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The Brownsteins in the Land of Israel

Chapter 15:

Learning to Read Between the Lines

March 23, 2004


Friends from America are constantly asking my opinion about what's going on in Israel.  While I don't usually speak of the general happenings here, I have a few observations to make to satisfy those American friends who ask.   It is not a story, but just a few thoughts.


First, two letters about my last Chronicle, "A Purim Blessing".   Our L.A. friend Dan Altshuler wrote:


My Friend:

Most of what's on mind my is probably irrelevant to you, being on the Front Lines, me in Disneyland.  Please remember this:

1) Your children, the most important, no doubt the dearest aspect of your and Sara's lives, and their children, and on and on, will be tremendously grateful, benefited, happy and proud of what you are doing.  If I had 20% of your courage, I'd be there, too, but I don't.

2) Every step you take, each pack of 1 NIS gum that you buy, adds holiness and builds up the eternal home of the Jewish People, and the Blessed Holy One, in very real, tangible and intangible ways.

Feel free to vent, my friend.  And one more thing:  find my z'vug and I'm there.



And my new, dear friend Meir Fachler, who lives up the block from me, wrote about "A Purim Blessing":



    What a moving piece - even I had to fight back the tears and was tempted to walk the 100 yards or so to your house and slam the gate to announce my popping in for a coffee!

    The "Israel as a safe haven" approach is of course correct - who could disagree with the logic or passion of your argument. Problem is, most Jews, even if they read it, agree with it, and are even moved by it, won’t be that moved as to move. There is too much at stake. Anyway, Rich has done it already - and he must be a nut - only a nut would be moved by these motives and actually make THE move.

    My feeling is that the external threat argument for living in Israel won’t work for any Jews living comfortably in the West. If anything, it would seem the opposite is true - especially from your scary accounts of bombs going off that close to your home. Nah, safer to hang around here in LA, NYC, London, and wait for peace to break out.... And then we'll have to find another excuse for not considering THE move.

    I would like to think that the reason to come here, the reason that prompted you, me and all your new mates here, wasn't that Israel is our safe haven from the naughty anti-Semites from Pico-Robinson, but rather because this is the only place, the natural place, the divinely dedicated arena for us to live out that thing we take so seriously: being Jewish. Neither you nor I are ones that like to be on the periphery. We want to be where the action is. We take being Jewish seriously. Not only via Shabbat, Kashrut, or Taharat HaMishpacha, but also via our society, our country, our police force, army, ambulance service, welfare system, Hebrew street signs, Hebrew menus on our cell-phones, our Hesder yeshivas, our Institutes for technology and Halacha...... and list goes on and on..... We simply aren't prepared to live a Judaism that is reduced to three (albeit pivotal) Mitzvot. Judaism is a total way of life. Judaism is an unfolding drama. And Israel, the historical andgeographi cal epicenter of the human spirit, is the stage where that drama is being acted out. We want to be the characters of the drama, not the spectators, nor even the actors. We want to live out a life where our being Jewish is the significant factor that determines almost every aspect of our lives. Because we know that living out the drama of the Jewish people in the Jewish State is the only way we can take ourselves seriously. Because, as our Rabbi recently reminded a Bar-Mitzvah boy in our shul: being a Jew in Israel "doesn't promise you a rose garden" - it only promises a life full of meaning, value, history, destiny, and on-going moral crossroads that will challenge us constantly to ask what is the "right and straight Way that God wants of us".

    If these issues matter, if they turn you on, then there isn't really much choice, is there? And if they don't - well..... now that that's a good question.....


Yet, again, Billy Baynu, from Derech Eretz wrote of my story "Getting A Car":


Dear Richie,

I read your story "Getting A Car" last night, right after I received it.  It was really great how you made fun of the Russians.  You tell 'em Richie.  They couldn't make it in their stinking Commy country, so they sponge off the Israelis?  Boy, if that doesn't boil my blood.   But then a funny thing happened when I was talking to Mom about it.  She had just finished reading it, too, and she said that it wasn't about the Russians taking advantage at all.  She said that you were actually impressed with how they had integrated so seamlessly in Israel.  Mom even said that she suspects that not a single Russian was actually involved in your real adventure, but that this was actually intended as a tribute to what Russians have accomplished in Israel over the past 15 years.  Then Mother suggested that I should reread your story because I obviously didn't get it at all and she was embarrassed for me.  I told her that I read just fine and that Rich's chronicles are not tricky, but very simple about his day-to-day life in Israel.  I told her, 'I've known Rich for 40 years and he is not a serious dude.  He just likes to write subtle humor.'  I was a little bit confused when she then suggested that the $100,000 she had spent on my college education seemed to have been somewhat wasteful.  I just shrugged and went back to my videogame.  Please tell Mama that my Stanford education was worth every penny!

