Sunday, April 20, 2014

Re-learning to Read

In recent months I've been teaching myself to read - or perhaps, re-teaching, since I used to know but forgot. By reading I don't mean the technical ability to recognize letters and the sounds they represent, and thereby to construct conversations, ideas, or whatever nonsense people write. That ability I never lost. The one I did, however, was the ability to take a book and sit and read it, page after page, perhaps even hour after hour. That art I lost sometime during the past decade or two, as I put all my reading abilities into reading stuff on glass screens, and then reading shorter stuff on smaller glass screens, and then skimming over stuff on other glass screens.

Blogs, say. Or Tweets. At least I never started using Facebook.

So it hasn't been easy, re-learning what I used to know. Back in the Old Times I used to read all the time, everywhere. I'd take two books onto an airplane, and six or eight of them to the first week of reserve duty. I would stand in lines in official ministries, reading. Buses? Reading. banks? Reading. I often read three or four books simultaneously. And then I lost the ability, and for a while didn't even notice. Then I did notice but brushed it aside. Until eventually I realized that reading from glass screens - unless perhaps it be Kindle type screens which I never tried - was a form of making oneself dumb. True, just about everyone else was doing the same, but that didn't mean I wasn't getting dumber, even if it was a communal project.

So I tried to reverse the tide. It wasn't easy. For a while it was a physical effort. But eventually the effort began paying dividends, as efforts often do. Recently it has even been getting easier, and of course, worthier.

So here's a quick list of some books I've read recently:

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. I don't read enough literature to do literary criticism, but this book about a girl in Nazi Germany wasn't what I'd expected. It was, however, a fine read, and I sort of didn't put it down until I'd finished it.

Paul Preston's The Spanish Civil War: Reaction, Revolution, and Revenge (Revised and Expanded Edition) was recommended to me by my son who is currently working in Spain for an international technology company. I hadn't actually ever read a systematic description of the Spanish Civil War, and this book taught me that it had been much worse than I had been led to think ("the pilot project of WW2), and Franco was considerably more ghastly than I'd thought, in spite of the fact that during WW2 he enabled safe haven to many of the Jews who managed to cross over from France.

Bill Bryson actually convinced me that my secret aspiration to walk the Appalachian Trail from end to end is probably not worth the considerable effort (compounded by the fact that I live more than 6,000 miles away). Though I do hope to do additional sections of it to the few I've already done. Another really fun book: A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail.

Then I read Paul Berman's Power and the Idealists: Or, The Passion of Joschka Fischer, and its Aftermath. This is the third or fourth of Berman's books I've read. His shtick is that he's an old 68er who has grown up, but is still attached to the idealism that fuelled his young political passions. It's an interesting and worthy perspective, especially the grown up parts of it, though I admit that I weary, slowly, of his built-in and underlying assumption that one needs those roots in the Left to be a compassionate person.

And then I read Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West - but that's a book which deserves its own post. Someday.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Freedom isn't Free: A Sad Rumination on the Eve of Pessach

In the 1950s the CIA put a pile of time and money into disseminating Boris Pasternak's novel Dr. Zhivago in the Soviet Union. The assumption apparently was that words can be a powerful weapon, if used well - and, of course, if deployed as one weapon among many against the enemy. Of course, in those days the concept of enemy was different than it is today.

A common meaning of the word "enemy" today is anything that causes distress to nice folks like us. We haven't yet reached the middle of April this year, and here's a collection of people who've been silenced since the beginning of the month for fear their words might hurt someone:

76-year-old Barbara Driver used an unfortunate phrase while making a political point in her local municipal council, which ended her career.

Cambridge University Press, an august institution which has been disseminating ideas for centuries, nixed the publication of a book which might have offended Vladimir Putin. (Honestly).

Mozila, the company which produces the web-browser you may be using as you read this, fired its CEO because back in 2008 he donated money to a political campaign in California which went on to win, but which has since been overturned by a court; the hapless CEO had the temerity to hold on to his belief that same-sex marriage is not a good thing. (To his credit, same-sex activist Andrew Sullivan castigated the lunacy of the decision).

Brandeis University disinvited Ayaan Hisi Aly from speaking on campus because it was expected her appearance might offend some folks who disagree with her politics. (An abridged version of her talk is online here, and any decent person should read it no-matter what their political opinion, simply to demonstrate their decency).

