Kalb Looks At Syria, AIPAC And ‘The Road To War’

When it comes to war, veteran reporter and commentator Marvin Kalb wants to turn back the clock.

“When a president goes to war, he ought to take the country with him. That means he ought to take the Congress with him.”

Franklin Roosevelt was the last president to ask Congress for a declaration of war. Since then, Congress has ceded its war-declaring powers to the executive, leaving the people’s representatives to deal with such issues hastily in “urgent emergency sessions,” as the country is witnessing following President Barack Obama’s call for a military strike on Syria, he said.

Kalb, whose recent book, “The Road to War: Presidential Commitments Honored and Betrayed,” looks at the history of modern American war-making, spoke to the JT before Obama’s national address on Syria on Tuesday.

Issues of war “require time for reflection and debate, but not in a pressure-cooker environment,” he said. “The best way would be for Congress to assume its responsibility in war and always be abreast of foreign policy initiatives.” That way it could act “in a natural, responsible way.”

Kalb, a nonresident senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, recalls the series of month-long sessions that Sen. J. William Fulbright (D-Ark.) held in the Foreign Relations Committee in the 1960s over America’s “deepening involvement in Vietnam, the possibility of a door to China and the linkage of the two.” Those sessions are the gold standard for congressional responsibility now abandoned because of the demands of the news cycle and fundraising.

Asked about AIPAC lobbying members of Congress in favor of a U.S. attack on Syria, Kalb said the group, which usually focuses on strengthening aid for Israel, “has a perfect right to lobby on behalf of any cause. My concern would be if AIPAC is doing it at the behest of the U.S. government.”

Some observers believe that it is.

Bloomberg columnist Jeffrey Goldberg wrote, “It seems obvious that the president’s national security team sincerely believed the hype about AIPAC — that it could move members of Congress to do things they otherwise wouldn’t do — and therefore drafted the group, along with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, to aid in the Sisyphean task before them.”

Kalb said AIPAC’s involvement could backfire, because it could “discourage people who might support the president [on Syria] because of their opposition to AIPAC or Israeli policy. Maybe if AIPAC wasn’t pushing they would support the president.”

Israel is watching how America handles Syria for hints of how it might handle Iran, if its nuclear drive succeeds.

“The feeling among Israeli leaders is that they love the U.S. But at the end of the day they know” they will have to protect themselves. “They fear a presidential betrayal, even if unintended.”

Presidents come and go, Kalb wrote in “The Road to War.” The solution is a mutual defense treaty between the U.S. and Israel. The time has come to institutionalize the U.S.-Israeli relationship so that everything does not rest any longer on the decisions of one person.”

David Holzel writes for JT’s sister publication, Washington Jewish Week.

See also, ‘Friends Are Watching’

Social Savvy Soldier

Cpl. Dima Glinets is sharing the IDF’s message on its social networks.

Cpl. Dima Glinets is sharing the IDF’s message on its social networks.

Ashkelon’s own 2010-2011 Diller Teen Fellows alumnus, Cpl. Dima Glinets, is fighting for Israel every day as a part of his army service. But he is not doing it with a gun. He does it through social media.

Glinets, 19, is a part of the spokesperson unit in the Israel Defense Forces, and his particular branch is in charge of operating and managing IDF social channels. Due to his superior English skills, Glinets is in charge of all English social media for the IDF, which includes Twitter, Facebook, the IDF blog, Instagram and Tumblr.

Glinets’s trip to Baltimore as a Diller Teen Fellow in 2011 proved to be extra important for him.

“I was influenced by American social media and culture, and it motivated me,” Glinets said. “A lot of American Jews wanted a source in order to share Israeli Defense Forces news but didn’t have the content to do so. Now we are providing them with that information. Now we are providing them with the truth.”

Two months after Glinets enlisted in the IDF, Operation Pillar of Defense took Southern Israel by storm.

“I think for the first time in history, an army declared the beginning of an operation through social media. This was never done before,” Glinets said.

Glinets’s Israeli story starts before he enlisted in the army, before he traveled to Baltimore for the first time. Glinets’ family made aliyah from Russia in 2000. They arrived in Israel with two suitcases and 28 shekels.

But it was not long before Glinets made his mark on Israel. Quickly, his community — and the entire country — recognized his talents. Last year, he was awarded the prestigious Ramon Honorary Citation, an award honoring eight students each year for accomplishments in academia, leadership and community service.

Dr. Robert Abbott, whose daughter, Rebecca, participated in the Diller program with Glinets, has fostered a unique bond with Glinets through his many trips to Israel. Dr. Abbott noted the many conversations he has had with Glinets over the years — through text, Facebook chat and in person both in Israel and in Baltimore.

“I was not surprised last year when Dima won the award at the Knesset honoring only eight high school students annually,” Dr. Abbott said. “It is a reflection of the unlimited potential Dima has. His future is bright indeed, and I expect we will see big things from him.”

Glinets’ commander, Lt. Sacha Dratwa, said that Glinets’ vast knowledge of American culture makes him even more of an asset to his unit.

“He watches American television, sports (NBA and NFL are a must for Glinets) and reads American blogs and websites, which help him create content for our growing American audience,” she said.

