Friday, January 16, 2009

Parashat Shemot - In Memory of Ferde Alkom z"l

At a time when it seems that there is nothing going on in Israel other than the war in Gaza; when the international media is haranguing Israel and, for the most part, standing in solidarity with Hamas terrorists; when Time Magazine has shockingly turned to reverse Holocaust imagery - a big, ominous, looming and rising star of David behind a concrete wall with razor wire - to proclaim its discontent with Israel’s actions in Gaza, it is important to remember that there is life in Israel beyond the way. It is difficult to say, especially in light of the ongoing rocket attacks in the South, the world media images so grossly biased against Israel, the deaths of soldiers, along with the sad reality of the death of non-combatant civilians in Gaza, that life goes on in Israel, that there are other things going on. But it does and I believe it is important to tell some of those stories. I am looking for happier ones, but this one arrived in my inbox just the other day and I believe it is a story that everyone should know.

A hero died this week, one that I did not know personally. While I witnessed the results of his actions, I did not know his name. I learned about him from an e-mail from our friend, Zehava Tesfay. Zehava, a shlicha at Ramah Darom for many summers, is from Ethiopia. She grew up in Beersheba, where her family lives - and we pray for their safety as Grad rockets land now in her hometown. She sent me the following e-mail telling of the death of Ferde Alkom, a hero of the Ethiopian Jewish Aliyah known as Operation Moses. While Zehava refers to Ferde as her Herzl and Ben Gurion, I also know that she must think of him as the Moses who found the way and led his people out of Ethiopia. The following is my translation of Zehava’s e-mail, reviewed by her, and posted here with her permission:

"I am writing to you because yesterday, I received very sad and painful news. Yesterday, Ferde Alkom , one of the most important members of the Ethiopian Jewish community in general and of the Ethiopian region of Tigre specifically, died. I am almost completely certain that virtually none of you know about him - and that fact saddens me as well. Few are the people who know about the heroic activities of Ferde. In his memory, therefore, I will tell you a little about what he did that will illustrate just a small part of his important activities, as they were told to me by his nephew and my father.

Ferde Alkom was the first Jew to flee Ethiopia to Sudan. He succeeded in finding a passage where none had previously existed in order to get from Ethiopia to Sudan. With this success, he turned to the Mossad with a request to bring the Jews of Ethiopia on Aliyah to Israel. He promised that he would bring them to Sudan and requested that they, in turn, gather them up and bring them to Israel. The Mossad agents were skeptical that Ferde would be able to find this as yet unknown passage, as they had tried and failed. They did not believe that it was possible to walk by foot from the farming villages of Ethiopia thousands and millions of kilometers to Sudan. Nonetheless, they decided to give it a try and set a place and time to meet Ferde.

For the first attempt, Ferde decided that he would not endanger other families and that he would take with him only members of his family, and so he took three families (the Ethiopian definition of family is broader than other communities). Since Ferde was not able to return to Ethiopia because he was now wanted by the Ethiopian Army, he paid a large sum of money to a Christian man who would follow the directions Ferde gave him in order to bring his family to Sudan.

Ferde was with the Mossad agents at the time and the place that had been agreed upon and they waited together for his family, and they waited a long time. Ferde knew that the passage was not really a passage, and that it was very long and full of challenges and dangers, and that they would be killed if they were caught.

And that's how Ferde's nephew described it: the Mossad agents waited for a long time. The time agreed upon for when the family would arrive from Ethiopia to Sudan had already passed and they decided that they were going to leave. At that very moment Ferde’s family appeared before them - the three families of Ferde Alkom. The Mossad agents stood in disbelief for they were sure that it was impossible to find a passage from Ethiopia to Sudan and that if they did find such a passage, they would not be able to navigate it because it would be too dangerous for an individual to succeed let alone a group of people.

It was in this way that the passage from the farming villages of Ethiopia to Sudan and from there to Israel was discovered. Ferde worked for the Ethiopian Aliyah in the midst of constant dangers to his own life. He started to work with the Mossad in the State of Israel in order to bring all of the Jews of Ethiopia to Israel. Groups started to leave, long parades of Jews, who heard about the magical passage that would take them to Israel.