I have no doubt there are other recent examples I've missed. Sadly, Voltaire's sentiment about dying in defense of opinions he disagreed with to ensure freedom of expression is long since done with. In the liberal democracies which would never have been invented were it not for his ideas, it is hardly conceivable that citizens would die for anything; freedom of expression and thus freedom of thought has been canceled so as not to hurt anyone's feelings, should their thoughts turn out to be hurtful to someone. Hurt feelings, we are to accept, are the worst thing that can happen to a person.

(Voltaire, by the way, was a committed hater of Jews; he used his distaste to castigate the powerful Church of his day in the roundabout manner of bashing the Jews. Had he lived in the 21st century he would have been drummed out of town. Fortunately, he lived in 18th-century France, so that worked out). (Then again, hurting the feeling of Jews is actually rather acceptable, even in 2014: an exception to the rule).

Steven Pinker writes about this onslaught of gentleness in his magisterial The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.  He puts it into the context of the end of violence, so that while it's a bit silly, it's also basically a fine thing. The problem is, of course, that the world isn't that gentle a place yet, nor are large swathes of it obviously on their way. This was the gist of my review of Pinker's book. The murderers in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, CAR, Nigeria and so on, don't live in a world where anyone cares a whit about anyone's feelings.

Nor does Putin. Or Khamenai and his sidekicks. Assad. Nor any of their henchmen and, truth be told, any of their enemies. None of them would recognize a hurtful sentiment if they saw it in full daylight, nor are any of them likely to fathom the sentiment. Voltaire would recognize their world, though.

The problem with ending free speech so as not to offend is that it portends the end of fee thought. Having lived for decades in an imaginary world where people forbid themselves hurtful thoughts, they have now lost the ability to see the world as others do, to recognize real enemies, and to deploy weapons that might impress those enemies. And so, having trained themselves not to be hurtful, the intellectual leaders of the free world and the political ones too have lost the concept of enemy. Sadly, their enemies haven't.

Back in the 1950s the CIA - even the CIA - knew the importance of freedom of thought.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Sodastream is a factory, not a settlement

I had an e-mail exchange this week with a fellow who really really doesn't like us. On the topic of that Sodastream factory in Mishor Adumim, he informed me that the Palestinian workers there are treated as slaves. When I suggested I might try to see their payrolls so as to test his proposition, he backed off: payrolls don't prove anything, he told me, the only thing that's important is that Palestine isn't sovereign.

Which got me thinking. The Israeli-Arab conflict famously makes many otherwise reasonably normal people lose their marbles, so that they engage in all sorts of mumbo-jumbo. The Sodastream story seems to be such a case. In any other context, worldwide, a private company maintaining a factory in an underdeveloped country so as to take advantage of its lower labor costs would be regarded as a boon for the hosting country (if perhaps not for the rich country the factory had previously been in). Sodastream, however, isn't paying hundreds of Palestinian workers what they'd get from a Palestinian employer. It's paying the Palestinian laborers Israeli wages, with the social benifits mandated by Israeli law.

Nobody lives in the Sodastream factory: it's a factory. If ever there is peace between Israel and Palestine, Israeli owned factories in Palestine employing Palestinians is precisely the sort of thing everyone should be wishing for. Not for the "soft" advantages of people working alongside one another, which is the kind of thing one can't easily measure: for the "hard", quantifiable advantage of employment and foreign curreny.

In any other context, this is called FDI (foriegn direct investment) and is eagerly sought by politicians and toted up by economists. When it comes to Israel-Palestine, however, normal discourse goes silent.

(On a related note, Yair Rosenberg has a great piece up at Tablet about the debate, 53 years ago today, when Yaacov Herzog forced Arnold Toynbee to cut out the mumbo-jumbo and talk straight).

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Dawn and Midnight, Summer and Winter

Here are two sets of pictures. (Click and you should see them enlarged)

Kaffit on Emek Refaim at dawn on a hot September day, and the same place at midnight last Thursday. And then, Rachel Immenu (which is around the corner), at the same dawn (looking west you can see the mornings sunlight on the clouds) and at the same midnight (looking east this time).


Re-inventing the Archives

Two and a half years ago I mostly shut down this blog, except for the occasional foray, and took the position of Israel's State Archivist. One can't be a civil servant and run a political blog; and anyway, as time was to prove, there was precious little time to do much blogging anyway.

