A Fort of Nine Towers

The Book of the Week is “A Fort of Nine Towers, An Afghan Family Story” by Qais Akbar Omar, published in 2013.

As is well known, the Russians marched into Afghanistan in 1979. The resistance fighters were called the Mujahedin, the Holy Warriors. The Russians had advanced aerial bombs, while the Warriors had old hunting-guns. The Russians left in 1989, but continued to financially support the government until spring 1992; galloping inflation ensued.

The author and his growing family lived in Kabul, of which the Mujahedin then took control. Omar’s father and grandfather ran a lucrative Oriental carpet business. They lived in a multi-generational household, with large families of uncles, aunts and cousins.

At the time Omar began to experience the hardships of war, he was about eight years old. His elementary school stopped teaching the basics of evolution, and began to teach creationism instead. There was no more fear of stray bullets in the streets, but there was a food shortage. The following year, tribal infighting plagued the Mujahedin; rockets fired from above by the different tribes– all Muslim– started to kill people.

Omar’s grandfather’s resistance to change, anger at having his livelihood, property and material possessions stolen, and love of his homeland were largely responsible for his family’s precarious situation, and their traumatic experiences in the coming decades. He insisted the family stay in Afghanistan– to try to protect what they had. He was stripped of the fruits of his life’s work, anyway. Most of their community fled. Omar’s family obeyed the law of Islam by which the females and children obeyed the oldest male relatives.

As the year 1993 progressed and the violence worsened, schools closed and no one went outside for fear of getting hit by sniper bullets, or a rocket-propelled grenade or other weaponry.

In late spring, the declaration of a cease-fire prompted Omar’s father to temporarily evacuate the family from their home in a northwesterly direction over a mountainside to a more peaceful village. They were the only people in their area who had a car.

About four miles away, the closest family members who could fit in the car, were driven to and stayed at the quiet estate of the author’s father’s fabulously wealthy business partner. Until the war came to that neighborhood.

The author, as the oldest son in his immediate family, on a few occasions in the next few years, was invited to accompany his grandfather or his father in a return to their old property to see how it was doing, and perhaps to dig up the gold they had buried in the garden there before they left. Those were harrowing, emotionally and physically hurtful episodes with gruesome scenes and near-death experiences.

For, the war had turned illiterate young Muslim men into sociopathic sadists with weaponry. The hatred among different tribes knew no bounds. On the streets, ragged, begging children were used as decoys for hidden robbers who might also commit rape if passersby stopped to help.

“Panjshiris and Hazaras were supposed to stop launching the rockets at each other that had come from the Americans to be used by the Mujahedin against the Russians. But the Russians were defeated and long gone.”

In September 1996, a new tribe, the Taliban– supplied with weapons by Pakistan– was wreaking havoc in Kabul. Omar’s grandfather described them thusly: “They capture a village and torture people and club them to death, then afterwards ask the young boys to do the same to their parents. They tell the young boys that this will make a man of them.”

The Taliban held public executions of thieves, prostitutes, murderers and gays. They enforced their own draconian version of observance of Islam. After a while, though, people at least knew what to expect. The trains ran on time.

Read the book to learn how the author and his family survived in this extremely suspenseful, emotionally-charged cautionary tale whose moral is this: early evacuation of a region with a history of civil war, whose violence is flaring up again, is advisable.

Where the Wind Leads/The Fox Hunt

The Books of the Week are “Where the Wind Leads, A Memoir” by Vinh Chung With Tim Downs, published in 2014; “The Fox Hunt, A Refugee’s Memoir of Coming to America” by Mohammed Al Samawi, published in 2018.

Both authors told suspenseful, extremely extreme, long, complicated refugee horror stories, in which they had great good luck on several occasions, and in which certain people took tremendous risks by providing the authors with invaluable assistance that saved their lives.

Born in South Vietnam in December 1975, the author of the former book helpfully, briefly described his homeland’s history three decades before his birth.

The author’s family was Chinese– neither enemies nor friends of the French, Viet Minh, or Khmer Rouge. However, in the 1940’s, the author’s father’s family’s house in the Mekong Delta had been burned to the ground twice, anyway. There was a higher risk of a Viet Minh invasion in the French territory farther north, where the family moved.

As is well known, in the mid-1950’s the French were militarily defeated by the Viet Minh– Communists– and kicked out of their colony Indochina in Southeast Asia. Thereafter, Vietnam was split into north and south. Different ethnic groups migrated toward the side where they numbered in the majority: Communists, north; Catholics and Buddhists, south.

The Khmer Rouge, comprised of Cambodians, continued to ally with the French for decades. By the late 1950’s, the author’s father had become a draft dodger, fleeing to Cambodia to avoid having to fight against the Viet Minh. In 1960, Ho Chi Minh’s militia, the National Liberation Front, was attempting to reunite North and South Vietnam. The Viet Minh was renamed Viet Cong by the United States.

Over decades, the author’s maternal grandmother began a rice-processing business that flourished. By the mid-1970’s, it had a couple of mills, a fleet of trucks, warehouses, etc. It actually benefited from America’s Vietnam War.

The family matriarch hired a matchmaker to marry off her son (the author’s father), born in 1937. He was still sowing his wild oats in his late twenties. Traditionally, both prospects’ families went on a date with the prospects. Then they saw a fortune teller.

