This Normal Life All about "normal" life in Israel Sat, 10 Feb 2024 19:32:14 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Where are our Jewish space lasers? Sat, 10 Feb 2024 19:06:13 +0000

The Jerusalem Post’s Bini Ashkenazi reported earlier this month on an alarming document that began circulating at the Israeli Justice Ministry. It warned that, if war breaks out against Hezbollah, employees should prepare for several days of electricity blackout. 

A separate warning, from the National Emergency Authority, meanwhile, suggested that at least 60% of Israel’s population would face a 24-to-48-hour electricity cutoff, with the possibility of it “lasting up to 72 hours in some areas.” Israelis should prepare an emergency stock of food and water and have a radio receiver with a battery and a first-aid kit on hand.

All this is in keeping with what our military and political leaders are keen to remind us: that, compared to the infrastructure, training, tens of thousands of missiles (many with precision guidance systems) and, yes, another “underground metro” of tunnels Hezbollah has built in Lebanon, Hamas is like mere kindergartners. The big fight with the Iranian proxy to our north will be like nothing this country has ever experienced before.

Where is Marjorie Taylor Greene when you need her?

Marjorie Taylor Greene

The conspiracy theorist and QAnon-enamored U.S. Representative scandalously quipped in 2018 that California’s devastating wildfires that year were caused by some kind of “space laser” that set parts of the state ablaze.

While Taylor Greene didn’t call them “Jewish” space lasers, her dog whistle pinning the financing of this alternative reality on, among others, “Rothschild, Inc.” leaves no doubt who she believes is behind these deadly new weapons.

Taylor Greene’s post on Twitter (X)

But here’s the thing: I need those Jewish space lasers to be real. Because if Israel goes to war with Lebanon using the same methods we used in Gaza – or, frankly, operational plans common to any conventional war – we will be shattered. We need something new, something surprising, something never before seen, that will deliver an unexpected and devastating blow – without endangering our own troops and minimizing civilian casualties.

It turns out we Israelis have been working on just that kind of weapon. 

Our Jewish laser is a bit more mundane – it doesn’t fire from space but from more terrestrial locations – and is meant to complement the existing Iron Dome which knocks enemy rockets out of the air but requires expensive projectiles ($50,000 each), of which we must ensure a steady supply from overseas.

At the Abu Dhabi International Defense Exhibition in 2022, the Rafael defense contractor debuted a full-scale version of its “Iron Beam” laser system.

“We can focus the beam to the diameter of a coin in a 10-kilometer range,” explained Ran Gozali, executive vice president of Rafael’s land and naval division. By using a laser instead of traditional kinetic interceptors, the Iron Beam has an unlimited magazine, a low cost-per-shot and creates minimal collateral damage, according to Rafael, which has signed an agreement with Lockheed Martin to jointly develop a laser system for use in the United States.

The Iron Beam is a more limited solution compared with what U.S. President Ronald Reagan proposed in 1983: a full-on “Star Wars”-like defense system. (The formal name was the “The Strategic Defense Initiative.”) 

Reagan’s Star Wars never got off the ground – in 1987, the American Physical Society concluded that at least another decade of research was required to know whether such a system was even possible – and the plan was ultimately scrapped until 2019, when space-based interceptor development resumed under the Trump administration.

While recent years have seen the incremental deployment of more powerful bombs, anti-ordinance protection systems for tanks, and autonomous drones, we simply haven’t had any kind of truly game-changing jump in war technology, well, since the nuclear bomb (which, despite some idiot Israeli MK spouting his mouth off, Israel is not planning to use…not that we have one anyway).

At the same time, I’m aware that my longing for a weapon like this is a kind of magical thinking. 

Or to put it in a more Jewish context – am I becoming a messianic Zionist?

Zionism – regular plain Zionism, not even its religious variant – essentially marketed to the Jews of the Diaspora the possibility that all their problems could all be solved. 

Pogroms in Europe? Move to Israel. 

Antisemitism on campuses? Zionism will keep the Jewish people safe. 

And not just safe – we’ll shine with innovation, creativity, and new Sabra soldiers who are more fulfilled defending the homeland than protecting the walls of the yeshiva.

Messianic Zionism is everywhere these days. 

The battle cries – “We will utterly defeat Hamas,” “We will get back all the hostages,” “United we will win” – are essentially messianic. 

Rebuild the settlements in Gush Katif? Capture Hamas terrorist leaders Yahya Sinwar and Mohammed Deif and put them on trial for the actual crime of genocide? Flood the tunnels and end the war in one fell swoop? 

All magical thinking, something to grasp onto in our desperation.

The only problem is that, as our texts so often suggest, Messiahs take their time. They tarry. Too often, they turn out to be false.

What if I can’t have my magic Messiah? What if my Zionism needs to be ratcheted down a rung, from “Messianic” to “realistic?” How do we continue to function as Jews in the Holy Land if Zionism can only keep our people “relatively secure” but not entirely safe in a world where, as it has become crystal clear, there is no love lost, to reverse paraphrase author Dara Horn’s latest book title, between the antisemites among us and living, breathing, fighting Jews.

Shalom Hanoch’s hit song from 1985 declares that, not only is the Messiah not coming, he’s not even picking up the phone.

Anyone have Marjorie Taylor Green’s number? It seems we may need those Jewish space lasers now more than ever.

I first shared my thoughts on Jewish space lasers in The Jerusalem Post.

Image of MTG: House Creative Services, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

]]> 0
First-hand report of antisemitism at The New School Sat, 27 Jan 2024 18:48:22 +0000

Jonathan Telsin (from his WhatsApp)

Israeli music student, Jonathan Telsin, a 21-year-old trumpet player from Tel Aviv, has been living in New York City since the fall where he’s studying jazz at The New School in a joint program with the Tel-Aviv-based Israel Conservatory of Music. 

Jonathan was looking forward to an amazing opportunity: Getting to learn from top teachers and students; performing at world-renowned jazz clubs and sitting in at jam sessions around town; the excitement of being at the epicenter of the jazz world.

Then October 7 happened, and nothing has been the same.

Following the devastating attack on Israel by Hamas on that “Black Sabbath,” other New York City universities – Columbia, NYU and Cooper Union in particular – have been in the spotlight for antisemitic and anti-Israel activism. Reports of threats, intimidation and physical and verbal violence against Jewish students have been logged on campuses across the country, culminating in the Congressional farce where the presidents of Harvard, MIT and Penn could not state clearly that calling for the genocide of a minority group violated their schools’ codes of conduct.

But things have been just as horrific for Israeli and Zionist students at The New School. 

Jonathan has been compiling images and videos of what’s been happening on campus since October 7. Among the clips – which Jonathan explains is just a small sample:

— Posters plastered around campus including those screaming, “Zionists f-off.”

— Several videos of masked pro-Hamas protesters inside The New School’s front gates – on private property, not on the street where it could be argued they’re within their right to free speech – holding signs accusing Israel of “genocide” and “Intifada until victory.” 

