Saturday, November 14, 2020

Rest in Peace, Brewster Chamberlin

My favorite story about Brewster Chamberlin tells how we came to be friends, and how it wasn't obvious we would. In 1993 I was appointed director of the archives at Yad Vashem. A few years earlier Brewster had been appointed to set up the archives at the United States Hololcaust Memorial Musem (USHMM) in Washington DC. So you might say I inherited him as my American counterpart, but of course it was trickier than that.

Yad Vashem was founded in 1953 when Israeli Shoah survivors and politicians were spooked by the intention to create a Holocaust Museum in Paris, at a time when there was no such instituion in Israel. Organizational memory being what it is, it wasn't surprising that the Carter Administration's intention to set up a large Holocaust Museum on the National Mall across the street from the Washington Memorial was greeted with some consternation in Jerusalem. By the time I arrived, the two instituions were pretending to collaborate but looked mostly like two wary cats circling each other and spitting.

The two archives were notionally sharing efforts to identify and microfilm archival collections in European archives, so that each would send teams and funds to different archives, and then they'd exchange copies of what they'd filmed. In reality the collaboration hadn't been smooth. My predecessor, Dr. Shmuel Krakowski, was a fine man (my Hebrew-language obituary of him is here), but he and Brewster came from different worlds. Krakowski was a Shoah survivor, then a staunch communist officer in the postwar Polish army until he was purged in the antisemitic wave of 1968, at which point he made his way to Israel, where he was competely cured of his communism while adding yet another layer of skepticism. Brewster was a straightshooting WASP. He and I started out wary, because that was the setup, but soon recognized each other as fellows who don't do bazzaar haggling. Our reports to each other were sincere, our intentions to live up to the terms of exchange were candid. We spent six or eight years doing our best to collaborate in good faith, until Brewster left the Museum and was replaced by an Eastern European Jew who had grown up under a communist regime. He used to send me long professions of brotherly friendship and comradely allegience, but never once was I convinced that I should believe a word he was saying.

This all happened 20 years ago. Not long after he departed the Museum and went to live on Key West, of all places, Brewster sent me a small booklet he'd published called A Piece of Paris, which he intended as a chapter from a longer book about Paris. It was a whimsy but wonderful travelogue about the 14th Arrondissement of Paris, containing a cafe-by-cafe description of which artists poets or authors frequented which locale, what they did there, who else they met there, and what cultural significance each nook and corner had. Clearly his years being an archivist of the Holocaust had never been his only interest in life; indeed, his ability to walk away from a decade of professional effort now seemed more a determination to spend his years doing things that gave him pleasure than a professional abdication.

So we stayed in touch. Some years later I left Yad Vashem. Of all my many colleagues and friends, I stayed in touch with a mere handful, and lost contact with all of my erstwhile coleagues at the USHMM. Meanwhile, Brewster would send me lively, detailled and richly informative descriptions from trips to southern France (art culture and wine) or from summer seminars in Greece. He churned out a long list of books which tended to reflect the breadth and depth of his cultural and historical erudition. (And of course he tracked down Hemingway stuff, what with living on Key West). Some I read, tho I admit I was too busy to get to them all. From time to time he would send me a brown envelope with cuttings from the NY Times, or the New Yorker, or wherever, on Jewish matters, or German-Jewish issues, or interesting book reviews. "Abba", my daughter used to say, "who is this friend of yours who reads real newspapers and sends you clippings?" The last envelope he sent was on September 17th this year, and it's still on my desk even tho I've already responded to it. Recently I must have written something about Van Gogh and southern France, and in response he sent me this link. I  wrote back that Van Gogh would have loved it, had he lived to be 150.

Brewster once told me he was a descendant of Elder William Brewster, the religious leader of the Mayflower community. Which means his forefathers had been in America for hundreds of years as the Europeans developed modern antisemtism and persecuted their Jews. Not only was he undecipherable to Krakowski; he dedicated some of his years to dealing with Europe's demons out of what I imagine must have simply been a fundamental decency: it wasn't his story, but it was an important story, so it behove him to face it.