Hey, Billy: listen to your mom.



Feature Presentation

Learning to Read Between the Lines


During these times of high drama here in Israel, it's important to think a little harder and interpret a little more than usual.  This is part of being an Israeli: drawing your own unsubstantiated conclusions after listening to way too much news.

By far, the most important topic here is our safety.  So when thinking between the lines, protection is by far the most important topic.  I am not speaking of our courageous soldiers; they are overt and get plenty of pub, deservedly.  No, I am referring to that which protects us from the other 99.9% of the dangers here.  I am speaking of the two guardians that are most regularly taken for granted. 



First, of course, is the unseen Almighty, Who watches over our every move.  For instance, last week Yasser Arafat's al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades induced an unsuspecting Palestinian sixth grader to carry a bomb to an Israeli check point.  The 20 lbs. bag, that was almost too heavy for little Abdullah to schlep, was to be detonated by remote control with a call to the attached cell phone.  Funny thing is, there was a bunch of wires hanging out of back of the sack.  Had an alert soldier not spotted the wires -- had the Almighty not revealed them -- the child and numerous soldiers would have been killed or injured.  These kinds of miracles happen everyday, here... just with slightly less press and fanfare.  Everyday we need to consciously thank the Lord for his protection over the State of Israel. 


The second protector (which, of course, is only empowered by HaShem) is the Shabak, known more generally by the Hebrew initials Shin Bet.  This is the Israeli equivalent combination of the American Secret Service, FBI, and new Department of Homeland Security.  (The Mossad is Israel's answer to the CIA, and likewise operates primarily abroad.)  One comforting aspect of the Shin Bet is the sheer number of cooperative Palestinians on its payroll.  Indeed, the Shin Bet may be the single largest employer of Palestinians in the world.  In Gaza and on the West Bank there is not a bad guy still alive who does not suspect virtually every Arab around him of collaborating with the Israelis.  (This kind of systematic paranoia is a wonderful weapon to use against our enemies.)   The Shin Bet is very effective.  For example, when Israel goes on a security alert because of an imminent threat, it is usually due to a credible Palestinian tip to the Shin Bet.  Last month, for example, just after the last bombing, there were over 50 such general alerts.  In almost all cases, we get to them before they get to us.  It is simply astounding how many would-be terrorists have become dead "martyrs" after the vaunted Israeli Defense Forces went into towns or villages to corner a young man who was about to depart on a one-way trip.  The tips come through Shin Bet; this is a serious intelligence machine.  They are worth a prayer, too.


On to a completely different set of lines to read between, two days ago, in the neighborhood called French Hill, a young man was shot to death while jogging.  The English radio news described him as a graduate student from East Jerusalem.  These are code words for "Israeli Arab."   His father is a prominent Christian Arab attorney; his grandfather was killed many years ago in another terrorist attack.  The Palestinians said that the murderers mistook the student for a Jew.


The first point of interest is a phone call that the victim's father received from Arafat, apologizing for the mistake.  In a vacuum, this gesture of consolation seems quite reasonable and laudatory.  But we don't live in a vacuum.  Think about what Nobel Peace laureate Arafat was saying:  We are sorry that we killed your son instead of a random Jew.  I'm still waiting for condemnations from the European Union of this statement.


Much more interesting in this shooting is that, appearances and apologies to the contrary, it is my opinion that the killing was not a mistake at all: the shooters undoubtedly identified their correct target.  The "mistaken murder" scenario put out to the world does not stand up to even the most passing scrutiny.   First of all, why would a Palestinian terrorist head for the relatively sparsely populated French Hill when he could just as easily have walked half a kilometer to venerable Hebrew University, with its bounty of "high-value" targets such as American students, just waiting to be slaughtered?  Next, do four rounds fired at a lone jogger from close range sound like a terrorist act to you?  It sounds more like a planned execution to me.  Further, any self-respecting terrorist who had gotten that deeply into Jerusalem would not have quit until he was either shot dead or he had emptied every available round of ammunition into any target in sight, including buses, gasoline trucks, and soldiers -- all of which are far more plentiful than joggers.  No, the more likely scenario is that someone wanted to send a message to the jogger's family or associates concerning something far more serious than jogging.  Perhaps they were considered to be too chummy with the Israelis.  Or maybe it was just a business transaction gone bad or an old vendetta.  In any event, my reading of this murder is that it was most unlikely that this was a terrorist act.


