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September 21, 2014 / 26 Elul, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘Steven Plaut’

You Just Might Be An ‘Occupier’

Wednesday, November 30th, 2011

Many of us are scratching our heads trying to make sense of the Occupy Wall Street movement and its sundry clones around the world.

With apologies to the comedian Jeff Foxworthy, who first made a name for himself with the refrain “then you just might be a redneck” (example: “If you have 24 pickup trucks and none of them work, then you just might be a redneck”), let’s examine the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon.

* If you refuse to recognize that every idea of Marx’s was debunked over 160 years ago, then you just might be a Wall Street Occupier.

* If you wear Nike shoes, designer jeans, and carry your smart phone to the demonstrations against capitalism, then you just might be a Wall Street Occupier.

* If you think the United States controls an empire, even though you cannot think of any colonies it owns, then you just might be a Wall Street Occupier.

* If you think other people must always be required to relinquish their material things so that you can pursue social justice and feel idealistic and righteous, then you just might be a Wall Street Occupier.

* If you consider your own property to be sacred while other people’s property should be used for social engineering, then you just might be a Wall Street Occupier.

* If you favor academic departments in which only enlightened leftist opinion can be expressed and where there is no room for non-leftist dissenting opinion to be heard, then you just might be a Wall Street Occupier.

* If you use the term Islamophobia often but never use the term Islamofascism, then you just might be a Wall Street Occupier.

* If you believe everything wrong with the world is because of the United States, then you just might be a Wall Street Occupier.

* If you think there is nothing useful to be learned from the fact that Cuba used to be the richest country in Latin America and today is the poorest country in Latin America, then you just might be a Wall Street Occupier.

* If you are not aware of the fact that Cubans steal boats to sneak into the U.S. but no low-income Americans steal boats to sneak into Cuba, then you just might be a Wall Street Occupier.

* If you think there is nothing we can learn from comparing the histories of East Germany with West Germany before the unification, or North Korea with South Korea, then you just might be a Wall Street Occupier.

* If you think all arguments can be settled by telling a non-leftist he
reminds you of Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck, then you just might be a Wall Street Occupier.

* If you support proposals that make real problems of the world worse, just as long as advocating them makes you feel caring and righteous, then you just might be a Wall Street Occupier.

* If you prefer that poor people in the Third World starve rather than embrace capitalism and live like you do, then you just might be a Wall Street Occupier.

* If you believe terrorism is caused by poverty, then you just might be a Wall Street Occupier.

* If you believe SUVs threaten life on earth, and more generally that the planet is in imminent danger of destruction unless everyone does what you want them to do, then you just might be a Wall Street Occupier.

* If you believe one country is rich and another poor because the rich country stole wealth from the poor country, then you just might be a Wall Street Occupier.

* If you demand social justice but have no idea how to define what it means or explain how to achieve it, then you just might be a Wall Street Occupier.

            Steven Plaut is a professor at the University of Haifa. He can be contacted at steveneplaut@yahoo.com.

‘Apartheid,’ You Say?

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011
It is late at night. There are four of us on the hospital ward. Two are young men, a religious Ethiopian Jew and a young Arab computer “techie” who spends his days working on his laptop. I am one of the two elders in the room. The other is an Arab from a village in the Galilee. The two younger men complain about the horrific snoring coming from us geezers, but they’re not sure who is the worst offender. The nurses offer them sympathy and sleeping pills, to no avail.

Our ward is unusual in that none of the four of us speaks Russian. In almost every other room in the hospital, Russian is the language of communication, and most of the Jewish and Arab doctors and nurses seem able to speak basic Russian.

Rambam Hospital in Haifa is named after the extraordinary medieval rabbi, philosopher and medical doctor Maimonides – Moses the son of Maimon. The lobby of the hospital features copies of some of the original medical tracts written by the Rambam and some of his herb medicines.

Maimonides continues to exercise a hypnotic influence over the modern mind. It seems a new book about him comes out every month in Israel. A current bestseller is titled The Secrets of the Guide to the Perplexed. Written by Dr. Micah Goodman, a researcher at Hebrew University, it’s a fascinating analysis of The Guide, which was originally published in Arabic.

The Rambam’s command of Arabic and Hebrew, and the ease with which he bridged Jewish and Arab culture, have their modern equivalents in Rambam Hospital. Actually, they are apparent in all Israeli hospitals. I can think of no better arena in which to examine the true nature of Arab-Jewish relations in Israel

“Apartheid,” you say? Make up your own mind.

* * * * *
Israel is a country with no shortage of world-class Jewish medical minds; a country filled with Jewish mothers who would love nothing more than to tell people about “my son the doctor.” And yet the chief physician in my department in the hospital is an Israeli Arab, and so is my personal doctor on the ward – he’s the only one I trust to insert infusion needles into my arm because he does it gently and without hurrying.

A young Arab woman is doing ECG checkups in the emergency room. As she finishes with me, I ask her if the machine can tell whether I am in love. She giggles. An Arab teenager from Haifa is working on the ward as a volunteer. He just graduated from a prestigious high school and is building up his resume as a volunteer to help him get into medical school.

For anyone who does not live in Israel, without doubt the most noteworthy feature of life in an Israeli hospital is the comfortable mingling and socializing by Jews and Arabs, religious and secular, recent immigrants and old-timers, well-off and poor.

