2. Gaza 2018: The Media War (c) Jewish Handwringing

There are more balanced and objective defences of Israel than those cited in the previous blogs in this series. However, balance in some sense is part of their problem. The other part of the problem is subjectivity, not objectivity, though there is plenty of distortion in the depiction of the events. These accounts focus on affects and moral tensions resulting from what took place in Gaza.

Using Yiddish to get the full flavour, there are what I dub the “verklepte kvetchers,” the emotional complainers, such as Rabbi Donniel Hartman in Jerusalem. These verklepte kvetchers express enormous compassion for the Palestinian victims while criticizing the Gazan government, identify with the pain of the soldiers who are forced to kill in defence of Israel, but issue a cri de coeur about Israeli government policies. But they do not undertake the analysis to link how policies produce those casualties and pain.


As Hartman wrote, perhaps in an attempt to be as poetic as Barghouti, “When we heard of the lives lost as protesters mixed with enemy combatants walked, or crept towards the thin wire keeping our cousins and uncles safe, we mourned: We mourned firstly for the lives lost, the youthful potential which was ended; We mourned for our Palestinian cousins, who are no closer to stability today than yesterday; And we mourned for the innocence of our soldiers, having to make life and death decisions – who had to aim to hurt and pray their shots were true.”

Quoting more fully from his essay written after 14 May and published in The Times of Israel,

“Gaza paralyzes me into silence.

“When I read reports or hear discourse about Israeli Army use of lethal force against demonstrators, I cringe. To call what is happening at the Gaza border a demonstration, is a perversion of reality as I know it…

“What is happening on the Gaza border is not a protest against the reality of life in Gaza, but an attack against the sovereignty of Israel and its right to exist. Palestinians have every right to view and experience the formation of Israel as their Nakba (catastrophe). They have every right to view the Six Day War and Israel’s reunification of Jerusalem as a deepening of this Nakba. When tens of thousands of people, civilians interspersed with thousands of Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists, march on our border with the intent to destroy it, and penetrate into Israel, and allow the terrorists to murder Israelis, it is not only not a peace demonstration, it is not a demonstration at all. It is a battlefield, where anyone who approaches the fence is a combatant…

“The challenge is that when it comes to Gaza, for Israelis our moral conscience is by and large, silent. We argue that our unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, including its setting of the precedent of dismantling Jewish settlements, should have inspired Gazans to embrace or at the very least explore, the possibility of peace, instead of the path of war. It should have inspired the trade of goods and the fostering of economic ties, and instead it led to missile fire and the resulting partial blockade.

“We hold the Gaza population personally responsible for the choices they have made. We hold the leadership that they have chosen, a leadership that regularly declares its desire for my destruction and acts on it, as responsible both for the tragedy of Gaza and its rectification. And as a result, most Israelis believe that from this moment henceforth, our moral responsibilities are limited to our efforts at self-defense. The plight of Gazans is taken out of the equation of our moral discourse.

“Gaza paralyzes me into silence, for I am like most Israelis. I am not only saddened by the choices they have made and by the paths that they have chosen not to take, I am angry. I am a devout two-statist, who believes in the right of the Palestinian people to sovereignty in their own state, living side-by-side with Israel in peace and security for both of us. I am angry, because I believe that the hatred and violence spewing out of Gaza has possibly buried Israelis’ belief in the viability of the two-state solution in our lifetime. Any discourse about a Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria is immediately rejected under the counter-argument: “It will just become another Gaza.” And this Gaza will be able to shut down all of Israel with mere mortar fire.

“But as my daughter’s phone call reminded me, we cannot allow ourselves to be paralyzed, and to create a moral black hole in our society. I do not believe that Israel is principally responsible for the reality which is Gaza, but it does bear some responsibility. I do not believe that our soldiers on the border of Gaza are firing on demonstrators but are engaged in a war. I do not believe that the Hamas-inspired action on the border poses an existential threat to the State of Israel. It does, however, pose a life-and-death danger for many Israelis. At the same time, 60 human beings were killed and thousands were injured in one day.

“While 60 human beings lost their lives, and Israeli soldiers were engaged in the horrific challenge of protecting our border, tens of thousands of Israelis converged on Rabin Square in Tel Aviv to sing and rejoice with Netta Barzilai on her and our victory in the Eurovision contest…

“We do not need to take moral responsibility for the reality which is Gaza, but at the same time we cannot allow our humanity and moral conscience to be so inert as to sit down and drink, not to speak of dancing in our city squares, when we are causing, justifiably or not, death and chaos.

“We can believe that the events in Gaza are a war against Israel, support our soldiers, and still desire a public debate over the means necessary to win this war. I don’t value Monday morning moral philosophers, nor expressions of ‘concern’ for loss of life. I do value serious moral reflection on how to ensure that we live up to our military moral code, which demands that even when force is used in self-defense, we only use the amount of force necessary and in proportion to the danger that we face, and that we do everything in our power to avoid civilian casualties. I do desire an Israeli society which welcomes and engages in this discourse.

“I do not believe that our soldiers are violating international law, yet I am interested in a public discourse about what our soldiers on the front lines in Gaza are experiencing. I am interested in defending our soldiers from being placed in situations where their orders are not clear, and thus placing our soldiers in morally compromised situations.

“Gaza paralyzes me, because human beings are dying at my hands, and I do not know how to prevent it. Gaza frightens me, because it is so easy to forget it and sing, regardless of what is happening there. Gaza challenges us, for it is in Gaza that our commitment to the value of human life is and will be tested.

“We may not be principally responsible for the reality which is Gaza, but like all moral human beings, we must constantly ask ourselves whether and how we can be part of the solution. As Jews, we are commanded to walk in the way of God, a God who declares, ‘My creation is drowning, and what are you doing about it?’ ”

Though I agree that our responsibilities should not be limited to self-defence, the responses of fright, anger and cringing are also inappropriate. So is stewing in misplaced moral dilemmas. So is placing full responsibility on the political policy process and the military orders of the general staff. For those soldiers in the front lines also have moral responsibilities instilled in them by the IDF. But some of them may not have incorporated those norms as guides for their conduct. What is needed are:

  1. More accurate depictions of what took place.
  2. A more accurate definition of the real moral problem.
  3. A more accurate analysis of the Palestinian objectives.
  4. The real source of the moral tensions many Israelis experience while they continue to celebrate life and not that they continue that celebration.

Hartman links the possible use of lethal force by the IDF against the Palestinians by denying there were demonstrations. The action was one of militancy generally. But the behaviour of the Palestinians has to be dissected. The vast majority were engaged in peaceful demonstrations. Such a depiction is not “a perversion of reality” but a more accurate depiction. Others were engaged in an attack and not just a demonstration against Israeli sovereignty. IDF snipers did use lethal force, but they mainly targeted militants who attacked and tried to break through the fence.

Many of the attackers were unarmed in any military sense. Some who did not try to break through the fence were also wounded. There is a legitimate question about whether the IDF and/or individual soldiers followed international norms when engaged in conflict. At the same time, it is inaccurate to say that “tens of thousands of people, civilians [were] interspersed with thousands of Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists.” It would be more accurate to write that Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants were undoubtedly mixed in with the peaceful demonstrators. But the focus of the IDF use of lethal force was not against the demonstration, but against militants who tried to break through the fence.

Further, though the Palestinian objective was said to be breaking through the fence to initiate the destruction of Israel, the real objective was to produce martyrs to win a public relations war. There was a peaceful demonstration. There was also a battlefield. They existed within a few hundred metres of each other. One does not have to affirm one (the militancy) by denying the other (the peaceful demonstration).

There is an additional problem. Hartman thinks that the problem for most Israelis is that they have pocketed their moral compass when it comes to Gaza. Why? Not because some soldiers may have wounded non-militants, but because many Israelis insisted on getting on with their lives and celebrating Netta Barzilai’s victory in the Eurovision contest. But it is Hartman who has misdirected part of his moral compass.

Why? Because he fails to acknowledge that some IDF soldiers may have possibly killed or wounded non-militants, not as collateral damage, but intentionally. That should be the focus, and I believe is the hidden concern of most Israelis. Hartman is simply wrong to direct his moral outrage against Israelis who celebrated Barzilai’s victory. Hartman is absolutely correct when he writes, “I do value serious moral reflection on how to ensure that we live up to our military moral code, which demands that even when force is used in self-defense, we only use the amount of force necessary and in proportion to the danger that we face, and that we do everything in our power to avoid civilian casualties.”

Analyses that connect circumstances to policies and actions are required. This might prove that, indeed, little can be done. Or the analysis my point to openings that can be exploited. What we do not need is emotional paralysis.

With the help of Alex Zisman



2. Gaza 2018: The Media War (b) The Hamas Rationale versus a Diaspora Critique

The partisan defence of the Palestinian actions was clever. Marian Barghouti’s apologetic for the effort was directed at international public opinion. His 16 May statement was headlined: “IF YOU IGNORE THE DEATHS IN GAZA, YOU ARE COMPLICIT IN OUR SLAUGHTER.” The final demonstration was timed to take place at the same time the Trump move of the American embassy to Jerusalem was being celebrated. And Trump is widely loathed on the world stage, even if many Israelis and Jews around the world welcomed the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

The distinction between a policy recognizing Jerusalem as the capital and recognizing a united Jerusalem as the capital remained suppressed. In contrast, the two main emotional issues for the Palestinians were linked – the insistence on Jerusalem as their capital and the return of refugees. The language was bathed in rights even more than on Palestinian suffering. The focus was placed on the complicity of the international community in rewarding Israel in untold ways, including allowing an Israeli entertainer, Netta Barzilai, to win the Eurovision Song Contest in Lisbon that was also being celebrated in Tel Aviv at the same time as the final Nakba Day demonstrations. After all, even Australian Jessica Mauboy, the runner up in the Eurovision contest, acknowledged Barzilai’s enormous power as an entertainer.

