a Boston-based businessman, emphasizes that the IBL is not just another commercial venture. It all started with the question: "How can I do something for Israel?" he explains. The epiphany came as he watched a minor league baseball game in Massachusetts: "Boy, this would be so beautiful for Israel. Let's bring baseball to Israel and they can have three hours of relief from stress."

During his latest visit, Baras found some of this baseball-induced serenity as he sat in the stands watching the tryout at the Baptist Village field in Petah Tikva, conducted on a sunny Friday morning, framed by a blue sky and a backdrop of eucalyptus trees. After landing in a frenetic Israel - "constantly beeping horns and people cutting each other off, everyone jostling each other, and so on edge" - he was able to finally relax at the baseball diamond. "I was able to sit back and get into that baseball mode. I think Israel needs to relax," he says.

Herzl vs. Ben-Gurion

The tryout session began with brief greetings from the president of the local baseball association, Haim Katz, and the cultural attaché from the U.S. Embassy, Efraim Cohen. "I must tell you that I'm tremendously jealous, because growing up, like just about every American boy, my dream was to be a professional baseball player," said Cohen. "Being a diplomat was way down on the list. And if I had to do it over again, if I could learn how to run a little faster and hit the curveball a little better, I'd be where you guys are now."

Cohen reminisces about a New Year's Eve tradition growing up in Rochester, New York: "Every January 1st at midnight, my brother and I would go out and throw a ball in the dark to indicate the coming of a new year and the coming of a new baseball season. Rochester is pretty cold and snowy, but we had our gloves and our balls and we were going to go out there and say it's time.
"It's in my blood. When I lost a tooth and put it under my pillow, I didn't get a quarter from my father - I got a baseball."

Katz noted that while amateur baseball has been around in Israel for decades, "this event puts us on the map." He saluted Baras as "our Herzl of baseball vision," adding that "we were all very skeptical, but this man has turned us all into believers."

Nonetheless, some remain skeptical, contending that this U.S.-based initiative is out of touch with Israeli reality. One of these skeptics is Ed Freedman, who founded the Israel Softball Association in 1979 and has been called the "Ben-Gurion" of this sport in Israel. "It just doesn't sound to me like it's a realistic scenario," he says about bringing professional baseball to Israel. "I don't want to dampen their enthusiasm, but I think it's the wrong way to approach it." The focus should instead be on developing baseball at the grassroots level, in the schools and camps, he suggests. And even then, Freedman adds, "Not every country is a fertile ground for every sport."

Indeed, Baras says that he has been asked a number of times why Israel needs baseball when it already has soccer and basketball. His response: "They probably asked the same thing when they had Bach and Mozart: 'Why do we need this guy Beethoven?' The fact is you can't have too much fun. I think that once people get over their initial resistance - it's such a beautiful game. I think they'll love it."

On the field

The initial test at the tryout was a 60-yard dash, conducted in the outfield grass, two at a time. Here, I should probably disclose that I had the distinction of being the oldest player to participate in the tryout, and can perhaps attribute my sluggish "dash" to old age. I guess I cannot blame the long outfield grass or the slight knoll in the middle of the course, because one candidate, Moshe Lewis, negotiated the same 60 yards in 6.95 seconds, comfortably within the major league benchmark of 6.9-7.0 seconds.

Lewis, 20, one of several Israeli baseball players to have received "Active Athlete" status from the IDF (a status that allows time off for athletic pursuits), also impressed Duquette in the next test: throwing from the outfield to third base and home plate. Here the disparate skills of the candidates became very apparent, with some players smoothly firing the ball on one hop to the base, while others awkwardly released balls that barely trickled to the destination.

After the outfielders displayed their arm strength (or lack thereof), the infielders had an opportunity to field four groundballs at shortstop - a routine grounder, one hit to their left to test range, one to their right to assess arm strength, and a slow roller to gauge athletic ability. Here I was able to shake off a bit of the rust and field the balls cleanly, winning an accolade from Duquette: "Buddy Pellerin would be proud of you." (Another disclosure: Duquette and I hail from the same corner of western Massachusetts. Pellerin was my high school coach.)

The youngest player at the tryout camp, Nate Rosenberg, 16, was the standout in the test for catchers, who were timed throwing the ball from behind the plate to second base. "He's got a great arm," Duquette said later about Rosenberg. At this point in the tryout, Duquette gathered the candidates and announced that he would make an initial cut based on an assessment of running and throwing abilities. He shared his own experience as a tryout candidate and said he appreciated the scout who explained to him that he did not have the tools to become a professional player. This helped him to channel his energies in other directions, he explained. Duquette then called the names of about a third of the candidates and thanked the others for coming out. Due to my poor running time, I was a bit surprised to hear my name called - but did not bother to inquire whether I had made the cut due to "protekzia" or merit.

The next test consisted of taking five or six swings against a pitching machine that was not set to throw particularly fast. The performances were almost uniformly unimpressive. The batters actually looked better against live pitching in a simulated game, the next and last event in the tryout. The game was primarily intended to evaluate the pitching candidates. Duquette noted that he was impressed with soldier-athlete Danny Maddy-Weitzman, 19: "He throws downhill, throws a breaking ball over the plate, and looks like he has good savvy."

'It sounded so ridiculous'

Duquette was also impressed with Ari Alexenberg, a 45-year-old lefty who traveled to Israel from New Hampshire especially for the tryout: "He threw with good velocity and threw it over the plate. I think he'll be a good player-coach," Duquette says. "I liked his experience and demeanor, and I think he'd be a good pitcher in the bullpen."

The tryout in Israel was the second to be held by the IBL. The first tryout took place in August at Duquette's sports academy in Hinsdale, Massachusetts - about a three-hour drive from Alexenberg's home in Portsmouth, NH. But the idea of playing professional baseball in Israel seemed absurd at the time. "When I heard about the tryout in Hinsdale, it sounded so ridiculous for me to go, even though I had the ability," he explains.

Alexenberg spent part of his childhood in Israel, but has lived in the U.S. for most of his life. His parents and two siblings live in Petah Tikva (and a third sibling is in Yeruham.) When he learned that the second tryout for the IBL would be held in Petah Tikva, he began to think more seriously about it. "It seemed liked the signs were too strong, with my family being in Petah Tikva. I decided to come."

It was a successful trip for Alexenberg: The IBL notified him in an email message that he will receive a contract in the coming weeks. Alexenberg is thrilled: "First, it is very special to receive an offer to play professional baseball that starts off with 'Mazal Tov.' To play professional ball in Israel - it's a dream come true."

A young man's game

While Alexenberg has kept his pitching skills sharp by playing in semi-pro and amateur leagues in New England, Stuart Berger, 44, reported to the tryout after a 24-year hiatus in his playing career. Originally from Long Island, Berger played his last baseball game as a sophomore for Williams College. He then came to Israel for what was supposed to be a six-month program. "But I fell in love with the place and I stayed," he says.

When Berger heard about the tryout, he felt compelled to give it "one last chance." But once on the field, he began asking himself, "What am I doing here, what am I trying to prove?" He was disappointed in his time for the 60-yard dash (8.1 seconds) and even more dejected by his throwing. "I lost the zip on the ball. I really didn't have it," he admits.

