Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Former Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz on Israel’s Peace and Security Challenges, by Doni Remba

Amir Peretz, now a Labor Knesset Member who serves on the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense and Economic Affairs Committees, and a front-runner for the leadership of the Labor Party, is visiting New York to share his current take on Israel’s political and security dilemmas.  He appeared yesterday before a small group during a luncheon at the Harvard Club, sponsored by the Israel Policy Forum and MTP Investment Group. (I first visited with Peretz as part of an Americans for Peace Now delegation at Israel's Defense Ministry in June 2006, when he served as Defense Minister in the Olmert Government, a position he held during 2006 – 2007; photo above).

Israeli-Palestinian Peace Talks

Peretz believes that Israel must push the peace process forward, because time is not on Israel's side. Israeli Jews will soon become a minority between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, and the window of opportunity for negotiations will close, leaving Israel with far worse options than a negotiated two-state agreement. After a September vote for unilateral Palestinian statehood at the United Nations, Israel’s strategic position may be dramatically weaker.

I would add that even Netanyahu’s most ardent American Jewish supporter, Ron Lauder, has now issued much the same charge against him as Peretz:  “Top Jewish leader and close Netanyahu ally blasts PM for lack of a diplomatic plan,” Ha’aretz, June 29, 2011.  Lauder’s strong criticisms of Netanyahu are all the more remarkable given that he has not only long been a close ally of Netanyahu’s, but a conservative on Israel and a sharp critic of Obama’s positions on Israel from the right.   Lauder now reportedly believes that “Israel must present a diplomatic plan in order to regain international support and block Palestinian efforts to obtain unilateral recognition for statehood from the UN in September… Lauder also criticized the conditions Netanyahu has set for talks, saying the only way Israel can escape its international isolation is to agree to begin negotiations without preconditions.”

Under Netanyahu, Israel is in a stalemate with the Palestinians, and losing valuable time, says Peretz. Netanyahu insists on two pre-conditions for negotiations with the Palestinians: first, that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Peretz says he asked Netanyahu why he needs this, when Begin signed a peace treaty with Egypt, and Rabin with Jordan, without ever making such a demand.  "We do not need anyone else to tell us who or what we are in Israel," protests Peretz. "We define that. The whole world knows that we define Israel as a Jewish state."

Second, Netanyahu insists that Abbas cancel his agreement to form a unity government with Hamas. Peretz objects to this, and has asked Netanyahu: if you sign a peace treaty with the Prime Minister of Lebanon, will you demand first that he throw out the Hezbollah ministers from his government? Let the Lebanese Prime Minister deal with the consequences of having his government approve a peace deal with Israel. If the government is willing, either Hezbollah will be forced to acquiesce and remain in government if it wants to retain its political influence, or it will protest by leaving the government on its own accord. Much the same applies to Hamas, whose leaders have repeatedly said that if Abbas reaches a peace accord with Israel, and the agreement is acceptable to a majority of Palestinians, it will not stand in the way and will accept it. So why not see if we can negotiate a peace deal with Abbas, suggests Peretz, and if we do indeed reach agreement, let Hamas be placed in the position of having to deal with remaining party to a national unity government that endorses a peace treaty with Israel?   Or it can quit the government and go into opposition if it wishes.

Those who say that they want to release Gilad Shalit, but refuse to release Palestinian prisoners who have “blood on their hands,” are not facing reality, says Peretz.  "If you want Shalit back, you have to pay the price.  Much the same applies with Israeli-Palestinian peace.  If you want a peace agreement, you have to pay the price – and the price is well known."   Peretz notes that he told jailed Fatah-Tanzim leader Marwan Barghouti that he thought they needed three years to reach a final agreement. Barghouti objected, "we can do it in three hours," as we already know the contours of any possible deal.  The Palestinians, says Peretz, will need to accept that somewhere between four and six percent of the West Bank, representing settlement blocs, will remain part of Israel, with land swaps from Israeli territory in exchange.  The Palestinians also need a road between the West Bank and Gaza. The land necessary to construct such a road might play a part in a land swap agreement that allows for some settlements to remain under Israeli control.

Peretz has said to Netanyahu that instead of demanding unrealistic pre-conditions for peace talks with Abbas, he should simply admit that he believes the peace process is a danger for Israel, and that he is unwilling to pay the necessary price to achieve an agreement with the Palestinians. Peretz’s point seems to be that this is Netanyahu’s real position, and the preconditions are simply meant as a way to avoid talks by insisting on demands which the Palestinians cannot realistically meet before a negotiating process has even begun. Peretz thinks Obama’s parameters for resuming peace talks – on the basis of the 1967 lines with negotiated land swaps -- are not bad for Israel. These terms of reference reflect the reality of all previous peace efforts over the last decade under Barak and Clinton, Olmert, Abbas and Bush.