My parents and my entire family came to Israel via this passage and this process. The actions of Ferde led to Operation Moses. I grew up on stories about the passage and the heroic efforts of Ferde and of the incredible value and appreciation my parents personally felt for him. Ferde Alkom is a member of my family and, for me, a hero and a leader, he is my "Herzl" and my "Ben Gurion" and I know that others see him in the same way as well.

I will always remember the resourcefulness, acceptance of responsibility and personal charisma of Ferde.

Ferde Yezahzu Alkom, may his memory be for a blessing."
This Shabbat, we begin reading Exodus. Our 70 families have grown into a nation, a People, one that is enslaved and persecuted. A leader will arise, God’s agent, who will lead them out of the land of Egypt and to freedom. Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our Great Teacher, will lead them to the brink of the promised land. This week, another Moses died, one less famous in most of our communities. Ferde Alkom led part of our family, those who were suffering from persecution and starvation in Ethiopia, out and succeeded not only in guiding them to the Promised Land but to entering it as well. I hope and pray that we will all be inspired by Ferde’s leadership, will share his story, and will demand leadership of this calibre in the future.

In a week when we will honor the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King and will witness the inauguration of the first African-American President of the United States, Barak Obama, the memory of Ferde Alkom, who was the Nachshon ben Aminadav and the Moses of the Ethiopian Aliya, be a blessing and inspiration to us all.

Thank you to Zehava for sharing Ferde’s story.

Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

A Tribute to Dvir Emanuelof by Dr. Daniel Polisar

The following was written by Dr. Daniel Polisar, President of The Shalem Institute in Jerusalem, in memory of Dvir Emanuelof, an Israeli soldier who was killed at the opening of the ground offensive against Hamas in Gaza. It is reprinted here with Dr. Polisar's permission and in full:

We Jews Love Life: A Tribute to Dvir Emanuelof
January 12, 2009

Israel is a small country, but when it goes to war, the front is extraordinarily broad. On Sunday of last week, it reached “Gan Dalia,” the kindergarten my five-year-old son David attends in the Ramot neighborhood of Jerusalem. That morning, officers of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) came looking for veteran head teacher Dalia Emanuelof. She was off that day, so they continued searching elsewhere, ultimately waiting outside her home in the nearby suburb of Givat Ze’ev until she returned that afternoon.

The news the officers brought was unbearable: Her 22-year-old son, Dvir, had been killed in Jabalya, making him the first Israeli casualty of the ground campaign in Gaza. Fighting there as a staff sergeant in his infantry unit, the elite Golani brigade, he was felled by Hamas mortar fire. Though Israel has a conscript army, Dvir did not have to be in Gaza, as he had received high marks as instructor of a squad leader course, was asked to go to officer school, and would still have been in training had he accepted; he deferred, however, saying he would not be fit to command until he had first fought alongside his comrades. In fact, Dvir did not have to be in any front-line position: His father Netanel had died of cancer at age 46, shortly before Dvir’s service began; as an only son in a single-parent family, Dvir was exempt under IDF rules from combat duty. Before accepting him to Golani, his commanding officer visited Dalia and asked if she acquiesced in her son’s opting for a dangerous path he was not obligated to choose. Her answer: “If this is how Dvir wants to serve his country, then this is what he will do.” Two days before entering Gaza, Dvir had called home and said: “Mom, I have to fight. I have to be there.” He went, and he fought—and was buried on Sunday night in the Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem.

A few days later, I was thinking about Dvir as I prepared to speak at an Israel solidarity rally at the Ramaz high school in Manhattan. I opened by talking about Dvir’s words to his mother, and then explained why he had to fight—that is, why Israel had no choice but to wage war to stop Hamas from firing missiles at homes and schools in Sderot and other cities in the country’s south. After describing Israel’s war aims, I addressed the issue on the minds of these morally sensitive young people: How we could be sure that, in the pursuit of moral ends, Israel was using moral means? I stressed the lengths to which the IDF goes to protect Palestinian civilians, and contrasted it with Hamas’s systematic strategy of using non-combatants—women, children, even hospital patients—as “human shields,” to prevent the Israeli army from attacking its fighters or to saddle the Jewish state with the blame for the civilians who are killed.

