This Is our Village


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          As I write this, it's still only January, a long time before the November presidential election.  But the first caucuses (Iowa, Feb. 1) and the first primary (New Hampshire, Feb. 9) are almost upon us. 
          This election cycle has taken curious turns.  Polls say that Donald Trump, a businessman who has never held an elective office, is still in front among Republican candidates.  Bernie Sanders, a "Democratic Socialist," appears to be running neck and neck with Hillary Clinton.  Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, another businessman, is thought to be considering a presidential run as an Independent, with a possible announcement to be made in March.  Ted Cruz, Republican from -- take your pick -- Texas or Canada, disparagingly spoke of Donald Trump's "New York values," but he spoke too quickly.  All contenders named besides Cruz have New York backgrounds.  Mr. Sanders was born In New York City.  Hillary Clinton briefly served New York State as its Senator.
         Ted Cruz is an odd candidate.  None of his Senate colleagues like him, something in which he seems to take pride, since he's running an "anti-establishment" campaign.   Mr. Cruz is trying to win the evangelical Christian vote, but Sarah Palin, once a vice presidential candidate and herself an evangelical Christian, is supporting Mr. Trump.  Jerry Falwell, Jr., son of famed Reverend Jerry Falwell, founder of the "Moral Majority" movement in the 1960s, also an evangelical, has likewise endorsed Mr. Trump.
          Much of this election seems focused on personalities, to the extent that sometimes major issues tend to get lost.  Mr. Sanders addresses himself to the sluggish economy, income inequality and the public's general frustration with the political system, all important, but the Number One issue is security.
          President Obama says the United States is not at war with Islam.  Yet the country is at war with Islamic terrorists, so-called Islamists or Jihadists.   To deny the threat they pose is to deny the Islamist-inspired Boston Marathon bombings of April, 2013, and the San Bernardino shootings of December, 2015.  Ask the relatives of those who were injured or killed in those events or in the destruction of New York City's World Trade Center in September, 2001.  Jihadists are here now.  They will strike where, when, and if they can.  America's defenses must be strengthened and tightened.
         The economy as an issue means more than raising the minimum wage, more than the exorbitant costs of entering college and obtaining student loans, more than whites and blacks looking for jobs that are unavailable to them.
           Raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour is by itself counter-productive.  Employers who can't afford extra expenses will fire workers in order to make ends meet.  Those now earning $15 an hour would have to spend more, so they too would demand a salary increase.  That could lead to runaway inflation resulting in a cycle of rising prices, a disastrous situation for people, especially the elderly, who live on fixed incomes and lack opportunity to gain additional funds.
           What truly needs to be changed is America's educational system.  College itself is somewhat elitist.  Statistics show that college graduates generally earn more than those without scholastic degrees.  But not everyone can afford college, (which is discriminatory).  Not everyone desires to attend college.  Not everyone is equipped to meet the demands made by a good institution of higher learning.
          Change is most needed at the primary and high school levels.   Older folks are apt to ask youngsters, "What do you want to be when you grow up?"  But I've never heard a school teacher or administrator ask that question.  Primary and high schools should teach the basic "3 'R's" curriculum of reading, writing and 'rithmetic, but as vital for students' well-being, they also should point the way towards earning a living and the social skills necessary to get along well with all other people.  Many students are happy learning technical matters, things my grammar school classmates and I called "shop".  Today's children might prefer technological training, the worlds of computer, tablet, iPhone and beyond.  Some perhaps are would-be entrepreneurs.  Courses for them possibly could become available.  In any case, the groundwork for tools of growth must be laid at the start of school life.
           "No child left behind" is only a partial educational answer, for in the interests of society the best and the brightest ought to advance and be encouraged to do so.  "Common core" is likewise insufficient.  Periodic aptitude testing would be helpful in determining young peoples' future careers.  Hopefully, schools will cooperate in their behalf.  Schools should work hard to insure that America remains a land of opportunities, opportunities they themselves necessarily provide.
            I highlight education because so far no presidential candidate has done so.  Of course, other major issues exist.  Among them are illegal immigration, an issue originally raised by Donald Trump; shifting demographics, not just a national issue but, additionally, a huge source of concern to those running for public office; guns.  Mayor Bloomberg is opposed to guns and weapon-carrying in public. Other presidential candidates are largely for them.  The National Rifle Association is an active lobbyist.  The prevalence of lobbyists in Washington, D.C., and across the country is itself an issue.
          Florida's primary election is March 15.  As of now, I'm still an undecided voter.
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          Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth President of the United States, was born on the 12th of February in 1809.  Born of poor parents, he was mainly self-taught but became a lawyer.  He rose to become President in 1860 and was assassinated in 1865, the same year the American Civil War between the northern and southern states ended.
          Abraham Lincoln was one of the greatest leaders of all time.  His leadership kept the nation intact.  It helped to end slavery in the United States.  It showed the world that the American experiment of a political democracy can be a lasting form of government.
