Legendary English rocker Roger Waters, born in 1943, cofounded the iconic group Pink Floyd in 1965 and stayed in it until 1985. Since then, while sometimes reuniting with other Pink Floyd members, he’s mainly pursued a solo career.
Waters is a pop star on a gigantic scale. Pink Floyd, for which he was the main songwriter, has sold over 250 million albums across the globe. Waters’s worldwide tour The Wall Live, which he began in 2010, sold over 1.4 million tickets in the first half of 2012, making it the international leader for all categories of concerts.
Like many pop stars, Waters has taken up causes. In 2009 he called the Israeli security fence in the West Bank an “obscenity” that “should be torn down.” He never got around to criticizing the waves of Palestinian suicide bombings and other terror attacks, which killed 1500 Israelis and wounded many thousands more, that prompted the building of the fence in the first place.
In 2011 Waters announced he had joined the anti-Israeli Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Consisting of Palestinian NGOs and leftist supporters, BDS favors a “one-state solution” whereby Israel would cease to exist.
Waters has been quite active in BDS. In a November 2012 speech to the UN he accused Israel—a member of the exclusively democrat OECD and rated a “Free” country by Freedom House—of “ethnic cleansing,” “apartheid,” and “international crimes.” Last August he published an open letter calling on other musicians to “declare a cultural boycott on Israel,” citing Stevie Wonder’s cancellation of a concert in Israel as a success story.
Waters, it goes without saying, does not call for a boycott of any other country on the globe. He has recently played concerts in human rights beacons like Russia, China, and Turkey without raising a peep of protest. Does all this—not least the scurrilous claim of “apartheid”—qualify him as an antisemite? In general, the Jewish world gave him the benefit of the doubt and refrained from making that charge.
That is, until an incident last July.
Anyone who may have thought that, after the Holocaust, antisemitism would be passé is revealed in retrospect as naïve.
Sixty-eight years after the genocide, antisemitism remains rampant in the Arab world and much of the Muslim world. It’s back with a vengeance in Europe, largely—but not solely—Israel-focused. Today the world’s only country to be subjected to a global delegitimization and BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) campaign is the Jewish one.
A study released last spring by Tel Aviv University found that worldwide antisemitism rose 30 percent in 2012 compared to the previous year. That particularly involved “violent acts against Jews,” with “273 attacks on persons of all ages; in addition, 190 synagogues, cemeteries and monuments were desecrated, and over 200 private and public properties damaged.” Most of the attacks occurred in countries having the largest Jewish communities outside Israel—in descending order of attacks, France, the U.S., the UK, Canada, and Australia.
The report also “noted the rise of anti-Semitic parties on the far right in Greece, Hungary and the Ukraine” and observed that in those countries,
vociferous representatives of these parties openly incite in parliament against local Jewish communities. Blatant anti-Semitic and anti-Israel expressions appeared to ignite violent activity in Hungary, and a significant rise in desecration of cemeteries and Holocaust memorials was recorded in Poland.
This series, counting down from 10 to 1, will profile ten of the worst purveyors of antisemitism—whether individuals or groups—in the world at large; an ensuing series will focus on U.S. antisemitism. In our era, antisemitism is most endemic in the Arab and Muslim sphere; outside of that domain, it tends to be most concentrated on the far right (both religious and political) and far left. All the categories will be “represented” in the series.
After the seven days of Sukkot, the early-autumn harvest festival that also commemorates the long trek to the Promised Land, falls the holiday of Simchat Torah. Also called Shemini Atzeret, it lasts for one day in Israel and two in the Diaspora.
Simchat Torah, which starts this year at sundown on Wednesday, September 25, means “rejoicing in the Torah” (and Shemini Atzeret means “assembly of the eighth day”). The holiday marks the end of one year’s cycle of readings of the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, and the start of the next year’s cycle. It can fall anytime from late September to late October.
Like Sukkot but with a somewhat different focus, Simchat Torah is a jubilant holiday. Torah scrolls get carried around synagogues in hakafot (circuits) amid singing and dancing.
