Friday, September 05, 2014

Welcome to the New Middle East

Snapshot of the insanity of our region: Someone on the radio talking about their summer holiday in north-east Israel on the Golan Heights. The surrealism of eating a Friday lunch in the artists' village of Ani'Am, at the next table a group of UNDOF "peacekeeper" soldiers ordering masses of pasta and pizza. Touring the village of Ein Zivan, choosing between the boutique winery and the boutique chocolate factory, standing in line shoulder to shoulder with offduty West European UN soldiers.

In the distance the sounds of the savage fighting in Syria, right next to Israel's border just a couple of kilometres away.

Just over that border in the chaos of Syria dozens of Fijian UNDOF soldiers have been kidnapped by Jihadi rebels as their colleagues on the Israeli side enjoy the attractions of the pastoral Israeli Golan.

Welcome to the New Middle East.

Thursday, August 14, 2014


This week my oldest child and I were learning about the battle of Lakhish in around 700 BCE. The Assyrian forces of Sanheirib swept through the northern kingdom of Israel, moving on to the southern kingdom of Judah, laying siege to the heavily fortified town of Lakhish. Judean forces were defeated by the Assyrian army and Sanheirib was so taken by his victory that he decorated the walls of his palace in Ninveh with an ornate frieze telling the story of the battle in all its gory detail, including the impaling on stakes of the captured Judean commanding officers and the flaying alive of regional officials who dared rise up against Assyrian hegemony. 

In recent months Ninveh province has come under the rule of new tyrants, the so called "Islamic State" and its Jihadi fighters, with some reports from the region claiming ISIS has gone so far to destroy the ancient ruins at the site which predate Islam by centuries. How ironic that Sanheirib who laid waste to neighbouring kingdoms should himself find his great city destroyed by marauding invaders.

The view from Israel at the moment is certainly unsettling. Quite aside from our troubles with Hamas and Hamas' rockets and tunnels, it is horrifying watching the new Jihadis of ISIS sweep through Syria and Iraq, venture into Lebanon, reaching all the way to the Iraqi border with our neighbour Jordan. An already difficult neighbourhood seems to be getting more savage by the minute.

In all of the turmoil and terror that has swept the Middle East in recent years though there has been one beacon of hope - the Kurdish autonomous zone in northern Iraq. Alone among the various local groups they used US/UN intervention to create a stable, fair free, economically viable state in waiting. They too are mostly Sunni Muslims, just as the Jihadis purport to be. What a different vision for their homeland the Kurds have though. 

Watching the Peshmerga strive to defend their region from ISIS I am convinced more than ever that they should be rewarded for their responsible approach by receiving international support to help them resist the expansion of ISIS and to assist them in aiding refugees from the "Islamic State".

I should clarify that I am wary when it comes to Western involvement in the Middle East. I didn't think the US intervention in Iraq was a good idea in the first place, I thought the US leadership lacked (and still lack) a decent understanding of the complexities of the region and of how Western actions would be perceived. 

That said I had strong reservations about the arrangements for the US withdrawal and the ability of the new Iraq to achieve stable government. In a country so lacking in national cohesion and with a government setting itself up along sectarian lines it seemed highly likely that a withdrawal of the US and their allies would lead to a resumption or even escalation in the Sunni-Shia civil war, and quite likely also provide fertile ground for al-Qaeda like movements and militias, possibly even an Islamist takeover of the failing Iraqi state.

Sadly both concerns have been realised, further fuelled by the war in Syria. 

I can understand people in the West arguing that the US and allies gave Iraq their best shot, did what they could to free her people from a brutal dictator and now the rest is up to them, if they want to use that new freedom to ravage their own country, then so be it.

The thing is this is not simply a regional problem that the West, especially the US and its allies who went in to Iraq in the first place, can was their hands of and say it's all some regional conflict that doesn't concern them. The Western powers have been directly involved in creating 21st century Iraq from the time Saddam Hussein set this whole chain of events in motion with his invasion of Kuwait and the West stepped in to save the day.

The creation of the Kurdish autonomous region and no-fly zone have been a positive result of that intervention, creating an island of relative freedom and stability in northern Iraq.

The supplying of so much US weaponry and aid to the corrupt and sectarian government of a deeply divided Iraq, weaponry that has fallen into the hands of the butchers of ISIS, and thus threatens the pro-Western Kurds, that already makes it an issue the Western powers are in part responsible for. The potential global threat of ISIS makes fighting them a Western interest, but the West also has a moral obligation to help the Kurds who are now being attacked with those same weapons the US supplied to the floundering Iraqi military.

