It's Not Just Ukraine

What his actions in Eastern Europe tell us about how Vladimir Putin sees the Middle East.
It's Not Just Ukraine
Russian President Vladimir Putin signs bills making Crimea part of Russia, Friday, March 21, 2014. Photo credit: AP/Sergei Chirikov.
 
Observation
March 26 2014 12:05AM
About the author

Michael Doran, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, is a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and a former senior director of the National Security Council. He is finishing a book on President Eisenhower and the Middle East. He tweets @doranimated.


Does the Ukraine crisis mark the beginning of a new cold war? The answer from President Obama is a firm no. “The United States does not view Europe as a battleground between East and West, nor do we see the situation in Ukraine as a zero-sum game. That’s the kind of thinking that should have ended with the cold war,” he told a Dutch newspaper.

The president is partially correct. Unlike the Soviet Union, Russia has neither the intention nor the capability to challenge the entire European order, and it is certainly not mounting a global revolutionary movement. Nevertheless, it is a revanchist power, and its appetites are much larger than the president cares to admit.

That Russian President Vladimir Putin sees Ukraine as a zero-sum game seems obvious. Somewhat less apparent is the fact that his revisionist aspirations also extend elsewhere, and most saliently to the Middle East. 

 

Obama’s first-term effort to “reset” relations with Russia was rooted in the firm conviction that the main cause of Russian-American competition in the Middle East lay in the previous Bush administration’s war on terror, which was read by the Russian leader as a pretext for a global power grab. Bush’s freedom agenda, with its support for democratic reform inside Russia, only confirmed Putin’s worst suspicions.

Alienating Putin, the Obama White House believed, had been a strategic blunder, depriving the United States of a potentially valuable partner. Putin, whatever his faults, was a realist: someone who could cut a deal in situations—like those in the Middle East—where Russia and America shared many interests. Once Putin fully grasped our sincerity, demonstrated by our ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Russian fears of American aggressiveness would dissipate and Russian-American cooperation would blossom. 

Unfortunately, getting through to Putin proved harder and took longer than expected—though not for want of trying. Famously, during the 2012 American presidential campaign, an open microphone caught Obama making his pitch. “This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility,” he told then-Russian President Dimitry Medvedev. “I understand,” Medvedev answered. “I will transmit this information to Vladimir.”

Eventually, Putin did seem to grasp the concept. When Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stepped forward last September with an offer to strip Syria’s Bashar al-Assad of his chemical weapons, Obama saw the move as a breakthrough, precisely the kind of mutually beneficial arrangement that the Russian reset was designed to generate. Soon, working together on the chemical-weapons problem, Secretary of State John Kerry and Lavrov also conspired to launch Geneva II, a peace conference designed to find a diplomatic solution to the Syrian civil war. 

In the dawning new era, Syria was seen by the White House as a prototype: a model for stabilizing the Middle East and containing its worst pathologies. If successful, it could be applied to other problems in the region—including the Iranian nuclear program, the greatest challenge of all. In his speech at the General Assembly last September, the president was eager to defend his friendship with Putin in just these terms. “[L]et’s remember this is not a zero-sum endeavor,” Obama reminded his critics. “We’re no longer in a cold war.” 

 

Today, just six months later, the new model is collapsing before our eyes. The proximate cause is the spillover from the Ukraine crisis. On March 19, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov warned that if the West imposed sanctions over the annexation of Crimea, Russia would retaliate by exacting a much greater price: it would throw its support to Iran in the nuclear talks. “The historic importance of what happened . . . regarding the restoration of historical justice and reunification of Crimea with Russia,” Ryabkov explained, “is incomparable to what we are dealing with in the Iranian issue.”

Even before Ryabkov issued this extortionate threat, there were clear signs that the Kremlin never truly supported the new model of Middle East cooperation. Kerry and Lavrov did convene Geneva II in January, but the conference ended in abject failure thanks to the intransigence of the Assad regime—which after all is Russia’s client. Shortly thereafter, Kerry openly blamed Russia for the Syrian disaster. “Russia needs to be a part of the solution,” he complained, “not contributing so many more weapons and so much more aid that they are really enabling Assad to double down.”

In the Middle East as in Eastern Europe, then, the reset looks increasingly bankrupt. In fact, being based on two major errors, it never had a chance.

 

The administration’s first error was the failure to appreciate Putin’s either-or perspective on politics, a viewpoint succinctly expressed in Lenin’s famous formula: “who-whom?” Who will dominate whom? In Putin’s view, all accommodations with the United States are tactical maneuvers in a struggle—sometimes overt, sometimes covert—for the upper hand.  

In the bad old days of the cold war, the overtly malevolent intentions of the Kremlin were hard to misread (although, even then, some American leaders did try to misread them). Today, Russia’s motivations are more complex: a unique mix of Great Russian nationalism, crony capitalism, and autocratic whimsy. This makes it difficult to predict the Kremlin’s behavior. For 364 days of the year, a deal between a Western client and Gazprom, the largest Russian natural-gas supplier, will function like a normal business transaction. On the 365th day, to teach the recipient a lesson about who’s really in charge, Putin will cut the gas flow. 

Adding to the unpredictability is Putin’s mercurial-seeming personality. Perhaps the single most revealing fact about him is his interest in Sambo, a Russian form of judo whose techniques have been deliberately tailored to the requirements of each state security service. “Judo teaches self-control, the ability to feel the moment, to see the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses,” Putin writes in his official biography on the Kremlin website. “I am sure you will agree that these are essential abilities and skills for any politician.” As a former KGB agent and judo black belt, Putin is undoubtedly adept at the deceptive move that turns an ordinary handshake into a crippling wristlock, instantly driving the adversary’s head to the ground.

Turning a blind eye to such niceties, Western politicians assumed that by enmeshing Putin in a web of diplomatic and economic deals, they would foster in Moscow a sense of shared destiny that would ultimately work to moderate Russian behavior. As the Ukraine crisis demonstrates, the web has indeed created mutual dependencies. But the crisis also reveals that the two sides do not approach dependency in a spirit of reciprocity. When shaking hands on a deal, Putin never fails to assess whether he has positioned himself for a speedy takedown of his partner. 

The Sambo approach to diplomacy is particularly suited to the Middle East, where international relations, more often than not, is a zero-sum game dominated by brutal men with guns. This is Putin’s natural habitat; as prime minister in 1999, he supported the Russian military’s use of ballistic missiles against civilians in Grozny. It is a simple truism that a leader habitually photographed shirtless while performing feats of derring-do will understand the politics of the Middle East better than sophisticated Westerners who believe that the world has evolved beyond crude displays of machismo.

 

Lack of attention to the perfect fit between Putin’s mentality and Middle East reality constitutes the second error of the administration’s Russian reset.