The year is a cycle and the Torah itself is a cycle: it ends with Moses’ death and begins with God’s creation of the world. So Simchat Torah is renewal and rededication; it harvests the learning of the year just ended, and embarks on a new year of study.
Back in the days of the Soviet Union, when Jews were denied the right to emigrate and incurred personal risk by studying the Hebrew language and their heritage generally, Simchat Torah became a defiant assertion of identity. As reported, for instance, on October 22, 1976:
Thousands of Soviet Jews celebrated the Sukkot and Simchat Torah holidays last week in full view of agents of the KGB…. 20,000 Jews sang and danced in joyous celebration of Simchat Torah in front of the Moscow Synagogue.
For the KGB this was suspicious and threatening, warranting surveillance.
She announced that, at the foot of the Temple Mount, the team had found a large gold medallion, “remarkably well kept and glittering,” with reliefs of a seven-branched menorah, a shofar, and a Torah—timeless fundaments of Judaism well familiar in Israel and much of the Jewish world today.
The medallion was in a fabric bag; along with it was another fabric bag containing 36 gold coins and other artifacts.
Mazar assessed that the medallion and coins were abandoned in 614 CE, the year of the Persian conquest of Jerusalem. She added:
The position of the items…indicates that one bundle was carefully hidden underground, while the second bundle was apparently abandoned in haste and scattered across the floor. …
[T]he most likely explanation is that the findings were earmarked as a contribution toward the building of a new synagogue at a location that is near the Temple Mount. …
What is certain is that their mission, whatever it was, was unsuccessful, and its owners couldn’t return to collect it.
Mazar believes the medallion was an ornament for a Torah scroll, which would make it “the earliest such archeological find in history.” As for the coins, an Israeli expert said they “can be dated to the reigns of different Byzantine emperors, ranging from the middle of the 4th century CE to the early 7th century CE.”
Also this year Mazar’s team discovered the oldest known inscription in Jerusalem—from around 1000 BCE at the time of King David, a period of Jewish sovereignty in Israel. The medallion, however, comes from almost half a millennium after the loss of Jewish sovereignty and attests to the ongoing attachment to Jerusalem and the Temple Mount.
An attachment that continued up to the astounding restoration of Israel in our era.
Fifteen days after the stocktaking of Rosh Hashanah, and five days after the more rigorous stocktaking of Yom Kippur, falls the weeklong holiday of Sukkot—one of the most joyous and pleasant Jewish holidays. It began this year at sundown on Wednesday, September 18.
In ancient Israel, Sukkot was (along with Passover and Shavuot) one of three pilgrimage festivals in which Jews from throughout the land made their way to the Temple in Jerusalem. In its oldest origins Sukkot was an autumn harvest festival. Exodus 23:16 calls it:
the feast of ingathering, which is in the end of the year, when thou hast gathered in thy labours out of the field.
But in the next biblical book, Leviticus, God confers on Sukkot a more specific significance as he tells (Lev. 23:42-43) the Israelites:
Ye shall dwell in booths seven days; all that are Israelites born shall dwell in booths:
That your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt….
The reference is to the Israelites’ dwelling in rough, temporary structures during their 40-year desert-trek to the Promised Land. Hence the “booths”—sukkot in Hebrew—that observant Jews (and in Israel, some not-so-observant Jews) build, decorate, eat meals in, and even sleep in during Sukkot.
Hence also the holiday’s English name, the Feast of Tabernacles.
Indeed, some historians make a highly plausible case that the holiday of Thanksgiving has its origins in Sukkot.
It’s reported that since Syria’s civil war erupted two and a half years ago, over 120 Syrians have come to Israeli hospitals for medical treatment. They appear to come mainly to Ziv Hospital in Safed, in the upper Galilee, and to the Western Galilee Medical Center in Nahariya, also in upper Galilee on the Mediterranean coast.
The Syrians are described as “very badly hurt, with gunshot wounds and blast injuries, and receiving life-saving treatment.” They somehow make it to the Israeli border, from where the Israeli army transports them to the hospitals. Although predominantly civilians, often women and children, one report cites a Syrian patient who appears to be a “rebel fighter”—meaning he could well belong to a jihadi group that wants Israel destroyed.