Negotiations and the September UN Palestinian Statehood Resolution

Does Peretz agree with the recent proposal by his colleague, Israel Labor Party international secretary Colette Avital (together with former Mossad official Yossi Alpher, Major-General Mordechai Gazit and Mark Heller, a researcher for the Institute for National Security Studies), that the US and EU put their weight behind devising a “win-win” UN Security Council resolution for Palestinian statehood that would be acceptable to most Israelis and Palestinians? These authors believe that it is a “waste of time and energy to try to revive a moribund peace process.” (“Buying Into Palestinian Statehood,” New York Times, June 24, 2011)

Peretz respectfully disagrees. He prefers to stop the Palestinian UN gambit entirely, which he believes is a “dangerous game,” by resuming negotiations directly with the Palestinians. Peretz may have in mind here what others have pointed out:  following the passage of such a resolution, if nothing changes on the ground, Palestinian popular frustration is likely to mount, leading to a potential new escalation in the conflict, with ramifications for peace prospects that may not be favorable. For example, what if popular Palestinian protests undermine the Palestinian Authority and its leaders, with whom Israel has an opportunity to reach a workable peace arrangement in the near term?  Peretz does not raise these specific points, but they may be what he has in mind when he alludes to the dangers of a UN Security Council resolution, even one that includes a Palestinian commitment to resume negotiations with Israel on the basis of the resolution’s parameters.

The fly in the ointment, however, is who is doing the negotiating for Israel. Peretz is running for re-election now, and my guess is that his position is intended to differentiate what he and his Labor colleagues are offering versus Netanyahu and the Likud. If Peretz, and other security-minded doves (like former IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-General Amnon Lipkin-Shahak and others who endorsed the Geneva Initiative), were doing the negotiating for Israel, chances are they would reach an agreement on borders and security acceptable to majorities on both sides.

But the likelihood of Labor leading the negotiations is slim. For this reason, I believe the Avital-Alpher-Gazit-Heller proposal is meant as a recommendation to American and European leaders for a better course of action in the likely event that Netanyahu continues as prime minister. In that case, their assessment that direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks are unlikely to bear fruit, is spot on – unless the Obama administration steps up and offers bridging proposals and is willing to apply the kind of diplomatic leverage that has made a decisive difference in past (remember Kissinger’s “re-assessment” and the Egyptian-Israeli Disengagement Agreement, President Carter's threats to both Begin and Sadat at Camp David during the Egyptian-Israeli negotiations, George H.W. Bush’s withholding loan guarantees over settlement expansion with Yitzhak Shamir, which led to Rabin’s election and the breakthrough of the Oslo Accords, Israeli-Palestinian mutual recognition and security cooperation, bolstering Israel’s anti-terrorism capacities in the West Bank to this day.)

Obama is unlikely to take such dramatic steps in an election year, so the proposed win-win UN resolution may be meant to provide a more fruitful basis for renewed state-to-state negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians over borders, settlements, land swaps and security arrangements.

Peretz endorses the proposal of Israeli-American businessman David Avital, our host for the luncheon, offered in a recent opinion piece in Politico, entitled “Why Israel Should Welcome Palestine.”   Avital suggests that Obama take the lead in reviving negotiations to reach a borders-first agreement, with Netanyahu’s support. An agreement on borders will bring about a Palestinian state by mutual consent, providing a wealth of benefits to the US, Israel and the Palestinians, as well as to US allies in the Arab world. Avital believes that if Obama takes the initiative, Netanyahu may follow.  Avital has had a close personal relationship with Netanyahu for decades, since their days in Israel’s elite anti-terrorism force, Sayeret Matkal. Despite the great skepticism of just about everyone else these days, he may have a sound basis for believing that under the right conditions, Netanyahu can be brought around (which presumably would require him to refashion his governing coalition by including Kadima and perhaps even Labor). But it is Obama who must set the table.

A recent report in Ma'ariv, one of Israel's most widely read daily newspapers, suggests that Netanyahu has accepted President Obama's principles for renewing negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.  According to the report, he has "agreed in principle to define the borders between Israel and a Palestinian state based on the 1967 lines, including territory swaps.   At the same time, in return for the concession, he demands of the Palestinians two conditions that would be fulfilled only at the end of the negotiations--recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, and that the refugee issue would be resolved within the framework of the Palestinian state, and not Israel."   (S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, Israel News Update, July 1, 2011).   If the report proves true, it again suggests that Netanyahu will have had to come around to Peretz's position to break Israel's diplomatic deadlock.

At the end of the day, perhaps both Peretz and the win-win UN resolution proponents are right, each in their own arena.   Such a resolution would be unnecessary if Labor and men like Peretz were leading the peace charge. With Netanyahu at the helm, it may be the least bad alternative move for the US.  And it may actually do some good, especially if the US initiates and closely oversees both the negotiations and UN process, and co-opts Israel by fashioning the UN resolution to meet key Israeli requirements.

Palestinian Leaders and Strategy vis-à-vis Israel

Peretz revealed that he meets with Fatah-Tanzim senior leader Marwan Barghouti from time to time in his Israeli jail cell (as do a few other Israeli politicians on the left). Barghouti, he avers, will be the next Palestinian leader after Abbas (Peretz’s visits with Barghouti were reported a few days ago in the Jerusalem Post).  Barghouti has said to him (not reported in the Post, but shared by Peretz in New York): “Forget the idea of a Palestinian return to violence, a violent third intifada.” Barghouti has some credibility on this point, having played a key role in the militarization of the second intifada (he has been called its “mastermind”). “You Israelis love the [second] intifada” – whose hallmark was the advent of an unprecedented campaign of suicide bombings by Palestinian terrorists against Israeli civilians. “Then the whole world says that the Palestinians are all terrorists. We have learned that game.” Barghouti is saying that he and other Palestinians who once supported violent resistance against Israel, including terrorism, have learned that it ultimately works to the disadvantage of the Palestinians, discrediting their national movement and their moral case, as moderate Palestinian peace advocates like Abbas and Sari Nusseibeh insisted all along.