With respect to political alignments, the most influential event in today’s Middle East is the Syrian civil war. That the conflict is barbarous is easily gleaned from a slogan of the pro-Assad forces, scrawled on buildings in all major cities: “Assad, or we will burn the country.” This demand has divided the entire region into two groups. On one side stand the allies of America: the Saudis, Turks, and other Sunni Muslim states, all of whom agree that, come what may, Assad must go. On the other side, the Iranians, together with Hizballah, have lined up squarely behind Assad, their partner in the so-called Resistance Alliance.

For Putin, Syria has raised two key questions, each a variant of who-whom: (1) who will dominate inside Syria; (2) who will dominate in the region more broadly. It was Foreign Minister Lavrov who two years ago, in a rare slip of the tongue, best explained how Putin saw these questions: “if the current Syrian regime collapses, some countries in the region will want to establish Sunni rule in Syria.” More bluntly, the Kremlin sees itself as the great-power patron not just of the Assad regime but also of Iran and Hizballah—the entire Resistance Alliance. At the time, Moscow’s unvarnished preference for Shiites won little attention in the United States, but it sparked a storm of outrage in the Sunni Arab world, leading one prominent Saudi commentator to dub the foreign minister “Mullah Lavrov.”

Not surprisingly, Putin’s position was in perfect keeping with one of the most fundamental rules of strategy, perhaps best expressed by Machiavelli: “A prince is . . . esteemed when he is a true friend and a true enemy, that is, when without any hesitation he discloses himself in support of someone against another.” In the Middle East, Machiavelli’s logic is inescapable, and Putin grasps it intuitively. Not so Obama, who has convinced himself that he can hover above the gritty game on the ground yet somehow still remain an influential player.

In Syria, the United States criticizes Assad harshly and says it sympathizes with the opposition. But it releases only dribs and drabs of military aid to opposition forces while simultaneously qualifying and hedging its diplomatic support. Fretting incessantly about the Sunni jihadist elements fighting the Assad regime, it develops no strategy to combat them; instead, it cozies up to Assad’s Russian and Iranian patrons. When the Sunni allies of the United States compare the confusion of American policy with the clarity of Russian strategy, it’s no wonder they despair.

Obama is not entirely oblivious of the problem. In a recent interview, the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg asked him bluntly, “So why are the Sunnis so nervous about you?” His answer: “[T]here are shifts that are taking place in the region that have caught a lot of them off-guard. I think change is always scary. I think there was a comfort with a United States that was comfortable with an existing order and the existing alignments, and was an implacable foe of Iran.” This exercise in condescension, while doing nothing to allay and everything to aggravate the fears of America’s allies, offers a glimpse into the mindset that generated the reset, a mindset that dreamed of a concert arrangement whereby both Russia and America would place a greater value on comity with each other than either would put on its relations with allies. 

To be sure, Putin will gladly sign on to American-sponsored initiatives like Geneva II. But he will insist on guiding them in directions that, regardless of their stated intentions, serve the interests of his clients. If the Obama administration has yet to admit or adjust to this reality, that is partly because the Russians do not wave a flag identifying themselves as the great-power patrons of Iran, Syria, and Hizballah. Nor does Putin back Tehran and Damascus to the hilt as the Soviet Union backed its clients in the cold war.

It is thus more accurate to say that Russia is in an alignment, not an alliance, with Iran and Syria. Depending upon competing priorities and the vicissitudes of world politics, Putin will tack this way today, that way tomorrow. In the end, however, he will never sell out Tehran and Damascus in order to win compliments in Washington; if forced to choose, he will always side with the former against the latter, and will certainly leave them in no doubt that Russia is their most dependable friend in the United Nations Security Council.

It is this fact that makes Russia a revisionist power in the Middle East and the permanent adversary of the United States. 

 

What, then, about the Iranian nuclear question? Hasn’t Russia consistently called for preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon? Didn’t it vote in favor of six Security Council resolutions against Tehran? Hasn’t it signed on to the economic sanctions? Surely all of these actions support the Obama administration’s contention that Russia, in certain contexts, is a valuable partner. 

Indeed, Putin has a strong track record of supporting some actions designed to prevent an Iranian bomb; in an ideal world, he would probably prefer an Iran devoid of such weapons. But he also has a strong track record of building the Iranian nuclear program and of providing security assistance to the Iranian military. Whatever his preferences in an ideal world, in the here and now his goal is less to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon than to garner as much power and influence for Russia as he can. He is supportive enough of the United States and its key European partners to maintain credibility with them. On the key issue of stopping Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, he is never so supportive as to be taken for granted. 

How this cynical game works was revealed in Deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov’s extortionate threat mentioned earlier. It has placed Obama on the horns of a severe dilemma. If, on the one hand, the president simply acquiesces in Putin’s power play in Ukraine, he will embolden not just Russia but also Iran, Syria, and Hizballah by demonstrating that, just as in Syria, he retreats when challenged. If, on the other hand, he marshals a robust Western response, he could well provoke the threatened Russian countermeasures of increased support for Iran.

No matter which course the president follows, the Ukraine crisis has damaged the prestige of the United States in the Middle East. America’s Arab friends in the region, who are on the front line against Iran, Syria, and Hizballah, already feel the pinch, and are deeply uncertain about how to respond. Unlike the Resistance Alliance, they are not accustomed to cooperating on their own. As Karl Marx notoriously said of peasants, America’s Arab allies are like potatoes. When U.S. leadership provides a sack, they take on a single form and become hefty in weight. In its absence, they are a loose assortment of small, isolated units.

The ally who most immediately feels the fallout is Israel. On March 17, Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon described, with unusual bluntness, the consequences of what he called the “feebleness” of American foreign policy. The Obama administration’s weakness, he argued, was undermining the position not just of Israel but also of America’s Sunni allies. “The moderate Sunni camp in the area expected the United States to support it, and to be firm, like Russia’s support for the Shiite axis,” Yaalon lamented.

Yaalon spoke no less despairingly of Obama’s ability to make good on his pledge to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. “[A]t some stage,” he observed, “the United States entered into negotiations with them, and unhappily, when it comes to negotiating at a Persian bazaar, the Iranians were better.” On the matter of Iran, Yaalon concluded, inevitably, “we have to behave as though we have nobody to look out for us but ourselves.”

Whether Israel actually has the political will and military capability to launch an independent strike against Iran is anybody’s guess. But two facts are undeniable. First, Putin’s muscular foreign policy and Washington’s timorous response have increased the pressure on Israel to strike independently. Second, Obama has lost influence over the Israelis—just as he lost influence over his Arab allies when he refused to back them on Syria. 

Adrift in Machiavelli’s no man’s land, neither a true friend nor a true enemy, Washington is left with the worst of both worlds, treated by its adversaries with contempt, charged by its friends with abandonment and betrayal. President Obama was correct to say at the UN that the U.S. and Russia are no longer locked in a cold war. But it was a strategic delusion to assume that Putin’s handshake was an offer of partnership. It was instead the opening gambit in a new style of global competition—one that, in the Middle East, Russia and its clients are winning and the United States, despite huge natural advantages, is losing.