Afterwards, I fielded questions from seniors in one of Ramaz’s honors classes, of which the most difficult was posed by an earnest young woman named Julie. She accepted that Israel was right to launch an offensive and was fighting in accordance with the dictates of morality, but was deeply concerned about the outcome: If Hamas was eager for Palestinian non-combatants to be killed, while the IDF did its best to prevent such casualties, how could Israel hope to win? Either the Israeli army would be deterred from landing the blows needed to defeat Hamas, or Israel would end up killing large numbers of civilians and be forced by international pressure to accept a cease-fire prematurely—which would be perceived as a Hamas victory, on the model of Hizbollah’s “triumph by surviving” in the Second Lebanon War. She offered a chillingly apt understanding of the statement made in 2004 by Hizbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah and later echoed by many Hamas leaders: “We have discovered how to hit the Jews where they are the most vulnerable….We are going to win, because they love life and we love death.” Nasrallah had meant that the Jews loved their own lives while Muslim radicals embraced death in the pursuit of jihad, but in Gaza, it turned out that Jews also cared more for the lives of Arab civilians than did the leaders of Hamas. I answered, haltingly, on the level of tactics, pointing out that the IDF’s detailed intelligence and precise execution enabled it to limit the bulk of Palestinian casualties to Hamas fighters, and that international condemnation of Israel has been kept in check by widespread revulsion at the use of human shields.

The question was still on my mind when I landed at Ben-Gurion Airport the next morning and headed to a shiva visit at the Emanuelofs. The first floor was overflowing with well-wishers, some sitting and most standing, centered around Dalia, her three daughters, and the general in charge of Israel’s ground forces, Avi Mizrahi, who in an extraordinary gesture of respect was making a condolence visit in the midst of war. Due to his rare combination of gentleness and determination, he became, with Dalia, the center of attention, and the two engaged in a dialogue interspersed with occasional comments from Dalia’s eldest daughter, Hadas, who got married less than a year ago and was visibly pregnant with the family’s first grandchild

From this dialogue, an extraordinary portrait emerged of Dvir—a modest, idealistic young man who was a leader in the Bnei Akiva youth movement, delighted in taking his friends on hikes throughout Israel, and could never be found without his trademark smile, which radiated out from his sparkling eyes and lit up everyone around him—a point amply attested to in the photos displayed in the Emanuelofs’ home. He loved life, with a passion, but was willing to risk his own because he felt a sense of mission to protect Israelis living in the country’s south. Dalia, too, was heroic in her own, quiet way. On her face and in her voice one could discern profound sadness, but also pride in her son and the army in which he served, and resolve that Israel must continue to fight until victory. One could also detect a spirit of hope, bordering on faith, that her people would triumph—and that, as Jews traditionally say, Netzach Yisrael lo yishaker, the Eternal One of Israel will not fail us.

Equally extraordinary was the picture Dalia painted of the support her family had received. She spoke of two teenage girls who came to her home, and when asked how they had known Dvir, answered that they had never met him but identified with the family’s tragedy and wanted to give whatever comfort they could; of a middle-aged man who said only, ‘I’m a citizen of Israel, and I came to be with you, as a representative of all of Israel’s citizens;’ of an elderly gentleman who walked in leaning on a cane, and declared: “I heard that a Golanchik (young Golani soldier) in your family was killed; I fought in Golani in the War of Independence in 1948, and have come to offer my condolences.” She described a phone call from a woman she didn’t know, who had just had a grandson and wanted permission to name him Dvir. Dalia assented, but urged that he be given a second name, as Jewish tradition says that in calling someone after a person who has suffered an unfortunate fate, one should make this change to symbolize the hope for better fortune. The grandmother answered that the boy’s name would be Dvir Chai—“Dvir lives.” And Dalia concluded the story: “A few days after my son had been killed, I could already say again, ‘Dvir lives.’”