Barghouti has also told Peretz that “We know that the refugees cannot return to Israel. But this Palestinian concession has to be made as part of a final, comprehensive agreement.” It is politically unrealistic to insist on it as a pre-condition for peace talks. For the Palestinians, recognizing Israel as a Jewish state in advance of negotiations is tantamount to telling their own people – before negotiations have even begun – that Palestinian leaders intend to surrender wholesale the refugee “right of return” claimed for so long by Palestinians. Barghouti is saying, it is unwise – it puts us in an impossible position at this stage of the game – to demand this of us now. It can happen as part of the big package, once all the concessions and compromises are made by both sides and the peace dividend is much clearer for both societies to see.

On final borders Peretz says that the Palestinians know that between four to six percent of the West Bank will need to remain part of Israel to enable it to incorporate settlement blocs, for which Israel will need to exchange land from within the Green Line as compensation, and provide a land corridor for safe passage between the West Bank and Gaza. The net outcome, he says, should reflect Obama’s principle of 1967 borders with land swaps. Small settlements in remote areas, and the 100 illegal (under Israeli law) settlement outposts, including many settlements built in whole or in part on privately owned Palestinian land, will have to be evacuated under an agreement.

Peretz believes that Israel withdrew too hastily from Gaza, without adequate planning for resettling the settlers. Now we know what the relocation package needs to be; it can be done better. “We have a responsibility to them,” he stresses.

National Security and Defense

Peretz says that when he was Defense Minister he decided to approve Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system essentially on his own, as the Prime Minister (Olmert) and IDF Chief of Staff were opposed. This is not altogether surprising, given that Peretz lives in Sderot, which has for the last few years been the primary target of rocket attacks from Gaza by Palestinian extremists from Hamas and Islamic Jihad. He stresses that even when Israel signs a peace treaty with its Arab and Palestinian neighbors, it will need a strong army and defense network to guarantee the peace.

The Iron Dome system recently destroyed nine missiles heading towards Ashkelon and Beer Sheva. As a result, Hamas asked Israel for a “hudna,” an unwritten truce, because they grasped that the Iron Dome had neutralized their advantage, suggests Peretz.  An Iron Dome battery has now been deployed for Haifa, and more will be placed in the Galilee in due course. He suggests that the system may even deter Hezbollah, impelling it negotiate. This point seems unpersuasive to me given the very large number of missiles in Hezbollah’s possession (estimated at 40,000), and the number of missiles that Hezbollah can now fire during the course of a future war in a single day, is far greater than its capability during the 2006 Lebanon War. Israel lacks anywhere near the number of Iron Dome batteries it would need to deal effectively with Hezbollah rockets and missiles, and will for the foreseeable future.

Peretz described his visits with Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi in Egypt when he was defense minister. Tantawi now heads the Higher Military Council that took control of Egypt after President Hosni Mubarak was swept from power. He describes Tantawi as someone who did not like talking to the Israelis, so Omar Suleiman, the head of Egyptian Military Intelligence, was sent to be the interlocutor in his place. Nonetheless, Tantawi is widely regarded as committed to preserving the peace treaty with Israel, and Peretz stresses that Tantawi, like other Egyptian leaders, has strong incentives to keep the peace, and continue the $1.3 billion in military aid that Egypt receives from the US. He does not believe that the Arab Spring will alter the essence of Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, having prevented war between Israel and its largest, most powerful Arab neighbor for more than 30 years.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Israel and the Polarization of American Jews, by Gidon D. Remba, Jerusalem Report

In “Israel and the Polarization of American Jews,” (The Jerusalem Report, June 20, 2011), I suggest that the controversy over Tony Kushner’s views on Israel highlight the ways in which the gap between liberal and conservative Jews regarding Israel is becoming an unbridgeable chasm. At the same time, I question the value of defining who is “inside the Jewish communal tent” and who is “outside,” as leaders in the organized Jewish community have suggested, on the basis of whether a person or organization “recognizes Israel as a democratic Jewish state.”

Today, many human rights activists and groups which are not avowedly Zionist work closely with pro-Israel groups like ours that are fighting for justice and equality in Israel. Our Campaign for Bedouin-Jewish Justice (a project of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America and the Jewish Alliance for Change), for example, has brought together American Jewish and Israeli Arab groups across the ideological spectrum, including some in Israel and the U.S. who would be defined as “outside the tent” by the conventional definition. Acting in concert has enabled us all to be more effective in our efforts to stop the demolition of homes in unrecognized Negev Bedouin villages and the violent expulsion of Bedouin Israeli men, women and children by the Israeli government.

By working together to advance equal citizenship for both Arab and Jewish Israelis, aren’t non-Zionist human rights activists doing more to secure Israel’s future as a democratic Jewish state than some Zionists who pass the conventional test of “kashrut” for membership in the “communal tent”? The misbegotten controversy in Israel’s Knesset and at the Boston Jewish Community Relations Council over whether J Street is “pro-Israel” enough to be included in Jewish communal institutions is another case in point.