I will miss him, but I'm glad I knew him, and am honored that we were friends. Hopefully now he's introducing himself to the sprits of all those departed artists and characters, and having a beer with Ernest H.

His website is here, and includes the full list of his books, not including the ones he was still writing all the way to the end. Choose one and order it. You won't be sorry.


Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Nitai Stern's Playground

When I was a schoolboy, fallen soldiers were a special kind of grownup. Usual grownups went to work and had meetings, whatever those were, or they drove buses, worked in stores or taught us in school. Fallen soldiers were different. They had lived in a different sort of world, dressed differently, behaved differently, and did exciting, adventurous and rather mysterious things like in the movies. They weren’t alive anymore, but unlike ancient great grandparents who had been very old, fallen soldiers had been heroic, larger than life, but not old at all. The grownups always talked about them in somber tones. They even talked that way about the families of the fallen soldiers, as in “Mr. Rotschild’s son was killed in the war, that’s why he cries each year when he leads us at Ne’ila, at the end of Yom Kippur”.

As I was nearing the end of high school, fallen soldiers were people we’d personally known. Jacob and Sariel, killed on Yom Kippur on the Golan Heights; or Moshe, killed in the Sinai. Yisrael even left a younger brother who was two years behind me in school. That’s the extent to which they were hardly that much older than us. Yet they, too, had that aura of the soldier, the warrior and the hero.

In 1982 it was our friends who were dying. Shlomo had danced at our wedding three weeks before he was killed, and Avi went through school with me. Ram was someone’s kid brother who sometimes hung out with us. The world of the army was no longer mysterious, and frankly, it wasn’t exciting or adventurous, either. We knew from years of our own experience that it was mostly grease and sweat, with interludes of intense exertion among long periods of tedium. Was there heroism? Yes. Sometimes. Much more banality and occasional stupidity, though.

As life lengthens, the perspective on the fallen soldiers keeps changing. Noam, for example, was a student of mine. Unexceptional at school, he was apparently quite exceptional as an intelligence officer. Aviad, killed in 2001, was the son of a friend. At about that time I often found myself sharing bus-rides with Reuven as we commuted home. Our youngest sons, Achikam and Nitai, were at school together, and used to sleep over; they would talk for hours after bedtime. My oldest son, Meir, was approaching his military service and Reuven already had a soldier son. We had long talks about the army in our day and the army of those days, the parents we had unthinkingly left at home and the army-parents we were becoming. I confided with Reuven that the thought of my sons’ enlisting was far more frightening than the thought of my own mobilization had ever been. The young are thoughtless, and ignorant.

Meir saw the skirmishes of the 2nd Intifada. In 2009, however, Achikam want into combat with his tank unit in Gaza. They massed against the fence for a few tense days. Then one afternoon he called to say they were shutting off their phones. It was my task to carry on as if life was somehow as usual. A few days later – it was the ancient day of mourning of the 10th of Tevet – someone called to tell that Nitai had been killed. Later that afternoon I listened to Reuven’s anguished words at his son’s graveside, and that evening posted them on this blog:

Near the end of the ceremony Reuven, Nitai's father, got up to speak. What does a father say on the grave of his son? What can he possibly say?

He read Psalms. The ones about warriors, and the ones about mourning. His voice was strong despairing and clear. Then he said "I'm going to sing now, and you can sing with me"
תהה השעה הזאת
שעת רחמים
ועת רצון

The final prayer of the Yom Kippur service:
May this hour
Be an hour of mercy
And a moment of goodwill
From You

That was more than ten years ago. Two days ago, babysitting for Achkam’s son, we went to a playground near his house. There’s a contraption there that’s designed to look like a pirate ship, with ropes and ladders and slides. He likes the higher slide. At one point I glanced over at a large stone slab near the edge of the playground.