Syria as a whole is decidedly hostile to Israel, having been in a state of war with it since Israel was established in 1948. If the situation was reversed—if Israelis were savagely killing each other en masse, which has never happened and never will—there is scant chance Syrian hospitals would accept wounded Israelis, even less that Syrian soldiers would bring them there for treatment.
Nevertheless, Dr. Calin Shapira, deputy head of Ziv Hospital, told Agence France-Presse that no wounded Syrians who come to Ziv are turned away:
It doesn’t matter where they’re from…. It’s important to give medical aid regardless—this is a principle of the medical profession.
Syrian wounded who come to Israel are in desperate need. A Syrian woman told French NGO Médecins Sans Frontières that in her country “there are no medicines, nowhere to go, no hospitals. Medicine has become a rare commodity.” Fifty-seven percent of Syria’s hospitals have been damaged in the fighting—some most likely deliberately targeted by one side or the other—and 36 percent have stopped functioning.
Saturday marks Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the solemnest day of the Jewish Year and, at least in Israel, the most widely observed.
Israel shuts down totally on Yom Kippur. No transportation; no TV, radio, or activity on websites; no stores, cinemas, or restaurants open. Kids exploit the utter stillness of the roads to cavort on them on bicycles.
Observant Jews pray three times a day on regular days; on Sabbaths and sacred holidays, four times; only on Yom Kippur, five times. And synagogues are packed to overflowing on Yom Kippur because the less-observant come to them too. Some come to synagogue only on this one day; some only for two days out of the year—Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Yom Kippur is the culmination of the ten Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah, the New Year. Its origin is in Leviticus 16:29-30:
in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, ye shall afflict your souls, and do not work at all…
For on that day shall the priest make an atonement for you, to cleanse you, that ye may be clean from all your sins before the Lord.
On the physical level, affliction takes the form of a fast, a 25-hour abstinence from all food and drink. Close to two-thirds of Israeli Jews, including even some who never go to synagogue, observe the fast. Considering that the weather from mid-September to mid-October (when Yom Kippur can fall) usually remains hot and dry, going 25 hours without even water can be a real affliction. Each year on Yom Kippur dozens of people, often elderly, get rushed to hospitals in ambulances for dehydration.
And on the spiritual level, affliction means Vidui—confession of sins before God, while undertaking to desist from them as the year begins. The afternoon prayer service includes a reading of the Book of Jonah, whose essence is God’s forgiveness of those who repent.
Yom Kippur ends, finally, with a fast-breaking meal, and an exhilarating sense—in Israel, interwoven with a special atmosphere of early autumn—of a new beginning.
See the previous installments of P. David Hornik’s fascinating series:
This summer a total of about 800 Jewish immigrants from France are expected to arrive in Israel. They’re part of a total of about 2500 who are expected to make their way here from France over the course of the year—an increase of 40 percent over last year.
As Sabrina Kozirov, arriving in August with her husband and two teenage daughters, told Israel’s Ynetnews:
The situation in France had become unbearable. There is a large Muslim community and harsh political criticism of Israel. Therefore we preferred to leave.
Her words dovetail with a report by an Israeli institute on the bleak situation of France’s Jews and Europe’s generally, and with a much-read article by French Jewish intellectual Michel Gurfinkiel on the same theme.
Along with the problems Sabrina Kozirov alludes to—the animosity (not infrequently violent) of Muslim populations and an intense anti-Israeli atmosphere generally—many of the European countries have been banning or trying to ban kosher slaughter and even circumcision, a Jewish practice going back to Abraham’s time in the Book of Genesis.
The attempt to “rebuild Jewish life” in post-Holocaust Europe was, of course, problematic from the start. A continent that could have produced the Holocaust could not, realistically, have been expected to make an abrupt about-face and become Jew-friendly. But the form European antisemitism now takes—particularly the animus against Israel—is not without some striking ironies.
Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, comes as early as it can this year on September 5 (lasting two days). It always falls on the first day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, but since the Jewish and Gregorian calendars don’t match, Rosh Hashanah can also fall as late as October 5.