Perhaps the time has come to do away with the impulse to excommunicate Jewish groups engaged in activism for peace, human rights and justice in Israel if they take unorthodox political stands or do not speak in ways that representatives of the mainstream community deem politically correct.

Click here to read “Israel and the Polarization of American Jews.”

A Remembrance of Massad, by Doni Remba

Massad Camps Logo
The excitement rose as we rounded the bend; we opened the windows to get closer to the crisp autumnal mountain air. But only unending forest, punctuated by the occasional stream or cabin, lay within our vista. Our wheels gripped the serpentine asphalt as we pressed anxiously ahead, half believing, half doubting we would reach our Granada. The panorama seemed never to change, as if some nature-mad artist could paint only a wilderness tableau from a palate of splendiferous green. We followed another bend to the right, careening again to the left. Soon we would cross the Delaware River, I imagined, to traverse the rickety Dingman’s Bridge, our mission unfulfilled. Had we gone too far?

Was Massad, alas, dead? There can be no doubt that Machane Massad still lives in the hearts of many who came of age in what can only be described as the most unique melding of Jewish tradition, Hebrew culture and Zionism outside of Eretz Yisrael. There can be no doubt: the soul of Massad remains alive even now. It is passed on every day to our children, our friends, our families, in every moment of ahavat yisrael, every act of mitzvah. Does the body of Massad too remain? This was the question my brother Zev and I sought out to answer for ourselves on a crisp October day.

The Remba roots are planted deeply in the soil of Massad. My father, Oded Remba, z”l, and my mother, Chaya Remba, z"l, were Massad couple number 37, having met in the summer of 1952 at Massad Beth, my mother as Rosh Plugah in the Maccabiah, my father as Sgan Rosh. Chaya rose from a counselor to become head counselor of the girls camp, and eventually director. At the age of six, by 1959, I began as a camper in Shoresh. Only Zev can claim the honor of having been practically born at Massad, summarily shipped in the summer of 1961 almost straight from the delivery room to his own little bunk in Kibbutz HaSharon.

Chaya had a friend with a vacation home in Hemlock Hedges, the community in Dingman’s Ferry; he did not remember there being any camp on Route 209. Had Massad been razed by developers, replaced by more lucrative summer home real estate? We feared the worst. I flew to Washington, DC, where Zevi lives with his wife and daughter, Rebecca, and we set out on the six-hour drive from the Potomac to the Poconos to see for ourselves. Had it yielded to rapacious real estate moguls, we feared we might not even recognize the grounds where the camp had long stood. I insisted that if anything would serve as a guide post, surely Elmer’s would—or Marcel Lake Store, the only general store in Dingman’s Ferry. If we hit Elmer’s, and didn’t find the camp, we had gone too far. We hoped too, that the agam and the dam, which could easily be seen from the road, would serve as a locator. Surely no developer would have spoiled its simple, pristine beauty. Weary now from our long sojourn, lost in a land of lake and pine, our spirits began to flag.

Suddenly a vision unfolded to our right: the two stone pillars from which the name Massad Beth had once been displayed! They remained, but the sign did not. In its place, was a small placard reading Messivta Eitz Haim Bobover Camp; and a chain link fence surrounding the entire side of the camp which faced the road. We pulled in to the broad grassy Migrash Chanaya across the road, to be greeted by a pair of wild deer. As we approached the fence, we noticed that a hole had been cut, through which we could easily pass. Relieved that we would not be scaling the high fence, we moved stealthily, our voices hushed as we passed the caretaker’s house, a skill cultivated on many a nocturnal raid on these very grounds during the sixties under the tutelage of Yisrael Schorr, Effie Buchwald and David Gitler. Our nostrils were immediately overwhelmed by the powerful scent of pine tree—yes, the familiar sweet air of Massad!

We walked down the main pathway and surveyed the horizon: Massad remained! Every building, every feature. We were ready to kiss the ground in ecstasy! Hayeenu kecholmeem . . . we were as dreamers on our return. We turned first to the Chadar Ochel. Our hearts quickly sank. Suddenly we felt a little like Jews returning from Galut to the Temple after its desecration. The Bobover chassidim had apparently abandoned the camp after the summer of 1996, having left it in a state of ungodly balagan. The dining room gave off a noxious odor, which could be traced to the unclean state in which it had been left. Zevi quipped that an order of Dag Moshe Rebbeinu must have been left in the kitchen to ripen. The Bobover had installed central air conditioning units on top of the low roof in the front of the Chadar Ochel. As a result, the roof was sagging, a disaster in the making.

The road from Shderot Hagvurah, the main path, to the Chadar Ochel, had been festooned with festive naked light bulbs suspended from a string, as if every day was a carnival. Colorful stenciled signs were hung on trees, with such epigrams as “tsaddik katamar yifrach.” Saddest of all, we found two of the multi-colored Chagall-inspired faux stained-glass panels depicting the tribes of Israel which had long adorned the windows of the dining room; one lay intact on the floor; the other outside on the grass, shattered.

