Saturday, December 30, 2006

In The Beast's Face

First, I want to thank everyone who has made the first three days of Breath of the Beast such a rocket sled ride. It is so reassuring that there are so many intelligent, open minded and articulate people raising the alarm at the approach of The Beast.

Before I get into the meat of this post here is some clarification about the first post and the blog in general- I have had questions about a couple of things:

1. How is my daughter? My daughter is now an accomplished young woman of intelligence and spirit she is fine and not, thank God, a victim of any kind.

2. Am I referring to Islamist totalitarianism as The Beast? Yes, I am talking mostly about what we often call “Islamofascism” but The Beast has many forms and can be found at the heart of many other kinds of systems as well. I am referring to all of the totalitarianisms and fascist states large and small that have ever existed. This includes social systems as small and limited as the family of an abusive alcoholic to that exemplar of totalitarian madness, Nazi Germany, the old Soviet Union, Iraq as it was under Saddam Hussein (let’s not forget that he was a Baathist not an Islamist), The Palestinian Authority (which has some secularist elements and some Islamist ones) and Present day North Korea. They all take common cause against us (The U.S., Israel, The U.K. and other western democracies that still have the stomach to stand up for Western Civilization and our ideals. We have to stand up to the Beast of Totalitarianism in all its forms because whatever its, ideological or religious pretext, it recognizes us as its natural enemy. We don’t even have to actively oppose it, you see, the simple fact that we value the free exchange of ideas in a context where we honor the past and accept the change of a free and better future, is an insult and a danger to the stagnant repression inside it. We see it as a detached and insular reality while it sees us as a constant danger. It must vilify and try to destroy us at all costs and at any opportunity. Unless we understand this, it will get us before we even realize it wants to.

It is our responsibility, each and every one of us, to share our knowledge of the Beast so that we can prevent it from sneaking up on us. In my first post I shared with you my first encounter – Here is my second one.

For some years my wife had told me that I was the oldest Jewish man in my home town who had never visited Israel. Although I doubted that this was really the case, let's just grant it for the purpose of the story I am about to tell you.
If it was true, it is no longer, because I finally went for a visit a few years ago- at the height of the first intifada. Before I left, because of the previous year and a half's terror and confusion, many of my friends and family asked me the same question – "Why now?" I had no ready answer except that I felt that it was the right time. I have given a lot of thought to this question during my week there. I went as one of the two hundred and eighty people in a Solidarity Mission sent by the Greater Boston Jewish Community. I wondered if I would find a clearer answer in Israel.

We had organized visits with and heard speeches from many prominent Israelis from government, media and academia and we managed a fair amount of sightseeing as well. The holy sites and antiquities would have been enough reason to go. The dignitaries were all impressive and many were absolutely inspiring. There were also genuinely touching ceremonial occasions. One of these had us visiting a kindergarten where black children from Ethiopia, dark Asiatic Azerbaijani and blond, blue-eyed Uzbeki children played and learned Hebrew and Jewish traditions together. Another took us to a hospital where we met doctors and nurses who worked to save lives on both sides of the conflict with equal zeal and bravery. The most emotional ceremony brought us into contact with the simple courage and modesty of the soldiers; many of them still nursing wounds, to whom the CJP contributed scholarships. The scholarships were intended to compensate in some way for the time that these student-soldiers lost when they were taken from their universities during the last call-up of the reserves.

Any one of those experiences would have more than justified the tiny risk involved in a visit to Israel; but they didn’t really address that original question “Why now?” It was in serendipitous one-on-one conversations with regular Israelis though, that I found the most compelling reason that now is the time to visit.
I had the good fortune to visit with two Israeli families in their homes while I was there. The first visit was as part of the CJP-sponsored tour. Four Americans from the tour were assigned to each of dozens of volunteer families who invited us into their homes for an evening. The Boston CJP arranged for these visits so that we could be part of the ongoing “sister city” program of personal and organizational contact between Boston and Haifa. My other home visit in Israel was with old friends who live on the border with Lebanon. Many of us on the trip spent some time with family, friends, acquaintances or friends of friends who were so happy to have visitors that the only question of personal safety that any of us experienced on this trip was that we might have been in danger of being killed with kindness or forced to eat ourselves to death on the wonderful and unbelievably abundant hospitality of our hosts.

I know Rikki and Shimon because they had been close friends of my wife when she lived in Israel years ago. Cathy lived in Israel for twelve years and since she came back to the states has lost touch with many of her friends from those days, but Rikki and Shimon have been good and constant friends. They have accepted me as a friend too and they have stayed with us a couple of times on visits to the US. They live on the Kibbutz of Rosh HaNikra which is set on the side of a mountain. The top of this mountain is the place where the border of Lebanon comes across the crest of a ridgeline and plunges down the western side to meet the Mediterranean Sea. That last precipitous drop-off is actually a blazing white chalk cliff.