The author’s mother was the daughter of a Chinese servant girl of a wealthy household. When she moved to her husband’s house, she had to shop daily for the fast-growing multi-generational household, because they didn’t have a refrigerator. But, since she was expected to become a baby-maker in addition to all of her other responsibilities– she was permitted to hire a teenage nanny with every additional child.

The author’s birth made five. Three more were quickly added, while the author’s father’s mistress had four. The two major philosophies of the family’s culture were filial piety and ancestor worship. Living in the South, their religion combined aspects of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. That changed when the Viet Cong attacked the Mekong Delta. The author’s family’s life was disrupted forever, as their business and real and personal property were stolen.

Due to the Vietnam government’s war against the Chinese that started in February 1979, the ever-growing Chung family became “boat people” in June. Read the book to learn of the family’s ordeal, adjustment to a brand new life, and the author’s explanation for what gave rise to his own extraordinary achievements.

Born in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen in 1986, the author of the latter book helpfully, briefly described the recent history of his homeland.

In 1987, a Sunni-Muslim group named the Muslim Brotherhood formed another group, Hamas. They were supported by Saudi Arabia, southern Yemen, Iraq and another group that formed later, Al Qaeda. Their enemies were Shia Muslims, who are the majority in Iran and northern Yemen.

In the 1980’s and 1990’s, the author’s Shia-Muslim family lived in a peaceful neighborhood in Sana’a in northern Yemen, where everyone got along fine. He had two older and two younger siblings. His parents were trained as medical doctors; his prominent father worked for a military hospital.

Al Samawi’s parents believed in education, but were extremely devout Muslims. So his parents were thrilled when, as an adolescent, he donated all his lunch money to the Muslim Brotherhood when the group (who were pushing pan-Arabism at the time) visited his private, well-funded grammar school.

However, the teachers preached nonstop hatred against Jews and Christians. The Quran was their authority on that. Besides, they said Hitler was a hero for killing Jews, and the Jews’ books were “dirty, amoral, sinful, impure, demonic.”

In 2000, TV propaganda in Yemen claimed that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Israel was ordering the killing of innocent Palestinians, such as a young boy (who became a poster boy to incite Yemen), for no reason. The haters ignited in most Yemenis additional hatred against the Jews and Israel’s backers, such as the United States.

Eight years later, the author thought he was falling in love at university. But his filial piety put the kibosh on that. His mother did a background check on his prospective girlfriend, and found she wasn’t good enough for her son, and given their situations, she was probably a gold digger. His father also pressured him to end the budding relationship, by offering him a car and a job if his parents could fulfill the traditional Muslim route of choosing a bride for him. He caved in to their browbeating.

However, the next chapter in the author’s life proved to be most educational. He met an inspirational British instructor at his English-language school. Surprisingly, the author’s parents were allowing their son to study English. Al Samawi and his teacher exchanged gifts (the Quran and the Bible, respectively) to try to proselytize the other one. Each dogmatically believed that his own religion was the only right one to practice, else they would go to hell upon their deaths. Then a funny thing happened.

The teacher horrified Al Samawi by telling him he’d been hoodwinked– Al Samawi had unknowingly been reading the (Jewish!) Old Testament, having started at the beginning of the book. The stories’ morals and precepts were largely similar to those in the Quran(!)

In the next several years, Al Samawi became sufficiently open-minded to try to clear up his own confusion between what he’d been taught by his parents and Yemen’s culture, and what he was learning on Facebook and from his jobs at cross-cultural peacemaking organizations and international aid organizations.

From the start of Yemen’s religious civil war in 2015, Al Samawi found himself in a life-threatening, harrowing situation for several months. In one particular instance, he wrote, “Thirty minutes later, I jumped in the back of the black sedan. I didn’t call my mom. I didn’t say goodbye. I didn’t pay the hotel.”

Read the book to learn the details of how Al Samawi’s friends in high places went to extraordinary lengths to change his fate, through thrilling plot twists and turns.

Freedom At Midnight

The Book of the Week is “Freedom At Midnight” by Larry Collins and Dominique LaPierre, published in 1975.

In August 1946, Muslims filled the streets in Calcutta, agitating for an independent nation of their own, presumably to be named Pakistan. Six thousand people died in that one episode of unrest. Many, many more would, in the next two and a half turbulent years.

Some journalists would feature the following information more prominently than the above: “Golf was introduced in Calcutta in 1829… No golf bag was considered more elegant on those courses than one made of an elephant’s penis, provided of course, that its owner had shot the beast himself.”

Anyway, as is well known, India has had a long history of violence among Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. Through the decades, various place-names have triggered traumatic memories of copious arson, bombs, bloodshed and atrocities in regions including but far from limited to: Amritsar, the Punjab, Lahore, Peshawar, Kashmir, and New Delhi.

The British have had a long history of encouraging jealousies and hostilities among the different religious and ethnic groups in India so as to prevent them from forming a united nation.