After failing to make the cut, he suffered through a long weekend: "When I got home, I was really like, kind of in a state of depression - like the end of youth, the end of a certain stage of my life." He compares this process to the stages of mourning: "The first stage for me was denial: I'm still young, I can keep up with the young kids and I'm going to go out and be a pro baseball player. Then you have the sense of anger: I can't believe it, what's going on with my body! Then you have negotiations: Well, if I had just trained more." Finally, toward the end of the weekend, he began to move toward the next stages of acceptance and transformation.

For Berger, who has a physical therapy practice in Ma'alei Adumim, transformation means thinking about what he can do as a coach and therapist, "maybe being active in the rehabilitation and training of the athletes."

This writer has also resigned himself to the fact that he will never play major league baseball and that he was also not among the dozen prospects Duquette spotted in the tryout in Petah Tikva, despite a perfect batting average (1 for 1) in the simulated game. As Duquette told me, "You see, to play baseball at a high level - it's a young man's game." (But maybe, just maybe if I can develop an effective knuckleball?)

Players? Stadiums? Fans?
In a conversation with Haaretz in late May, Larry Baras joked about the IBL project: "We have no players, no stadiums and no fans - other than that we have every ingredient we need." Nearly six months later, he reports progress on all fronts. Ed Freedman remains skeptical.

Meet the signed players

Willis Bumphus, infielder:

At 21, Willis Bumphus is the youngest of the initial six IBL signees and is looking forward to making his first overseas trip next summer to play baseball in Israel. A resident of San Diego, Bumphus played baseball in high school and one year in junior college before signing in 2005 to play in the Golden Baseball League in California.Many of his teammates in this independent professional league had played in higher level competition and Bumphus saw little playing time; he was not signed for the 2006 season. Still hoping to resume his professional baseball career, Bumphus found information on the Internet about the IBL and sent an e-mail to league founder Larry Baras, who calmed his initial concerns about the situation in the Middle East.

Bumphus came to the tryouts in Massachusetts and performed impressively. At first, his friends and families thought he was a bit crazy to want to play in Israel. "But they're behind it now," he says.

Do you hope to make a career of baseball?

"That's what I'm hoping, to keep working and make it to the majors," Bumphus replies.

Adam Crabb, pitcher:

Crabb, 22, flew across the world from Adelaide, Australia to attend the IBL tryout in Massachusetts in August. He learned about the new league while surfing the Internet one day at work. "It seemed like a pretty good idea, and I had some time off so I thought I'd give it a crack and I went across to Boston," the 6'5" right-hander nonchalantly recalls. "I didn't want to regret not going," he adds.

Crabb is studying international business and works in the agricultural industry for a company that buys and sells grain. It occurred to him to try to conduct some business during his time in Israel, but he'd rather focus on his game. "I much prefer baseball," he says. While most of his friends were playing Australian football and cricket, Crabb learned to love the American pastime from his mother, who played softball, and from a Canadian family that moved to his street when he was about 12.

Crabb, who is not Jewish, has traveled abroad several times, but never to the Middle East, and is excited about seeing the historic sites in Israel.

Meanwhile, Crabb is playing in an Australian amateur league, but is hoping the IBL will be a stepping stone to other professional baseball opportunities overseas.

Do you dream about making it all the way to the major leagues?

"Absolutely," he says without hesitation.

Dan Rootenberg, infielder/outfielder/pitcher:

The first player signed by the IBL is Dan Rootenberg, 32, a former SUNY Binghamton standout who played professionally in the independent Frontier League and in Switzerland as a player/coach. When not playing baseball, Rootenberg works as a physical therapist in his private practice in Manhattan.

Rootenberg has Israeli citizenship via his father, who was born in Israel and fought in the Six-Day War. "It has a special meaning for me to be playing in the first year of professional baseball in Israel, given my family history and my love of baseball," he says.

The IBL tryout camp in Massachusetts in August was similar to other baseball tryouts he has attended, but with a unique flavor: "I never played baseball with an Israeli flag on the field, so it was a really nice touch." It was also a new experience for him to see some of the yeshiva students who came to the tryouts praying with tefillin before grabbing their gloves to go out onto the field. "Even as an American Jew, those two things were never juxtaposed, so it made an impression on me."

Do you still harbor hopes of making it to the major leagues?

"Oh yeah, definitely. You know, you never know. The dream will probably never die. You just never know what can lead to what."

Nate Fish, infielder/catcher:

Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, Nate Fish won a baseball scholarship to the University of Cincinnati, where he played alongside Kevin Youkilis, another Jewish player who is now tending first base for the Boston Red Sox.

When Fish, 26, was not selected in the baseball draft after college, he figured his baseball career was over. "I moved to New York City to pursue different things," he says, including a creative writing program at The New School. However, he also took a job at an indoor baseball facility on the Upper West Side, giving batting clinics and individual instruction.

"I didn't know why I was doing it, but I was practicing hard," Fish says. "I was coaching so much and coaching has made me so much better as a player. Mechanically, my swing is much better than it was when I was in college."

Fish was recruited for the 2005 U.S. Maccabiah softball team and had a "completely amazing experience" playing in Israel. Next, he was invited to play in a professional fast pitch softball league and traveled all around North America playing the game.

Do you ever think about playing next to Youkilis again, this time in the major leagues?

"I don't have any delusions about playing in the major leagues, but now that I'm going to be playing in Israel in a professional league, I start sort of dreaming again."

Jason Benson, pitcher:

For 26-year-old Jason Benson, Israel will be the fifth country on a professional baseball resume that already includes the U.S., Canada, Mexico and Australia. In fact, based on his record, the IBL offered the right-handed pitcher a contract without requiring a tryout. "He's got a professional portfolio where he's shown that he can throw strikes and get people out," Dan Duquette explains. "Plus, when you talk to him you can tell right away that he loves baseball - and he's offered to actively recruit for us in Australia."

Born in Chicago, Benson moved to Michigan to play baseball at Grand Valley State University. His international playing career was launched through a contact he made at a tryout camp with the Florida Marlins. "Interaction with other cultures and religions is really what drives me, and on top of that I get to play baseball and see the world," Benson says.

Are you hoping to eventually make the major leagues?

"Yes, my ultimate goal is the big leagues, whether it is in the U.S. or maybe even the big leagues in Japan or Korea where the money is also very big."

Leon Feingold, pitcher:

"I am a competitive person," Leon Feingold explains, listing the sports he played in high school and college: soccer, football, wrestling, swimming, rugby, volleyball, track − and baseball. Feingold, 33, also considers competitive eating a sport and has been ranked as high as 12th by the International Federation of Competitive Eating.

Now that he has signed to play baseball in Israel next summer, Feingold will suspend his competitive eating career. "It's more important for me right now to focus on getting my body in shape for baseball than to get my body into shape for eating," he explains. However, he would agree to a between-inning falafel eating contest next summer − "as long as I'm not pitching that day."

