Friday, May 27, 2011

Israel by the Numbers

This week’s Torah portion is the portion Bamidbar, is the opening portion of the book of the same name. In the larger world, this fourth book of the Pentateuch is most commonly called, ‘Numbers.’

Numbers are an important concept. Yes, I know…what a brilliant statement, Rabbi! How much of an understatement can I possible make? I remember when my children were very small and started school in England. The teacher explained to us that the twin goals of the first year was “developing literacy and numeracy.” Without ‘numeracy’ – without some mastery of basic mathematics – a person cannot be a competent consumer. Even though my vocation does not require working with numbers, I apply basic math to my life each and every day.

So numbers are important. Let me run some numbers by you.

There is a particular country in the world, a tiny country when compared to the land masses of the world. Its landmass is a mere 20,770 square kilometers. It is called Israel. Israel, as you know, is the world’s one and only Jewish state. That isn’t to say that only Jews live in it. Israel has a total population of 7,746,000 as of May 2011, according to Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics.

Now as you know, this singular country of Israel has an ongoing conflict with a few of its neighbors, the vast majority of whom deny Israel’s right to exist. I’m talking, of course about the Arab world, a vast swath of the earth comprising more than two dozen countries. Only two of those countries – Egypt and Jordan – have formally recognized Israel and concluded peace treaties with her. But one of those, countries, Egypt, has recently entered a period of turmoil and transition. The party which is likely to gain power at the end of this transition – the Muslim Brotherhood – has stated its intention to unilaterally abrogate that peace treaty, when it comes to power. So I’m going to include Egypt in the next stream of numbers that I give you, those measuring the Arab countries that are the enemies of Israel. I’m also not going to separate out a number of countries which, while they haven’t formally recognized Israel, are unexpected to participate in military action against her. I’m talking about countries such as Bahrain – which has a Jewish ambassador to the US – Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. I’m including these countries, which together do not amount to much either in landmass or population, because they do participate in hostilities against Israel: for example, by bankrolling terror against Israel and spreading libel against her through media such as Al Jazeera. The numbers won’t include non-Arab countries hostile to Israel: for example, Iran, a country in the late stages of developing nuclear arms and which has sworn to exterminate not only Israel, but all World Jewry, inshallah. Or Turkey, which used to be a close ally of Israel until an Islamist government gained ascendancy and is now outright hostile. After all, when using numbers one has to draw the line somewhere.

So the total landmass of Arab countries, including the Palestinian territories which may very well be incorporated into another Arab state in the near future, equal 9,049,136 square kilometers compared with Israel’s 20,770 square kilometers. That means that Israel’s landmass is .23 percent that of her Arab enemies. And those same Arab countries have a combined population of 237,224,600 compared with Israel’s population of 7,746,000. That means that Israel’s population is 3.3 percent of that of her Arab enemies. In this case, numbers tell an interesting story…or is it, a frightening story?

But let’s talk about refugees, a hot topic nowadays. The various conflicts and wars of the 20th century and the nascent 21st century have created millions of refugees in the world.

The definition of ‘refugee’ according to the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of refugees of 1951: “…a person who, owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”

Using the above definition, the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) counted 8,400,000 refugees worldwide at the beginning of 2006. This number includes refugees from all the world’s conflicts…except the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The latter’s numbers are compiled by a different agency within the UN: the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNWRA). According to that agency, the number of worldwide refugees from the one group of people – Palestinian Arabs – was 4,600,000 in 2006.

Whoa! One of three refugees in the world today numbers from this one country, a tiny place the size of New Jersey??! 1/3 of the world’s refugees??!

That’s because the UNWRA uses an entirely separate definition of ‘refugee’ than the UNHCA. The UNWRA includes also, and uniquely, the descendants of those who actually left the Mandate of Palestine when about two-thirds of it became Israel in 1948. In fact it counts as a ‘descendant’ anyone who can trace ancestry to those refugees through at least one grandparent.

(By the way, the figure of 4,600,000 is the UNWRA’s figure. Several Palestinian NGO’s insist that the actual number is close to 7,000,000.)

This would mean very little, except that the UN General Assembly considers all who meet this expanded definition of ‘refugee’ to be refugees ; and the UN will consider all claimants who meet this definition to fall under any peace deal requiring repatriation of Palestinian refugees. And the Palestinians about to claim statehood at the September session of the General Assembly, which the General Assembly is sure to endorse, will demand repatriation of any of these number who want to ‘return’ to Israel – not Palestine – as part of any peace deal.

As you can see, any peace deal including the right of return of Palestinian ‘refugees’ would lead to the death of Israel as a Jewish state – by sheer demographgics.