In memory of Nitai Stern
A youth with a glowing smile and infectious laughter
A peace-maker and lover of peace
Studious, inquisitive, knowledgeable
Warrior and commander
True friend, dear brother and beloved son
Fell in battle in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead
And he was 21

My grandson gurgled happily as he rode down the slide on the playground named for a friend of his father whom he’ll know, at most, as a mythical figure.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Netanyahu's Quandry (Mid-November 2018 version)

Spare a moment to reflect on the hardship of being Binyamin Netanyahu this week. Actually, don’t. He’s a very powerful man and deserves none of our emotional support. Still, the position he finds himself in is quite instructive, far beyond the impact of the present news cycle.

As a leader of the opposition Netanyahu routinely taunted the government by promising that when he returned to power he’d act decisively and effectively against Palestinian violence. Israeli social media is full of his erstwhile plans for Hamas in Gaza, which he promised to rout once and for all. Yet here he is, starting the week by authorizing the transfer of millions of dollars from Qatar to bolster the rule of Hamas in Gaza, then sending the IAF to carefully bomb a series of pre-marked targets in Gaza, then accepting a cease-fire with Hamas, then watching his coalition crumble. His political allies and rivals will use all this to attack him for his indecisiveness.

Part of this is that Netanyahu truly dislikes sending soldiers to their deaths. I once saw this close up, and wrote about it here. Yet there’s an important structural explanation which needs elucidating, and that is the darker and often overlooked side of the vaunted “managing the conflict” policy.

Arguably, this policy has been the central plank of Israel’s behavior since the failure of the Oslo Process. If one assumes the most Israel can offer the Palestinians is considerably less than the minimum they demand in return for ending the conflict – or, vice versa, the most the Palestinians can offer Israel is less than the Israelis demand to hand over full control to a sovereign Palestinian State – then there’s no chance of peace. Or at least, there’s no chance until one of the sides changes its fundamental position. The goal then becomes managing the conflict with a minimum of violence, not trying to end it. Most Israelis, with the exception of the political extremes, subscribe to some version of this policy. It may well be that a majority of Palestinians also accept it, probably hoping that someday Israel will tire and waver. Well-meaning foreigners such as Barack Obama and John Kerry keep on hoping to break this model, and they keep on failing.

But there’s a snag: managing means you don’t make a dash towards peace, which is unachievable. It also means, however, that you never convincingly defeat your enemy. Managing is predicated on the enemy’s permanence. You can’t reach an agreement that will make the enmity go away; but nor can you take military measures that will make the enemy go away. As Netanyahu knows, the IDF could conquer Gaza and kill most of the leaders of Hamas. And then what? Would Hamas’ ideology of hitting Israel until some day it collapses, also go away? It wouldn’t. Would a new chapter of Israeli rule in Gaza do anyone any good? Most certainly not.

And so Netanyahu the Prime Minister does the opposite of what Netanyahu the opposition leader said he would. He tries to contain Hamas and limit its harm, while bolstering Hamas so that it bears responsibility for Gaza; better they than we. His gamble is that most Israelis understand what he’s doing and grudgingly agree: and they’ll give him yet another electoral victory sometime in 2019.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Things one needs to know about IDF snipers

A number of weeks ago a video about an Israeli sniper went viral. The film appeared to show the sniper celebrating a shot that injured a Palestinian approaching the border between Israel and Gaza – hardly a war crime, but admittedly not admirable behavior. It then transpired that the celebrating film had been done by someone else, not the sniper. In the general hullaballoo most people didn't seem to notice the real significance of the film, which documented the deliberation and care taken by the sniper and his commander in identifying the target, ascertaining its legitimacy, and shooting only once all the relevant questions had been satisfactorily answered. In order to understand that one would have had to know Hebrew, and most people who stridently proclaim about Israel's actions don't know Hebrew.

Then an IDF reserve officer, Kinley Tur-Paz, came back from the field and posted his experiences on the Times of Israel website. This one was in English, and while it didn't go into great detail, it repeated the same message: IDF snipers are very careful, to the extent that every single shot they make must be entered in an Excel spreadsheet file so as to be accounted for.