Feingold, originally from Long Island, signed as a free agent with the Cleveland Indians after graduating from SUNY Albany and played three years in the minor leagues before a shoulder injury cut his career short. He went on to get a law degree and today works as a real estate broker in Manhattan.

"I figured I was done after hurting my shoulder, but occasionally life throws you a curveball," Feingold says. "Once you're 33 years old it's almost unheard of to play professionally - that's one of the reasons this is so exciting for me." Feingold is also excited about the opportunity to help pioneer a new international league.

What are your goals in baseball?

"As long as I stay healthy and work with coaches who can help me perfect my mechanics, there's no reason I can't go as high as I want. And I would like to bask in the victory of Israel's team in the 2009 World Baseball Classic."

Kurtzer introduces students to Jerusalem 

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

(Published in the Princeton Alumni Weekly, October 25, 2006)

As they settle into their second year at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, 11 MPA students will be sorting out their experiences after an intensive, week-long tour of Jerusalem conducted in early September by former ambassador Daniel Kurtzer, who will begin teaching Middle Eastern Policy Studies at WWS this fall.

Kurtzer, who served as ambassador to Egypt and Israel, designed the tour as preparation for a graduate policy seminar entitled Jerusalem: The Contested City – Exploring Options for a Settlement.

"I couldn’t see going through a whole semester describing Jerusalem if the students had never seen it," Kurtzer explains. "The object was to get them familiarized both visually and conceptually with Jerusalem so that for the rest of the semester, in the lectures and in the research they do, it's not going to be a foreign object."

Several hours after landing in Israel, the students were already hiking down the Mount of Olives to get an initial look at some of the holy sites that complicate the sovereignty issues and everyday management of the city.

"You can read about how Jerusalem is important to three major religions, but until you see the people interacting with the sites it doesn't really hit home," says Ryan Close, one of the graduate students. His classmate, Joy Sinderbrand, notes that the group "kept hearing the comparison that the Old City of Jerusalem is smaller than our Princeton campus." She was impressed that "a place that small could have so many levels and intricacies and holy places and people all packed into it."

The whirlwind tour, which included briefings by local policymakers and nightly dinners with prominent intellectuals and leaders, left the students feeling a bit overwhelmed. WWS student Crystal Frierson explains: "There was an enormous amount to learn and I think it will probably take a few weeks to really gain a perspective on it."

The personal narratives they heard left an especially strong impact on the students. "I can't underestimate the effects of those very moving accounts," Frierson says. Still, her overall impression from the meetings with Israelis and Palestinians is that "everyone seems to have a sense of hopelessness for the immediate term."

Kurtzer's intention was to emphasize the complexity of the problems in Jerusalem, but he also hoped to end the trip on a upbeat note. "Look, if you're going to work on this conflict, you have to be optimistic," he explains. With this in mind, he scheduled the group's last dinner with Ami Ayalon and Sari Nusseibeh, the authors of a succinct statement of principles for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"Our last dinner was just amazing," Sinderbrand says. "These two people have boiled things down and say, 'Right, there are lots of details, but there really is a simple way to look at this and there are some general principles you can go by.'"

Ross Cohen, another member of the group, says he left Jerusalem feeling both optimistic and frustrated. "Pretty much everyone we met was so moderate and desirous of peace that a final settlement looks just around the corner. When you pull back, though, you remember pretty quickly that the two sides are barely even talking right now.

"The week has convinced me that leadership - from Palestinians, Israelis, and Americans - really makes a difference here," Cohen suggests. "The answers seem to be more or less in front of us. We just need leaders willing to take us to them."

Exploring roots in Israel - American-Palestinian style 

Friday, October 13, 2006

(Published in Haaretz, October 8, 2006)

Sarah, 21, grew up in northern New Jersey and is starting her senior year at a prestigious college in Massachusetts, majoring in philosophy and planning a career in law. Like many of her Jewish-American peers, she landed at Ben-Gurion Airport this summer with the aim of learning more about her heritage and identifying with her embattled people. Her experience in Israel, however, was not very positive or uplifting. Sarah Matari is a Palestinian American.

While most American college students visiting Israel this summer seldom ventured across the Green Line, Sarah was among several dozen Americans participating in the Palestinian Summer Encounter (PSE) program, based in Bethlehem. The participants stay with Palestinian families, study Arabic and volunteer in various projects. Sarah was a counselor at a summer camp for children in Walaja, a West Bank village of about 2,000 people, just south of Jerusalem.

Both of Sarah's grandfathers were born near Ramallah, immigrated to Brazil in 1948 and married Brazilian women. "I've been told all my life that I'm half Brazilian, half Palestinian," Sarah explains. Her parents were born in Brazil, but moved to the U.S. with their respective families as youngsters. Sarah's first language was Portuguese. "When I really didn't understand English in pre-school, my parents realized it was time to start teaching me English," she notes.

She did not hear much Arabic at home, but says she was "forced" to go to an after-school Arabic program. Her experience was similar to that of many Jewish Americans who have suffered through "Hebrew school" programs: "I switched Arabic schools like I changed my clothes, because I hated all of them."

Her attitude toward Arabic changed when she arrived at Smith College. She had studied Spanish in high school and thought Chinese would be tough to handle. "I went down the list," she recalls. "How about Arabic? No, you hate Arabic - but actually it's a pretty cool alphabet, it’s pretty to write… so I’ve been doing Arabic ever since and it’s actually my favorite class."

Stuck at Allenby

Sarah spent two months studying Arabic in Jordan last year and crossed into Israel for a few days. Her "horrible" experience at the Allenby Bridge and Ben-Gurion Airport reinforced her emergent Palestinian identity. "I was like - I don’t understand this, I’m an American. I have a blue passport. Why was I at the Allenby Bridge for eight hours?" Sarah says she was questioned for "only" two hours at Ben-Gurion Airport, but this delay was enough to make her miss the flight home.

After missing her flight, she was faced with the choice of taking a cab to her uncle's home near Ramallah or spending the night at the airport. "I didn’t really feel like enduring any more checkpoints, so I hung out at the airport," she says. This ended up being her most positive Israel experience: "I met the most wonderful Israeli people at the airport and I was really happy to have had that chance because at that point I had a lot of anger in me."

Sarah originally planned to spend this summer interning with a law firm in Boston or New York City. But after receiving an email with information about the PSE program, she became excited about the prospect of living with a Palestinian family, improving her Arabic and learning more about the situation here.

Growing up, Sarah did not hear a lot about her Palestinian heritage. "It was like – the Palestinians had land, the Jews came in and took over and that was about it. So [I decided] before I start believing one way or another, I should kind of figure things out for myself."

Her parents were fearful and tried, unsuccessfully, to dissuade her from coming on the PSE program. After the war erupted in Lebanon, they were again unsuccessful in trying to convince Sarah to return home. "I would have felt like an awful human being if I had left," Sarah explains. "How would I have explained that to my children in Walaja? I was here to help, play some games with you’all, teach you some English, I became part of your everyday lives, but then I bail out when things get a little rough?"