__________________________

Michael Doran, a senior fellow of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, is a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and a former senior director of the National Security Council in the George W. Bush administration. He is finishing a book on Eisenhower and the Middle East. He tweets @doranimated. 

More about: Foreign Policy, Middle East, Russia, Ukraine, Vladimir Putin

 

What Should Israel Do Now That Its Neighbors Are Collapsing?

Israel’s formerly quiet borders are now ungoverned zones filled with guerrillas. How should the Jewish state adapt?

What Should Israel Do Now That Its Neighbors Are Collapsing?
Smoke rises after Egyptian forces, in response to militant attacks, blow up a house in the border town of Rafah in November 2014.
 
Observation
March 30 2015 12:01AM
About the authors

Lazar Berman, news editor at the Times of Israel and a reserve infantry officer in the IDF, has written for the Journal of Strategic Studies, Commentary, and other publications.

Gidi Netzer, a colonel in the IDF reserves, is a long-time adviser to Israeli and non-Israeli political figures, military commanders, and intelligence services.


This past January, an Israeli airstrike on the Syrian Golan Heights killed up to twelve enemy fighters. These were not conventional Syrian forces, of the kind stationed across the mainly quiet frontier for decades. Israel’s pilots were after something new and far more troubling: Hizballah men (including senior commanders) and an Iranian general believed to have been scouting the border area for opportunities to carry out kidnappings, rocket attacks, and infiltrations into northern Israel. Meanwhile, in the very same volatile region, al-Qaeda-affiliated guerrillas and moderate Syrian rebels have been engaging in pitched battles with Hizballah and other Iranian-backed forces.

No quieter is the region hugging Israel’s southern border. Also in January, jihadists launched a series of attacks against Egyptian security forces in the Sinai, killing at least 30. The Egyptian government accused the Palestinian terror group Hamas of involvement in the attacks.

At first glance, these two violent episodes seem unrelated, one the product of the civil war tearing Syria apart, the other the result of alliances between jihadist groups and tribes holding longstanding grievances against Cairo. On closer examination, however, both incidents, as well as other developments taking shape on Israel’s borders, can be seen as products of a larger process driving events in the region.

Since 2010, as a result of the Arab revolutions, sovereign state rule has been imploding. As it recedes, stretches of territory have emerged in which an array of forces, armed with advanced capabilities and led by religious sects, ethnic groups, and especially tribal entities, operates freely. Also moving into these essentially ungoverned zones are global jihadist entities like al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS). The phenomenon is occurring across the Middle East: in Syria, Iraq, the Sinai, Yemen, and potentially in Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

The challenge presents unique issues for advanced conventional militaries like Israel’s—different from those posed by such familiar non-state adversaries as Hizballah and Hamas, both of which see themselves as national religious movements. Conventional armies have been drawn by the new actors into long wars of attrition and have yet to solve the problem of defeating them decisively.

This emerging reality demands a reassessment of Israel’s approach both to the security threats on its immediate borders and to those emanating from deeper inside hostile territory. Innovations in intelligence-gathering, technology, training, force structure: all are needed. And such innovations, to be effective, must emerge out of an understanding of the new trends sweeping the Middle East.

Israel’s broader region of strategic interest stretches well beyond the Middle East through a swath of Africa and Asia. From the Horn of Africa to Central Asia, from the Sahel to West Asia and the Hindu Kush, money, weapons and fighters flow to conflicts near Israel’s borders. There, as government control contracts or collapses, guerrilla campaigns, led mainly by tribes, are becoming the region’s dominant feature. Using terrorism as a core tactic, these groups enjoy the cooperation of other, like-minded organizations and the support of states like Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar.

The non-state actors operating in these ungoverned zones present no clear command or organizational structure. They, and often individual cells within them, decide independently when and where to initiate attacks. Growing and developing without ostensible logic, they spawn temporary, changing, and mobile formations that the most capable Western intelligence agencies have struggled to track. In addition, the deep cultural DNA of the tribal and ethnic fighters in these areas allows them to keep fighting indefinitely against far superior conventional forces.

The tribal and ethnic groups are not the only problem. Traditional powers can and do exploit the chaos to improve their own positions and move weapons and forces to the borders of enemy states. Foreign state actors can also manipulate guerrilla groups into forming confederations that serve their own interests.

With armed groups spread across national borders, the borders themselves have become increasingly meaningless. This, in turn, has enabled money, weapons, and fighters to flow to conflicts in close vicinity to Israel. On the frontlines of the battle against IS in November of last year, the Israeli journalist Itai Anghel reported being able to stroll back and forth across what was once the major border crossing between Syria and Iraq. If an Ashkenazi Jew from Tel Aviv can cross that border unnoticed, so can every type of weapon and fighter. The same goes for the Lebanese-Syrian frontier, blurred by Hizballah’s involvement in the Syrian civil war.

 

A quick tour of the ungoverned zones bordering Israel will give a sense of the gravity of the threat.

In the north, Syria has lost its coherence as a country. The Assad regime controls the Mediterranean coast and much of southwestern Syria. Kurds hold the northeastern corner bordering Iraq and Turkey. Meanwhile, across the ungoverned zones in much of central and eastern Syria, guerrilla armies have seized power. These are the poorest and most neglected regions of the country, where hostility to Assad and the Alawites runs high and where local tribes took an early role in protests and then in armed resistance against the regime. In this large area, with fighters largely dressed in civilian clothes and constantly battling each other as they move into new sectors, the IDF cannot readily identify the enemy.

Nor does this begin to account for the whole dizzying mix of organizations on both the pro- and anti-Assad sides of the conflict. They include Syrian Sunni jihadist groups like the al-Qaeda affiliate Jubhat al-Nusra, or Nusra Front; the nationalist Free Syrian Army (some groups within which are also supported by Islamists); the Lebanese Fatah al-Islam; the Muslim Brotherhood; Islamic State; and several Salafist organizations. All told, some 15,000 fighters from at least 80 countries have streamed into Syria, among them militants from North Africa, Turkey, Europe, and as far afield as Yemen, the Maghreb, the Horn of Africa, central Asia, and China.

Most of the Syrian Golan, on Israel’s border, is controlled by the Nusra Front, whose stronghold is the city of Daraa just north of Jordan. In the same region, the Assad regime still holds the Druze area of al-Hader, from which attacks on Israeli troops have originated.

The fighting in the Golan has also severely endangered the UN observer force on the Syrian-Israeli border, one of the few stabilizing influences in the region. In March 2013, 21 Philippine soldiers were kidnapped; six months later, the Irish contingent was attacked; in August 2014, 45 Fijian peacekeepers were seized by the Nusra Front, with dozens more fleeing into Israel. Since then, Austria, Japan, and Croatia have withdrawn their troops.