Yet, Dratwa explained that Glinets’ value to the unit lies in his genuine friendships with his fellow soldiers and his ability to set the creative bar higher and higher for himself, thus inspiring his fellow soldiers to do the same.

Glinets still speaks fondly of his Diller experience.

“When I first arrived in Baltimore, I understood that I had a very special connection to the place,” he said. “I found the people warm and welcoming. I quickly found that each and every person I met was both interested and interesting. That is a rare thing. I know that in any future opportunity I have to visit the states, I will most definitely be stopping in Baltimore, my home away from home.”

Glinets said he hopes to make a difference in the way the world thinks about the IDF.

“The world is one big global village, and it’s important for the IDF to be a part of that village so people can hear our side of the story,” he said.

Cpl. Dima Glinets is sharing the IDF’s message on its social networks.

Take Action


President Barack Obama meets with congressional leaders in the Cabinet Room at the White House to discuss a military response to Syria. (Photo by Larry Downing / Reuters / news.com}

On Tuesday, a Google search for the word Syria resulted in 349,000,000 entries. About one week until Congress returns from its break to dialogue about a potential missile attack against the Syrian government, led by Bashar al-Assad, for its purported use of chemical weapons, analysts are debating — and citizens are rallying — for or against this rebuttal.

But amid the cries for retaliation, the talk of red lines crossed and uncrossed, there is one point that many experts feel is being lost in the noise: the suffering of the Syrian people (more than 100,000 dead; two million refugees and four million displaced people) and the potentially increasing suffering of those living in Syrian border states.

“At the end of the day, Syrians want freedom, dignity and democracy, just as any other human being on this Earth would want. They want to raise their children in a country whose leaders do not torture, oppress and kill. They deserve a chance to be free,” said Rasha Othman, public relations director of the Syrian Expatriates Organization.

But how to achieve that dream is still unclear. Othman’s organization was out last week protesting in front of the White House, calling on the president to “take action against a ruthless dictator.”

“The only way to deter Assad from killing more civilians is through a military strike against regime targets that will ultimately help remove him from power,” said Othman, noting that Assad has made it clear he is not interested in anything other than demolishing any challenge to his rule and that the leader has enlisted terrorist organizations and states — Iran and Hezbollah — to assist him in staying in power.

Othman is in constant contact with her family and friends in Syria.

“They are terrified,” she said. “A dear friend of mine in Damascus, where the bulk of the [American] missile strikes are expected to take place, told me, ‘Even if the American missiles takes my life with it, I pray they destroy the military complex near me. I don’t mind dying. Just please stop them!’”

But other Syrian American groups feel differently. The Syrian American Forum sent out a news release inviting the community to join it on Sept. 9 to protest against bombing Syria.

“The administration now wants direct bombing of Syria based on foreign intelligence reports. This will lead to the following: More killing of innocent Syrian civilians, further destruction of Syria and its infrastructure, further demolition of Syria’s social fabric and prolonging the war already going on in Syria,” it said in the release.

Like the latter group, recent polls indicate the American people are leery — and weary — of war.

A latest NBC survey found that 50 percent of 700 U.S. respondents said the U.S. should not take “military action” in Syria, while 42 percent said the U.S. should. Asked their opinion about a mission “limited to airstrikes using cruise missiles launched from U.S. Naval ships that were meant to destroy military units and infrastructure that have been used to carry out chemical attacks,” 50 percent said they would support such an action, while 40 percent said they would not. A full 79 percent, meanwhile, said President Barack Obama should be required to gain approval from Congress for any kind of strike against Syria.

As of Aug. 27, a Reuters five-day tracking poll of 2,293 Americans found similar opposition to attacking Syria in response to its suspected use of chemical weapons: 28 percent said the U.S. should intervene, 42 percent said it should not, and 30 percent said they didn’t know.

(Just before Rosh Hashanah, handfuls of Jewish groups came out in favor of an attack. Those ranged from the World Jewish Congress to the National Jewish Democratic Council.)

Over the last week, hundreds of people came out in Baltimore and Fredrick, Md., and in Washington, D.C., to stop Obama from moving forward with a missile strike.

“We believe it will cause more suffering and destruction,” said Sharon Black, one of co-coordinators for the International Action Center for Baltimore and D.C. She told the JT that her organization finds the administration’s argument that a missile strike won’t lead to bloodshed “on our side” to be cynical.

“There may not be direct bloodshed, but every missile launched is a cut back in services to the American people. It costs $1.5 million to launch a missile. With that money you could build 11 schools.”

Black also noted that while the talk may be of a single missile strike, “one thing leads to another, and there is no end to it.”

Some of the hesitation is likely because of the freshness of the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to Tamara Cofman Wittes, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, two-thirds of Americans judge these wars to be failures.

“That is a harsh judgment and makes Americans more leery of future military intervention,” she said.

There is also the issue that the American people don’t trust the White House’s conclusions — and that also partly because of the Iraq war. Robert Parry, founder of ConsortiumNews.com, said, “President George W. Bush misled the world on Iraq’s WMD” and called Bush’s case for war “bogus.” He said the Obama administration’s report on Assad’s use of chemical weapons, released last Friday, had, “no direct quotes, no photographic evidence, no named sources, nothing but ‘trust us.’”

