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The Fire in Israel

I’m writing this in a back room at my in-laws’ apartment in Jerusalem. It’s Shabbat, but I felt it was important to get you some details about the massive forest fire that is still raging through the Carmel forest in northern Israel. (Negligence, not arson, is suspected.) It’s no exaggeration to describe what’s happening here as a catastrophe of biblical proportions. Wildfires are by no means unknown in Israel, but this is by far the worst in the country’s history.

The weather has been unseasonably warm and dry of late — we just had the hottest November in sixty years, winter shows no sign of approaching, and my kids are still in T-shirts and shorts. Yesterday (Thursday), sometime around midday, a fire broke out, apparently in an illegal landfill near the Druse village of Usifiya. Gusty winds and the extreme dryness combined to cause the fire to build and spread at shocking speed. It swept towards Haifa, prompting mass evacuations that as of this moment have affected about 17,000 people.

There is a prison called Damon in the Carmel hills near Haifa that houses both Palestinian and Israeli prisoners. The Prisons Service sent a busload of guards — most of them trainees, and a good proportion of them women — toward Damon to assist in the evacuation of the prison. Along the way, a tree collapsed in the path of the bus, trapping it directly in the path of the oncoming blaze. The bus was swiftly engulfed in flames and 36 people aboard were killed, as well as six rescuers (fire-fighters, policemen, and a 16-year-old boy who rushed in to assist). The dead were mostly Jews, but some were Druse; most of the funerals took place at noon today. (The prisoners at Damon were safely evacuated.) Two police officers are still missing.

The head of the Haifa Police Department, Deputy Commander Ahuva Tomer, was driving behind the bus. When she saw the flames begin to consume it, she jumped out of her car and rushed towards it in an attempt to pull people off. She was herself critically injured and is now clinging to life at Carmel Hospital in Haifa.

The scale of the fire quickly overwhelmed Israel’s capacity to fight it, leading Netanyahu to take the unusual step of requesting international help while continuing to pour what resources were available towards the area. As Claire noted earlier today, Turkey set aside its recent animus towards Israel and immediately offered to send two fire-fighting aircraft, an offer that was gratefully accepted. “I greatly appreciate this,” said Netanyahu, promising, “We’ll find a way to show how much.” Netanyahu and Erdogan spoke by phone about the crisis, the first time they have spoken since Netanyahu took office as Prime Minister.

Greece, Bulgaria and Cyprus also quickly responded with planes, personnel and equipment. More help is continuing to arrive from Spain, France, Croatia, Azerbaijan, Britain, Egypt, Jordan, Romania and Russia. Salam Fayyad, prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, sent his condolences to the Israeli people on behalf of the Palestinians. (This might sound insignificant, but I for one appreciate it.) President Obama has also sent condolences and assured Israel that American help is on its way: as he put it, “that’s what friends do for each other.” The Israeli Air Force is coordinating the international aerial effort to douse the fire.

The savagery and power of the fire has been and continues to be terrifying, with quickly moving flames leaping up to forty meters in the air. Residents across the north are being advised to keep their windows closed to keep the smoke out. Beit Oren, a kibbutz in the Carmel hills, has been devastated and possibly destroyed (its population was evacuated before the wildfire reached its buildings). The University of Haifa was evacuated. At least 5,000 acres of pine trees in the gorgeous Carmel Forest are now ashes or still aflame. Routes Two and Four to the affected area have been closed, effectively cutting the region off from the rest of the country. Buses are on standby for further evacuations.

This terrible event has made for a sobering Chanukah for us here in Israel. As Aluf Benn put it in Haaretz, “The enormous blaze that broke out on the Carmel will be remembered as the Yom Kippur War of the Fire and Rescue Service, who were not prepared to counter a disaster of such magnitude…it turned out that Israel is not prepared for war or a mass terrorist strike that would cause many casualties in the home front.” It’s a dark day here. Netanyahu has rightly praised the “divine heroism” of the many people who have put themselves in grave danger to fight this fire, but Benn is right. This is the worst kind of wake-up call.

It’s 10:30 pm now and we have to get the kids home. Be safe, all of you, wherever you are.