Barghouti wrote and published the following:

“On one side there is an occupying power that is incessantly rewarded by the international community, even as the Palestinians are being pushed ever further out of their lands. Those who remain live under the harshest conditions: The denial of a right to live in dignity and freedom. In this age of media and social platforms, there is no excuse to not see what is happening. As such, remaining complicit is a conscious and active decision to side with oppression and directly be a part of it.”

Simply put, the international community is either for us (as Palestinians) or against us in remaining silent and supporting Israel. In the latter case, the international community was complicit in the loss of further Palestinian lands and the terrible conditions under which Gazans lived. Hamas responsibility for those conditions was ignored. The goal of return, so pronounced in the purpose of the demonstrations, was deliberately placed on a back burner, but the gas was still left on for everyone to see the flame that animated them. The focus was on Palestinians as victims and their rights as well as Israelis as malevolent oppressors.

However, the bottom line for Palestinians, including those in Gaza, was an increased despondency. The vision of return is a forlorn hope. Even the dream of an independent Palestinian state seems to be receding. That is not only because of the militancy and incompetence of Hamas, but Mahmoud Abbas, now in the twilight of his leadership, did not help with his antisemitic outburst weeks earlier. The international political situation in the Middle East does not help the Palestinians either. Iranian support is feckless. The Turkish economy is imploding. Qatar has its own problems in the Gulf. The Saudis and Egyptians support the Palestinian political goals only nominally as they forge stronger economic, military, intelligence and backroom diplomatic ties with Israel.

When return was mentioned, it was linked simply with the desire to stand up in dignity and not be punished for being displaced. Freedom was contrasted with repression and repression was linked with a long history of colonization. Jews settling in Palestine were but the latest phase of that colonizing effort. Palestinians simply had fought a century-old defensive war. But the international community condemned that defence and rewarded the Zionists according to Barghouti.

“Our minds are turned into a space for psychological warfare to implant an image of inferiority into our core, to convince us that we are the lesser ones, destined to be either controlled or kicked out. Our bodies are objects—shot at, beaten, humiliated, assaulted, violated. Our ideas and dreams of liberation are swept into a corner because if we so much as dare to speak loudly and mobilize, we will find ourselves incarcerated or killed. Palestinians are wedged between a painful exile and a butchered land. This is the definition of ethnic cleansing.”

This war was being fought in a way to contrast Israeli strength, inhumanity and oppression with the valiant efforts at improvement of victims under unspeakable conditions. “Palestinians are brave enough to love life so much that they are willing to go out to the streets and protest, and when they are not protesting they are fighting in their daily life by merely echoing the word ‘Palestine’.” Not welcoming death! Not willing to be martyrs for return! Not trying to break through the Israeli security fence! Just protest. Just demonstrations. Just a love of life.

Contrast this poetic statement on behalf of the Palestinian cause with the apologetics of Shimon Fogel, the chief executive of the Ottawa-based Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) that I included in the initial blog of this series. First, Fogel attacked Prime Minister Trudeau who had demonstrated that he had been almost as supportive of Israel as Stephen Harper and had previously been stridently attacked by pro-Palestinian factions. What was the main failure of Trudeau’s statement on Gaza according to Fogel? Not distorting what Israel did, but omitting any mention of Hamas’ direct responsibility for the recent violence on the Israeli-Gaza border. The CIJA statement began: “We are deeply disappointed the government statement ignores Hamas’ direct responsibility for recent violence on the Israel-Gaza border.”

Trudeau’s statement focused on the wounded and the justice of so many wounded killed by Israeli soldiers. Hamas’ use of violence does not justify Israel breaking the norms and laws of international warfare if the IDF did. Fogel’s statement does not offer a justification. Sidestepping a thrust is not a defence, it is simply a poorly thought-out strategy for missing the point.

2. Gaza 2018: The Media War (a) Effects

The war was not fought by Gazans in 2018 to inflict damage on Israel or kill Israeli soldiers – only one soldier was injured over 7 weeks on the final day of the series of battles. Palestinians from Gaza would have killed or maimed Israelis if they could. They could not and did not. They did do some relatively light property damage, albeit enough to give Israel a smidgen of justification for the tactics the Israelis adopted.

The war was fought primarily to win international public opinion to the Palestinian cause, the larger cause being a return of refugees to Israel and the displacement of Israel as a state. The more immediate cause, given the dire economic straits in Gaza, whatever the responsibility of Hamas for that, was to eliminate the fluctuating blockade without surrendering their long-term goals. Alternatively, or as a minimum goal, it was to open the Rafah crossing – a goal achieved. After all, before the 2018 war, Gazans could not even travel abroad unless it was for at least a year if they used the crossing to Israel. For some, protesting Trump’s move of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem was a more immediate goal, but, considering all the evidence, that seemed more like an add-on which did exploit the even higher media presence than was usual..

As to tactics, Hamas had learned very well that international outrage was a product of apparent non-militant deaths on the Palestinian side rather than missiles, kidnapping of Israelis or damage to property. For Hamas, it was critical that its martyrs be counted as civilians rather than militants in the death totals even as it knew that there would be no martyrs if only peaceful demonstrations were conducted. The challenge was how to combine the two effectively. At the same time, such tactics would help restore Hamas’ image especially in the competition with the Palestinian Authority.

The target might also have been public opinion in the West Bank and Israel. If those were also goals, the exercise had some minor successes, especially in Israel, but overall seemed an abject failure. Israelis in particular have largely become apathetic towards Gaza, tired of Hamas’ swings between posturing and outright conflict. Further, they are well aware of Hamas’ record of suppression of rights – of women, of dissidents and gays – and of its ultimate and repeatedly stated goals of eliminating Israel. Across Israel, only hundreds protested Israeli use of live ammunition. (+972) One could note the same effect among Jews who associate with the Jewish community in the diaspora, including those organizations highly critical of Israeli policy. If this observation that the target was primarily public opinion is correct, the media report that Hezbollah refused a Hamas request to send missiles against Israel was probably false or, at least, misleading.

However, that was on the surface. In the Journal of Conflict Resolution (7 June 2016), Thomas Zeitzoff asked, “Does Social Media Influence Conflict? Evidence from the Gaza Conflict.” Note, he was not asking how the conflict affected public opinion in the Middle East or abroad, but how the use of social media affected the conflict, both that it took place and the extent. The most interesting finding was that it did. It did so within Israel to reduce public support for conflict intensity. International pressure on Israel had a much smaller effect.

In the 2012 conflict, Hamas had primarily employed traditional mechanisms of war available to it. This time, it primarily emphasized the peaceful nature of the demonstrations even as it sent small groups of militants to attack the fence. In that case, though proof is not yet in, one might expect public support for the use of live ammunition against those who attacked the fence to reduce the support for the Israeli response even more than open war did. I suspect public support in Israel for the use of live ammunition decreased as Israelis became conflicted over the number of casualties. Was a prime target of Hamas’ media war public opinion in Israel?

Actual protests by critical Jewish groups on the ground decreased. IfNotNow, Jewish Voice for Peace, J Street and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice protested against the use of live ammunition, even against Hamas members who neared the fence but were unarmed. But the protests were not very loud and the backing seemed muted. For example, J Street expressed mostly a “sickening sense of frustration.” In contrast, in 2008, J Street had taken a very hard line against Operation Cast Lead.

Ethan Miller, a spokesman for IfNotNow that had been formed in the first place to protest American Jewish institutional support against Operation Protective Shield in 2012, promised action this time with the intent of building a stronger protest movement. However, only 100 protesters showed up on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington to participate in the IfNotNow demonstration; nevertheless, they had sufficient participation to block Pennsylvania Avenue for two hours in front of the Trump International Hotel between the White House and the domed Capitol.

In Boston, eight IfNotNow members of that chapter chained themselves to the doors of the Israeli consulate and were arrested before the consulate could reopen. In Minneapolis, other members were arrested outside that city’s Jewish Community Relations Council. Small protests were held at almost two dozen other sites across America.  The Jewish Voice for Peace protested in 45 different locations across America, but those demonstrations were also small. In the general hubbub, these voices were drowned out.

More attention was paid to J Street. They held a rally addressed by Bernie Sanders on 16 April. He accused Israel of “massively overreacting” while insisting that “when Israeli soldiers are in danger, we can all agree that they have a right to defend themselves.” He went on to condemn “Hamas’s use of terrorist violence…but that violence cannot excuse the shooting of unarmed protesters and it cannot excuse trapping almost two million people inside of Gaza.”

I suspect, however, that among unaffiliated Jews in America, the majority followed a general trend and felt considerable sympathy for the Palestinians in Gaza and became further alienated from Israel. In any case, they were generally inactive even as their inner ethical tensions increased.

Internationally, the results were mixed. Iran and Turkey offered a full-throated denunciation of Israel. South Africa withdrew its ambassador. Saudi Arabia and Egypt denounced the killing, but seemingly more as a matter of course than a deep-seated outrage. Federica Mogherini of the EU called for “restraint” by both sides. French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in spite of the growing divide between them and Trump’s America, did focus on Israel and urged a more gentle approach, but, at the same time, insisted that Israel has a right to defend itself. Almost certainly because a Canadian doctor treating Palestinian casualties was shot in the legs, Justin Trudeau issued an unusually strong implied criticism of Israel. (See the first blog in this series.) UN Secretary-General expressed his “profound concern,” while Zeid Ra’ad, the head of the United Nations Human Rights Council, typically denounced the Israeli use of force as “wholly disproportionate.”