Parry said the U.S. should have learned from the Iraq war that it cannot trust defectors or even other countries’ intelligence services at face value — they have their own self interests.

“Unless Obama tells us what he knows and how he knows it, it is hard for the American people to assess what the administration is telling them,” said Parry.

Impact On Israel

Israelis are dealing less with America’s right or need to attack Syria and more with what the impact of such an attack might mean for the Jewish state.

An Israel Democracy Institute poll released late last week showed that 46 percent of Jewish Israelis think that if the U.S. and its allies attack Syria in response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons, Syria will carry out an attack against Israel.

Parry described Israel’s relationship with the Assad dynasty as complicated. Witte said, “Assad has been no great friend [to Israel]. On the other hand, that border for many years was the quietest border Israel had. … There was a degree of predictability with Hafez and then Bashar. But since March 2011, those days are over. Israel does not face the choice of going back to the status quo.”

David Bedein, who runs Israel Behind the News, put it bluntly: “Any intervention by the U.S. in Syria, even a surgical strike, will cause the Syrians to react with a missile barrage on Israel.”

He said he is opposed to American action.

Victims of an alleged chemical attack lie in a makeshift morgue on the outskirts of Damascus. (Photo by Diaa El Din / UPI / Newscom)

Victims of an alleged chemical attack lie in a makeshift morgue on the outskirts of Damascus. (Photo by Diaa El Din / UPI / Newscom)

Karen Furman, formerly from Baltimore who now lives in Karmiel in northern Israel with her husband and five children, expressed similar sentiments. The family picked up its gas masks last winter and has been storing them in a closet. She said for now, “We are going about our daily lives.”

A teacher, Furman said her school held a chemical weapons emergency drill earlier this week. Her 9-year-old daughter’s school did, too. Furman said the Israeli government can’t do much to prepare the people, but she knows that in the event of emergency, instructions for assembling and putting on her mask will come through on the Internet and the radio. She is not afraid — and her daughter, who also spoke with the JT, said she is not scared, either. But she does think the U.S. should “mind its own business. I think the U.S. should let countries deal with their own problems.”

Speaking on Army Radio earlier in the week, President Shimon Peres said, “I have full faith in President Obama’s moral and operational stance. I recommend patience. I am confident that the United States will respond appropriately to Syria.”

Prime Minister Binyamin Net-anyahu had instructed his government ministers to refrain from publically criticizing or praising Obama for his decisions regarding Syria. At the beginning of the week, Israel’s military sent home many of the reservists called up to deal with the threat from Syria, keeping them on “high alert.” The decision came after Obama said he would seek congressional approval before moving forward with a strike.

Moral Obligation

Most analysts say any move will be more of a political maneuver than a game changer. Witte said the kinds of strikes the administration is considering will not make much of a difference to the balance on the ground in Syria. And, while the strikes discussed are limited, there is a worry that one strike could lead to many.

“[Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin] Dempsey said one of his concerns about getting involved is the fact that once military action is initiated, it is hard to know where it will go and whether it will spin out of control,” said Parry.

But there is an issue of messaging. Obama drew a red line. The red line was allegedly crossed.

“Now, this is not just about Syria. It is about other actors like Iran and terrorist organizations that may be contemplating using weapons of mass destruction — now or in the future,” said Witte. “It is partly about deterring and persuading other actors not ever to go down that path.”

Witte said it is far-fetched to envision Syria directly attacking the U.S., but not inconceivable that Syria could supply terrorist organizations with WMD to use against American targets — in the U.S. or abroad.

Rabbi Donniel Hartman, a Jewish Israeli Modern Orthodox rabbi and educator, penned an essay recently on the question of whether there is a moral obligation for the world to retaliate against the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons. He told the JT he wrote the piece while contemplating how difficult it is to play the role of policeman — that the role is “morally problematic, practically problematic, and balance [in this role] is hard to achieve.”

Rabbi Hartman said a leadership role is often not one to which you are appointed, but one for which you stand up. He said taking on a role like the one American has taken on in the world is wrought with responsibility and challenges. He said he fears that leaving Syria to continue in its current path of destruction could result in an ever-more dangerous environment — for the local people and for Israel.

“In the long term, you could have al-Qaeda sitting on Israel’s border. That would make Gaza look like Disneyland!” Rabbi Hartman said. “When you believe all people are created in the image of God, you are not allowed to be indifferent. … We have a moral responsibility to face evil.”

Find Peace

And that is what Parry is saying, too.

Parry said he wants to know “why there isn’t more pressure for peace talks.”

“If we are going to continue with a war of this sort, inevitably civilians will die. … Shouldn’t the U.S. be
focused more on getting those peace talks than on far-off missiles? … The focus has been on whether to fire missiles or not, and it should be on, can this larger civil war be brought to a conclusion?” Parry said.

Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, urged Jews to keep Syrian refugees in their thoughts and prayers this Yom Kippur. He told the JT that currently there are two million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq — “the numbers are unsustainable” — and another four million people who have been displaced in the country.