The authors of this book provided horribly confusing totals of the different populations. They wrote that in 1947, India had three hundred million Hindus and one hundred million Muslims, and “… the contested state of four hundred million human beings…” In two other places, they wrote that the Punjab had two million Sikhs, and “The six million Sikhs to whom… they represented only two percent of India’s population…”

In another section,”He [Mohammed Ali Jinnah] had to tell India’s ninety million Muslims of the ‘momentous decision’ to create an Islamic state…” Still elsewhere, all of India allegedly held 275 million Hindus, fifty million Muslims, seven million Christians, six million Sikhs, one hundred thousand Parsis and 24,000 Jews.

Regardless, from the 1920’s through the 1940’s, a man named Gandhi acquired sufficient psychological power over his followers– fervent believers in their respective religions– to momentarily stop killing each other and work toward the common goal of convincing the British government that it was time to give up its colony of India.

Gandhi was able to work his magic because his incredible self-control showed him to be no hypocrite (according to his crack public relations team). He took the action of a true activist— risking his life in fasting (and seriously endangering his health) practicing what he preached (according to his crack public relations team).

Nevertheless, even Gandhi could not come up with a less acrimonious plan– to allow India to evolve as a nation via dividing the peoples who couldn’t live together– than partition. Arguably, he merely postponed the deaths, rather than saved the lives of the different tribes hellbent on eliminating their enemies. India’s caste system’s abusive hierarchy meant that, other than willful violence, the causes of hundreds of thousands of deaths included starvation, disease and severe weather.

However, giving Muslims their own state would mean allocating land in India to Pakistan (with a partition), that would need to be vacated by millions of Sikhs and Hindus, while land in the new India would need to be vacated by Muslims. Those who found themselves in hostile territory– out of fear, were compelled to migrate to where they would number among the majority in their communities.

The division of India into two sovereign states was like the vivisection of Siamese twins– vital organs would be mutilated in the process. Rice, jute, cotton, wheat, barley, corn and sugar cane were grown in one prospective country, but the means of growing, processing or transporting them for export, in the form of irrigation, railroads and highways was contained in the other prospective country.

Louis Mountbatten was the British government official appointed to oversee the process of converting India from a colony of Great Britain to two independent nations. He had a thankless, impossible job.

For, in addition to the complex religious, economic and political considerations involved, there were royal families ruled by maharajahs (of all different religions) to contend with; 565 administrations of them, to be exact. They lived high on the hog, and weren’t keen to relinquish their precious stones, elephants, private railway cars, Rolls Royces, etc. Some even had their own armies– yet another wrench in the works.

Mountbatten thought the least painful plan was to keep India and Pakistan as holdings of the United Kingdom. He decided that midnight of August 15, 1947 was to be the witching hour– when the partition would take effect. Astrologers, who were all the rage in India then, were quite shaken by that decision because by their calculations, that day was bad luck and another day should have been chosen.

On another topic, the new India and Pakistan had to have separate armies. The current Indian army was comprised of the cream of the crop of Sandhurst graduates, whose costs were low, pay was high, and who engaged in leisure pursuits of the wealthy– polo, cricket, pigsticking, shooting, hockey, hunting with hounds, and fishing. However, if a soldier who chose the Indian Army, happened to live in the future Pakistan, he was forced to either join the Pakistani army, or abandon his property and move away from his family.

The way Pakistan’s geographical borders were established was accomplished via an unbiased redistricting process, of sorts. Mountbatten appointed an attorney who knew nothing about India’s ethnic and religious groups, whose job was to pore over scads of population data and maps of the region, and indiscriminately divide it up.

Unjust division of families and real estate was bound to happen, but it was inadvertent. Curiously, “All of Punjab’s jails wound up in Pakistan. So too did its unique insane asylum.”

Read the book to learn how the major leaders warded off anarchy during the independence processes; how Gandhi quelled hostilities at least temporarily in Calcutta on Pakistan’s birthday; what transpired in connection with the Hindu (!) terrorist group who had it in for Gandhi (who was Hindu); and the details of the transposition of the “wretched refugees” (hint– 800,000 refugees in the Punjab [alone(!)] constituted “… a caravan almost mind-numbing in dimension… as though all of Boston, every man, woman and child [that’s not including animals– bullocks, buffaloes, camels, horses, ponies, sheep, etc.] in the city in 1947, had been forced by some prodigious tragedy to flee on foot to New York.”).

No Room For Small Dreams / Rabin / My Country, My Life (Very Long Post)

The First Book of the Week is “No Room for Small Dreams–Courage, Imagination, and the Making of Modern Israel” by Shimon Peres, published in 2017. This is the autobiography of the late prime minister (in the mid-1980’s) of Israel.

Born in 1923, Peres spent the first decade of his life in a shtetl on the Russia/Poland border. In 1934, his (Jewish) family moved to Palestine seeking religious freedom. At fifteen years old, he put his natural leadership skills to good use at the kibbutz Ben-Shemen. The institution was like boarding school, but it emphasized the teaching of skills for agriculture and use of weaponry more than academic subjects.

In 1941, Peres moved to Kibbutz Alumot, where he herded sheep amid olive and date groves. The youths there lived in tents lacking electricity and indoor plumbing.