          Abraham Lincoln was not just a wartime president.  He defined for Americans and indeed for people all over the world what the United States really is and what it stands for.  He did it with words.
          In this election year of 2016, Americans have grown accustomed to hearing presidential candidates' "sound bites" that define nothing.  In an era when most candidates, fed by PAC and Super PAC dollars utter at the end of their television commercials, "I approve this message," realize that Mr. Lincoln used his own words.  He spoke not with money.  He spoke from his heart.
          In 1942, classical music composer Aaron Copland wrote a short composition entitled "A Lincoln Portrait".  Written for a full symphony orchestra and a narrator, it should be performed annually to remind the American people who they are.  Adding a few words of his own, Mr. Copland mostly quoted Abraham Lincoln.
          Mr. Lincoln began his immortal Gettysburg Address with these words:  "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."
          Mr. Copland quotes President Lincoln.  But Abraham Lincoln's timeless words apply to today's President, Congress and presidential candidates:
          "Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history.  We of this Congress and this administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves.  No personal significance or insignificance can spare one or another of us.  The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation.  We -- even we here -- hold the power and bear the responsibility --".
          Mr. Copland quotes Abraham Lincoln again.  But see how the President's words put forth an American ideology and how opposite that is from the ideology of dictatorial and authoritarian Islamists and jihadists:
          "As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master.  This expresses my idea of Democracy.  Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy."
         Mr. Copland repeats the final words of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address:
         " -- This nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people and for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
         Finally, note that Abraham Lincoln respectfully acknowledges God, (by any name,) even as he clearly defines the United States:  People have the right to determine their own destiny, including their own government, which is of the people, by the people and for thepeople.  This is the right of a FREE people.  Be happy and proud to be an American!
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          I wish everyone, all the good people, a HAPPY NEW YEAR, although I suspect it will be the most challenging new year we face as a nation since World War Two.


          With a Presidential election coming up in November, and notwithstanding all the campaign debates, I still don't favor any candidate enough to declare, "Yes!  That's my man -- or woman!"

          At this point I do feel that if a man runs for President on the Republican ticket, he should choose a woman, Carly Fiorina, as his running mate.  She wasn't the best CEO when she headed Lucent Technologies or Hewlett Packard, but she's bright, knows technology better than any other candidate, is a good public speaker and has made solid worldwide contacts through the years.
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          Independently wealthy Donald Trump doesn't rely on PACs or Super-PACs to support his campaign. I
share some of  his ideas.  Yet I shudder at his bad manners and insensibilities.   He needs to listen to advisers who tell him the truth:  "You cannot insult people with whom you disagree.  Insult a foreign head of State, and we have World War Three on our hands.  Cool it!"
          I lump Ben Carson, Ted Cruz and Marc Rubio in one basket:  All are too inexperienced to become leader of the world's most powerful nation.  Cruz and Rubio are ambitious but too young to be Commander in Chief.  Carson may be a fine neurosurgeon, but I wouldn't trust a fresh-out-of-medical-school surgeon to operate on me; neither would I trust an older unknown who's never run for public office to lead my country.
          I won't beat around the Bush.  After enduring eight years under George W. as President, I don't want Jeb Bush to be in the Oval Office.  I'm aware, as Jeb himself insists, that he's not his brother, he's his "own man," but I'm not inspired enough by this man to vote for him.
          Chris Christie appeals to me, although that might be because before coming to Florida, I lived most of my life in New Jersey.  In my youth, New Jersey government had a national reputation for being corrupt.  As a prosecuting attorney, Christie learned something about the tough guys, how they operate and how to deal with them.
          On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton is the most experienced candidate.  She's a former First Lady, a respected Senator from New York State and Secretary of State.  But in my judgment, she was a poor Secretary of State.  And I tire of hearing the Clinton name.  With over 300 million people living in America, we don't need political "dynasties" like Bush or Clinton.  Some fresh ideas should move the country forward.
          Bernie Sanders says a few things I like.  I want all people to share in the good things of life.  Yet I've never been a socialist.  I believe that America is a land of opportunity -- still.  Government can play a role in helping folks to rise socially and economically, but business people, philanthropists, money managers and educators should be encouraged, even invited with incentives, to work with government as a means of keeping our nation strong and growing in strength.
          We face a graver challenge this New Year:  We are at war with terrorists.  So far, from the American side, it's an undeclared war.  Although our nation has been struck by Islamists and many are fearful of more attacks, we're not taking security as seriously as we should.
           On Christmas Eve, I dined with two old friends from London.  A married couple and sympathetic to refugees fleeing the horrors of the Near East, I likewise expressed sympathy but added that ISIS, Al Qaeda or other jihadists whose goal was somehow to hurt their country could easily slip in with those genuinely in need.  I'm quite sure they didn't perceive the reality of the threat.