Okay, Then I Want a Refund For the Last Eleven Big-Budget Movies I’ve Sat Through

This is odd.Steve Martin

Famed New York cultural and community center The 92nd Street Y is offering full refunds and an apology to all those who attended a recent interview with comedian, novelist, movie star, and all-around legend Steve Martin. What did he do? Spit at the audience? Fall asleep in the middle of the interview? Drop an insulting reference to Alice Walker?

Nope. He just wasn’t funny enough.

Martin and his interviewer, Deborah Solomon (a writer for The New York Times Magazine), made the mistake of talking more about art than about comedy, and the Y’s audience apparently took a dim view of that choice — although one might reasonably expect an audience of New Yorkers who have the inclination, let alone the discretionary income, to spend fifty bucks on an evening at the 92nd Street Y to have even a manqué’s interest in the subject of art. Particularly when the interviewee is a well-known art collector who has just come out with a new novel about…art.

Apparently, viewers watching the conversation via closed-circuit TV around the country sent in a flurry of emails complaining that the conversation was too art-focused (read: boring). A note was duly handed to the interviewer to get onto the comedy, stat. (Martin later said that this was “a little like an actor responding in Act III to an audience’s texts to ‘shorten the soliloquies.’ ”) Solomon gave the audience a chance to address Martin directly, and he politely fielded about seven questions from the floor about his film and TV career. Neither Solomon nor Martin knew they had disgraced the Y until after the fact, when Sol Adler, the center’s executive director, sent out the following message to ticket-holders:

We acknowledge that last night’s event with Steve Martin did not meet the standard of excellence that you have come to expect from 92nd St. Y. We planned for a more comprehensive discussion and we, too, were disappointed with the evening. We will be mailing you a $50 certificate for each ticket you purchased to last night’s event. The gift certificate can be used toward future 92Y events, pending availability.

Solomon is peeved. Yesterday, she said:

Frankly, you would think that an audience in New York, at the 92nd Street Y, would be interested in hearing about art and artists. I had no idea that the Y programmers wanted me to talk to Steve instead on what it’s like to host the Oscars or appear in ‘It’s Complicated’ with Alec Baldwin. I think the Y, which is supposedly a champion of the arts, has behaved very crassly and is reinforcing the most philistine aspects of a culture that values celebrity and award shows over art.

See, that’s the thing, though. Martin sold the place out because our culture, even highbrow New York arty culture, values celebrity (and juicy stories about same; the more the better). It was probably a little silly to pretend that it didn’t. But going so far as to refund the tickets?

Martin himself, who is surely the classiest guy ever to appear regularly in public with a fake arrow through his head, called the refund “discourteous,” but beyond that doesn’t seem particularly bothered. (He pointed out that “As for the Y’s standard of excellence, it can’t be that high because this is the second time I’ve appeared there.”)

I don’t know. On the one hand, there’s something refreshing about a bunch of allegedly art-loving New Yorkers admitting they’d rather be amused than edified. On the other hand, when you buy a ticket to something, you risk not liking it. It happens. In fact, unless I’m much mistaken, it happens all the time. This episode strikes me as a weird new strain of pandering and a bit of a dodgy precedent at that.

Although I’d love my ten bucks back for There Will Be Blood.

Danger, USB! Was Israel Behind Stuxnet or Not?

danger usbPeter Robinson over at Ricochet recently suggested that Israel deserves at the very least a crate of champagne for managing to disrupt the Iranian nuclear program, an accomplishment that has eluded Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, the EU, and the IAEA — and all without a single plane sent into harm’s way, a single bomb dropped, or a single shot fired in anger. Israel (if it was she) has apparently not only slowed things down at the Bushehr nuclear reactor, but also seriously compromised the enrichment of uranium at Natanz — a facility that is eight meters underground and covered with reinforced concrete and earth, making it a tough hit. Natanz seems to have been brought to a near-standstill by the worm, which was likely brought in initially on an infected USB stick.