“This is the most massive refugee crisis since the end of the Cold War,” said Hetfield, who noted that HIAS is helping as much as it can, being a Jewish organization that is often unwanted or unable to be too visible in Arab countries. His group is working with the U.N. to resettle some of the refugees in America. He told the JT that of the two million, one million are children.

“We need to think about and care about and pray about this for sure,” said Hetfield, noting that the Torah commands Jews 36 times to treat the stranger as ourselves. “In doing any attack, any strategy, it is just as important to keep in mind the impact this will have on those already displaced and on future displacements. Intervention is certainly understandable, but intervention needs to be thought out and planned as to what the outcome will be. … The priority needs to be to find a peaceful solution and end the conflict.”

Maayan Jaffe is JT editor-in-chief mjaffe@jewishtimes.com

Obama: Spineless on Syria >>

Descendent of Polish Rescuers Receives Outpouring of Love

Susan Reches Landesman and Henry Reches (left) honored Angieszka Wrobel (middle) with a “shalom” plaque that was presented to her by the Reches’ daughter, Jodi (right). (Photos by David Stuck)

Susan (Reches) Landesman, Henry Reches (left), Charlotte Reches (middle right) and Jodi Reches (right) honored Angieszka Wrobel (middle) with a “shalom” plaque. (Photo by David Stuck)

Excited visitors overflowed a home in Cheswolde on Aug. 26 to honor and thank a descendent of a family of Polish Catholics who laid their lives on the line on behalf of eight persecuted Jews.

Dozens of people lined up to welcome Angieszka Wrobel, 29, at a reception, where they showered her with thanks and appreciation, many saying it was an honor to meet her. The crowd included three generations of the Reches family, plus many neighbors and friends.

In 1942, Genya Staszczak and her sister, Josefa Wrobel, and their families sheltered Saul and Clara Reches, their two little boys, Henry and Mark, Clara’s mother and her uncle and a brother and sister not related to them. For two years, all eight lived in a hole dug in the Staszczak’s barn on a farm in southeastern Poland.

Angieszka is Josefa’s great-granddaughter. Her grandfather and great-uncle, teenagers at the time, brought the hidden families food and an occasional newspaper.

Had they been discovered by the Nazis, everyone in both families would have faced near-certain death.

After the war, the Recheses made their way to the United States, eventually settling in Baltimore. Even as the years passed, the families kept in touch.

Henry and Mark Reches were only 3 and 5 when their family went underground. Mark died of cancer in 1989. Henry remembers bits and pieces of the ordeal.

“Most of [what] I know was told to me by my mother and father. They talked about it in the house, not outside the house,” he said. “They (the Staszczaks and Wrobels) saved our lives. Keeping in touch with them was the least we could do.”

“We have maintained this connection with them for almost 70 years,” said Henry’s daughter, Jodi Reches, who said handwritten letters in Polish have long since given way to English-language email exchanges.

It was Henry Reches who invited Angieszka Wrobel to come visit. He wanted her to see for herself how the brave actions of her family allowed the Recheses to survive and flourish in Baltimore.

Mark Reches’ son, Jeffrey, said he grew up hearing how hard it was for the hidden family and of the difficult conditions they endured.

Wrobel’s visit gave him a new perspective on ordinary Poles who also faced grave danger.

“Her family spent two years hiding the family, dealing with neighbors and store people who might be … questioning them,” Jeffrey Reches said. “You don’t realize the sacrifice they made. And meeting her, even a descendant, it just makes what went on so real. As Jews you always hear about the Jewish side, and it’s so wonderful to hear and appreciate the non-Jewish side and what her family sacrificed in order to save my family.”

Jodi Reches took Wrobel on a tour of Jewish Baltimore, showing her the Talmudical Academy and Ner Israel Rabbinical College. They dropped into the Bais Yaakov School for Girls, where all the teachers in a faculty meeting stood and applauded.

Reches family members have attended each of these schools, and Jodi Reches wanted Wrobel to see firsthand how, as she put it, “We were able to come and have a Jewish education here because of you.”

The rock-star treatment left Wrobel delighted although a little overwhelmed.

“It was amazing,” said Wrobel, an auditor who lives in Amsterdam. “I didn’t expect that standing ovation. It was really great.”

Jodi Reches presented Wrobel with a plaque with “shalom” in Hebrew topped by two doves. She said it’s a
fitting symbol “because they (Wrobel’s ancestors) did not have the hate that others had during the Holocaust. They had peace and love and felt it was their religious duty to save Jews.”

The Staszczak and Wrobel families are honored as Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem in Israel.

Amy Landsman is a local freelance writer.

Worldwide Sukkah Directory

A world-wide registry of Sukkahs has been set up, and is listed online at localsukkah.org.

The directory has been designed for Jews to locate a Sukkah near to them, so that they can go there to eat. The idea of this service is not to list every Sukkah, but to try and have a Sukkah listed for every area in which Jewish people may find themselves during Sukkot. The main focus of this service is to enable people who work on chol-hamoed to eat lunch in a Sukkah that is close to their place of work. As all listings are confirmed annually prior to publication, the benefit of the list is that users of it can be almost certain that the Sukkah that they wish to use is indeed available prior to heading there. The list also includes details of numerous Sukkahs that would otherwise remain unknown to many users of the list.