Numbers, my friends. When talking about Israel, they can be a little overwhelming.

But not all the numbers tell a distressing story. There are numbers that tell a story that should make us proud. There are many numbers that fall into this latter category, but I want to mention only one set.

Let’s return to the population of Israel. As I said, it stands at 7,746,000. Of those, only 5,818,200 are Jewish – about 75 percent. And what about the other one quarter of the population? The vast majority of them are Arabs, citizens of the Jewish state with all rights including the franchise. The latter has resulted in Arabs holding seats in every Knesset – the Israeli parliament – since the founding of the state. In the current 18th Knesset, Arabs hold 14 of the 120 seats. Eleven of those ministers belong to distinctly Arab parties; the other three belong to ‘Jewish’ parties Israel Beiteinu, Labor, and Likud.

These numbers tell a very different story, one of an open and free society in tiny, embattled Israel. A society that is free to all its inhabitants. A country that is under siege by a hostile world 400 times its size in terms of landmass, and with a population 30 times the size of its own. Yet despite this, Israel ensures equal rights to its Arab population. Even though Israelis might with some validity fear their own Arab population as at least a potential ‘fifth column,’ they trust in their democratic principals to extend full rights of citizenship to their Arab residents.

This is why the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, received such a warm and resounding welcome this week when he addressed a joint session of the US Congress. The sense that this tiny, embattled country represents our counterpart in its part of the world, our one true partner in bringing stable democracy to a bad ‘neighborhood’ of the world. The warmth for Netanyahu transcended party lines; both Democrat and Republican members of Congress gave him numerous standing ovations.

President Obama, in contrast, received Netanyahu in a decidedly frosty atmosphere last week; this after – some say – blindsiding him in his speech at the State Department the day before. One wonders why the Congress is so friendly and affirming toward the leader of the Jewish state, while our president is not very friendly at all. I’m not here today to present my thoughts on the matter, just to repeat others’ observations and leave the question up to you.

Israel by the numbers. It is easy to be left worrying by some of the numbers, and we should worry. Some of the numbers just make one proud. We should be proud.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Busy Day...

...for writing today! A new essay on "Messianic Judaism," posted on my website rather than here. ( Enjoy!

Men of Honor

Tonight, our sanctuary is fuller than usual for the occasion of the Oneg being sponsored by our Temple Brotherhood. It warms my own heart to see the current resurrection of Brotherhood, which has limped along for a few years, even going completely inactive for awhile. Religion in general, and Judaism in particular, struggles to provide a unique place for men. It is difficult to give today’s man a significance and appreciation of his role – in religious life, but more importantly in today’s family. Many of the social ills that beset our society today can be understood to have their roots in the absence of men from so many families, from the lives of so many children. This does not at all belittle the important role of women. It does, however refute the notion, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” The slogan, and the mindset behind it, is patently wrong. Men and women need one another: as partners in life and in particular for raising children and creating strong and enduring families. That we have a re-emerging Brotherhood only bodes well; it says that the men of Temple Beit Torah are now reaching for the significance that they know is their destiny, that the congregation needs for them to have. They are working to be, to become, Men of Honor.

Men of Honor. There was a movie by that name; perhaps you remember it? It was about the career of a remarkable man, a man named Carl Brashear, played in the film by Cuba Gooding. Mr. Brashear was a career Navy man, a Master Chief Boatswain’s Mate, a Master Diver. That in and of itself is a significant accomplishment, but Brashear’s accomplishment is more notable for two other facts.

First, he was the first black man to enter the Navy diving community, in 1954. He faced significant opposition from the entrenched majority which he overcame through pure grit and hard work.

Second, Brashear lost a leg to amputation after a diving accident in 1966, an accident that would have left most men happy to escape with their lives and accept a disability retirement. But not Brashear; he insisted on not only remaining on active duty but on returning to diving. He fought a long and hard battle to do so: first with the Navy to be re-instated in his field, then with himself to build his strength and stamina so that he could again wear the heavy dive gear.

Brashear succeeded, and in 1970 as an amputee he actually achieved the coveted designation of Master Diver. He retired from the Navy as a Master Chief Petty Officer after 31 years’ service in 1979. Then he served a second career for the Navy as a civilian, from which he retired as a GS-11 in 1993.