Grandfathers' pride

After improving her spoken Arabic this summer, Sarah is looking forward to having a conversation with her Palestinian grandfathers about their experiences in 1948. The fact that this conversation has never taken place, she suggests, is partly due to the language barrier and partly attributable to her grandfathers' pride: " I think if it were the opposite, if both of my grandfathers were from Brazil and both of my grandmothers were from Palestine, I would have heard a lot more. But Arab men are proud at times and don’t like to admit things.

"My grandfathers aren’t over the hurt that Israel caused them in the mid-1900s," she continues. "They have not found closure… they are still hurting and cannot see past it, nor should anyone expect them to. I, however, can see that such an attitude will not bring homes or lands back, but just perpetuate the violence."

While prepared to accept Israel as an indisputable fact, Sarah is enraged with the situation in the territories and frustrated by what she calls the "de-politicized" manner in which most Palestinians accept this reality. On the other hand, she realizes that as an American, "I can walk through a checkpoint and have an attitude" while "the Palestinians here have to try to survive." It is the job of internationals, she concludes, to help educate people about the reality in the territories. "Even I, as a Palestinian-American, was ignorant of all of this, so how do you expect anyone else in the States to understand?" she wonders.

Spreading the word

Her determination to spread the word about the situation in the territories was reinforced by an experience she had on her flight back to New York. "I found myself sitting next to an American man who had just spent two weeks in Jerusalem with some sort of program for Jewish Americans," she says. "My airplane friend was very educated, articulate, and from what I could tell, a genuinely good person." She was amazed, however, by how little he knew about the situation in the West Bank.

"We were able to have an emotionally charged conversation and then move on after it was over," Sarah recalls. "What were the odds of an American Jew and an American Palestinian, same age, same education, being seated directly next to one another on their departure flights? I felt this was a healthy end to my trip. He helped support what I have always thought and hoped - that people are willing to listen and understand when presented with the information in the right way."

Now back at Smith, Sarah is working to organize advocacy events on local campuses. She has contacted a number of student organizations about hosting a visit by "The Wheels of Justice Tour Bus" – a project committed to "nonviolent education and action against war and occupation in Iraq and Palestine," according to its Web site.

"After this sort of an event," Sarah says, "I’m sure many, especially my fellow humanitarian Smithies, would want to get more involved. I also have plans to start some sort of Israel-Palestine Peace Coalition organization. I’m hoping that members of our Smith Hillel and Al-Iman (Muslim student association) would want to be active in the cause. I’m excited."

'If you will it, they will come' - Dan Duquette 

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

(Published in Haaretz, August 4, 2006)

PITTSFIELD, Massachusetts - In 1892, when Theodor Herzl had yet to envision the Zionist movement, the exquisite sounds of baseball could already be heard at Wahconah Park. Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams and Satchel Paige are just a few of the baseball legends who played at this amiable stadium over the years. Wahconah Park is today the home of the Pittsfield Dukes of the New England College Baseball League, a team owned by Dan Duquette, the former general manager of the Montreal Expos and Boston Red Sox. One of Duquette’s current projects is to help develop baseball in Israel.

At a Dukes game this week, Duquette roamed the historic stadium, shmoozing with fans in the bleachers and chatting with a local political candidate. For a couple of innings, he sat in a box seat along the third base line, deftly fielding questions from Haaretz about his involvement with the nascent Israel Baseball League, a project spearheaded by Boston-based entrepreneur Larry Baras. The league is slated to begin its first season on June 22, 2007; Duquette is responsible for player development, including recruitment of about 150 players and coaches.

During the first part of his tenure in Montreal, Duquette notes, Charles Bronfman was the owner of the Expos and always hoped to bring baseball to Israel. Thus, when Baras outlined his plans for the IBL, “it struck a chord with me,” Duquette explains. “I was impressed by Larry’s enthusiasm, and it’s just a real interesting challenge” he adds.

The former major league GM cites some parallels between his work in Canada and the project in Israel: “It is the same type of program we used to grow baseball in Canada when I was with the Expos.” One of the components of this program is to establish a baseball academy for training players and coaches, like the one he helped establish in Quebec and the facility he currently operates in nearby Hinsdale, Massachusetts.

Duquette was originally slated to make his first trip to Israel this week, but is waiting for the IBL to narrow its search for suitable venues for the inaugural season. Meanwhile, the first tryout for prospective players will be held on August 21-22 at the Dan Duquette Sports Academy in Hinsdale. “The sports academy in Hinsdale will be the U.S.-based training site for Israel baseball,” Duquette notes.

He says that 25 players have signed up for the tryout so far, including current and former college players, semi-pro players “and some people who are Jewish who are interested in trying out.” (He does not know how many of the 25 candidates are Jewish.) Duquette has assembled a group of former major league scouts and coaches to evaluate the players.

The personnel plan for the IBL will be similar to the model used in Italy, Duquette says. The goal will be “to bring a significant percentage of the players to Israel from the States to get the league started and then grow the game at the grassroots level so that after a number of years they [Israelis] can progress to the level where they can play.”

Is it a realistic goal to start a professional baseball league next summer in Israel?

Duquette: “Yes, I think it’s doable. I don’t think we’ll have any issues in terms of recruiting players, it’s just an issue of getting the facilities together.”

What level of play do you anticipate?

Duquette: “That remains to be seen, but our goal is to have a solid, representative league, similar to the independent leagues here in the states - for example, the Canadian-American League or the Atlantic League or the New York-Penn League.”

What happens if you are offered another opportunity to work for a Major League Baseball team? You’ll have to step back from your involvement in Israel baseball?

Duquette: “No. This is a pretty interesting project, because we’re also trying to put together a team for the 2009 World Baseball Classic to represent Israel. We’ve got a fairly representative number of [Jewish] players who are now playing in the major leagues and minor leagues who could help the club.”

Have you already begun approaching some of these players?

Duquette: “No, we first have to get accepted into the World Baseball Conference; we’ve applied, are going through the process.”

'Can the public ever get the real story?' 

(Published in Haaretz, September 1, 2006)

Over 400 people, including numerous members of the foreign press, filled the auditorium at the Jerusalem YMCA on Monday to hear a panel of journalists discuss coverage of the Lebanon War 2006. The event was sponsored by The Mideast Press Club, a project of Media Line, an American non-profit news agency.

The panel of journalists included Abdelraouf Amout (Al-Ayyam), Yoni Ben Menachem (Israel Radio), Steven Erlanger (New York Times), Stephen Farrell (The Times of London), Simon McGregor-Wood (ABC), Ravi Nessman (AP), Walid Omary (Al-Jazeera) and Danny Rubinstein (Haaretz).

Billed as a "town meeting" and staged as a television production for broadcast in America, the two-hour event began with a video clip from Marvin Kalb, a longtime TV newsman in the U.S. and an advisor to The Media Line.

Kalb noted that the media has become "a major actor in policy formulation" and attributed this to technological advances and a heightened "push for profit." He also acknowledged that there is widespread distrust of the media, which "has been used and manipulated by everyone…but rarely so effectively as by Hezbollah." Kalb challenged the media to ask itself in the wake of the Lebanon War: "Did you do the best job you could have done? Really?"

