Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Humor for a Tuesday

Most news from the Middle East is sad or serious. So it's nice when one comes across a news item that is genuinely humorous.

Take, for instance, today's report that the Iranians discovered a Star of David on the roof of the national headquarters of Iran Air in downtown Tehran. (You can see it in the center of the picture to the left, at the point where the three wings of the building intersect.) It turns out the building was constructed by Israeli engineers sometime before the Islamic revolution in 1979. Is the Star of David deliberate, or is it simply a decorative element? No one knows for sure, but the Iranian government is very upset about the discovery and has ordered the symbol to be removed immediately.

Poor Iran! They have the Stuxnet virus gumming up their computers, and an undetected Star of David sitting on the roof of their national airline for 31 years! They must be even more paranoid about Israel!

If you would like to find the Star of David for yourself on Google Earth, go to 51.319 degrees east longitude and 35.696 degrees north latitude. Have fun...and keep smiling!

WikiLeaks and the Middle East

The release of thousands of documents by WikiLeaks has dealt a blow to U.S. prestige and influence in the world. Leaders of other nations will be far more careful in what they say to U.S. diplomats if they believe their private conversations might someday become public.

If there is any silver lining in this diplomatic cloud, it comes through the insight we have gained into the world of diplomacy. A tiny curtain was pulled back and we were given acces to the private conversations of world leaders. Most of the information was not new, or unexpected. Some was already known through earlier leaks to the press by "unnamed government sources" and "senior government officials." The WikiLeaks documents simply unmasked those who were the original sources for that information. And now, having been burned, they will be far more guarded in the future.

Is there anything of significance in the documents relating to Israel and the Middle East? Some items have emerged, though most are not surprises.

1. The major concern among America's Arab allies in the Middle East is Iran, not Israel, especially Iran's nuclear program.

2. Over three years ago Benjamin Netanyahu predicted that the acid test for determining how serious the Palestinians were about peace would be their willingness to accept a Jewish state without demanding a right of return for Palestinians.

3. The West failed the Palestinians when it helped fund a corrupt, bloated bureaucracy rather than working to build a healthy economy.

4. Israel tried to coordinate the Gaza war with both Egypt and the Palestinian Authority--to have them take control of Gaza after Israel smashed Hamas--but both refused.

I'm sure more items will surface as people pour through the documents, but these are some of the major points that have surfaced so far.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Importance of Water

Most Americans have a rather vague understanding regarding the importance of water in the Middle East. That's because we tend to view water as something that comes out of a tap. It's always there, and we don't often think about where it comes from. We just expect it to be available. But in the Middle East water is a far more precious--and uncertain--commodity.

And that's why God stressed the connection between water and His covenant relationship to His people. Watch how the connection develops in Deuteronomy 8:10-17.

For the land, into which you are entering to possess it, is not like the land of Egypt from which you came, where you used to sow your seed and water it with your foot like a vegetable garden. But the land into which you are about to cross to possess it, a land of hills and valleys, drinks water from the rain of heaven, a land for which the LORD your God cares; the eyes of the LORD your God are always on it, from the beginning even to the end of the year. And it shall come about, if you listen obediently to my commandments which I am commanding you today, to love the LORD your God and to serve Him with all your heart and all your soul, that He will give the rain for your land in its season, the early and late rain, that you may gather in your grain and your new wine and your oil. And He will give grass in your fields for your cattle, and you shall eat and be satisfied. Beware, lest your hearts be deceived and you turn away and serve other gods and worship them. Or the anger of the LORD will be kindled against you, and He will shut up the heavens so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its fruit; and you will perish quickly from the good land which the LORD is giving you.

God placed Israel in a land of marginal rainfall, and He used that land as a testing ground to teach His people life-lessons about faith, trust, obedience, and the consequences of actions. I was reminded of all this while reading an article in today's Jerusalem Post--"Lack of winter rains even worse than predicted." This November the Sea of Galilee received less water than it has for the past 80 years. And forecasters are predicting a dry December as well.

The Jerusalem Post writer sees the ultimate solution to Israel's water problem in desalination plants that will turn sea water into fresh water. Sadly, he implies that human ability will help eliminate our need to depend on God. "By taking the full burden of providing water away from Divine will, it should provide a buffer to enable the natural reservoirs to gradually replenish."