At one point, Dalia turned to General Mizrahi and asked why Israel could not fight in Gaza the way coalition forces have in Iraq and Afghanistan—bombing aggressively against enemy fighters in populated areas. There was no bitterness in her voice at the IDF for having endangered her son’s life by its regard for Palestinian civilians, nor any desire for revenge—only the concerned tones of an Israeli mother anxious to protect the sons of other Israeli mothers. The general answered thoughtfully, but without hesitation, that the IDF had gone to greater lengths to protect its soldiers in Gaza than in previous conflicts, citing the week-long air campaign that preceded the ground invasion. He added, however, that the IDF’s strength is integrally tied to maintaining its humanity and morality. Soldiers are united in part because they know that regardless of religious or political differences, they share a common moral code. Alluding to the widely-held view that Hamas’s military leadership is hiding under Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, he said that he wouldn’t give an order to bomb the hospital from the air, because there are certain things one simply doesn’t do. This is an obligation, he stressed, that the IDF has as a Jewish army. From the reactions in the room, it was clear that while everyone identified with Dalia’s question, they accepted the answer—and were impressed that the officer used this opportunity to reinforce the Jewish values binding all of us together.

As I left to return home before the start of the Sabbath, I understood the answer to the question I had been asked by a young woman 6,000 miles away. Yes, on the tactical level it can be a handicap to love life when your opponent loves death. But in the end, it is that love of life that will enable us to prevail. We will defeat those who love death, because we love life so much that we Israelis—from teenage girls to senior officers in wartime—know how to give comfort to those who have lost a loved one, and to say, “We are with you.” Our love of life enables us to confront tragedy, and emerge with the pride and resolve, the hope and the faith, that Dalia showed.

We love life so much that we educate our children to love life, though surrounded by enemies who hope, pray, and work for our deaths. It is this love of life that enabled the Jews to return to our homeland and rebuild a state after 2,000 years, and it is the sense of mission stemming from this love that will sustain the Zionist dream long into the future. We love life so much that we refuse to have our sense of morality dulled by enemies who seek to force us to kill women and children in order to defend our families. Though our principles limit the IDF’s effectiveness, they provide us with intangibles that more than compensate—the confidence and the strength to pursue our aims secure in the knowledge we are acting justly, and the unity that comes from a society acting in accordance with its most cherished values. And yes, let no one err, we will win because we love life so much we are willing to brave death, if necessary, to ensure that our people can lead free lives in the country we have established against all odds. In the end, it is this love of life that will enable us to prevail—not only in the war in Gaza, but in all the challenges we face in the years and generations to come.

Saturday, January 10, 2009


In the second episode of The West Wing ever aired, President Bartlett’s new personal physician is murdered just before the credits roll. He is traveling to Amman, Jordan to volunteer for a week at a teaching hospital when his military plane is shot down over the Mediterranean Sea. President Bartlett, generally uncomfortable with military issues, tells his Chief of Staff that he is going to bomb those responsible.

In the following episode, the new President is presented with a series of options that are labeled “Proportional Responses.” Bartlett replies by asking if there are any alternatives to the “Proportional Response.” When the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs tells him that there is not, President Bartlett argues that there is, in fact, an alternative: The “Disproportional Response.” Hit the enemy so hard that they will never, ever attempt such an act again. A plan is drawn up and, when President Bartlett, played by Martin Sheen, returns, he is told that there will be significant loss of civilian life and that humanitarian aid to the region will be disrupted.

The Chairman tells the President that such a disproportionate response would be understood by the world as a new President “dolling out” a $50,000 punishment for a “fifty buck crime.” The President recoils and accepts the “Proportional Response” plan understanding that a proportional response is neither good nor bad, it simply is what is, and that it does not preclude using other options in the future. These early episodes of The West Wing are on my mind as I listen to the international outcry against Israel’s “disproportionate” response to Hamas ending the cease fire and constantly firing larger, more dangerous rockets, with greater range, than ever before. It is time to consider the equation being presented, to understand what is and is not included when determining proportionality, and to draw conclusions about the future.

