Tensions remain high in Syria

Despite the decision by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to lift 40 years of emergency rules as a conciliatory gesture  to demonstrators, tensions remain high following the shootings of protesters.

CNN reports the United States and the UK are telling Assad to end the crackdown on demonstrators. More than 200 deaths have been reported.

The situation in Syria is being closely watched in Lebanon, where Hezbollah leaders, who support Assad, see their fates intertwined, Zawya, a Middle East news agency, says.



Tracking the origins of 72 virgins

By Hsin-Yen Lin

Sunset in Tel Aviv

Islamic leaders, seeking to motivate would be suicide bombers, inducing them to commit murder in the name of Allah, have been quoting Islamic sources, which promise 72 virgins in Paradise to those who kill and are killed in Jihad.

Many Muslims, especially those exposed to Western culture, are aware of the jokes and the ridicule that the 72 virgins legend has brought upon them and upon their brother believers. Consequently, they blame the Jews for spreading the myth in an attempt to downgrade the image of the Islamic “freedom fighters.”

Despite the disclaimer by some Muslims, the truth is very clear. The 72 Virgins notion has its origins in the Qur’an.

Although the holy book does not specify the number as 72, it does say that those who fight in the way of Allah and are killed will be given a great reward. It goes on to stipulate that Muslims will be awarded with women in Islamic heaven.

It even describes their physical attributes — large eyes (Q 56:22) and big, firm, round “swelling breasts” that are not inclined to sagging (Q 78:33). The Qur’an refers to these virgins as houri, companions of equal age, but the highly-flavored emphasis of their bodily characteristics, including their virginity, gave rise to many hadiths and other Islamic writings.

Hadith 2687 is where the number 72 is mentioned. “The smallest reward for the people of Heaven is an abode where there are 80 thousand servants and 72 houri, over which stands a dome decorated with pearls, aquamarine and ruby, as wide as the distance from al-Jabiyyah to San’a.”

Qur’anic commentator Al-Suyuti (died 1505) and Orthodox Muslim theologians such as al Ghazali (died 1111 CE) and Al-Ash’ari (died 935 CE) graphically elaborated sensual pleasures attributed to Muslims in paradise.

On the whole, the Qur’an and the hadiths are filled with sexual fantasies that Muslim men are awarded when they reach Islamic heaven. Anas bin Malik, an Islamic scholar, claimed that “The Prophet used to visit all his wives in a round, during the day and night and they were 11 in number… The Prophet was given the strength of 30 (men).” Muhammad (hadith 24) apparently claimed that devout Muslims would be given the sexual strength of 100 persons upon their arrival in Heaven. (This is apparently more than what was attributed to the prophet himself).

The sexual obsession by Muslim men as conveyed by Islamic writings, takes its cue from the founder of the religion. The description depicts him as a sexual predator.

Being consistent with its sexual obsession and predatory practices, the Qur’an permits pedophilia (sura 65:4). It also discusses rape in detail. It lets you know that men can rape female slaves and captives (Q 23:6), even in front of their husbands (Q 4:24). Other writings advise that when having sex with captives, it’s better if you don’t pull out at the end (Sahih Bukhari 3:46:718).

It’s no wonder that 72 Virgins in Paradise are a fundamental piece of Islamic culture. Sex, sex abuse, pedophilia and enslavement of women take central stage within that religion. Encouraging martyrdom by pointing to sexual rewards in heaven is a natural corollary of that tradition.

Although the Qur’an may not be as specific, it nevertheless, offers many clues, which subsequent inscriptions reinforced, interpreted, and broadened.

I have written this article in response to many questions I had been asked by book club members who’d read my book 72 Virgins. In that book, I did not discuss the roots of that evil thinking. Instead, I told a story, a thriller about a group of Jihadi terrorists and their quest for martyrdom. The story builds on the Jihadists’ motivation for targeting so many innocents and exploiting the victims’ massacre as a stepping-stone to their dream of eternal paradise next to Allah’s throne. The real question I’ve tried to answer is not whether Jihadists’ plots will ever cease to emerge. There’s no chance of that. The question the book seeks to answer is — will the next one be stopped before it’s too late?

Rice and beans at the Passover seder

Preparing charoset. By JasonUnbound/Flickr


Most Jews around the world, especially those in the United States, had a lovely meal of haroset, gefilte fish, matzo ball soup, brisket and or lamb, roasted potatoes, cabbage, asparagus and maybe some dried fruit for dessert at Monday night’s first Passover seder. But rice and beans? At a seder?

While that may seem foreign and maybe even non-traditional, for those of us who are Sephardic, a Pesach without rice and beans would have Savta (grandmother) turning in her grave.

Just like Ashkenazi Jews, we sit around the seder table. But it’s the leader of the seder, not the wife, who brings the first plates. And he doesn’t just plop them in front of your face.

He holds a plate on the head of each person at the table for a second, a minhag, or custom, to remind us of the heavy burdens we had on our heads when we were slaves in Egypt.