Relatives of patients chat among themselves, comparing their loved ones’ medical histories, offering health tips, exchanging information about tests and doctors, sharing foods, assisting one another.

An elderly Druze woman in the emergency room has health problems similar to those of my mother-in-law, so my wife sits with the woman’s daughter and tells her at length what we have managed to learn. They are astonished that my wife speaks Arabic fluently.

Yes, anyone who spends more than a minute or two with patients and their families here will shed any delusions about Israeli “apartheid.”

“We will call the orderly to wheel you back to the ward,” the X-ray technician tells me. “No need,” says the elderly Arab man just behind me in line, “I will push him back.” We swap stories along the way.

The odor of strong coffee sneaks into my room. I follow it in a semi-trance to the eating area across the hallway. A large Druze family is sitting there and has brought their own coffee in a large finjan pot.

“The smell of your coffee is already restoring my health and strength,” I tell them, and they insist that I sit with them and share a few cups. They seem mystified by my bizarre American accent, especially when I try to say a few words in Arabic.

No one intitiates this mingling and mutual support among Jews and Arabs, or among other groups of people in the hospital. It comes naturally. Alhough in ordinary everyday life Jews and Arabs usually move in different social circles – as indeed do subgroups of Jews and subgroups of Arabs – they find nothing strange about being thrust together on a hospital ward and treating each other with decency, consideration – even real affection.

In a previous hospitalization eleven years ago, I spent the week next to an elderly Bedouin who had been a legendary police “scout” in Israel, solving crimes and exercising near-supernatural powers of forensics. After leaving the hospital I wrote a book (The Scout, available at Amazon.com) based in large part on his life and the Bedouins in northern Israel, Our families have remained on warm terms since our ordeals.

There are decidely different “cultures” of hospital-visiting among the different groups. Ashkenazi Jewish families tend to come in small numbers, stay for short visits, and speak in near whispers. Rural Arabs tend to arrive in large numbers, with seemingly the entire village showing up to entertain the patient in a festival-like atmosphere. Druze also come in large numbers but tend to divide themselves into shifts, with one team entering the patient’s room when the previous team’s visit is completed.

There are also clear differences in the culture of food among the different groups. Arabs and Druze arrive with large picnic coolers of homemade food. They rightly feel their family members and friends should eat home-cooked meals rather than the pathetic excuse for food served up by the hospital.

Invariably, the supplies from home include the aforementioned finjan filled with indescribably delicious coffee. And as I know from personal experience, the families graciously invite roommates, as well as other patients who just happen to wander by, to share the heavenly elixir.

Down in the lobby is an espresso bar. It is filled with Ashkenazi yuppie families. There is a Middle East grill where Sephardic families hang out, and it is also my favorite source for lunch. There are some fast-food joints where teenagers – Jews and Arabs – tend to hang out. Older Arabs prefer to hang out in the cafeteria or in the small gardens scattered among the hospital buildings.

Plaque at Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, where Jews and Arabs get along just fine.

 

In what has to be the ultimate irony, there is a beautiful garden on the hospital grounds where many Arab families like to hold impromptu picnics, feasting on the delicacies they’ve brought from home. This is the Leon Klinghoffer Garden, created in memory of the wheelchair-bound American passenger murdered by Palestinian terrorists aboard the cruise ship Achille Lauro in 1985.

I doubt one Arab in a hundred could tell you who Leon Klinghoffer was. The vast majority of those who enjoy the garden that carries his name probably assume he was some philanthropist who gave a lot of money to the hospital.

* * * * *
Probably the hardest thing to explain to those living outside Israel is that the Arab-Israeli conflict has nothing to do with “getting to know the ‘Other’ ” or establishing personal ties with members of a belligerent community.

As surprising as it may sound to outsiders, there is no “alienation” or unfamiliarity with the “Other” in Israel. Israeli Jews and Arabs are actually very familiar with each another, which is why under the right circumstances they can get along so easily, even in the artificial and alien environment of a hospital.

(I am told there is even more intense mingling among Jewish and Arab families on the children’s ward, but I simply cannot bring myself to enter to see for myself. I find it too draining emotionally. I can cope with ill adults, no matter how serious their condition, and I have visited people in some of the most harrowing psychiatric hospitals imaginable, but I am not up to a ward full of sick children.)

The presumption that unfamiliarity is what lies behind political conflict is a Western prejudice and is simply wrong. It is responsible for what I call the “Marital Spat Theory of the Arab-Israeli Conflict.”

In a marital spat, passions may be calmed and domestic harmony restored by taking deep breaths and holding an intense airing of grievances, where anger and hurt are verbalized and expressed. The confrontation has cathartic value.

There is a widespread Western delusion that international conflicts are essentially of the same character and require the same sort of “therapeutic” catharsis.

This, by the way, explains the American obsession with establishing “talks” as the cure-all for any disagreement. In reality, the Middle East conflict has nothing to do with talks or catharsis or verbalizing hurt feelings. It also has nothing to do with a failure to understand the positions or “narrative” of the other side. Arabs and Jews know exactly what the other side seeks.