Of course, the U.S. was unequivocal in its backing of Israel. UN Ambassador Nick Haley asked the General Assembly, “Who among us would accept this type of activity on your border? No one would…No country in this chamber would act with more restraint than Israel has.” After his 9 May meeting in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used the same explanation for the Israeli response to the Gaza protesters: “it is the right of every state, certainly it is Israel’s right, to take such steps as are necessary to defend itself against this aggression.” The question, of course, for most was not the issue of the right of self-defence, but the means used.

How does a belligerent conduct an international media war? Hamas could have led Gaza into a fourth Gaza War in which Gaza sustained enormous physical damage and even a much higher sacrifice of lives. In the past, that did have a temporary international public opinion advantage, but the costs were enormous. Further, Gaza fought those wars inevitably behind the backs of civilians, often using hospitals as shields.

This time, the war was not openly led by Hamas but by an independent civilian group helped and backed by Hamas with Hamas and other militants out front openly risking their lives to cut and damage the widely hated fence. The war was one based on a coalition of forces, including supporters of the Palestinian Authority. This had at least four domestic purposes. It helped unite rather than divide the Palestinians. The means deployed distracted from the fact that the domestic policies of Hamas in running Gaza had failed and the military policies utilized in the past – open warfare and underground tunnels – had proven to be an unmitigated disaster. At the same time, the martyrs and the larger Hamas message won the attention of the international community while the Palestinian relatively weak rhetorical and diplomatic protest of the American embassy move was swamped in the media by the events in Gaza. Most importantly, the effort allowed Palestinians the choice of how to be involved. But incentives and deceit were both used to get some to attack the fence and try to break through.

Instructions on the internet in Arabic previously had suggested that protesters bring knives, daggers and guns in order to breach the Israeli border and kidnap civilians. As the New York Times wrote, “After midday prayers, clerics and leaders of militant factions in Gaza, led by Hamas, urged thousands of worshipers to join the protests. The fence had already been breached, they said falsely, claiming Palestinians were flooding into Israel.” The Washington Post described organizers as urging “protesters over loudspeakers to burst through the fence, telling them Israeli soldiers were fleeing their positions, even as they were reinforcing them.”

Nevertheless, in spite of these deceptions, Hamas retained effective control of the Great March of Return. At 5:30 pm local time on 14 May, Hamas ordered the protesters to move away from the fence. They had enough martyrs by this point – 55 – though more would die in hospital later – to make their point to the international community. Media coverage already had established their PR “success.” Further, the hospitals in Gaza could not cope with the 100 who were critically injured and an additional 2,500 being treated for injuries. Third, as the peaceful protesters drifted home, Hamas did not want to lose either control or attract attention to how small the Great March of Return had really been compared to the original ambitions. Fourth, Hamas’ precarious control of Gaza had now been reinforced. Finally, Hamas had demonstrated to Egypt, which two days earlier had summoned Hamas to Cairo to try to persuade the organization to discontinue the demonstrations, that it would not bow to Egyptian pressure.

The Hamas political bureau head, Ismail Haniyeh, his deputy, Khalil al-Hayya, and Politburo member, Rouhi Mushtaha, flew to Cairo and met with Abbas Kamel, the Egyptian intelligence chief. The Hamas representatives not only refused Egypt’s offer to open the Rafah crossing in exchange, but won that opening anyway, at least for Ramadan, without any evident concessions to Egypt.

Perhaps the most important target of the Hamas media war was public opinion in Egypt and in Israel. In Israel, if my few interviews are any indication, the recent Hamas tactics may have led to increased ethical post-traumatic stress disorder (E-PTSD) as Israelis were perhaps even more affected by the combination of peaceful demonstrations and relatively poorly armed militants who martyred themselves in attacking the fence (what Matti Friedman in the New York Times 16 May 2018 called the Split-Screen tactic) even as Israelis appeared sublimely indifferent as they continued to go about their daily lives over the 7 weeks of violence. Psychological ethical distress might have been the main tool of warfare used by the Gazans since Israelis did not really need to worry about missiles, even if the Iron Dome intercepted them. Israelis did not have to seek shelter when sirens sounded.

However, they could hide from but not escape the ethical dilemmas they faced.

1. (b) Gaza 2018: A Preliminary Evaluation of the Canadian Response

Clearly, the debate over an investigation into the recent Gaza violence is leagues away from the differences over what occurred. But there seems to be little debate over the fact that Dr. Loubani, who had invented both a 3D printed stethoscope and was testing a 3D printed tourniquet, was engaged in medical work. He is known world-wide for his voluntary engagement in medical treatment and training in such crises, but Canadians might remember him best as one of the duo (John Greyson, the documentary filmmaker, was the other) who, on route to Gaza, was detained by the Egyptians in 2013 and incarcerated for seven weeks in Egypt’s Tora prison. Neither was ever charged. The question, therefore, is why was Loubani shot in the legs even if Musa Abuhassanin was killed by a sniper’s bullet and buried in the green and white flag of Hamas as a “holy warrior”?

A second major question raised by Justin Trudeau’s statement was his sentence: “Reported use of excessive force and live ammunition is inexcusable.” He undoubtedly meant to write, “Use of excessive force and live ammunition as reported is inexcusable.” What was reported, however inaccurate or inadequate, whatever else it may be, is unlikely to be inexcusable. As written, Trudeau seems to have endorsed the interpretation of the response to the Gaza protests that “excessive force” has been used and that the “use of live ammunition is inexcusable.” Further, he had first stated that, many unarmed people, including civilians, members of the media, first responders, and children were killed. Calling for an inquiry to establish the facts after the facts have already been presumed seems ingenuous.

Presumably, after establishing the facts as accurately as possible, two objectives of an independent investigation would determine whether Israeli use of force was excessive and whether the use of live ammunition was appropriate, let alone excusable or inexcusable. It is difficult to argue that an independent investigation is needed to “establish the facts” when two of the major “facts” have already been presumed.

Though, Justin’s statements seemed to run contrary to his previous support for Israel that had met such wide criticisms from critics of Israel, this statement was suddenly welcomed by his previous critics. However, the issue is not whether the statement was justified, but whether the statement as distributed begged the question. And that question is a legitimate one without any presumptions.

However, the original statement is clearer and more relevant compared to either the critiques or the defences of it. “CJPME [a defender of the statement] looks forward to watching the Canadian government continue to ensure that Israel is held to account for its human rights abuses and violations of international law.” CJPME does not ask that Hamas be held to account for its human rights abuses and violations of international law. Neither does the Prime Minister’s statement ask that of Israel. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau never claimed that either human rights laws or international humanitarian law were breached. He primarily called for an investigation.

Are these bystanders, who went from severe critics of Trudeau to defenders, now guilty of distorting what he said? Further, they do not indicate what international law was allegedly breached let alone applicable, though in other writings they do make those references. Nor do they indicate in his defence how human rights norms are applicable to a situation of international conflict. They simply presume they are.

Critics, on the other hand, focused on the bias of the statement because it omitted any explicit reference to Hamas. In the case of Hamas, Trudeau’s criticism was implied rather than direct in including the word “incitement.” Further, any Hamas responsibility itself had actually been indirect for the demonstrations were ostensibly organized by a civil society group. Third, highlighting Hamas by the critics only emphasized that the united Palestinian leadership in Gaza had emphasized the peaceful nature of the protests. Fourth, the criticisms of Trudeau ignored that the overwhelming numbers of demonstrators were involved in peaceful protests. Finally, on this occasion, there was little evidence that I could find that Hamas used innocent civilians as shields in the violent conflict.

The issue was not that Israel had lost Canada’s support when its security was threatened. That has been and remains unequivocal. The Canadian government supports Israel and its right to defend itself. The issue was whether and to what degree Israel, in that defence, had injured or killed innocents and did so to such an extent that norms of international law were breached.

A more appropriate response of Jewish organizations might have included the following:

  1. Jews in Canada have been proud of the Canadian government’s defence of the right of Israel to defend itself.
  2. Jews in Canada also recognize that Prime Minister Trudeau cannot be expected to defend Israel if some Israeli actions appear to be inappropriate.
  3. Canadian Jews welcome Trudeau’s call for an independent inquiry and can assure our fellow Canadians that the IDF does conduct independent inquiries when actions by the IDF may appear to go amiss.
  4. All Canadians, including all Jews, are proud of the humanitarian work of Dr. Tarek Loubani and hope that he was not involved in militant political as well as humanitarian work. We express our concern for his injuries and wish him a speedy recovery. We are also convinced that an independent IDF inquiry will reveal whether Dr. Loubani’s leg wounds were intentional or not, and, if intentional, why.
  5. We are also confident that the independent inquiries already underway by the IDF will establish that the widely reported charges of use of excessive force are unjustified and that the use of live ammunition did not contravene the norms of just war.
  6. We are also pleased that only a small minority of those killed – the collateral damage – were non-militants.
  7. We agree with Prime Minister Trudeau’s call for an end to violence and his support for a two-state solution through direct negotiations and mutual agreements, contrary to the objectives of Hamas in general and of the Gazan Political actions more recently. The latter undermine that goal and instead continue to aim for the elimination of the Jewish state.

One seems forced to conclude that the organized Jewish community is no better at engaging in a media war than the Israeli government. The next blog takes up the latter issue.

Tomorrow: 2 (a) The Media War: Effects

1. (a) Gaza 2018: Introduction – Canadian Responses

I cannot comment on the recent events in Gaza in one blog. Or even two. I will write a series. But I first have to make abundantly clear that these are not op-eds. The vast majority of the material on the Gaza clashes have been op-eds of various types. This series is intended to be an analysis of what happened, the context, the motives and the significance. The initial focus on Canada is merely an entry point. My current intention is to write six blogs, but, as with today, I may not be able to fit the topic in a single blog. In that case, I will divide the blog into (a) and (b).

