Thursday, January 22, 2009

Something to cheer about

In advance of the inauguration of President Obama, Americans unexpectedly got something else to cheer about, though we all wish we hadn't. A plane immediately after takeoff lost both engines due to bird strikes; believe it or not, a small bird flying into a jet engine can disable the engine. Ordinarily that would have spelled doom for the plane and all on board. But this time the pilot, Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger III, was a safety trainer as well as a certified glider pilot. Without engine power, he landed the plane in the Hudson River as if he was landing it on a runway. He saw to it that all passengers and crew left the plane safely. He walked through the plane twice, as it was filling with water, to make certain that everybody got out before he did. As per nautical tradition, women and children left the plane first, the captain last. Numerous ferry boats as well as fireboats and police craft were on the scene and picked everybody up in sub-freezing temperature. There were no fatalities - none. No serious injuries, only mild hypothermia and relatively minor fractures. Sully now has numerous Facebook groups to honor him, and will likely receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award. He deserves it. He deserved his invitation to the inauguration, where he waved reporters away, not wanting to upstage the President. It all sounds like something from the last generation, from the days of Chuck Yeager and John Glenn. Sully has all the right stuff; I didn't think they made 'em like that any more.

Unflappability, unflagging courage, grace under pressure, a cool head and a steady hand - all the manly virtues (i.e. the virtues deemed manly by Anglo-Saxon and many Native American cultures, as well as sabra culture) - were on display in abundance. The episode has been dubbed "Miracle on the Hudson," but no laws of nature were broken (nor need they be, according to the Rambam and others). That happy ending was the result of consummate skill, training, practice and traditional Western values. God accomplishes His miracles through people who work for them (hint hint). Remember what we say at a siyyum: We run and they run, we run to eternal life and they run to the pit. What a difference between us and our enemies. We celebrate people of accomplishment and so do they. We celebrate a pilot whose skill saved over 150 lives. We celebrate Salk and Sabin, whose skill consigned polio to history. They celebrate pilots who fly planes into buildings and kill thousands of innocents. They celebrate suicide bombers and teach children to emulate them.

Barukh ha-mavdil.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Congratulations Mr. President.

Congratulations America. We just performed our time-honored ritual of inaugurating a new President. One of the functions of ritual is to connect us with our past. When a Jew puts on tefilin or eats Matza on Pesah, he connects with the Vilna Gaon, the Rambam and Rabbi Akiva, who did the same things. As Americans, we connected today with over 200 years of investing our leaders in much the same way, with the new President repeating the words, flubbed a little this time around, enshrined in the Constitution by the Founding Fathers in 1788. Whenever I watch the orderliness and high ceremony of an inauguration I experience a rush of joy and thankfulness at being an American. In too many unhappy lands, transfer of power occurs by means of violence and bloodshed. Here, the only soldiers in the street are the bands playing Hail to the Chief and, unfortunately of late, the security people keeping us safe from terrorists. For all our faults, we are still the envy of the world, with a system so many wish they had at home.
President Obama takes office after a brilliant campaign, and one of the cleanest, most issue-oriented ones that I can remember. I did not support him, but I recognize that this is a watershed moment in our history. I'm old enough to remember the tail end of the struggle for civil rights, and to have heard poisoned talk of "shvartzes" by parents and others who should have known better. Who would have dreamed that a dark-skinned American, who only 50 years ago would not have been served at a lunch counter in parts of our country, would be elected President? What a road we have traveled. For me, the most memorable part of the campaign was when I ran in a black part of Brooklyn in my McCain shirt and hat, without incident save for a couple of girls doing a double take. 30 years ago that get-up would have gotten me jumped, but 30 years ago Barack Obama would not have been running for President. Not only did I not come to any harm, but a black resident of Crown Heights had his home all decked out with McCain signs and other Republican memorabilia, including a sign proclaiming that Martin Luther King was a Republican, as were most black Americans before the 1960s, if they were able to register to vote altogether. His house was not burned down, not even picketed. If we have indeed reached maturity as a nation, if race indeed no longer matters, then we should expect black folks to be on every side of every issue, just as white folks are, Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, Keynesians and free marketeers, and so forth.

We will be arguing again soon enough. Now is a time to set aside our differences, a time for joy, for good feeling, for gratitude, for pride in America. God bless the U.S.A.