As we walked onto the hill descending from the Chadar Ochel to Ulam Hamachon, what struck me immediately was that the agam was no longer visible, the trees and foliage having grown to obstruct the view. One could not survey the Chadar Ochel without finding oneself amidst a rush of memories: the daily excitement of scanning the “tafreet” to discover the specialite du jour, the festive Shabbat dinners and zemirot, the countless zimriot and “shidurei radio,” Louie Bernstein’s mystical, magical tales of the Ba’al Shem Tov in the hushed twilight of Shabbat afternoon. And now the Ba’al Shem’s spiritual heirs had inherited this very space. It was on the grassy lawn of Ulam Hamachon that Louie had, one Shabbat, once posed the question to several dozen campers: what makes Judaism different from other religions? An awkward silence engulfed the group. I raised my hand, and ventured: It’s an entire way of life. Exactly, Louie beamed. A way of life. Halacha.

The most radical change which the Bobover had made to the camp now loomed ahead. Where once had been the pastoral expanse of Meegrash Hatzanhanim, was now the largest edifice in the camp: a massive grey, stone-block two-story building. The first floor remained unfinished, a construction site left in disarray, cement bags and wheel-barrows left in midstream. We bounded up a flight of outside stairs to the second, and main, floor of the building, entering through a pair of doors. We found ourselves inside a cavernous room, clearly a shul. The Aron Kodesh, emptied of its Sifrei Torah, was built in the front, its curtains drawn. In the rear, floor-to-ceiling book cases spanned the entire length of the structure, still populated with hundreds of sifrei kodesh: Talmud Bavli, Pirke Avot, Mishne Torah LaRambam, the Shulchan Aruch, and numerous other commentaries. Dozens of white and black kitels and umbrellas were oddly suspended from racks behind the bookcases. Outside we found large Carrier central air conditioning units which had already been installed. We had thrived at Massad for decades without air conditioning; we wondered why the Bobover so needed it.

We left the shul and walked a short way to the fork in the road, to the intersection of Rehov Haneviim (the Path of the Prophets) and Rehov Ahad Ha’am, the prophet of cultural Zionism. Though the trees had turned to their fiery fall hues, smothering the ground in a dense blanket of pine needles and leaves, they still formed the extraordinary graceful wish-bone canopy, enclosing what had once been Massad’s heavenly garden, Gan Moshe Sharett. It was the garden, I reminded Zev, where he had become a Bar Mitzvah in the summer of 1974. I could see the benches filling the grassy knoll between the trees, in an arc around the table on which the Sefer Torah was read. It was the last vision I had of Massad Beth until that very moment: here I was, in that same spot, twenty-three years later. Three days after Zevi’s Bar Mitzvah, I left for Israel, where I lived for the next four years, as a student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. I was never to see Massad again. Until today. Zevi had returned for another two summers, graduating from Alufim, consummating what for him had been fifteen almost-consecutive summers at Massad. We sat on the flat rocks on the roadside and marvelled at what lay before us.

We took the right fork in the road and proceeded down Rechov Haneviim, past Kikar Mordei Hagettaot (the Plaza of Ghetto Resistance Fighters), towards Beit Betzalel and the Marpeah. All had remained frozen in time. We reached the twin silver migdelei mayeem, where on Erev Shabbat, the boys would kiss the girls goodnight, before sending them on their way to Kibbutz Hasharon. The Migrash Kadoor Basees remained but without its defining foundation: the chain-link fence backstop behind home plate had been removed. Passing the tennis courts, we stopped to visit the first bunk before entering the girls’ camp, Beit Menahel Hamashek, next to the guest houses. We remembered it as the bunk where Chaya had lived for many a summer; I recalled that before she had taken it over, Harry Berman had used it.

From there, we descended Shderat Weizmann into the Sharon and checked out the girls’ bunks. Almost all remained unchanged, with but one exception. The small bunk at the end of the girls’ camp where Zevi had spent his first summers with a metapelet, was no more, having been replaced by a large aluminum-sided trailer, out of which a bunk had been devised. The area around Ulam Nordau had been converted into an outdoor day care center, dozens of haphazardly-strewn tricycles still littering the terrain. We found one of the old green wooden ping pong tables on which we had so often played, especially when our father visited, laying overturned in front of Ulam Nordau. It was here that I remembered the oversized tents in which some had lived during the summers of the 50’s and early 60’s, and the vegetable gardens we had cultivated like kibbutzniks by Beit Betzalel in those pioneering years.

We ascended from the Sharon, passing Meir Moskowitz’s, Noam Shudofsky’s and Louie Bernstein’s bunks, and headed towards Kibbutz Yizrael. I was soon overcome with memories of countless yeridim and tkaseem which filled the broad field in the center of the camp. We reached the boys’ camp and entered Bunk 21, the first in the first row, called Rehov HaRav Kook, where both Zevi and I had been campers in Shoresh. The new tenants had made some changes: the bunks, once white, had now been painted a bright, garish yellow, the wooden green doors replaced with metal, chicken wire now covering wood beams on the porches, presumably a safety measure to prevent small children from crawling through and falling to the ground. Inside, the bunks had been paved with linoleum, rear doors had been added, and the rear cubby area had been eliminated, each camper’s cubby now having been built next to his bed. We had a strong urge to “french” one of the beds, but the lack of toothpaste and shaving cream (as well as sheets) dampened our ardor. Missing were the shlateem of Degania, Nahalal and so many other kibbutzim and moshavim, which had adorned the portals to each bunk, the handiwork of their denizens at Beit Betzalel.