Think back to the summer, before news of the cyber-attack hit the front pages. There was much discussion, and had been for some time, on the likelihood of an Israeli air strike to take out, or at least seriously damage, Iran’s nuclear program. Speculation on timeframes had been rife for months, with zero hour shifting from spring to summer to autumn as dates passed with no action. Knowledgeable individuals far and wide weighed in on the gravity of the danger Iran’s program poses to Israel and to the world and the necessity that action be taken soon, a concern often coupled with anxiety over the perceived unwillingness of the American administration to step up. The question asked was rarely “should Israel strike?” or even “will Israel strike?” It was instead: “Will the Israeli strike take place with our without American permission?”

But an Israeli air strike didn’t happen. Why not?

Here’s a theory. Israel didn’t send in the air force because she knew something the punditry didn’t, something that threw conventional wisdom about the imminence of Iran’s nuclear capability out the window. That knowledge was secure enough to preclude the necessity, at least in the short term, of a physical strike. Israel knew that Iran’s nuclear program was about to be seriously disrupted — and so it was, by the Stuxnet virus.

Okay, sounds reasonable. But did Israel do it?

I think it’s likely — and there may well have been cooperation between the Israelis (Unit 8200?) and the Americans (USCYBERCOM, hitting the ground running?), although don’t wear yourself out looking for confirmation. The scale of the attack would have required two things that seem to discount rogue hackers in their bedrooms: substantial, coordinated manpower and “the resources of a nation-state”, according to a discussion of the virus on CNetComputerworld consulted Liam O Murchu, manager of operations with Symantec’s security response team, and Roel Schouwenberg, a senior antivirus researcher at Kaspersky Lab, both of whom concur with CNet’s supposition:

“There are so many different types of execution needs that it’s clear this is a team of people with varied backgrounds, from the rootkit side to the database side to writing exploits,” [O Murchu] said.

The malware, which weighed in at nearly half a megabyte — an astounding size, said Schouwenberg — was written in multiple languages, including C, C++ and other object-oriented languages…

“And from the SCADA [the Siemens supervisory system that was vulnerable to the virus – JL.] side of things, which is a very specialized area, they would have needed the actual physical hardware for testing, and [they would have had to] know how the specific factory floor works,” said O Murchu.

“Someone had to sit down and say, ‘I want to be able to control something on the factory floor, I want it to spread quietly, I need to have several zero-days [security gaps – JL.],’” O Murchu continued. “And then pull together all these resources. It was a big, big project.”

The Economist agrees that there was a major investment here:

Normally, anyone who discovers a new zero-day exploit can expect to sell it for a handsome fee to hackers who can then make use of it. Whoever built Stuxnet, however, was prepared to pay for four such exploits, which cannot have been cheap, to boost its chances of success. They also had deep knowledge of particular control systems. So it seems to be an expensive piece of software aimed at one specific facility.

The Christian Science Monitor puts it this way: “Stuxnet is essentially a precision, military-grade cyber missile deployed…to seek out and destroy one real-world target of high importance.” Michael Assante, former chief of industrial control systems cyber security research at the US Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory, calls Stuxnet “the first direct example of weaponized software, highly customized and designed to find a particular target.” The object was not the theft of data or the ransoming of systems. It was destruction.

I’d say the evidence is compelling that a nation was behind Stuxnet, and since we’re the nation Ahmadinejad has rhapsodized about wiping off the face of the earth, we’re a likely suspect. And Israel has made no secret of its commitment to cyber defense and warfare. As long ago as 2007, an Israeli cyber attack apparently shut down Syria’s defense infrastructure, enabling the air force to take out their budding nuclear weapons development program in a night air raid. This past February, Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin said that “Using computer networks for espionage is as important to warfare today as the advent of air support was to warfare in the 20th century.”

There has been much feverish discussion about two alleged clues suggesting the long arm of Israeli hackers in the code: the word “MYRTUS” and the number string 19790509. “Myrtus” could refer to the myrtle tree, and myrtle in Hebrew is Hadassah — the original name of Biblical Queen Esther, who rescued the Jews of Persia from extermination. The number string could refer to May 9, 1979, on which date Iran executed a prominent Jewish philanthropist, Habib Elghanian, for spying.