           The threat is real.  Jihadists have spread all over the world.  Even if ISIS is defeated, other Islamists will proclaim "America is killing Muslims".  Our country needs to counter their propaganda by words defining the glories of America, of being a free people in this great and spiritual land.  How many Muslims are fleeing to other Muslim countries?  Very, very few.  Meanwhile, security in America will be a prime need this year and no doubt for several years to come.
          Withal, I'm impelled to state my firm belief that we live in the most interesting time in human history.  Change occurs so rapidly!  What a thrill it is to live in the here and now, either to observe or to participate in the adventures of this truly wondrous world!
          Once again, although the year ahead may be challenging, I wish you a Healthy, Happy and Prosperous Year, today, tomorrow and always! 
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          For some years I lectured aboard cruise ships, mainly on such topics as World History, Current Events and the Great Religions.  In December 1999 I received a telephone call: Would I lecture on a Mediterranean cruise?  Passengers would be in Jerusalem on New Year's Eve.  I thought to myself, I can't imagine a better place to be at the start of the new millennium than Jerusalem!  So of course I accepted.


          On New Year's Eve my companion Laura and I, led by two Israeli Muslim men booked by the ship's tour desk, escorted thirty or so ship passengers to a restaurant.  The mood was festive.  All guests were attired in their holiday best.  We were, however, taken to a family eatery frequented by Muslims.  The tables at which we sat were covered with oilcloth.  The dishes from which we ate were paper.  The glasses from which we drank were plastic.  We were served something more akin to appetizer than entrĂ©e.  An overweight belly dancer swayed occasionally to Arabic music a small band played.  At midnight waiters poured champagne into the plastic glasses:  The band played "Jingle Bells".  After that, the guests left in disgust, especially upon learning that folks aboard ship had been merrily partying.


          (Muslims do not celebrate Christmas.  They date their lunar calendar from the time Mohammed emigrated from Mecca to Medina, an event known as the Hegira.  The year this happened corresponds to the West's 622 AD/CE.)

          Laura and I returned to our cabin and turned on the television set to see how the rest of the world was faring.  In another part of Jerusalem a large group of Christians had gathered at the Eastern Gate of Jerusalem's Old City walls.  The Gate had been closed during the reign of Ottoman Emperor Suleiman I and would remain shut, according to believers, until Jesus came back to earth and opened it himself, for from this spot He had ascended into heaven.  The gathering was anticipating the arrival of their Messiah.  He would come to exact vengeance on the enemies of God.  And now was the time.  Here, after all, was the year 2000 AD/CE!
          In the year 1000 AD/CE belief that the Messiah would return was widespread in Christian Europe.  Western Europe had gone through the Dark Ages.  Barbarian invasions and a feudal system limited creativity and development.  Additionally, in the year 330AD/CE the Emperor Constantine had moved his capital from Rome to Byzantium.  Renamed Constantinople, (present-day Istanbul,) with a predominantly Greek culture, the Byzantine Empire flourished, becoming wealthy and powerful while the Latin west splintered into small states and endured relative decline.  Within Christendom, by 1054 power struggles and ideological differences had grown so strong, that year brought a Church schism, the Pope in Rome heading the Roman Catholic faith and the patriarch in Constantinople leading the Greek Orthodox.
          Even as the year 1000 had approached, religious fervor intensified:  Many people were confident The Messiah now would appear.  When Jesus did not make His physical presence known, religious zeal continued.  Construction of the great European gothic cathedrals were discussed and work subsequently begun.  Pilgrimages to "The Holy Land" (present-day Israel) increased.  But trouble was brewing:  Numbers of pilgrims were attacked en route to Jerusalem by Muslims in whose hands The Holy Land lay.
           In 1095 Pope Urban II preached a crusade against the infidel.  Byzantine Emperor Alexius Comnenus requested help against the Muslim Seljuk Turks (forerunner to the Ottomans,) who were attacking his Empire.  The Crusades were launched, that first Crusade eventually being joined by an estimated 30,000 men.  With this Crusade, pent-up religious emotion that had been building for the greater part of a century now gave way to religious extremism and erupted into open warfare.  The Christian offensive was, as Muslims perceive it, a jihad, the first Holy War.
           Not all Crusader victims were Muslim.  In 1096 many Jews were attacked and killed in what are generally regarded as the first ordered (by state or religious body) violent acts of anti-Semitism.  In 1208 Pope Innocent III endorsed assaults against Cathars, a rigorously ascetic Christian group that maintained a dualistic theology (belief in God and devil.)  Having no organized priesthood or churches, practitioners also had no doctrinal objection to birth control, euthanasia or suicide.  In 1208 an estimated half a million of them -- men, women and children -- were massacred by Crusaders in the Languedor region of France, where the majority of Cathars lived.  This is known today as the Albigensian Crusade, named after the French city of Albi.