After WWII, when the Jews were pushing for statehood, Peres became a disciple of David Ben Gurion. He favored a partition between Jews and Arabs in the Holy Land. In 1947, Ben Gurion recruited him for the Haganah, one of the intelligence services of Palestine. However, his lack of fluency in the English language was a handicap. This was remedied in June 1949, when he began to attend the New School for Social Research in New York City. Three years later, he and his family moved back to Israel, where he took a position in the Defense Ministry, and assisted with the founding of El Al Airlines.

In the early 1950’s, neither Great Britain nor the United States was in the mood to sell arms to Israel. Peres found an unexpected supplier in France. In addition, in the summer of 1957, France allegedly mentored Israel in the manufacture of nuclear weapons. In connection therewith, Peres claimed that he planned and organized the construction of a top-secret corporate village in the Negev desert near Beersheba to give the world the impression that Israel was a superpower.

In 1959, the author was elected to the Knesset and also kept a position in the Defense Ministry. In the 1973 Yom Kippur war, Egypt and Syria limited the spoils of their victory to territory they lost in the 1967 Six-Day war. According to the author, in the 1973 war, Egypt’s leader, Anwar Sadat refrained from attacking Israel’s central cities for fear it would retaliate with weapons of mass destruction. Apparently, threat of retaliation was not a deterrent to small-time terrorist groups, such as the PLO, who intermittently killed the Jewish state’s citizens, a few at a time, for decades.

Nevertheless, read the book to learn of Peres’ brilliant political career (according to him) as an economic genius and peacemaker with Jordan and the PLO. Yet, Peres admits he played the former role thanks to Israel’s cozy relationship with the United States. Yassir Arafat could not really guarantee and did not take responsibility for, violence perpetrated by the organization he headed; foolish Peres failed to take heed of the following cliche: “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”

The Second Book of the Week is “Rabin, Our Life, His Legacy” by Leah Rabin, published in 1997.

Born in April 1928 in Prussia, Leah Rabin met her husband Yitzhak in Palestine’s co-ed military intelligence service– the Palmach– in the 1940’s. The group was actually a secret society because it was deemed illegal by the British authorities.

In Palestine, the author and her beloved lived in a kibbutz or a tent and did farming, herding, hiking and jogging. And firearms training, not to mention military-attack drills. In the summer of 1946, due to Leah’s sixth sense about imminent danger, she avoided getting arrested by the British, but Yitzhak was caught. However, the weaponry hidden in the women’s body cavities went undiscovered because frisking of females by the authorities was chivalrous in those days.

In 1948, after spending more than four months in jail, Yitzhak became a commander in the Harel Brigade, one of three newly formed Palmach divisions. The group became part of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF)– the Israeli military– in 1949. Ten years later, Yitzhak was chief of operations of the IDF.

David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel (which achieved its independence in spring 1948), belonged to the Mapai (Labor) party.  Yitzhak didn’t, and therefore Ben-Gurion favored other men over him when he staffed his government and formulated military policy.

In November 1963, the Rabins made a diplomatic visit to the United States. Just after they returned to Israel, they learned that President John F. Kennedy was dead. “Yitzhak… had just completed an intensive study of state-of-the-art defense and security practices from the most powerful nation in the world, and suddenly we learned that this country’s chief executive was slain by a lone gunman.”

Shortly thereafter, Yitzhak took a break from military matters to become a social butterfly– an ambassador to the U.S., from Israel. Such a lifestyle involves having cocktails, attending parties, making small talk and gossip mongering. In 1973, Yitzhak tried his hand at elective office. He won a seat in the Knesset in the Labor party, and an appointment as Minister of Labor.

In April 1974, Golda Meir felt obligated to resign as Israel’s fifth Prime Minister due to the mishandling of the Yom Kippur war, which had occurred about six months prior. Yitzhak was voted in as her replacement. He was battered about by political contentiousness and decided after three years to resign his Prime Minister post. He remained a member of the Knesset, though. Political comebacks are not uncommon in Israel. Yitzhak staged his in the autumn of 1984. He became the Minister of Defense.

That was when the Mapai and Likud (Conservative) parties merged in order to form a major voting bloc. The new entity was called the National Unity Party. In 1985, Yitzhak helped supervise the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Jordan. He became Prime Minister again in 1992.

In the first half of the 1990’s, Yitzhak Rabin sat down at the negotiating table with Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasir Arafat. Many people thought Arafat was a terrorist who led a terrorist group and would never be trustworthy, and Yitzhak was being way too nice.

Further, U.S. president Bill Clinton, the mediator of the peace talks, had a credibility problem. So– it was kind of like a diplomatic charade because sincerity wasn’t a strong suit of at least two of the three parties there. Further, regardless of the ulterior motives of the three parties involved– history had already shown grave doubts as to whether durable agreements could be reached between the two centuries-long rivals.

Israel had previously had a policy of refusing to negotiate with terrorists such as Arafat and had refused to meet with them under any circumstances. However, Rabin believed in appeasement of the Egyptians and Jordanians as well. He was willing to hear them out and sign documents that were supposed to foster peace in the Middle East. In this way, he garnered a lot of political enemies. Ironically, he was shot at a peace rally.

Read the book to learn the details of what transpired, the aftermath (especially the aftermath– through Leah’s eyes) and many more details of Israeli history and Rabin’s role in it.

The Third Book of the Week is “My Country, My Life– Fighting for Israel, Searching for Peace” by Ehud Barak, published in 2018.