That dazzling white cliff, the flat sweeping curve of the beach that runs away toward the south and the ancient port of Akko, the shimmering sea to the west and the craggy mountains and hills to the north and east, make Rosh HaNikra a startlingly beautiful place. Right there, where all of this natural beauty comes together, the kibbutz community nestles into the flank of the mountain with a view that rivals anything else in the world.

Unfortunately, you are never the only one enjoying the view. At the summit of the mountain, two observation towers stand cheek-to-cheek bellied right up against the border. One on either side, they are positioned slightly offset to each other so that each can see beyond the other into the territory behind it. One tower is manned by Israeli soldiers and the other by Hizbollah terrorists. Although, back then, things were relatively quiet along that border, an occasional rocket attack would find it’s way across from the Lebanon side. Just that past March, a pair of Hizbollah terrorists had infiltrated across the border dressed in Israel Defense Force uniforms. They set themselves up on a hill that commands a clear view of a road intersection that all of the civilian (and none of the military) traffic uses to get to and from the kibbutzim in the area. They waited until mid-day when they could be sure that military patrols and most men would be out of the area and then began shooting at cars traveling along the road. Before the real Israel Defense Force arrived, they murdered two women, two men and a fifteen-year-old girl who lived on a nearby kibbutz.

Gal is Shimon and Rikki's daughter. She is a lovely fifteen-year-old with a sweet smile and a wonderful command of English. If you ran into her on any street in the US, at first glance, she would be indistinguishable from any other smart, well-brought-up youngster over here. She gave up her bedroom for me to sleep in for the night – graciously insisting over my objections. She was just as welcoming and generous as her parents and all of the other Israelis I met over there. As I bent down to put my bags on the bed in her room, I glanced out the window and saw those two towers silhouetted against the darkening evening sky. Just a few hundred yards up the slope, the Hizbollah Tower seemed to be craning its neck past the Israeli tower to get a better look at me.

At one point during our dinner together, Rikki and Shimon got up to get (even more) food while Gal and I kept chatting. At one point she looked at me very seriously and said, "You were not afraid to come?" I smiled. Here was a young woman who woke up every morning literally under the guns of a group who, if not for the Israelis in the other tower, would gladly murder her just for the sake of the political statement. I suddenly felt like laughing. I truthfully hadn't given the dangers much of a thought until I had seen the tower through her bedroom window. Now she watched me as I framed my answer and I could see that she had a maturity and judgment impossible (and, thankfully, unnecessary) for most American teens.
"No," I said quietly, but with a conviction and confidence that surprised me a little. "I wasn't. Besides,” I said, hoping that the bravado was understated enough, “statistically, the most dangerous time in this whole trip was the plane ride." Gal gave a solemn little nod of the head to this.

I wondered why she didn’t ask the obvious next question – "So why don’t more come?” Tourism was down 85% in Israel compared to two years before. This is a devastating blow to a country that is also suffering economically from the same recession that has affected the U.S. She didn’t ask though. It seemed enough for her to know that I was there and that I didn’t feel it was any big deal.

The memory of her beautiful, serious face stays with me. As does the visit that I had had the night before that with my randomly selected family in Haifa. Yaacov and Miri Broder, like my friends Rikki and Shimon, are hard-working people who are devoted to their family first of all. They have four children who are obviously the center of their lives. The kids go to private school from the slightly cramped but beautifully kept apartment that Miri says a little defensively is "all we can afford because the school is so expensive." Only a total ignoramus could miss the richness of the life they give their kids and the warmth of their devotion to them. It came up that Yaacov is the son of, as he says, "a Schindler Jew." Once again, in a trip of constant wonders, the whole focus of the world seemed to shift. Here we were having dinner with a family that, but for the righteousness of an odd but courageous man a half a century in the past, would not have existed- not that solid, friendly Yaacov nor his vibrant, children. Without Schindler it is certain none of them would have ever existed.

Yaacov had also spoken of the time that Schindler visited his classroom when he was a child in school. At the end of his visit, one of the other children asked him why he did what he did and risked his life to save those 1200 Jews. Yaacov tells with a matter-of-fact smile how Schindler did not hesitate, but said “This is not a good question. The real question is why so many others did not do anything to save anyone.”