          Many very good source books have been written on the Crusades against Muslims.  In this short piece, I cannot go into depth on the subject.  Both sides, Christians and Muslims, committed great atrocities.  Most scholars say there were eight Crusades in all, the last ending in 1291.  I myself put the concluding date as 1453, the year Constantinople fell to Islamic Ottoman Turks, who thereby put an end to the Christian Byzantine Empire that had ruled since the fall of the Roman Empire in 476.
           In addition to the countless lives that were lost, the total number I suspect being several million, the demise of Byzantium was a real tragedy for the West.  The Crusaders at the beginning captured Jerusalem and established a Latin state there, but the victory was short-lived: Jerusalem for all intents and purposes continued in Muslim hands until the end of World One, in the 20th century. The West, in sum, lost the wars.  Yet I feel that ultimately The West won the peace.
           By the Middle Ages, Arab scholars had translated Indian, Persian and Greek writings into Arabic.  The Latin Church had forbidden Greek writings on the grounds they would lead readers to the ancient Greek gods and goddesses.  But following the Crusades, Westerners retrieved those writings, which then were translated into the vernacular languages of Europe, and thus the learnings of centuries past were recovered .  This now became for The West "New knowledge," the Renaissance.  The Renaissance sparked revolutions in science, medicine, the arts, government, politics and religion (The Reformation.)
          The Renaissance required an expansionist spirit that eventually evolved into the great European Voyages of Discovery.  They, in turn, led to European conquests and colonialism, the imperialism of mighty empires.  Among those colonized were lands that had predominantly Muslim populations.  So it was that especially from the late 19th century on, Muslims consciously sought freedom from foreign domination.
          The 20th century World Wars One and Two effectively ended most colonial rule.  Empires had become weakened by war even as public opinion largely turned against imperialism on humanitarian grounds.  The withdrawal of foreign powers however created vacuums: political, economic and spiritual.  In Muslim countries, politically, strongmen often with military backgrounds rose to fill the void.  Some gained economic strength since their territory contained oil, a worldwide energy resource.  And when Jesus departed with the former rulers, Allah faced no spiritual alternative.
          In 1988 Osama bin Laden, a fundamentalist Muslim, and several associates founded Al-Qaeda.  In 1996 bin Laden declared war on the United States.  In 1998 Al-Qaeda operatives attacked U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya.
          (The FBI foiled a plot by Al Qaeda to bomb Los Angeles International Airport on New Year's Eve, 1999, the demolition scheduled for roughly the same time I was eating dinner in Jerusalem.)
         In 2000 Al-Qaeda staged a suicide bombing of an American warship, the USS Cole.  On September 11, 2001, Al-Qaeda pilots, several of whom trained in Palm Beach County, Florida, blew up the World Trade Center in New York City and part of the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.
        Yet it was not just the United States Osama bin Laden disliked.  He formed Al-Qaeda, he once said, to fight "Crusaders and Jews".  "Crusaders," to him, meant Christians.
         So who was Osama bin Laden?  Born in Riyadh and educated in conservative Islamic schools, he was the son of a wealthy construction magnate who became a billionaire building infrastructures in Saudi Arabia.  At one point in the late 20th century the Saudi government feared attacks from neighboring Iraq.  It invited Americans in to build an airbase that would help protect the country.  Bin Laden protested.  The Saudis banished him in 1992.  He made his way to Afghanistan, Sudan and Egypt, where his already extremist views were furthered by meetings with Sheik Abdullah Assam, who headed a group that had assassinated Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat.  Returning to Afghanistan, independently wealthy and 6'5" tall, he largely financed the mujahedeen, who were fighting a Russian invasion of their country.  He met with American government officials in Afghanistan, but his negative feelings about the United States never changed.
         The United States invaded Iraq in 2003, although the Al-Qaeda attackers of the World Trade Center in 2001 were mainly Saudis and Egyptians.
         There are differences.  This time, it's not Christian Crusaders who lead the attack.  It is Muslim jihadists.
         There are similarities.   The Crusades began because The Papacy called for it.  When The Franks, as Muslims dubbed the Crusaders, came to aid Byzantium, Byzantines were startled by the sight of monks in the Crusader ranks, with crosses on their chests and swords in their hands.  Today, principal jihadists are mullahs and imams who preach violence from positions of leadership in their mosques.  Many Crusaders believed that if they fought and died in The Holy Land, they would go straight to heaven, a concept not dissimilar to that which is taught to suicide bombers.  Even today, although Al-Qaeda has split into ISIS, Boca Harram and other jihadist groups, who are now scattered around the globe, the geographical heart of the THOUSAND YEAR WAR remains in those lands where the Prophet Abraham walked perhaps four thousand years ago.
         To sane people, this endless fighting seems insane.  God did not create people for other people to kill or otherwise to harm them.  He created people so they might enjoy the fruits of His labors.  God cannot be fully understood except by the diversity of His creations, the knowledge and appreciation of them.