Born in 1942 in one of the early kibbutzim– Mishmar Hasharon– the small village north of Tel Aviv, Barak pursued a military career from the 1960’s into the 1980’s, alternating it with his education. He led special forces on secret missions. He eventually earned a degree in physics from Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and a master’s degree in operations management from Stanford University.

Barak seemed a bit resentful about Israel’s dependence on the United States for its very existence; for, when describing the Yom Kippur War, he omitted the inconvenient fact that the United States sent weapons to Israel when the nation’s ability to defend itself was in serious doubt.

Barak began his political career in summer 1995 when he joined Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s cabinet. At his first vote, he abstained, holding onto his belief that Israel’s withdrawal from the occupied territories pursuant to the Oslo agreements was the wrong thing to do.

However, during peace talks with Syria, Barak thought the major question was whether, if Israel were to withdraw from the Golan Heights, it could still have a secure border. As a former (military) chief of staff, he argued in the affirmative.

In late winter and spring 1996 during election season, the terrorist group Hamas tried to reduce Shimon Peres’ chances of an election victory by killing tens of Israelis in terrorist attacks. It and Islamic Jihad viewed him as a traitor for conducting negotiations with Yasser Arafat. Peres was forced to retire at 73 years old.

In June 1996, Barak was elected leader of Israel’s Labor Party. It seemed Barak changed his tune and wanted to comply with the Oslo accords in the next couple of years. He got angry at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for delaying Israel’s withdrawal from the occupied territories. Netanyahu was desperate for power, and withdrawal was politically unpopular.

In summer 1999, Barak was elected prime minister. In May 2000, he ordered the departure of Israeli troops from Lebanon, despite the shenanigans of the PLO in its territorial / recognition / non-belligerence discussions with the Israelis. He rambled on for page after page, detailing the summer 2000 back-and-forth with Arafat, still moderated by U.S. President Bill Clinton.

Arafat turned out to be a tease for two weeks (before Barak realized he’d been played for a fool)– not budging an inch, not counter-offering any concessions while Barak bent over backwards to offer the Palestinians sovereignty over East Jerusalem, a large portion of the occupied territories and the holy sites.

Barak lost his reelection bid in 2001, so he retired. Read the book to learn more about Barak’s life, his views on various political issues, the current situation regarding the Israelis and Palestinians, and Netanyahu’s leadership.

ENDNOTE: A distracting grammatical error that is becoming more and more widespread was made repeatedly throughout the book (the word before the gerund should be possessive):

“Though I wasn’t sure about legal provisions for officers leaving the army…” [It should be officers’ leaving the army]

“What were the prospects of Arafat reining in Hamas and Islamic Jihad?” [It should be Arafat’s reining in …]

34 Days – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “34 Days, Israel, Hezbollah, and the War in Lebanon” by Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff, published in 2008. This book described the summer 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon, during which about a thousand people died.

In 1982, Israel launched a war with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to drive it out of Lebanon. Hezbollah started to arrive there after the PLO left. President Ronald Reagan of the United States– which for years had been an intermediary truce-negotiating party to Middle Eastern unrest– put discussions about foreign troop withdrawal (Syrian, American, Israeli) from Lebanon on the back burner after that first war ended.

Hezbollah, comprised of Shiites, a sect of Islam, originally formed in Iran. It acquired power in the Lebanese government by electing Parliamentarians beginning in 1992. The group was allowed to keep its weaponry through the years, even though it was allegedly provoking border skirmishes by abducting soldiers.

The second war started in mid-July 2006, when Israel reacted with exaggerated hostility to the abduction of two soldiers by Hezbollah terrorists at the Lebanese border. The Israeli military wanted to entirely wipe out the terrorist group.

Ehud Olmert– Israeli president since 2000, and the “defense” minister he appointed, Amir Peretz, went hog-wild. They agreed with hawkish military leaders to not only take out Hezbollah’s Syrian-supplied Katyusha rockets on the ground before they could be deployed, but to blast transportation, media and energy hubs in Lebanon with sophisticated weaponry, knowing this action would kill many civilians.

Arab states nearby (but not Syria)– Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf Emirates– were silently cheering for Israel to take out Hezbollah, a move related to preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. The West chastised Israel for its aggression, although it itself was at that moment continuing to violate the Geneva Convention in Iraq, etc.

Read the book to learn details of the unnecessary parting shot at the war’s end taken by Israel, which handled the war incompetently at best and evilly at worst, that caused many needless deaths (especially civilian), with, unsurprisingly, “… both sides racing to ensure their victory and to perpetuate their own narrative of the war” to the media and the public.

Bitter Scent – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “Bitter Scent, The Case of L’Oreal, Nazis and the Arab Boycott” by Michael Bar-Zohar, published in 1996.

The complicated history that led up to the situation which monster-sized international health-and-beauty-aids company L’Oreal faced in 1989 was most ironic. It dated back to the start of WWII, when two future executives of L’Oreal and Francois Mitterand (future president of France) became good friends, Nazi collaborators– pro-Vichy propagandists and sabotage-plotters, and then, when the tide of the war changed in 1943, allies of the Allies.