Over the weekend Yochai Ofer published the most detailed description of all, in Hebrew in Makor Rishon. Here's a synopsis of his article:

IDF snipers are hand-picked for their ability to stay calm under pressure. They are given special training, which includes the ability to remain still and stable for protracted periods, and to synchronize their breathing with the operation of their weapons. They never shoot in anger or excitement, only after deliberation and careful identification of their targets.

The weapons they use are chosen for the mission, and different contexts require different rifles.

Before  shooting they will have carefully measured distances and the force of the wind. Mistakes can happen and live shots can go astray, but every reasonable precaution is taken that they won't. The snipers are to identify specific targets, and hit only them.

The snipers work in teams, rotating between them to prevent shooting in a state of physical discomfort or exhaustion. Each team is commanded by an experienced sniper armed with powerful binoculars.

Each shot must be authorized by a colonel.

Prior to the events of the Gaza fence the locations were visited by the Military Attorney General, General Sharon Affek, who was briefed on the preparations and authorized them. We are not told if he made corrections, but given his record he well may have. Affek, it might be worth noting, was recently promoted to full General, and became the first openly homosexual officer to reach that rank.

The men targeted by the snipers on the Gaza border were either engaged in harming the border fence or leaders who had been identified for exhorting others to so do.

So what does all this tell us? It doesn't prove that no mistakes were made, and that 100% of the shots made by the IDF never hit the wrong people. But it goes a long way to explain how tens of thousands of demonstrators who remained back from the fence went home unharmed at the end of each day of demonstrations; and it explains why almost all of the casualties were members of Hamas or Islamic Jihad. It also begs the question as to the identity of other casualties; if it is true, for example, that a 14-year-old was killed, do we know the specific context of his actions as he was shot? Was he standing 300 yards from the fence waving a flag, or was he perhaps trying to cut the fence? Were the snipers able to know his age?

You read the furious denunciations of Israel for its massacre of innocents, and you know how the IDF operates, and you ask yourself how it's possible to bridge the two narratives and if it's not possible, what to learn from the chasm.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Koolulam: Startup Nation meets Secular Prayer

One place to start this story would be the dark years of the 2nd Intifada, when Israelis tried to leave their homes as little as possible because visiting supermarkets, riding busses and walking down the street were all life-threatening activities. Jerusalem was perhaps worst-hit of all, and people from the rest of the country stopped coming. Then, as the security forces figured out how to block the suicide murderers, life slowly returned to normal. In Jerusalem a new phenomenon appeared, with thousands, then tens of thousands, then hundreds of thousands of regular Israelis traveling there on the hot summer nights of August and September to participate in tours of old neighborhoods, synagogues, then finishing late at night at the large open square in front of the Western Wall, the Kotel. The highpoint of these pilgrimages are the final nights before Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar; in recent years the number of people cramming onto that square easily surpasses a quarter million each night, and their cumulative number exceeds 1.5 million. Once they're there, they sing slichot – medieval texts asking God's forgiveness. All together. Like this.

In early 2017 Or Teicher, a secular Israeli producer, saw that clip and wondered if he could bring together ordinary Israelis, strangers to each other, and get them to sing together with some sort of fervor. So he tried. He collected some talented people around him, they collected 400 people in Tel Aviv, and on April 15th 2017 they sung together. Here, watch them:

On September 7th 2017, as the Jewish High Holidays approached, they collected 600 people in Jerusalem. Their technique was getting better, and it was a smashing success:

On December 17th 2017 they gathered 600 mostly secular Israelis in Tel Aviv and sang about believing, in English. Another roaring success.

There's logistics in there, and organizational ability on multiple levels. There's musical creativity in spades. The cameras turn a crowd into a sea of identifiable and fascinating people with faces. And of course, there's that astonishingly charismatic young man with the dreadlocks who pulls everyone into a seamless many-layered choir in a single hour, even as most of them have never previously sung a single chord with the others. So they upped their ante. On Jan. 1st 2018, they organized 2,000 people in a gigantic tent in Tel Aviv, and proved the model worked with larger numbers, too.