There are those in the West, quite possibly some in the Obama administration among them who believe that ISIS and its ilk are the shape of things to come in the Middle East, and therefore it is in their interest to stay "on the right side" of the nascent "Islamic State". My understanding of this latest and most brutal Jihadi movement is that there is no accommodation to be reached with them, their level of savagery is off the scale even by the standards of the blood-soaked Middle East. To use an old fashioned term, I believe that the unimaginable cruelty and the cult of death worshipped by the so called Jihadis of ISIS makes them evil, I can think of no other word for what they are perpetrating.

The West must find a way to support the Kurds, not just with words but with materials to both alleviate the suffering of the Yazaidi, Christian and other refugees and to help the Kurds defend themselves from the savagery of the "Islamic State".

Thursday, August 07, 2014

A strange city without soldiers (II)

I think I only really grasped how crazy our lives in Israel have been of late when I took the kids for a planned visit to overseas relatives this week. The first thing my 4.5 year-old asked as our relative met us at the airport was why there were no signs for shelters. My boy can't read yet, but he knows how to recognise the shelter sign words.

At a relatives house he again asked where the secure room was, and when I explained that in England people don't have shelters and secure rooms he looked concerned "But what will they do if the bad men come?" I don't really have much of an answer for that.

On our first morning abroad a loud emergency vehicle goes by, its siren wail eerily reminiscent of our air raid sirens back in Israel. I'm busy helping my daughter with something, my boys are in the next room, and I hear a clatter of feet and the slamming of a bathroom door.

I go to check on them and find my 4 year-old holding the two year-old's hand and sitting with him leaning against the bathroom wall. I ask what's going on and my four year-old explains that he heard a siren, he knew that there are no shelters here so he grabbed his little brother and ran to an inside room without windows, just like he learnt we should do if we find ourselves in a place without a secure room during a siren. I don't know whether to cry or be proud of my little boy. My heart aches that he should be so matter of fact about it all.

The next day we go to a big local park. As we're walking home two aircraft streak across the sky at high altitude leaving distinct contrails in the clear sky. My four year-old asks: "Are those good guy rockets or bad guys rockets? Do we need to get down on the ground?"

Walking in the street one day my four year old asks me why there aren't any soldiers or police around "Who protects these people and keeps them safe?" I say they have police, we just haven't seen any. "It don't feel safe Ima" he continues "there are no hayalim (soldiers) to look after us if the bad rocket men come."

Shabbat morning there are police mounted on motorcycles outside the synagogue we attend. My boys are thrilled by the big snazzy looking motorbikes. The police look back at them unsmiling. My son turns to me and asks why the only police we've seen are outside the synagogue.

We're invited to friends. There are a lot of other guests. We also meet some random Jewish neighbours who live on my relative's street. Everyone coos sympathetically when they find out that we're from Israel, politely asking what it's like there and how we're doing, but their eyes start to glaze a few seconds in to our genuine responses. Asking about Israel is mostly a courtesy like a how are you. We don't bring up the subject at all unless asked, but even so, it's like people don't really want to know, maybe they've had enough of hearing about the Middle East, maybe it's just too unpleasant, maybe they don't want their kids to hear, whatever the reason, we learn just to say it's been hard on the kids and leave it at that. It almost feels impolite to say that much.

We don't mention that we feel terrible about leaving Israel in wartime, like we're being disloyal, though we make it clear that this trip was planned. We aren't running from home, it's just the school holidays and our only convenient time for a visit with overseas family.

Playing in the garden my kids meet the kids next door who also happen to be Jewish. The father makes small talk with us, asks if we've had a lot of rockets, if we're trying to "get away from the bombs for a bit." I give the usual pained smile, explain we haven't had too many sirens in our sleepy town and that this visit was planned before the war. He seems satisfied, but his 8 year-old son wants to know if we spent a lot of time in the shelter, what it was like and so on. His father looks awkward and steers the conversation to a different topic, but my son volunteers that he slept many nights in the shelter, that he once had to jump into thistles because of a siren and that he knows he was safe because of Kipat Barzel (Hebrew for Iron Dome).