Desalination might appear to be a good option for Israel, but such plants will be tempting targets for the country's enemies. Ultimately, Israel needs to depend on God to supply the rain from heaven...and to protect them against those seeking their harm.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Putting "Occupied Territories" in Perspective

Yesterday, Israel's cabinet voted to allocate 85 million shekels (ca. $23 million) to upgrade the Western Wall area to better accommodate the nearly eight million visitors to the site each year. If you have not been to Israel, the Western Wall is sometimes referred to as Wailing Wall. It's a holy site for religious Jews because historically it was the closest spot to their former temple where they could go to worship.

The Palestinian Authority immediately condemned Israel's decision, claiming "Israel does not have permission to make changes in the occupied territories, especially in Jerusalem." And perhaps this statement best defines the level of insanity that passes for diplomacy in the Middle East.

Is the Western Wall in the territory captured by Israel in 1967? Yes. Is it occupied territory? Not any longer. Let me explain. The Western Wall is actually part of the retaining wall built by Herod the Great as part of his temple renovations that began just prior to the birth of Jesus. The wall was built by Jewish artisans to help support the buildings that were part of their Jewish temple complex.

Though the Jewish people were expelled from Jerusalem in A.D. 70 and A.D. 135, their heart-song was always to return. And over the centuries thousands did. By the end of the 1800s the majority population of Jerusalem was Jewish. The picture above was taken by G. Erick Matson sometime between 1900 and 1920. It shows Jewish men and women praying at the Western Wall. So many Jews lived in this part of the Old City that it was--and still is--known as the Jewish Quarter.

When Israel became a state in 1948, it was attacked by several surrounding nations. Jordanian forces attacked the Old City of Jerusalem and forced the Jewish inhabitants to surrender. Those inhabitants were then expelled from the Old City, and the Jewish Quarter (including the Western Wall) came under Jordanian Control. I believe at that point it became occupied territory. In the 1967 Six-Day War Israel captured the Old City and liberated the Jewish Quarter.

The Western Wall is a Jewish possession. They built it, they inhabited the area around it until being expelled in 1948, they recaptured it in 1967, and they have every right to maintain and upgrade it to benefit those who visit the site. Don't let the phrase "occupied territory" get applied to this piece of land!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Americans, Airport Security...and Surveys

It seems as if airport security--especially the introduction of new body scanners--is making the news. In fact, we will be talking about the difference between Israel airport security and U.S. airport security in the news segment on Saturday's program.

But is the concern over the new security procedures just a tempest in a teapot? Are Americans really upset about the new body scanners and enhanced pat-downs being rolled out in American airports? According to a recently released CBS News Poll, 81% of Americans support the use of full-body x-rays at airports. And if the vast majority of Americans are for the new procedures, why are people making such a fuss?

Let's take a closer look at the CBS News Poll, which I think has some serious flaws.

First, the survey was not limited to people who actually fly. According to the U.S. Travel Association less than half of all Americans travel by air in any given year. If the CBS News Poll was truly a random sampling of Americans, then we can assume that half those surveyed were not bothered by the new security regulations because they don't fly. (I'm not bothered by Singapore's ban on chewing gum, but I've never traveled to Singapore either!)

Second, the survey assumes people have enough knowledge of--or experience with--the new security measures to provide an informed response. I fly more than many, though I'm not a hard-core frequent flyer. In the past two months I've flown on eight different flights, going through airport security six times in four different airports. And thus far I've only had to go through one of the new body scanners once. The reality is that the machines are still being installed, so relatively few people have had experience with one. I think the survey would have been more helpful had the results reflected responses based on flyers who have actually experienced the new enhanced security procedures.

Third, the survey asked a question that supposedly focused on the one option to the current procedures for enhanced security--profiling. Specifically, it asked if racial or ethnic profiling is justified, and the overwhelming response was no. But I think it would have been more realistic to ask if people supported an enhanced version of behavioral profiling. (The U.S. currently employs a form of behaviorial profiling as part of our airport security.) This is a key part of Israel's airport security, and anyone who has flown out of Ben Gurion airport knows the difference between Israel's approach to security and that practiced by the U.S. (For those who have never been to Israel, you don't have to remove your shoes...but you definitely feel more secure when you board the plane!)

Fourth, one issue the survey did not address is the actual impact of the new procedures on travelers. Those who have experienced the new procedures have expressed extreme discomfort at the potential for increased exposure to radiation, at the invasion of privacy (body scanners can look beneath clothing and the enhanced pat-downs approach the level of groping), and at the additional time required for the new procedures. (In my case, the amount of time per passenger was at least double, and the lines were twice as long as a result.) This year's Thanksgiving and Christmas travel season could turn into a nightmare for travelers. And it will only get worse as additional airports transition to these new machines and procedures over the next year.