The service is also available via Android and Apple apps.

If you have a Sukkah that you would like to register, email details to register@localsukkah.org.


Against All Odds

Mahfooz Ahmad Khan is flanked by his two Jewish aunts, Khatoon (left) and Ghazala.  (Tazpit News Agency)

Mahfooz Ahmad Khan is flanked by his two Jewish aunts, Khatoon (left) and Ghazala.
(Tazpit News Agency)

It is the stuff from which films are made and novels are written. His absorbing story is such that it connects three continents, Asia, Europe and North America; five countries, India, Israel, Canada, United Kingdom and Pakistan; and two religious communities seen as natural adversaries today, the Jews and the Muslims.

Urdu poet and Hafiz-e-Qur’an (one who has memorized the entire Qur’an), Mahfooz Ahmad Khan “Soz Malihabadi” was absolutely ignorant of his Jewish maternal side until he received a letter, dated Oct. 16, 1995, from his London-based Jewish aunt, Khatoon. It came to his modest dwelling in Kakori in the Lucknow district.

She wrote, “I am very happy to know from my cousin David that he could find your address. … I and Ghazala [younger aunt] had a very hard life when my uncles and aunt sent us to Israel in 1956. The life was hard because I was only 17 years old and Ghazala was 11. We had no one in Israel — no parents, no brothers. … A person can write a tragic story about us. I lived in Israel from 1956 to 1965. It was a very hard country to live in at that time, though things are better now. … Ghazala got married in 1964. … In 1965, I immigrated to Toronto, Canada; lived there for one year, and again immigrated to London. … I tried to find your phone number from the international operator, but I was told that you are not listed in the phone book.”

Malihabadi had grown up hearing that his mother passed away when he was very young. The next letter from his aunt, dated Nov. 25, 1995, set him on the search for his mother, Rehana (nee Rahmah), who he discovered from the letter, was still alive and lived in the neighboring country, Pakistan.

“You asked me about your mother. … She is OK. Her husband died five years ago. She had a daughter, Raana, who expired in 1980; she was only 21 years old. Ranna died while giving birth to her fourth child. Your mother in Karachi has three grandchildren. She had a very tragic past; we will talk about it. I do not know how she survived all the difficulties. Anyway, we have to talk about so many things.”

Born in a Baghdadi Jewish family residence in Mumbai, Rehana married a young Pashtun named Maqbool Ahmad Khan in 1947. In 1950, their second child, Mahfooz Ahmad Khan, who later came to be known as Soz Malihabadi, was born to the couple. Soon Maqbool’s thriving business failed, reducing him to penny pinching and souring his relations with his wife, who aspired to be a film actress. In 1955, they got divorced, and Rehana married a Pakistani air force officer and moved to Pakistan, leaving behind her two little sons and two orphan younger sisters in her former husband Maqbool’s custody. In 1956, Malihabadi’s young orphan aunts, Khatoon and Ghazala, reached Israel under the Zionist program of youth aliyah emigration to Israel, aimed at the ingathering of Jewish exiles from around the world, while Soz with his father, moved to his ancestral village, midway between Malihabad and Kakori in Lucknow district.

When Malihabadi met his aunts in Mumbai after an epoch of 40 years, he inquired about his mother’s whereabouts, but strangely enough they refused to divulge it to him. Not losing hope, Malihabadi made a trip to Karachi, Pakistan, in search of his mother, but to no avail. The posture taken by his aunts absolutely disillusioned him; he severed all ties with them, and now he is in search of them, too — and his Jewish mother.

Navras Jaat Aafreedi is a scholar of Indo-Judaic Studies and an assistant professor of history at Gautam Buddha University, India. This column was originally published by Tazpit News Agency.

The Mideast Game

Palestinian supporters of Hamas hold national flags during a protest against Palestinian-Israeli negotiations on Aug. 23 in Gaza City.  (AFP PHOTO/MOHAMMED ABEDMOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images )

Palestinian supporters of Hamas hold national flags during a protest against Palestinian-Israeli negotiations on Aug. 23 in Gaza City. (AFP PHOTO/MOHAMMED ABEDMOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images )

In the shifting sands of the tumultuous Middle East, Hamas, the Palestinian terror group in control of the Gaza Strip, has found itself in an increasingly precarious position.

Feared for its massive arsenal of rockets and trained jihadis, the terror group is today also facing isolation and internal discord. With its Muslim Brotherhood allies on the run in Egypt, strained relations with former benefactors in Iran and Syria and an increasingly technologically savvy Israeli enemy, the terror organization — while still dangerous — is facing a perfect storm of problems that threatens to undermine its power.

“While one cannot currently say Islamist groups like Hamas are completely down and out, the removal of [Mohamed] Morsi’s government in Egypt and the subsequent crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood leadership, as well as the Muslim-on-Muslim fighting in Syria, together create serious problems for Hamas,” said Matthew Levitt, senior fellow and director of the Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institution for Near East Policy.