Iran and its proxy Hizballah, whose main role has been to prop up the Assad regime, have exploited the Syrian chaos to improve their position against Israel and create a forward base for Tehran. As arms transfers increase in both quantity and quality, Iran has managed to organize and direct into combat a force that includes Hizballah, conventional Revolutionary Guard troops as well as crack Quds fighters, homegrown Syrian militias, and unaffiliated Shiite combatants. Iran and Hizballah’s moves on the Golan Heights, temporarily stalled by the Israeli airstrike in January and a failed offensive by Hizballah, regime forces, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard advisers to take the area from the opposition, are clearly intended to open a Golan front against Israel.

Also to Israel’s north, the government of Lebanon has been able to exercise higher levels of control than does Syria’s, but rival elements in the country could push it into looking more like its neighbor to the east. Sectarian violence is common. Lebanon is home both to Palestinian terror groups and to global jihadi organizations, some affiliated with al-Qaeda. Many are taking an active part in the combat in Syria.

But the strongest actor in Lebanon is Iran’s proxy, Hizballah. Though it has suffered as a result of its participation in the Syrian civil war, having sacrificed more than 1,100 fighters and seen its support weaken as Lebanese parents lose children in Syria, the Shiite terror organization still controls both sides of the Lebanese-Syrian border, in the central portion of which it has established a permanent security zone. For now, it is unlikely that Hizballah will initiate a direct, sustained conflict with Israel, but it will continue to help other groups launch periodic attacks that remind Jerusalem of its presence. Such attacks could spread to the Israeli-Lebanese border as well.

Moving south, Israel’s long border with Jordan is relatively secure and stable, but there is no guarantee it will remain that way. Although Islamic State is not yet strong enough to invade Jordan as it did Iraq, it can spark unrest by carrying out terror attacks in the kingdom, where its fighters are already operating. Last August, Jordanian forces arrested 71 Islamist activists, including members of IS and the Nusra Front. IS’s horrific immolation of the Jordanian pilot Muaz Kasasbeh in February may well have been designed to drag Jordan deeper into a fight that could yet wash back across the kingdom’s borders.

 

As for the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, areas of prime concern to Israeli commanders and decision-makers, they are not ungoverned zones. Still, as we will soon see, developments in Gaza affect Sinai terrorism, and there are multiple terrorist groups operating in Gaza even as the territory as a whole is controlled tightly by Hamas—itself, of course, a terrorist organization pledged to Israel’s destruction. On the West Bank, Israeli and PA security services work to ensure that the area doesn’t disintegrate in a manner akin to the Sinai or Syria.

On Israel’s southern border lies Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, rapidly turning into an ungoverned zone dominated by a tribal guerrilla campaign. The actors there fall into five broad categories. First, there are the locals, mainly Bedouin tribesmen who initially turned to terrorism for economic reasons. Next, Palestinian terrorist groups, primarily from Gaza, have used the peninsula both as a safe zone that Israel dare not strike for fear of upsetting its peace with Egypt and as a launching pad for attacks on southern Israel. Then there are jihadist groups from the Maghreb and the Horn of Africa, followed by jihadist organizations like al-Qaeda from farther afield. Finally, Iran uses the peninsula as a smuggling route into Gaza and as part of the ring of hostility it has been working to create on Israel’s borders.

Sinai has long been a region of weak government control. Deposed Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak pushed Bedouin tribes away from the coast, locking them out of the lucrative tourism industry on the Red Sea. Their economic prospects damaged along with their honor, the tribes turned to terrorism against Egyptian security forces and infrastructure. After Mubarak’s fall from power in 2011, tribal fighters drove security forces out of northern Sinai, killing dozens, putting up roadblocks and checkpoints, attacking police stations, and repeatedly sabotaging the gas lines into Israel and Jordan.

In doing so, the Bedouin took advantage of existing family ties, used until then to facilitate smuggling. Then, as Salafist groups managed to make inroads among the tribes, and Palestinian organizations like Hamas and Islamic Jihad did the same, many young Sinai Bedouin started growing beards, wearing Salafi garb, and abandoning tribal norms in favor of Islamist principles. Attacks by jihadist groups are now often carried out entirely by members of Bedouin tribes. In the aftermath of a 2013 drone strike that killed four militants, a statement released by the Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis terrorist group, many of whose fighters have pledged loyalty to Islamic State, identified all four dead as Sinai Bedouin from different tribes.

As for the Palestinian terrorist groups in the Sinai, their presence grew dramatically after the 2005 Israeli disengagement from Gaza, when IDF forces were removed from the Philadelphi corridor separating the Sinai from Gaza, thus freeing up the hundreds of cross-border tunnels that were Hamas’s primary smuggling route for arms and fighters. Treating the Sinai as its strategic hinterland, Hamas developed a network of intelligence operatives, recruiters, and safe houses. Weapons came from Iran, Sudan, and occasionally the Balkans, Maghreb, and the Horn of Africa.

President Abdel-Fatah El-Sisi, with Israeli consent, has increased Egyptian military activity in the peninsula. Last October, after the attacks by jihadists that left more than 30 Egyptian soldiers dead, Sisi redoubled his efforts, reinforcing the 12 battalions already stationed there with elite army units, including anti-terror battalions. But the problem is far from being solved, and the peninsula remains a terror hub that threatens Israel in a variety of ways. In June 2014, Egypt deployed several hundred soldiers at Taba to stop militants from firing missiles at Israeli airplanes in Eilat. As it happens, the attacks were carried out entirely by Sinai tribesmen, marking a break with the Bedouin policy up to that point of focusing their attacks on Egyptian targets. Rockets have also been fired numerous times at Eilat.

The rocket threat is likely to get worse, and not just from the Sinai and Gaza. Iran has an interest in seeing Israel surrounded by rockets targeting every inch of its territory, and is working to create that reality. Fighters in Syria have captured Scud missiles from overrun Syrian army bases; they could easily find their way into the hands of groups targeting Israel.

Nor are threats limited to ground-based weaponry and forces. Israeli ships could also see increased threats. In Yemen, the Shiite Houthi rebels backed by Iran, after capturing the capital of Sanaa, took control of the strategic Red Sea port of al-Hudayda, potentially giving Tehran a commanding position on Israel’s route to the Indian Ocean and its Asian markets beyond. Back in the 1970s, as Avi Issacharoff has noted in the Times of Israel, Palestinian terrorists used to attack Israeli ships passing through this waterway; Iran could well try to replicate those attacks today. Iran’s strategic position in Yemen has only improved over the ensuing months as daily flights from Tehran started landing in the country and its U.S.-supported president fled the capital.

 

What can Israel do to cope with the high- and low-tech threats from these ungoverned zones, with the uncertain intelligence picture, and with the ability of traditional enemies like Iran to improve their position?