Just as they understand each other’s political positions far better than Americans imagine, Israeli Jews and Arabs understand each other quite well as individuals. Most Israeli Jews know some basic Arabic. while Israeli Arabs are so thoroughly immersed in Israeli culture that, when chatting among themselves, it is rare for them to complete a sentence without interjecting a Hebrew word or term – particularly when those convey a thought better than the parallel word or term in Arabic.

There is an old Mafia movie clich? about disagreements being “business, not personal.” Politics, war, ideology – in the Middle East these are all business. But there is no room for business on a hospital ward. To the contrary, everything is personal. Relations go well beyond the correct to being truly amicable.

Such cordiality does not change the background political-national-religious disagreements that have raged for so many decades. Intense ideological passion and political conflict are part of life in Israel. I doubt that anyone, Jew or Arab, has his or her views and loyalties changed one iota by spending days or weeks mingling socially in a hospital. We all leave with the same ideological orientation we held before we came in.

This is the fundamental contradiction that underlies everything in this country.

Consider the following incident, as recounted recently in The Wall Street Journal: “A Palestinian woman from Gaza arrives at Soroka Hospital in Beersheba for lifesaving skin treatment for burns over half her body. After the conclusion of her extensive treatment, the woman is invited back for follow-up visits to the outpatient clinic. One day she is caught at the border crossing wearing a suicide belt. Her intention? To blow herself up at the same clinic that saved her life.”

And consider this: Years ago I took my young daughter to Hadassah Hospital for a consultation with a specialist in children’s eye problems. Sitting in the waiting room, I noticed someone who looked familiar. It was a man sitting with his own young daughter, waiting to see the same specialist. It took me a few minutes to realize he was none other than Ziad Abu Zayyad, a senior PLO official who served later as a cabinet minister and in various positions of leadership in the Palestinian Authority.

Did the fact that a Jewish specialist saved his young daughter’s sight affect his politics? Of course not. He is someone who insists the Western Wall is a Muslim rather than a Jewish shrine – one where Jews have no rights. He continues to demand that Palestinians enjoy an unrestricted “right of return” to enter Israel (in order to destroy it from within). He refers to Palestinian terrorism as “resistance.” On March 21, 2004, he apologized when PLO terrorists murdered an Israeli Arab “by mistake” when they meant to kill Jews.

Nothing in the above two accounts contradicts anything in my description of life in an Israeli hospital. It is a dual reality around which one needs to wrap one’s mind if one hopes to understand Israel.

* * * * *
The Bash-Israel Lobby has become a large totalitarian choir endlessly chanting about Israeli “apartheid.” Western campuses host hatefests with names like “Israel Apartheid Week.”

Friends of Israel try to engage the bigots in debate, attempting to challenge their claims. Statistics are ladled out. Facts are cited, documentation is presented. But those who spread the libel about Israeli “apartheid” are notoriously resistant to facts and truth, like mutant bacteria that resist antibiotics.

The picture of life in an Israeli hospital should serve as a devastating repudiation of the false portrait of Israel painted by its enemies.

Some of those enemies libel Israel out of sheer ignorance, their total knowledge of the Middle East paltry enough to fit in a thimble – and even that negligible amount is tainted by the malicious anti-Israel propaganda they’ve been fed on campus and in the media.

Others who speak of Israeli “apartheid” are simply liars who recognize full well the realities on the ground but refuse to let truth get in the way of their political grandstanding.

Anyone who knows anything at all about the Middle East understands that Israel is the only country in the region that is not an apartheid regime.

Steven Plaut, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press, is a professor at the University of Haifa. He can be contacted at steveneplaut@yahoo.com.

The Maltese Yad

Thursday, April 28th, 2011

It was the last slave prison and slave market in Europe. The United States was already an independent country and France was in the tumult of revolution. The Mediterranean island of Malta was the destination for the slaves snatched off of merchant ships by an order of Crusader Knights that had first been set up in Jerusalem in the 12th century.

And the slaves in question were Jews.

The slaves were unloaded at the Valletta Quay even today still known as “Jews’ Sally Port.” The city was the headquarters built after the Great Siege by the Order of the Knights of St. John, better known as the Hospitallers. For the more than two centuries its slave market operated, the main purpose was to extort ransom money from Jewish communities in Europe in exchange for the release of the hostages. Some captives were used as galley slaves. For some fortunate others it was really “slavery lite,” as they were allowed to leave prison during daylight hours to hold jobs or even engage in commerce.

Malta is one of the more remarkable places on earth. It contains antiquities a thousand years older than the pyramids of Egypt. Long before humans discovered metal, its earliest inhabitants were carving massive structures out of solid rock, some displaying amazingly modern thinking about architecture. Its vegetation and landscape look like the Galilee, while its architecture is simply breathtaking. Its 16th century fortifications were so powerful that they later served to defend British and Maltese forces from German and Italian assaults during World War II.

Malta’s devoutly Catholic population speaks a dialect of Tunisian Arabic (with Phoenician, Italian, French and English words mixed in). The Maltese like to think of themselves as the world’s last surviving Phoenicians, kin of Hannibal and King Hiram of Tyre. Speakers of Hebrew and Arabic can make sense of many Maltese words.

Malta is never mentioned by name in the Bible. The word “Malta” is Phoenician but is from the same root as the Hebrew cognate word for “taking refuge.” The Apostle Paul found himself shipwrecked there, making Malta long a center of interest for the Christian world.