The planned blogs are:

  1. Gaza 2018: Introduction

(a) Gaza 2018: Canadian Responses

(b) A Preliminary Evaluation

  1. Gaza 2018: The Media War

(a) Responses

(b) Emotive Appeals

(c) Jewish Handwringing

  1. Gaza 2018: The War on the Ground – Casualties
  2. Gaza 2018: Political Effects
  3. Gaza 2018: Human Rights
  4. Gaza 2018: International Norms

The clashes formally began on 30 March 2018 and large demonstrations were held every Friday subsequently for six weeks with the intention of culminating in a million-strong march in mid-May to coincide with Israel’s 70th Independence Day, the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem and Nakba Day. Protesters were killed each week, mostly by live ammunition from Israeli snipers. The numbers killed and maimed more than doubled in the 14 May demonstration when 62 were killed on that day alone. On 16 May 2018, Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, issued the following statement on the violence in the Gaza Strip:

“Canada deplores and is gravely concerned by the violence in the Gaza Strip that has led to a tragic loss of life and injured countless people. We are appalled that Dr. Tarek Loubani, a Canadian citizen, is among the wounded – along with so many unarmed people, including civilians, members of the media, first responders, and children.

“We are doing everything we can to assist Dr. Loubani and his family, and to determine how a Canadian citizen came to be injured. We are engaging with Israeli officials to get to the bottom of these events.

“Reported use of excessive force and live ammunition is inexcusable. It is imperative we establish the facts of what is happening in Gaza. Canada calls for an immediate independent investigation to thoroughly examine the facts on the ground – including any incitement, violence, and the excessive use of force.

“Canada stands ready to assist in such an endeavour. We will work closely with our international partners and through international institutions to address this serious situation.”

Canada was not the only government to call for an independent investigation. British Prime Minister Theresa May and United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres also called for an immediate independent investigation. In response, The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), the advocacy agent of the Jewish Federations of Canada-UIA, distributed the following:

“We are deeply disappointed the government’s statement ignores Hamas’ direct responsibility for recent violence on the Israel-Gaza border. This contradicts the government’s long-stated position that, as a close ally and fellow liberal democracy, Israel can count on Canada’s support when its security is threatened. It also disregards Hamas’ claim today that 50 of 62 fatalities in the latest attempts to breach the border were Hamas members.

Hamas has left Israel no choice but to use force to protect the tens of thousands of Israelis who live close to Gaza. We are outraged and saddened that Hamas is again using civilian human shields. For Israelis and the Jewish community, Palestinian casualties are painful tragedies. For Hamas, Palestinian casualties are sickening public relations achievements. Shifting the blame to Israel risks encouraging Hamas to further fuel violence, make peace harder to reach, and impose additional hardships on Gazans – who are the primary victims of Hamas’ tactics.”

Canadian Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center (FSWC) also expressed its disappointment in: “the strong and unbalanced statement issued by Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau. The prime minister’s statement does not condemn Hamas for inciting violence and its armed struggle to invade Israel. Hamas, recognized by Canada as a terrorist group, is determined to enter Israel in order to harm civilians by breaching the security fence and through tunnels.

“While we despair about loss of life, Canada should steadfastly condemn Hamas for inciting violence and for attempting to enter a sovereign nation to carry out terrorism. It’s disappointing that our prime minister did not condemn Hamas in his statement,’ said Avi Benlolo, President and CEO of FSWC.

“US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley told the Security Council yesterday: ‘Who among us would accept this type of activity on your border?…No country in this chamber would act with more restraint than Israel has.’

“Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon said at yesterday’s UN Security Council Meeting: ‘Hamas has committed war crimes not only against Israeli civilians but also against its own people – turning them into human shields for their own cynical gain. Every casualty that has resulted from the recent violence is a victim of Hamas’s war crimes.’

“Israel shares Canada’s values of freedom, democracy and human rights. Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies will continue promoting a peaceful conclusion to this conflict, including a two-state solution. We look to Canada to be an honest broker in this process and to support the safety and security of Israeli citizens.”

On the other hand, Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME) issued the following statement:

“Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME) supports Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s statement on Gaza. Yesterday, PM Trudeau expressed grave concern with the outbreak of violence against unarmed Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip, and called for an ‘immediate independent investigation to thoroughly examine facts on the ground – any incitement, violence and the use of excessive force.’ ‘CJPME calls on the government to keep its promise to Canadians in investigating Israel’s actions in Gaza.’

“Over the past several weeks, thousands of unarmed Palestinians in Gaza have been injured, and many killed by Israeli sharpshooters, simply for protesting Israel’s violations of international law. Yesterday, Trudeau finally broke his silence, calling Israel’s use of excessive force and live ammunition ‘inexcusable.’ Indeed, Israel’s shootings of Palestinian civilians in Gaza are ‘inexcusable,’ as they constitute a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits the targeting of civilians. CJPME points out that the Prime Minister’s statement comes amidst the shooting of Dr.Tarek Loubani, a Canadian citizen that was providing medical treatment to Palestinians injured by Israeli snipers in Gaza.

“CJPME President Thomas Woodley remarked, ‘We are happy that the Trudeau government has finally condemned the shooting of Dr. Loubani and dozens of other innocent Palestinian civilians in Gaza. Like many Canadians, we have been appalled for a long-time by Israel’s grave human rights abuses against Palestinians, and Canada’s muted reactions.’  CJPME looks forward to watching the Canadian government continue to ensure that Israel is held to account for its human rights abuses and violations of international law.

“Since March 30th, Palestinians have held a series of weekly protests at Gaza’s border with Israel, calling for the right to return to their homeland. CJPME notes that so far, Israeli sharpshooters have killed over 100 unarmed Palestinians, and injured thousands of others. CJPME calls on the government to ensure that Canadians receive an explanation as to why a Canadian doctor would be targeted by the Israeli military. Moreover, CJPME calls on PM Trudeau to keep his promise to Canadians and follow through with an immediate independent investigation into Israel’s violent actions in Gaza.”

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu phoned Trudeau after the latter issued his statement on Gaza and, in addition to defending Israeli actions generally, stated unequivocally the following:

  1. Israel would not cooperate with an international investigation;
  2. The IDF would investigate the wounding of Dr. Tarek Loubani by conducting an independent and impartial fact-finding inquiry into the incident.
  3. Earlier, the IDF had already launched two independent investigations, the first by the Southern Command on those killed on or before 5 April, and a second later by Brigadier General Moti Baruch.

Most of the international community rejected an IDF investigation of its own forces as not independent. Given past performances, Israel could not conceive of any investigation under the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) as independent either.

Without taking any stand one way or the other yet on Trudeau’s statement, the following at the very least can be agreed upon:

  1. Most (not all) people, including most Israelis and supporters of Israel, are appalled and upset at the number killed (over 100) and the very large number of civilians wounded (from 2,500 to 3,500 if those who inhale tear gas are also considered injured).
  2. Justin Trudeau’s focus was on the wounded, not those killed, presumably, or at least possibly, because of the 62 killed in the enormous casualty rate on 14 May 2018, according to a Hamas spokesperson, 50 were Hamas members; 3 were members of an even more radical faction of Palestinians. These figures are consistent with the earlier analysis of the Meir Amit Israeli Intelligence and Terrorism Information Centre of the 40 previously killed: 13 were members of Palestinian military and security organizations and 19 were members of Hamas. In other words, with some minor discrepancies, the vast majority of those killed as claimed by both sides were militants.
  3. According to Loubani, himself a descendant of Palestinian refugees and an emergency physician at Ontario’s London Health Sciences Centre and at Shifa Hospital in Gaza, he was wearing his green scrubs; members of his medical team around him were wearing high-visibility medical vests.
  4. 18 other medical team members wearing clearly identifiable vests were also reportedly wounded on 14 May 2018; Musa Abuhassanin, supposedly another member of the team wearing the bright medical vest and, the first to treat Loubani, was, according to Loubani, a “great guy”; Abuhassanin was shot in the chest later that day and died while allegedly treating another wounded Palestinian. Israeli sources and B’nai Brith Canada have both offered “proof” in a poster released by Hamas and data from the Gaza-based Palestinian Information Centre that Musa Abuhassanin, aka Musa Jabr Abu Hasanin, was a Hamas militant, a 36-year-old Captain of the Gazan Civil Defence and not simply an innocent paramedic as Loubani claimed.
  5. Justin Trudeau said that the wounded consisted of “many unarmed people, including civilians, members of the media, first responders, and children.” Among the over 100 dead over the six-week course of the protests, there were evidently 24 “children” between 14-16 years of age killed; this number included a 14-year-old girl, Wissal Abu Ermana, killed while trying to cut through the security fence with wire cutters, and Mariam Marouf, the daughter of Hassan Marouf, following airborne raids and a missile attack by the IDF targeting Marouf in Beit Lahiya in northern Gaza who led a group of armed militants who had allegedly been shooting machine gun fire into Israel.
  6. Trudeau seemed to be correct that the vast majority in the protest were unarmed.
  7. Two journalists, Yaser Murtaja and Ahma d Abu Hussein, were killed: the first died on the day of the first protest on 30 March; the second was wounded and died on 25 April 2018.
  8. Trudeau did not call for an international investigation but for an independent one and left open the possibility that an Israeli-based inquiry would be independent.
  9. It seems incorrect that Trudeau omitted any reference to Hamas, though the reference seemed indirect when he asked that the investigation include incitement as well as violence and excessive use of force; however, Justin Trudeau’s criticism was stronger than that of Bernie Sanders who insisted that there was plenty of “blame to go around” for the situation in Gaza and specifically targeted Hamas and other regional leaders as well as the leaders of the Gulf states while chastising Israel.
  10. The call for a fact-finding mission seems at least odd since it followed a statement of moral judgment based on a presumption of fact seemingly clearly aimed at Israel.