Newborn people require about two years to get a grasp of language. My experience has been that two years is often the amount of time it takes to understand other things, too. Most presidents need about that long to figure out their new job, for example, though the media loves to overlook the fact for better or worse. In my case, it took almost exactly two years for me to understand the system enough to launch my bid to change my part of it, and then another four months to cajole the surrounding environment to support us. Last month the Cabinet passed decision number 911 (no mystical significance) which effectively re-invents the Israel State Archives, along with some other bits of the environment too.

In an nutshell, the decision and its accompanying budgetary decisions says the following:

The State Archives must become digital in the full meaning of the term, and thereby put all possible documentation in the hands of the broadest possible public. This is to be done on six main tracks.

1. Identify all the historically significant documentation produced by the entire government and bring it (or a copy there-of) in digital form to the archives. (This is trickier than it sounds).
2. Scan the entire collection of paper documentation accumulated in the ISA so far (at a rate of 2 million pages a month this will still take decades).
3. Preserve the digital documentation for posterity. (Think about this for a bit and you'll see why it's such a major challenge for archives worldwide).
4. Catalogue and declassify the collections. (There's a sad story behind this one).
5. Make all that boring bureaucratic stuff fascinating for the general public.
6. Pay for the entire thing by making the government stop storing paper. (The budget of the ISA has been significantly expanded, but the money has to come from somewhere).

So was it a good thing I stopped blogging (assuming you were of the small group that thought it was a worthy thing to be doing in the first place)? I hope so.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate

Here's a quick non-review of Vasily Grossman's magnificent Life and Fate (New York Review Books Classics). Non-review, since I don't read enough literature to be able to write a literary review, but I do wish to bring this book to the attention of potential readers.

Grossman (1905-1964) was a Soviet writer and an important war correspondent during the 2nd World War.  He was at Stalingrad, and at the liberation of Nazi camps. His mother was murdered by the Nazis; he himself was later castigated for not being patriotic enough. All of these themes are woven into Life and Fate, a story of the Soviet Union during the battle of Stalingrad which is clearly modeled on War and Peace. Like War and Peace, its multi-stranded story presents the entire society - generals and prisoners, intellectuals and combat pilots, old women and young men, heroes and knaves.

Last year I reviewed Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands, and in doing so I mentioned a series of previous books I had read comparing the Soviets and the Nazis. I recommended Snyder's book and still do, but Grossman's is much better. Snyder's has far more historical facts; Grossman's gives the historical truth. He was there, watching and understanding, and he tells it as it was. The oddest part of his book is that he ever thought it could be published in the Soviet Union, even in the relatively benign Khruschev years. Such a damning portrait of Soviet society could only be published outside the system, as it eventually was in 1980, 16 years after the author's death and after the manuscript had been smuggled out of the country.

In an otherwise powerful book, a number of sections stood out in particular in my reading. The first is a farewell letter of a doomed Jewish mother, on the eve of the liquidation of her ghetto. I have to assume Grossman was writing about his own mother. There's a description of how scientific discoveries are made which could have been lifted directly out of Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: 50th Anniversary Edition were it not for the fact that Grossman wrote before Kuhn, and had no way of being influenced by him. There are descriptions of the battle of Stalingrad, and especially the fighters of a surrounded and doomed Soviet outpost which contradict the entire sense of Soviet society for their raw sense of freedom. There is a description of a Nazi death installation which isn't accurate, but the power of Grossman's words about how "life is tuned into inanimate material" makes it more potent than most of what has been written about Nazism. There are descriptions of how individuals coped with life under totalitarianism, how they adapted, and how by doing so they bolstered the regime.

About a hundred pages before the end there's a description of the interrogation of Krymov, a life-long communist who is now in the Lubyanka prison in Moscow. This section was one of the most important I've read, ever. It shows how the interrogator takes decades of loyal activity for the Party, and convincingly makes it sound like decades of subterfuge and treason. Krymov knows it's all a lie, but as the interrogation continues, he sees the sense of the allegations, how useless it will be to cling to his version, and how hopeless it will be to continue to believe in his life-long convictions and his own memory at the same time. His cell-mates, all veterans of the party and interrogations, demonstrate that in order not to reject everything he has ever believed in, he must accept that he has been wrong all along - or vice versa. Either way, the Party will remain untouched, while he, the life-long party activist, will be destroyed.

Much of the book is fascinating for a history buff such as I. The section about how the interrogator has collected all possible information about Krymov's entire life, so as to arrange it in the most damning version conceivable, however, is of urgent importance not only for the dwindling number of us who still remember the history of the 20th century. This is how the purveyors of systematic lies operate today, in 2013, and will still be operating in 2113.  Read Mondoweiss any day of the week, or preferably, every day for a few weeks, and you'll see the NKVD in its full glory.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Are America's Jews still Jewish?