— At the same rally, protesters chanted, “Is it right to rebel? Israel, go to hell.” To paraphrase a skit from Eretz Nehederet (the Israeli equivalent to Saturday Night Live)“If it rhymes, it must be true.”

— The New School’s Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards published a letter saying that blocking school entrances was against The New School’s policies. Antisemites annotated that letter to read, “F- all the Zionists that go to this school [and who are] taking pics of us. Sincerely, go to hell.” Well, at least they were sincere.

— More F-bombs: A video of a man outside The New School with a megaphone shouting “F-you Israel” and “F-you bitch.”

— In the ninth-floor girls’ bathroom: “Abolish the settler state.” In a boy’s bathroom: “Zionism is terrorism.”

— A group dubbed “the socialist revolution” makes clear the anti-Western bias of many of the protesters as they promote an event that “will cut across the imperialist lies and provide the communistic perspective for Palestinian liberation.” 

— Perhaps most egregiously for Jonathan, protesters barred the entrances to three separate New School buildings with large Palestinian flags. In one video, a woman pleads off camera, “Let me in, I have class.” A protester flashes a sign at her that reads, “Support decolonization.” Or else what, you can’t study? 

Amin Husain at The New School

Inside the walls of the campus buildings, things were not much better as Jonathan shared a video of Amin Husain, a professor at NYU who has built a reputation for spreading hate speech in his lectures. In the video, Husain was invited into a New School classroom where he claimed that all the atrocities Hamas meticulously documented – the murders, rapes, mutilations, and beheadings – were all “fake news” and “Zionist propaganda.” 

Jonathan pointed out that Husain was once a member of the Palestinian group Fatah (the PLO) who proudly proclaimed his participation in “resistance” activities during the first Intifada in Israel including throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails. 

The irony of the antisemitic activity happening at The New School is that the institution was originally founded in 1919 by progressive educators who were frustrated by quotas that kept Jews and other minorities out of elite universities. In 1917, for example, Columbia imposed a “loyalty oath” related to World War I upon the entire faculty and student body. Professors Charles A Beard and James Harvey Robinson subsequently resigned from Columbia to join the faculty of The New School, which had adopted a deliberate color- and race-blind admission policy. 

Jonathan saved some of his most strident vitriol for Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) which he says is not some innocent home-grown pro-Palestinian group. He pointed to a 2020 study by the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy that revealed “a direct correlation between donations to universities by the country of Qatar and other Gulf States and the presence of SJP groups on campus.” 

According to a report by Gabriel Diamond, a political science major at Yale, in The Hill, following the 9/11 terror attacks, Qatar began pumping money – some $4.7 billion over two decades – into American universities.  “It naturally follows that university administrations sitting on cash piles from Qatar would take a hands-off approach to SJP,” Diamond writes.

Note, too, that Hatem Bazian, a co- founder of SJP and now a lecturer in the department of ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley, also founded American Muslims for Palestine (AMP), which is linked with the shuttered Holy Land Foundation which sent millions of dollars directly to Hamas before it was declared a terrorist organization by the U.S. in 2008. 

While the Holy Land Foundation no longer operates, AMP is still going strong and shares “a striking resemblance to the Hamas charities that were dismantled here more than a decade ago,” according to Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

The New School administration attempted at one point to bring in a mediator for the Israeli students – an American rabbinical student, Louisa Solomon. While she seemed supportive during the meeting, Jonathan reported, he later saw her at a rally to denounce Israel.

Solomon also boasted on her Instagram page about being “proud to be arrested [in October 2023] demanding a ceasefire to prevent genocide in Gaza.” In separate social media posts, she described herself as “an anti-Zionist future rabbi” and claimed that stating that most Jews might feel similarly on a topic – for example, support of Israel following the most horrific massacre since the Holocaust – is in itself an “expression of antisemitism.” 

Louisa Solomon on social media

Was this really the best representative The New School could come up with?

Has Jonathan felt personally threatened? While he hasn’t physically been punched or hit, one protester thrust a megaphone up to his ear and began yelling. “I tried to move but he just went to the other side.” 

The climate of hate against Jews and Israelis at The New School is so pervasive, he relates, that one Israeli student said she didn’t feel safe coming to campus for weeks after the antisemitic protests started. “She was afraid for her life.”

Another Israeli student in the drama department at The New School was “canceled” from a play she was supposed to star in after she confronted a pro-Hamas student tearing down posters of kidnapped babies. 

“You’re no longer welcome due to your political views,” she was told just days before her final performance – one which she needed to pass the course.

Political commentator and editor Andrew Sullivan lays the blame on the West’s obsession with seeing the world in binary terms.

“If a member of an oppressor class says something edgy, it is a form of violence. If a member of an oppressed class commits actual violence, it’s speech,” says Sullivan on his SubstackThe Dishcast. “That’s why many Harvard students instantly supported a fundamentalist terror cult that killed, tortured, systematically raped and kidnapped Jews just for being Jews in their own country. Because they have been taught it’s the only moral position to take.”

Back at The New School, Students for Justice in Palestine published a list of “demands” of the university including ending the partnership between The New School and the Conservatory of Music in Israel, along with a “public acknowledgment” that Israel is a “settler colony” that must be denounced “for apartheid in Palestine and genocide in Gaza.” 

SJP ends its letter with the threat that, if the group doesn’t receive a response by its so-called “deadline,” we will “assume that this university is willingly invested in the genocide of the Palestinian people, and we will respond accordingly and by any means necessary.” (Emphasis is the writer’s.)

Of all the twisted language and epithets that have arisen after October 7, “to find yourself accused of genocide after undergoing a kind of mini-genocidal experience is so profoundly disorienting that I don’t know what world I’m living in anymore,” notes Israeli author Yossi Klein Halevi on the Shalom Hartman Institute podcast For Heaven’s Sake.

Evoking genocide is the ultimate dehumanization, he said, even before South Africa began making those claims at the International Court of Justice (ICJ). It’s the reason why people are tearing down posters of kidnapped Israelis, Klein Halevi explains. “The notion that Israel has any humanity opens up the possibility that maybe we have a case. And so, to see pictures of kidnapped babies is a threat to a worldview in which there can be no space for Israel’s legitimacy.” 

What does Jonathan want from The New School? 

“We want to be protected. We ask the school to take measures against students who violate their code of conduct, to not give an opportunity for students in an academic institution to call for the elimination of an entire population or community.”

Jonathan said he’s been attending “up to three meetings a day” with The New School administration – to no avail. “They crossed the line long ago. When a student says to another student, ‘I wish you had been in Israel on October 7 so you would have been raped, too,’ or ‘I hope you get stabbed on the street,’ the meaning does not rely on understanding the ‘context.’ Someone has to stop that student and let him know there will be consequences.”

Instead, a New School administrator told Jonathan to “get out of here, leave the building, it’s too dangerous for you now.’ I said, ‘if you think it’s dangerous for me, why don’t you do anything?’ He just gave me a blank look.”