I understood then that I needed that trip and these revelations more than the Israelis needed me. Oh yes, it was a good thing for them to have me there; and the money I spent there helped the economy in some small way. The real change that was made, however, was in me. The miracle of that trip to Israel is that I went with the self-important view that I was doing something important for the Israelis first and getting a trip to Israel in the bargain. As it turned out I got far more out of it than Israel did. I got to take part in something important and beautiful. I got to see myself in a new way; and I also got just a fleeting glimpse into what it is like to live gracefully with courage and with memory. I would never have seen the people that Iran, Syria and their toadies in Hizbollah and Hamas have sworn to exterminate.

But most of all, I would not have been able to do that that infinitesimal but critical act of “being there” for Gal and Yaacov and all of the other Israelis I met. In being there for them I was also, in my small way, tweaking that Beast on the other side of the wire. The Israelis hold it at bay but it is up to the rest of the world to bury the beast in our myriad of tiny acts of being there. The Beast knows we are there and our very presence weakens it just a little with each act of freedom.

So, now, while Ahmadinejad prepares his Nuclear weapons and Iran replenishes Hizbollah’s stockpiles of missiles, now is a good time to go to Israel and let our friends, families and our heroes see our faces. Now is the best and most important time to go there and let this beautiful generous country throw its arms around you with gratitude. Now is the essential time for Christians, Jews and anyone else who would make themselves just a little bigger and better by standing up to The Beast to take a trip to Israel. It is more important now than it has ever been to go to Israel and be renewed by returning to the holy land where the Judeo-Christian tradition was born.
Then, when your friends and family ask you, “why now?” I want you to tell them this: “This is not a good question!” and then you should ask them “Why aren’t you going?”

Reminder: Send Me Your Stories! Let's start a community of awareness!