In any case, Rosh Hashanah (it literally means “head” or “beginning” of the year) comes with the onset of autumn or at least the dwindling of summer. It may seem an odd time for the year to begin; and Tishrei is, indeed, the seventh month of the Jewish year, not the first. The Jewish calendar, though, is marked by a certain defiance of nature: days begin at sundown, and the year begins when the natural year starts its decline.
Here in the Land of Israel, Rosh Hashanah is a time when the hot, bright blue of summer finally relents, permitting breezes and puffy white clouds. A time of apples and pomegranates, of kids going back to school, of stocktaking and renewal. The time when the shofar (ram’s horn) is blown in flat, eerie blasts in the synagogue, calling us to repent and get inscribed for another year in the Book of Life.
See the previous installments of P. David Hornik’s fascinating series:
Each time I fly, my ability to enjoy plane rides declines a bit further. Yes, there’s still something in me that likes the change, the adventure, being served meals in the sky. On the other hand, you pay over a thousand dollars to sit in a way that, on a bus or train, would be outrageously cramped and unacceptable.
That’s how it was in mid-August as I took a one-week jaunt—via Brussels both ways—to the U.S. and back. Instead of succeeding to sleep on the flights, my contorted attempts to achieve a comfortable position brought back all my ergonomic symptoms—sore shoulder, sore thumb—from the preceding year. In the twelve-hour layover in Brussels for the return trip, I felt so lousy—physically—that I didn’t even bother leaving the airport.
And yet…it was all worth it. Not only to go to my niece’s wedding and see various people again, but because, like all my trips to the States since moving to Israel 29 years ago, it had rich and notable moments.
Check out the previous installments in P. David Hornik’s ongoing series exploring how Israel is perceived around the globe.
August 4: Israel: Leper or Light Unto the Nations? Part 1: The Whole World Against Us
August 11: Israel: Leper or Light Unto the Nations? Part 2: That Bird Could Be a Mossad Agent!
August 18: Israel: Leper or Light Unto the Nations? Part 3: From Woodstock to the Promised Land
In a recent blog post, British Jewish author and commentator Melanie Phillips took the European Union to task for deciding to boycott Israelis who live in East Jerusalem, the West Bank (Judea and Samaria), and the Golan Heights.
Phillips clarifies why the EU’s designation of all Jewish life and activity in those places as “illegal” is legally, let alone morally, baseless. But if the EU and the UN regularly and ritually make this “illegality” charge, and pressure and punish Israel accordingly, Phillips claims that
the fault in large measure surely lies with Israel. For although some may find this incomprehensible, Israel does not make to the world the one case that matters—why Israelis are fully entitled under international law to build their homes in these territories….
And Phillips attributes that failing, among other things, to
Israel’s bleak and despairing judgement that the international community, composed of those who historically and presently were and are driven by obsessive hatred of the Jewish people and which finds expression for that hatred through vehicles such as the UN and EU, will always do the bidding of those who wish to destroy the Jews and is therefore impervious to reason and morality.
While I wouldn’t put it quite so strongly, I found those words noteworthy and insightful. It’s true, as many have complained, that Israel tends to be hesitant and diffident in making its case. Here I want to suggest three of the factors that have a discouraging effect.
And I dreamed I saw the bombers
Riding shotgun in the sky,
And they were turning into butterflies
Above our nation.
Thus sang Joni Mitchell in “Woodstock,” a song of haunting beauty that she wrote in 1969 at the height of Vietnam War protest. Like all peaceniks, she assumes that “our nation” (technically, she was Canadian) is responsible for the hostilities, and if its bombers would just turn into butterflies, peace would reign.
In many places in Israel — a small, cramped country — you can hear the bombers in the sky on training flights. It most piques your interest when you hear them at night. Usually they’re just practicing night flying, but it could mean there’s been—or is going to be—an incident somewhere.
Or — in rare cases — you might hear just one bomber in the sky very late at night, in the wee hours. It can be scary: what if it’s not one of ours? Or, assuming that it is — why now, when they know it’s going to wake up and annoy (and scare) thousands of people?