That jives with what Shai Davidai, an Israeli professor at Columbia, has been saying in videos and articles that have gone viral since October 7. “Jewish students are encouraged to stay in hiding while those who celebrate Hamas are allowed to hold their events,” he notes.

Does Jonathan regret choosing to come to The New School? No, he says. “I came here to study music. It was a legitimate choice. But now I’m spending all this time in meetings. Tomorrow, I have an exam. I have so many papers to write and projects to do. But it’s our obligation to fight, for ourselves and for other students – and not just the Israeli and Jewish students – because they will be next.”

I first wrote about antisemitism at The New School for The Jerusalem Post.

All images were provided by Jonathan Telsin, including links to Louisa Solomon’s Instagram posts.

Update: Since I wrote this article, Amin Husain has been suspended by NYU for denying the October 7 atrocities.

]]> 0
I was that guy Sat, 13 Jan 2024 19:53:02 +0000

We’ve all seen that person. The one who feels unwell at a concert or a public event. As he or she lies on the ground, a crowd of gawkers assembles. Eventually a doctor materializes, and the stricken person is whisked away by ambulance. 

On a recent Shabbat, I was the guy on the floor. 

My wife, Jody, and I were invited to a kiddush at a local synagogue when I started to feel faint. I sat on a bench but soon needed to lie down, too. I was nauseous and thought I might throw up, but when I tried to get to the bathroom, my vision blurred, and the outdoor space spun around me. 

I lay down again, this time on the hard pavement, aware of the spectacle I was creating but with no real option to sit up, lest I wanted to pass out.

This being a shul full of Jews, it was inevitable that there would be a doctor in the house. My pulse was dangerously low, he warned. He asked me to count from one to ten. No confusion but he still felt I needed to get to the ER.

“I don’t want to go,” I whispered to Jody. “I don’t want to spend the whole of Shabbat in the hospital.”

But it was too late. The ambulance had already been called. My blood pressure was a paltry 80/40. Hoisted onto a gurney, I was whisked off to Hadassah Ein Kerem.

The Emergency Room was efficient – they hooked me up to an IV, checked my heart with an EKG, did a chest X-ray and took blood and urine. Everything came out normal.

“It’s probably dehydration,” the doctor pronounced, as he hooked me up to a saline drip.

That didn’t make sense to me. I’ve had plenty of times where I haven’t drunk enough but nothing like this had ever happened. I had a couple of sips of Scotch at the kiddush – could it have been that?

My own diagnosis: I was having a panic attack. The symptoms were consistent: dizziness, shortness of breath, low blood pressure (although to the doctor’s cautious credit, those same symptoms could indicate a heart attack).

Anxiety has been my watchword since the October 7 “Black Sabbath” attack on Israel’s south. The minute-by-minute reports of fighting in Gaza that fill my WhatsApp feed, the deep depression over the fate of the Israeli hostages in Hamas’s hands, the escalation in the north, has everyone on edge.

Now, add to all that some unexpected health news and maybe it’s not so surprising that I collapsed.

Remember the “boom-boom” radiation I received over the summer? It, unfortunately, didn’t work. At first, the tumor we zapped shrunk, and I was optimistic. 

But a follow-up PET CT was shocking: The tumor had grown back – and then some. New tumor sites appeared, as well. 

My doctor recommended that we start treatment again. 

Follicular lymphoma is a chronic cancer. For most people, it won’t kill you, but it nearly always comes back, requiring more treatment. I had chemo and immunotherapy in 2018 and went into remission – but just for six months before I relapsed. If there’s a silver lining, I went treatment free for five years since, with follicular lymphoma, you don’t treat until the tumors get large enough or if you’re having “B” symptoms. 

Was my near-fainting in shul a “B” symptom? My hematologist didn’t think so. But the disease is now clearly progressing and treatment in 2024 has become unavoidable.

That’s where I am now – at the beginning of months of cancer treatment which will, hopefully, knock out the lymphoma for a good many years.

Part of what gives me confidence is a new kind of treatment that has emerged that will, in the coming years, likely become the standard of care for blood cancers like mine. No more chemo. The new drug of choice is known as a “bispecific antibody,” a form of immunotherapy. Mine in particular is called Mosunetuzumab.

A quick primer: Antibodies are a protein component of the immune system that circulates in the blood, recognizes foreign substances like viruses and bacteria, and neutralizes them. Immunotherapy, unlike chemo, which indiscriminately kills both cancer and healthy innocent bystander cells, harnesses the body’s immune system to fight any malignancies. Scientists do this by engineering antibodies in a lab and then injecting them into the patient.

Antibodies tend to have a “Y” shape. Most engineered antibodies are “monocolonal” – they have the same function on each “arm” of the Y. For lymphoma, they seek out a protein called CD20 that’s expressed by the tumor cells. 

Bispecific antibody “Y” shape (YouTube screenshot via The Jerusalem Post)

For bispecifics, the two arms have different functions. One still searches for CD20 proteins, but the other binds with CD3 proteins which are expressed by T-cells in the immune system. 

Because the two arms of the Y are tethered to the same stem, they pack a powerful punch. Unlike with monoclonal antibodies, where the T-cells have to search somewhat randomly throughout the body to find the cancer cells that the monoclonal antibody has marked, with bispecifics, the antibody basically says, “Hey, T-cells, I found a tumor. Here it is. Go get it.”

The result can be dramatic, with tumors obliterated sometimes as fast as a matter of minutes. We don’t know how long the remissions will last – bispecifics are so new there’s no long-term follow-up date on them – but the prognosis is encouraging.

By this time next year, I should be done with IVs and meds. I can only pray that our country will be in a similar remission from the war and the divisiveness that preceded it, and that we will have eradicated our enemies – both internal and external.

I first shared my latest health news at The Jerusalem Post.

For a good overview on how bispecifics work, this video from the Lymphoma Research Foundation is excellent.

]]> 0
War and new life Sun, 31 Dec 2023 17:37:56 +0000

On the night of October 6, our two-year-old grandson, Ilai, had a sleepover at Saba and Savta’s house. Our plan was to give his parents a night off. We would take our precious little boy to Simchat Torah services the next day and his parents would join us whenever they woke up.

Merav and Gabe with baby Roni

Instead, we spent much of the morning of October 7 running up and down the stairs to our bomb shelter.

Nine weeks later, we were babysitting overnight again, this time because Ilai’s parents were at Hadassah Medical Center as our daughter, Merav, was in labor to deliver Ilai’s baby sister.

As we set out for synagogue on Friday night with Ilai in tow, I had an evil premonition. 

“I bet there will be another siren,” I said to my wife, Jody, “since Ilai is with us again for Shabbat.”

Maybe I should have put out into the universe a more positive intention.

No sooner had we arrived at shul than, true to my paranoid prediction, there was a siren – a cynical way for Hamas to “welcome” the Sabbath Queen. 

We calmly filed into the adjacent safe room and started the service there. We waited for the booms of the Iron Dome, then returned to the main sanctuary. 