For many years, Hamas relied on Iran and its partners, Syria and Hezbollah, for military hardware such as rocket missiles, terrorist training and financial support. It is estimated that Hamas at one point received up to $250 million annually from Iran. But all that changed following exiled Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal’s decision to close the Hamas office in Damascus in early 2012 and to pursue support from Sunni powers such as Turkey, Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, all of which were on the rise at the time.

Today, analysts believe Iran’s aid to Hamas has been significantly reduced following the two parties’ fallout over Syria.

The relationship between Sunni Hamas and Shi’a Iran has always been united around their mutual hatred of Israel. In a region that is increasingly split between Sunni and Shi’a forces, Hamas somehow managed to bridge the deep theological divide between the two major Islamic sects. But in today’s increasingly polarized Middle East, with Sunni and Shi’a forces squared off in a bloody battle for the future of Syria and further tensions in Lebanon, Iraq and in the Persian Gulf, Hamas has become the odd man out.

“They [Hamas] are now largely isolated. They don’t have Egypt or Syria, and their relationship with Hezbollah and Iran is deeply strained, though not completely broken,” Levitt said.

But in light of the changes in the Middle East, Hamas may be rethinking its strained relations with Iran.

“Qatar, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Sunni allies are not capable of supporting Hamas like Iran,” Levitt said.

Qatar reportedly pledged more than $400 million to Hamas in October 2012 during a visit to Gaza by Qatar’s ruling emir at the time, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani. Hamad, however, abdicated in June, and his son and successor, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, has been less receptive to Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. Rumors are that he expelled leaders of both organizations, Mashaal and Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, in late June during the Egyptian protests against the Muslim Brotherhood.

Turkey, another budding Sunni ally of Hamas, has also seen its fortunes fade under the leadership of Islamist Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The once-close Turkish-Israeli relationship has not recovered from the blow of the 2010 Gaza flotilla incident, as a result of Erdogan’s steadfast support of Hamas, strong criticism of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians and conspiracy theories such as his recent comment that Israel was behind the overthrow of Morsi in Egypt.

But the tide has changed in Turkey. Popular protests against Erdogan and his Islamist Freedom and Justice Party in early June reduced the prime minister’s clout. Meanwhile, attempts by Erdogan to visit Gaza have been reportedly thwarted by Egyptian military authorities, who are upset over Erdogan’s criticism of the Muslim Brotherhood’s ouster.

Unlikely Allies

Ambassador Elin Suleymanov says Azerbaijan can serve as a model for Jewish-Muslim relations. (Courtesy of the Fletcher School/John Davis Photography)

Ambassador Elin Suleymanov says Azerbaijan can serve as a model for Jewish-Muslim relations. (Courtesy of the Fletcher School/John Davis Photography)

“Azerbaijan is a friend of the Jewish people, of the Israeli people and of the American people,” said Elin Suleymanov, the Republic of Azerbaijan’s ambassador to the United States. “This is not just a coincidence. It is a conscious decision by the government of Azerbaijan and the people of Azerbaijan.”

That was the message that Suleymanov reiterated more than a handful of times during a meeting this summer in his office in Washington, D.C. — a meeting that took place in armchairs and included hot tea and sweets native to Azerbaijan, which is pronounced Az-er-bu-jan and is located in the Caucasus Mountains west of the Caspian Sea, south of Russia and north of Iran.

“Azerbaijan is located at a crossroads of cultures,” said the ambassador, as he reviewed his nation’s deep history, which is both fairly old and fairly new at the same time.

The Azerbaijan Democratic Rep-ublic (ADR) was established in 1918 as the first secular Muslim-majority country built on the principles of a Western-style democracy with a constitution that granted equal rights to all citizens, including voting rights for women.

“Everyone was allowed to work and be a part of the society,” said Suleymanov. “This was before even the United States.”

ADR, however, existed for only 23 months, as it was invaded and incorporated into the Soviet Union by the Red Army under the name Azerbaijan SSR. On the verge of the Soviet Union’s collapse, ethnic strife in Nagorno-Karabakh and Moscow’s indifference to the conflict resulted in calls for independence and secession, which culminated in Black January. Subsequently, ADR’s flag was restored as the state flag, and, following that, the modern Republic of Azerbaijan emerged as a successor to Azerbaijan SSR on Oct. 18, 1991.

Throughout its history, the people of Azerbaijan have remained open, and that includes not only to women and the West, but also to the Jews.

Suleymanov said there were always Jews who served in parliament and that one of the country’s first ministers of health was a Jew. Suleymanov grew up going to school with Jewish children, was educated by Jewish teachers and had a Jewish doctor.

According to Suleymanov, the Jewish population of Azerbaijan dates back 2,500 years.

“It is not like they live in our country — I don’t know who lives in whose country. There is a long history,” he said.

The story goes that the Azerbaijani Jews, referred to as the “Mountain Jews,” arrived in the area after the exodus from Israel. They passed through Persia, where they picked up the Farsi-based language they still speak, and eventually settled in the Caucasus Mountains.