Sometimes — after a bombing incident in, say, Syria or Lebanon — you’ll read a thousand speculations in the media on whether Israel was behind it, while Israeli officials remain tight-lipped and ambiguous. It may be, though, that everyone in a certain area of Israel actually knows pretty much what happened — because they heard the bombers take off from the airbase at a certain time and can see from the reports that the incident occurred shortly afterward.
There is probably no one in Israel, no matter how far to the left, who really wishes in his or her heart that the bombers weren’t there or would turn into harmless, fluttery entities.
What a relief. It turned out recently that a bird detained in Turkey, on suspicion of spying for Israel, was cleared of the charges.
The bird was a kestrel, a type of small falcon. It was discovered by residents of the Turkish village of Altinavya in the Elazig province. It had a metal ring on its foot stamped with “24311 Tel Avivunia Israel.”
Worried residents of the village turned the bird over to Elazig’s Firat University. There, as Britain’s Telegraph reports:
medical personnel…initially identified the kestrel as “Israeli Spy” in their registration documents. Intensive medical examinations—including X-rays—determined that the bird was, indeed, just a bird. There were no sign of microchips that might transmit information back to Israel, local media reported. The kestrel was allowed to fly off after authorities determined there was no need to press charges.
Turkey, it should be noted, was long considered a prime example of a Muslim secular democracy. It even had extensive economic and strategic relations with Israel.
Many date the deterioration of those relations from the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident, when Israeli commandos, attacked by a mob, killed nine Islamists on a Turkish ship headed toward Gaza. But Turkey’s Islamist prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had already started curtailing those relations over Israel’s 2008-2009 operation against his fellow Islamists, Hamas, in Gaza.
Turkey, in other words, has moved closer to the anti-Israeli attitudes prevalent in the region’s Arab countries. Both in those countries and in Turkey itself, the kestrel incident was hardly the first of its kind.
One of the most arresting passages in the Torah (the Five Books of Moses) occurs in the 23rd chapter of the Book of Numbers.
The stage is set in Numbers 22. The Israelites, on their way to the Promised Land, have camped out in the plains of Moab—in what is now Jordan, just across the Jordan River from what is now Israel. They’re a vast multitude, and Balak, king of Moab, sees them and is deathly afraid.
So Balak summons a Moabite prophet, Balaam, and asks him to “curse me this people; for they are too mighty for me….” Balaam eventually agrees, but with the proviso that “the word that God putteth in my mouth, that I shall speak.”
In Numbers 23:9, referring to the people of Israel both in the singular and the plural, Balaam pronounces:
For from the top of the rocks I see him, and from the hills I behold him: lo, the people shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations.
This, then, is not a “curse” but something God has put in Balaam’s mouth. Yet it seems to imply some sort of splendid isolation, a separate and unique fate.
Yet other, no less resonant statements in the Bible suggest that Israel’s destiny is very much connected to that of other peoples. In Isaiah 42:6 and 49:6, God says Israel’s mission is to be “a light unto the nations”; and in Isaiah 60:3: “And unto your light, nations shall walk, and kings unto the brightness of your rising.” In Genesis, God tells Abraham three times, and Isaac once, that “In thee shall all nations [or 'families'] of the earth be blessed.”
That theme—or contradiction?—of splendid isolation while having much to offer other peoples runs throughout Jewish history, and is very much present in Israel today.
In the fall of 1971, when I was in twelfth grade, I started to grow my hair long. A failed basketball player, still loosely socially affiliated with the athletes, I knew that the next fall I’d be in college. There, I thought, I could really fit in—and find a great girlfriend or two, unlike anything that had happened in high school.
At that time the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War was winding down. The draft was on the way to being abolished, so guys my age didn’t have to think about what they would do if they were drafted.
But “the war” was still a hot topic. In my school, it was a social marker: if you were “for the war,” you were more likely to be with the jocks and cheerleaders, an assertive patriot; those “against the war” were more likely to be on the “freak” side of the spectrum, more into loud music than sports, marijuana than beer. As for America, it was “Amerika,” venal and “imperialist” if not worse.
As part of the change I felt myself to be effectuating, I started to say things like, “It’s not our fight.” “I don’t know what we’re doing over there, wasting all that money when we could be spending it on social programs.”