OK, I admit, that title was a wee bit provocative. Not nice of me.

On the other hand, given the story of my family, which isn't new, and the PEW survey of American Jews, which was published earlier this month, along with a slowly-broadening fissure opening between the world's largest Jewish community and the second largest, I think it needs to be asked.

My family's story isn't important, were it not for the fact that I've been watching it happen all my life, and I've always assumed that it was typical. My great-grandparents moved to the Goldene Medina in the first years of the 20th century, as is true about most of America's Jews. I no longer have contact with quite a number of my cousins, especially the 2nd and 3rd ones, but so far as a I know, a clear majority of them are no longer Jews. Some are quite open about this (the Pew survey found more than a million descendants of Jews who define themselves as not Jewish); others are too lazy about the issue to make any declarations.

The Pew survey has been dissected, discussed, and dismissed with much fanfare since its publication; it has also caused much dismay. It's also more than 200 pages long, so many of the people who've been discussing it avidly may not have read it all. (I skipped the almost 100 pages that focused on methodology). You don't need me to analyze what's in it; indeed, all I'm going to offer is a very small nutshell. In one brief sentence: America's Jews are disappearing, but until they do, they mostly feel good about being Jews.

Not all of them, and not equally, of course. The 10% who are Haredi, and the 5% who are Modern Orthodox, are mostly flourishing. This wasn't always so, of course, and traditional Jews who moved to America usually lost some or all of their commitment to a halachic lifestyle, but those who held onto it now live in a strong community with little attrition.

All the rest, however, are losing numbers and losing commitment. Households with two committed Jews are losing less than households who aren't like that - but a large and growing number aren't like that. Back in the early 1970s there was a spate of articles in Israeli newspapers, I remember, about how intermarriage in America was going to result in the disappearance of America's Jews. This then didn't transpire, and the Israeli smugness abated - except that it has happened, and is happening, and while it's taking longer than the Israelis expected, it looks inexorable.

Yet the survey also shows that large numbers, and clear majorities, of America's Jews are proud to be Jews. How then to resolve those two characteristics?

The answer, I fear, is in that well-worn issue of what being Jewish means. Is what America's Jews are proud of, really Judaism?

Jewish identity was not complicated since before the Common Era all the way up until the beginning of the 19th century. For the past 200 years however, it has become very complicated indeed. I'm not going to offer a magic bullet to make that complexity go away. Are Jews the people who believe in a certain set of beliefs? Well, sort of, but not really, so no. Are they the people who live according to halachic precepts? Of course not, except when they do. Are they an ethnic group? Walk down the streets of Jerusalem and you'll be hard-put to say what a Jew is supposed to look like. (I remember the exciting moment some 20 years ago when I saw, for the first time, a Jew who really looked exactly what the anti-semitic caricatures said we're all supposed to resemble. I haven't seen him since, however).

Having said all that, there are things that can be said about what being Jewish is, and to ask if most of America's Jews share those characteristics to a significant extent.

The first, sadly, is that often being a Jew was something you were willing to die for. Not eager to die for, or course, but committed to the Jewish way of life to the extent that you'd not abandon it no matter what, come hell or high water or rampaging pogromists or devious designers of laws against Jews. Or suicide bombers on buses or in supermarkets. Like it or not, today's Jews are essentially all descended from forebears who responded to the willing-to-die question in the affirmative. Most of them weren't called upon to make the personal choice, but it was often there, in the near or distant background, and they, their grandchildren and their 10th and 20th generation descendants all answered in the affirmative. Those of their descendant who didn't may still carry the odd gene inherited from them but they're long since not Jewish.

The PEW researchers didn't ask their respondents if they're willing to die for being Jewish, but the answer is clear; they're not willing to make some considerably lesser requirements of themselves and their children.

The second, of course, is the matter of religious lifestyle. I'm carefully staying away from the question of religious belief, because dogma and theology have usually played only a minor role in Judaism. The Protestant concept of belief as an indicator of belonging is rare in Judaism, which means that even if some American Jews believe in a set of Jewish beliefs, if they're not committed to a recognizable way of Jewish life, it's not clear what help the belief is. What has always been important is a Jewish way of life. Since we're way beyond the days when this had to mean a halachic lifestyle it's harder to define, but it still has to be there.