I’d advise caution here. It seems a little counterintuitive for Israel to go to great trouble to conceal her agency and then plant such heavy-handed clues. Of course, the clues could be misdirection to prompt exactly that reaction. And Israel does relish the well-placed message. In 1967, for example, when Israel wiped out Egypt’s air force before it could take off, the IAF left Egypt’s dummy planes intact on the tarmac, just to freak them out a little. The clues in Stuxnet’s code are far from conclusive, but I wouldn’t put it past the Israelis to give the enemy a little something to keep them guessing. If Israel was behind Stuxnet, I imagine her object was not only to slow down Iran’s nuclear progress, but to make a statement as well: that she is watching, she knows what Iran is up to, and if they get too far out of line, she’ll come calling.

Peter, I wish I could confirm that Israel deserves that champagne. (Or perhaps I don’t.) In any event, I’m pretty sure that even hackers love Bollinger. Just please make sure it gets here before June 24, 2012. That’s Stuxnet’s built-in kill date, and there’s no telling what’s in store after that.

[For those who would like more detail on Stuxnet, Symantec has published an exhaustive dossier, and there’s more analysis here. Symantec also published a short breakdown of the various theories about its origin (lone wolf or state-sponsored espionage?). And if you’d like to read an interesting debunking that culminates in a pretty zany theory, look here.]

Your Tax Dollars at Work

Whoa. Well, you’ve got to give them points for chutzpah.

The developers of the Ground Zero Mosque — sorry, Park51 — have applied for a $5 million federal grant from a fund set up to redevelop lower Manhattan after 9/11.

This shouldn’t concern you, though. According to the Daily Beast, developer Sharif El-Gamal “is motivated more by real estate ambition—one [source] describes him as aspiring to be the next Donald Trump—than Islamic theology or ideology.”

I feel better already. But hang on — the total lack of any conversation with the community in advance of this play for federal money is a little…unsettling, no? That’s the view of at least one observer:

“If Imam Feisal and his retinue want know why they’re not trusted, here’s yet another reason,” says Irshad Manji, author of The Trouble with Islam and director of the Moral Courage Project at NYU, when I asked her about the grant proposal. “The New Yorkers I speak with have questions about Park51. Requesting money from public coffers without engaging the public shows a staggering lack of empathy—especially from a man who says he’s all about dialogue.”

The Daily Beast says “The audacious move stands to reignite the embers of a divisive debate that dominated headlines surrounding the ninth anniversary of the attacks this fall, say people vested in the issue.”

Yeah, that sounds about right.

“A Fellowship of Steel”: An Inside Look at Israel’s Armored Corps

On the main road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem there’s a turn-off to Latrun, the site of some of the most shattering and historic battles Israel ever fought. From its high ground you see the Ayalon Valley, lovely and vulnerable, spread out before you. Latrun is where Joshua asked God to halt the sun’s progress in the sky long enough to let him defeat the Amorites (Joshua 10:12-13). It is also believed to be Emmaus, where Jesus appeared to two of his disciples after the Resurrection (Luke 24:13-35). It’s the place where Judah the Maccabee, in a surprise attack that presaged the guerrilla techniques of the Haganah, defeated the Seleucid Greeks in 167 BCE.

Latrun sign

Latrun was the location of some of the most desperate fighting of the Israeli War of Independence. When the British evacuated their police fortress at Latrun following the end of the Mandate, the Transjordanian Arab Legion rushed in to take it over. They used its strategic location to enforce a siege of Jerusalem that was intended to starve out the city’s 100,000 Jewish residents. To this day, you can see the preserved remains of the Jewish convoy trucks along the highway that were destroyed as they attempted to get food and supplies to the city in 1948.

