Tuesday, May 31, 2011

We Need a Little Winston!

Gaza – a narrow strip along the Mediterranean, bordering Egypt on one end with Israel all along its flank. Its connotations have never been anything but ugly. Dr. H. the linguist can tell you that the Hebrew root behind “Gaza” is Az, meaning “strong,” though it can also refer to “arrogance” (as in Proverbs 21:29). We can also transliterate it as Oz … Has anybody seen Dorothy, Toto, or that feisty wizard? 
In antiquity it was the home of the Philistines, descendants of the “Sea Peoples” who invaded the region (known as the Levant by demographers) from western lands. Biblical references are entirely negative. Joshua was said to have “smitten” the evil Canaanites as far as Gaza, and Samson pursued his shenanigans there, meeting up with a certain lady of ill repute. Jeremiah went as far as to prophesy that Gaza’s inhabitants are to be stricken with baldness! (I’m looking in vain for bald Gazans in the news footage; can anybody help?) 
The Romans, who experienced their share of grief from their unruly Jewish subjects, once tried to obliterate every trace of Jewishness from the land called “Israel” by renaming it “Palestina” in Latin, after the long-vanished Philistines. That’s the origin of the word “Palestinian.” A made-up name for a made-up land, now claimed by a made-up people, whom history had known as Ottomans, Egyptians, Mamelukes, and a host of other nationalities. There has never in history been a Palestinian nation or a Palestinian people. In fact, Jews immigrating to the Middle East in the early 20th Century called themselves “Palestinians.”
Now, however, we are told that this “Palestine” must be recognized as a legitimate, sovereign nation, and Spain has just gone on record as declaring that it will recognize the new state even before the United Nations votes on Palestinian recognition in September. Importantly, just over the weekend, Egypt decided to open the Rafah crossing with Gaza. A great humanitarian move, consistent with the “Arab Spring,” right? Think again. Israel fears that a torrent of terrorists, with their weapons, missiles, and nasty materials for bomb-making will come across the border as well. Do we wonder whom the missiles will be aimed at? As a former resident of Israel’s border city of Kiryat Shmona, I know exactly what it’s like to fear rockets landing in the town square … or on the building you’re living in. 
“Baldness has come upon Gaza!” thundered Jeremiah. With the U.N. poised to add another nation to its roster (one dominated by Hamas and bent on annihilation of the Jewish state), I’m not even sure Rogaine will be of assistance! Yep, baldness has come upon Gaza, and blindness has come upon the world. BELIEVE IN YOURSELF, Israel. Hang tough. Desperate times are coming, but you’ve been there before. Leaving behind another Memorial Day, it’s good to remember Winston Churchill’s classic radio address during the darkest days of the Nazi blitz: “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day Musings: “Not by Might…”

People love to quote the biblical prophets, especially if they have a traditional “religious” mindset. Having grown up in a religious environment, I used to hear people slinging Scripture all the time, mostly to let us know we weren’t not praying enough! Just start quoting those obscure “minor” prophets, and you’d feel the mystical vibes… “This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: 'Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,' says the LORD of Hosts’” (Zechariah 4:6). Of course nobody knew who the heck Zerubbabel was, but that didn’t matter as long as you felt “spiritual.” It was supposed to mean that whatever you came up against in life, if you just rely on God (exactly how you do that was a mystery), it would all work out. Or, as my grandmother famously said, “It’ll all come out in the wash!” Well, the Judaica professor (Dr. H.) has some news for you. This particular passage isn’t about your personal experience, your spirituality, or what you “feel” day by day. It’s about one little piece of turf along the eastern Mediterranean called Eretz Yisrael (that’s the “Land of Israel” as we pronounce it in Hebrew) and those who defend it against the multitudinous threats to its existence. 
Here’s the background. The ancient kingdom of Judah (founded – for better or for worse – by the mighty David) had been conquered, back in 586 BCE (“before the Common Era”) by the Babylonians (under King Nebuchadnezzar). The great Temple, built by Solomon, had been burned to the ground, the Ark of the Covenant most likely destroyed with it. Its people had been sent into exile, far to the east. Yet, inexplicably, they would not and did not assimilate, disappearing into the surrounding population. Rather, they clung to their ancient traditions more fervently than ever. “Judaism” was born, ironically, as a child of exile. Some seventy years later, their descendants, along with a few of the original flock of now-elderly exiles, came home! It was all thanks to a new regional ruler (the emperor Cyrus of Persia), who graciously adopted a foreign policy that favored minorities, including Jews, and encouraged their return to their ancestral homeland. 
But the liberated Israelites discovered soon enough that returning home was only “Step 1.” They faced formidable enemies round about, especially the relatively new kids on the block, the Samaritans. The Jewish governor in those days, Zerubbabel (meaning shoot of Babylon), soon realized he had a lot on his plate. How do you rebuild a ruined city, build a wall to enclose it, and erect a new, Second Temple, when your enemies are closing in and your people are apathetic? You can of course arm your builders. The book of Nehemiah describes those building the walls as laboring with a spade in one hand and a sword in the other! (Nehemiah 4:17). But even that won’t do the trick. You really have to believe in “the cause,” whatever your cause happens to be. And you have to match it with focused action. 
The prophet’s words are as relevant today as they were back then. You can have a formidable arsenal up your sleeve; the modern state of Israel certainly does. But all the weaponry isn’t enough. You need “spirit” – the Hebrew word ruakh. It really means “wind” or “breath,” which may sound mystical, though it’s as biologically essential as respiration. Ruakh is solidarity. Ruakh is courage. It’s that indefinable something inside that breeds heroism in the face of overwhelming odds. That’s what Zerubbabel’s Israel had to have, and it’s what modern Israel desperately needs. After all, I witnessed it myself, living as I did in northern Galilee, and working with a television news gathering outfit. 
So there I was on the border of Lebanon, chatting with Israeli soldiers heading into “enemy territory” to chase down terrorists and their ilk. Like soldiers in any army, their talk was full of slang, cynicism and complaint. “Where’s your Zionism?” I asked. “WHAT ZIONISM?” was the only response I got. I never forgot those pathetic words! People need to believe in their cause, or they’re toast! Today’s Israelis need a good dose of ruakh, because if they don’t believe in themselves, nobody else is going to carry water for them. Let the United Nations rage all they want; let Richard Goldstone declare them guilty of human rights abuses against the “poor Palestinians.” Let the president of the United States tilt American foreign policy away from its best friend in the region. What Israel needs is not to convince the world of anything. Israel needs to convince itself! As the ancient Jewish sage Hillel once asked rhetorically, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” Believe in yourself, Israel, and the world will follow. If you have to find a “spiritual” application in all of this, all right, Dr. H. will allow it. The fact is, the same holds true for everyone, individually. BELIEVE IN YOURSELF; the world will follow… #fb http://bit.ly/mygC6r 

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Dr. H. Weighs In

It seems particularly appropriate in these days of the "new media" to communicate various "issues" and "insights" from my multifarious journeys and "adventures" (notorious world traveler that I am) to the legions of "inquiring minds" in cyberland. After all, I've not only lived in the Middle East, but worked in war-torn Lebanon with a television news gathering operation, witnessed the reality of middle eastern terrorism, and been on-hand, in country (Israel that is), during some of the most tumultuous debates of the last several decades. So, let the blogging begin!