In March 1989, Jean Frydman (Israeli and French citizen, Jew, and former member of the WWII French Resistance,) was vice president of Paravision, his film distribution company. Unbeknownst to him, he resigned from the board of directors of Paravision in a fait-accompli by L’Oreal executives. He was ousted in absentia because he had business dealings in Israel.

Various business entities had significant financial interests in others, among them, Paravision, L’Oreal (based in a Paris suburb) and its international subsidiaries, Columbia Pictures, Nestle and Coca-Cola. L’Oreal executives felt the need to comply with a troublesome policy called the “Arab boycott” — considered ethically repugnant by non-Arab industrialized nations. L’Oreal executives were willing to go through a tremendous amount of trouble (most of which they didn’t anticipate) to comply with the boycott to enhance their business interests, but also arguably, because they were anti-Semitic.

The boycott imposed by the Arab League began in 1948 to financially strangle Israel by banning companies that did business with Israel, from doing business with any Arab countries. L’Oreal needed to get Frydman out of the way so it could say it did no business with Israel. But besides, there was a big-name cosmetics company called Helena Rubinstein located in Israel, with which L’Oreal was affiliated. The Arabs were pressuring L’Oreal to dispose of that asset as well, before it allowed lucrative trade with their side.

When Frydman was gobsmacked by his fellow executives and learned that top people at L’Oreal (including its founder) had been Nazi collaborators, hilarity did not ensue. Instead, an orgy of litigation, fishing expeditions, political machinations, palace intrigue, and of course, a propaganda war did.

Read the book to learn the details of this suspenseful, sordid story.

Menachem Begin

The Book of the Week is “Menachem Begin, The Battle for Israel’s Soul” by Daniel Gordis, published in 2014. This career biography described how Begin advanced from Zionist pioneer to Israeli prime minister. It was redundant in spots- as though the author thought the reader might have memory loss or distractions while reading, or perhaps it was just sloppy editing.

Anyway, Begin was born in 1913 in Brest-Litovsk– then a region in Poland. In the 1920’s, he joined a youth group called Betar, a Zionist group led by Vladimir Jabotinsky. While there, Begin developed his speaking and writing skills. In 1939, Jabotinsky appointed him Commander of the group’s seventy thousand members in Poland.

For his anti-Communist political activities, in 1940, Begin was arrested by the Soviet secret service and sentenced to eight years of hard labor. He had just gotten married, too. There, but for the grace of WWII, by September 1941, Begin was out of prison and starting the next chapter of his life. He joined the Free Polish Army (a military group from Poland, not no-cost cleaning fluid).

Just before Begin turned thirty, he was already making his way to Palestine. In the first half of the twentieth century, scholarliness on Jewish statehood was all the rage. Three major documents outlined three different possibilities for what to do with Palestine in the future. They were:  the 1917 Balfour Declaration, the 1937 Peel Commission’s paper, and the 1939 MacDonald White Paper. Zionists were conflicted. The British were their enemy in Palestine but would be their ally fighting against the Nazis.

Begin decided the British were foes because they opposed allowing Jewish refugees– which included his own parents– to flee to Palestine, or settle there after WWII. Toward the end of the war, he led an armed rebel group (the Etzel, aka Irgun) who rivaled David Ben Gurion’s (the Haganah). The latter thought that the Jews would be unable to achieve statehood without help from the British.

Begin planned a bomb attack on a British-intelligence-documents storage area (namely, the King David Hotel) in Jerusalem in July 1946. The two other major underground resistance groups called off the operation. Due to a cluster screw-up, the explosion occurred, anyway. Civilians of various ethnic groups died, including tens of Englishmen, Arabs and Jews; 92 civilians in all.

Ben-Gurion caused a days-long international incident, when he ordered his henchmen to intercept a Palestine-bound, refugee-and-arms smuggling ship that had sailed from France. Begin knew about the ship but there was miscommunication over where the ship was, when. Ben-Gurion launched a vicious propaganda attack on Begin for atrocities his own men committed while trying to comply with the law against Palestine’s accepting arms and refugees. Jews killed Jews (!) Begin told his men not to be vengeful– to cede to Haganah’s demands.

Ben-Gurion used draconian means to consolidate the several military outfits into one Israeli military, and successfully slurred Begin’s name in the process. This hampered Begin’s ability to raise funds for his new political party, Herut (Freedom).

Read the book to learn of major issues on which Begin and Ben-Gurion disagreed; how Begin’s political career progressed; his views on Israel’s people and lands; his aggressive action with regard to Lebanon, and Iraq’s nuclear program; and the consequences of his always dogmatically “playing the Jewish card” to keep Israel in existence.

For Jersualem

The Book of the Week is “For Jerusalem, A Life” by Teddy Kollek, with his son, Amos Kollek, published in 1978. Kollek was best known for his mayorship of Jerusalem from 1965 to 1993.

Born in a small village near Budapest in May 1911, Kollek was an athletic bibliophile as a child. When he was eleven, he began joining Zionist youth movements and for the next decade, traveled to Czechoslovakia, Romania and Germany. His grades in high school were poor; he graduated only at the behest of his parents. His father had been an Austrian army officer during WWI, then became an operations manager for the Rothschilds. Most of the Jewish bourgeoisie voted for the Social Democratic party in Austria.