The basic argument seems to be as follows: Yes, Israel has been subjected to terror. Yes, Israelis in the south, and now increasingly east and north, have been living with daily rocket and mortar attacks for over seven years. Yes, it is awful. And, yet, only 20 Israelis (read “JEWS”) have been killed by rockets and mortars from Gaza in eight years. Therefore, 600 plus Palestinian deaths in less than two weeks is “disproportionate.”

Yes, it is tough to live in Sderot and other Gaza neighbor communities. Sure, your kids sleep with you at much older ages because they are afraid to sleep by themselves. Sure, their playgrounds are covered with equipment pocked with shrapnel holes.
And sure, Hamas regularly tries to kidnap your children living on the border. And yet, only 20 Israelis have been killed over all these years. Therefore, when Palestinian children, innocents, are dying in larger numbers during Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s military response is “disproportionate.”

Yes, Hamas refuses to give up violence and terror. Yes, Hamas indoctrinates its children to hate Jews, Israel, the US and others. Yes, Hamas is dedicated to destroying Israel. Yes, Hamas is another proxy of Iran, a country whose president declares regularly that Israel will be wiped off the map. And yet, only 20 Israeli Jews have been killed, murdered, by Qassam and Grad missiles, mortars and rockets in all these years. Therefore, when Israel sends its massive military force into Gaza to fight Hamas “gunmen” and Palestinian civilians die, Israel’s military response is “disproportionate.”

It is as if this is a simple algebra-ratio problem:

If the number of Jews murdered over 8 years is less than x then Israeli action that causes y deaths is disproportionate.

By focusing only on a number of Jews vs a number of Palestinians dead, the equation fails to consider the following:

A sworn enemy dedicated to your destruction, living on your border, smuggling enormous quantities of weaponry into its area and using it at greater distances with greater impact in order to bring about your destruction, changes the equation.

Some in the world will argue that this is precisely what Israel is trying to do to Hamas. However, if the rockets and the terror stopped tomorrow, really stopped, if Hamas put forth its efforts to build its country instead of digging weaponry tunnels, if it spent its money building, investing in its people instead of buying munitions, and if Hamas stopped terrorizing Israelis, Operation Cast lead would not, would never have been, necessary.

It is time to stop engaging in the argument about proportionality. It is an un-winnable argument. Why? Because those who claim that Israeli responses are disproportionate are not the least bit interested in proportionality in the first place. Some are simply opposed to any military action at all. As such, any Israeli response is disproportionate. Israel should simply turn its cheek, take it, and not respond. They are not Anti-Semites or Anti-Israel. They are simply complete pacifists.

I suspect, however, that the majority of those who wish to engage in the disproportionalist argument are, at best, not friends of Israel. At worst, they celebrate the suffering that Jews experience and glorify the bravery of Hamas. In either case, engaging in the argument about proportionality is really arguing about the right of Israel to exist. And therefore, I suggest that we not engage in the proportionality debate at all.

Rather, Israel was attacked. Those attacks persisted for eight years. Tens of Israelis died, many more were injured and tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, were living in terror from daily Qassam, Grad, and Mortar attacks. Moreover, during the eight years, the enemy demonstrated an intention to increase the frequency of the attacks as well as increasing the range of the weapons, now bringing Beersheba and soon, Tel Aviv, into range, where the majority of the population lives. These attacks, by an enemy committed to Israel’s destruction, were not just about disrupting lives, they were, they are, about removing the Jewish People from the Land of Israel. Nothing more and nothing less. Operation Cast Lead is not about proportionality or disproportionality; rather, it is about the right to exist or the absence of that right to exist.

We, the Jewish People, need not argue about the right to exist. We do. We always have. We always will. The Land of Israel and the State of Israel exist and will continue to exist. Israel has the incontrovertible right to defend itself. It has showed incredible restraint for many years. The time for argument about proportionality, if there ever was a time, is over. The time to stand in support is eternal. That is where we should stand and that is what we should argue.