The Circle of Friendship: Azerbaijan and Israel

Whether they were spoken by the great Chinese military strategist Sun-tzu or Machiavelli or even fabled Godfather Michael Corleone, the words “keep your friends close and your enemies closer” offer great advice. But, seemingly, they have been ignored by the United States, which excels at taking its allies for granted and creating needy and desperate relationships in the eyes of its enemies.

One such case in point is Azerbaijan, a robust, secular, majority Muslim, emerging democracy and a trusted and valued ally that is showing great allegiance to Israel and to the United States. This, while simultaneously driving Mullahs and extremists throughout the world crazy (evidenced by the constant stream of vehemently angry rhetoric emanating from Tehran and elsewhere)  by embracing Western culture and ideas.

Now Israel’s closest ally in the Eurasia and, by extension, the Middle East, Azerbaijan is thriving by proving the world wrong about its perception of Muslim culture and body politic.

While the Middle East burns, American politicians seem to be blind to the bigger picture: It is not the gift of American bombs and warplanes to warring factions that will create a safer world, but it is the spread of Western culture, trade and ideals.

While President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin level expressions of distaste at one another, and while Obama meets with the Chinese as they blatantly spy and steal our biggest secrets, nations such as Israel and Azerbaijan suffer from conspicuous neglect.

Perhaps they have become the two guests at a party who suddenly find themselves with no one else to talk to and thus forge a friendship … and a very good one indeed.

One trip by the American president to Azerbaijan would speak volumes about that country’s policy and its support of Israel, the U.S. and Europe.

Even as America seemingly plays into the hands of the Iranians by allowing their stalling tactics to remain intact as they rush to finish a nuclear weapon, Azerbaijan remains a friend and ally of the U.S., Europe and Israel.

Even as America stands by as Iran threatens the very existence of Israel and the West,
Azerbaijan retains its policies of freedom and tolerance toward all relations and ethnicities.

As America sends more weapons to enable warring factions that will all prove disastrous for peace processes, Azerbaijan and Israel remain partners in trade and support.

However important the friendship of these two nations, it is the high profile presence of a major world power that can call attention to the better side of our natures.

More than ever it is crucial that all nations who respect tolerance, integrity and the dignity of the human spirit to remain diligent in their efforts to grow and prosper while helping one another.

Azerbaijan’s recent hosting of Jennifer Lopez singing and dancing in front of an adoring Azeri Muslim audience is proof there is much common ground. Azerbaijan’s trade and diplomatic relations with Israel is proof countries can work together for the greater good, despite the Mullahs seething over Azerbaijan’s Western proclivities.

In Azerbaijan, they respect and educate women, men, Jews, Christians, Sunnis and Shiites, all of whom can be elected members of its parliament and serve in high-ranking government and business roles.

The wonder of the human condition is that, after all is said and done, it is our sameness that draws us together, the common need in us all to be respected and admired as individuals.

Perhaps the U.S. should more closely examine the relationship between Azerbaijan, Israel and the West. The friendship that exists between Azerbaijan and Israel is a great place to begin looking for positive signs — in the present and for the future.

Also read, “Unlikely Allies.”

Norma Zager is a freelance journalist and columnist who teaches at California State University, Los Angeles.


For many Jews, the interim solution at the Western Wall has done little to alleviate the problem. (Provided)

For many Jews, the interim solution at the Western Wall has done little to alleviate the problem. (Provided)

Israel’s self-described interim solution covering where and how women can pray at the Western Wall hasn’t stopped Jews from all sides of the issue from wanting to bang their heads against a wall.

A 4,840-square-foot platform designed to accommodate up to 450 worshippers at a time was just installed. The new prayer plaza, connected by a ramp to an existing platform in the southern section of the Wall near Robinson’s Arch, is called Azarat Yisrael and is being billed as an interim but primary place of worship for egalitarian and pluralistic prayer services.

The existing prayer plaza at the Wall, north of the Mughrabi Bridge, is the official prayer site and is designated for Orthodox services.

The new plaza, south of the Mug-hrabi Bridge, is in the area already approved for pluralistic prayer by the Israeli High Court of Justice. It will be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and Torah scrolls, prayer books and prayer shawls will be available to all. However, weddings, circumcision ceremonies and charity collections will not be permitted at the site.

“The Kotel belongs to all Jews no matter who they are and what stream of Judaism they come from,” Ministry of Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett said Sunday as he announced the new platform.

Bennett said the platform was built in conjunction with the offices of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, who is expected to announce a permanent solution any day now.

Immediately after details of the platform were announced, a clarification was issued by Netanyahu’s office that stated, “Contrary to reports, there is no new government decision regarding prayer arrangements at the Western Wall. The committee appointed by the prime minister to look into the matter has yet to conclude its work. Once it does so, it will submit its recommendations to the prime minister.”

That clarification didn’t stop anyone from having a strong comment on the platform, which “literally sort of appeared under our feet,” said Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly.

While calling the platform “a modest first step” forward in resolving the issue, Rabbi Schonfeld said she is still awaiting clarification on who will oversee religious practices at that space and what the final terms regarding issues of equality will be.