On February 14th 2018 they pulled together 3,000 people in Haifa, and sang Matisyahu's One Day in three languages, Arabic English and Hebrew. If you haven't been paying attention, concentrate on the faces, their diversity, and of course, their intensity:

Later that week was International Women's Day, so they had an event by and for women only, 2,000 of them. The endlessly energetic Ben Yeffet, not being a woman, wasn't there. They all had a great time.

They have no website, if you're wondering, and no swanky marketing operation. They're propelled by the excitement they're generating, as ever broader swathes of Israeli society take notice of this new cultural phenomenon sprouting among us; they announce their next events on a Facebook page.

On April 2nd 2018 they tried something new, with 7,500 people singing simultaneously in five different cities: Jerusalem, Ashkelon, Dimona, Rishon Lezion, and Kiryat Motzkin. The genius was adding Kiryat Motzkin, a scruffy town no-one has ever even heard of unless they live there; it turns out the locals know how to sing as well as everyone else.

Then they turned deeply serious. For Yom Hashoah in April 2018 they collected dozens of Holocaust survivors and three generations of their descendants, and together they prayed Ofra Haza's song I'm Alive. If you can watch this one without being moved to tears, you're a lost case.

This week (April 16th 2018) they unveiled their largest event so far: 12,000 people, joined by Israel's President Reuven Rivlin, singing Naomi Shemer's immortal paean to the beauty and wonder of this flawed land we live in. If this isn't a new form of mass devotion, I don't know what might be.

Monday, April 16, 2018

How to prove you don't have a sister, or The insidious assumptions of Israel-critical journalists

The first half of that caption is a common hebrew saying, noting how it can be impossible to disprove baseless allegations. After all, perhaps when your father was 16 and drunk late one night he had an encounter which ended up in your having a (half) sister you've never heard of? How could you possibly prove otherwise?

Earlier today a journalist sent me a series of questions about stuff that happens at the Israel State Archives, of which I'm still the boss until the end of next month. The first question or two were informative, if not particularly well informed, as a short visit to our website could have shown. But then she got down to business, with questions that already contained her theses; and her theses contained fundamental assumptions not only about the ISA, but also about how things work in Israel in general.

Here are her questions and my answers. Judge for yourself.

·       Is the State Archives open to people to visit in the reading room or are all documents only accessible on line? What happens if a person is looking for a document or documents that are not currently digitized?

As a general statement access to the archival holdings of the Israel State Archives (ISA) is via the archive's website, which has two interfaces, one in Hebrew and one in English, each of which uses the same search engine on the same collections. Individuals who demonstrate a specific need to see the original files can view them in the archives office building, in a specially designated room which you might call a reading room, except that most days it's empty because few people see the need to visit it. Files which have been partially redacted, for whatever reason (security, privacy, copyright), can be viewed only digitally as the redaction is done digitally. Whenever anyone requests to see a file which has not yet been checked or digitized or both, the file is sent immediately to be digitized and then to be checked; upon completion the scan is uploaded to the website and an announcement with the link is sent to the person who made the request. The file remains thereafter online for everyone. On average 10-30,000 newly processed pages go online every night.

·       Is there an online catalog they can use to see what documents are housed by the archive?

Of course. Right here. For obvious reasons most of it is in Hebrew, irrespective of the language of the documents themselves.

·       In the future might the Reading Room re-open?

It is of course conceivable that a future State Archivist might decide to re-open the reading room, thus incurring significant hassle to serve the needs of 15 people a day, even as the website serves 1-3,000 people on most days (365 days a year). Since checking the files for security/privacy/copyright issues is done on the scanned version of the files, it's hard to see who might benefit from such a move; as noted previously, individuals who can explain why they need to see a specific file may see it, if there are no redacted sections, even now.

·       In the case of materials from 1948 War of Independence, are some files classified because of “privacy” of the Palestinians who may have been harmed in the battles? I.e. civilians who may have been raped or injured?

I don't know. As a general statement, privacy rules make no distinction between ethnic groups, citizenship or anything else. If the redactors deem a piece of information as requiring protection, it will be redacted irrespective of any other consideration. I have never come across a single case, nor heard of one, in which privacy rules were applied according to any such criteria; nor have I ever heard of any directive to do so. Were such a practice to be demonstrated, the courts would undoubtedly forbid it – but I've never heard of such a case so it's never gone to court.