My kids love aircraft so we go to a local aviation museum. The whole thing feels different in the context of our new war experience. As we enter the main hall my son straight away zooms in on a Cruise missile hanging from the ceiling. "Ima, is that a good guy rocket or a bad guy rocket?" I try to draw his attention to the actual amazing historical aircraft on the museum floor, like the cool Bleriot flier or the early jets. By the time we reach the Second World War exhibit I realise it's futile. My son zeroes in on the V1 and V2 rockets and my daughter enthusiastically explains to him that these are the rockets the Nazi bad guys used to shoot at grandma when she was a little girl, she's heard the stories from her great-uncle. Try as I might this is the kind of thing my kids are currently interested in, we are all looking at things differently now, it can't just be a museum about aircraft and rockets.

The next room features models of wartime London with mannequins dressed in period clothes. The kids are of course most fascinated by the replica corrugated iron shelter, "just like the one grandma had in her parents' garden" my oldest explains. As we're standing there looking at it and comparing grandma's family shelter with the one in our home the audio explanation kicks in, complete with a recording of a siren. My four year old looks panicked for a moment until I remind him that it's just a recording in the museum and they don't have real sirens here anyway.

A museum employee comes over and asks if we'd like to go over to the next room where there's going to be an audio-visual presentation about the Blitz. I say I think the kids don't need realistic sounding explosions and sirens, and she starts to assure me that there are no actual scenes of destruction, then sees my two young boys and says "oh, you've got little ones, yeah, I guess they're too young to learn about all that anyway."

Monday, August 04, 2014

אנשים טובים באמצע הדרך. ערב ט באב, אנחנו זוכרים את חורבן בית המקדש, את הבית הנחרב בגלל שנאת חינם ואטימות. אני נזכרת השנה בגמילות החסדים המדהימה שכולנו היינו עדים לה בשבועות האחרונים, הנתינה, ההתנדבות, החסד של אמת. אני גם נפעמת מהחסד של אנשים בחו'ל שהתנדבו לעזור למשפחתי במשימתנו הנוכחית, לעזור לדוד שלי להתארגן לקרת עליה. נכון שיש עדײַן הרבה אכזריות ואטימות בעולמנו, עדיין יש די הרבה מה לתקן, אך כולי תקווה שבזכות האנשים הטובים עוד נזכה לגאולה שלמה.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Like Cyclamen

There's a song they've been playing nonstop on the radio in recent weeks, the kind that perfectly captures the nation's mood right now, and I guess there's no surprise there, it was written during Operation Cast Lead, one of Israel's previous attempts at halting the rockets and terror from Gaza. 

Ariel Horovitz, son of the late Naomi Shemer shows he is truly his mother's son with this evocative song, the lyrics comparing the spirit of Israel in times of crisis with the cyclamen flowers that rise up among the barren, rough rocks, creating life and beauty where it seems there should be no soil to support any plant, let alone a delicate flower. 

I should be totally sick of it by now, a song played so often as to be cliche and passe and devoid of any emotional impact after so much airtime but somehow it just gets me right in the kishkes each time I hear it. This is us and this is in so many ways our song over and over and over, my people who come together in times like these, the selflessness, the giving, the volunteering the courage of so many who leave everything time and time again to go out and protect all of us in this rough neighbourhood we live in.

It was more than that though tonight. As the song played for the millionth time I suddenly found myself choking up, this sudden rush of emotion which isn't me, like a rip tide pulling at my usual mild mannered calm and cool. 

Not sadness, though like all my countrymen I am heartbroken by the loss of life, the ever growing collage of the faces of the fallen. Not the tension or the uncertainty, though I am sure everyone here feels those too. 

No, it's anger I'm feeling, a swelling gushing anger at all of this, that we have to be like this, that the song of Cast Lead could have been the song of Protective Edge because here we are in this same tired film all over again. 

I'm angry that once again we are fighting a necessary war of self-defence against an enemy who time and time again has professed his hatred of life, his determination to exterminate my state and my people and has rejoiced at the spilling of Jewish blood.

I'm angry that the generation born at the time of the Oslo peace process promises of a shiny new Middle East full of friendship and co-existence is the generation making up the bulk of the combat troops today fighting and sacrificing amidst the wreckage of Oslo and Wye and Camp David II and the Gaza withdrawal and every other peace initiative from the last 20 years that was supposed to end the bloodshed but instead each in its turn only yielded more. 