Masorti, Israel’s Conservative movement, has gathered and prayed at the upper plaza of the Wall since 1980 and was given the option of worshipping at Robinson’s Arch in 2000. Meanwhile, it has continued to work with the Israeli government to expand the prayer area, hours, staffing and provisions for ritual needs at that site.

Women of the Wall, a group formed more than 20 years with the goal of allowing women to pray at the Western Wall wearing ritual garb and with the Torah, condemned the latest changes by Robinson’s Arch, noting in a statement that the government is relegating “over 50 percent of the Jewish population to the ‘back of the bus.’”

“The plan will effectively exile women and all Jews who pray in a way that is not ultra-Orthodox” to Robinson’s Arch and away from the actual Wall, Women of the Wall declared.

“What has been proven today is that the bullies were victorious … with their assault, spitting and cursing at women,” the statement continued. “This plan is the very definition of separate and not nearly close to equal; it provides an out-of-sight, out-of-mind solution silencing women at the Western Wall.”

Rabbi Sonya Starr of Columbia Jewish Congregation, a Reconstructionist synagogue, said she feels similarly and fully supports the women who are working to pray at the Wall the way they feel most comfortable.

“Women and men, equally, should have the right to pray where ever they choose,” she said.

Virginia Spatz, a co-organizer of Washington Friends of Women of the Wall, called the recent changes “disappointing. I had hoped that the strains of Judaism could come tog-ether in unity, and this is certainly not that. This is just heartbreaking.”

Spatz questioned how Bennett could say that the Wall belongs to all Jews and then “in the next breath” propose a solution “that regulates many Jews to a site apart from the Kotel” and keeps the Kotel for “official recognition as a prayer site to be used solely for Orthodox services.”

“These are incompatible statements, and the logic of them escapes me. The new plan is a severe slap to Jews with pluralist visions and an insult to the millions of Jews, like me, who do not express their Judaism through a particular kind of orthodoxy,” she said.

While the new platform was proposed as a temporary solution, Spatz said she believed it will only make it harder to come up with a true compromise in the future.

Rabbi Tamara Miller of Washington Friends of Women of the Wall also was disappointed.

“The point of it is that the women from Orthodox to Reform and everything in between … want to be able to pray together at the Wall,” she said, adding that Bennett’s plan “does not allow this to happen. The women want to be together. It’s not about praying with men.”

Linda Yitzchak, who also is active with Washington Friends of Women of the Wall, described herself as a Conservative Jew who enjoys celebrating Rosh Chodesh with women, calling it a very special experience for her.

“This alternative does not help with that at all,” she said, noting that the new platform “looks terrible. It’s not inviting.”

The Reform Movement called Bennett’s plan “a gesture of goodwill, but it is, at best, a very small step forward in the implementation of the full plan.”

According to its statement, the Ref-orm Movement believes “the Kotel is a powerful symbol of the Jewish yearning for Israel and for the unity of the Jewish people. As such, it needs to be open and free to all Jews; women and men must be treated equally there.”

If the Bennett plan becomes a final solution, “it would create a painful and unnecessary conflict within the Jewish people.”

Not all women are in favor of creating a more open Western Wall. Women For The Wall, a grassroots movement that says it favors respectful and dignified prayer at the Wall, believes that classical Jewish practice at the Wall must be preserved.

“A holy site is not the place for political activity,” it declared in a statement to this reporter.

“Jerusalem is not Selma, and this issue cannot be compared to the fight for civil rights in the U.S.,” said Ronit Peskin, co-founder of Women For The Wall.

“WOW views the Kotel as an opportunity and lacks reverence for the place held sacred by millions of Jews around the world,” noted Leah Aharoni, co-founder of Women For The Wall. “This political protest shows that they do not understand what it means to respect the sanctity of the place.”

“The Kotel must transcend politics. We call on the leaders of the liberal Jewish community to condemn the use of the Kotel as a place of political theater,” Peskin said, suggesting that Women of the Wall should take their case to the Knesset rather than the Wall.

Women For The Wall urged “our cherished sisters” not “to continue to pray at the back of the plaza and then complain to the media about your ‘exile.’”

“As someone who is Orthodox, I won’t endorse allowing women to pray however they choose while at the Wall,” said Rabbi Yaakov Menken, director of the Genesis Project. “No one ever tried to put an Orthodox synagogue and a Reform synagogue in the same room. It just doesn’t work. … Tolerance means we are going to tolerate separate spaces in which to pray.”

He questioned whether Women of the Wall “want to pray in a different way, live and let live, or are they out to fight Orthodoxy.”

Legally, as of April, women have the right to wear tallitot while praying in the women’s section of the Wall. Since 2010, the rabbi in charge of the Wall has forbidden anyone entering the women’s area to carry a Torah.

Sharansky, meanwhile, has promised to release his plan for a compromise in the very near future. His plan, first rep-orted on in April, includes the expansion of egalitarian section at Robinson’s Arch with a unified entrance to be built. Like Bennett’s plan, the area would be open at all times rather than for a few hours a day, as it had been prior to Sunday.

That section would be overseen by a joint commission of the Israeli government, Sharansky’s Jewish Agency and representatives from world Jewry.

Suzanne Pollak writes for JT’s sister publication, Washington Jewish Week.