David Harris, Jerusalem bureau chief of The Media Line, served as moderator of the event, alternately quizzing the panel and taking questions from the audience. This dual format and the large size of the panel did not lend itself to in-depth discussion, but provided a range of insights into the issues journalists faced in covering the recent war.

Battlefield access

McGregor-Wood (ABC News) complained that media coverage of the war suffered from a lack of access to the battlefield, with the IDF averse to allowing "embedded" journalists to accompany troops. Erlanger (NY Times) concurred, suggesting that the IDF preferred to have journalists focus on the home front, rather than report about shortages of flak jackets and water on the battlefront. He noted that Israeli journalists naturally enjoyed better access than foreign reporters.

"Without real access to the battlefield," Nessman (AP) added, "we were left with what the IDF says and with what Hezbollah says. And if we can't see for ourselves, we can't know what the actual truth is, and that leaves us open to a lot of criticism." Farrell (The Times) said he spent much of the war looking across the border with binoculars in an attempt to gain a direct view of what was happening. "When you see something [with your own eyes], it's accurate," he emphasized.

Nessman noted that Israel's modern infrastructure made it possible to quickly confirm facts when Katyushas fell, while the situation in Lebanon was much more elusive. He also mentioned the "unprecedented" impact of Internet bloggers on perceptions of the war. For example, following the discovery of a doctored Reuters picture, he said, "the creditability of bloggers skyrocketed and our credibility plummeted."

Al-Jazeera: 'Targeted'

Omary, Jerusalem bureau chief of Al-Jazeera, said he phoned the IDF Spokesman when the war erupted in order to clarify the ground rules for media coverage. Several days into the war, however, Israeli authorities launched a "campaign" against Al-Jazeera, he said.

Omary was detained by police in Acre for six hours, he recalled, and was offered two explanations: "We want to protect your life" and "You are giving information to the enemy." Disputing the latter, he described a scene that drew a hearty laugh from the polite audience at the YMCA: While waiting in policy custody, Omary was watching a Channel 10 broadcast when the reporter described a Katyusha landing in Haifa. Sarcastically, he alerted the police officers: "That man must be working for Hezbollah!"

Despite the obstacles, Omary said, Al-Jazeera made an effort to produce two stories in Israel every day - one focusing on the civilian perspective and another on political and military issues. In this way, the Qatar-based network strived to maintain balance in its Israel reporting, he explained. Omary also admitted that it was personally difficult for him to remain objective because he has relatives in Lebanon.

Yoni Ben Menachem (Israel Radio) raised a few notes of discord in the otherwise tranquil discourse. He said, for example, that he was "upset as an Israeli and as a journalist" that Al-Jazeera published information about IDF casualties before their next of kin were notified. He even suggested that some Israeli journalists had "laundered" information via Al-Jazeera so they could quote it themselves.

The real story

Harris asked several of the journalists to list the mistakes they made in covering the war. Ben Menachem said that Israel Radio was wrong in allowing itself to get caught up in the "euphoria" of the war during its initial days, subscribing to the notion that a victory could be achieved solely through air strikes. "We went along with this illusion, this fata morgana, and then we had to wake up."

Erlanger said that he erred in taking the head of IDF military intelligence too seriously and in not taking Lebanese politics seriously enough. He also regretted publishing a picture focusing on a damaged section of Beirut without showing the larger context of the city. Ferrell said his organization should have given the ongoing story in Gaza more attention while covering the war in the north.

"Can the public ever get the real story?" Harris asked in conclusion, echoing a question Kalb posed in the introductory video. "It's very difficult. There are always two sides to a story," Amout (Al-Ayyam) responded. Nessman offered the audience the following advice: "Be critical and synthesize for yourself. Try to read a breadth of material and you'll probably find a pretty good picture of what's going on."

His best role yet - IBL Commissioner Dan Kurtzer 

(Published in Haaretz, September 8, 2006)

Dan Kurtzer, now in his mid-fifties, has achieved several prestigious appellations during his successful career. He was "Mr. Ambassador" in Egypt (1997-2001) and Israel (2001-2005), and is now "Professor Kurtzer" at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. He says his children are proudest, however, of his latest title: "Commissioner of the Israel Baseball League."

"It's a great title," Kurtzer concurs during a conversion with Haaretz this week in Jerusalem, where he is leading a group of Woodrow Wilson graduate students on a study tour. "We're still trying to define it," he says about his role as commissioner, but indicates that it will entail public relations and dispute resolution.

The Israel Baseball League is an initiative to bring minor league-style baseball to Israel, complete with between-inning entertainment and other family attractions. Larry Baras, a Boston-based businessman, is spearheading the effort and has enlisted Dan Duquette, the former general manager of the Montreal Expos and Boston Red Sox, as director of player development. The new league, with six teams, is slated to begin play on June 22, 2007.

Kurtzer was in western Massachusetts in late August, when the fledgling league held its first tryout sessions, conducted at Duquette's baseball academy. "It was remarkable," he says. "All of a sudden, it was real. About 65 people showed up, none of whom had any connection with us before… and they want to play baseball."

Playing professional baseball in Israel will remain a pipe dream for most of these candidates, but about 10 of the players showed considerable talent, according to Kurtzer. "There will be several other tryouts, including a very important one here, obviously, and probably the biggest bulk will come from the pool of minor league players who don't make it in the spring," he adds.

"The beauty of baseball is that you think you can play. Players look human, they're not seven feet tall," Kurtzer notes. "But I have no pretension of trying out," he is quick to add. "In Cairo, I threw out the first pitch in a women's softball tournament, and it was more like a bowling ball."

How did you get involved in the Israel Baseball League initiative?

Kurtzer: "I came to Larry's attention I think because in the context of the 350th yr of American Jewish life, Cooperstown did a two-day conference on Jews in Baseball and I was invited to give a keynote speech... The more people you meet who are interested in this, you find out that a lot of people have thought about this before, but nobody ever did it, and Larry is just doing it."

How much time will you devote to your role as commissioner?

Kurtzer: "It's hard to know. Larry, with a very small group of people, is now doing 101 things every day that need to get done and so far he hasn't called on many of us who are working with him to do much. I think as we get closer in time the contribution will be greater. I plan to be here for a large part of next summer and certainly when the first pitch gets thrown out and the league gets off the ground."

Modi'in's deputy mayor - Alex Weinreb 

(Published in Haaretz, September 8, 2006)

Tov shem meshemen tov ["A good name is better than fragrant oil," Ecclesiastes 7:1] Alex Weinreb recites a number of times during a conversation in his modest, sunlit office at the Modi'in Municipality this week. As deputy mayor of Modi'in, he hopes to make a good name for himself among the young city's nearly 70,000 residents and move up into the mayor's seat in two years.

"Service is the name of the game," is another mantra he reiterates to explain his motive for entering politics and his approach to public service. Weinreb, who immigrated to Israel with his family at age 12 from Queens, New York, does not necessarily attribute this service ethic to his American background. "People think because of the accent and because I'm like this it must have come from America. They don't know that I'm here already 36 yrs," he says. In fact, he adds, "I think a lot of Israelis believe in service too. Go to high-tech businesses or call up Pelephone or Cellcom today – they answer like a professional business."