Then a few pieces of matzo are tied up in a napkin and passed around the table, shoulder to shoulder. Each is asked, “Where are you from?” as the matzo is being passed. The traditional reply is, “I am from Egypt.” Then a second question: “Where are you going?” And the answer: “I am going to Yerushalaym.” Then a third question: “Will you come with me?” The answer, of course, is “yes.”

Of course, in all of our traditions, we serve unleavened bread. But who among us really likes to eat matzos? We of the Sephardic tradition have an answer. One you Eastern European Jews might want to adopt.

We serve an unleavened bread called pane azimo (pa-knee ah-zee-moe). It’s made with olive oil, flour, sea salt and matzo meal. Some Sephardic families also toss some corn meal in as well. Of course, there’s no yeast so, like matzo, it doesn’t rise. But unlike matzo, it doesn’t taste like cardboard!

Of course, we use a Haggadah, so the story of the 10 plagues and the softening of Pharaoh’s heart and the escape from bondage – the wandering the desert – all that is the same. But here’s something I bet you’ve never seen unless you’ve been to a Sephardic seder: the leader pours wine into, of all things, a tin can. The tin can is then taken into the yard and the wine is poured into the ground. Then the matriarch of the family says, “May this go to all of our enemies and haters. May they create no suffering for us or themselves. Amen.”

The matriarch then presents the patriarch with a bowl and glass of water. He recites the plagues one-by-one and pours a drop of wine from a special glass each time into the bowl. The matriarch chases the wine with a bit of water. All of this takes place below table level, because we’re not supposed to look at the plagues for the fear of being contaminated.

Without looking, the matriarch takes the bowl to the bathroom and flushes the plagues down the toilet.

The singing of Dayenu, of course, will be familiar to Jews no matter what traditions they otherwise hold. But as we are singing, we take green onions with long stems, which we use to whip the person next to us, and pass them on. The whipping reminds us of the miracle that we were freed from the lash of oppression.

Then charoset, a mixture of apples, dates, nuts, apricot, cinnamon and wine is served, to remind us that, when we were slaves, we had to mix mortar to make the bricks. Then, the traditional four cups of wine.

But here’s a uniquely Sephardic tradition. We all dress in white cotton, and the leader, in this case my rabbi, wears a white caftan, or robe, and a crown, because he plays Pharaoh.

On the eighth night, we close out Passover traditionally with the Mimouna celebration. The synagogue is opened at one minute after midnight. The Torah is then taken from the arch. The Song of Songs is read while everyone dances in the aisles. (Something, I might add, that one rarely does in an Ashkenazi shul!)

We eat pita bread dipped in honey, representing the gluing together of the Jewish nation so that we will never be separated by oppression and slavery again.

But what about the rice and beans, you ask? It’s called kitniyot: rice, legumes, string beans, green peas, lentils, split peas, chick peas, sesame and sunflower seeds. A traditional kosher for Pesach staple. It doesn’t have any specific religious significance, but I promise you one thing. It’s a tasty addition to the seder table that we anticipate eating every year.

Israel boycott motion fails

A contentious three-hour-long debate over a proposal to boycott Israel at the Marrickville, Australia Council ended with claims that the town lawmakers were cowards after they narrowly defeated the measure, the Sydney Morning Herald reports.

Leaders of Marrickville’s Jewish community strongly condemned the measure. But among those supporting it was Father David Smith, who labeled a boycott, “a strategy of non-violent resistance to a military occupation.”

Should Terry Jones be barred from Dearborn?

By Mark Taylor


How far does one’s First Amendment rights stretch in the United States?

If a person’s public demonstrations in Florida cause death in Afghanistan should he be barred from Dearborn?

That’s the question facing a judge in Wayne County Michigan today, after prosecutors filed a motion to bar Pastor Terry Jones from demonstrating outside a Dearborn Islamic center on Good Friday.

Dearborn is a suburb of Detroit, once best known for being the home of Ford Motor Company World Headquarters and the sprawling Ford Rouge Assembly Plant. But it’s now probably better recognized as a community with a substantial Arab population.

Jones is the controversial church pastor who burned a Koran in Florida, then announced it on his website. When word about it spread in Afghanistan, enraged Muslims attacked UN offices, killing 11 people in protest. Even though the UN had nothing at all to do with what Jones did, it was the closest place they could think of where they could find westerners to punish for the Koran burning.

Now Jones wants to take his mission against Islam on the road to Dearborn, where he intends to protest in front of the Islamic center. The prosecutors want an injunction to prevent him from doing so, on the grounds that he will likely spark a riot there.

The Koran burning was, of course, distasteful and irresponsible, given that the U.S. government implored him to not do it because it feared violent responses by some who were offended. Responses that the government told him could put Americans and others in danger.

The lesson was clearly not learned by Jones, who now apparently wants even more fame, or perhaps infamy, by protesting in Dearborn.