The other interesting bit of recent activity here in the forgotten Middle East is today's assassination of Hamas "spiritual" leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who was (in)famous for founding Hamas, dedicating his life to, and calling for, the absolute destruction of Israel, and planning dozens of attacks that killed and maimed hundreds of Jewish civilians within the internationally recognized borders of this sovereign State.


The Israelis had previously dropped a bomb on Yassin in September 2003, during a Hamas meeting in an apartment building.  Much was made of the failed attempt.  It seems that the extremely efficient Israeli Air Force erred by using a 550-lb. bomb instead of an 1100 lb. bomb, only resulting in a slight injury to Yassin's hand.  It is widely understood that Yassin would have been liquidated in September had Israel used the proper, larger bomb.  Perhaps the government did, indeed, hold back as reported because of its usual humanitarian concern not to cause undue "collateral damage."   However, I don't think so.  It is again my opinion that the government never meant to kill Yassin then, but only naively hoped to scare him into being cooperative.  If so, the message didn't get through.   But today, with the forces in Pakistan and Afghanistan trying to corner bin Laden and his pals, and on the heels of the terrorist attack in Spain, Israel seems to have found the right opportunity to send a final message to Yassin and his cronies.


Consider what it must be like, at this moment, to be a Hamas commander.  Your leader is dead.  You know that every electronic communication at your disposal is being intercepted by the Israelis.  You know that virtually anybody you see at home or on the street may be an Israeli agent.  And you know that one of your own people probably tipped off the Israelis as Yassin was leaving his mosque this morning.  Indeed, there is little question that someone on the ground was calling the shots; Prime Minister Sharon admitted that the attack was to have taken place the previous day, yet was postponed because too many civilians were present.  In fact, it is quite possible that someone in a car or on foot or from a rooftop actually had a laser trained on Yassin's vehicle so that the three laser-guided missiles fired by the Israeli helicopter gunship would find their mark.  Again, as much as you think we are in danger, this is probably not the best time to be a general in Hamas.


After the assassination, for the entire day, we've been hearing about how Jewish blood will be spilled to avenge Yassin.  Sara and I have been cautioned by many loving friends and family to stay at home and not become targets.  Yet, we've heard the same threat time and again from Hamas and Arafat's other proxies after each of the last dozen assassinations.  Even though I am trying to learn to read between the lines, I don't have a crystal ball; perhaps a terrorist will make it through, God forbid.  But some perspective might be helpful.  If I had a nickel for every time in the last two years that Hamas has pledged to slaughter Israelis by the hundreds, I would be able to buy a gallon of gas in the states.  The fact is, if they could have sent a thousand suicide bombers into Jerusalem last week, they would have.  If they could have detonated a nuclear bomb, they would have done so with alacrity.  If they could have shelled Tel Aviv, they would not have hesitated.  No one should be hysterical about the current threats -- except the leaders of Hamas.


This morning when my Ulpan teacher, Rutti (Ruth), arrived to class I asked her if she had heard the news about Yassin.  She nodded and shrugged.  Then she spent an hour telling us the story of Passover (in baby Hebrew), concluding with the description of how the entire Egyptian army was drowned when the Almighty ceased His suspension of the Red Sea.  Rutti stressed that a theme of Passover is that we should not be too happy over the fate of our ancient enemies because, even though the Egyptians meant to harm us, Jews do not rejoice over the suffering of others.  She said, "When we are happy that others die, we lower ourselves to their level."


Today, with an archenemy of the Jewish People safely in a fresh grave, even with the umbrella provided by the Shin Bet and the Almighty, I am happy to have been admonished properly by my fabulous teacher.  

Anyway, thanks for reading between the lines this far.


I appreciate and look forward to your comments and greetings.


As you know, we are in the middle of a membership drive, so please get me the e-mail addresses of people whom you want to add.  (Let them know ahead of time, so I don't get in trouble with the spam police).


Please stay tuned for Chapter 16: “The Dentist.”


All the best,  



Rich Brownstein

PO Box 8130

91081 Jerusalem


Phone: 011-972-2-6733-491




No Egyptians were harmed in this story.

All characters are purely fictional.

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