Israelis have a Jewish lifestyle of a sorts by definition: they live in Hebrew, according to the Hebrew calender, in a society which understands itself as having important Jewish elements. Do America's Jews have a parallel phenomenon?

Not that I could find in the survey. In what was to me probably the single saddest finding of the survey, page 55 tells of what American Jews think is essential to their being Jewish. The totals are as follows:
Remembering the Holocaust - 73%
Leading an ethical and moral life - 69%
Working for Justice/equality - 56%
Being intellectually curious - 49%
Caring for Israel - 43%
Having a good sense of humor - 42%
Being part of a Jewish community - 28%
Observing Jewish law - 19%
Eating traditional Jewish foods - 14%.

Of course, there's not a single one of those qualities which contradicts being Jewish. Indeed, it would be fine if all Jews shared them all, so that the response would have been 100% down the whole line (assuming there are any consensual Jewish foods, which I doubt there are). But are these the essentials to being Jewish? The Holocaust happened 70 years ago, which means that for the first 30-plus centuries of Jewish history that element was absent.  The ethical and justice stuff reminds me of the time a German friend told me how proud he was of his Christian values, and I pointedly asked if there were any of them I couldn't also claim, without being a Christian. Intellectual curiosity and a sense of humor? As defining characteristics of Jewishness? Really? Isn't this a bit parochial and arrogant at the same time?

Which leaves us with belonging to a Jewish community, which the section of the survey which deals with the demographics informs us is weak and weakening, and the matter of Jewish law, which leaves no room for a secular form of Judaism.

I was astonished - or at least, I should have been, were I not such a pessimist - that Jewish learning didn't even appear as an option. In about two weeks I should finish my first cycle of Daf Yomi, which means I will have spent about 45 minutes a day racing over a blatt (double page) of the Talmud, every single day. Now, after 7 1/2 years (from summer of 2006 onwards), I am finally about to be able to say I've looked at every single page of the Talmud. Do I know the Talmud? Of course not. Not remotely. But at least I've acquired an idea about what's in it and have a somewhat better conception of what a Jewish scholar, a Talmid Hacham, spends his life at. The fact that a survey of American Jewry didn't notice that being an educated Jew might be an essential element of Jewish identity, at least for a minority, or at least as an ideal most people don't live up to, is devastating. At least it is to me. There was probably never a generation of Jews with a majority of scholars; but to the best of my knowledge all Jewish generations venerated learning of the Jewish canon.

Which brings me back to the title of this post. Jews have been a diverse bunch for a very long time. Yet in their diversity, there has always been among them a core of people who were committed to their Judaism at almost any cost, which gave them a staying power unique in the annals of Man, and thereby an unparalleled cultural longevity; and they have always shared a common ground, be it religious or linguistic or social, which formed a bond of commonality. When the first  Ashkenazi disciples of the Vilna Gaon's reach Jerusalem 200 years ago and found only Sephardi shuls, they deliberated joining the Sephardis or holding out for a minyan of their own. How many secular Israeli Jews would recognize many American Jewish synagogues? This would matter less if America's Jews were creating a viable and recognizably Jewish form of life. But are they? In what way?

So tell me where I'm wrong. So far as I can tell, the 22nd century will see a vibrant and diverse Jewish center in Israel, with small satelite communities in many places in the world, including in America. I appologize for being an arrogant Israeli.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Shalom Chaver: Farewell, Norm.

Norman Geras died yesterday. I never met him personally. We met through the blogosphere, where we linked to each other from time to time, and e-mailled back and forth when we wished to speak directly. His blog, Normblog, was a fount of erudite common sense; he was especially good when he clearly dissected the silliness of public discourse.

His final post, earlier this month, contained a list of books he had read and recommended. As a tribute to him, people might like to choose one of the titles they've never read, and read it. I certainly will try to.

Rest in peace, friend.

Baruch dayan emet.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Aharon Karov, Marathon Man

Back in January 2009, when this blog was still active, I began following the story of Aharon Karov, a young infantry lieutenant who was called to his unit less than 12 hours after his wedding and sent to battle in Gaza, where he was critically wounded. At the time the doctors didn't expect him to live. (My previous post on him, with links to all the previous ones, is here).

Today's edition of Makor Rishon (Hebrew, not online), tells that he and his wife Zvia now have two children, a 3-year-old girl and a 2-year-old boy, that he's studying at university, and that he's flying to New York this week to run in the upcoming New York Marathon.