Jews first lived in Malta in the days when it was still a Carthaginian colony. Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, and Sicilians all came and left. Eventually the islands fell under Spanish rule. The Jews of Malta then met the same fate as the Jews of Spain, expelled the year Columbus reached the Americas.

One of the most famous Jewish residents of Malta was Avraham ben Shmuel Abulafia, a 13th-century Spanish kabbalist rabbi. A bizarre character, he dreamed of forging a monotheistic unification of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. He managed to arrange for an audience with the pope to lay out the merits of his plan. The pope was horrified and ordered Abulafia burned at the stake. But the pope died suddenly just before the sentence was to be carried out, and the condemned man was released.

Abulafia spent the last two decades of his life as a hermit, evidently living in caves on the barren and still all-but-deserted island of Comino, just off the coast of the main Maltese island. There he wrote several books on Kabbalah, philosophy and grammar.

Abulafia’s career is of surprising contemporary relevance. The newest addition to the Maltese Jewish community is an old man known by all simply as “The Admor.” He claims to be a direct personal descendent of the hermit kabbalist of Malta. He plans to convert Abulafia’s “home” on Comino into a site for world Jewish pilgrimage.

* * * * *
It is hard to exaggerate the importance of the 1565 Great Siege of Malta. For Renaissance Europe, it was Masada, Betar and the Warsaw Ghetto all wrapped up into one battle, with the important difference being that the besieged knights won. Suleiman the Magnificent’s army had marched all the way from Istanbul to the gates of Vienna. But a mere 700 knights of the Order of the Hospitallers, supported by several thousand Maltese auxiliaries, beat off a force consisting of between 30,000 and 50,000 janissaries and other elite soldiers serving the sultan.

Originally set up as a medieval order of knights in Crusader Jerusalem to run a hospital for pilgrims (hence their name), the Hospitallers were in the Holy Land until Acre fell to the Saracens. They moved briefly to Cyprus, and then took up positions in the waters just off Turkey.

They fortified Rhodes and defied the Turks for centuries until, in the early 1500s, their bastion finally capitulated to the sultan. In a sense it was the final showdown of the era of the Crusades. The knights moved their “langues” to the new front line of Christendom, Malta. And, yes, Humphrey Bogart fans, they really did pay the Spanish king an annual “rent” for the island consisting of a falcon, just like in the movie. But it was a live Maltese falcon trained to hunt, not a statue made of gold.

In May 1565 the Ottomans landed on Malta shortly after they had sunk half the fleet operated by the knights in a naval battle off Tunis. The Turks converged on Fort St. Elmo, which later served as a kind of Masada symbol for centuries of Europeans. With its small garrison of defenders, the fortress held out for a month against the Ottomans.

While eventually overrun, the knights and their valiant resistance broke the back of the Ottoman invasion. The sultan lost 8,000 of his best fighters in taking the fort. The rest of the Turkish troops were by then running low on supplies and water. When word came of a relief force of knights arriving from Sicily, the Turks broke and fled back to Istanbul.

The Great Siege was one of the most vicious, but also most decisive, battles in pre-modern European history. Prisoners were brutally massacred by both sides. The 70-year-old grand master of the knights, Jean Parisot de Valette, ordered the wells near the fort poisoned to stop the Ottomans. That poisoning evidently served as the inspiration for a scene in the malicious “Jew of Malta” play, written by Christopher Marlowe, ostensibly about the Great Siege of Malta.

The heroism of the knights in St. Elmo prevented the Mediterranean from being transformed into an Ottoman lake, and probably spared much of Christian Europe from being overrun by the Turks. In addition, it would inspire the Maltese themselves in 1940-43, when Malta was suffered through thousands of bombing attacks by Hitler’s Luftwaffe. The blockaded island played a critical role in interrupting supply lines to Rommel’s Axis forces in North Africa and directly contributed to their defeat. Letters of thanks and homage to the people of Malta written by Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt are engraved into the walls of buildings around the city of Valletta.

Not far from the fort of St. Elmo, a different kind of siege would take place soon after the victory of the knights over the Turks. After the Great Siege, the navy of the Order went prowling for Ottoman ships to plunder, but quickly discovered that kidnapping merchants plying the waters of the Mediterranean was more profitable. And commercial ships at the time carried a particularly large number of Jewish merchants.

Though the treatment of Jews by the knights back at Rhodes had been civil, there was money to be made from capturing Jewish merchants and holding them as slaves until Jewish communities, mainly in Italy, ransomed their release. Thus, not far from Fort St. Elmo, the Jewish slave prison and slave market of Malta were erected.

For many years Malta carried for Jews emotional associations with misery and mistreatment. In Vale of Tears (Emek Habakha), the 16th century historian and physician Joseph Ha-Cohen told the tragic tale of a ship of 70 Saloniki Jews captured and enslaved by the knights. Still nominally under Spanish rule, the Inquisition was also established in Malta after the Great Siege.

A popular Jewish prophesy circulating at the time warned of the demise of four evil regimes, with Malta leading the list. The Malta slave prison and market were closed down only when Napoleon evicted the knights from the island, having stopped there along his route of advance into Egypt and Palestine.