As a true Zionist, Kollek wanted to move to Palestine. He put his name on the waiting list of the Zionist Organization, and was finally granted permission to go the promised land in spring 1935. Once he got there in 1936, he almost had “buyer’s remorse” after suffering a series of illnesses– typhus, malaria, sandfly fever and typhoid, almost dying in a British hospital.

Nonetheless, Kollek was granted Palestine citizenship. Shortly thereafter, he bestowed the same on his Austrian girlfriend by marrying her. He served as village headman in the kibbutz of Ein Gev in the Jordan Valley for a little more than a year. Playing well with the British, he would ride a horse around the mountains all day. Nearby tribes included the Bedouins and Cherkessians. The new Zionist settlers lived in shacks and had a communal shower.

In autumn 1938, Kollek supervised a different youth group in England. He also acted as an intermediary between the German and British authorities to let a few thousand Zionist teenagers become farm workers in England, as there was a shortage of them. He did the same for Austria and the British, negotiating with Adolf Eichmann.

Due to the Anschluss in March 1938, Kollek’s parents and brother moved to Palestine. At the start of WWII, Kollek assured the safe transport of contraband arms and people from Syria to Palestine. For the rest of the war, Kollek worked in British intelligence, and then coordinated smuggling operations for the Jewish Agency.

In 1941, David Ben-Gurion thought that Jews in the United States, rather than those in Great Britain, would provide the major impetus ideologically and financially to spur the creation of a Jewish state. He turned out to be correct.

The date May 14, 1948 saw legalization of transport of arms and people to Israel, as it officially achieved sovereignty. Prior to that, there was honor among thieves, according to the author. “In those days, everybody lived frugally and was so utterly devoted, without thinking of himself that we had complete confidence in one another.”

Even so, in the early 1950’s, the new nation had to rob Peter to pay Paul to fund itself, selling bonds and obtaining loans from American banks. And the FBI tailed all of the Jewish freedom fighters, even after independence.

Thanks to a business loan secured with Kollek’s assistance, the Israeli government was able to own and operate a retail chain store, Maskit, which sold handicrafts made by Israelis, co-founded by Moshe Dayan’s wife.

In summer 1952, Kollek was appointed to a position with a lofty title, to serve as a coordinator among government ministries in Prime Minister Ben-Gurion’s administration. In the mid-1950’s, the country obtained financing from gentiles for agricultural research and social and educational projects.

A decade later, Kollek was elected mayor of Jerusalem. His Labor party displaced the Mapai party, which had been the dominant one for years. The mindset of the older generation of (federal) Cabinet members could not shaken– even by Kollek– that they were the caretakers of agricultural collectives, rather than a nation that had become more than three quarters urbanized.

About once a month, Mayor Kollek wanted to resign. Nevertheless, he claimed to have made Jerusalem a better place in numerous ways. The previous mayor had failed to stop Orthodox Jews from throwing rocks at the Mandelbaum Gate because Jordanian Christians in buses en route to religious journeys were disrupting their Sabbath. Kollek’s solution was to bar traffic around Jewish houses of worship on Saturdays.

Perhaps Kollek accomplished so much and was reelected so many times because he lacked the politician’s mentality of expecting the kind of reciprocity that leads to patronage. He truly cared about improving the lives of his fellow Jerusalemites, rather than horse-trading only insofar as to acquire more power or funding.

In sum, Kollek wrote, “Being mayor is the most varied, absorbing, sometimes aggravating (sic), but still the most satisfying job in the world, and while I’m at it, I’ll work as hard as I can, eat as much as I want, and shout at whomever I please.”

Read the book to learn the role radio played in the 1950’s in the lives of Egyptians and Israelis; what Kollek did: for Israel’s tenth anniversary celebration, in the founding of the Israel Museum, during the Six Day and Yom Kippur Wars, with regard to the Western Wall, and much more.

Code Name “Mary” – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “Code Name ‘Mary’ – Memoir of an American Woman in the Austrian Underground” by Muriel Gardiner, published in 1983.

Born in 1901 in Chicago, the author inherited significant wealth from her father’s meat-packing business. However, her father died when she was twelve.

By the early 1920’s, the author, fluent in European languages, was studying in Rome. She was also active in the Socialist Defense League, an underground anti-Fascist political group. In October 1922, when the Fascists marched into the city, she and her friends didn’t take them seriously.

By the late 1920’s, she had moved to Vienna. It was a socialist city, with affordable housing, “…absence of slums, the clean streets, the well tended parks, and the beautiful Wienerwald – the Vienna Woods.” The people were pushing for national health insurance, “… something most Americans then considered absolutely immoral.”

There were then two major political parties in Austria. Each had their own militia. In July 1927, a literal battle between them resulted in a hundred deaths in protests, and the burning down of the Ministry of Justice.

The author was a social butterfly, traveling around Europe in the decades after she graduated from Wellesley College. She kept in touch with some of her fellow alumnae, and spoke with university students of different nations, such as Finland, Hungary and Bulgaria.

At a social gathering in Moscow in August 1932, they all thought Hitler was a harmless buffoon. Americans were too self-absorbed to worry about some clown an ocean away because they had their own serious financial troubles. The European students speculated that the Communists would take over Germany by 1933. Of course, compared to the author, they had grown up in an insular world, had read only Russian propaganda, and were engaging in wishful thinking.