         Jesus said, "My house has many mansions," by which is meant, There is room for all beliefs, all faiths, though some may vary in their observances and manner of expression.
         One final thought:  It is noted by some contemporary observers that, in many parts of the world,  religious belief is falling off.  If so, in part I attribute it to the fact people kill in the name of God.  Centuries ago, Crusaders were known as "Warriors of God".   But that was centuries ago, when the civilizations of today were young and still immature.  We didn't know better.  Today we do.  We have grown to adulthood, we hope.  With the passage of time, shouldn't sanity prevail?
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          Programs at the CENTURY VILLAGE CLUBHOUSE THEATER are something to look forward to with each new season, for the folks who produce our shows have always come up with winners, and this year we're surely off to a really good start.


          THE NATIONAL CIRCUS AND ACROBATS, direct from Beijing, had the audience lustily cheering the young Chinese.  Indeed, their acts were wonderful.  I seldom use that word "wonderful" to describe theater performances.  Used often, it has become trite.  But I'm using the word in its original sense:  While watching the onstage doings, I wondered, How do they do that?


          For instance, two fellows, one dressed in a white suit and wearing a white hat, the other garbed in simple black clothes, standing roughly ten feet apart, began throwing wooden juggler's sticks at each other.  Then, not missing a beat, not dropping a stick, they began taking off their clothes.  Hat, jackets, pants, shirts were removed until the two stood in their underwear.  As they juggled, they managed to hang the other's clothes on heavy, long clothes racks.  Still juggling, they changed position, the clothes racks getting tossed to the other mixed in with the sticks.  Then they redressed, continuing to juggle, not missing a beat, not dropping a stick until both had completely buttoned shirts, zipped pants and now stood facing the audience with smiles on their faces.  How could viewers not cheer?


          But I can answer my own question.  They do that with years of practice and discipline.  They start when they are just kids and keep at it.  I trust that everyone has seen jugglers.  But there's more to it here:  Greater coordination is needed for a juggler who works with a partner.  What truly separates an act like this from others is the impeccable teamwork.


          What I've described was but one act among many.  These acrobats formed a large troupe.  Costumes of both the handsome boys and the lovely girls were mostly distinctively Chinese and colorful.  Silk garments of blue and gold adorned the girls, although their bright red clothing was most memorable.


          The girl's acts were also wonderful.  At one point, they formed a human pyramid.  All had parasols, which they whirled about.  But the top girl, upside down, whirled parasols with both hands and feet.  She was so high above the stage floor, her foot parasols for a moment appeared to touch the stage's ceiling.  Merely to get down from atop such a pyramid without anyone getting hurt requires a team effort.  One certainly has to cheer and applaud that!

         There was much more:  The Clubhouse presented a terrific show.  "Terrific":  Isn't that another of those overused words?   Maybe, but still, I truly enjoyed the Chinese Acrobats!
          Several days later to the Clubhouse Theatre came THE BEST OF BROADWAY - THE MUSIC OF ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER, which starred four fine performers.  The show opened with several selections from Jesus Christ, Superstar and proceeded on to Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.  The highlights of course came from Evita and The Phantom of the Opera.
         The Phantom of this presentation had a voice that ranges from counter-tenor, which is close to soprano, to a low tenor or even, a bass.  Additionally, he was a good actor.  The pretty blond soprano acted well:  Her rendition of "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina" caught every dramatic highlight of the piece.  The chemistry between this couple was charming to see. 
          But I have a suggestion to make:  The presenters of a show of this type should offer a program.  Even if it's only one page with the artists' names printed on it, that would be helpful.   I cannot name the artists here.  Their names were spoken, but the performers were unknown to me, and I cannot, nor can many in the rest of the audience, completely tell how special they are until we know who they are!
         Anyway, we appreciated the show and look forward again to returning to the Clubhouse Theater for more Century Village entertainment!
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 November 21, 2015
           ISIS's recent attacks on various Paris locations changed our world.  Something similar to that was said following September 11, 2001, when Al-Qaeda brought down the World Trade Center in New York City and
part of the Pentagon in Washington, D. C.   The world changed but not in the way we at first envisioned it.  The attack itself didn't change our world.  New York and Washington and the nation as a whole carried on much as they had before.  What changed it was the American response to that attack.  The George W. Bush administration ordered an invasion of Iraq, although Saudi Arabian and Egyptian nationals were responsible for what happened that September day.  America's intervention in Iraq began the chaos that exists to this day in the Near and Middle East and now spreads across the globe.