Meanwhile at Hadassah, Merav and Gabe had to flee temporarily into the stairwell. Fortunately, her contractions weren’t too tough at that point.

24 hours later, Roni Maayan was born.

Her name – like everything these days – is infused with significance. We had wondered, for example, whether Merav and Gabe would pick a name that related to the war somehow. Indeed, they did, and then went even further.

“Roni’” in Hebrew can be translated as “Ron sheli” or “my song, my joy.”

“We are giving her this name in the hope of having the tools to light up the dark times of the world into which she was born and to bring song, love and peace into it,” Merav wrote in a social media post announcing Roni’s arrival.

Roni is also named after Ron, Merav’s great-grandfather and Jody’s father, who passed away two years ago. 

Her middle name, Maayan, references our cousin Marla Ann Bennett, who was killed in the terror attack at Hebrew University in 2002. 

“I was so close to Marla,” Merav explained. “I knew, one day, if and when I had a daughter, I would name her after Marla in some way. We connected ‘Marla’ and ‘Ann’ to form ‘Maayan.’”

This is not the first time someone in our family has received a name relating to real-world events.

We gave Merav the middle name “Yonit” when she was born in 1993, to mark the Oslo Accords and treaty with Jordan. “Yonit” means “little dove,” a fitting expression of the hope for peace. 

While Oslo didn’t quite work out as those of us who supported the accords expected, Roni’s message of hope is more universal. In years to come, when Hamas is presumably vanquished and a new reality has taken hold in the Middle East, Roni’s “song of joy” will be even more appropriate.

Another change for Roni’s birth: Merav and Gabe chose Hadassah in Jerusalem’s Ein Kerem neighborhood, rather than St. Joseph, which they had used when Ilai was born. (See my article about St. Joseph’s here.)

St. Joseph is an Arab-run hospital located in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of eastern Jerusalem. Two years ago, St. Joseph was the “in” spot for Jewish Israelis in the Jerusalem area wishing to give birth in a less invasive, quieter environment than the city’s two main medical centers – Hadassah and Sha’arei Tzedek. 

About 15% of the patients at St. Joseph at the time were Jewish women. The rooms have crucifixes or a depiction of Jesus, but the staff would take those down if it made the birthing couple uncomfortable.

Things started to change at St. Joseph when Sister Valentina Sala, the hospital’s head midwife, who was dispatched from the Vatican to Jerusalem to establish the new ward, was reassigned earlier this year to replicate the St. Joseph model in Europe. Reports from Jewish parents who labored at St. Joseph since then reported the atmosphere was not as congenial as it had been previously.

But it was the war with Hamas that sealed the decision to opt for Hadassah. East Jerusalem didn’t feel comfortable anymore. 

Ironically, the doctor who delivered Roni at Hadassah was an Arabic-speaker. 

Roni and her parents are now home where Ilai is adjusting (read: considering how best to act out) to his new family situation. Roni is quite delicious and I’m sure she and Ilai will eventually become good friends. (Emphasis on the word “eventually.”)

When Ilai was born in 2021, I wrote here that, while it’s a cliché to say I fell in love with the little guy the first minute I met him, sometimes cliches are true. 

“It’s not his witty jokes, his seamless repartee or his physical actions that led to this love affair,” I said at his brit milah. “It’s a visceral, subconscious feeling that seeps over you with an intensity that’s different than even having your own children. Is it his sweet baby smell? Those little baby noises he makes that are so adorable? His perfect, beautiful lips or his incredibly soft skin? I may not be a religious person, but the first thing I thought of when I saw him was, ‘He’s a miracle.’”

The same has been true for Roni.

I wish Roni, her parents, big brother, uncles, aunts, cousins, and of course, her doting grandparents a life free from hardship, full of meaning, and imbued with light. If it takes a village to raise a happy and healthy child in today’s world, we are delighted to be that village.

I first wrote about the convergence between war and new life for The Jerusalem Post.

]]> 0
Jihad – Where religion and murder meet Sun, 17 Dec 2023 09:20:59 +0000

Since the war with Hamas started, I’ve been following the news – and its nonstop analysis – mainly through podcasts. If I had to choose just a single episode to recommend, one that expertly explains what’s going on in the region – and ultimately the world – episode 340 of Sam Harris’s Making Sense would be my choice.

Sam Harris on the TED stage

In 59 clear-eyed minutes, Harris explains what jihad is in Islam, what its goals are, and how to counter the inevitable horrific outcome. He may not change any minds – as if that’s possible in today’s polarized social media-fueled environment – but for those willing to listen, Harris’s sober elucidation provides a much-needed dose of reality.

Entitled “The Bright Line Between Good and Evil,” Harris starts by bemoaning the fact that, since October 7, “millions of people can’t do the moral arithmetic here or have confidently produced the wrong answer. [That’s] an enormous problem for open societies everywhere—because this should not have been confusing.” 

Hamas’s “Black Sabbath” attack, Harris argues, “should have made it instantly clear, to everyone, certainly everyone on a college campus, that jihadist groups like Hamas are the permanent enemies of civilization.”

The opposite seems to have occurred. 

How did we get to this place of such moral confusion? 

It’s from a fundamental misconception where “we imagine that people everywhere want the same things: They want to live safe and prosperous lives. They want clean drinking water and good schools for their kids,” Harris says.

So, if a particular group starts “behaving in extraordinarily destructive ways — practicing suicidal terrorism against noncombatants, for instance — they must have been pushed into extremis by others.” 

You know, like Israel.

But if it’s not Israel’s behavior that “explains the suicidal and genocidal inclinations of a group like Hamas,” Harris asks, then what motivates the terrorists?

Harris refuses to pull any punches: It’s religion that’s the problem here. Put starkly, “When you believe that life in this world has no value, apart from deciding who goes to hell and who goes to paradise, it becomes possible to feel perfectly at ease killing noncombatants, or even using your own women and children as human shields.”

Indeed, if you take martyrdom and paradise seriously, “it becomes impossible to make moral errors,” Harris says. “If you blow yourself up in a crowd, your fellow Muslims will go straight to paradise. You’ve actually done them a favor. Unbelievers will go to hell, where they belong. However many lives you destroy, it’s all good.”

Harris insists he isn’t trying to tar all Muslims as jihadists. But for the extremists, it’s critical to take them at their words when they cry out “God is great” while raping, burning and beheading. 

“For the jihadist, all of this sadism — the torture and murder of helpless, terrified people — is an act of worship. This is the sacrament,” Harris continues. “This is what you do for the glory of God.”

Anshel Pfeffer, writing in Haaretz, has said pretty much the same thing.

“Acknowledging that Hamas’ killers claimed to be acting in the name of their religion is not maligning Islam,” he notes. “It doesn’t mean they are the sole authentic representatives of a faith that has hundreds of millions of adherents. It is simply sticking to the facts. However, this is somehow inconceivable to almost every Westerner writing or opining on the events.”

If you don’t understand the role of religion in jihad, you can’t understand the problem Israel faces, Harris and Pfeffer stress.