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Good ban in the works

Our community is cursed with a plethora of nonsensical and self-defeating bans. It is comforting that a good ban is in the works, but it is coming from the secular world and not from our community. I will hazard a guess that many in our community will protest loudly against the proposal of the National Safety Council to ban the use of cell phones by drivers. A number of states including New York have enacted bans on hand-held cell phones, but allow the use of hands-free phones. In New York City this law is poorly enforced, and even better enforcement would not solve the problem. The problem is not the driver's hands; it's her head. A driver talking on the phone is a distracted driver who is not paying attention to the road. Studies have shown that her risk of crashing is comparable to that of a drunk driver. It is only recently that we have really gotten tough on drunks behind the wheel, but many lives have already been saved.
Note my tongue-in-cheek use of the feminine pronoun generically. I was in a car once that nearly crashed because the driver was talking to another lady about the latter's new baby. Her mind was not on the road. At the time I thought that the Saudis were onto something; they do not allow women to drive. Now I know that the problem cuts across the board. It's not just women's idle chitchat; it's also men full of their own self-importance who have the wherewithal to vigorously resist any attempt to encroach on their deadly privilege. I'll grant that cell-phone conversations in cars sometimes really are important: the Chief of Neurosurgery taking a call from his resident about a difficult case, for instance. But I submit that that is just too bad. If your call is so all-fired important that it cannot wait for you to pull over to the side of the road, then hire a chauffeur. You have no business behind the wheel. You're probably not concentrating on your driving even without the phone to distract you. Given my libertarian bent, I am sensitive to nanny-state concerns, but drunk, drugged or distracted drivers endanger not only themselves. They are a menace to their passengers and anybody else with the misfortune to be sharing the road in the immediate vicinity. Thank you, National Safety Council. Consciousness has to be raised and laws have to be passed. No talking on the phone while driving except to call 911, Hatzala or the like. The lives we save may be our own.


Sunday, January 04, 2009

For Hamas - A Flood of Fire

A flood of water you won't bring, but a flood of fire you will - Bereshit Rabbah

Noah's flood came to the world because it was "full of hamas." The word has been translated as corruption, violence, lawlessness and words of that ilk. Rashi calls it gezel - robbery. The current regime in Gaza certainly fills the bill. Their government, if you can call it that, has been utterly corrupt, violent and lawless. Hamas exists for one reason only - not to make life better for the people of Gaza but to destroy Israel. It makes no secret of its raison d'etre. Three years ago Israel handed Gaza to Hamas on a silver platter and what did it get in return? Daily rocket attacks on Sderot, and now as deep as Beersheva. Hamas is, as New York City's Mayor Mike Bloomberg put it, a wholly owned subsidiary of Iran. Iran is supplying Hamas with longer range missiles, smuggled in through tunnels from Egyptian Sinai, and is training Hamas operatives in their use. The only thing surprising about this is that anybody is surprised. Should Hamas suddenly get the warm and fuzzies for Israel now that they have a territory to govern? Of course not. When you show evil men that evil pays off, they intensify their evil. Finally, Israel decided that enough was enough, and set out to put an end to Hamas' attacks. Predictably, the world is outraged - not at Hamas but at Israel. Disproportionate! Civilian casualties! Suffering Palestinians! Not a word about Israeli civilians deliberately targeted by the beasts from Gaza. As usual, the world is cool with suffering weak Jews, but when we are strong and use force to defend ourselves, oy vey. And what would the United States, France, Russia or any nation on earth do if its population was subjected to daily lethal fire from across a hostile border?

