Archive for October, 2019

OUR BOYS

The dust-up in Israel regarding HBO’s 10-part mini-series Our Boys began even before its August 12 premiere. Israelis on the right, having seen only the trailer, were incensed. They remained so when the show aired. Were they correct?

Our Boys, a Jewish-Arab Israeli collaboration, explores the 2014 arrest and trial of three Orthodox Israeli men—an uncle and his two nephews—for the murder of a Palestinian youth. It’s important to recognize that as faithful to events as the creators tried to be, the recounting is fictional. Some actual personalities were merged into a single character, the scope of TV and film having limits. The writers also created dialogue, revealing conversations they’d never heard, to add to the drama. I don’t know if they accessed transcripts of interrogations and the trial.

Critically, the show’s opening scenes lay the groundwork by marking a painful moment—there have been many—in Israel’s history. Eighteen days before Mohammed Abu Khdeir’s murder, Palestinians kidnapped three young Israeli Yeshiva students: Eyal Yifrach, Naftali Fraenkel and Gilad Shaar. Israelis prayed and demonstrated for their safe return. When the students were discovered murdered, the nation mourned. Many on the Israeli right erupted.

Had the creators begun with the killing of Mohammed, ignoring the Yeshiva students’ murders, negative response to the show would easily be understood. Israelis would see themselves simplistically rendered as haters of Arabs (some are, hardly all) and wanton killers.

But Our Boys portrays the revenge murder as wrong and a violation of Jewish values. Yet it never condemns Israel. Rather, it calls to task those who would kill illegally in the name of the state and lauds Israel as a nation dedicated to morality, law and peace.

What’s the problem? As I mentioned, pushback began when Israelis saw only the show’s trailer. Seventy years of attacks by Arab states and Palestinian terrorists have left their mark on the Israeli psyche. Yet to be legitimate, dramas like Our Boys must present complexity and subtlety. The reason is obvious: Human beings are complex and subtle. Murder horrifies us yet we’re often struck by the desire for revenge—more murder. We can celebrate our best attributes only if we confront our worst.

Speaking of complexity, Our Boys presents Mohammed’s parents, Hussein and Suha, sympathetically. They’re human. They’re Mother and Father! Yet the right may fail to note that the show also presents many Palestinians as ardently desiring Israel’s destruction and in thrall to the concept of martyrdom that fuels terrorism against Jews in Israel and (non-Jews included) elsewhere. Many Palestinians disregard the wishes of the mourning parents. Israelis who don’t see the show can’t know this.

Three months after the deaths of the three Yeshivah students, Israeli forces killed two Palestinian suspects in a shoot-out. The three killers of Mohammed Abu Khdeir received prison sentences ranging from life down to 22 years for the youngest, an emotionally disturbed teen.

The challenge any people confront when struck by violence is that killing, or convicting and imprisoning suspects, doesn’t necessarily bring matters to a close. Deep wounds heal slowly if at all.

Five years later, Israelis and Palestinians remain at loggerheads. Peace—true peace—seems unreachable. Our Boys touches emotions still raw. If negative Israeli responses seem off the mark to me, they’re nonetheless understandable.

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SHAME ON AMERICA!

The Syrian Kurds fought alongside Americans and suffered 11,000 dead. American troops hailed their bravery. So what did Generalissimo Donald Trump do?

After a phone call with Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Trump ordered the withdrawal of 50–100 Special Forces advisors from Kurdish-held territory in northern Syria and 1,000 troops elsewhere in Syria. Turkey attacked the Kurds.

Our military is aghast.* They appreciate the Kurds’ efforts to help destroy ISIS’ “caliphate” and resist Syrian strongman Bashar al Assad. Even Republican congressional leaders called Trump on his horrendous abandonment of the Kurds.

A self-proclaimed “island of one,” Trump remains committed. “It’s not our border,” he said of the area dividing Turkey and Syria. As it happened, the presence of a few American troops held the Turks at bay. (A Turkish pause gave the Kurds five days to leave the border zone—or else.) To the south, American forces helped block Iran from supplying its Lebanese Hezbollah proxies, who seek to destroy Israel, which also isn’t on our border. Israel now knows that despite Trump’s rhetoric, U.S. support is limited.

Trump opposes “endless wars” in the Middle East. Who doesn’t? Yet the 1,000 troops he’s withdrawing from Syria will likely go to Kurdish Iraq. The Generalissimo is also sending additional forces to Saudi Arabia to bolster the Kingdom against Iran. Saudi Arabia, whose strongman Prince Muhammad bin Sultan ordered or permitted the killing and dismemberment of journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi. The Kingdom, not on America’s border but awash in oil money the Kurds lack to pay for American weapons and troops.