* * * * *
At the beginning of the 20th century, the lone synagogue still active in Malta operated quite literally in the shadows of the Fort St. Elmo defensive outer walls. From 1915 to 1920, the rabbi of Malta was Nissim Ohana, whose granddaughter Pnina happens to be my wife. (I’ve written before about another chapter of his life, when he served as the rabbi of Gaza before World War I. See “My Gaza Roots” -www.jewishpress.com/pageroute.do/39170.)

 

Rabbi Ohana arrived in Malta on a transport ship escorted by two British destroyers due to fears of imminent U-boat attacks. The small Jewish quarter in Malta’s capital city was just a few steps away from the knights’ fortress. It was wartime, and Rabbi Ohana was invited by the British colonial authorities in control of Malta to wear a British officer’s uniform while performing his duties. He tended not only to the needs of the small local Maltese community but also to the Jewish refugees who had reached Malta and even some Jews who were among the prisoners of war held on the island.

Life was not easy. A smallpox epidemic hit Malta in those years and a son of the rabbi perished. At the same time the rabbi’s wife fell seriously ill and was hospitalized in a church hospital serving as the quarantine center. It was Tu B’Shvat 1916. She felt acutely uncomfortable in the ward, which was bedecked with crucifixes and portraits of the Virgin Mary and from which most of the patients were “released” only after dying from the disease.

In her fevered torments that night, the rabbi’s wife dreamed that her father, a noted Jerusalem kabbalist, came into the room dressed in princely attire. In the morning her fever broke and she was sent home in a horse-drawn carriage. But she believed the dream was a sign that her father had just died. The rabbi prohibited mourning, insisting dreams are not a permissible basis upon which to sit shiva.

It was only two years later, with the war was over and communications with the Land of Israel reestablished, that she learned her father had indeed died in Jerusalem the very night of her hospital vision.

In those days Jews on the streets of Valletta were often harassed because they failed to make the sign of the cross when passing through the many intersections displaying Christian statues and symbols. So the Maltese Jews learned to use back alleys to avoid confrontations.

* * * * *
On our visit to the Malta National Library, the librarian did not seem to know what a rabbi was. Her best suggestion about finding documents on Rabbi Ohana was to check the baptism records at the local parish. Shelley Tayar, whose late husband was head of the Jewish community, was more helpful. Well into her 80s, the feisty unofficial archivist for the community told us what she knew about Rabbi Ohana’s days in Malta.

The Tayars (also spelled Tajar; the word means merchant) had migrated to Malta from Libya 200 years ago. Her father-in-law accompanied Rabbi Ohana on his rounds and duties during World War I. Shelley couldn’t take her eyes off my Greek fisherman’s cap, which she insisted made me look exactly like the milkman Tevya. She was also hosting a Brazilian Catholic couple exploring the husband’s Maltese Jewish roots. His grandfather had left Malta for Brazil back in the days when Rabbi Ohana lived in Malta.

The synagogue behind the St. Elmo fortress was moved in 1979, when an entire block of houses was demolished to make room for a road. The current synagogue is located across Marsamxett bay from Valletta and has about 100 congregants. About half of these are members of the Ohayon family. Special candles that burn pure olive oil are lit in the synagogue every day.

Reuben Ohayon, the community’s young acting rabbi and cantor, showed us around the premises, but our special interest was in the furnishings still in use that are remnants from Rabbi Ohana’s era. These include lamps and decorated wooden chairs, including one on which the head of the community sits. There are also several Torah scrolls left from Rabbi Ohana’s days back in the old synagogue. One of those scrolls had been sold to the Jewish Museum of New York to raise money for the community.

But perhaps the most dramatic item we found that had been left behind by Rabbi Ohana was a yad pointer, used for reading the Torah scroll. “This is the yad used by your grandfather,” Ohayon told my wife.

* * * * *
It is late afternoon. We are in the large Hall of the Inquisition in Birgu, across the Grand Harbor from Valletta, near the knights’ fortress of St. Angelo, the fort that was never captured by the Turks during the siege. The building’s dungeon cells are part of the tour, as is the Inquisitor’s Torture Chamber.

I check the time and decide to conduct my own small impudent defiance of the Inquisition, just a few centuries after the fact. I slip into the Inquisitor’s courtyard and daven the afternoon Minchah prayer.

“You see,” Rabbi Nissim Ohana’s granddaughter winks at me as I reenter the building, “in the long run the Inquisition lost and you just won.”

Steven Plaut is a professor at the University of Haifa. He can be contacted at steveneplaut@yahoo.com.

Unanswered Questions

Wednesday, July 16th, 2008

            (This past winter, shortly before Tu B’Shvat, Steven Plaut’s younger brother David, a”h, died suddenly at the age of 53. The following is a text Steven prepared for delivery at a memorial service for his brother in May in New Hampshire, but which he begged off from reading publicly there at the last minute.)

 
There are two characteristics unique to humans in the universe, separating them from the animal kingdom and perhaps also differentiating them from anything in the higher or trans-natural world. One characteristic is well appreciated in Jewish tradition, the other less so.
 
Simply put, humans appear to be the only creatures in the universe who ask questions and also the only beings who laugh.
 