Tomorrow: 1. (b) A Preliminary Evaluation of the Canadian Response


Recipients of the Order of Canada

There are just under 7,000 Canadians who have received the award since 1967. Probably only about 2500 of them are still alive. You wonder what you did to receive such an honour. The depiction they read out states:

“Howard Adelman’s work on behalf of refugees embodies the Canadian spirit of inclusivity and generosity. Professor Emeritus at York University, he helped catalyze Canadians to privately sponsor thousands of refugees from Southeast Asia when he founded Operation Lifeline in 1979. From those efforts, he later created the Centre for Refugee Studies, the leading research centre in North America for forced migration studies. In addition, he is also recognized for his writings on the Rwandan genocide.”

itations are, of necessity, simplifications. The above was changed at my suggestion from the original draft citation that I had been sent. In that draft, it said that I laid the groundwork for the private sponsorship of refugees. I did not. As I wrote, “The Liberal and then Tory governments, the civil servants in the Department of Immigration and, in the private sector, the Mennonite Church and the Christian Reformed Church, did that job. They deserve those accolades, not I.” This is not modesty; it is the truth.

I was pleased that the draft had been changed to indicate that I was a symbol of a Canadian trait – the celebration of diversity and inclusivity. I am very proud of that. But there were so many others who worked for years on behalf of refugees, such as the Solgers in Hamilton and Professor Rajagopal. I did serve as a catalyst even though there many far more important players, including many civil servants such as Mike Molloy. I was also sorry that, because of strictures on length, they did not reference my other work on ethnic conflict and early warning.

Below, please find the picture of myself with Julie Payette, the Governor-General.

Order of Canada Investiture Ceremony / Cérémonie d'investiture

One does not have to be modest to recognize the illustrious company in which one has been included. The appointees include scientists, musicians, politicians, artists, athletes, business people, film stars, benefactors, and others. For example, Margaret MacMillan, my colleague as a Senior Fellow at Massey College and pictured below, was made a Companion of the Order of Canada in last week’s investiture ceremony. She is a world-renowned modern international historian whose books, like her recent one, The War that Ended the Peace, demonstrated what a turning point in history WWI was.  The fact that her histories are readable by the layman is an important bonus.

Order of Canada Investiture Ceremony / Cérémonie d'investiture

At dinner, we sat with Marguerite Mendell, an economist at Concordia at the School of Community and Public Affairs who in 2013 was awarded Prix Marie-Andrée-Bertrand. As David Lametti (LaSalle—Émard—Verdun) said in Parliament that morning, Mendell challenged the free market model in favour of a social economy model for economics that tries to reconcile market economic activity with social justice. She has written essays and volumes in the tradition of Albert Hirschman (whom we discussed at length since she knew him and my son, Jeremy, an historian at Princeton University, wrote a biography on him). She is also an expert on Karl Polanyi and co-founded the Karl Polanyi Institute of Political Economy at Concordia. She has been an activist, not only in the effort to reduce poverty and foster social inclusion through innovative policy tools, but in creating institutions like the Chantier de l’économie sociale Trust. She has also worked tirelessly to free prisoners of conscience, such as Homa Hoodfar who spent over 100 days in solitary confinement in an Iran prison perhaps for having written on sexual diversity in Muslim contexts. My wife sat beside her husband, a very prominent Montreal lawyer in his own right.

Order of Canada Investiture Ceremony / Cérémonie d'investiture

Hoodbar had been released in Muscat, Oman. Ironically, our other dinner companions were from Oman. Another Senior Fellow at Massey College, Dr Abdallah Daar, was raised in status to become an Officer of the Order of Canada. Cross appointed in surgery (he noticed the traces of edema in my feet, but he is most famous for his work on organ transplant immunology), he is a Professor of Public Health Sciences at the University of Toronto and researcher at the Toronto General Research Institute. He is also Director of Ethics and Commercialization at the Sandra Rotman Centre of the University Health Network and was the founding Chair of the Board of the Global Alliance for Chronic Diseases and an adviser to the UN. Internationally renowned for his promotion of global public health initiatives and research into non-communicable disease, he also played an important role in creating Grand Challenges Canada.

Order of Canada Investiture Ceremony / Cérémonie d'investiture

His wife, who sat beside me, was certainly no slouch either. Dr. Shahina Daar is a very accomplished scientist in her own right. She has authored and co-authored numerous scientific papers. When I got home, I read two recent ones, a paper on “Hypogonadism in male thalassemia major patients: Pathophysiology, diagnosis and treatment,” that dealt with the failure of pubertal growth, delay or absence of sexual development, infertility and sexual dysfunction due to hypogonadism and defective spermatogenesis. Another dealt with β-thalassemia, a hemoglobinopathy that affect transfusions. She is not just a renowned haematologist. We also had a minor tiff over Kofi Annan. Most importantly, she wore a traditional Omani long dress that was one of the beautiful dresses that I had ever seen.

There were also lighter moments – as when my grandchildren and one of my sons thought this was one of the greatest events they had ever attended, not because of what I received, but because they could take a picture standing next to the NHL legend and all-time hockey great, Mark Messier, who was made an Officer of the Order, not only for his hockey skills, but for his years of charitable work.

Order of Canada Investiture Ceremony / Cérémonie d'investiture

There were very much lighter moments, as when Julie Payette spontaneously called up two recipients to perform, Howard Shore, the celebrated composer of concert works and film scores, including the score for Lord of the Rings, and the famous Newfoundlander and folk music populizer, the lead singer of the Great Big Sea, Alan Doyle.

Order of Canada Investiture Ceremony / Cérémonie d'investiture

Order of Canada Investiture Ceremony / Cérémonie d'investiture

Reflections on the Order of Canada

On 31 December 2016 I received the Order of Canada. Last Thursday I was finally able to attend the ceremony in which I was inducted into that order. The day before, a dark cloud seemed to hover over me. Though I was not depressed, I had become anxious. My shoulders slouched and I felt myself growing inward and cutting off from my family members who had accompanied me to Ottawa. Anxious is not the exact word. It was more like dread. I had become apprehensive and began to question why I had ever agreed to accept the award. Should I have followed the precedent of Morley Callaghan, Mordecai Richler and Claude Ryan and refused the award? What was the source of this reluctance?

I have never felt nervous or anxious about giving lectures or talks no matter the numbers or the status of the people I was addressing. And in this context, I was not even required to say a word – just walk down the aisle in the order in which we had been placed, take my reserved seat, then just walk up to the front of the room when my name was announced and, as I learned, bowing slightly to Julie Payette, the Governor General (she is the Chancellor and Commander of the Order), and then taking a position between an honour guard in uniform and the GG facing the audience. After my citation was read, I was to step forward, face the GG, and the insignia of the Order would be attached by the GG to the lapel of my jacket. I would have my picture taken with the GG and then walk over to sign the roll book and return to my seat. Nothing untoward or onerous.

As I feared from past experiences when participating in ceremonies, I was very uncomfortable. I was also emotionally overcome once, stumbled twice and perhaps was inappropriate in a fourth move. And that is not counting that, when my picture was taken with the GG, my tie was totally askew.

First, when I walked down the aisle and saw my son and three grandchildren sitting next to the aisle, my tears welled up and I could barely suppress crying. And I had forgotten to take a Kleenex to wipe away the excess liquids leaking out of the orifices on my face. Next, I began to get up to walk up to the front before my name was called. Then, after the insignia was pinned to my lapel and I had my picture taken, and after I signed the book, I got up to return to my seat. My minder touched my shoulder and gently but firmly pressed me back to my chair. I got it. It would be disturbing to the next presentation if I moved back to my seat before the next person received his insignia. My fourth faux pas I suspected, but later came to doubt whether it was indeed a faux pas, is that when my picture was being taken with the GG, I put my arm around her. Should you put your arm around a queen or her representative?

I now think that this was OK. Julie was so personable, so affable, so down to earth, even though she had been a former astronaut and was now GG. At dinner that evening, she came over to our table carrying her own wooden fold up chair and sat down beside my wife to chat with us for awhile. If ever there was a ceremony that could be both precise, exacting and formal but not in the least pompous, this must have been an exemplar. The attention to detail was masterly. I even learned a trick. Leave a row of seats empty so that when people returned to their seats in the row in front of where they had been sitting, they would not clumsily have to get by bodies and legs.

The ceremony itself was not ostentatious. It was not like Putin’s fourth inauguration on Monday last week which looked like a coronation. There was formality but no real fanfare, solemnity without splendour, a small degree of pageantry but without any pretence. It was a ritual but one devoid of grandiosity even though the setting in Rideau Hall was stunning. The ceremony was modest and simple with a very relaxed supportive staff.  Though infused with decorum and courtesy, the affair was neither dull nor insignificant. It could not be when one heard the accomplishments read of those who received the award. One felt extremely proud to be a Canadian.

I have always dreaded ceremony. I never attended any of my graduations. In synagogue I fear being asked to receive an aliyah and desperately try to find an excuse since it is such an honour. Once when I accepted, I not only missed a part, but when I returned to my seat, I sat in the wrong row. I become discombobulated during ceremonies. Perhaps participating in the receipt of the Order of Canada may have cured me. It was, in the end, such a pleasurable experience in spite of my stumbles. But perhaps I am as incurable in this failing as in many others.