Soon we reached Rehov Bialik and the large bunk where I had spent Prozdor and Zev Alufim. It had been converted inside into an array of smaller rooms, each with refrigerator and bathroom. It was in this bunk where I had met Tzveeka, our counselor from Israel, who had invited us to visit Kibbutz Ramat Yochanan for the following summer. The summer of 1969, my father, mother, Zev and I lived on the kibbutz; 1968 was to be my last year at Massad as a camper. I returned to Massad Aleph five years later, after my freshman year of college, to work in the kitchen, assist with Jewish music on the guitar, and edit the camp newsletter, Massad Echoes. It was there, during my budding years as a philosophy student, that I came to know and befriend Rabbis David Eliach and Meir Havatzelet, with whom I spent long hours in conversation.

From the Prozdor bunk we descended the gravel path down to Meegrash Kennedy, passing the Meegrash Kadoor Af on which we had played; the tetherball poles that had dotted the boys’ camp were no longer in evidence. Meegrash Kennedy remained exactly as we had remembered it, the site of baseball games, Maccabiah track and field contests, and my personal favorite pe’ulat erev: keebush hadegel. What was so remarkable about that game was its pure simplicity: all it took to play was a pick-up truck to shine it’s lights across the midsection of the field, creating a border between the two sides, two small flags, and we felt we were spies fighting some patriot’s game in the midst of the Second World War or Meelchemet Hasheechrur. The entire game was created whole out of the fabric of imagination: passwords and a “Keleh” where prisoners were kept if discovered without the right password on the wrong side of the border. The medurot and tent camping we did on the left side of the field by the agam were unforgettable experiences, charging us with a rustic sense of the outdoors from the earliest age. The lazy reeds still congregated at the edge of the agam, a reminder to turn one’s canoe about.

We continued along the path by the shore of the agam, hoping to stumble on the Indian arrow-heads once so commonplace there. On the lake’s opposite shore, we could detect the signs of vacation homes which had been developed since our last visit more than two decades before. Several docks extended from the water’s edge, mooring for small fishing boats. Indeed, we soon encountered two fisherman astride a wide platform, suspended over twin canoes, gently plying the lake for the day’s catch. Finally we reached the swimming section of the agam: the Massad docks were no more, the lake having been restored to its primal serenity. Only a few poles poked out of the murky water, remnants of a possible floating dock, so Zevi speculated. The shed where water accouterments for the lifeguards and swimmers had been stored was gone—the long bamboo poles, the canoes and row-boats. Here whistles had blown, and the letters of the Hebrew alphabet were chanted out in unison, always by pairs, as in Talmud study, wafting their way to Heaven, weaving their own secret language which only the Lord might divine: aleph, bet, gimel, dalet . . .

We started up the steep gravel path back up to camp; a thick tree, felled by lightening, blocked our way. Someone had attempted to saw it into pieces to remove it, but had abandoned the project midway. Everywhere we trod, Massad had the feel of an unfinished symphony. We quickly ascended the path, and found ourselves behind Ulam Channah Senesh—she who had given her life parachuting behind German lines to aid the Jewish resistance against the Nazis. “Even if they catch me,” she had remarked, “that will become known to the people in the concentration camps. They will know that someone was coming to try to help them.” The young Chana was not only caught, but executed. Yet somehow, she lived on at Massad. Even now, her defiant spirit cried out.

We returned from our reveries: the ascent had always seemed to take so much longer, Zev remarked; we were wet, shivering and wearing thongs, I rejoined. And we had little legs, he opined. I was ready for my “meetz (aka “bug juice”) and Tam-Tams,” but alas we had to settle for a taste of memory. We found rooms on the underside of Senesh which looked as if their inhabitants had fled from Pharoah in haste: cartons of milk, boxes of cereal, languishing on tables. Zevi wondered whether we might still find meeschakeem shkayteem inside the Senesh closet had we succeeded in entering. What, too, had become of the large pen and ink drawing of Camp Muncie which had hung on the Senesh wall? But Senesh was locked; her secrets would remain unplumbed. It was here that I had sung my first solo as a six-year old: Keli ata, ve-odeka . . . We reached Misrad Hachinuch, from which Noam, Meir and Chaya had awakened us: Boker Tov Machane Massad Bet! Hasha’a shesh vachaytsee! Na lakoom meen ha-meetot uleheetlabesh b'meechnasayeem ketzareem! We would scurry out into the crisp morning mountain air for shachareet and breakfast.

Ulam Herzl, the site of many a movie and musical performance—I had played mandolin there, sung in countless makaylot, danced Yesh Lanu Tayeesh on Erev Shabbat—was closed, filled to the brim with cement bags for the Bobover construction site nearby. It was here, as a child, that I first saw the film “Let My People Go,” and began to sense the enormity of the Shoah. It was here, too, that I first saw “A Raisin in the Sun,” and learned the lesson I had discovered so many times again: that all men and women, black and white, Jew and non-Jew, are created by one God, each with the same God-given dignity, b’tselem elokim. And it was here that I first understood that a mouse could roar.