            The uniqueness of human inquisitiveness and curiosity has long been understood in Judaism. Curiosity in the animal world is very unusual and essentially restricted to interest in finding food or mates. Animals do not feel any need to understand “why.” In a realm higher than the earthly, one that transcends the mundane, there would also be no need to ask why, because there the answers would already be known. 
 
Human infants enter the world with a drive to ask why even before they can actually speak. The “why” question is uniquely human, and also one of the most central aspects of Judaism. Consider Passover, in many ways the most important event of the Jewish calendar. The Passover Seder is organized around the asking of why.
 
While the Haggadah’s Four Questions are asked in part to keep the attention of children, this is not their only function. At a Seder where no children are present, it is still a religious commandment to ask the Four Questions, with a designated adult doing the asking. Even if someone is alone for Passover, he must ask himself the questions. One has not fulfilled the religious obligation without asking them.
 
Yet despite the central importance of the questions in the Passover ritual, there is one all-important fact that seems to be almost universally overlooked: No answers are provided to the Four Questions.
 
To be more precise, two of the four get answered in part, while the other two are never answered at all. The text of the Haggadah has no answer to the question about eating while leaning or about dipping the vegetables. There are of course explanations for these, but they are not part of the actual text. More generally, the question about why the night is different from all others is also not explicitly answered, unless one regards the entire Haggadah as a composite indirect answer.
 
Not only do the Four Questions remain unanswered at the end of the Seder, the fact that they went unanswered does not nullify one’s obligation to ask them all over again the following year.
 
In other words, the central religious obligation is the asking of questions, even when they remain unanswered. There is a crucial lesson in this about human existence and the nature of the world. Humans are driven, indeed commanded, to ask, but there is never any guarantee that the questions will ever be answered. Unanswered questions are in a very important sense the very essence of the natural universe.
 
Curiously, attitudes toward unanswered questions also seem to govern philosophical thinking in other areas, especially science. There is the minority school of thought called Intelligent Design, proponents of which see a supernatural guiding hand in the fact that biology cannot explain the origin of life and because there are holes in the theory of evolution. For such people, God’s existence — or at least Intelligent Design — is demonstrated for the world in unanswerable scientific questions. The sharpest critics of Intelligent Design are atheistic scientists who argue just the opposite. They insist the very fact that some unanswered questions have been answered scientifically over time proves that one need not appeal to theology to explain the natural universe.
 
A third point of view might object that every discovery of a scientific answer to a natural mystery raises many new, unanswered questions.
 
Will the unanswered questions multiply in the future like in a Malthus model, rising at a faster rate than the discovery of scientific answers, or will they slow down, allowing humans to someday understand the natural universe? This itself is just one more unanswered question.
 
I suppose the Jewish approach has always been that the Divine is evident not in the failure of science to find answers or, for that matter, in its successes, but rather in the drive to ask the questions. Questioning, whether it results in answers or not, is the manifestation of the Divine in our world.
 
I do not think humans can rationally conceive of a world in which there is a God who allowed the Holocaust to take place. But at the same time we cannot conceive of a universe in which there is no God at all, no Creator, a universe that simply popped out of a space smaller than the head of a pin for no reason and with no cause – the explanation that seems to be the current apogee of scientific thought about the universe and the Big Bang.
 
In other words, humans cannot conceive of the Universe at all. The universe remains a set of unanswered questions, and many may remain unanswered forever. This is all the more true at the levels of individual human existence. We cannot conceive of a universe in which random probability and purposeless mixing of molecules could mathematically produce a human child. Are there reasons for seemingly unconnected events? Is there such a thing as true randomness? What is life? What is death? Will we ever know?
 
Again, the manifestation of the Divine is in the asking of the questions, not in their being answered.
 
The other manifestation of the Divine in human uniqueness — or so it seems to me — is in laughter and humor. The human is the only creature that laughs, that sees funniness in the world and in earthly situations and ideas. And while the written Torah is largely devoid of humor, the Talmud is filled with it, along with sarcasm and even biting satire.
 
Does God have a sense of humor? How could He Not? Could there be an infinite Being incapable of understanding human sensations and insights, unable to grasp what humans themselves see and feel?  How could God not get the joke?
 
This is not to say that God needs to “feel” the humor or to laugh. Maimonides insisted God feels nothing and is beyond feeling, so all discussion of God’s anger, love, impatience, sadness, enjoyment, etc., is at best allegorical, and such terms applied to the Infinite are simply mortal terms of reference to help us understand bits and pieces of the world.
 
If God comprehends human feelings, He must understand humor and laughter. And it follows that humor must serve a Divine purpose. Humor and laughter are uniquely human. If humans are made in God’s image, there must be some humor involved in the engineering of the universe. Its presence in the world must be another manifestation of the Divine spark.
 
And when we appreciate an irony or laugh at a good joke, we are serving a purpose. Medical doctors say laughter improves health and extends life – a finding anticipated by King Solomon who observed, “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine.”
 
How do unanswered questions combine with humor in this world? Perhaps the humor is there to take away some of the frustration at being unable to find answers to questions, to blunt some of the blows. Perhaps the asking of unanswerable questions and  our pleasure in laughter are two manifestations of the quest for human happiness, of the seeking of contentment amid the hardships and bitterness of life.
 