I did actually learn what the honour was, though I probably err in some respects. (Please correct me.) Orders are societies of merit which recognize outstanding achievement and exceptional service over a long period of time. It used to be recognition for a lifetime of achievement, but now you no longer have to wait until you are, on average, in your seventies to receive such an award. The insignia is the outward symbol of the honour conferred.

Order of Canada

Order of Order.of.Canada.insignia


As can be seen, there is a striped white and red ribbon with the colours of our national flag. The badge and the stylized maple leaf are silver (gilt with a gold maple leaf for Officers of the order and gilt with red enamel for Companions of the Order, the two higher honours). St. Edward’s Crown tops the badge reminding us that we belong to a monarchy. St Edward’s Crown is the centrepiece of the Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom used since 1911 to crown English and British monarchs at their coronations, reviving a practice dating back to the thirteenth century. A stylized image of this crown is used on insignia throughout the Commonwealth to symbolize the royal authority of the Queen. It is often the reason separatists or republicans refuse to accept the Order of Canada.

The central badge is surrounded by a white enamel hexagonal snowflake, also stylized like the maple leaf, with six equal leaves. The snowflake was chosen as the symbol, not simply because Canada is cold, but because no two snowflakes are the same.

The originals, not the one pinned on my lapel, are also bedecked with precious stones. I had been told that one is expected to wear the miniature of the insignia at all times, but I cannot imagine putting it on my sweats that I usually wear when writing or my casual shirts and slacks when I go out. I have fixed one to my lapel of a dress sports jacket and another to a suit so that I will wear it on formal occasions like a wedding. I do not know why I have such a fear of appearing ostentatious. Perhaps it is because I am afraid that someone will reveal that I do not deserve such an honour. However, I was truly relieved when I read in the booklet that they provided, “Guide for the Wearing of Orders, Decorations and Medals,” that, “Miniatures are worn only for formal evening events,” such as a state dinner or diplomatic reception (p. 8)

Why was I told one thing but read another? The answer resided in my confusion. I had thought the “miniature” was the lapel pin. In fact, there are three, not two versions. The largest is the replica of the original chest insignia. Miniatures are smaller replicas of insignia worn on a smaller ribbon for evening functions in place of the full-sized chest insignia; that was the one pinned on my lapel. Lapel pins are tiny button-sized replicas without the ribbon. I learned that, indeed, you were expected to wear lapel pins daily with civilian dress on the left lapel of a jacket or in a similar position on any other clothing. If they catch me not wearing it, will they ask for it back?

The motto, Desiderantes meliorem patriam, surrounds the stylized maple leaf. This puzzled me. In English it is translated as “they desire a better country.” Not a desire to make Canada great again, but a desire to make it better. The problem is not the motto, but the source. I recognize that this reference is simply to people who make their country a better place. The problem for me is that the quotation is taken from Hebrews 11:16, a very Christian text. My concern is not because the source is Christian. After all, Hebrews comes from a gospel of Israelites who simply accepted Jesus as their lord. The full verse in the King James version reads: “But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city.”

The better country is no longer Zion, but the heavenly country where one presumably goes after one dies. On earth, we are just sojourning. Earth is not our true home. But the whole ceremony, and those who received the awards, indicated the opposite. The accomplishments were a celebration of what had been done to make this earth and our country a better place. In my understanding, Hebrews 11:16 refers to a heavenly-country that people desire rather than an earthly imperfect one that they can improve. Hebrews 11:14 states unequivocally: “For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country.” Instead, the Order of Canada highlights the tremendous country in which we find ourselves and not that we are on earth simply waiting for an enduring and perfect home after we die. Perhaps my kvetching just demonstrates my picayune scholarly credentials!

There is some evidence that although the award adopts a motto from Hebrews, which has the opposite meaning of the original, there is one dramatic similarity. Though we are given the insignia to wear, it is not ours. We are merely trustees that wear it. If we do not live up to its standards, it can be taken back. As in the Torah where we are only trustees of God’s earth, in the conception of the awards, we are only trustees of the honour. In Hebrews, if people profess to be God’s and that God is theirs but fail to live up to that confession of their faith, they become a disgrace to God. The same is true of the Order of Canada; holders are required to sustain the trust put into them by the Canadian state. That is why the honour was taken away from Garth Drabinsky and Alan Eagleson, Conrad Black and Steve Fonyo because of their criminal convictions, and David Ahenakew for his anti-Semitic remarks.

However, what made the day last Thursday were the people being honoured. What a terrific lot!


Tomorrow: Recipients of the Order of Canada

The Iran-Israeli War

There is an article in this morning’s Washington Post by Ishaan Tharoor entitled, “Is regime change in Iran part of Trump’s agenda?” The answer offered is an assertive “yes.” The following evidence is offered:

  • Rudy (Rudolph) Giuliani, The Donald’s newly-appointed personal lawyer, just said so in an unexpected speech (both in timing and given his role as Trump’s personal attorney with no role in the White House) on Saturday to the Iran Freedom Convention for Democracy and Human Rights (IFCDHR) a front for the MEK, Mujahidin e-Khalq, stating that Trump was “committed to regime change” in Iran
  • Giuliani also said that, “We have a president who is tough… a president who is as committed to regime change as we are” and that confronting Iran is “more important than an Israeli-Palestinian deal.”
  • Giuliani has been a lobbyist for over a decade for the MEK (see Jonathan Vankin in the INQUISITR)
  • In 2012, Giuliani was widely credited with getting the MEK delisted from its fifteen-year-old U.S. State Department designation as a “terrorist organization” under a court-imposed deadline for a decision (cf. Spencer Ackerman in Share 12/09/2012)
  • The MEK as a proxy for the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq had been held responsible for the deaths of three American military officers and three military contractors
  • The MEK, following a 2004 NYT Magazine report, is widely regarded as a husband-and-wife cult led by Massoud and Maryam Rajavi given its controls over the sex lives and reading of its members, though it now presents itself as a pro-democracy organization and implacable enemy of the Islamic Tehran regime that provides intelligence (usually fake) on Iran’s nuclear program
  • In 2012, the MEK, in spite of the support it had gained among some American politicians and policy buffs, was still largely considered a fringe cult with limited appeal to Iranians
  • However, currently both John Bolton, Trump’s newly-named National Security Adviser, and Mike Pompeo, the newly-minted Secretary of State, are known supporters of the MEK
  • Trump in his campaign to be the Republican nominee, in his presidential campaign and as president, has repeatedly denounced the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as a “bad one,” the “worst deal ever”
  • This week it is widely believed that he will renounce the nuclear deal and re-impose economic sanctions contrary to the dire warnings against such a move by world political leaders such as Emmanuel Macron, President of France, and UN Secretary General António Guterres because of the imminent prospect of war (Boris Johnson, the UK Foreign Secretary, arrived in Washington yesterday to continue Macron’s lobbying campaign)
  • May 12 is the deadline for making a decision about renewing sanctions by the U.S.
  • Trump is highly unlikely to go to war against Tehran given his dedication to pulling troops out of the Middle East and Far East (“We are going to stop spending US$7 trillion abroad and start focusing on infrastructure at home.”) in spite of the propensities and preferences of the hawks among his reborn foreign policy personnel

By all reputable accounts and inspection reports, Iran has kept the terms of the nuclear deal, but it has not curbed, and likely enhanced, its missile program as well as its troubling interventions in Syria, not just to back the Assad regime, but to establish long term military and missile bases in Syria. If the U.S. re-authorizes economic sanctions, thereby renouncing its commitment to the nuclear deal, a deep schism will result between the U.S. and its European allies who are intent on continuing their support for the nuclear deal.

The likely result will be that the U.S. will give, and has already probably committed itself to giving, Israel permission to act as its surrogate in attacking Iranian targets in Syria. Note the following:

  • Retired Israeli military generals and intelligence officers have become very vocal and have openly warned that withdrawal from the nuclear deal will make matters worse
  • In The Guardian on the weekend, Mark Townsend and Julian Borger reported that an Israeli intelligence firm had been employed by the Trump campaign to discredit those in the Obama regime (Kerry, Rhodes, Kahl, Biden) that had been active in forging the deal by means of “dirty ops” thereby helping to discredit the deal
  • Netanyahu in the week before presented an elaborate show-and-tell with an impressive array of detail captured by the Mossad on the well-known pre-deal record of lying and cheating by the Iranian regime on the Iranian nuclear program
  • Netanyahu almost explicitly claimed that Iran was continuing its past practices of lying and cheating in the post 2015 nuclear deal period but provided absolutely no evidence to that effect
  • Most ominously, Netanyahu insisted that Iran had to be stopped and it was better to do that now rather than later
  • Israel insists on continuing its policy of absolute control over the skies concerning any threats emanating from Syria as evidenced when Israel shot down an Iranian drone in February
  • In the past several weeks, Israel has upped the ante in attacking Iranian facilities in Syria; in the most significant action, Israeli F-15 fighter jets destroyed a cache of Iranian missiles and, in the process, reportedly killed dozens of Iranian military personnel
  • On 30 April, the Knesset voted to give Netanyahu authorization, if the Defense Minister agreed, to “declare war under extreme circumstances,” thereby amending the Israel’s Basic Law Clause 40A that states that the “state shall not start a war save by force of a government decision” and that such a decision will be conveyed to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Security Committee ASAP; the revised procedure would sideline the traditional pattern that the IDF, the intelligence institutions and the Foreign Affairs Ministry would all be consulted before such a decision
  • Netanyahu has repeatedly drawn a red line in the sand insisting that Israel will not permit Iran to establish military bases in Syria; in fact, there are three red lines: 1) no Iranian or Iranian proxies (e.g. Hezbollah) on Israeli borders; 2) no Iranian precision-guided missiles in Syria; 3) no expanded Iranian military entrenchment in Syria
  • Putin’s meeting this week with Netanyahu is unlikely to dissuade Israel from any further military action in Lebanon but will seek reassurances and mechanisms that Russian facilities will not be targeted
  • Hawkish Israeli cabinet members have insisted that Israel’s security will remain in dire jeopardy unless Assad is removed, an unlikely prospect, but holding that goal up will make Netanyahu’s military initiative against the Iranian presence in Syria appear as a more modest effort, even if quite disproportionate to the provocation, and will put further pressure on Assad to accede to Israeli demands that Iran be required to remove its military bases from Syria
  • A distraction from the eruptions expected from Palestinian quarters to the imminent U.S. embassy opening in Jerusalem in a week adds fuel to the increased prospect of a much higher military engagement of Israel against Iran in Syria
  • The disproportionate Israeli response to the Hamas efforts against the fence received relatively muted international criticism and Hamas has now been reduced effectively to pleading for a long-term military truce