Thursday, December 28, 2006

My First Encounter With The Beast

We always get a warning that is clear and unequivocal when evil is stalking us. It is up to us to notice. Warnings are all too easy to dismiss. It is a grave responsibility to pay heed to real warnings. It seems so much easier to convince yourself that the warning is not for you, or that the danger is remote and small.
When Hitler, for example, wrote Mein Kampf, in 1925. He left no doubt as to his intentions. The world dismissed the book as the ravings of a mad man. When he got his opportunity to reach power ten years later, much of the world was surprised that he actually did what he said he would. If they had believed him in the first place and acted on that knowledge with resolution and intelligence millions of lives could have been saved.
The good news is that all you have to do is pay attention, believe what you see and hear and have the strength not to deny it. Evil will almost always inform you of its presence and intentions. I was given a very personal warning twenty-five years ago by a particularly profound form of evil. That evil presence has grown and prospered in the world since then. It has grown and become powerful and menacing and yet, even today, in spite of incontrovertible evidence of its existence many people find it altogether too easy to deny.
Back in the early eighties my young family and I lived next door to an Iranian family. They were nice, friendly people. Hamid (not his real name) was a physician who was just starting out in his own practice. His wife, Haideh was also Iranian born. She was a mathematician. She taught at a local college. We moved in to brand new houses just months apart and shared the rigors of nurturing lawns where there had been only bulldozer tracks. We cooperated in the planting of trees and shrubs to define the empty expanses between our new homes. We borrowed tools from each other. Hamid and I played tennis often and even discussed the possibility of building a tennis court in the flat spot where our lots met. Our children played together and his son, Amir and my daughter Amy became very close friends. The two of them were barely more than toddlers when they first met but were soon talking about getting married the way little ones sometimes do when they find a close companion of the opposite sex.
The next summer, they went back to Iran to visit with their families. We were afraid for our friends. We knew the country was in turmoil. They were gone for several weeks. For much of the time my Amy’s days were occupied with day camp but she still missed her friend. They finally returned a week before school. The two seemed to pick up right where they had left off.
It was a sunny Sunday morning and Amy went out right after breakfast and met Amir in his backyard. We watched as they began to play and turned away to read the Sunday paper. We were surprised when Amy came back inside a short while later. She walked by us with her head down and started up the stairs to her room. We had expected to have to call her in for lunch so it was odd that she came back so early. I called after her and asked her what was wrong. She told me how little 5-year-old Amir had matter-of-factly informed my innocent 5-year-old daughter that because she is a Jew it is his duty to kill her.
I went right over to talk with my friend and neighbor. Hamid was deeply embarrassed. He hastened to explain that: “Over there, the radio and TV were full of that kind of thing - you simply couldn’t avoid it. He assumed that Amir had heard this kind of thing on the radio or TV because no one in his family believed such things. He was sure, he told me, that now that Amir was back here he would soon forget it. He assured me that he would talk with Amir and was sure that the boy didn’t even understand what he was saying.
I could see how distressed he was and told him that I understood and that I appreciated his concern. We looked at each other and shook hands and patted each other on the shoulder. I was sure that it would not change things between our families.
Remember that this was twenty years before September 11, 2001. It was a few years after the fall of the Shah so, before they had left, I had actually wondered if his kids were going to be exposed to anti-American rhetoric and how that would sit with them. It had never entered my mind though to expect the anti-Semitic to be the dominant theme. Back then many of us believed the myth of the benevolent caliphate and the benign toleration of “Dhimmis” under Muslim rule. After all, I mused, Iran was at war with Iraq. And Israel had recently bombed the Osirac reactor thereby preventing Iraq from developing nuclear weapons.
In the light of everything that has transpired since then, it now seems hopelessly naïve of me but in the dim light of that historical moment I was amazed that what had surfaced first from this child’s sojourn in his homeland was genocidal anti-Semitism. As I lay awake in bed that night I found I couldn’t get the event out of my mind. The idea that a child could have such an idea in his head was staggering by itself. What kind of madness had he been exposed too? What infernal clatter of hatred and fear was there in the streets and media over there that could make it possible for a five year old say such a thing?
I recalled the pictures from the nightly news reports on the recently ended hostage ordeal that always seemed to show dense, agitated crowds of shirt-sleeved young men with posters and bullhorns. For all that it was fascinating, the violent rhetoric and the frenetic seemed somehow so unconnected to me – motivated by such an alien animus that I had watched them with the detachment of one who had every confidence that it had nothing to do with him. Now, as I lay awake, I could see- it was very personal.
It was frightening, it was unfamiliar, it was hateful and I had no idea how big or how close it was.
Was the family back in Iran so very different from Hamid? What kind of people thought nothing of exposing a child to this? What, I wondered, could have been the state of mind of Hamid and his wife that they did not think to talk to their son about this stuff- to “deprogram” him on the way home. The more I thought about it the more it bothered me. I lay awake thinking picturing not the house next door and the people in it, but the sweating, rioting crowds back in Iran and all of their squawking radios and televisions. The morning before, I had thought that all I had to do was talk to my neighbor about this thing. Now I saw clearly that this was very big and very ugly- beyond reach of a friendly neighborhood talk. I got out of bed and looked out the window toward their house, bathed in pale moonlight. The calm fall night was filled with a new shadow- the specter of an evil that had once been faraway and theoretical and was suddenly present and breathing quietly in the dark recesses of this soft night. Just then, it felt close enough that I thought I could feel its hot, humid breath on the back of my neck.
In my innocent, pre-9/11 American way I remember wondering how close we might have actually come to tragedy. A little boy of five might have kept harboring that thought and without comprehending what he was really doing, hurt or even murdered my little girl. God forbid that he might have gotten access to a gun with that in his mind. What kind of horror might have been averted because he spoke instead of acting? I walked down the hall and looked into Amy’s room. Her soft brown curls shone in the moonlight and she stirred and sighed.
I wandered back to my bed and lay down. What kind of society, I wondered, puts ideas like this into the mind of a (rather charming) little boys like Amir? How was it, with even parents like my friends Hamid and Haideh the racket and stink of genocidal hatred could so easily stick to him and be carried so quietly and so deep into the heart of our safe little suburban neighborhood.
Now that the images of Iran I had found it easy to view and dismiss were personal and immediate, I could never again feel quite so secure that all the “Death to America” and “Kill the Jews” rhetoric was empty and rhetoric or that it didn’t pertain to me. If it is said and sanctioned, how far away is it really from execution?
Over the next few years, the war with between Iran and Iraq dragged on; reports were heard in the west of human wave assaults organized by the Islamic army of Iran. Boys as young as fourteen were roped together to prevent desertion and sent out unarmed to try to overwhelm Iraqi positions by shear weight of expendable numbers. Sometimes I would catch sight of Amir in the street and shake my head – grateful that he was here but filled with dread for all of us.
Hamid and his family moved away after a few years. Since then, there have been so many experiences and images that have reminded me of that night when I realized how close the beast is.
I have stood in one of the great central squares of Kiev where there stands a huge statue of the national hero Bogdan Chemielniki who, before Hitler, was history’s greatest slaughterer of Jews. A few miles away I visited the memorial at Babi Yar. To stand at that monument I had to walk there over the half-mile long mound that is the mass grave of more than one hundred thousand Jews.
I have also been to Israel and visited the sites of three of the most infamous suicide bombings. I watched the airplane on which the wife of a friend perished smash into the North Tower of The World Trade Center. Then, I watched the towers crumble. I have downloaded and viewed the video of the slaughter of Daniel Pearl, which is still available on the Internet. I recognized them all as footprints of the same beast. Having lived with its shadow for so long, I am often shocked when I meet people who don’t believe that it is real that it is stalking us even as you read this.
What will it take for you to understand that what they are saying and doing is personal and you need to do something about it?