          The attacks on Paris changed the world, again not because of the attacks themselves.  Paris has a long, rich history, having been struck by terrorists many times before -- and survived.  What changed it is the response.  Now France and Russia, which lost a civilian aircraft to ISIS terrorists in the Sinai, are coordinating retaliatory air strikes.  ISIS killed a Chinese national; China has condemned the murder.  In the United States, with the Presidential elections still a year away, foreign affairs now promises to be a major political issue.  Some candidates propose putting American "boots on the ground".  Others advocate avoid getting involved.  Congress and American governors are debating whether or not to let in people from the war-torn Near and Middle East.  Those favoring immigration do so on humanitarian grounds.  Those opposed to open borders fear that jihadists will enter the country -- if they are not already here.
          A united response against international terrorism -- a coalition of nations and tribes -- is vital, but further American combat in the Near and Middle East is tricky:
          Most Americans are tired of war.  This nation fought in Iraq and still has armed forces in Afghanistan, the 14th year of what has already become its longest war.
          The Paris attacks have on one level drawn the United States and Russia closer together.  There's a gathering awareness that both have a common foe in militant Islam.  But differences remain.  Each fears that the other is an aggressor which might provoke attacks against them or their allies.  America cites the Crimea and Ukraine as examples.  Russia notes America's economic embargo and its announced positioning of weaponry in Eastern Europe near Russia's western border.
          Then there is the question of Syria.  Russia (and China) support Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad.  America and its NATO allies seek his removal as a condition of peace.  To my mind, Assad is the greatest of  enigmas among post-World War Two national leaders.  Son of a generally ruthless dictator, Hafez al-Assad, young Bashar was educated in London, England, where he became an ophthalmologist.  He married a lovely English girl who, when she came to Damascus, set fashions among upper and middle-class Syrian women. Watch Mr. Assad on television today.  He dresses in Western clothes, is tall and lean, even suave, and looks not unlike a lighter version of Barack Obama.  He speaks perfect English.  Yet when a rebellion arose in the Syrian city of Homs, he chose to order the slaughtering of rebels, as his father had done before him, instead of calling them into his office and saying, "Let's sit down and talk.  We can work things out."  Had he done something of that nature, there probably would have been no Syrian civil war.
          Mr. Assad and most of the intimate circle around him are Alawite Muslims.  Alawites are a branch of the Shi'ite faith.  The largest group of Shi'ites live in neighboring Iran; thus Iran has become the primary Islamic supporter of the Assad regime.  The overwhelming majority of Muslims, however, are Sunni.  The Sunni are also a majority in Syria.  Along with the question of "Whose side are the combatants on?" the uppermost and contentious non-political or economic issue is religion.
          To back up a bit, prior to the ending of World War Two, several Near and Middle East countries had sizeable Jewish populations, particularly in the urban centers of Damascus, Aleppo, Baghdad, Alexandria and Cairo.  But with the creation of the state of Israel, Muslims essentially drove out the Jewish people.  Most
made their way to Israel or Westernized countries.  Christians have lived in the Near and Middle East from the time their faith was founded 2,000 years ago.  Today most Christians are fleeing, if they haven't already fled, because jihadists have singled them out to be massacred, enslaved, even crucified.
          So what the world now faces is another question:  Which Islamic group is to emerge pre-eminent in the Near and Middle East?  ISIS has answered that question to suit its own organization.  By declaring itself a "Caliphate" it has established itself as a nation.  A Caliphate basically proclaims to be the successor to the rule of the Prophet Mohammed, Islam's 7th century CE founder.  That very notion draws to it some sincerely devout Muslims as well as radical elements.  This new Caliphate also seeks to establish God's Kingdom on earth.  It wants to be the agent of worldwide apocalypse.  Lately it speaks of using poison gas, chemical and biological weapons.
          How did ISIS come to be?  The consensus is that when Americans invaded Iraq, it dismissed the armed forces that had served under Saddam Hussein.  The soldiers, many of whom were quite talented and Sunni, had "no place to go," no way even to earn a decent living.  Out of their discontent grew Al-Qaeda.  Later, Al-Qaeda witnessed defections within its ranks.  Splinter groups came into being, among them ISIS, its leaders feeling that Al-Qaeda's tactics were inadequate to its expressed aims, and stronger religious emphasis was needed.
          Once more to back up, Sunnis and Shi'ites have been battling each other since the death of the Prophet Mohammed.  The issue then was over the successor to the Prophet at the time of his death.  Some tribal leaders believed the next Caliph should be selected by them.  Opponents said the next Caliph should be a direct descendent of Mohammed.  The former became Sunnis.  That latter became Shi'ites.  Through large patches of history, these two groups have lived together in relative harmony.  But there are times, and one of those times is now, when their differences result in armed conflict.  In today's world, Saudi Arabia, in which exist the two holiest cities of Islam, Mecca and Medina, leads the Sunnis, (although ISIS, in declaring its Caliphate, poses a direct challenge to Saudi leadership.)  Iran, a populous nation historically known as Persia or the Persian Empire, has always led the Shi'ites.  In essence, throughout the Islamic Near and Middle East plus North Africa, Saudi Arabia and Iran are fighting proxy wars with each other.  Why call them proxy wars?  Because many splinter groups have now formed, which the Saudi and Iranian governments at least partially support and finance, even though their men and women are not yet drawn into the actual fighting.