·       In the past (when the archives were accessed through the Reading Room) some Palestinian and Israeli Arab historians and researchers have said that when they have requested information on 1948 related unclassified files in person they were told they were blocked from accessing file. They claim it was bias by the archivists who did not want to give information to them because they were Palestinian or Israeli Arab. Do you have any comment on this?

I have never heard of such a practice. It would of course be illegal, and highly unlikely that an archivist on the staff of the ISA would take upon himself (or herself) to do such a thing, knowing that it could not be defended were there to be a complaint. If you'd like to supply me with specifics, rather than vague and unspecified hearsay, I would be happy personally to look into each case. I would add that in the current system, whereby requests for files come in from the website, there is no way for the archivists even to know who ordered which file, what country they are in, nor what their gender, ethnicity, age, profession or anything else might be. The most they can see, if they make the effort (which they rarely do because there is no significance to the fact), is an e-mail address and whatever name the person invents. I myself have invented multiple fictitious e-mail identities with which to submit requests and test our systems and processes. No one has ever tried to ask me who I am (who I are?).

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Some reflections after AIPAC's 2018 Pollicy Conference

Last week I had the honor of presenting a small collection of State Archives documents at AIPAC's Policy Conference 2018, in Washington DC. I also participated in a fun panel with my American counterpart, Chief Archivist David Ferriero. In spite of some differences in scale of the archives we run, his being rather larger than ours, it turns out we've got similar challenges and similar positions on them. But I'm not here to talk about archives, rather about some impressions I garnered at the conference.

1. AIPAC has awesome organizational capbilities. They had 18,000 participants in their conference; I have no idea how many people are neccesary to make it all happen but they've got to number in the multiple thousands. There are hundreds of sessions, and even more hundreds of micro-shows such as video segments or backdrops to talks. Someone had to serve 150,000 meals (I'm guessing), lay the infrastructure for dozens of different types of activities, put everything in place on Thursday and Friday, have it all running Saturday afternoon, and all dismantled and shipped out by Wednesday. They need to tend to politicians, a whole series of classes of donors, gaggles of media, and all of this is essentially just a prop to their main business. So far as I could see there were no hitches that impacted the conference for more than 2.5 minutes. If that.

I've been working (a bit) with AIPAC for almost 15 years, and I've always told its folks that I'm awfully glad they're on our side; this past week significantly reinforced this conviction.

2. It wasn't clear they had any immediate agenda. They were striving mightily to be bi-partisan, and for all I know they were succeeding, but that's ultimately a pre-requitsite, not a raison d'etre. I suppose it's great that the American-Israeli relationships currently has no major issue for AIPAC to have to address.

3. They're not all Jews, but I don't think that's new. Someone told me the delegation from Idaho was made up of a rabbi and ten non-Jews. On that point, I think probably one of the single most important things AIPAC does is to bring thousands of Americans from diverse walks of life to meet Israelis. The experience apparently make a difference in the lives of some of the visitors.

4. The greatest eye-opener for me was a development that's been in the making for quite some time, but I'd never been aware of its extent: the death of the Checkbook Zionism and its replacement with what I'll call, for lack of a better title, Israel of the shared values Zionism. Of course, AIPAC needs its members to be donating funds to itself, so preaching the sale of Israel Bonds, say, was never to be expected at their Policy Conference. But that doesn't explain the meta-narrative about Israel which was broadcast pervasively and incessantly: that Israel is a powerhouse, a fountain of diverse innovation in multiple walks of life and a country which makes the world a better place. Since these are all componants of American exceptionalism (which I mean as a positive thing), their centrality to Israel is the fundament of a bond between two sister nations - of unequal size, of course, but still.

(4.5 I think there's a parallel Israeli shift in the perspective of America. While every rational Israeli understands how crucial it is that the US is our closest friend, the centrality of this in Israel's cognition may be receding. But that's a topic for another day).