David Ben-Gurion was so determined to break the siege of Jerusalem during the War of Independence that he ordered the fledgling defense force to attack Latrun, despite the lack of sufficient arms and manpower and the objections of his military commanders. Three attempts were made, using ill-trained and badly equipped soldiers — a significant proportion of whom were Holocaust survivors. All three onslaughts failed. (One platoon was led by a young Ariel Sharon, who was seriously wounded.) The Jews did not expel the Arab Legion from Latrun, but did manage to keep it fixed to the site long enough to enable the hasty construction of the Burma Road, an alternate route to Jerusalem. (The building of the Burma Road — which was cobbled together out of an old goat path — was led by the American Col. David Marcus, a West Point graduate and WWII veteran.) The road allowed soldiers, arms and food to reach the besieged Jews of Jerusalem, and its opening marked a turning point of the war.

The lifting of the siege notwithstanding, Latrun remained in Jordanian hands and stayed there for the next nineteen years. Throughout that period, the fortress was used as a base by Arab snipers preying on Jewish travelers to and from Jerusalem. The situation finally changed in 1967, when the IDF took the site in an hour.


Today, Latrun is home to an outdoor museum and memorial honoring Israel’s Armored Corps. I was there this past Saturday, digital camera at the ready. And so, dear readers, herewith I present to you — in the spirit of the view I offered a few months ago on Ricochet of Israeli air force hardware — a whirlwind visual tour of the history of Israeli armor.

Here’s where we started. This is the kind of truck the Hagana used to patrol the settlements in Palestine in the 1930s, prior to the War of Independence:

Nodedet truck

And this is an armored car used by the Israelis in 1948:

armored car 1948

This is where we are now:

Merkava IV

That’s a Merkava IV, the main battle chariot of the IDF. In this post we’ll take a look at some of the armor in the middle, including spoils of war the Israelis modified for their use, and then get up close to the Merkava.

In the photograph below we see a US Army M2 Half-Track APC, vintage WWII. The Jews managed to buy about a hundred in the run-up to 1948, and they became the backbone of the defense force in the War of Independence. Many more were purchased subsequently and they’ve been used in all wars for many purposes, including routine security missions, support, ordnance recovery and evacuation.


This is a South African-made Marmon-Herrington MK 4F armored car. These were used by the British and the Jordanians in Mandate-era Palestine. A few were captured by the Israelis in 1948, and one was used to lead the battle for Lod and Ramle. (Lod is now the site of Ben Gurion International Airport.)

Marmon-Herrington MK 4F

The following is an example of a French-made Renault R-35 light tank. These were used by the Syrians to attack Israel at the southern shore of the Sea of Galilee in May 1948. The Israelis captured two.

Renault R-35 light tank

This French-made AMX-13 light tank caused quite a sensation when it debuted in 1949 because it introduced the innovation of putting the engine at the front, with the driver sitting next to it. The IDF bought them in 1956 and it took part in the Sinai campaign, including the battle of Mitla Pass. It was also involved in the Six-Day War.

AMX-13 light tank

The next image shows an AML 90, a French armored car with a 90mm cannon. It’s an interesting vehicle for two reasons: it can move pretty fast (up to 90 km/hr) and it’s light enough to be transported easily on planes, even on heavy helicopters. It was used by Israeli paratroopers during the 1967 war.

AML 90

This next is a Soviet-made, heavy-duty JS-3 Stalin battle tank. They have extremely thick armor and were used by the Soviets to devastating effect against the Germans during WWII. The examples we see here were commissioned by the Egyptians and captured by the Israelis in the Sinai Peninsula during the Six-Day War.

JS-3 Stalin battle tank

Here’s another Stalin battle tank, a JST-34 ARV. This one has a winch-and-spade recovery system mounted to the hull.

Stalin JST-34 ARV

The Soviet-made T-62 you see in the next picture was the most advanced tank the Syrian, Egyptian and Iraqi armies possessed in the 1970s. The Israelis captured quite a few of them intact in 1973 and put them into service after small modifications. The Tiran 6, as this tank was renamed, used a smooth-bore 115mm gun.

Tiran 6

Here we have an M48A3 Patton tank. These were modified by the Israelis to include a 105mm gun, a lower-profile commander’s cupola, and a better communications system. They were critical to the armored effort during the War of Attrition, the Yom Kippur War and Operation Peace for Galilee.