It’s not even about Israel, not really. 

Over the last 40 years, there have been nearly 50,000 acts of Islamic terrorism, Harris quotes a French group that maintains a database of these attacks. “Ninety percent of them have occurred in Muslim countries. Most have nothing to do with Israel or the Jews.” 

Yet, blaming Israel has somehow become embedded in “woke” ideology.

That’s how feminist organizations like CodePink can go “all in for Hamas and accuse the Israelis of genocide.” It’s how LGBTQ activists in the West can support Hamas “when they wouldn’t survive a day in Gaza…it boggles the mind,” Harris laments. 

Can anything be done before the world descends into unmitigated barbarism? 

“Jihadism has to be destroyed in every way it can be destroyed — logistically, economically, informationally, but also in the most material sense, which means killing a lot of jihadists,” Harris says. “We can argue with their sympathizers. And we can hope to de-radicalize them. But we also have to kill committed jihadists. These are not normal antagonists with rational demands. These are not people who want what we want.”

Harris stresses that for change to stick, it has to be local. 

“If the future is going to be remotely tolerable, the vast majority of Muslims have to disavow jihadism and unite with non-Muslims in fighting it. When hundreds of thousands of people show up in London to condemn Hamas, or the Islamic State, or any specific instance of jihadist savagery, without both-sides-ing anything, then we will know that we’ve made a modicum of progress.”

Anshel Pfeffer says the road to recovery starts with acknowledging reality. 

To actually find a solution to the conflict, “accepting the fact that it’s above all a religious-nationalist conflict, and not some race-based and settler-colonial artificial concept imported from Western campuses, would be a good place to start,” he writes.

That’s going to be a tall order and I’m not in the least bit convinced that either the Muslim world or the West is up to the task. If October 7 couldn’t convince them, what can? But without a sober understanding of who the enemy is, we will lose this war.

“We all live in Israel now,” Harris concludes. “It’s just that most of us haven’t realized it yet.”

I first described the connection between jihadism and murder for The Jerusalem Post.

Photo credit to Bret Hartman from TED. Illustration credit to Paul Lachine. You can see more of Paul’s illustrations at

]]> 0
The memes of war Sun, 03 Dec 2023 10:58:02 +0000

Since the war to eradicate Hamas in the Gaza Strip began, I’ve been collecting social media memes – those pithy, sometimes insightful, often bleakly humorous images or text messages shared by supporters of the war effort. 

Here are some of the most memorable memes I’ve saved. 

  • A meme from Ziggy Marley, son of Bob Marley, subverted the cynical pro-Palestinian narrative quite effectively. He posted, “Free Gaza.” That doesn’t sound so favorable until you read the second line: “From Hamas.”
From Ziggy Marley’s Facebook page
  • Superimposed on an image of the Twin Towers in flames, the caption reads: “Nobody said on 9/11, ‘I support both sides.’”

Credit: yuvyuv_10
  • Another Al-Qaeda theme: “Imagine being an American post-9/11 but instead of mourning your people, you are busy convincing the world that the twin towers actually existed, the airplanes literally crashed into them, that actual people were jumping down. This is how I feel wandering around these days,” writes Michael Sutton.
  • Hollywood has been a mixed bag when it comes to supporting Israel at this precarious moment, but kol hakavod to Jewish comedian Amy Schumer Her post, with text overlaid on a Star of David, reads: “First they came for LGBTQ. And I stood up, because love is love. Then they came for immigrants, and I stood up because families belong together. Then they came for the Black community, and I stood up because Black Lives Matter. Then they came for me, but I stood alone, because I am a Jew.”

Posted on Amy Schumer’s FB page
  • Israeli copywriter Matan Unger created a series of dark “Where’s Waldo?” parodies replete with “cute” Waldo-like images – except here they’re of heavily-armed Hamas terrorists and their bombs, missiles and rifles. Can you spot the hostages? I didn’t think so.
Source: Matan Unger
  • One of the most shared images is from a “Queers for Palestine” rally. It’s juxtaposed with a picture of a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. The latter reads “Chickens for KFC.” In both cases, no one’s getting out alive.

  • If you haven’t seen the Eretz Nehederet (Israel’s version of Saturday Night Live) parody of pro-Hamas students in the U.S. at fictional “Columbia Untisemity,” it’s in English and well worth its three-minute length for this brilliant rationalization: Midway, one of the genocide-loving students proudly declares, “I’m not antisemitic. I’m racist fluid.”

Screen grab from YouTube
  • Columbia Untisemity competes with Harvard for moral depravity. A parody of a university admissions application lists as its last essay question, “Describe one life-challenge you have encountered and explain why it’s Israel’s fault.”
  • When Gaza lost telecommunications, an image of an IT call center operator prompted a wry chuckle. “Gaza: My Internet is not working.” “Service provider: Did you try releasing the hostages?”
  • Harry Potter fans might enjoy this meme: Harry is pointing his wand at Voldemort while his faculty nemesis, Prof. Umbridge, interrupts his efforts, holding a large clipboard. “Now, Mr. Potter, exactly how much humanitarian aid are you currently offering to the non-terrorist organization known as the ‘Death Eaters?’”
  • Ex-Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters, known for his antisemitic comments, gets the pro-Israel meme treatment in “alternative” cover to the band’s classic album Dark Side of the Moon featuring a Star of David at its center.

Credit: Daniel Bnaya and Guy Alkabets
  • Sometimes simplicity is the best. One meme I found is just a plain white page with text reading: “Verify that you’re human” with a captcha checkbox: “I support Israel.” An alternate version making its way around social media: “You don’t have to be Jewish. You just have to be human.” 
  • Some of the memes went really dark. “I can’t explain how it feels to hear people worldwide cheering for your extermination” was shared by my daughter who lived in Sderot for four years. Her PTSD is triggered with every new siren. The same sentiment was expressed in a separate meme: “I refuse to coexist with people who want to behead me.”
  • Martin Luther King Jr. quipped, “I agree with Dante that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in a period of moral crisis, maintain their neutrality. There comes a time when silence becomes betrayal.”
  • Albert Einstein had a similar quote: “The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything.”
  • From the Center for Jewish Impact: “If we sat shiva for every Israeli killed on October 7, we would sit for 27 years.”
  • A simple green “population” sign for Kibbutz Nir Oz hits home. “Population October 7: 450. Population October 8: 190.”

Design by: Eyal Ofer

  • The conflict explained in a nutshell. Hamas: “We want a ceasefire.” Israel: “I thought you wanted to kill us all and take over all the land?” Hamas: “We do want to kill you and take all your land.” Israel: “But I thought you wanted a ceasefire.” Hamas: “Correct. We want to kill all of you and take all of your land, but we also want you to stop fighting back.”
  • Finally, for those with the bandwidth to still worry about one’s choice of pronouns in a time of war, Sarah Tuttle-Singer has hers. “I identify as Jewish, and my pronoun is Jew.”