While the Koran burning was distasteful, it was clearly protect under the Constitution. So is Jones’ right to protest outside a mosque in Dearborn.

If he is precluded from exercising his First Amendment rights, then who will be next? Nazis who want to march through a predominantly Jewish neighborhood?

That’s not just an academic question. It actually was once raised.

In 1977, in the Chicago suburb of Skokie, Illinois, then a community heavily populated with Holocaust survivors, a neo-Nazi group announced a march. When the village government sued to prevent the march, the ACLU stepped in and filed a counter-motion claiming that to enjoin the Nazis from marching would be a violation of their First Amendment rights.

The ACLU prevailed in court, but in the end, the Nazis never marched in Skokie.

The thought wannabe Nazis goose-stepping through the neighborhood of people who lived through the horrors of the Holocaust notwithstanding, the court made the right decision. They had the right, that they elected to not exercise, to do just that.

Similar emotions may be evoked if Jones decides to visit Dearborn. But he too, has First Amendment rights.

If we muzzle Nazis and we muzzle Jones, who knows who may be next to be silenced. Maybe Muslims. Maybe Jews.

Gary Baumgarten is editor of The Jewish Reporter.

Security forces open fire on Syrian demonstrators

Just hours after Syria’s president pledged to ease restrictions in an attempt to reduce tensions, security forces have opened fire on protesters in that nation’s third largest city, al Jazeera reports.

The gunfire in Homs, which is locked down, occurred just one day after it was reported that 25 demonstrators were killed by security forces.

Palestinians shooting themselves in foot

Miller/By Connie Reider


The Palestinian push for a UN recognized state by fall is folly and won’t result in the creation of a Palestinian state.

So argues Aaron David Miller in an op-ed piece in the Washington Post.

“In almost two decades of working on Arab-Israeli negotiations as a State Department adviser and negotiator, I’ve come up with more than my fair share of dumb ideas.” Miller writes. “But the notion Palestinians are cooking up, for UN action on Palestinian statehood this fall, takes dumb to a new level.”

Pretty strong words, especially coming from an adviser to six secretaries of state.

“Yet another resolution won’t deliver Palestinians a state or even bring them closer to one,” Miller writes. In fact, he argues, a resolution would be counterproductive. Because, he predicts, the U.S. would be compelled to oppose a non-negotiated resolution over disputed lands. And Congress, he says, would pull back financial aid to the Palestinians.

The question as the Palestinian request is being seriously debated is whether the peace process, which would require agreement of all parties should be abandoned.

Israel has long sought a partner in peace. But the Palestinian leaders keep finding excuses to not reach an agreement. Or they’ve set preconditions to even negotiating.

Then they say, hey, it’s obvious we can’t come to an agreement. So we’ll ask the UN to impose the creation of a state and set boundaries.

It is, as Miller argues, a strategy that may serve to put Israel in a bad light with some, but won’t result in an end to the conflict, agreement on boundries or creation of a Palestinian state that’s even recognized.

All of which must be obvious to the Palestinian leadership. Leaving one to question, what is it that the Palestinian Authority really wants.


The second Arab revolution

By By mar is sea Y/Flickr

As Bob Dylan sang, he times, they are a-changing, and no place more than in the Middle East.

Michael Scott Doran writes in Foreign Affairs Magazine that, suddenly, the people are part of the equation in the Arab world.

“In Tunisia, Algeria, Jordan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, Iran and Libya, protesters are demanding either comprehensive reform or total revolution,” he writes. “Only once before in modern history has a populist wave of this magnitude swept the region.”

That was when, a half-a-century ago, a series of Arab nationalist movements challenged the rulers of the Arab world. The catalyst for that, Doran says, was then-Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser to nationalize the Suez Canal in 1956. Attempts by Israel and European powers to toppled Nasser failed sparking, Dolan says, a pan-Arab revolution that placed imperialistic regimes on notice that their time in power was short.

Dolan compares that to the ouster of Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali from Tunisia, which has sparked challenges to regimes in other nations in the region.

“Today’s turmoil,” he argues, “then, is not unique; rather, it represents the second Arab revolution.

Obama calls Bibi with Passover wishes

By Gary Baumgarten

WASHINGTON – President Obama called Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu Monday to convey his best wishes before the start of Passover.

Noting that he would host a seder at the White House, the president recalled that the story of Passover is one of liberation and freedom and expressed his hope that the Israeli people would be able to celebrate in peace, the White House said. The two leaders also discussed U.S.-Israeli cooperation on counter-terrorism, how best to move forward in efforts to advance Middle East peace and the recent violence near the Gaza strip the White House says.

Netanyahu expressed his deep appreciation for U.S. funding for the Iron Dome rocket and mortar defense system, which he noted has successfully intercepted several rockets aimed at Israeli communities. With the signing of the fiscal year 2011 budget appropriation, the president approved $205 million in U.S. funding for Iron Dome, which is above the annual package of Foreign Military Financing for Israel.