Iran has become both very circumspect at the same time as it has been more vocal in warning the U.S. not to cancel the nuclear deal. More specifically,

  • Until 12 May, Iran has put further military initiatives in Syria on “pause”
  • On Saturday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani not only threatened the U.S. if it reneged on the nuclear deal, but also announced that, “We have plans to resist any decision by Trump on the nuclear accord…Orders have been issued to our atomic energy organization … and to the economic sector to confront America’s plots against our country”
  • American and/or Israeli diplomatic and/or military initiatives will weaken Rouhani and strengthen his rival hard line Revolutionary Guard Corps leader, Qassem Soleimani and solidify support for him by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
  • Soleimani is almost surely planning a quid pro quo attack on an Israeli military operation after 12 May even though it will almost surely result in a much larger retaliation against the Iranian military presence in Syria
  • In the May 6th elections in Lebanon, Hezbollah has run candidates, even more hawkish than before and in all constituencies for the first time in an effort to extend its control over Lebanese political and military policies and put Lebanon even further into Iran’s back pocket
  • The prospect of war with Israel and the imminent likely cancellation of the nuclear deal has led to a further precipitous decline in the value of the Iranian currency, putting more pressure on the regime to find a distraction and a nationalist rallying cry
  • The radical forces of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, especially the Al Quds division, is highly unlikely to retreat from its efforts to provide the point of attack for Iran to project power in the region even though in the past it moved into vacuums created by others; Soleimani likely views himself at a point of no return or retreat, but this is the critical breaking point on which Israel is forging its new activist agenda against Iran (cf. the recent piece by Jonathan Paris in the Fathom Forum)

I have been a strong supporter of the Iran nuclear deal. I have also warned that the debates over the Iran nuclear were really over differences in how to respond to the increasing threat of a more conventionally militant Iran. Both issues are now merging once again and the most likely prospect is an Israeli enhanced military involvement in Syria targeting Iran and with an implicit backing of the U.S. I believe that such an enhanced response would be more effective if it was de-linked from the Iranian nuclear deal but the Netanyahu government seems to believe otherwise and that now is the time to take action in the interest of long-term as well as immediate strategic goals.

Expect war unless Soleimani backs away temporarily (unlikely) to increase his forces fighting in Yemen and with Turkish forces against the Kurds.

Parashat Emor (Leviticus 21:1-24:23): An Eye for an Eye and Blasphemers

I am a blasphemer. Not in how I use God’s name as a swear word. I swear very little if at all. I am probably not a blasphemer in contravention of the Third Commandment that instructs us, “not to bear the name of YHWH in vain.” (Exodus 20:7) However, I am a blasphemer deep in my heart and even deeper in my mind. This is not a charge stated lightly or carelessly. Rather, it is an onerous one and is the main reason I find this week’s portion so intriguing.

What is a blasphemer?

Parashat Emor is primarily about the equation of purity and holiness and, more particularly, how priests are to avoid becoming “polluted”. Yet, incongruously, the portion ends with the stoning of the blasphemer just before the law of retaliation (lex talionis) is repeated. The two sides of the sandwich, rules of retaliation and priestly injunctions against pollution, are critical to my understanding of blasphemy and how it should be treated by a community.

Let me begin with the injunction of an eye for an eye, the injunction to retaliate. Verses 24:19-20 read as follows:

ויקרא כד:יט וְאִ֕ישׁ כִּֽי־יִתֵּ֥ן מ֖וּם בַּעֲמִית֑וֹ כַּאֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשָׂ֔ה כֵּ֖ן יֵעָ֥שֶׂה לּֽוֹ: כד:כ שֶׁ֚בֶר תַּ֣חַת שֶׁ֔בֶר עַ֚יִן תַּ֣חַת עַ֔יִן שֵׁ֖ן תַּ֣חַת שֵׁ֑ן כַּאֲשֶׁ֨ר יִתֵּ֥ן מוּם֙ בָּֽאָדָ֔ם כֵּ֖ן יִנָּ֥תֶן בּֽוֹ: Lev If anyone maims his fellow, as he has done so shall it be done to him: 24:20 fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The injury he inflicted on another shall be inflicted on him.

This is not an abstract imperative to me. Last Monday I was operated on my left eye. It was injured when I was seven-years old. Doctors removed a piece of lead, stitched up my pupil and for over fifty years I could only discern light and dark; through that eye, everything only looked like various shades of a cloud. Once just over twenty years ago when we were driving north on Vaughan Avenue just south of St. Clair Ave. W. and I was in the passenger seat, I suddenly exclaimed aloud, “I can see! I can see!” For the first time in over five decades on the big billboard on the north side I could discriminate actual shapes with my left eye – blurry though they were. I even saw some sort of difference in colour, though, when I checked, not quite what others saw. But the recovery of some sight in the left eye was “a miracle.” I could see with my left eye, not clearly, but see nevertheless.

Over the years since, contrary to the pattern of most people, my sight in that eye gradually improved so that I began to be able to identify shapes and even read very large print. The improvement was attributed to the fact that the scar tissue on my pupil had gradually become smoother over the years and had become more and more transparent. My retina had never been injured. It was suggested that I get laser surgery and there was a good chance that my vision would improve even more.

When I was first told about this, I was informed that there was a risk, not a tiny one but a significant chance that there would be no further improvement and that the improvement in my vision would even be set back. The main reason was that my pupil had been misshapen by the injury and laser surgery would be riskier. I decided not to take the risk and rather enjoyed the gradual improvement in my sight in my left eye over the last two decades.

Then four things happened. First, I had begun to develop cataracts in my eyes, much worse in my partially-sighted left eye than my right, and my vision in that eye had begun to become more blurred again. Second, laser surgery had improved enormously and the chances of success had changed dramatically. Third, my optometrist, whom I saw regularly, seemed more dedicated to improving my eyesight than I was and “insisted” that I see a surgeon. Fourth, in the test for my surgery, at least in one of the tests, the technician put a blackout lens over my right eye and a dark lens with pinholes in it over my left eye. I was asked to read the letters on the screen.

Miracle of miracles! I could read every single letter, right down to the tiny ones on the final line. Clearly, I could even have perfect vision out of that eye if the light was allowed to reach the retina easier and perhaps more directly and more focused. I joyfully acquiesced to the surgery.

A week ago Monday I had the surgery. This Wednesday I went for my follow-up examination. I could read through the left eye all but the bottom row of letters on the black-and-white screen. I had been rewarded with 20/30 vision. Success!

What does this story have to do with a revenge ethic let alone with blasphemy? The full context of the injury helps clarify the relevance. When I was seven-years-old, fifteen months younger than my late older brother (he eventually became a highly-regarded cardiologist), he had just turned nine. As he did his homework at the kitchen table in our house on Ulster Street, I began to tease him mercilessly for having to take school work home and for not finishing everything at school or even dispensing with it quickly when we got home. Finally, in rage and exasperation at the continual interruptions and the constant teasing, he turned and flung his pencil at me. The pencil hit my left eye and the end piece of the lead broke off and remained lodged in my pupil.

That was on a Thursday after school. We did not know the extent of the damage at the time, or that the lead had been lodged in the pupil. My eye just stung and kept watering. The nurse was not in the school on Friday and I was sent to see her first thing on Monday morning. She immediately called my mother and I was rushed to Sick Children’s Hospital in the old building on College Street that now houses the blood bank. I was operated on the same day and spent the next three weeks in the hospital graduating by steps from a black mask to a Lone Ranger mask and then a black pirate patch over my left eye.

Other than eating salty porridge – sugar was still rationed immediately after WWII – my memory of the hospital in a general ward with about twenty other young boys was that we had had a wild great time over the three weeks of my stay. My blind eye has just become a fact about me. Because I had very dark brown eyes, no one noticed that the left pupil was turned upwards unlike my young friend, Charlie Menkes, who had an external scar over his eye where he had been cut. In contrast to me, everyone knew he was blind in his left eye.

What if the law of retribution had been in effect? Would my brother have lost sight in his left eye because he had thrown the pencil? Even though I had provoked the action? After all, the injunction simply stated that, “The injury he inflicted on another shall be inflicted on him.” How unjust that would have been! And my late bother might not have become the brilliant medical diagnostician he turned out to be.

The lex talionis was not nuanced like the Hammurabi Code that only required an eye for an eye if a noble had been injured. The person would only have to pay a few shekels if the victim had been a commoner or even half that value if he were a slave. If he was a Mesopotamian, my brother would have been forced to pay me his earnings for perhaps a few hours of work for I too was just a commoner. But we were not Mesopotamians. We were Jews. And the law in the Torah regarded everyone as equal and requiring the same retributive punishment.