It did not come out of genuine, deep thought or engagement with the issues. Once I had wanted to be cool by being a star basketball player; but I was only a mediocre one. Now I would be cool by being an intellectual firebrand, a scourge of the establishment.
Demographically speaking, that strategy made more sense. Though I didn’t yet understand it in such terms, I was a secular Jew with a strong yen for the arts and humanities. In most places in the world where Jews live, people of that description are overwhelmingly on the left; indeed, a good many people in the colleges I went to belonged to that description.
There was only one obstacle to my march toward—so I thought—coolness, popularity, and success with the girls as an “establishment”-basher: Alfred Hornik.
This year around 4th of July time, as in previous years, a few people asked me if I was doing anything to celebrate. Although some American Jewish immigrants in Israel hold 4th of July events, I said that, as usual, I had no such plans.
Why not? For one thing, I no longer see myself as part of the American polity. My visits to the States now occur only every few years and are quite brief. I feel myself to be foreign there, not knowing the society and its ways nearly as well as I do in Israel.
But what’s wrong with a little “ethnic” nostalgia? Why not go to a little 4th of July party and recall the ethos and ideals of the old country? Isn’t it where you were born and lived the first thirty years of your life?
To answer all that, I need to dig deeper.
These days the isle of Jersey, just off the coast of Normandy, is a thriving financial center and a tourist haven. With a population of 100,000 in 2009 it was swamped with no less than 600,000 tourists.
Back in 1904, though, Jersey—while already something of a tourist magnet—was less populated, certainly less built-up, and, it’s safe to say, a good deal more enchanting. For a few weeks in July and August that year, Jersey was the site of a romantic escapade by a French couple, both of them married.
The man was the great French composer Claude Debussy, then almost 42 years old and married to Rosalie “Lilly” Texier, a fashion model. The woman was the accomplished singer Emma Bardac, the same age as Debussy and married to a Parisian banker.
During the island idyll Debussy worked on parts of “L’isle joyeuse” (“The Isle of Joy”), a short piano piece of stunning strangeness and beauty; worked on and finished “Masques” (“Masks”), a similarly intense but darker and more ominous piano piece; and worked on parts of La Mer (The Sea), his popular three-part orchestral classic.
The Jersey escapade was pivotal for both Claude and Emma. It ended their marriages, led eventually to their marriage to each other, and to the birth of their daughter, Debussy’s only child, Claude-Emma “Chouchou” Debussy. The composer remained, though, a tragic figure to the end, a prototype of the disciplined genius who lacks a talent for life.
There’s a movement afoot to encourage Israeli Christian Arabs to serve in the Israeli army. The movement is led by a group called The Forum for Drafting the Christian Community. It includes Christian army officers, soldiers, and businessmen.
At the helm of this forum stands Father Gabriel Nadaf, a Greek Orthodox priest in the town of Yafia near Nazareth. For his efforts, though, Father Nadaf is under fierce fire from elements of Israel’s Christian Arab community and its Arab community in general.
Arabs are exempt from army service in Israel except for the small, non-Muslim, Arabic-speaking Druze and Circassian communities. Some Bedouin Muslims also volunteer to serve. Israel’s Christian Arab community numbers about 130,000, or about 10 percent of the larger Arab community that is mostly Muslim. For decades, Israel’s Christian Arabs more or less subscribed to the Muslim Arabs’ ambivalent-to-hostile attitude toward Israel as a state.
But those were the days of pan-Arabism, an ideology that sought to unite the Middle East’s diverse Arab communities under a common, secular, Arabic-speaking banner. Eventually pan-Arabism succumbed to today’s Islamic trend — and one result has been severe persecution of Christians throughout the Middle East and their massive flight from Muslim-majority countries.
That leaves Israel’s Christian Arab community as the only one in the region that is actually growing. Father Nadaf, in recent statements to Israeli media (see reports here and here), shows an appreciation of the reality:
We want young Christians to become totally integrated into Israeli society, which also entails shouldering their fair share of the burden of national service. Our future as a Christian minority is intertwined with that of the State of Israel.… We feel secure in Israel…. Most of the young Christians here view Israel as their country.