         What is needed is a worldwide coalition of forces, political and spiritual; nations, tribes and clans combatting extreme jihadists.  But Sunnis and Shi'ites alike should lead the fight against terrorists among them.  The jihadists in fact are destroying their faith by wrongly interpreting it. 
         Whose side are the combatants on?  The main problem for the United States is that a simple answer is not easy.  Does removing Bashar al-Assad resolve the crisis?  No.  Removing him from power will not stop jihadists in Europe, Nigeria, North Africa or the Indian Ocean island nation of Mahe.  Will defeating ISIS resolve the crisis?  The answer is the same.  No.  Ultimately, the answer must come from within the ranks of Muslims themselves.  But even would-be reformers apparently no long longer use the term "Reformation".
          For Americans, is the answer "boots on the ground?"  I say "yes," but I mean figuratively rather than literally.  I don't mean armed troops abroad or at home with weaponry at the ready.  I do mean the United States must defend itself in its own country with tighter security and increased, meaningful surveillance.  Various law enforcement agencies should share information; their groups should be enlarged.  (Almost unbelievably, the United States has more employees working for the IRS than for the FBI and CIA combined.) People who understand encrypted, encoded messages such as are used by ISIS and other terrorist groups should be recruited in greater numbers.  Persons who are willing and able to define the virtues, freedoms, beauties and wonders of the American way of life ought to be put to work at home and abroad.
          While I surely sympathize with legitimate refugees fleeing war, discrimination and terrorism, I am also mindful of ancient Troy.  As told by the Greek poet Homer in his timeless epic, The Iliad, sometime between the years 1,194 - 1,184 BCE, Greeks laid siege to the city of Troy, a gateway to Central Asia in what is now Turkey.  Failing to penetrate the city gates with ordinary weaponry of the time, the Greeks built a very large wooden horse filled with their soldiers.  The gates were opened from inside by Trojans curious to see this horse.  With the gates opened, Greeks emerged from the horse, killed their opponents and won the war.   For a long time, scholars debated whether Troy even existed.  It did.  Some years back, I took a group of my students to the site of ancient Troy.  The ruins are there, and seeing them was a highlight of our trip to Turkey.
          Here are two quotes from Homer in English translation:  "Our business in the field of fight/Is not to question but to prove our might."  "A glorious death is his who for his country falls."   If not those exact words, those thoughts surely are shared by ISIS and many jihadists.
          So while I sympathize with legitimate refugees and those who seek sanctuary here, I feel the lesson of the Trojan Horse gleaned from The Iliad.  It is vital to keep out those who are committed to killing Americans and/or destroying their culture.  We must be strict about immigration.  That said, although I don't like saying it, I suspect that some jihadists -- and I have no idea of their number -- are already here.  It is our obligation as Americans to defend our country and ourselves as best we can.
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Image result for israel map
          With the level of violence in Israel increasing, the American media has dutifully reported the stabbings and shootings while paying scant attention to their political background.
           In Jerusalem the focus of dispute is the Holy Esplanade.  Jews know this site as the Temple Mount or Western Wall.  They come here to pray, regarding it as Israel's most sacred place.  Above the wall stands what Muslims know as Haram al-Sharif, the Mosque and grounds rising on a plateau.  To them, this is Islam's third most sacred place after Mecca and Medina.
          During the Arab-Israeli War of 1967, victorious Israel acquired from Jordan the so-called West Bank and Jerusalem's Old City.  (The Golan Heights was captured from Syria.)  Israel granted freedom of access to Jerusalem's Holy Places for people of all faiths, although the United Nations requested that this action be rescinded.  Revoking its decision, Israel left the management of the plateau to the Jordanian "Waqf", which had overseen it prior to the war.  Jews gained access to the plateau but were prohibited from praying there.  This arrangement was called the "Status Quo".  The Ottoman Turks, who ruled the land until the end of World War One, had decreed it in the 19th century.  An oral agreement, the "Status Quo" was never put into writing.  It was nevertheless upheld by the Palestine Liberation Organization, Jordan's successor in the Arab territories.
         Time passed.  "The Status Quo" was for the most part observed.  Then, for various reasons of discontent, in 1987 Arabs launched the First Intifada.  In 1996 Israel opened Western Wall tunnels.  Riots ensued, leading to deaths and injuries.  Perhaps in reply, later that same year The Waqf permitted extensive renovation projects.  Disregarding Israeli archaeological standards, it removed some 10,000 tons of earth abounding with artifacts, Islamic and Jewish, which it discarded.
         The Second Intifada erupted in 2000.  Very shortly thereafter, fearing that Jordan would deny Jewish access to the Temple Mount, the Israeli government said it alone would determine who entered the Esplanade and when.