The overarching principle for Israeli military units tasked with fighting in these zones or on their edges should be to imitate the guerrillas’ strengths: to create uncertainty, as they do, by continuously changing tactics and shape and favoring multiple small-unit actions over heavier maneuver. And to move quickly: as targets present themselves only for brief periods of time, the “loop” from detection, to identification, to neutralization needs to be even faster than at present, especially since it will be impossible to pick up many operations while they are still in the planning phase.

The IDF has taken steps in the right direction. In 2013, recognizing that a conventional Syrian invasion of the Golan Heights was no longer a realistic prospect, Benny Gantz , then the IDF’s chief of staff, relieved the Israeli armored Division 36 on the Syrian border, replacing it with a new formation made up of rotating infantry units and focused on border security and surveillance. These units were the first in the IDF to operate “multi-sensor systems,” which pull together radar and visual data into one concrete warning. The border fence between Israel and Syria has also been completely overhauled; it is now fifteen feet high and can withstand anti-tank missiles.

Another useful step was the 2011 rejuvenation of the Depth Corps, which coordinates the IDF’s long-range operations and its capacity to strike deep inside enemy territory. This was not an entirely new idea. Back in 1991, when Saddam Hussein was firing Scud missiles at Tel Aviv, the IDF drew up plans to take over launch sites in western Iraq. One special-forces group tasked with playing a major role in the planned operation was the air force’s Shaldag (“Kingfisher”) unit, then commanded by Gantz himself.

Still, the upheavals of the last couple of years have created a demand for more drastic innovation. In the words of reservist Brig.-Gen. Gal Hirsch, deputy commander of the Depth Corps, Israel’s opponent “has become sophisticated, agile, and diversified, and has a faint intelligence signature. . . . [This] makes it extremely difficult for state security organizations to stay informed of the rate of his learning and evolution process.”

Writing in Israel Defense three years ago, Hirsch recommended that “in the face of our unique, irregular opponent, we should develop unique, irregular organizations and regard them as our main force for these times.” Hirsch foresaw new IDF formations: smaller, technologically more advanced, with enhanced capabilities and the freedom to exploit them. “These forces may operate under their own legislation and procedures,” he wrote. “They are educated to improvise, to develop relevant knowledge, to initiate and to evolve constantly.” Only thus, with “new players and new game boards,” could Israel change the rules of the game to its advantage.

It is inevitable, for example, that Israel will again be forced to operate inside neighboring territory. Instead of heavy tank and infantry maneuver, preference will have to be given to small, mobile units. In effect, it will be guerrilla vs. guerrilla, but ideally with an Israeli advantage in training, technology, intelligence, and numbers. Dozens of IDF columns will need to operate independently and simultaneously, converging on targets from different directions, then disappearing.

This, too, is not an entirely new concept; in some respects, it is a very old one. Jewish mobile commando units formed in pre-state Mandatory Palestine—notably, Orde Wingate’s “Special Night Squads” and the Haganah’s “Fosh” field companies—operated with great effectiveness against Arab insurgents.

Other pre-state models are also still relevant. Through tunnels and breaches of the border fence, Hamas and Hizballah already pose a threat to Israeli communities on the borders of Gaza and Lebanon, and Syrian rebels could soon turn their attention to Golan villages. The infiltration and capture of a border kibbutz, even for a few hours, would be a nightmare for Israel, with dozens of civilians killed or captured.

Unfortunately, in September 2013, the IDF decided to cease deploying soldiers inside 22 border communities, opting instead to focus on improved protection of the border itself. In today’s circumstances, as in yesteryear’s, a wiser policy would be to station IDF units within those communities, capable ofresponding independently without waiting for help to be summoned via a centralized command center.

Changes can also be made to protect the borders themselves. By their nature, borders favor static and predictable defensive actions. Fixed observation posts abound and patrols are often conducted on a predictable schedule and along a predictable route. Terrorists thus know what to expect: a no-man’s land, a smart fence, cameras, observation posts, mobile patrols. Nor is it difficult to develop a clear picture of how the defenders operate: just pay a few unarmed men to touch the fence or try to get over it, and you’ll gain a good idea of how long it takes for a response and where it arrives from.

Hizballah has enjoyed success against IDF patrols since Israel’s 2000 withdrawal from Lebanon. That same year, it ambushed a patrol jeep, kidnapping and killing three soldiers. Six years later, it attacked two IDF armored Humvees on the border, killing five soldiers. The bodies of two of them were spirited into Lebanon in the incident that sparked the second Lebanon war. And attacks continue amid the present-day chaos. Last March, four Israeli soldiers were hurt in a blast along the Golan border fence south of Majdal Shams. In October, a Hizballah IED injured two soldiers in the Shebaa Farms area. In January of this year, an IDF soldier and officer were killed by a volley of Hizballah Kornet missiles that struck an Israeli convoy near Har Dov.

In response, Israel must become as unpredictable as the groups on its border, and there can be no clear line beyond which terrorists know they are safe.

 

Although the most pressing threats are still on the border, that should not keep commanders from devoting particular attention to where many of those threats originate. Better and longer-range intelligence will enable Israel to counter weapons smuggling and the formation of plots before they reach the ungoverned zones close to home. Such intelligence has already been critical, for example, to intercepting Iranian weapons ships before they unload in Sudan for the trek across the Sinai to Gaza.

Many of the tools in this effort will be technological. Though traditional satellite reconnaissance over ungoverned zones is not an answer to tribal terrorism, it can help track the movement of weapons shipments and fighters. If armed groups decide on a major attack, and especially if they provide themselves with biological or chemical agents (“the poor man’s WMD”), sensors similar to those employed by the U.S. can provide early warning.

If technological intelligence is crucial, human intelligence is no less important. In zones with a multitude of actors and combatants, understanding the culture, norms, religious beliefs, and rationales of tribes and ethnic groups can offer insight into capabilities, tendencies, and shifting alliances. It can also open a window into possible opportunities for quiet partnerships. This can be used by both Israel and moderate governments like Egypt to wean tribes away from jihadi groups, as the ties remain in place only so long as tribal interests are met and honor protected. Israel’s ability to do this is limited by the fact that tribes operating in Egypt and Syria nurse grievances against the policies of the central government, not Israel. But by offering a range of assistance, Jerusalem can work to enlist groups who might ensure that when common enemies attack Israel, they will have to fend off local militias as well as the IDF.

And that brings us to the other side of the picture—where, amid the dizzying range of potential threats, opportunities emerge. Alarmed by Iran’s hegemonic ambitions and its steadily evolving nuclear-weapons program, and stunned by the brutal efficiency of Islamic State, Western-oriented Arab states are working together and in quiet cooperation with Israel to resist, contain, and, where possible, defeat common foes. Egypt and Israel are coordinating efforts to combat terrorism in the Sinai and smuggling into and out of Gaza, and Israel has acquiesced in the introduction of heavier Egyptian formations to conduct anti-terror campaigns in the peninsula. The IDF and Jordanian armed forces work together to keep terrorists from crossing Israel’s border.