M48A3 Patton tank

Next we have a T55, which was manufactured by the Soviets and the Czechs and used by the Syrians and Egyptians. The IDF captured hundreds during the 1967 and 1973 wars. They were taken in close-to-mint condition, so the IDF modified them (new gun, ammunition, machine guns and communication equipment), gave them a new nickname (Tiran 5), and commissioned them into service.

T55/Tiran 5

Here’s a close-up of the reactive armor the Israelis used to guard against anti-tank missiles during this period. The cassettes contain an explosive layer sandwiched between steel plates. When the missile hits the layer and detonates, it loses its ability to penetrate the tank.

reactive armor

In this next photo you can see the armor mounted on a US-made M60-A1 Blazer, which was the centerpiece of the Israeli armored corps in the 1970s.

M60-A1 Blazer

The chains you see hanging off the front of the M48 A5 Patton tank in the next picture are a mine-detonating system designed by the Soviets and adapted by the Israelis in the late 1970s. When the drum turns, the heavy balls on the ends of the chains detonate any mines in the tank’s path before it can roll over them. (The Israelis employed a similar, British-made mine-detonating system on Sherman tanks in the 1950s.)


In the late 1960s-early 1970s, several events made it clear to the Israelis that the time had come to produce their own armor domestically. In 1969, Britain canceled an agreement to sell state-of-the-art Chieftain tanks to Israel. And in 1973, Israel had the salutary experience of being subjected to a surprise attack. Israel went on to win the war, but the decision that had been taken in the sixties to put R&D into domestic armor became a matter of practical urgency.

Israel Tal, the soldier credited with having essentially written Israeli armor doctrine (i.e., highly mobile and aggressive, with all gunners trained for long-distance shooting), led the development team that produced the home-grown tank you see below, the Merkava I. This tank was first used in combat in Lebanon in 1982.

Merkava IV

The Merkava I was designed above all to protect its occupants. It’s wrapped in very thick, spaced, laminate armor that’s welded on in layers to deflect high explosive anti-tank rounds. The engine and transmission are wedged into the front of the tank so that they, rather than the crew, will take any direct missile that manages to penetrate. The extra space this design opens up inside the tank allows an infantry squad to fit in along with the tank crew. There’s a wide emergency escape hatch at the back, and the tank is equipped with smoke grenades to shield it from view. Note the low raking on the front of the tank, an angle that makes it difficult for missiles to score a hit. The Merkava I has a 105mm M68 main gun and two 7.62mm machine guns for anti-infantry defense, as well as a 60mm mortar on the outside.

The tank in the next picture is the next generation, a Merkava II. It came into service in 1983, following Israel’s incursion into Lebanon, and its modifications reflect lessons learned during that conflict. It’s better suited for urban warfare, for example, and the 60mm mortar was moved inside the hull to prevent the exposure of its operator to close-range small arms fire.

Merkava II

The Merkava III below, which came into service in 1989, was a major upgrade. Among many improvements were the addition of an Israeli-made IMI 120mm gun and a larger-horsepower engine. The tank is heavy, but the bigger engine gives it an improved maximum speed of 60 km/hour. The Merkava III continued to be improved over the next few years; the 1995 version included among its other upgrades a central air conditioning system.

Merkava III

This brings us to the most up-to-date Israeli tank, the Merkava IV. This tank was in development for five years and was brought into service in limited numbers in 2004. It was used more extensively in Lebanon in 2006 and even more so during Cast Lead in Gaza in late 2008-early 2009. This tank has so many upgrades that they would require a separate post, so I’ll highlight just a few. Its armor is optimized for urban combat and it has a removable, V-shaped belly armor pack on the bottom; that extra armor saved the lives of members of tank crews that went over IEDs in Lebanon. The turret contains no tank rounds at all; they’re stored instead in individual fireproof canisters inside the tank. Its 120mm main gun can fire a wider variety of ammunition, and its fire-control system lets it shoot down armored attack helicopters. It’s got special tracks that are designed to withstand the rocky terrain of Lebanon and the Golan Heights, as well as a digital battlefield management system that shares encrypted information among tanks in the theater. It also borrowed some innovations from the Lavi program of the Israeli Air Force that make the tank more difficult to locate on radar.