Trump sees things in black and white. Life’s filled with grays. In 2002, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell repeated the famed “Pottery Barn theory”: You break it, you buy it. President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Chaney thought otherwise.

In 2003, Bush sent Powell to the United Nations Security Council to make America’s case for war: Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11 and had nuclear weapons. Powell failed. He later called the experience “painful.” An understatement.

We invaded Iraq. Victory came with lightning speed. Remember “shock and awe”? Not peace. The Bush administration had no understanding of the Middle East, no plan for transforming Iraq into a stable nation, only an insistence that it become an American-style democracy. Sectarian and tribal fighting erupted. Americans died. Barack Obama withdrew our forces. The Islamic State arose. Obama sent troops back.

No, we never should have been involved in Iraq. Yes, we broke it, we bought it, we needed to fix it.

As to the current disaster, the risk to American forces in Syria was relatively minor. (I don’t make light of even a single American death.) The risk of fueling further Middle East instability? Yuge! Kurds are dying. Syrian refugees fleeing. ISIS prisoners escaping. Who’s filling the power vacuum? The Wall Street Journal’s Jonathan Speyer (10/16) offers, “Vladimir Putin is now the indispensable strategic arbiter in Syria.”

Is America better off? It’s not far-fetched to imagine American forces returning to Syria in large numbers or, by staying away, permitting increasing bloodshed and heightened threats to our allies.

Wait. Strike the latter part of that sentence. Because Donald Trump has no shame, America has partners of convenience but no allies—to our shame.

*For an enlightening and depressing look at the military’s pre-Kurd views of Trump, read “What the Generals Think of Trump” by Mark Bowden in the November 2019 Atlantic. See also the 10/17 New York Times opinion piece by Rear Admiral William McRaven (Ret.), former commander of U.S. Special Operations Command.

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MY LLAMAS

There’s so much to write about, I had difficulty deciding on a topic. So I settled on something seemingly absurd but quite profound.

No, not the House’s impeachment inquiry (now, associates of Rudy Giuliani have been arrested). Or Trump’s throwing the Syrian Kurds under the bus—abandoning allies who helped dismantle ISIS’ “caliphate” and leaving Turkey to attack them. And threatening to dismantle Turkey’s economy.

I could ask—and answer—why members of Congress, sworn to uphold the Constitution, oppose it by supporting Trump. Although they might not agree with his Monday statement re the Kurds and Turkey self-praising his “great and unmatched wisdom.” Yes, he said that.

Instead, let me tell you about the herd of llamas—woolly Andean pack animals—living inside my head. And no, don’t call professional help to get me through some sort of breakdown. It’s simple. Really.

In March 2018, I posted “My New Favorite Word.” I focused on the Hebrew word lamah (LA-ma), which means why. Biblically, lamah often is short for l’mah yeud?—to what purpose? In essence, why would you do that?

The word moved me to consider what I’d gain if I dwelled on all the wrong and foolish things I’ve done in my life. All the things I regret. I’d already acknowledged them, often decades ago. Why torture myself, since I’ve tried to correct my behavior and apply what I learned to present and future actions?

Yet forgetting the wrongs we’ve done can lead us to abandon a sense of moral vigilance. That’s dangerous.

So, I came up with a visualization technique. My llamas enable me to remember past misdeeds but not get hung up on those transgressions and stupidities by stashing them in a special place in my mind. I’m guilty of compartmentalizing my emotions, something for which men frequently are assailed, but I claim extenuating circumstances.

After all, when I remind myself of something regrettable from the past—distant or recent—I ask myself, lamah? For what purpose should I rake myself over the coals? Depress myself? So I transform the misdeed into a llama and place it on a distant green hillside beneath a crystalline blue sky. It stands there among a vast herd of llamas occupying dozens of hillsides. They graze. They stare at me. Sometimes they spit in my direction. But they’re too far away to hurt me.

For sure, I acknowledge each and every llama, because they remind me that I can do better while lifting paralyzing guilt off my shoulders. Remember, they’re beasts of burden.

Last Tuesday evening and Wednesday, my llamas accompanied me to Yom Kippur services. On Yom Kippur, Jews recite the Vidui—a group confession. We acknowledge a great many sins. Individually, each of us may have committed only one or two. As a people of nearly 15 million, we’ve committed all, and we’re responsible, each for the other. Judaism is a highly communal religion.

My llamas enabled me to skip torturing myself with the past, as I used to, and focus on the future. How can I do better—not by repressing guilt but by bearing mine with a certain lightness? My llamas offered me comfort and hope that I’ll be a better person in 5780. And the best part: I can take them anywhere.

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