In the face of Iran’s moves across the region, both in ungoverned zones and in more traditional areas, it became conceivable that Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, and the UAE would form a military alliance, and in fact such an alliance coalesced quickly in response to the Houthi takeover of Yemen. Led by Saudi Arabia (but not, notably, by America) and backed by Jordan, Egypt, the UAE, Morocco, and other Sunni states, it has carried out waves of airstrikes while readying a ground invasion. The coalition, whose interests align closely with those of Israel, the strongest military power in the region, will likely endure.

In this era of collapsing state control, Gal Hirsch has called upon Israel to develop new players and new game boards. But the enemies’ new game boards are already here, and so are the new and fiercely aggressive players. For the IDF, the key is to anticipate threats and to develop flexible approaches before those threats materialize. Doing so will take vision, creativity, and daring; fortunately, these are precisely the traits for which the IDF has long been known and feared.

More about: Israel & Zionism, Politics & Current Affairs

 

Why We Call the Sabbath's Third Meal "Three Meals"

It’s not just bad grammar.

Why We Call the Sabbath's Third Meal "Three Meals"
Photo by Edsel Little/Flickr.
 
Observation
March 25 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Philologos, the renowned Jewish-language columnist, appears twice a month in Mosaic. Questions for him may be sent to his email address by clicking here.


From Ken Ehrenburg comes this query:

A fellow shul-mate and I are engaged in a small dispute that I hope you might settle or illuminate. He has maintained for a long time that calling the repast that precedes the end of the Sabbath shalosh se’udot in Hebrew is grammatically incorrect, since this means “three meals” rather than “the third meal” [the first two being Friday-night dinner and Saturday lunch], which would be ha-se’udah ha-shlishit. I, on the other hand, have argued that this usage could be a form of synecdoche, whereby a part is referred to by means of the whole. What do you think?

The oddity of calling the Sabbath’s third meal “three meals” has struck me, too. Until now, I must say, I thought Ken Ehrenburg’s fellow synagogue-goer must be right. In Eastern Europe, the Sabbath’s third meal was called sholesh suddes, as it continues to be by many Orthodox Jews today; this is the Yiddish pronunciation of Hebrew shalosh se’udot, and I had always assumed it to be a Yiddish garbling of Hebrew grammar that was subsequently introduced into Hebrew itself. Such an assumption made historical sense, because the se’udah shlishit was accorded special importance in Jewish ritual by the Eastern-European movement of Ḥasidism, which observes it in the synagogue with singing and chanting in a highly charged religious atmosphere, and Ḥasidic authors were notorious for their mangling of the rules of Hebrew.

Still, I was never quite satisfied by this. Even Ḥasidism mangled Hebrew only so far, and sholesh suddes, which substitutes the Hebrew cardinal number shalosh for the ordinal number shlishit, and puts it before the noun it modifies rather than after the noun where it belongs, would seem to go well beyond that. Could there be another explanation? Ken Ehrenburg suggests what this might be.

The tradition of a third Sabbath meal goes at least as far back as the early centuries of the Common Era, there already being mention of it in the Talmud. In talmudic times, it was the practice, with the exception of Sabbaths, to eat only twice a day, once in mid-morning and once in the evening. Yet even in our own age, when three meals a day are the norm, Orthodox Jews skip breakfast before the Shabbat-morning prayer, with the result that they, too, would eat only two Sabbath meals were it not for the se’udah shlishit. The talmudic tractate of Shabbat gives as the tradition’s source a verse in Exodus (16:25) about the manna: “And Moses said, ‘Eat it today, for it is the Sabbath today, today you will not find it in the field.” Three “today’s,” the rabbis reasoned, equal three portions of the manna provided by God in the desert, which was not gathered on the Sabbath.

Although this exegesis probably served to rationalize an already existing custom of celebrating the Sabbath by eating an extra meal, it lent the meal rabbinic authority. Still, only in 16th-century Palestine, with the advent of Lurianic Kabbalah, did the Sabbath’s third meal come to be considered the time of special divine grace that it was later thought to be by Ḥasidism as well. And it was only in Eastern Europe that the se’udah shlishit became the shalosh se’udot or sholesh siddes.

I asked an acquaintance steeped in Jewish sources if he knew the reason. His answer was that he believed there was a discussion of the matter in Divrey Emet or “Truthful Points,”a collection of homilies by the Ḥasidic master Yakov Yitzḥak Horovitz (1745-1815), also known as “the Seer of Lublin,” but he couldn’t remember where in the book I would find it. Fortunately, Divrey Emet is a short volume, and three-quarters of the way through it I came across the passage in question. In commenting on the verse in the book of Numbers (24:19), “And out of Jacob shall come he that shall have dominion,” Horovitz writes:

The rabbis of blessed memory have said that whoever eats three meals on the Sabbath is saved from three calamities: the pangs of the [coming of the] messiah, the wars of Gog and Magog, and the retribution of hell. And I have heard it said that the reason the third Sabbath meal [se'udah shlishit] is called “three meals” [shalosh se'udot] is that partaking of it is [like] partaking of all three. For, in the first two, the eater is hungry and enjoys his food while observing the commandment “And thou shalt call the Sabbath a delight” [Isaiah 58: 14]. But this [third] meal is entirely for the sake of heaven, since, having no appetite, he [who eats it] acquits himself of all [three]….This is why it is called “three meals,”’ because a commandment is named for what completes it.

In other words: eaten a few hours after a large lunch, at a time when one does not really feel hungry, the third meal alone truly fulfills the commandment to eat three Sabbath meals, the other two of which would be eaten anyway. This explanation, which testifies to the Yiddish usage of sholesh suddes being common in Eastern Europe already over 200 years ago, is precisely the one offered by Ken Ehrenburg: the third meal is called shalosh se’udot because it stands for all three. The term is indeed a synecdoche.

Whether the Horovitz-Ehrenburg thesis is historically correct, I can’t say. All in all, though, it seems to me more likely than the mangled-Hebrew theory. And in case you’re wondering what all of this has to do with the biblical Jacob, kabbalistic tradition associates each of the Sabbath meals with a different patriarch: the Friday-night dinner with Abraham, the Saturday lunch with Isaac, and the se’udah shlishit with Jacob. Forcing oneself to eat once a week when not hungry is a small price to pay for being spared the apocalypse of Armageddon and the fires of Gehenna.

More about: Religion & Holidays, Shabbat, Talmud

 

The Bible’s More Than Three-Dimensional Pharaoh

You can hear the man’s voice as he keeps changing his mind. What’s the point of such a Shakespearean portrayal?

The Bible’s More Than Three-Dimensional Pharaoh
From Pharaoh Notes the Importance of the Jewish People, 1902, by James Tissot. Via the Jewish Museum.
 
Atar Hadari
Observation
March 19 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Atar Hadari, born in Israel and raised in England, is a poet and translator whose Rembrandt’s Bible, a collection of biblical monologues, was recently published in the UK by Indigo Dreams. He writes regularly for Mosaic.