5. The lack of cynicism is, to this Israeli, frankly astounding. Yes, I expect that every single statement about Israel's achivements and those of its citizens made at the conference was probably true. Moreover, it would probably be healthy for Israelis to remind themselves from time to time how very successful they really are. But most of the time Israelis aren't into celebrating their successes, but rather bemoaning their limits and the endless obstructions they pile in front of themseves on the way. No Israeli can spend more than 32 seconds listening to these peans of admiration without rolling their eyes in exasperation and trotting out the (equally true) lists of things we're doing wrong, or where we're being idiotic, and certainly about how the other Israelis are being maliciously idiotic. One afternoon I asked a young AIPAC employee if he and his colleagues really believe all this stuff, and I fear he was offended by my very question. "What, isn't it true?' he asked, and when I confirmed that it probably was, he wanted to know why then shouldn't they be believeing it. I don't think I gave him a very good answer, and afterwards I sort of regreted being mean to him.

Monday, December 11, 2017

British military maps for conquering Palestine

British General Edmund Allenby entered Jerusalem exactly a century ago today, on December 11th 1917, after his forces conquered the town two days earlier.
Before going through the Jaffa Gate he dismounted from his horse and entered on foot, as a sign of respect for the ancient city he was taking control of.

If city is the right word. All of Jerusalem could have fitted into one of London's larger parks in those days. This is brought home when you take a look at the military maps which Allenby and his troops used as they conquered the area they called Palestine from the Ottomans (who didn't call it that) from the Negev in the south moving ever further northwards. If you haven't seen those maps, here they are.

(Technical note: the best way to see the maps is by starting from that link, then choosing the specific area you're interested in from the list in the lower left corner of the screen. Once you've chosen a map, the way to see it in high-quality is to use the "full screen" button, the one with the two little arrows, in the upper right corner. Note that when you zoom in and out the thumbnail map in the lower left corner shows what part of the map you're seeing).

Take the map of Jerusalem (obviously), and you'll see why Allenby enteerd the town at Jaffa gate and not, say, at the Calavatra bridge near the present day entrance to the city, some miles to the west: Because the site of the future Calavatra bridge was an empty field far to the west of town. According to the map, Jerusalem was the walled Old City, and that's almost it.

Should we visit Tel Aviv? The name of the British map is Jaffa, and about the only part of modern Tel Aviv you'll find is Sarona, and miles to the north the tiny Arab village of Sheikh Muannis, where Tel Aviv University is today. Also, the map helpfully notes the sand dunes at the center of today's Tel Aviv.

But wait. That's actually a bit odd. Tel Aviv was founded in 1909; at least a small version of it ought to have been on the British military maps printed in May 1917? Well, I recommend looking at the bottom right corner of the map, where it says that it's a reprint made in May 1917, from... The Palestine Exploration Fund maps, surveyed in 1878!

This makes these maps even more interesting, because they tell us two very interesting things. The first is that when the British military map-makers needed to prepare maps with which to conquer Palestine, the most recent ones they had at hand were 39 years old, but they weren't troubled because they knew that not much had changed between 1787 and 1917. Moreover, they were able to use the maps because their assumption about the limited change was basically correct. Here and there some changes had been made on the ground, such as the founding of the Jaffa suburb of Tel Aviv; but these changes weren't significant enough to bother the military planners.

The second thing is that this series of maps, put online just last week at the website of the Israel State Archives, shows what the country looked like immediately before the beginning of Zionism. The earliest prot-Zionist attempt at settlement, in Petach Tikva, was in 1878; the first successful wave of modern Jewish settlements began in 1882. (The Zionist movement was founded as a movement in 1897).

Was it an empty land? Of course not. Quite sparsely populated, however. And the Jews aren't visible on the map at all. Even in Jerusalem, where there was already a Jewsih majority in 1878, the names on the map are Arabic. The British archeologist surveyors in the 1870s didn't see the Jews at all, or if they saw them they didn't notice. Which is the opposite of what we're told these days, abut how the colonial Brits did't see any Arabs, and neither did the Jews.

I think it's a valuable set of maps. Go yee and navigate.