It’s been ten years and a few months since the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. After two weeks of orbiting the earth at an altitude of hundreds of miles, on February 1, 2003, the Columbia disintegrated while reentering the atmosphere with all of 16 minutes left to the flight. All seven crew members were killed, their remains eventually found in the East Texas county of Sabine.
One of the crew members was Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first astronaut. For Israelis the event was particularly devastating. It came while the Second Intifada—a five-year onslaught of suicide bombings and other terror attacks—was in force. The images of Ramon’s airborne journey were universally felt to be somehow redemptive, a reminder of our great achievements and great potentials during the pain and grief of those years.
Like millions of other Israelis, I and my son were watching TV, awaiting the Columbia’s triumphant return, when the incredible news started to filter in—slowly and cautiously at first, still leaving hope that things would somehow be OK. When it became clear that what was feared and implied was what had actually happened, that Ilan Ramon and the others were all dead, a few million people already suffering the psychological corrosions of an “intifada” were left dumbstruck and bewildered.
But it wasn’t all. Six years later, on September 13, 2009, Asaf Ramon—son of Ilan and Rona, oldest of four children—died in a rare training accident as a pilot in the Israeli air force. Twenty-one at the time, Asaf’s ambition was to be a great fighter pilot—as his father, Ilan Ramon, had been before becoming an astronaut.
While there is no point trying to “make sense” of such a story, it has many other striking aspects that are worth telling.
If you’re interested in near-death experiences but don’t have the time or inclination to read extensively about the subject, two excellent recent books sum up what 35 years of research have discovered so far.
One is Evidence of the Afterlife: The Science of Near-Death Experiences by Dr. Jeffrey Long and Paul Perry. Long, a radiation oncologist, is himself a prominent NDE researcher who has long been convinced (for good reasons) that NDEs are actual glimpses of the afterlife.
The other, which came out just last year, is Near-Death Experiences as Evidence for the Existence of God and Heaven: A Brief Introduction in Plain Language by J. Steve Miller. Unlike Long, Miller is a layman and a generalist who has written on various subjects. As he describes it, he has been both “obsessed” with the idea of God since he was 16 and subject to a “skeptical bent” that “led me to continually question religious claims” and “plunged [me] into periods of doubt.”
Miller set out to explore the NDE literature and, as is very evident from his endnotes, has delved deeply into it. In this entertainingly written, sometimes very funny book, he sums up what he’s learned and what conclusions he’s drawn.
In the fall of 1983 we took a sort of pilot tour of Israel, a year before moving here. For me, naturally, as someone who had never been outside of North America, it was all a breathtaking experience.
Perhaps most amazing of all, though, was our visit to Masada—the mountain fortress by the Dead Sea where, somewhat over two thousand years ago, a group of Jewish guerrillas plus their families committed mass suicide rather than be taken captive by the Romans. Masada has remains of the synagogue, storehouses, and bathhouses the rebels set up in the years they hid out there. It offers stunning views of the surrounding, austerely beautiful desert countryside.
Yet for me the most arresting thing at Masada was not any of this, but something seemingly much more plain—one (I no longer know which) of its mosaic floors, which were laid in the Herodian period about a century before the rebels were there.
As mosaics go, these—the one on this page is an example—aren’t particularly impressive. No, what got to me was a shock of intimacy—intimacy with an ancient person, very possibly a Hebrew-speaking Jew, possibly even a forefather of mine, who had once been there toiling over the details of that very mosaic floor I was looking at.
Masada with its wonders, including its mosaics, was excavated in the early 1960s. From the 1920s to the present, though, many other mosaic floors of ancient synagogues, churches, and pagan structures—generally dating back about 1500 years—have been found in the Holy Land. They offer that same thrill of communion with an unknown, ancient artist along with much richer and more artistically accomplished contents.
Hashlamah is a Hebrew word for which there’s no direct English translation. It comes from the same root as the words for peace (shalom) and complete (shalem). It has connotations of acceptance, reconciliation, wholeness, “coming to terms.”