When President Bartlett walks out of the White House Situation Room after approving the limited military strike against Syrian intelligence, he turns to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and says, “Fifty Buck Crime? I have no idea what we are doing here.” A Qassam is not a fifty buck crime. A Grad is not a fifty buck crime. A mortar is not a fifty buck crime. An intentional, constant attack against innocent civilians is an existential crime and should be responded to as such.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Vayechi 2009

We come to the end of the First Book, the end of a chapter. Things are good in Egypt. Yet we know, because we reread The Book every year, that things will change quickly, for the worse. Our family, 70 in all, will grow and multiply, will be seen as a threat and enslaved. They will be tortured and abused. And then they will be redeemed, will become a People, will encounter God, and enter a Promised Land, The Promised Land. That is how it will end. But for now, the Blessing has been secured and transmitted, the Promise made. Things will be good.

Ya’akov, in his final days and moments, assembles his family, blesses his sons and shares his parting words before he is “gathered unto his people.” They are at once beautiful and poetic and, at the same time, confusing and painful like the life of Ya’akov itself. Each child gets their own words of blessing, their own conversation, perhaps private but recorded for posterity, Ya’akov speaks and we do not hear their reactions. Efraim and Menasheh are adopted and will be the perpetuation of Yosef’s name. It is from here that we take the phrase, “May God make you like Efraim and Menasheh,” the words that I will whisper to Elan tonight as we begin our Shabbat meal, followed by blessings for Mira and Amalya recalling Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. The Tribes are blessed. Their father returns to his people, his body buried back in Hebron, in the cave at Machpelah, along with his, and our, ancestors in the first homestead of the Jewish People in the Land of Israel.

Ya’akov loves his children. He loves them, along with their shortcomings. He loves them despite his own shortcomings. Yes, he has a complicated relationship with them, shows favoritism that continues to the end, but he loves them, blesses them, and tries to prepare them for a world of good, for a bright future, in a Land, in their Home, in Israel. Does he know that things will get bad for them and their descendants before they get good and get home? We don’t know.

Ya’akov’s words of blessing to Yosef have always been powerful to me but I find them even more so today:

טו וַיְבָרֶךְ אֶת-יוֹסֵף, וַיֹּאמַר: הָאֱלֹהִים אֲשֶׁר הִתְהַלְּכוּ אֲבֹתַי לְפָנָיו, אַבְרָהָם וְיִצְחָק--הָאֱלֹהִים הָרֹעֶה אֹתִי, מֵעוֹדִי עַד-הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה.

הַמַּלְאָךְ הַגֹּאֵל אֹתִי מִכָּל-רָע, יְבָרֵךְ אֶת-הַנְּעָרִים, וְיִקָּרֵא בָהֶם שְׁמִי, וְשֵׁם אֲבֹתַי אַבְרָהָם וְיִצְחָק; וְיִדְגּוּ לָרֹב, בְּקֶרֶב הָאָרֶץ.

And he blessed Yosef, saying: “The God in whose ways my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, The God who has been my shepherd from my birth to this day - The Angel who has redeemed me from all harm --Bless the Children. In them may by name be recalled, and the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac, and may they be teeming multitudes upon the earth. Genesis 48: 15 - 16

The Promised of the Land is once again threatened. Redemption from all harm has not yet been granted. Young men and women must once again go into battle to insure Israel’s safety and her promise. We pray that they will Blessed, that they will be protected from all harm and that they will be redeemed from the fear and terror that has rained on towns from Sderot to Ashqelon, and now east to Beersheba and North to Gedera, for seven years. I hope that someday they will be able to dwell in teeming multitudes throughout the land. The price of achieving such redemption is too high to imagine just as it is impossible to imagine what it might mean to never achieve it at all.

Things get bad.

And then, they get better.

For our friends in Ashqelon and Beersheba they are bad. And for their children, those that are serving in the IDF in Gaza or other potential hot spots and those that are living with the daily fear of rockets landing on their homes, things are tough. I hope that our love and prayers and support help in some small way to get them through the day. If you have not been in touch with them, please call or e-mail or skype or chat. Let them know that you are thinking of them.

Keep in your prayers and hopes that our friends serving will return home safe and sound, that the missiles and mortars and rockets will end, that the residents of Gaza will build their own lives, have a return to normalcy, and to a sense of safety and hope, and that the redemption that will be heralded in the future by an Angel will come soon and in our day.

Shabbat Shalom.