The Sabbath service this week marks the imminent onset of the month of Nisan, in which Passover occurs. Appropriately enough, a special reading from the Torah, harking back to the portion of Bo in the book of Exodus, is added to the week’s regular portion of Vayikra (Leviticus 1:1-5:26). Here I want to concentrate not on the specific verses (Exodus 12:1-20) from Bo that are read, or rather reread, on this Sabbath but on its overall narrative of the unfolding relationship between Pharaoh and the Lord as mediated by the Lord’s instrument Moses.

The central issue of Bo is what is within the body of Egypt, whether the body in question is that of Pharaoh, or the body of the people of Egypt who are an extension of the sovereign’s body, or the body of the land of Egypt. And not only what is within the body but outside it, what belongs and what should be expelled, what will enter without permission and what will finally be released unwillingly, spat out like poison or bile.

The very first verb of the reading is bo, come, and this divine instruction to Moses (“Come unto Pharoah” . . .) uses precisely the same verb that in Genesis instructed Abraham to “come unto” and impregnate Hagar, the barren Sarah’s Egyptian maid. Obviously, I am not suggesting that the Lord instructed Moses to enter Pharaoh physically. But the appearance of that particular verb at this particular juncture alerts us to a whole series of intimate and unjust relationships in the Torah. The series begins with Sarah’s oppression of Hagar, continues with Joseph’s enslavement of all Egypt, rebounds upon the Israelites in Pharaoh’s subsequent enslavement and oppression of them, and enters into its culminating episode here as the Lord instructs Moses to come unto Pharaoh before the Lord Himself will enter into Pharaoh’s most private and intimate space: his mind.

But the Lord said to Moses, “Come unto Pharaoh
For I’ve given him a heavy heart and his servants, too,
To put these marks of Mine in him
And to make you tell your son and grandson how I abused Egypt
And My marks that I put in them, so you’ll know I am the Lord.”
And Moses and Aaron came unto Pharaoh and told him,
“So says the Lord, God of the Hebrews:
‘How long will you refrain from responding in My presence?
Send out my people to worship Me.
For if you refrain from sending My people
I’ll bring locusts over your border
And they’ll cover all visible land,
You won’t be able to see the land.’” . . .

And he turned and he left Pharaoh’s presence
And Pharaoh’s servants said to him:
“How long will this ensnare us—
Send the men to worship the Lord their God.
Do you not realize yet, Egypt is lost?”
So Moses returned with Aaron to Pharaoh
And he told them, “Go, worship the Lord your God;
Who’s who that’s going?” And Moses said,
“We’ll go with our boys and old men, with our sons and our daughters,
Our sheep and our cattle we’ll go
For it’s God’s festival for us.”
And he told them, “Let it be so, the Lord be with you when
I send out you and your children—
Look how there’s evil over your face.
Not so; kindly go, just the males, and worship the Lord
Because that’s what you’re asking.”
And Pharaoh drove them out from his presence.

In addition to what you might call the special effects of the ten plagues, which I’ll largely omit here, what’s beguiling in this portion is the acute portrayal of Pharaoh as petulant villain. But he’s not two-dimensional; he’s more than three-dimensional. You can hear the man’s voice as he keeps changing his mind, turning on a dime, arriving almost at the point of cooperating and then withdrawing again like an insecure businessman not quite capable of closing a deal. The irony of his consenting to Moses, swiftly followed by the outburst about how Moses and Aaron are scheming to deceive him, followed by the noblesse-oblige condescension of his polite “request” that the males go without their children, followed finally by the curt dismissal of Moses and Aaron, gives you a Shakespearean portrait in just two or three lines.

And it’s not over.
But Pharaoh was quick to call Moses and Aaron
To say: “I’ve sinned to the Lord your God and you.
But now bear with my sin just this once
And petition the Lord your God to remove from me just this death.”
And he went out from Pharaoh and petitioned the Lord
But the Lord reinforced Pharaoh’s heart
And he didn’t send out the children of Israel.

Rabbis over the centuries have tied themselves in knots to prove that Pharaoh had freedom of choice, free will, that he was able at any point to release the Jews but chose not to. A literal reading of the text shows that this was not the case. Not only does the Lord declare at exactly what point He will allow Pharaoh to come to his senses, He also tells Moses that He’s not interested in Pharaoh’s coming to that point. He wants to pummel Pharaoh into submission, and it does not suit His purposes for Pharaoh to have free choice, let alone to make an intelligent call.

Time and again, the Lord reinforces Pharaoh’s heart. Two different verbs are used for this action, which is often flattened in English translation into a single “hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” On the one hand, He makes Pharaoh anxious, literally makes his heart heavy; on the other hand, He makes him proud—literally strengthens his heart. This is the cycle by means of which a losing hand or two become a total bust. Pharaoh is meant to be left incapable of running a lemonade stand, let alone the mightiest empire on earth.

And Pharaoh called Moses and said, “Go worship the Lord
Just your sheep and cattle will be deposited,
You children can go with you, too.”
But Moses said, “You shall also put sacrifices and offerings in our hands
To make for the Lord our God,
So our livestock will go with us,
Not a hoof will be left behind
For from them we’ll select to worship the Lord our God
And we won’t know how we’ll worship the Lord till we get there.”
But the Lord reinforced Pharaoh’s heart and he balked at sending them
And Pharaoh told him, “Get away from me,
Take good care you don’t see my face again
Because the day you see my face you’ll die.”
And Moses said, “Just as you say. I will not look on your face again.”
And the Lord said to Moses, “One more ache
I’ll bring on Pharaoh and on Egypt,
After that he’ll send you from here as he’d send a bride,
He’ll drive you in droves out of here.” . . .

And Moses said, “So says the Lord,
Around midnight I’m going out into Egypt
And every first born in Egypt is dead
From the first born of Pharaoh who’ll sit on his throne
To the first born of the maid behind the millstones
And every beast of burden’s first born
And there will be a great shriek in the land of Egypt
Such as has never been and such as won’t be again
And to all the children of Israel
No dog will wag its tongue, neither man nor beast
So that you know the Lord discriminates between Egypt and Israel
And all these servants of yours will come down to Me
And bow to Me saying, ‘Go, you and the people at your heels’
And after that I’ll go.” And he went from Pharaoh’s presence in a fury.
But the Lord said to Moses, “Pharaoh won’t listen to you—
So as to increase the examples I’ll make of the land of Egypt.”

Pharaoh’s warning to Moses not to look on his face again lest he die is both pathetic and accurate. When Moses does see Pharaoh again, it is at Pharaoh’s request and it’s the middle of the night—when nobody can see anything. By then, Pharaoh’s the one begging Moses to intercede so that he himself won’t die in the general carnage.