Merkava IV

In 2006, Hezbollah used a sophisticated array of anti-tank weapons to combat Israeli armor, including state-of-the-art Russian Kornet ATGMs — the first verified instance of their use in combat. (They were apparently smuggled to Hezbollah by Syria, resulting in a complaint by the Israelis to Russia.) Hezbollah damaged 52 Israeli tanks during the 2006 war, 18 of which were Merkava IVs; in five of those Merkavas, the armor had been penetrated. A high proportion of Israeli casualties in the 2006 war were members of tank crews, but the average number of crewmen killed per penetrated tank dropped from previous wars.

Following 2006, battlefield tactics were thoroughly revised, with a greater emphasis on the use of tanks to combat an asymmetric, guerilla enemy. During Cast Lead, a brigade of Merkava IVs bisected the Gaza Strip in five hours. Last month, the IDF added the Trophy active protection system to the Merkava IVs, improving their ability to withstand the tandem-charge heat warheads now found in advanced anti-tank missiles.

Here we see the memorial containing the names of the Israeli soldiers who lost their lives serving their country in the armored corps. The wall contains the name of an old friend of my husband’s from elementary school, who died on the first day of the war in Lebanon in 1982. Our first child is named for him.


I’ll sign off now. Thanks for reading, friends.


Juliette Lewis Channels Betty Draper; Thousands Cheer

Isn’t this encouraging?

Here’s the Juliette Lewis of old:

I am a goddess. I scorn the shaving of armpits and wash my hair with Pine-Sol.

And here she is last night at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Governors Awards ceremony:

I am an elegant star of stage and screen with such impeccable taste that I knew precisely how to underaccessorize this lovely gown. Suck on that, bitches.

This makes me feel just a little bit better about humanity than I did when I woke up this morning. Thank you, Janie Bryant, wherever you are.

Inter-Species Love

Koko the gorilla and kittenNo, I’m not talking about Tea Partiers in Park Slope.

This is a slideshow of animals that have adopted animals of different species. I serve it up to you as a tonic from some of the vitriol being splashed around the news of late. I just finished reading that Obama’s first act on arrival in Indonesia was to slap Israel around a little. There isn’t much new to say about that bad romance right now, so instead, here are some pictures of animals living together in peace and harmony.

UN Reaches New Low

This is vile even by UN standards.

The board of UNESCO (the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) has decided that Rachel’s Tomb and the Cave of the Patriarchs — both of which are ancient Jewish holy places — should be removed from Israel’s list of national sites. And that’s not all. According to UNESCO, Rachel’s Tomb isn’t Jewish after all, despite millenia of history. Its name should accordingly be changed to the Bilal ibn Rabah mosque — a demand the Palestinians manufactured, in the teeth of all historical evidence, in 1996.

You might be interested to read the horrified protests of Nimrod Barkan, the Israeli Ambassador to UNESCO. You can’t, though. They’ve been expunged from the record.

The original instigator of this grotesque insult is Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was quoted in the Saudi press in March as saying that Rachel’s Tomb and the Cave of the Patriarchs “were not and never will be Jewish sites, but Islamic sites.” Obviously they were taking notes on First Avenue.

Israeli PM Bibi Netanyahu issued a rather understated reply to UNESCO: “It is unfortunate that an organization that was established with the goal of promoting the cultural preservation of historical sites around the world is attempting due to political reasons to uproot the connection between the nation of Israel and its cultural heritage.” Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon announced that Israel will cease cooperation with UNESCO, adding that “We should see the organization’s decision to remove the Cave of the Patriarchs and Rachel’s Tomb from the list of Israel’s national sites as part of Palestinian escalation in international organizations.”