          As tensions mounted during the Second Intifada, Palestinians shouted vindictively and from the heights of the Esplanade began throwing stones at Jewish worshippers below.  The Israeli government began to impose tighter restrictions of access, including carefully monitoring gender and age and outlawing entire groups it considered to be dangerous.  This policy, which the government termed "dilution," has been used increasingly since 2013.
         Today, sharp divisions exist among both Palestinians and Israelis.  Some people on both sides passionately want peace and recognition that the others exist.  A "two-state solution" is talked about, yet even those who discuss it, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, show little inclination to implement it.   Then there are Palestinians, such as the Hamas group.  Its very Charter calls for Israel's elimination.  On the opposing side are Israeli Parliamentarians who advocate sending all Muslims out of Israel or speak of putting the Israeli flag on the roof of the sacred Mosque.
          Our story doesn't end there.
          On October 19, 2015, this news dispatch came:  "The United Nations Educational and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) will consider adopting a resolution that would change the Status-Quo of the Temple Mount and declare the Western Wall a part of the al-Aksa Mosque compound.  If adopted, the resolution, to be submitted by Algeria, Egypt, Kuwait, Morocco, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates, would officially declare the Wall, the most holy site in Judaism, a Muslim holy site."
          Jewish organizations and individuals immediately rose to condemn the proposal.  This writer puzzled over it.  The nations sponsoring it are regarded by the American government as being "moderate".  All have majority Sunni Muslim populations.  All share in common a desire to stop Shi'ite Iran from building atomic weapons.  Why choose this time to inflame matters with Israel?  Egypt and Israel are quietly fighting a common foe, Isis, in the Sinai.  Had the Egyptian government spent more time checking its own internal security, the Russian airplane that was shot down shortly after this proposal was made might still be flying.
          On October 26, 2015, another news dispatch came:  "Secretary of State John Kerry reached an accord with King Abdullah of Jordan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to formalize arrangements governing the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.  The terms of the understanding reinforce the status quo and will be backed up with 24-hour monitoring of the Temple Mount."  It continued:  "Since the outbreak of violence a month ago, 54 Palestinians, half of whom were reportedly carrying out attacks, and 10 Israelis have been killed."
          Also on October 26, this column by Jerold S. Auerbach appeared in the Wall Street Journal:  "A 10-year-old Russian boy, Matvei Tcepliaev, recently made an extraordinary discovery in Jerusalem.  Working as a volunteer in the Temple Mount Sifting Project, he found a 3000-year-old seal, -- engraved limestone about the size of a thimble, with a hole at one end so it could be hung from a string -- from the time of King David.  The artifact was nestled in the hundreds of tons of earth and rock that had been illegally excavated from the Mount in the late 1990s by the Muslim Waqf, a trust that retains authority over the contested site. -- Dating from the era of King David's conquest of Jerusalem and the building of the Jewish First Temple by his son and successor, Solomon, the seal confirms the ancient Jewish presence in Jerusalem more than a millennium before the Muslim (Mosque) was built above the ruins of the ancient temples."
        Prime Minister Netanyahu met with American President Obama on November 9 to reaffirm an Israeli-American friendship which had been strained.  No announcement of consequence was forthcoming.
        On November 11, 2015, this news item came regarding the European Union:  "The EU's executive laid out guidelines for labeling products from Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territories."  The Israeli government quickly denounced it as being discriminatory.  Mr. Netanyahu said the EU decision constituted a "double standard" as the bloc didn't label products from other disputed territories around the world.  He added, "The EU has decided to label only Israel.  The EU should be ashamed."
        Mr. Netanyahu was kinder than he might have been.  Three EU countries: the United Kingdom, Belgium and Denmark, already label goods coming from Israeli settlements.  But the fact is under benign Turkish rule there was relative peace among the peoples of the Near and Middle East.  Only when the UK acquired these lands from the League of Nations following World War One did violent conflicts begin.  British and other Europeans practiced "divide and rule" colonialism in the Near and Middle East, Africa, South Asia and Southeast Asia, all of which became battlegrounds in World War Two and after.   Added to that Nazis inflamed Arabic passions against the Jews in the years between the two world wars.   Europeans should indeed be ashamed.  And they are vulnerable:  Americans and others could boycott Europe, cancelling all trips to that continent and not buying European goods until certain EU members acknowledge their past and present wrong-doings.
        That said, it must be noted that many good Muslims live in Israel.  Many also live in comparative poverty to their Jewish neighbors.  Some are treated disrespectfully, as second-class citizens.  Israeli government policy should be reversed, with Arabs and Muslims uplifted simply for humanitarian reasons.  Human beings everywhere ought to be recognized as equals.  Then, too, if Israeli Muslims were heard to sound Israeli praises, it might bring others to realize these likewise are good people worthy as all of us should be, to live in peace.
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