Carl Brashear was what some would call a completely ordinary guy, but at his heart he was anything but ordinary. His achievements he won against what some would call insurmountable odds, displaying throughout his life an incredible degree of pluck and resilience. He was born in 1931, a son of Kentucky sharecroppers. He never attended high school. He first enlisted in the Navy in 1948. He entered a military that President Truman had just de-segregated by executive order although it was still very much segregated. Brashear had two maxims in his life. The first was: “It’s not a sin to get knocked down; it’s a sin to stay down. The second was: “I ain’t gonna let nobody steal my dream.” We can overlook the grammatical incorrectness of a man who only completed grade school, and celebrate the motivating philosophies of this great man.

Carl Brashear exemplifies the results of following the advice that I’ve given from this very pulpit. You know which advice: Get Over It. When I think of Brashear’s life, I feel entirely unworthy by comparison to give such advice. But since Brashear has left this world and is unlikely to ascend this pulpit, it’s left for me to give it.

It was unfortunate that Brotherhood died. Some of our men have been grousing about it. But a small group of our men, led by Mark Van Bueren and Dane Spirio, adopted an attitude of Get Over It and brought Brotherhood back to life. We celebrate this achievement tonight. But more than that. Let’s use the resurrection of Brotherhood as an occasion to adopt, a spirit of Get Over It in responding to life’s hard knocks. This should be operative in our personal lives, but we should also put it into practice as we function as members of various groups. The congregation is going to hard times? Stop grousing; in a spirit of Get Over It, join in the effort to vault it over and past its financial woes. Our nation is going through hard times? You get the picture.

“It’s not a sin to get knocked down; it’s a sin to stay down.” Let’s adopt this maxim, this mindset of the late Carl Brashear. It will only be to our benefit. It will goad us on to great achievements.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Celebrate Away!

There is a truism that we always remember where we were and what we were doing when we heard about certain pivotal events. Those who were around on the day of the assassination of President Kennedy, for example, remember where, when and how they received word. I was only a very small child in first grade in Queens, New York on that day, but I remember a sudden change in the school schedule, with an assembly being called at the end of the day to inform us of the events in far-away Dallas before dismissing us for the weekend. I have a similarly vivid memory of where I was and what I was doing when I heard about a much more recent event – the attacks on our country on September 11th, 2001.

I’m sure that many of you experienced one of those ‘pivotal events,’ as I did, last Sunday night, the First of May, 2011. I was sitting on the sofa downstairs in the family room, listening to the TV. I say ‘listening’ because I was soaking my eye with a warm compress and had my glasses off. Geraldo Rivera was on the tube, interviewing someone about something; I was paying scant attention. Then, suddenly Rivera’s voice went up an octave as he stopped in mid-sentence and began talking about the killing of Osama Bin Laden. This will be one of those moments etched in time for me; glasses off and the TV all fuzzy in front of me, and all of a sudden a clarity as reportage of the raid on that compound in Pakistan began to unfold.

I was happy, to be sure. Why would one cry crocodile tears over the death of such an evil man as Bin Laden? Even so, I was impressed when President Obama came on TV a while later, that he effected a serious and semi-somber tone. This, although I did imagine that the corners of his mouth were tending to curl upward as he made the announcement. But when I saw the video images of the crowds that had spontaneously gathered in front of the White House and in Times Square and at Ground Zero, celebrating jubilantly, I did feel some sense of disdain. Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, Proverbs 24 admonishes us. I cannot count the times I have heard that scripture quoted, or quoted it myself.

I’ve thought about that admonition quite a few times over this week as I’ve contemplated the reality that is the evil Bin Laden unleashed. I’ve thought about it as I’ve gone about my business in the days since Sunday. I’ve thought about it as I’ve seen everywhere faces full of new hope. Even in the cell blocks of the ‘Supermax’ prison in Florence, Colorado, where I went for my monthly visit with Jewish inmates, I noticed a more upbeat mood than usual. This, among the inmates as well as the staff!

I realize that this new hope, this jubilation at the killing of Bin Laden, is far more than gloating over the death of a bad man. It is an affirmation that, in addition to Evil, there is also Good in this world…and sometimes, Good wins. It is the same rejoicing that we experience – rightly so – when a serial rapist, or child molester, or murderer, is caught and brought to justice. We grouse when we see injustice; why shouldn’t we rejoice when we see justice?

On Monday night I received a mass e-mail from ‘Rabbi’ Michael Lerner, the publisher of the Jewish magazine Tikkun. In it, he cautioned us from rejoicing over the death of Bin Laden. He invoked the act we perform in the Passover Seder, spilling a drop of wine for each of the Ten Plagues visited upon the Egyptians. Just as our joy over our own deliverance is tempered by knowledge of the suffering of others, we should stifle any jubilation we may feel over the death of Bin Laden. So Lerner wrote, and he was not the only Jewish voice to express such sentiments. On Monday, Rabbi Shmueley Boteach posted similar sentiments in his blog on the Huffington Post.