And it was midnight and the Lord struck every first born in Egypt
From the first born of Pharaoh who’d sit on his throne
To the first born of the prisoner housed in the pit
And every beast of burden’s first born.
And Pharaoh rose that night
And all his servants and all Egypt did, too
And there was a great shriek in Egypt
For there was no house without a corpse in it.
And he called Moses and Aaron at night, saying:
“Get up and get out from inside my people,
Both you and the children of Israel, and go worship the Lord just as you said,
Your sheep too, your cattle too; take what you said
And go—and bless me, too.”

This is the final humiliation: Pharaoh is reduced to asking Moses to pray for him and, as Moses prophesied, to make a sacrifice in his name to the implacable God who has come over his borders, into his houses, and finally into his mind. When the text specifies that the Lord kills not the child of the maid (as promised previously) but the child of the prisoner in the pit, it is no slip of the pen. The Lord went walking to the place where Joseph started his great ascent in Egypt by foretelling what would happen to Pharaoh’s imprisoned servants.

In this portion of Bo, we revisit first Hagar, then Joseph, before seeing how the cycle of slavery and abuse is finally ended with the Hebrews having undergone a 400-year punishment for abusing Hagar, and with Egypt, in turn, being crushed completely in order to pluck the Israelites back out of it like pips from an orange. The Lord started a cycle with Abraham that he would complete with Moses, only to make the great point, reiterated a total of 36 times in the Torah: do not abuse the stranger, because you were a stranger in Egypt. The subtext is clear: do not do again what you did then, nor ever do what they did to you, because what I did to them I can do to anybody.

More about: Bo, Exodus, Hebrew Bible, Moses, Pharaoh, The Monthly Portion, Torah, Vayikra

 

Time for Swedish Jews to Leave?

When we ask for guarantees of our safety, we’re met with speeches and calls for patience. This is not living.

Time for Swedish Jews to Leave?
In the wake of a nearby explosion, a man enters a Jewish community centre in Malmo, southern Sweden, in 2012. DRAGO PRVULOVIC/AFP/GettyImages.
 
Observation
March 18 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Annika Hernroth-Rothstein is a Swedish writer and political adviser and an activist in support of Israel.


They canceled Jewish winter camp. It sounds like a little thing, but in Sweden, where we have very few venues in which to lead our Jewish lives, it means a great deal. Winter camp is a yearly highlight, a place where our children can learn and play with other Jewish children, without worry. This year, they won’t be able to go, and for a simple reason—because it’s not safe.

The decision to cancel the camp was a reaction to the terrorist attack in neighboring Denmark, where Dan Uzan, a volunteer security guard outside a Copenhagen synagogue, was shot dead while protecting a bat-mitzvah party in progress inside. The Jewish community in Sweden was already reeling from news of the massacres in Paris a month earlier; with this latest murder, the peril came too close for comfort.

Of course, things did not start with these particular events. In a 2013 survey conducted by the European Union’s agency for fundamental rights, 76 percent of European Jews said that anti-Semitism had increased over the previous five years, and 29 percent said they contemplated emigrating. Perhaps most astonishing, of those who said they had suffered a physical attack, fully two-thirds had chosen not to report it since they were convinced the police would react passively. Since that time, we European Jews have experienced some of our darkest days in over 60 years, from defaced synagogues and cemeteries to riots and assaults on Jews in broad daylight. This past summer, the floodgates opened wider as Israel’s war in Gaza erased any subtle (and largely disingenuous) distinctions that may have existed between anti-Zionism and outright anti-Semitism.

Back in the summer of 2013, I read Michel Gurfinkiel’s sweeping essay in Mosaic on the threatened state of European Jewry and was moved to write him a letter. The editors then kindly published it as a response to his analysis. In it I described the particular difficulties and dangers facing a Jew in contemporary Sweden, and announced my intention to stay and fight for the future of Jewish life in the European Diaspora. As the situation in my country worsened, I ended up—as I again reported in Mosaic—filing for asylum in my own country on grounds of religious discrimination. My act was aimed at raising public consciousness and eliciting from my government at least an acknowledgment of reality. But despite the publicity my filing attracted, no such acknowledgment was forthcoming. Nor did my action garner any significant support within the official Jewish community itself; to the contrary, I was not spared ridicule for my alleged hyperbole and fear-mongering.

Now that there are policemen with automatic rifles outside our children’s schools, guards outside our synagogues, and no go-zones in our cities, the community has at last awakened to the harsh truth. This is no longer a matter of fighting a ban on kosher slaughter, or of retaining the right to circumcise our sons; at risk is the security of each and every Jew in the country, whether affiliated with the community or not, whether religiously observant or not, whether politically left, right, center, or none of the above.

As more and more people, including communal leaders, are voicing their anxiety and alarm, and attracting the notice of the media, the sheer intractability of the problem is also emerging, sometimes with startling nakedness. A couple of weeks ago, a major public-radio station interviewed Isaac Bachman, Israel’s ambassador to Stockholm. ‎During the interview he was asked: “Do the Jews themselves have any ‎responsibility for the growing anti-Semitism that we see now?”‎ Naturally, the ambassador was stunned. “I reject the question ‎altogether,” he said. “It’s like asking a woman how she has contributed to the fact ‎that she is being raped. I don’t think there is any provocation on the part of the Jews; they just exist.”

‎After the show, Sveriges Radio issued an apology; but the cat was out of the bag. Starkly illuminated by this “unfortunate incident” (their term) was the extent to which anti-Semitism, far from being the property of marginalized and uneducated individuals, as the comfortable trope would have it, is built into the psyche of the establishment. The apology itself was but a gesture, and gestures, in lieu of change, are mainly what the European Jewish minority is seeing.

 

Rallies, speeches, a solidarity ring around a synagogue as in Oslo: these are no substitute for the actual guarantee and protection of civil rights, for actual inclusivity, for actual religious freedom; they are at best a way of treating symptoms while ignoring the disease. We are being urged to join others in striving for peace and understanding, as if all along we have been striving for something else and need to assume our share of responsibility for the campaign being waged against us. The marches, the one-off visits of dignitaries to synagogues, the solemn frowns of sympathy: all instruct us to be patient and do nothing until we reach the point where there will be nothing left to do.

They canceled the Jewish winter camp, and men with automatic weapons are guarding our schools. Our children will not forget this; fear and hate—their fear, others’ hate—are now somehow coterminous in their minds with the very nature of Jewish life. We European Jews have been here before.

In 2014, immigration to Israel from Western Europe went up by 88 percent over the previous year, corroborating the trend already emerging in the 2013 survey. Jews are leaving Europe in record numbers, and more are thinking about it. I am now one of them. In my first contribution to Mosaic I wrote that I was absolutely determined to stay and fight for a strong Jewish life in the Diaspora. “We want to live,” I said. Today I don’t know what’s next for me, or for Europe. But I know that for my children and for me, this is not living.

More about: European Jewry, Jewish world, Politics & Current Affairs, Sweden