What you won't find on the front page of the New York Times or in pronouncements emanating from the United Nations or the "Quartet" is that Israel, true to form, goes far out of its way to avoid civilian casualties and to alleviate the suffering of Arabs in Gaza. I never cease to be amazed at how Israel is willing to sacrifice its own soldiers and civilians to spare those of the enemy. Before bombing an area, they warn residents to leave. Of course, that tells Hamas to move their rocket launchers elsewhere, so that attacks on Israel's population centers actually increase. The folly of Lebanon 2006 is repeated. Humanitarian aid - food, medicine and such - is shipped by Israel into Gaza - all while a war is going on! Never mind that most of it will doubtless find its way to Hamas' "fighters," and not to the poor suffering Gazans that Hamas uses as human shields. Can you imagine the United States sending food and medicine into Tokyo or Berlin during World War II? The Israelis have gone mad! They say that Arabs in Gaza are not the enemy, that in fact they are victims of Hamas as much as the citizens of Sderot, and now Ashkelon, Ashdod and Beersheva. Nonsense! Who put Hamas in power by as democratic an election as there could be in any Arab country? Who allows Hamas to put rockets and other military assets in schools and private homes, so that when Israel attacks civilian casualties are unavoidable? The entire population of Gaza is Amalek. All are culpable, just as the entire German population aided and abetted Hitler and deserved whatever befell them and then some.
Instead of doing everything in its power to minimize the population's suffering, Israel should put the fear of God in the Arabs of Gaza, impressing on them in the only language they understand that cooperating with Hamas is bad for their health. It should be making life for Arabs in Gaza so miserable that many will be motivated to leave the country.

Israel does seem to have learned a lesson from the debacle in Lebanon and from America's experience in Iraq: Air power prepares the battlefield but only boots on the ground and plenty of them can secure it. Ground troops are entering the vipers' nest that is Gaza City and the surrounding refugee (for 60 years!) camps. Ferreting out Hamas' men, rockets, launchers (very small and portable) and other equipment by going house-to-house will no doubt be costly in Israeli lives. The alternative is a public relations nightmare, but one I would prefer to a slow slog through unfamiliar and hostile back alleys. War is not an exercise in public relations, and is to be resorted to only when all other alternatives (short of national suicide!) are exhausted, as they are here. When war is necessary, you have to go whole hog. If any house, school or hospital in Gaza City can contain weapons aimed at Israel, then Israel may, and perhaps must, do a Dresden on Gaza City. Flatten the place. Burn it to the ground. Leave not one stone on top of another. Bake Hamas' men in the smouldering ruins of their city. Then send in the troops to mop up, dispose of the corpses and clear the remaining weapons. To paraphrase British Air Marshall Arthur Harris, all of Arab Gaza is not worth the life of one Israeli soldier. Hamas will have brought on itself a richly deserved "flood of fire."

And then what? When Gaza was liberated in 1967, Prime Minister Golda Meir announced that Gaza was a dagger pointed at Israel's heart and could never be given away. She was not known as "the only man in the cabinet" for nothing. Foolishly, Israel did give it away - and look what it got in return. Now Israel protests that it does not want to return to Gaza, only to destroy Hamas' operational capability. But what do they think will happen as soon as they leave? Hamas will rebuild, with the help of its sugar daddy Iran. Just like Hezbollah did in Lebanon. What would Germany and Japan have done if the victorious Allies had left them to their own devices? Return permanently is just what Israel has to do, and the displaced Jews of Gush Katif will be only too willing to go back and make the place bloom like they did before 2005.

And we? As happens whenever Israel goes to war, we are feeling frustrated. We want to help, but don't know how. Some suggestions:
1. With God's help, nothing is impossible. Say extra Tehilim (e.g. 20, 27, 83, 121, 130).
2. If you have a child studying or volunteering in Israel, do not beg him to come back. His/her place is there.
3. If you were planning a visit, go through with it. No one can guarantee that you will not come to harm, but no one can guarantee that in Brooklyn either. I traveled all over Jerusalem without incident but got mugged on my own block. If a place is particularly dangerous, the Israeli police and military will seal it off, so you might not be able to ride to Kever Rahel and Hevron in that armored bus.
4. Any number of charities funnel our tax deductible dollars to where they are needed most. Among them are:
Magen David Adom
Friends of Israel Defense Forces
A Package From Home
Pizza IDF (honest, they deliver pizza to isolated army units)
5. With Israel's resources stretched to the limit, hasbara has to take a back seat. Articulate, educated Jews like us can take up the slack. Attend demonstrations, write letters to the media, and when the casualty figures and ugly scenes appear on the television news, remind the squeamish of the casualty figures of World War II and the tactics used, and of what the world would be like if God forbid the other side (sitra ahara) had won.

May this be the last of Israel's wars and may next year see us celebrating with Mashiach in the rebuilt Beit Hamikdash.

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