Clearly, hashlamah is a good and desirable state to be in. But it’s more complex than happiness and harder to come by; it implies a culmination of processes. I’ve been fortunate to be feeling hashlamah for a few years, but it took decades to get there; it’s something earned. If there aren’t rocks in the road to it, it’s not hashlamah.
Since hashlamah is a subtle quality, not surprisingly it can be well expressed—maybe best expressed—in music. I would say that Beethoven in his late period was a hashlamah master. The quality is also very powerfully present in some Bruckner adagios. Some great jazz artists, too, have captured hashlamah in short, affecting works.
A recent, much-read article by Tiffanie Wen in the Daily Beast tried to figure out “Why are the Israelis so Damn Happy?” It based itself on an OECD study of 36 democratic countries, which found that while Israel doesn’t score very high on some major parameters like housing, income, job security, and education, it does score high — eighth on the list — for happiness. (Israel also got a high happiness score on other studies, such as this one.)
Considering that Israel has also experienced far more war and terrorism than any other democratic country since its founding in 1948, that result may seem puzzling. Wen, in fact, claims that “war has quite a lot to do with it” and goes on to say:
Think about it. How would you act if you woke up every morning thinking that this day could be your last? Or at least took a moment to imagine how you would be eulogized at your funeral?…
The point is this: you’d enjoy the day you had. And if you continued to survive until the next morning, this daily exercise might develop into a mantra for how you lived your life. And you might bother to take that beach day, or spend more time with your family. You might grow a pair and launch that startup you’ve been thinking about (Boom: Silicon Wadi) or stop a beautiful woman on the street and insist that she have lunch with you….
First of all, there’s a measure of truth to this. It’s true that a sense of living with threats in the background concentrates the mind on the small pleasures, the good stuff. And Wen also notes a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association indicating that Israelis — who are more toughened by bad stuff — “recover from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) more quickly than people of other Western nations.”
But beyond this limited measure of truth, Wen’s description verges on caricature. I’ve never known an Israeli in normal circumstances who wakes up every morning thinking the day could be his or her last. If one wants to understand why Israelis score high on happiness, “I could be dead any minute so I might as well enjoy myself” won’t get you very far.
Wen, an Asian-American from San Francisco currently living in Tel Aviv, acknowledges being “a non-Jew who doesn’t identify with the historic narrative of persecution; a non-Israeli who is unaccustomed to living under the threat of war; and an American that has come to ‘expect more and pay less.’…”
In other words, while it’s nice that she wants to try living with us, she’s not in a great position to understand a lot about the country. Even that phrase “the historic narrative of persecution” doesn’t sit well; while such a narrative exists in the Jewish ethos, so do a lot of other, more positive themes that hold more promise when it comes to answering the question Wen raises.
- Abraham, Part 1: Are ‘Secular Israelis’ Really Secular?
- Abraham, Part 2: God’s Gadfly or Meek Servant?
- Abraham, Part 3: Do You Have to Marry a Jewish Girl?
- Abraham, Part 4: Does Holiness Get Lost in the Fog of War?
Abraham and Sarah, the progenitors of the Jewish people, were for a long time a childless couple. After they lived that way in Canaan for ten years, Sarah suggested in desperation that Abraham have a child with her Egyptian maid Hagar. As Sarah puts it, “that I may obtain children by her.”
The child born to Abraham and Hagar is Ishmael, of whom an angel of God says:
…he will be a wild man; his hand will be against every man, and every man’s hand against him….
Abraham, though, develops intense concern for the “wild man.” Sometime after Abraham and Sarah — by God’s intervention — finally have a son of their own, Isaac, Sarah sees Ishmael “mocking.” She reacts by demanding that Abraham expel Ishmael and Hagar for good.
Although Abraham is deeply pained to do so, God reassures him that — as in the case of Isaac — “also of the son of the bondwoman will I make a great nation, because he is thy seed.”
Indeed, God has already told Abraham earlier:
…as for Ishmael…: Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he beget, and I will make him a great nation.
But my covenant will I establish with Isaac….
Ishmael, then, appears to be loved and valued both by Abraham and by God; but not to have equal status with Isaac.