Of course, in recent days I also heard the voices of a number of Christians who reminded their community of the admonition of Jesus that one must love one’s enemy. Rabbi Boteach reminds us that Judaism makes no such demand. He wrote the following:

Judaism stands alone as a world religion in its commandment to hate evil. Exhortations to hate all manner of evil abound in the Bible and G-d declares His detestation of those who visit cruelty on His children. Psalm 97 is emphatic: "You who love G-d must hate evil." Proverbs 8 declares, "The fear of the Lord is to hate evil." Amos 5 demands, "Hate the evil and love the good." And Isaiah 5 warns, "Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil." And concerning the wicked, King David declares unequivocally, "I have hated them with a perfect hatred. They are become enemies to me." (Psalm 139) Hatred is a valid emotion, the appropriate moral response, to the human encounter with inhuman cruelty. Mass murderers most elicit our deepest hatred and contempt.

Even so, Boteach went on to invoke the spilling of wine for the Egyptians at the Passover Seder, as well as the aforementioned admonition of Proverbs 24, as well as the Talmud’s rebuke of the people Israel dancing over the demise of the Egyptians in the Red Sea, to caution us against rejoicing over the death of Bin Laden.

By the time I read all this, I had long since gotten over the initial disdain I’d felt toward the celebrants on the night of Sunday, the First of May. I had decided that they’d been right in following their instincts to spontaneously express their joy. The death of Osama Bin Laden is something over which to rejoice. For how many deaths has this man been responsible? Thousands directly, and many thousands more indirectly. We should spill out drops of wine for Bin Laden’s victims, not for him. Remember, at the Passover Seder we’re acknowledging the suffering of the Egyptians brought upon them by their ruler, the Pharaoh. We’re not crying for the fate of Pharaoh himself.

Rather than mute our celebration at the demise of one who caused so much evil, we should express solidarity with his victims. Our tears should be for the victims of evil, not its perpetrators. If we expressed a uniform regret at the loss of any human life, we would be in the position of equating an evil person with his victim. That for me is the supreme irony of the statement of Federico Lombardi, a spokesman for the Vatican. On Monday, he declared: “A Christian never rejoices in the death of any man, no matter how evil.” So for a Christian – at least according to this view – the value of one life is the same as another. I wonder how many Christians really believe this? Probably more than a few, since many Jews believe this also.

But the absurdity of this concept – that we should mourn the death of the evildoer just as we mourn the death of his victim – seems incredibly ironic in that it was published on Yom Hashoah, the day on which we memorialize the victims of the Holocaust. While not having been around then, I can’t imagine having felt anything other than jubilation at the news of Hitler’s death or that of the surrender of Germany in 1945.

What I’m trying to say, dear Jews, is that if you felt any sense of elation upon hearing the news of the demise of Osama Bin Laden, you needn’t feel any shame whatsoever. No, your happiness only indicated a moral clarity that enabled you to differentiate between an evil man and his victims. You should be proud that you possess such clarity. If that clarity enabled you to spontaneously rejoice – even loudly shouting U-S-A, U-S-A! then I hope you enjoyed the emotional release. It’s okay to celebrate raucously upon reading in the Megillah of Esther on Purim of the downfall of the evil Haman. So too it would have been okay to join the raucous crowds in New York, Washington and elsewhere on Sunday night in celebrating the downfall of an evil man. Or, to quietly say a shehecheyanu, as I did.

We don’t spill ten drops of wine over the death of Hitler, and we certainly shouldn’t do so over Bin Laden. We might spill wine, or simply express solidarity, with the people of Afghanistan whom Bin Laden and his allies the Taliban imprisoned in a prison of medieval hate.

I actually had an opportunity to do that in a very small way on a trip to New York in December, 2001. I was wandering around Times Square looking for a place to eat when on a side street I spied an Afghan kabob restaurant. Still wearing my Air Force uniform after the trip from Colorado, I marched in and sat down. It was a small place; the somewhat flabbergasted owner walked over to my table and stood over me with a questioning look on his face.

“It’s not your fault,” I told him, referring to his native country’s providing a base for Al Qaida. “Hopefully, this scourge will pass soon.”

I don’t remember the name of that little restaurant off Times Square where I ate that night. I do, however remember the smiles of the owner and the delicious kabobs I ate. And of course, that brings to mind the old joke about the common theme that runs through many Jewish holidays: They tried to kill us all, they didn’t succeed, let’s eat.

Bin Laden is dead. Let’s celebrate without guilt.