Weinreb was among Modi'in's first residents in 1996, but says he soon was dismayed to find in Modi'in – billed as the "City of the Future" – all of the "political diseases" of Israel's older cities. "15,000 families came here on a dream," he enthuses. "We all moved as halutzim [pioneers] to a new city, and we had a dream – a new city, a correctly run city – but they brought over all the sick management from other cities." He recalls approaching the first mayor of Modi'in and encouraging him to implement professional standards. "You can't beat the system," the mayor laughed in reply.

"I don't like politics. As a matter of fact, I despise politics," Weinreb declares. "I'm using it as a platform to get to the goals that I set." Weinreb began making headlines in Modi'in as an environmental activist and decided to run for mayor in 2003. He eventually dropped his own mayoral bid to accept the number two slot on Moshe Spector's ticket. When Spector won, Alex became deputy mayor, responsible for environment, tourism and historical preservation.

No English names

Weinreb also chairs several committees at city hall, including the Names Committee. (Tov shem meshemen tov, he repeats.) "One of the bills I'm trying to pass now is to have no English names, only Hebrew names - no 'Country Center', etc.," he explains in a rapid-fire delivery, hesitating occasionally to find the right word in English. "2,100 years ago, when the Maccabees came here and threw out the Seleucids, the Greeks, one of the main things they did was to change back from Aramaic to Hebrew, to revive the Hebrew language. That's what a country's ethics come from – its language, its culture, its religious belief… language is very important. I'm tired of all these Israelis speaking every second word 'once' or 'since.'"

Weinreb became fluent in Hebrew as a boy in America, studying with Israeli teachers at a Hillel School in New York, so he fit in quickly when his family moved to Jerusalem in 1970. Still, moving to Israel was initially a "big crisis" for him. "I had just got accepted at Little League baseball and then my father said we're moving to Israel. I was on the basketball team, finally getting the girls to look at me, and then we were moving to this country I knew nothing about.

The family settled in the Ramat Eshkol neighborhood and later moved into the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. Weinreb initially studied in Jerusalem, but spent his last two years of high school at a yeshiva in Pardes Hana. "They were my best two years," he says. "I learned all the values of Eretz Yisrael [the Land of Israel] and I also threw the kippa away after there."

Weinreb says that he has found a "happy medium" in his religious life: "I still believe, put on tefillin every morning and eat kosher, but after Shabbat shul [synagogue] I drive to the beach. I thank God every morning for what he's given me and that's it." He says he has also argued at city hall to fund the local Reform and Conservative movements: "I don’t care how you thank God, with a lady next to you, with music and an organ. There's not one way to do it," he believes.

Get off your tuchus

After finishing his army duty and studying Earth Sciences at Hebrew University, Weinreb started a small advertising agency. Several years later, he opened Alex's Invitation Shop, printing bar mitzvah and wedding invitations. He ran this business for 21 years before becoming deputy mayor in 2003. Weinreb sold his printing equipment, but not his brand name – because the potential buyers refused to sign a commitment to maintain the service standards he had instituted. Tov shem meshemen tov, he explains again.

According to Weinreb, Modi'in's city government has dramatically improved since Mayor Spector took office. "We fired everybody when we got elected and put out tenders for everybody. We're changing paradigms." And by proving that the municipality can be run as a business, he hopes to attract top people to city government. "There are lots of great people at home and I'm trying to show them that in the next election – get off your tuchus. To be a civil servant isn't a bad thing… You want to go to Intel? You want to go to Comverse? Come to the Modi'in city hall – it's the same thing. We'll get the best people to do the job."

Weinreb is excited about the city's future. "I see only great things in the next two years – the city center is going to open up, the train, the theater." Among other things, he hopes the boost in revenues from the new city center will enable Modi'in to catch up on public facilities – including synagogues, swimming pools and sports fields. In fact, he is lobbying to stop the development of new housing when the population reaches 75,000-80,000 people and use this timeout to carefully study the lessons of Modi'in's first decade: "I want to stop for 7-10 years and to replenish all that is missing. Then, when we have our character together and our public buildings, we can continue on to 120,000."

He sees "all kinds of things in the future" – for example, recycling water from school roofs and using photoelectric cells to generate electricity. But he also seeks to leverage Modi'in's unique past: "It's a city with a story - the Maccabee story, the Crusader story, the 1948 story." Weinreb is seeking to raise NIS 20-30 million to build a visitors' center at the site of an ancient synagogue in Modi'in.

Meanwhile, Weinreb "loves every minute" of his job. "One of the things I will do hopefully when I'm mayor one day is to make sure all of the city workers get up with fire in their eyes. I want to give them local patriotism," he says.

Modi'in Facts*

First residents: 1996
Current population: Nearly 70,000
Planned population: 250,000
Anglo population: 3,500-4,000
Average age: 31
Orthodox Jews: 16-20%
Green space: 48%
* As provided by Alex Weinreb

'We'll send them some Muslims' - Baruch Marzel 

(Published in Haaretz, March 24, 2006)

Baruch Marzel, like his mentor Rabbi Meir Kahane, was born in America. But Kahane was nearly 40 years old before immigrating to Israel, while Marzel arrived in Jerusalem as a six-week-old infant and grew up in the Bayit Vegan neighborhood before setting out as a young teenager to help establish Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Kahane served one term in the Knesset before his Kach party was banned as racist. Similar attempts to disqualify Marzel failed in 2003, when he made an unsuccessful Knesset bid as the No. 2 candidate on the Herut party list. This year, Marzel is leading his own party, National Jewish Front, in the Knesset elections.

Marzel claims that his party enjoys broad support among new immigrants “who want to live in country like the one they dreamed of before coming to Israel,” and notes that Brooklyn-born Paul Eidelberg, No. 7 on the party’s list, heads a large department for English speakers in the Nation Jewish Front.

Marzel says that “unfortunately” he still has lots of relatives living abroad. “But we’ve succeeded in bringing a large part of the family to Israel,” he adds. He understands why many Jews remain in the Diaspora (“If a Jew from abroad sees a cheap imitation of New York here, why should he leave the original one to come here?”) and he offers some suggestions on how to encourage Jewish immigration to Israel: “We need to turn this state into a Jewish state, like it should be, and make it more democratic, so that every MK won’t do whatever he wants, so that the Supreme Court doesn’t rule the country.”

Indeed, Marzel views aliyah as one of the ways to achieve his party’s goal of securing a large Jewish majority west of the Jordan River. Other means to this end include encouraging Jews to have more children – Marzel, who lives in a mobile home in the Jewish settlement in Hebron, is the father of nine – and “expelling our enemies and encouraging others who want to leave,” he explains. “There are many countries in the world that like the Muslims – maybe not as much as a few months ago – and we’ll send them some more.”

'I want to live and let live,' says Shinui's No. 7 

(Published in Haaretz, March 24, 2006)

Jonathan Danilowitz realizes that he has virtually no chance of being elected to the Knesset next week as the No. 7 candidate on the Shinui list, but he is determined to continue his political activity. “I’m committed to the concept of separation of religion and state as it is in the United States – civil marriage, civil divorce, no religious interference in our daily lives,” he declares.