No small irony, this, for a place named after the founder of political Zionism. For these became the articles of faith of my Zionism, as they had been Herzl’s: “Hold fast,” urged Herzl in Old-New Land, “to the things that have made us great: to liberality, tolerance, love of mankind. Only then is Zion truly Zion.” It was Moshe Sharett who may have best voiced its essence: “In this vision will be found the quintessence of our ancient tradition, before the sojourns and dispersion, which always emphasized the universal in our spiritual world and all which is supranational in our road to morality and progress.”

How ironic, too, that we honored with an “ulam” Max Nordau, Herzl’s atheist Zionist colleague, who had suggested the abolition of the Shabbat in the Jewish state, rather than Ahad Ha’am, who celebrated its sacred centrality to Judaism, and whose own spiritual Zionism placed a revival of Jewish tradition and culture at its heart. It was Shabbat, after all, which symbolized the brit between God and man, bearing witness to Judaism’s universal message. In the words of one of the great religious-Zionist Mizrahi sages of mandatory Palestine, the Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv: “Our history begins not with the Patriarchs but with Adam . . . Our Torah is not content with nationalism alone but has regard for the whole world and general humanity precedes our Patriarchs.” It was Ahad Ha’am who could write, as Nordau never did, of the relationship between Jewish nationalism and Jewish ethics in “The Character of Judaism”:
The Jewish law of justice is not confined within the narrow sphere of individual relations. In its Jewish sense the precept ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself’ can be carried out by a whole nation in its dealings with other nations. For this precept does not oblige a nation to sacrifice its life or its position for the benefit of other nations. It is, on the contrary, the duty of every nation, as of every individual human being, to live and to develop to the utmost limit of its powers; but at the same time it must recognize the right of other nations to fulfill the like duty without let or hindrance. Patriotism—that is, national egoism—must not induce it to disregard justice, and to seek self-fulfillment through the destruction of other nations.
Yet it was Ahad Ha’am whose name, along with that of the biblical Prophets, graced the pathway by which one entered the world of Massad. Such, I suppose, is the philosophy of “ulamot,” a pursuit whose origins I trace to Massad. We doubled back to Ulam Fishman. I was struck by how poor the condition of the paint was on the main ulamot; clearly the Bobover had not kept up the aesthetics of the camp.

The newer ulamot, like Fishman, had been built with natural knotted pine exteriors, with only a coating of shellac; the Bobover had painted them over. We entered Fishman, the site of so many machazot—remember Zev? “Hamelech erom kemo bameeklachat!” Here was the stage where I had been Mook Hakatan, Smee the Pirate, and a colleague of Bambi. It was on this stage that I first debuted, under Effie Buchwald’s tutelage, in the Ashpot, an all-male quartet which rendered Erev Shel Shoshanim in four-part harmony, while sitting on upside down garbage cans. It was here that Meir had led us in soulful Havdalah. But the stage had been removed, and the natural ceiling had been replaced with soundproofed tile and air conditioning. A porch-like abutment had been added to the room, with a waste-high wall separating it from the rest of the room: we quickly realized it was the women’s gallery, separated by mechitzah. But the beemah remained in the center, the hand-carved wood surrounding the Aron Kodesh, the original maroon carpeting and drape still in their place. A fragment of the letter “heh” had been lost from the carved epigram on the left side of the Aron: “Vehagita Bo Yomam Valayla Ve’az Taskil.” We walked past the Seefreeah, and settled down on the wooden benches in front, arrayed in a circle.

Finally we had reached our starting point, having come full circle: everywhere we turned, we knew Maccabiah might suddenly break out! By the Marpeah, multi-colored leaflets dropped from the roof; in front of Senesh, Kennedy or the agam, scattered from a low-flying plane. But only the chirping of birds broke the silence. We now stood before the Lishka Merkazeet. The door was unlocked. A building permit warned that the small structure could not be occupied until various repairs and improvements had been made. We entered nonetheless. The office was in epic disarray: these Jews must not have had time even to bake matzah before their sudden departure! Files and papers were splayed about with abandon throughout the room where Sue Moskowitz and Shlomo once sat. On the wall we spied it: a map of Camp Massad Beth, drawn in commemoration of its 25th year, Yovel HaKaf Heh, in 1965. Feeling like archeologists excavating a prior Jewish civilization, we gently removed the large yellowed map from the wall. The Bobover don’t need this. Let them draw their own map. We liberated it in memory of Mahane Massad, and all those who made it what it was.

Before leaving, we stumbled upon a statement from the Pennsylvania Pike County Assessor’s office, announcing to the camp’s owners that it’s value had been reassessed at four times its previous value: some $2.2 million. We speculated that the new building had increased the real estate tax liability of the camp, and that the Bobover could no longer afford to operate it. All indications were they had abandoned the camp in 1996. Upon my return home, I found the latest issue of Moment magazine waiting at my doorstep, which reported that two rabbis of the Bobover Hassidim had just been indicted on Federal charges of conspiring to “launder” $1.75 million in drug money! One was a former rosh yeshiva. These rabbis had sought to help their communities—if true, an evil done for noble ends. Chas veshalom! HaKadosh Baruch Hu works in mysterious ways. And yet . . . to all those who pine for the resurrection of Massad on its ancestral soil, take heart: the Bobover may be in trouble; Massad might be bought for a song. May it rise again like a phoenix from the ashes, b’ezrat Hashem. Shayneet Massad Lo Yeepol!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Recalling the Golden Age of Hebrew Culture in America, by Jerome A. Chanes, The Jewish Week

The Jewish Week
Published on The Jewish Week (

Camp Massad:  A formative educational experience for thousands of Jewish Americans.