Gardiner’s ultimate career goal was to become a teacher, but also a psychoanalyst in America. At that time, a medical degree (!) was required for the latter in the United States. The author had been psychoanalyzed by a disciple of Freud in Vienna, and become interested in the subject.

When Gardiner began medical school in the autumn of 1932, the anatomy department consisted of two separate sections: Jews and Socialists (some of whom were American), and Nazis. The latter physically attacked the former on various occasions. Because they could.

In the May 1932 election in Austria, Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss formed a Christian Socialist government. Nonetheless, having only one vote’s majority over the Nazis and Social Democrats, he still had to play nice with them.

By March 1933, power had gone to Dollfuss’s head. He declared a national emergency so that he could rule autocratically. He allied with Mussolini because France and England didn’t assist him with trying to head off the Anschluss. By the end of the year, there was only one political party in Austria.

The author’s social set, members of the underground, worked as clerks and posed as patrons at the local library so that they could convey seditious messages on slips of paper in the books they checked out.

In November 1937, many of the author’s contacts were arrested. Her boyfriend, whom she later married, escaped arrest because he happened to be out of town. The group recruited new members.

On a Friday night in March 1938, the Austrian government announced that the Anschluss was going into effect, in a live speech and via radio. “The noise of the low-flying planes together with the blaring of loudspeakers on the streets was deafening.”

The author was caught unawares and became quite agitated because she had illegal literature in her apartment. She burned some and flushed some down the toilet. Fortunately, that morning, she had withdrawn a lot of money, including American greenbacks from the local bank. She also had a large account in the Netherlands.

Gardiner served as an intermediary in helping get fake passports for members of the resistance movement to flee Austria. In mid-June 1938, Jews weren’t allowed to graduate alongside Aryans from Vienna Medical School. Their ceremony was postponed. It was a Nazi university, and the graduates had to salute Hitler with the raised arm.

Read the book to learn how Gardiner, her boyfriend and daughter fared during those turbulent years and beyond.

The Shadow President

The Book of the Week is “The Shadow President, The Truth about Mike Pence” by Michael D’Antonio and Peter Eisner, published in 2018.

Born in 1959 in Columbus, Indiana (yes), Pence was the third oldest of six children. He was a champion debater in high school. He lost two Congressional races starting in 1990. After his second loss, he wrote a public statement admitting to his negative campaigning but neither repented nor apologized. He hosted a radio show, then a TV show.

Pence served twelve years in Congress beginning in 2001 and four years as Indiana’s governor before getting elected vice president of the United States in 2016.

The first thing Pence did as governor was pass a tax cut for “Hoosiers” (as he calls people from his state), but he exaggerated its benefits. He had epic fails in connection with forming public/private partnerships and refusing to: fund healthcare initiatives in Indiana and to pardon a man who was wrongly imprisoned for ten years. “At worst, he [Pence] was a powerful official willing to inflict pain on an innocent man in order to show he was tough on crime.”

People who worked with Pence said he wasn’t intellectual and didn’t take the work seriously. He did travel abroad extensively, however, suggesting he was hankering for higher office.

He is a radical conservative Christian right-winger; others of his ilk include President Donald Trump’s appointees– the heads of various federal agencies. They attend Bible study sessions.

Pence believes in predestination, and his hero is the late convicted Watergate criminal Charles Colson. His views are as follows: virulently anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-big government, anti-national healthcare, pro-charter schools, pro-privatization of government entitlements, pro-tax cuts, pro-reducing the deficit, pro-financial aid for Israel, pro-NRA, and pro-trade agreements like NAFTA.

According to the book, Pence is involved with a secretive Christian Right group called the Family (aka the Fellowship), which is anti-union, anti-Communist, and pals around with anti-gay business leaders and even dictatorial world leaders in order to grow its social network of wealth and power.

It might be recalled that President Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and and Control Act of 1986. It was for an economic (not a humanitarian) reason: the workforces of various industries (agriculture, construction, etc.) depended on and consisted of, a significant number of immigrants.

At that time, Pence favored that legislation (which conditionally gave citizenship to: specific illegal immigrants who did seasonal farmwork, and illegal immigrants who were in America before the start of 1982). Not anymore.

Incidentally, when politicians and employers tacitly turn a blind eye to illegal immigrants in the workforce, they are not only favoring money over people, but also money (and political expedience) over American citizens. There is real conflict among greed, xenophobia and helping their constituents.

In January 2017, Pence was present at a Trump Tower meeting at which the directors of the top four U.S. intelligence agencies “… presented classified and categorical evidence that Russia had hacked into the U.S. election and that Vladimir Putin was personally responsible for authorizing this activity.”

At that time, the director of national intelligence told Trump that he and his colleagues lacked the authority and capability to determine whether Russia’s intrusion significantly affected the outcome of the election. But then he wrote that such activity did in his 2018 memoir. Nonetheless, Pence declared it didn’t.

Lastly, Pence fell under the spell of the Koch brothers, and is Trump’s sycophant. He therefore will argue against all things environmentally friendly, and will always waffle at press conferences and in interviews. Read the book to learn of additional details.