Danilowitz, 61, was born in the small town of Krugersdorp in South Africa. His family, he says, was “very Zionist, very Jewish and fairly Orthodox,” and was part of a united Jewish community that has since scattered around the globe, including a substantial Krugersdorp contingent in Israel.

His childhood experience included “quite a bit of anti-Semitism” on the part of his schoolmates. “So I was not only interested in coming to Israel because of the Zionist background,” he explains, “but I also knew that as a South African Jew I was not going to be a first-class citizen.”

Danilowitz initially came to Israel as a volunteer in 1967, landing one day before the outbreak of the Six Day War. He chose to volunteer at a religious kibbutz, but by the end of his six-month stay he was no longer religiously observant. “I remember sitting in the synagogue on Yom Kippur and realizing that for me religion had become a meaningless thing,” he recalls. Danilowitz is quick to emphasize, however, that his disillusionment with religion was a personal decision: “I don’t say that it applies to everybody.”

Out of the closet

His break with religion was relatively easy compared to his coming out as a gay man several years later. Danilowitz began a slow process of “coming out to myself and the rest of the world” after making aliyah in 1971, just before his 27th birthday. “I guess it was after I left my past behind in South Africa, I left my heterosexuality behind also,” he says.

It was particularly difficult for Danilowitz to reveal the truth about his sexuality to his mother. “I finally told her in a letter. I couldn’t find the courage to tell her face-to-face,” he recalls. His personal experience prompted him to later found the Israeli chapter of PFLAG (Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians & Gays). Danilowitz describes PFLAG as “an organization that helps parents who have become aware of their children’s sexuality and are often devastated.” In addition, he explains, “we often have young people coming to the meetings to try to figure out how to tell their parents.” PFLAG does not “shove any advice down anybody’s throat,” he stresses. “But it’s been phenomenal at times how we’ve managed to help people. We’ve saved lives.”

El Al vs. Danilowitz

Danilowitz, who had worked for South African Airways, began a 30-year career as an El Al flight attendant after immigrating to Israel. He continued to work for El Al during a prolonged court battle over the airline’s refusal to grant a free ticket for his life partner as part of El Al’s benefit package for spouses of employees. El Al insisted on bringing the case to the High Court of Justice after the lower courts ruled in favor of Danilowitz. But the High Court also sided with Danilowitz, setting a precedent that has paved the way for granting equal rights to same-gender couples.

This court triumph is a source of considerable notoriety and great satisfaction for Danilowitz: “At the time, I had anonymous telephone calls like – ‘I’m a soldier and you’ve given me hope and how can I thank you.’ And this happens to this day. I meet people and if I say my name, they say, ‘Wow is that you? You can’t imagine what it meant to me.’”

Several years later, Danilowitz initiated another lawsuit – this time against the Ministry of Transportation – which resulted in the prohibition of smoking on all flights in and out of Israel. “As an employee of El Al and citizen of Israel, I wanted to have the same rights that every employee in this country has – to work in a smoke-free environment,” he explains.

Not anti-religious

Danilowitz says that he had always voted for Meretz – until it joined a coalition with Shas in 1999. He then became active in Shinui. He ran, unsuccessfully, as a Shinui candidate in the Tel Aviv municipal elections in 2003 and was asked to join the party’s Knesset slate after Shinui’s aborted primaries and schism in January.

“I really believe in Shinui’s economic policy, foreign policy and policy of trying to avoid religious coercion,” Danilowitz explains. Shinui has been unfairly tagged as anti-religious, he claims. “We’re simply anti-religious coercion. I want to live and let live. I want everybody to be able to eat what they want, to marry whom they want, and sleep with whom they want. I don’t want other people who don’t work, don’t pay taxes and don’t serve in the army to be a burden on my back.”

Mind your language – graffiti in Jerusalem 

(Published in Haaretz, March 24, 2006)

A stenciled graffiti message welcoming Americans to Jerusalem but admonishing them to speak Hebrew appeared in at least two spots in southern Jerusalem this week, including this bus stop on Ben Zakkai Street, where the Katamon neighborhood meets the German Colony.

Most of the local residents questioned at the bus stop yesterday said they had no idea what the message was about. “I wish I could tell you,” said Cheryl Newman before catching a bus toward the Malha Mall. Newman, who immigrated to Israel five years ago from Chicago, noted that she was once stopped by an elderly woman who chastised her for speaking English with her children. But Newman regards this woman – and anyone who writes graffiti – as “crazy.”

Agnes Arbeli, who immigrated from Hungary 10 years ago, said she regards the graffiti as “funny” and does not believe it is directed against anyone. Her only criticism was that English and French speakers in the neighborhood often continue to speak their native tongues in the presence of others who do not understand these languages.

“I agree with the message, people should speak Hebrew here,” said Karen Hagege, who arrived in Israel from Paris only five months ago and already speaks Hebrew fluently. However, the consensus of native Israelis at the bus stop was that Jerusalemites should feel free to speak in whatever language they are most comfortable. “What are we, in Russia?” an elderly man remarked before climbing onto a bus.

From Atlanta, it's a long way to the ballot box 

(Published in Haaretz, March 31, 2006)

Jan Jaben-Eilon only lived for about two years in Israel, but she takes her Israeli citizenship very seriously. This week, as in the 2001 and 2003 elections, she made a special trip to Israel to cast her vote.

Jaben-Eilon, 53, is originally from Kansas City, Missouri and made aliyah in 1996. A year later, she married a former Israeli diplomat, Joab Eilon, who was studying to be a Reform rabbi. In 1998, the couple relocated to the U.S., where he completed his studies. Today, he teaches at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, while she works for the Israel Experience program. “My job is to help send young people to Israel so that they’ll develop the love for Israel that I was born with,” she explains.

Despite the fact that she makes her home in Atlanta (and ostensibly does not bear the direct consequences of her vote), Jaben-Eilon does not feel any qualms about voting in Israel. “I feel so Israeli,” she explains. “I see things differently after living here and I’m constantly in touch with Israel through my work and personal life. I feel more Israeli than American.”

Like many Israelis, Jaben-Eilon was less sure this time which party she would support. Earlier in the week she was leaning toward Meretz, but after some conversations with her friends and husband and after reading an editorial in Haaretz, she decided to vote for Labor.

“Each time I vote here, I become emotional,” she explains. “I never feel that way voting in the U.S. It means so much to me to be able to vote here.” Jaben-Eilon finds it hard to understand how so many Israelis choose not to exercise their right to vote. “People don’t realize how important it is.”

33 hours in the hands of the PFLP 

(Published in Haaretz, March 31, 2006)

Adam Budzanowski left his home in Toronto last December to serve in the Gaza Strip as country director for an Altanta-based assistance organization, JumpStart International. Last week, he was held for 33 hours as the captive of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, part of the spree of kidnappings triggered by Israel’s raid on the Jericho prison.

“I spent a sleepless night thinking how stupid I was to come to Gaza,” he chuckles, recalling his captivity. “Everybody I know tried to prevent me from coming.” Yet after his release, Budzanowski rejected a directive from Canadian Embassy officials to leave Gaza. “Listen, I’m a free person. I’m a Canadian. I can decide for myself,” he told them. “I came here for a reason and I have not completed my task here.”