The injunction of an eye for an eye is one part of the narrative, the top slice of the sandwich. I have already written about the other side-story, the bottom slice that occurs in Leviticus, God’s sudden slaying of Aaron’s two eldest sons, Nadab and Abihu, for who knows what – because they erred as priests in bringing alien fire into the Holy of Holies, because they might have been a bit tipsy, or for a myriad of other rationales that rabbinic authorities have dreamt up to excuse such murderous divine action without giving the victim a hearing or any due process let alone some slack. Unlike alleged pollution of the holy, at least an injured eye only required injuring the eye of the one who caused the injury and not sudden and immediate death. Thank God my brother had only injured me physically and not polluted the purity of God’s holy place.  I regard these rare side-stories as perhaps throwing more light on the law than all the details of that law.

Which brings me to the blasphemer. (Leviticus 24:10-12) In the camp, there was a fight between two boys, presumably young adults rather than young boys like my brother and myself. The two boys were not brothers at all. Both mothers were Israelites, but the father of one was an Egyptian while the father of the other was an Israelite. Had the young lad with the Israelite father provoked the other boy by calling him a half-breed? Had the boy with the Egyptian father responded by cursing the Israelite God?

Whatever the back story, the son of the Egyptian father was put in the stocks to await YHWH’s decision about his punishment. Note, there is no indication that the one boy injured the other in the fight, only that he blasphemed God. But was this a different example of retributive punishment? What happened? Presumably God’s honour was far more important than a blinded eye for God ordered the Israelites to take the lad outside the community and stone him.

ויקרא כד:יג וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְ-הֹוָ֖ה אֶל מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר:כד:יד הוֹצֵ֣א אֶת הַֽמְקַלֵּ֗ל אֶל מִחוּץ֙ לַֽמַּחֲנֶ֔ה וְסָמְכ֧וּ כָֽל הַשֹּׁמְעִ֛ים אֶת יְדֵיהֶ֖ם עַל רֹאשׁ֑וֹ וְרָגְמ֥וּ אֹת֖וֹ כָּל הָעֵדָֽה: Lev 24:13 And YHWH spoke to Moses saying, 24:14 “Bring out the curser outside of the camp and all who heard him will lean their hands upon his head, and the whole community will stone him.”

Was this similar to the treatment meted out to Aaron’s two oldest sons, Nadab and Abihu? The treatment of the son of the Egyptian father seems much worse or, at the very least, much gorier. Nadab and Abihu seemed to be instantly consumed by God’s fire. The son of the Egyptian father and the Israelite mother, Shelomith, clearly suffered a much slower and more agonizing death. However, there is an indication that the blasphemous son of the Egyptian father, is, like King Josiah, the real hero of the story. Like Rebecca, the mother of the son with the Egyptian father was Shelomit, daughter of Divri of the tribe of Dan. Such a description was a lofty honorific.

Was racism involved? Was the son of the Egyptian father really being punished for being of “mixed blood” and, therefore, a symbol of the so-called pollution of the nation through intermarriage, through breeding cattle of one kind with cattle of another kind? Did such alleged “pollution” defile Eretz Israel, the Holy Land itself?

That seems not to be the case. The bloody mob execution was not racist. It appears that the text condemns racism. After all, Miriam got a skin disease for chastising Moses for taking an Ethiopian bride. The following verse is even clearer and reads as follows:

ויקרא כד:טו וְאֶל בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל תְּדַבֵּ֣ר לֵאמֹ֑ר אִ֥ישׁ אִ֛ישׁ כִּֽי יְקַלֵּ֥ל אֱלֹהָ֖יו וְנָשָׂ֥א חֶטְאֽוֹ: כד:טז וְנֹקֵ֤ב שֵׁם־יְ-הֹוָה֙ מ֣וֹת יוּמָ֔ת רָג֥וֹם יִרְגְּמוּ ב֖וֹ כָּל הָעֵדָ֑הכַּגֵּר֙ כָּֽאֶזְרָ֔ח בְּנָקְבוֹ־שֵׁ֖ם יוּמָֽת: Lev 24:15 And to the children of Israel you will speak, saying: any man who will curse his God will bear his sin.  24:16 And one who will pierce the name of YHWH will surely be put to death.  The whole community will surely stone him, like stranger and like citizen; when he pierces the name he will die.”

It did not matter who cursed God. Israelite or son of an Egyptian were to be treated the same – stoned and murdered for cursing God. Should we be delighted that in this case egalitarian principles of equality before the law trumped racism? Shawna Dolansky a professor at Carleton University whom I have cited favourably before, seems to think so. I myself find this type of compensatory rationale, however valid in bringing out the principle of equality before the law, to be a distraction from the law that required blasphemers to be stoned.

Dr. Serge Frolov finds this injunction to kill blasphemers to be an embarrassment to the religious and body politic of Israel. I, on the other hand, find it intriguing. Perhaps the one who cursed God was not a reference to him in a racist or nationalist sense, but that he was an Egyptian in his heart, that he belonged to the class of people who prevented the Israelites from being liberated. On the other hand, even though he dissed God, perhaps it was he who at this time lived among the Israelites and now stood on the side of liberation and freedom as well as equality. Perhaps he stood as a foil in contrast to those who stone others for using God’s name as a curse word and who demand an eye for an eye. Perhaps the son of the Egyptian was a symbol of one who challenges the premises of both injunctions and argues that the God of Israel is a God of self-revelation, is a God that learns the lessons of excess zealotry and reverence for purity, is a God who gradually, through intercourse with flawed humans, learned too of His own flaws and learned as well to accept responsibility and to diss His inhumanity.

Afterword I

Ignoring for the moment those who simply deride the barbarism of such laws, this stance is quite different from that of most Reform Jews, who avoid discussing such injunctions that they find embarrassing. Others, supply twisted rationales. Still others, mainly a few evangelical Christians, believe that such demands should be taken literally and enforced. Certainly, in their own way from their own sacred texts, Islamicists from the Taliban and ISIS take similar injunctions literally. What about interpreters like myself who try to understand the plot, the characters and the theme in terms of the textual context and the thrust of the narrative?

The story begins with two boys struggling. Unlike Cain and Abel or Jacob and Esau, they are not blood brothers. But they are at odds. But like those stories, in the struggle, the one favoured by God (Abel) or by Isaac (Esau) is not the one that becomes the carrier of the historical narrative. Cain and Jacob win but carry the wounds of that victory similar to the way Jacob limps after wrestling with the angel. Similarly, after an enraged Moses killed the overseer for his barbaric treatment of the Hebrew slave, the next day when he found two Hebrews fighting (Exodus 2:13) and asked why one Hebrew had struck his fellow Hebrew, the striker bravely retorted and asked why Moses was acting so high and mighty. Then he mocked Moses responding, “Do you think you can kill me like you killed the Egyptian?”

This story of the stoning of the son of an Egyptian father and an Israelite mother echoes that one, for the son of the Egyptian God, like Moses, acts out of rage, not to kill as Moses did, but to use God’s name as a curse word. But unlike Moses, the Israelites do not flee for they are now on their own land. Further, it is the Israelites who perform the unseemly violence, not Moses, and not in wrath, but in a cool-headed and cold-hearted belief that they were just inflicting a divinely sanctioned punishment for simply using God’s name in vain.

This fighting (נִצִּים) that takes place in both cases is not simply a physical fight, but a struggle to find the correct path and the norms. And like the pattern throughout the Torah, somehow, the choice originally taken seems the worse one, whether the injunction flouted is one of protecting the purity of the Holy of Holies or the name of the Holy One Himself. It will take humanity to soften and amend the harshness of God’s pristine and inflexible commandments.

That is reason enough to be a blasphemer.

Afterword II

Note that, unlike the case of Aaron’s two sons, towards whom God took umbrage, it is the Israelites who arrest the son of the Egyptian father and Israelite mother for cursing God.  God simply delivers the verdict. But God does not get off the hook so easily. We all know the nursery rhyme, “Sticks and stones will break your bones but names will never hurt you.” Just as it is totally unjust to take an eye for an eye, it is far worse to take a life simply for dissing God. Unless – an important unless – the name of God is His life essence. Blasphemy is not simply using God’s name as a curse word, but abusing God’s name, God’s reputation.

Is this not like Putin punishing dissidents or Erdoğan arresting Turks for insulting the highest authority in the land or Donald Trump insisting that dedicated civil servants be fired for besmirching the name of The Donald. After all, what else is Trump, for better or for worse, but his brand? Isn’t that true of God? And is it not much more of a blasphemy than using God’s name as a swear word to comparing YHWH to Putin, Erdoğan and Trump? Does that not make me a blasphemer in my heart and mind much more deserving of being stoned than the son of the Egyptian father and Israelite mother who used God’s name as a curse or my brother who, in justified anger, threw a pencil at my eye?

All the twisting of the story to turn it upside down and inside out to insist it is a warning against the Israelites insulting anyone’s god, is a lesson against religiously inspired violence based on the belief that insulting the divine name is a most serious and egregious transgression, is not only beside the point, but a more repulsive apologetic in the name of higher principles than all the Talmudic rabbis who try to justify the injunction.

I am more worthy of being cursed because I challenge not only God’s holiness as giving Him an immunity, but the whole idea of separating the holy and unpolluted from the profane and unpolluted. For the nitty-gritty of ethics is to be found in the profane rather than in any abstract vision of purity or perfection. That is why rabbinic Judaism was superior to either the puritanism of the Essenes or the priestly ritualism, even if it often slipped back into the errors of its close predecessors and contemporaries.


Hail to heartfelt and mindful blasphemers!