Memes may seem trivial, but we know from anti-Zionist chants like “From the river to the sea, Palestine must be free” how they can rile people up. Here’s one more: “Together we will win.”

Please feel free to share your own memorable memes.

I first wrote about the Memes of War for The Jerusalem Post.

Images from social media. Credits shown in captions.

]]> 0
Betrayal Sun, 19 Nov 2023 13:46:55 +0000

“Betrayal.” That’s how Shimrit Meir, who served as a senior advisor to prime minister Naftali Bennett, described her feelings following the surge of antisemitic speeches, letters, marches and violence that has erupted around the world in the aftermath of the October 7 “Black Sabbath” attack in Israel.

Shimrit Meir

Meir, who was interviewed on the Unholy: Two Jews on the News podcast, was under no illusions that the empathy towards Israel displayed by the world immediately following Hamas’s atrocities would last once the IDF began pounding the Gaza Strip.

Still, she didn’t expect the embrace to be so brief.

Hamas’s attack was, after all, an attack unlike any other, with the terrorists documenting their pogrom on cell phones and GoPros and uploading it to the Internet in real time. If the Nazis had modern technology, I’m not sure they would have the audacity to live stream their atrocities; they worked hard to conceal their genocide. 

But there’s no denying what Hamas perpetrated on Simchat Torah – it’s all out there for anyone with a strong stomach to see.

But deny it is exactly what has been happening.

From Queen Rania of Jordan, who told CNN there’s “no evidence” that Hamas murdered babies and children, to pro-Palestinian protesters in the U.S. and Europe who place the blame entirely on the Israeli side. 

A poll conducted by CAPS/Harris found that 32% of young adults 18-to-24-years-old do not believe Hamas killed 1,400 Israelis. Nearly half of the same age group remain convinced that it was an Israeli air strike that hit the Al-Ahli Hospital, despite evidence from multiple sources pointing to a misfired rocket from Gaza itself.

The result has been quick and heartbreaking: On campuses across the U.S., Jews are feeling unsafe.

Israeli poet Maya Tenet Dayan was in San Diego for a teaching residency. 

“I don’t like being an Israeli in California right now,” she wrote in Haaretz. “I feel an existential threat. I’m frightened to say where I come from. I’m frightened that someone will hear my children speaking Hebrew in the street. Most of the time, I’m helpless, because how do you even begin to explain? I talk with people who have no idea where Israel is on the map yet their opinion on it is unshakable.”

“What shocked me,” political commentator Andrew Sullivan added, “was the vivid and genuine expressions of solidarity with the mass murderers — even as their atrocities were in front of our eyes. That requires real ideological commitment, to repress every human impulse of empathy.”

What has happened to humanity’s moral compass? Why is it so hard for people to condemn outright evil when it comes to the Jews, to say clearly, as philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris did, “There are not many bright lines that divide good and evil in our world, but this is one of them.”

The explanation lies in “cognitive-dissonance reduction,” Shany Mor, a lecturer at Reichman University in Herzliya, wrote in The Wall Street Journal

Cognitive dissonance occurs when what one experiences in the real-world conflicts with a long-held internal belief. It’s unpleasant, so people try to minimize it, Mor explained.

Cognitive dissonance reduction, then, is “the process by which people reconcile new information that contradicts their firmly held priors. The result is an ostensibly coherent system of thought.”

By applying cognitive dissonance reduction, politicians, journalists and everyday antisemites are able to ignore the fact “that Hamas’s belligerence is the cause [not the consequence] of Israel’s blockade of Gaza,” Mor wrote.

So, if missiles are being fired and innocent civilians are abducted, if Israel is, according to anti-Zionist activists, the epitome of evil, then the attacks must be Israel’s fault, not the Palestinians’, who are denied even a modicum of agency.

“Hamas’s gruesome attack poses a threat to this worldview, and the only way to resolve it is by heightening Israel’s imagined malevolence. The terrorist atrocities don’t trigger a recoiling from the cause in whose name they were carried out; they lead to an even greater revulsion at the victim,” Mor explained.

Moreover, Mor continued, “If the only thing that can explain a Palestinian action is Israeli ‘evil,’ then Israel’s opponents have to imagine a level of Jewish evil commensurate with what Hamas did—shooting children in front of their parents, setting houses on fire with residents inside, raping women.

When it is forbidden to criticize murderers or the society that created them, Mor concluded, “all that is left is to defame the victims.”

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid wants to ask the terrorist-supporting global far-left, “Do your feelings exempt you from knowing the facts? Do you know, for example, that Hamas doesn’t support a two-state solution? They don’t even want to free Palestine. And what about LGBT people? Do you really not care that the people you’re supporting hang gays?”

Logic, it seems, is unable to counter the intense urgency to reduce cognitive dissonance. 

Shalom Hartman Institute fellow Dr. Micah Goodman says that Israelis’ burning desire for acceptance helps fuel the problem. 

“We want love and we want fear,” Goodman explained. “We want love from the West. We want fear from the Middle East” to restore deterrence against our enemies. 

The problem is that it’s a zero-sum game. “Everything that we are going to do to restore the fear is going to erode the love,” Goodman noted.

What will happen next? Will Israel prevail? Who will govern Gaza once Hamas is gone? Will this lead to a massive shake-up of the governments on both sides – and beyond? 

One thing that is, sadly, all too known is that the theme of Dara Horn’s latest bookThe World Loves Dead Jews, is no longer just a catchy title. It’s a reality we tried to ignore, one which we cannot – and should not – have to endure, and yet which the Jewish people, betrayed once again, will continue to bear for eternity.

I first wrote about my feelings of betrayal for The Jerusalem Post.

Image from Shimrit Meir’s profile on X.

]]> 0
Are missiles messing with your love life? Sun, 05 Nov 2023 10:33:52 +0000

I don’t want to in any way trivialize the horrors of Hamas’s appalling pogrom on Simchat Torah. But as the initial shock recedes and the war proceeds apace, rockets remain a constant, whether from Gaza, Lebanon or further afield.

And, frankly, missiles are messing with my love life. 

True, the human sex drive is strong, but the fear of getting hot and heavy and then hearing the dreaded siren outside your window and having to hustle to get to the safe room – hopefully fully dressed if your shelter is a communal one rather than a private protected room inside your home – well, let’s just say it’s not exactly an aphrodisiac. And how do get in the mood when your mind is filled with thoughts of our soldiers on the front lines, our dead and kidnapped?

This is part of the “hidden” side of war that no one wants to talk about but that’s on everyone’s minds – the way actions that would have seemed mundane on October 6 are now triggers for anxiety. 

Here are ten ordinary activities that are now anything but.