This act by UNESCO is more than a slap in Israel’s face. It’s a declaration of war. Even I, secular Jew that I am, understand that Rachel’s Tomb — Rachel’s Tomb, for God’s sake! — is a beloved ancient Jewish site, inseparable from our history. The Jerusalem Post explains:

Rachel’s Tomb is located on the northern outskirts of Bethlehem some 460 meters south of Jerusalem’s municipal boundary. The site has been identified for over 1,700 years as the grave of the Jewish matriarch Rachel. The copious literature of Jewish, Christian and Muslim pilgrims identifies and documents the spot as the place where Rachel is buried.
Many generations of Jews have visited the place for prayer, requests and entreaties. The site has become a sort of Wailing Wall to which Jews come to pour out their hearts and share their troubles and requests with the beloved matriarch, hoping to find solace and healing. Jewish tradition attributes unique and wondrous qualities to Rachel’s tears, and visitors to her grave ask her to cry and pray on their behalf.

For centuries, Arab Muslims — while demanding protection money to keep the site in good repair and extortion for Jewish access to it — explicitly acknowledged that Rachel’s Tomb is a Jewish holy place. That all changed during the 1990s, though, when the Palestinians — no doubt sensing a receptive audience abroad — began to refer to the tomb as a mosque. The Muslim religious authorities adopted the name the Mosque of Bilal ibn Rabah in 1996, and it “eventually took root in Palestinian national discourse.”

A trumped-up case of self-serving historical revisionism? Sure. But if it’s what the Arabs want, it’s the gospel truth. At least according to the UN.

image from the Flickr site קבר רחל אמנו

Ryan Gosling Goes Don Draper

I don’t know whom to thank for this — if it’s the pervasive Mad Men influence or just the welcome winds of change — but this is the most heartening celebrity tranformation I’ve seen in quite a while. I hope it’s a trend.

Here’s actor Ryan Gosling earlier this year:

and here he is at a screening of Blue Valentine this past Saturday:

In a word: Yes. That is what a movie star is supposed to look like. Well done, unseen Hollywood stylist. Long may you prosper.

Grim IDF Reality Check

Oh dear God. I may have to go back to bed and pull the covers over my head.

The blog Israel Matzav (“The Situation in Israel”) has posted excerpts from interviews with two people who know what they’re talking about with regard to Israel’s military readiness. And what they have to say isn’t pretty.

They are Amos Yadlin, former IAF general and the IDF’s outgoing director of military intelligence, and the military historian Dr. Uri Milstein. Here’s Yadlin:

“The next conflict, even if it is limited in scale…will be much bigger, much broader, and with many more casualties than we saw in Operation Cast Lead or the Second Lebanon War.”
Such a conflict, predicted the 59-year old Yadlin, will be played out on two or more fronts; moreover, Israel’s enemies “believe that the only way to overcome Israel’s deterrence is through longrange missile fire and improving air defense capabilities.”
Pulling no punches, Yadlin warned that the cutting-edge anti-aircraft system that Syria has purchased from Russia could send the IDF and IAF’s capabilities “back to their status in the 1970s Suez years. ”

And here’s Milstein:

“I have begun to have my doubts as to whether the IDF is up to the task of defending this country,” Milstein told Arutz 7. “Our enemies have grown stronger, while in some circles, our motivation has fallen. Part of our society is frightened. Even if more people die on their side, they are more willing to sacrifice than we are.”

Milstein, who has long been critical of the IDF and political establishment’s management of Israel’s defense, said that little has changed since the Yom Kippur war…Describing Yadlin’s straightforward presentation of the troubles Israel is facing as “better late than never,” Milstein said that Yadlin, who was military intelligence chief during the Second Lebanon war, had apparently learned a lesson.
…“During the Second Lebanon War we did not achieve our goals of defeating Hizbullah, and instead they grew stronger. During Operation Cast Lead we attempted to strike a death blow to Hamas, but they just got stronger. So, obviously, the situation will be more difficult next time,” he said. Milstein doubts that the IDF will be able to achieve the goals it needs to during the coming war. “Our enemies have gotten much stronger, and they know how to accept losses much better than we can.”

Milstein is well-known for dismissing out of hand the possibility of negotiated lasting peace with any Arab state. He ascribes what he perceives as the IDF’s lack of readiness to the pernicious influence of the left, which is “still convinced that peace will come if we give up Judea and Samaria and the Golan. They probably won’t change their minds even if missiles rain down on Tel Aviv.” He has a political axe to grind, in other words. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t right.

Now I’m going to go breathe into a paper bag.