Fifth, our airport security always seem to be reacting to what has happened, rather than preparing for what is next. Just as we start spending billions of dollars to install body scanners in airports, terrorists are experimenting with sending bombs through the luggage and packages loaded underneath the plane. The passengers are more hassled, but are they any safer than they were before? I'm not so sure.

I have a suggestion for CBS News. Wait until after the Thanksgiving/Christmas holidays and then redo the survey. But ask a few additional questions to segment travelers who actually have experienced the new security procedures. I think you will find that more than 20% find them unacceptable.

I also have a suggestion for TSA. It's time to consider adopting additional behavioral profiling procedures to identify would-be terrorists, rather than hassling all passengers just to give the illusion of safety. Stop buying body scanners and spend the money on additional equipment to make sure the cargo going underneath the plane is free of explosives.

And if you want to know what all this could look like, take a trip to Israel!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Update on Stuxnet Virus

Remember the reports on the Stuxnet virus infecting computers in Iran? (See my post from September 23 for background information.) Like so much of yesterday's news, it has seemingly slipped into oblivion. But is the story--or the virus--really gone?

Earlier this week an article appeared on the Guardian newspaper web site with further information about the virus. After several months of detailed study, computer virus experts have now concluded what was suspected all along--the Stuxnet virus was indeed designed to sabotage Iran's nuclear program.

Symantec, the software company specializing in virus protection software, has posted a video illustrating how the virus actually worked. Stuxnet searched out specialized power drives controlling high-speed of motors, then varied the speed of the motors for short periods of time. The sudden change in speed would tear apart the equipment. The motor controllers targeted by the virus are consistent with the type of motors used to control Iran's gas centrifuges for enriching uranium.

Two questions remain unanswered. Who designed the virus...and has it been completely eradicated? No individual or nation has stepped forward to claim credit for the virus, and Iran is unlikely to share the full extent of the damage done...or whether it has really been eliminated. And one additional question remains. Was the virus only designed to attack equipment, or did it also have the ability to report back to its creator information on the content of the many computers it did infect?

I don't believe we have yet reached the end of the story!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Ted Koppel and News as Entertainment

I appreciated Ted Koppel and Nightline, though we occupied opposite ends of the theological and political spectrum. He was committed to journalistic integrity, and I appreciated that commitment. He wrote an article in last Sunday's edition of The Washington Post that I found very insightful. It focused on the "death of real news" and the decline in television journalism from the bygone days "when the networks considered the collection and dissemination of substantive and unbiased news to be a public trust."

Koppel was referring to television news in general, but his article has direct application to news from the Middle East. This is a region where it's difficult to sift through all the bias and propaganda to find the real truth behind an issue. It takes time and effort to ferret out all the facts. Sadly, budgets, deadlines, and audience ratings are the enemies of such reporting. It's relatively easy (and more cost-efficient...and entertaining!) to present a compelling personal story as if it represents the whole truth. One of the most dramatic examples of this type of reporting--and the impact it can have--was the September 2000 story of 12-year-old Muhammad Al-Dura being "shot by Israeli soldiers." The story, with its graphic images, helped fuel the Al-Aqsa Intifada. While the accuracy of the story itself was eventually challenged, the facts that came to light were barely reported by the same news organizations that had carried the original story. Truth, it turns out, was just yesterday's news.

A second example took place in 2007 when a portion of an earth ramp leading to the Mugrabi Gate at the Temple Mount collapsed. Israel built a new access ramp, but they also used the opportunity to excavate the area that had collapsed. Anyone visiting Jerusalem could see that the excavation (done in plain site) was at least a hundred feet outside the Temple Mount area. But the Muslim religious authorities incited riots with claims that the Jews were undermining the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and many media outlets "accurately" reported the false claims, without bothering to mention the fact that the claims were unfounded! For a good summary of the event, click here.

Koppel ends his article with a bleak assessment of the current state of news reporting in the media. "The transition of news from a public service to a profitable commodity is irreversible. Legions of new media present a vista of unrelenting competition. Advertisers crave young viewers, and these young viewers are deemed to be uninterested in hard news, especially hard news from abroad. This is felicitous, since covering overseas news is very expensive. On the other hand, the appetite for strongly held, if unsubstantiated, opinion is demonstrably high. And such talk, as they say, is cheap."

So what's the lesson to be learned? I see two. First, the phrase caveat emptor--buyer beware--must now be applied to the news. Networks are peddling news as a commodity, and you need to be aware of that fact. You can't assume what you are watching, hearing, or reading has been carefully and meticulously checked for accuracy. They may accurately report what is said, but they don't necessarily check to see if what is being said is true. And so you must do so yourself.