  1. Taking a shower. Anything that involves taking your clothes off is a risk these days. If a siren sounds while you’re under the water, do you rush out as fast as you can and head to the safe room in a towel? Or do you stay in the shower and hope that the statistics are with you. (“It couldn’t possibly hit my specific house.”) Are your showers shorter now than they used to? Who would have imagined we’d have to check the headlines before deciding if this is a safe window for bathing?
  2. Walking the dog. Our pets need us to care of their needs. But a stroll around the block could be interrupted by missiles. A leisurely walk is now punctuated with thoughts of “Where’s the closest shelter?” and “Could I duck into that building’s stairwell?” Our poor puppy has not been getting his usual exercise.
  3. Driving anywhere. Sometimes you have to go beyond your immediate neighborhood. In response, there are numerous “guides” (like this one) offering helpful instructions on what to do if you’re in your car and a siren sounds: Get as far away from your car as you can, crouch low near a building, embankment, or drainage ditch, and cover your head and face with your hands for 10 minutes. I think I’d rather just stay close to home and walk the dog.
  4. Going to sleep. What used to be a respite is now a source of fear. I get into bed and imagine sirens waking me in the middle of the night. Is it prudent to sleep in your clothes? What about socks? Shoes? I’ve had to double my cocktail of sleeping meds to get through this period, which makes me even more anxious: If I’m so drugged out, will I be able to make it to the shelter without stumbling?
  5. Sitting on the toilet. If, in the before-times, my biggest concern was “How long will I need to sit here for something to happen?” Now, it’s “How fast can I get this out?” This is how the mundane becomes ripe with the stench of fear. 
  6. Synagogue and simchas. Prior to October 7, the biggest question about attending synagogue was, “Should I wear a mask or not?” Now it’s, “Can all the people in shul fit into its tiny safe room if a missile is launched?” Similarly, when we were invited to a brit milah in friends’ backyard, the hosts cautioned there’s no shelter, so if any guests don’t feel comfortable, they shouldn’t come. 
  7. Eating. Do you accept a Shabbat invitation if the hosts have no protected space nearby? Is it safe to go out to eat (at the few restaurants that are still open), or should you order take-out? How do you time breakfast so, if there’s a siren, the granola won’t go soggy?
  8. Dental work. I have a dentist appointment in a few weeks. If the war’s not over by then, do I keep it? It’s just for a cleaning, but the photo my dentist posted to social media of a man in the midst of getting a cavity filled ensconced in the building’s shelter, suggests I may want to postpone.
  9. Reading the news. As an admitted news junkie, I read three to four publications regularly. That used to be a joy. No more. Reading the news before bed is a guarantee for nightmares. My wife, Jody, has eschewed reading the news at all; I decided not to look at pictures and video, but even text descriptions set my imagination on fire. Social media is no better – is that a picture of a loved one who was murdered? Is that an announcement of a funeral or shiva? Do I recognize the name?
  10. Locking down. This is not about missiles per se but it’s another casualty of war. We’ve long locked the front door when we turn in for the night. Now we’ve added the windows, the exit to the terrace, anything that faces the outside. Are terrorists going to rappel up our building and break into our apartment? Unlikely. But nothing these days runs according to logic. We used the peep hole on our front door even before the war; now it’s a matter of life or death. 

We all need to poop, eat, sleep, walk the dog, have sex and get our teeth cleaned – now all sources of stress. But we should be grateful for our good fortune: mundane annoyances are far better than the horrific alternative. 

I first lamented the loss of the mundane at The Jerusalem Post.

Photo by Alexander Krivitskiy on Unsplash

]]> 0
Superheroes in the Middle East Fri, 20 Oct 2023 08:56:34 +0000

Palestinian terrorists detonate a radioactive dirty bomb at the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station. 

Israel responds by destroying the Al Aqsa Mosque. 

Iranian missiles whistle towards Israel and – miraculously – vanish midair. 

Leading Iranian clerics and politicians mysteriously die on the spot. 

And then there’s the Ark – the Holy Ark that tradition says carried the 10 commandments – which has been discovered under the Temple Mount and is…inexplicably floating.

Those are the broad plot strokes of the sci-fi novel Alpha and Omega, which I finished reading just hours before Hamas launched its shock pogrom on Israel this past Simchat Torah. 

Alpha and Omega was written by Harry Turtledove, dubbed “the master of alternative history” (he has another book set during World War II where Nazis, Jews, Americans and Russians all team up to fight a bigger enemy: aliens). 

While the narrative Turtledove presents is very different from our current reality, I nevertheless found myself at times mixing up what happened two weeks ago in southern Israel with Turtledove’s audacious fictional attacks.

As the events unfolded on that dreadful morning two weeks ago, I found myself hoping against hope that a supernatural presence would intercede, as in Turtledove’s magical realism.

Alas, there were no superheroes with capes to be found anywhere along the Gaza border in the excruciating first hours of the attack. Neither Iron Man nor Captain America have yet to swoop down from the skies to stop the bad guys with their super strength and superior technology. 

I’ve had superhero envy since I was a child when I was relentlessly bullied at school. After one particularly nasty incident, I ran to my father’s home office, which had a window looking out on our cul-de-sac, stretched my arms wide, and concentrated as hard as I could in order to change the relationship between me and my tormentors.

But it’s all just fantasy. There’s no way to turn back time, as Superman did to save Lois Lane by flying around the earth at super speed, or to “unsnap” Thanos’s decree from Avengers: Infinity War.

But there are heroes in southern Israel. They just aren’t supernatural.

Israeli civilians have stepped up in remarkable ways, volunteering to make, pack and deliver food and supplies to soldiers on the front; standing in line for hours to donate blood; traveling for days on multiple flights to get back to Israel to help. The anti-judicial coup protest groups transformed overnight into aid organizations, applying their proven logistics infrastructure to aid a country in its hour of need.

Among the stories of heroism (I’m writing early in the week, so more tales of bravery will undoubtedly come to light) is that of Rachel Adari from Ofakim who, along with her husband David, was held hostage for 15 hours and stalled the terrorists by serving Coke Zero and cookies and offering to teach them Hebrew in exchange for Arabic lessons.

The Adaris were eventually rescued; the terrorists in their home were killed.

Amir Tibon lives with his wife and daughters on Kibbutz Nahal Oz. When they heard machine gun fire, they barricaded themselves in their safe room. Terrorists were literally on the other side of the door. 

When power was cut, the Tibons had only their cellphones to light the space. After spending hours in the pitch black, a text message arrived: Amir’s father, Noam, a retired IDF general, wrote that he and Amir’s mother were on their way from Tel Aviv. 

While racing towards uncertainty, the elder Tibons encountered young people who had escaped the massacre at the outdoor rave. The Tibons picked them up and dropped them off at a location further north before turning around to head to Nahal Oz again. 

When Noam arrived at Nahal Oz, he quickly joined a firefight. Six terrorists were killed; dozens of kibbutzniks – including Amir and his family – were freed. 

Never have the words “Saba is here” sounded so sweet.

Meanwhile, at Kibbutz Nir Am, 25-year-old Inbal Lieberman, the community’s security coordinator, discerned that the sounds she was hearing from outside were not the usual missiles or incendiary balloons. She quickly unlocked the kibbutz armory, distributed guns, positioned her makeshift “staff” strategically around the kibbutz, and successfully repelled the incursion. 