Budzanowski, 57, is a native of Poland and settled in Canada in 1976. He now regards Canada as his only home. “My loyalty is to one country,” he explains. “People who are converted are more loyal and I’ve also been converted to the Canadian way of thinking.”

For most of the past three decades, however, Budzanowski has been away from Canada, working for various NGOs around the world. His international adventures began with work for the Afghan mujahideen just after the Soviet invasion in late 1979. His subsequent assignments included aid missions in Croatia and Bosnia.

Budzanowski insists that he does not seek out dangerous assignments, but that danger is simply part of his work. “Gaza is not what tourists would consider a vacation spot, it’s not Club Med,” he admits. “But if the kitchen is too hot for you, you shouldn’t go in,” he explains.


Budzanowski was in his office working on the computer last week when a co-worker noticed a lot of people with guns and ski masks gathering outside the building. The gunmen were soon at the door and kicked it in. “About 10 guys went through the rooms of the office and once they saw me, a white, blond Caucasian, they trained their guns on me.”

His captors pushed him out of the office and down three flights of stairs, and into one of a convoy of cars. “They started driving like madmen, at very high speeds.” When they hit heavy traffic, they started shooting into the air to clear the way. His captors pulled a ski mask over his head, but pulled it so hard he could see clearly through the fabric. “They turned into a non-descript house near Khan Yunis and brought me into a courtyard. There were about 40 to 50 people, all armed, and they started to fight over me. One side won and shoved me into a small room in the house.

“About 10 minutes later, a guy entered who described himself as a general and he spoke a little English. He was masked and shouted at me in an abusive way. He asked me for my name and my IDs. I had my Canadian passport. He was perhaps more shaken by all this than me. His hands were trembling.”

Later in the day, he was taken to another hideout in Khan Yunis and ordered to make a filmed statement. “When you have guns trained at you, you’ll say anything,” he notes. He was then taken to a small room where he spent the night. His captives warned him: “Whatever happens to [PFLP leader Ahmed] Sa’adat, we’ll do to you. If he’s killed, we’ll kill you.”

Thinking about life

Budzanowski had time to reflect on his life during the cold hours of the night. “I was thinking maybe I would meet my Maker before my time. I was thinking about life, about my parents, all kinds of things. I was never kidnapped before, never in that situation. I was not prepared for it.”
In the morning, he was instructed to make another filmed statement. His captors then informed him: “We’re going to take a chance and let you go.” Budzanowski only believed this when he arrived in downtown Gaza to a bustling media reception. It was then that he informed the Canadian officials that he wanted to remain in Gaza.

“I want to witness history first hand and I believe I can do something good here.” The projects he is coordinating in Gaza include housing restoration and an international park in Rafah, and an educational facility built around the school at the abandoned Jewish settlement of Neve Dekalim. His 33 hours in captivity “were not a pleasant experience,” he says, “but it’s still not too hot for me in the kitchen.”

U.S. Latino leaders learn about Israel first-hand 

(Published in Haaretz, April 7, 2006)

Jews have lived for centuries as minority communities around the world, perhaps most successfully in the United States. Yet, American Jews have made relatively little effort to engage their country’s largest minority community – Latin Americans. As part of an attempt to foster this engagement and forge a strategic partnership between the Jewish and Latino minorities in America, a high-level delegation of Latin American organization leaders, academics and journalists arrived this week for a nine-day visit in Israel.

The visit is sponsored by the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and co-hosted by the National Council of La Raza, an umbrella group for about 320 community-based organizations, with an annual budget of about $1.3 billion. Leading the delegation is Dina Siegel Vann, a Jewish Mexican-American who serves as director of the AJC’s Latino and Latin American Institute in Washington, DC.

The visit is designed to enable the Latino leaders “to learn what Israel is all about, and to see it first hand, with all its virtues and warts,” Siegel Vann says. “What we’re trying to do with this trip is to sensitize our Latino partners about the importance of Israel for American Jewry, about why Israel is such a central part of our identity and our agenda. At the same time, we will hopefully find some areas of Israeli reality that resonate on our mutual agenda.”

According to Raul Yzaguirre, who served as CEO of La Raza for three decades and now teaches Community Development at Arizona State University, there are 42-45 million Latinos living in the U.S. (depending on whether Puerto Rico is included). “We’re a diverse community,” he explains. “Some Latinos have been there for generations – my own family came to what is now Texas in the late 1740s – and some of us came over last night.” He emphasizes that by every objective measure Latinos are “the hardest working Americans” and very patriotic. “We’re an asset to the U.S., but on the other hand, we have some very serious problems,” he says, citing discrimination, low rates of academic achievement and high rates of poverty.

While Latinos share some of the same problems as African-Americans and Native Americans, there are some “very stark differences,” Yzaguirre explains. For example, poverty among African-Americans is partly due to high rates of unemployment, he says. “In the Latino community, we’re working, but have the lowest hourly wages.”

A case of indifference

Siegel Vann notes that American Jewry has experienced a “bumpy” relationship with the Afro-American community in recent decades. In comparison, she says, the relationship between Jews and Latinos can be characterized as indifferent: “We have been pretty invisible to one another.” Yzaguirre concurs, suggesting that Jews identify more with the slavery experience of Afro-Americans. “Jews invested a lot of blood and money [in the civil rights movement], and then a schism occurred. That kind of investment was never made in the Latino community. Not that there was animosity, there was just non-engagement.”

Jews and Latinos share a common history, Siegel Vann contends. “We met in Spain and traveled to the New World, and are both mestizos - a combination of many races and ethnic groups.” In fact, Yzaguirre says that according to one estimate, one-third of all Latinos in the U.S. have some Jewish ancestry. “There’s a growing awareness that some cultural habits originated from the Jewish culture – for example, you cover your mirrors when somebody dies,” he adds.

“We have to articulate the case for Latino-Jewish cooperation much more clearly,” Siegel Vann adds, citing both practical and ethical grounds for this partnership. “American Jews have always believed that you have to level the playing field for everybody, all minorities. That’s the only way you can strengthen the social fabric and democracy … we cannot survive without coalitions. If we don’t do it together, American society will not champion the causes we believe in.”

Multiple identities

Siegel Vann straddles a number of identities. Her mother’s family emigrated from Poland to Mexico in 1924, after the U.S. had already closed its gates to Jewish immigrants. Her father is from Brooklyn, New York. She attended Jewish schools in Mexico and then came to Israel as part of a “search of identity” and completed a BA in English at Tel Aviv University. “I came to Israel and suddenly became very much a Mexican,” she recalls. Yzaguirre understands this juggling of identities: “When I go to Mexico, I feel very American. When I’m with mixed groups, I feel Hispanic. And when I go to Spain, I feel very Mexican.”

Siegel Vann estimates that she is one of about 100,000 Latino Jews in the U.S., though she says the precise number is difficult to gauge. “I think it’s a new category that is being formed and there is more awareness that we can play a very important role in bringing both communities together,” she says. “We see a lot of future together.”

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