Second, we need speak with louder voices to demand both accuracy and truthfulness from the media. Such reporting can help us see through the distortions of propaganda to understand the reality of what is happening in the world. I don't want to be entertained by the news, I want to be enlightened by it. And that requires a dedication to accuracy and honesty in reporting on the part of the media. What can you do? Call, write, or e-mail media outlets and let them know your expectations. If media executives see news from an economic perspective, reward those committed to journalistic integrity...and stop supporting those that do not!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Inside the Middle East Crisis

In early October I had spoke at a strategic conference in Chicago. The event, sponsored by Chosen People Ministries, was entitled "Inside the Middle East Crisis"and also featured Joel Rosenberg, Erwin Lutzer, Michael Rydelnik, and Mitch Glaser, among others. Each speaker focused on the spiritual challenges facing the Middle East, and the impact those challenges will have on the rest of the world.

I just received word that audio and video from the conference is now available online. If would like to view the messages, click here to link to the site. And the best news of all is that access to the conference messages is free!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Theological Fallout from the Lausanne Conference

The Third Lausanne Conference on World Evangelization was held in Cape Town last month. And while many reports coming from the conference are positive, there is one that is rather troubling. The Theology Working Group of the conference produced a statement that contains the following paragraph. Read it carefully.
We give thanks that the one Church that God has called into being in Christ is drawn from every nation, tribe, people and language, with the result that no single ethnic identity can any longer claim to be “God’s chosen people”. God’s election of Old Testament Israel was for the sake of the eventual creation of this multi-national community of God’s people, and the Old Testament itself envisages and anticipates it. We observed again how prominently 1 Peter applies terms and truths that were used in the Old Testament to describe Israel to the multi-ethnic community of those in Christ. It is vital that we strongly affirm, therefore, that while there are multiple ethnicities within the one church by God’s clear intention, no single ethnic group holds privileged place in God’s economy of salvation or God’s eschatological purpose. For this reason, we strongly believe that the separate and privileged place given to Jewish people today or to the modern Israeli state in certain forms of dispensationalism or Christian Zionism, should be challenged, inasmuch as they deny the essential oneness of the people of God in Christ.
The worldwide evangelistic enterprise of the past century took place, in large measure, through churches and parachurch organizations that held to a dispensational and premillennial perspective. And it was this theological perspective that motivated them to take the gospel to the ends of the earth. Many in attendance at this Lausanne Conference continue to hold this theological position. In a document that is supposed to emphasize areas of commonality and unity among believers, it is troubling to find the writers calling on Christians to "challenge" those who see a future for the nation Israel in the eternal plan of God. Why did they choose to single out Israel, and those who support her? I believe it reveals the theological bias of those who composed the document.

But the statement not only divides evangelicals. It will be viewed as anti-Semitic by those within the Jewish community who view all Christians with suspicion. This document mirrors statements from the recent Roman Catholic synod on the Middle East that had clear anti-Semitic undertones. (See my blog, Are the Jews God's Chosen People?, from October 25.)

Finally, I'm concerned about the statement because it does a disservice to all the Old Testament promises to ethnic Israel--eternal promises that are based on the very character of God Himself. The framers of the document should heed Paul's words in Romans 9–11, which is the one New Testament passage that speaks directly to the relationship between ethnic Israel and the church in the overall outworking of God's plan of salvation. Paul's words are instructive. "But I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery—so that you will not be wise in your own estimation—that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in; and so all Israel will be saved" (Romans 11:25-26a). And when will ethnic Israel experience this redemption? When "the Deliverer will come from Zion, He will remove ungodliness from Jacob. This is My covenant with them, when I take away their sins" (vv. 26b-27). Paul looks toward the return of the Messiah and the fulfillment of God's New Covenant promises to "Jacob" (a clear reference to ethnic Israel) as the time when Israel will experience full national salvation.

It looks to me as if Paul is clearly teaching ethnic Israel will someday have "a privileged place in God's economy of salvation." I'll stick with Paul on this one!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Digging out the truth

One of the first victims in the current Middle East conflict has been truth. It takes time to sort through all the competing rhetoric to provide balanced, fair reporting. The incessant demands of a 24-hour news cycle--and the blending of news and entertainment--have resulted in news reports that are often more propaganda than factual reporting. This is true through all aspects of the media, but it seems to be more common in stories focused on events in the Middle East.

Where can one go to dig beneath the surface and discover the truth?