A key decision: disconnecting the electricity from the kibbutz fence, which prevented the terrorists from getting in. 

Finally, there’s Nuseir Yassin, better known as “Nas Daily,” with some 21 million social media followers.

“Sometimes it takes a shock like this to see so clearly,” he wrote on X (formerly known as Twitter). 

What does he see clearly now?

“For the longest time, I struggled with my identity,” Yassin, 31, who grew up in the Lower Galilee town of Arraba, wrote. “Many of my friends refuse to this day to say the word ‘Israel’ and call themselves ‘Palestinian’ only.”

That bifurcation didn’t make sense to Yassin. “So, I decided to mix the two and become a ‘Palestinian-Israeli.’

“But after recent events, I started to think. And think. And think. And then my thoughts turned to anger. I realized that if Israel were to be ‘invaded’ like that again, we would not be safe. To a terrorist invading Israel, all citizens are targets.

“I do not want to live under a Palestinian government. Which means I only have one home, even if I’m not Jewish: Israel.

“From today forward, I view myself as an ‘Israeli-Palestinian.’ Israeli first. Palestinian second.”

That took courage. Thank you, Nas.

And thank you to all the superheroes in our midst. You may not wear a cape or be able to stop missiles enroute, as Harry Turtledove envisioned, but you’re the real deal. 

I first wrote about superheroes in the Middle East for The Jerusalem Post.

]]> 0
Foreskin’s lament: Should Jewish males be circumcised? Fri, 06 Oct 2023 13:53:19 +0000

I’m circumcised. So are all the men in my family. We’re Jews. That’s what we do.

At Ilai’s brit milah in 2016

But have we made a terrible mistake?

There is a growing movement around the world for “foreskin regeneration.” An online survey conducted by foreskin “intactavist” Brendon Marotta asked 10,000 circumcised men if they’d be willing to have their circumcision reversed and how much they’d be ready to pay.

Some 40% of circumcised respondents said they wanted their foreskins back. Of these, 22.6% said they would be willing to pay over $20,000 for the procedure. 

Why would men be clamoring for a procedure in such a sensitive area? 

In a word: pleasure. 

The foreskin comprises a third of the skin of the penis – that’s an awful lot of satisfaction being lopped off.

But how would we know? Since most men are circumcised as infants, we don’t have any way to compare before and after. 

Unless you’re a Russian immigrant to Israel.

Circumcision was not as de rigueur in the Former Soviet Union as it is in Israel, where brit milah is a clear Torah commandment. But Russian immigrants who want to convert to Judaism will sometimes get circumcised later in life. 

An article in Haaretz quoted an immigrant named Yuri who was already sexually active before deciding to get circumcised.

“The feeling in the sexual contact was affected, it was wrecked,” Yuri laments. “There was a great deal less sensitivity and I needed a higher level of stimulation. I was 16 and I was an idiot.”

Haaretz’s Hilo Glazer interviewed 50 immigrants who were circumcised only as adults. 

“Seventy percent of them reported that their enjoyment of sexual relations had been adversely affected,” Glazer writes. “Twenty-two percent said there had been a significant decline, 10% said it was medium, and 38% characterized it as a minor drop.”

A survey published in Israel Hayom and conducted by Rosh Yehudi, the NGO that was at the center of controversy on Yom Kippur when it tried to hold gender-segregated prayer in Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Square, found that, while 47.8% of respondents said it was “imperative” to them that their children be circumcised, and an additional 25% said they considered it “important,” 8.4% said it was only “somewhat important” for their children to be circumcised, 11.5% said it “wasn’t important” to them, and 7.3% said they were “opposed” to circumcision.

For Jews considering non-circumcision, an organization called Bruchim promotes an alternative – the brit shalom – which focuses on the ceremony but without the cut. There’s also the website, Beyond the Bristhe 2005 book A Surgical Temptation: The Demonization of the Foreskin and the Rise of Circumcision by Richard Darby; Brendon Marotta’s documentary, American Circumcision; and Rabbi Haviva Ner-David’s novel, To Die in Secret, which highlights as a pivotal plot point a woman debating whether to circumcise her son.

Brit milah has not remained static over the years.

According to the Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion, the version of brit milah practiced today is quite different than what was originally delineated in the Bible. Rather, it is a response to the Greeks, who loathed circumcision.

To participate in Hellenistic sporting tournaments, one had to compete naked. Jews wanted to be a part of the games, too. Some Jewish athletes would systematically weigh their foreskins down with stones so they would appear still intact.

The rabbis, who were against assimilation of any kind, responded by mandating the removal of much more of the foreskin than the Torah originally intended. 

If brit milah was originally the ultimate impossible-to-fake “signal” of belonging to the Jewish tribe, circumcision later became more of a moral imperative. Maimonides wrote, for example, that the purpose of brit milah was to “reduce the pleasure of the sex act.”

The 19th century Victorian- and Edwardian-era English-speaking world concurred, believing circumcision would lessen sexual desire and, as Darby points out, lead to a reduction in masturbation. 

John Harvey Kellogg, the inventor of Corn Flakes, sadistically claimed that circumcision would make a “good punishment” for boys who play with themselves, and advocated operating without anesthesia.

Circumcision is far from pain-free, regardless of the recipient’s age or state of stupor.

Dr. Daniel Shinhar runs a clinic in Tel Aviv that performs circumcision on infants under sedation. He notes that “the pain of circumcision is equal to that of having a tooth pulled without an anesthetic.” 

On the plus side, circumcision appears to reduce the risk of urinary tract infections, prostate cancer and sexually-transmitted diseases such as genital herpes, syphilis and HIV.

While the idea of more pleasure is enticing, I’m not considering reversing my own circumcision. Interested men, however, can turn to a startup called Foregen, which is running clinical trials to re-establish a fully-functioning foreskin.

Foregen creates an extra-cellular matrix – a kind of “scaffolding” made of proteins, carbohydrates, collagen, hyaluronic acid and other biological material formed from donated foreskin tissue.

Foregen then applies different growth factors “to get the tissue revascularized,” Ryan Jones, Foregen’s chief operating officer, told me. 

“If the Israel Hayom-reported data is accurate – that more than 18% of secular Israelis feel circumcision isn’t important or are outright opposed – it shows a surprising lack of support for circumcision among secular Israelis,” Rebecca Wald, executive director of Bruchim, told me. “There’s still widespread endorsement of circumcision, but this definitely indicates the tide is turning.”

While I wouldn’t go so far as to call circumcision a “terrible mistake,” perhaps there’s a middle ground for the Jewish baby boys yet to be born.

Could we return to the Biblical, more minimally-invasive method of brit milah that existed before the rabbis and Greeks messed things up? Would that enable greater stimulation without turning non-circumcised males into Israeli locker room oddities? 

Or should we just not touch the whole sensitive topic?

I first wrote about foreskins for The Jerusalem Post.

“Foreskin’s Lament” is the title of a wonderful memoir by Shalom Auslander.

]]> 0