I'm angry at the Obama/Kerry team peddling more of the same, the bullying and patronising threats against Israel to force ceasefire terms that will only grant Hamas a greater license to continue its campaign of violence and destruction. A ceasefire that will only create another stalemate in an endless stream of stalemates that prolong and sustain this conflict round after round. 

I'm angry that despite the justness of our cause the world media, diplomats and the leaders of supposed allies have twisted it all around to portray us as the devil incarnate. 

I'm angry that legions of otherwise apparently decent folk who like to hoist their liberal, humanitarian devoted to human rights credentials aloft like a banner have swallowed hook line and sinker every last lie fed to them by the Hamas propaganda machine, so that they are blind to the evils Hamas has perpetrated upon their very own people but proudly portray Israelis as Nazis even as Israel employs tactics that expose our soldiers to greater risk in an effort to protect Gaza civilians.

I'm angry that my country is treated with such a lack of gratitude and respect, that our small state has given the world so much, worked so hard to create and innovate ways to make life better for all of humanity, from medicine to agriculture to communications to humanitarian missions, and time and time again the world turns around and kicks us in the teeth in the twilight zone assemblies of the United Nations human rights forums. 

I don't think I ever realised just how much this all bothers me until tonight, grown so used to the expectation that the only good Israeli is one who flagellates himself and condemns his country before the court of world opinion. How many times have I been through this in every co-existence and dialogue forum I've ever attended. I'm not so naive as to believe my country is perfect, no country is, but I will not be bullied in to denying the goodness that I fervently believe far outweighs our mistakes. 

Through it all I'm reminded of Rudyard Kipling's immortal words, the ones I had to memorise in primary school English class a lifetime ago. They too have been recited to death, repeated so often that when we hear them today they seem trite and passe, a cliche from too many kitchen posters and anthologies. That may be so, but looking around today I feel that his words are truer than ever.

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

Monday, July 28, 2014

Pray for their safety

Last week at my halakha class the teacher started by asking everyone whether their husbands/sons were home. It's the question on everyone's lips now, so many thousands of reservists have been drafted leaving wives and children to cope at home with the rocket alerts and sirens. Everyone knows someone serving at the front, if not their spouse, child or other relative than a neighbour, friend or coworker.

Two hours earlier my teacher's combat soldier son had called to say they were shutting off their phones, would be unreachable for a while. Nothing unremarkable about that except that he also called all his siblings and his father. She knew he'd just gone in to Gaza. We read Psalms together and dedicated our Torah learning to our soldiers at the front.

My teacher is such an inspiring women, looking at her face the concern and worry was clearly there,  but so too her deep faith in God and in the justice of this cause, the need to fight the enemy so determined to destroy us.

Tonight she was a little less strained. After six days without contact with her son, days of knowing that he was with his combat unit in the thick of things in Gaza, he was finally able to call and tell her that his unit had been granted a break. He was out of Gaza for now, getting some much earned rest.

It is not easy to be a mother in Israel, especially a mother of sons in a community where the ethic of serving one's country by volunteering for combat units it's a principle value. It isn't easy being a wife either, so many husbands vanished for weeks on end, spirited away by emergency call up papers. It isn't just husbands either, some women have also been drafted, and in a rare case or two even both spouses.

The Gaza front line is at most a few hours from people's homes, in most cases much closer, but in times like these, both for those now serving in the army and those left home to "hold down the fort" that distance can feel like worlds away.

And in the middle of it all, even where it seems peaceful and calm and you could pretend that we aren't a country at war, there is this quiet buzz of tension, the ever present worry, the silent prayer on everyone's lips, please God let our soldiers do their jobs, let them get the terrorists and their rockets, may our soldiers find all the terror tunnels and may they be able to do so without endangering themselves or having to take more Palestinian civilians lives, may this war restore peace to all of Israel, and most of all, please God, bring all our people home safe.

Ima, it's just like a film

I was riding home on the bus this lunchtime when we stopped in traffic near the train station. Looking out the window I saw an exhausted looking reservist in a dusty, disheveled uniform standing outside near the park and ride. Just then his wife pulled up in her car, jumped out, ran towards him with open arms and enveloped him in the tightest embrace and the longest kiss I have ever seen.

My daughter was watching out the window with me, kvelling at the sight and cooing "Ima, it's SO romantic! It's just like in a film."

Please God all our soldiers should come home safe and sound to such a loving welcome from their families.