Or must that also remain an unanswerable question?
 

Steven Plaut, a professor at Haifa University, is a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press. His book “The Scout” is available at Amazon.com. He can be contacted at steveneplaut@yahoo.com.

Lefty Blogger Flunks Basic Honesty

Wednesday, March 28th, 2007

Last week a left-wing blogger reacted with some indignation to Steven Plaut’s inaugural post on the new Jewish Press blog (shameless plug #1 – you’ll find The Jewish Press Blog at www.thejewishpress.blogspot.com)

That was the blogger’s right, of course, and the Monitor has no issue with that. The problem was the blogger’s predictably dishonest characterization of The Jewish Press.

After dispensing with the obligatory insult, calling The Jewish Press “America’s trashiest Orthodox Jewish newspaper,” the blogger – no need to give him additional publicity by naming him; that information is available on (shameless plug #2) The Jewish Press Blog – writes that the paper is “renowned for excusing the improprieties of rabbinic child molesters and instead attacking their whistleblowers…”

How dishonest is this blogger? The Jewish Press has never – not once – excused any abuser or molester, rabbinic or otherwise. To the contrary; the paper has for years run articles, columns and features on all manner of abuse in the Orthodox community in the face of a number of cancelled subscriptions and threats of advertiser boycotts by people who don’t think an Orthodox newspaper should publicize such sordid reality.

(It was in response to reader discomfort that the paper several years ago moved articles of that nature into a pullout section so that concerned parents could easily separate it from the rest of the paper.)

The blogger’s disingenuousness is further indicated by his use of a hyperlink when he referred to The Jewish Press’s attacks on whistleblowers – but not when he accused the paper of “excusing…rabbinic child molesters.” The reason for that should be obvious – he couldn’t find any such link.

While the paper has indeed editorialized against granting legitimacy to anonymous accusations and anonymous fliers containing unsubstantiated charges, it has, as noted above, never excused abuse or abusers. But by placing that lie in the same sentence with the hyperlinked reference to our editorial stance against anonymous accusations, the blogger planted the impression in readers’ minds that both statements are accurate.

That this blogger knows better can be ascertained by his own words. Last May, The Jewish Press ran an op-ed piece, written by a concerned New Jersey mother, titled “Education Without Strings.” The article minced no words in criticizing yeshivas on a variety of fronts – including their lack of accountability in hiring teachers with questionable backgrounds. Here’s a relevant section of the piece:

“We are all aware of the current controversies involving teachers with questionable backgrounds – controversies that often include allegations of verbal, physical, and sexual abuse. Why are we exposing our children to teachers who have been accused but not investigated? What if allegations about an individual teacher happen to be true and our children are being abused under our very noses?”

Two days after the article appeared on our website and in our print edition, our friend the blogger posted the following comment on his blog, followed by a link to the article in question:

“My sister…wrote an op-ed in this week’s Jewish Press, which, responding to the recent Kolko controversy, presents a laundry list of concerns from Orthodox parents about how their money’s being spent and who’s being allowed to teach their children…”

Well, who’d have thunk it? Leave aside the delicious irony that the writer of the article happened to be this blogger’s very own sister. Did you notice that the blogger himself made the point that the piece was a response “to the recent Kolko controversy”? And how come he didn’t call The Jewish Press “America’s trashiest Orthodox Jewish newspaper” when he was trumpeting its publication of his sister’s article?

If the blogger were sincere, and even if he knew nothing else about The Jewish Press (which of course he does), just the fact that the paper would feature an article like the one written by his sister should have been enough to disabuse him of any notion that it was interested in whitewashing or “excusing” abuse in the Orthodox community. And her piece was only one of dozens The Jewish Press has run in recent years addressing problems all too many Orthodox Jews would rather ignore.

But what does the Monitor know? When not writing this column, he’s just the senior editor of “America’s trashiest Orthodox Jewish newspaper” (the one that ran the article by the blogger’s sister that the blogger was only too proud to plug) and a contributor to (shameless plug #3) The Jewish Press Blog (www.thejewishpress.blogspot.com).

The Jewish Press Blogs

Wednesday, March 21st, 2007

Thoughts and opinions by Jason Maoz, Shlomo Greenwald, Steven Plaut, Elliot Resnick and Eli Chomsky can now be found at www.thejewishpress.blogspot.com  Come on over and let us know what you think.

Terrorism Without “Occupation”: Some Lessons From The Early Arab Pogroms

Wednesday, May 10th, 2006

The Bash-Israel media and the Arab terrorist amen chorus have been repeating for so many years that Palestinian terrorism and barbarism are caused by Israeli “occupation” that few are still capable of examining that “theory” critically.

The simple fact is that Palestinian terrorism and atrocities against Jews began not only long before Israel “occupied” the West Bank and Gaza, but long before Israel was created. Examining those early waves of violence can shed enormous light on the Middle East conflict even today and help us understand its true nature.

There were waves of attacks against Jews in Palestine throughout the 1920′s – the Jewish population of Hebron was destroyed by Arab terrorists in 1929. Palestine at the time was part of the British Mandate. While a few hundred thousand Arabs lived in there in the 1930′s, it had never been an Arab Palestinian state, and in fact had not been under any form of Arab rule since the Dark Ages.