One of the best online sources I know is CAMERA--Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America. This site researches claims made in various media reports and digs beneath the surface to provide specific factual data on biased reporting, biased reporters, and biased sources. This level of research takes time, so some items have become "old news" by the time CAMERA finally issues a report. Still, I find their content very compelling. And they provide sources and links, which adds a level of transparency that is sadly lacking in many other media reports.

Want to read an example of their work? Look at their report on the anti-Israel article that appeared in the Julliard Journal...and follow the different links to track the level of research they have done to support their conclusions.

This is a site you ought to bookmark and visit on a regular basis. Truth is still the best defense against error!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Ancient Garden Found in Israel

A recent report from Tel Aviv University announced the discovery of an ancient garden at Ramat Rachel just south of Jerusalem. The article compares the idea of a royal garden to the hanging garden of Nebuchadnezzar (in Babylon) and the Garden of Eden. The royal garden just uncovered dates to the seventh-century B.C. (600s B.C.).

That might seem like little more than an interesting archaeological fact...until you combine this discovery with other key information. First, Ramat Rachel is just two miles south of Jerusalem. It sits on a hill between Jerusalem and Bethlehem--close to the capital yet away from the sounds (and smells!) of the ancient city, perched on a hill with fresh air and commanding views. Second, previous excavations at Ramat Rachel uncovered remains of a royal palace at the site that dates from the time of the last kings of Judah. Likely, the ancient garden was part of this royal palace...and gives additional insight into the opulence of the entire complex.

But what king during this period of history--a time when Judah was under Babylonian domination--would be foolish enough to construct a new royal palace...with an elaborate garden? I believe the Bible actually supplies us with the answer. His name is King Jehoiakim!

King Jehoiakim was a wicked king who ruled Judah for eleven years (605–597 B.C.). He was eventually assassinated by his own people to spare the city of Jerusalem from being destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar.

The dates of Jehoiakim's reign match the general date for the construction for the palace and royal garden. More importantly, the ruins that have been uncovered could illuminate Jeremiah's message of judgment against this wicked king.

"Woe to him who builds his house without righteousness and his upper rooms without justice, who uses his neighbor’s services without pay and does not give him his wages, who says, 'I will build myself a roomy house with spacious upper rooms, and cut out its windows, paneling it with cedar and painting it bright red.' Do you become a king because you are competing in cedar? Did not your father eat and drink, and do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him. He pled the cause of the afflicted and needy; then it was well. Is not that what it means to know Me?” declares the LORD. "But your eyes and your heart are intent only upon your own dishonest gain, and on shedding innocent blood and on practicing oppression and extortion." Therefore thus says the LORD in regard to Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah, "They will not lament for him: 'Alas, my brother!' or, 'Alas, sister!' They will not lament for him: 'Alas for the master!' or, 'Alas for his splendor!' He will be buried with a donkey’s burial, Dragged off and thrown out beyond the gates of Jerusalem" (Jeremiah 22:13-19).

At the very time Judah needed a godly leader with wisdom and strength of character, Jehoiakim ruled as a petty despot who only cared about building a new palace to satisfy his own greed. The palace and royal gardens just uncovered could very well be the palace condemned by Jeremiah. If so, they provide clear evidence of the excesses of this self-absorbed, wicked king.

Persecution of Christians in Iraq

Yesterday's story from Iraq was on Islamic fundamentalists taking over a Catholic church in the middle of its service and holding over 100 people hostage. Eventually the siege ended when Iraqi soldiers stormed the church. Sadly, 58 hostages were killed, and 75 were wounded during the siege and rescue attempt.

This event brings two thoughts to mind. First, we need to recognize that the state of Israel shouldn't be singled out for the decline in the number of Christians living in the Middle East. Just a week ago I wrote about the conference held in Rome that blamed Israel for most of the problems being faced by Christian Arabs. I noted then that the conference "failed to acknowledge the true oppressor of the church in the Middle East—Islam." Sadly, here is another example of that oppression. The Christian Science Monitor cited a Human Rights Watch report stating that two-thirds of Iraq's Christian population have been forced to flee their homes. Israel gets blamed for the dwindling Christian population in the Middle East, but most of the Christians who are leaving do so because of threats and attacks from Islamic fundamentalists.

Second, we need to pray for all those in the Middle East who claim to be followers of Christ. Pray that God will give His followers boldness to be a witness for Him even in times of persecution. We should heed Paul's admonition regarding the real enemy we face...and the amazing resources we possess. "For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand....And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints" (Ephesians 6:12-13, 18).

Carve out some time today to pray for our brothers and sisters throughout the Middle East!