Camp Massad reunion here relives a time when speaking Hebrew was emphasized.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011
Jerome A. Chanes
Special To The Jewish Week

Growing up in New York in the 1940s to1960s, in a Religious Zionist family, I was raised on a steady diet of Hebrew through a yeshiva whose classes were conducted “Ivris b’Ivris” (“Hebrew into Hebrew”), Hebrew songs coming out of the pioneering spirit of Eretz Yisrael, and an intense commitment to Zionism.

But it was Machane Massad — Camp Massad — that was for us a central vehicle for our Jewishness, for our Hebrew identity.

The legacy of Machane Massad, and the intense nostalgia it generated, were palpable at the June 20 reunion for Massad alumni held at the Center for Jewish History, which kicked off the Massad Archive Project, the brainchild of New York attorney and Jewish communal leader Lawrence Kobrin, who, together with former government official Jay Lefkowitz, organized the event.

An overflow crowd packed the Center for speeches (including a moving, thoughtful, and funny talk by 90-year-old Rivka Shulsinger, wife of Massad founder, the late Shlomo Shulsinger; and a truly eloquent address by Rabbi Dr David Eliach, one of the prime movers of Hebrew culture in the United States; a movie, and of course the music, always central to the Massad experience. As the packed house sang old songs of the Palmach and the Yishuv and the early days of the State, a time-warp enveloped the Center for Jewish History.

Massad was the brainchild of Shulsinger, a visionary who arrived in America from Palestine in the late 1930s with an obsession: an American Jewish youth speaking Hebrew and living Hebrew culture. Massad started out as a small day camp in 1941, and, under the auspices of the Histadruth Ivrith of America—for many years the central address for Hebrew culture in the United States—exploded into three camps that informed the lives of thousands of young American Jews over the forty years of its existence. In the words of Kobrin, who is honorary chairman of The Jewish Week, “Massad set for many the values of their lives: a love for Jewish tradition, history, and observance; love for Eretz Yisrael and the State of Israel; a commitment to Jewish service and involvement; and joy in use of the Hebrew language.”

Among its better known campers were Alan Dershowitz, Noam Chomsky, Ralph Lauren, Hillel Halkin, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Israeli poet Hillel Bavli—and thousands of others from every social and religious corner of America and Israel.

Demographer Pearl Beck described the Massad experience as “the ultimate immersive Jewish encounter—eight bucolic weeks in an intense Zionist and Hebraist environment… I don’t know whether such a place could exist in today’s atmosphere.”

Hebrew in America, from the 1930s to the 1960s, was fertile indeed: the network of Hebrew teachers colleges (HTCs), such as the Boston Hebrew College, and Herzeliah and Marshalia in New York; a gaggle of yeshivot, notably New York’s Yeshiva Soloveichik and Yeshiva D’Flatbush; the Histadruth Ivrith of America and its weekly Hadoar, and of course the visionary Camp Massad. All were informed by “Tarbut Ivrit”—“Hebrew Culture”—a movement that crossed religious denominational lines and was fueled by a cadre of dedicated educators, many of whom came out of Europe and had spent some time in the Yishuv in Palestine.

Shlomo Shulsinger understood well the dynamic of Ivrit, and he transmuted his vision of a miniature Eretz Yisrael in the American countryside into Machane Massad. Shulsinger’s vision became a reality that lasted for 40 years.

Massad closed in 1981, the victim , in part, of changing demographics. But in a sense Massad was the prime casualty of the demise of Tarbut Ivrit in America. The inherent weakness of Zionism in America was a factor in the weakening of Hebrew. There was also the reality that by the 1960s many of the dedicated Ivrit teachers were aging and dying.

But there was something deeper. Hebrew was a casualty of the serious fault-lines and fissures that developed within the Orthodox world. Indeed, it was the movement to the “right” in much of the Orthodox community—the weakening of a Modern Orthodox “center”—that severely damaged Hebrew. Beginning in the 1960s, Tarbut Ivrit became enmeshed in the Orthodox struggle. Modern Orthodoxy, defensively looking over its right shoulder at Agudath Israel, increasingly wanted to emphasize what made it more religiously “Jewish” than others. Hebrew—at least the Tarbut Ivrit version—was increasingly viewed as being too secular. Hebrew did not do well in an increasingly sectarian atmosphere. Yeshivas informed by Tarbut Ivrit either folded or altered their religious orientation.

Machane Massad was a casualty of these “culture wars.” And its former campers still mourn its passing.

Commenting on the nostalgic atmosphere of the reunion, public affairs analyst and Massad alumna Deborah Mark noted, “This was nostalgia not only for Massad, but for a Modern Orthodox world long gone.” And indeed what characterized Massad was the pluralistic character of the camp in which kids from all the religious movements played, sang, studied together in Hebrew; but in which the core cadre of campers, counselors, and educators came from the Modern Orthodox day school arena. Massad represented the best values of Modern Orthodoxy, in which Zionism, religion, and secular activities were not only not in conflict, but enhanced each the other.

Yehe zichro baruch, may its memory be a blessing.

Jerome A. Chanes, a Massad alumnus, is the author of four books on Jewish history and public affairs.