The worst anti-Jewish atrocities in Palestine were part of a wave of Arab pogroms lasting from 1936 to 1939 and dubbed the “Arab Revolt” by apologists for the terrorism. They were designed to stop immigration to the Land of Israel by Jewish refugees trying to flee a Europe that was coming under the growing shadow of Hitler. During the “Revolt,” between 415 and 463 Jews (depending on the source) were murdered by the Arab pogromists.

The pogroms were aimed at Jewish civilians and sometimes at British colonial forces. They escalated in September 1937, after the British Royal “Peel Commission” made its recommendations. That commission called for a tiny Jewish mini-state and a large Arab state, both to be carved out of Western Palestine. It also called for severe restrictions on further immigration to Palestine of Jewish refugees from Europe. But because it did not rule out Jewish sovereignty and Jewish immigration altogether, which were the minimal demands of the terrorists, the pogrom leaders ordered escalated violence.

At the time, Palestinian Arabs were led by an “Arab High Command” headed by the infamous Grand Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini. The mufti served as chief clergyman in Jerusalem with British approval, even though he had fought against the British in World War I.

Al-Husseini later went on to become Hitler’s ally and point man, assisting Hitler in recruiting Muslims for the German side in World War II.

On May 10, 1941 the mufti broadcast a fatwa (religious ruling) calling for a holy war against the British. It claimed the British had profaned the Al-Aksa mosque and were out to destroy Islam (an allegation reinvented against Israel by more recent Palestinian leaders). In 1943 the mufti was sent to Yugoslavia, where he organized the 13th Waffen SS division, which not only was responsible for the murder of about 90 percent of Bosnia’s Jews but also destroyed numerous Serbian churches and villages.

In his memoirs, the mufti thanked Eichmann and praised him as “gallant and noble.”

Throughout this period the Jews did not “occupy” anything except their own personal property, exercising no sovereignty at all in the Land of Israel. The campaigns of Palestinian terrorism had nothing to do with occupation, because there was no Jewish occupation.

Apologists for the terrorists, like Hebrew University’s pro-Palestinian professor and propagandist Baruch Kimmerling, argue that the violence proves that a “Palestinian nationalism” was emerging in the late 1930′s. In fact, the term “Palestinian” referred at the time to Jews, not Arabs. Palestinian Arab leaders did not begin to demand the right to “self-determination” and statehood until after 1967. When the West Bank and Gaza were occupied by Egypt and Jordan, the Palestinian leadership had no complaints about any “alien occupation” and expressed no desire for self-determination.

Were there no voices of moderation and tolerance among Palestinian Arabs at the time? As a matter of fact, there were. And the story of what became of one of them can help us understand the entire Middle East conflict.

On May 4, a fascinating story related to that era was published for the first time by the dovish Israeli journalist (and filmmaker) Yehuda Litani in Yediot Aharonot, Israel’s leading daily. Litani is well known for

films sympathetic to the mundane problems of Palestinian Arabs.

Back when the mufti was beating

the war drums and organizing mass murders of Jews, it seems that an article was published by a young Palestinian Arab intellectual, Araf al-Asli, age 27, denouncing the mufti, the pogroms, and the violence.

The article appeared in both Hebrew and Arabic leaflets. Titled “The History of the Jews and the Arabs,” its theme was that Jews and Arabs had cooperated in the past, especially during the era of cultural flowering in Muslim Spain. That cooperation had helped make Spain the most advanced civilization of its age, surpassing the rest of Europe in science, literature, and architecture. Indeed, Muslim Spain was the most tolerant regime in all of medieval Europe.

Al-Asli went on to denounce Arab leaders trying to organize violent assaults against Jews and trying to recruit support among Palestinian Arabs for the untrustworthy dictators of the Arab states. He called for cooperation and solidarity with the Jews. He warned the Arabs that if they chose the path of armed conflict with the Jews, rejecting the outstretched hand of the Zionists, the Arabs would lose.

In the midst of the anti-Jewish pogroms, al-Asli was proposing an immediate ceasefire, followed by an alliance with the Zionists that would produce prosperity for Jews and Arabs.

Soon after publication of the essay, terrorists commanded by the mufti kidnapped the dissident, interrogated him, and eventually walled him up inside a cave on Mount Scopus. Meanwhile, al-Asli’s father, a civil servant in Jordan, managed to persuade the mufti to let his son out of the cave. Afraid of antagonizing the Jordanian regime, the mufti allowed the battered son out, but banished him to Lebanon. There al-Asli found work waiting tables and teaching Hebrew to students at the American University of Beirut.

The story was buried for many years until relatives of al-Asli told it to Litani and he published it. The incident shows clearly why so few voices of moderation have ever been heard among the Palestinian Arabs.

The mufti died in 1974, but the al-Husseini family has continued to play a central role in Palestinian terrorism and extremism.

For those who think Middle East terrorism is attributable to Jews “mistreating” and “occupying” Palestinians, nothing can better remove the blinders than studying the 1936-39 period in Palestine.

Steven Plaut, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press, is a professor at Haifa University. His book “The Scout” is available at Amazon.com. He can be contacted at Steveneplaut@yahoo.com.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/opinions/terrorism-without-occupation-some-lessons-from-the-early-arab-pogroms/2006/05/10/

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