Tuesday, October 13, 2015

This is what long-term education to hatred will do (Update)

We're about two weeks into a period of intense Palestinian attacks against Israelis. Just today three Israelis have been murdered. The names haven't been published yet, but they were all killed in civillian contexts: taking a bus, walking down the street. Yesterday the victims included a 13-year-old riding his bike near his home. He was stabbed by two cousins, one of whom was 13 years old himself.

Palestinain society sends itself into spasms of bloody and murderous irrationality from time to time; at the moment the present case doesn't seem the worst of them. Yet what's striking about this time is the age of the culprits. If in the second Intifada there were hundreds of suicide muderers and would-be-murderers, most of them were young adults, and they mostly had some sort of organization behind them. Someone had to give them an explosive belt and drive them to their target inside Israel. This time many of the attackers are teenagers, some even young teenagers; and since they're using kitchen knives, all they need is access to their mothers' kitchens.

The pundits will pontificate on their motivations. Israel's critics will say it's all about the occupation. Israel's enemeis will say it's about Israeli brutality and general evil. The historians wil probably not have unravelled it many decades from now, and they, like the pundits, will find comfortable pat explanations.

The part that impresses me is the public atmosphere forming the minds of Palestinian teenagers. In order for significant numbers of them to be willing to be killed for the chance to stab an Israeli, they must be steeped in hatred to a degree most Western pundits can't even recognize. Many westerners don't even accept the reality, let alone the legitimacy, of the concept "enemy". These young Palestinians seem unable to accept the reality, let alone the legitimacy, of their common humanity with Israelis. For this, blame their parents and grandparents and society at large.

Spend decades telling yourself, your children and your grandchildren that Jews have no legitimate reason to be here, and that now they're here they spend their days cooking up nasty ideas about how to be cruel to Palestinians and destructive towards Islam, and eventually this is the result you'll end up with.

Thought experiment. Imagine you're a typical teenager. (Most of us were, once upon a time). If you don't know Arabic, spend a solid month reading only Mondoweiss commentaries and its comments section. Don't expose yourself to any other source of information. At the end of the month, see how you feel about Israel and Jews. (They're by and large interchangeable even at Mondoweiss). Now, once you're well-disposed to feel negative, imagine it hasn't been a month, it's been every day since your birth, and the birth of your grandparents. The echo chamber isn't limited to a website, it's your entire world. And you yourself either know people who've been harmed by Israelis, who are always and exclusively motivated by the urge to harm Palestinians, or at the very least you know people who know of them. And you've been trained never to ask what the Israelis were responding to, because Israelis don't respond. They always initiate persecution of Palestinians.

And now, imagine that recently your whole world has been telling that the Jews are about to destroy the most sacred spot there is, and they've upped their malice and are shooting people on your side because that's the way they are.

End of experiment.

Update: Avi Issacharoff, one of the few journalists who really knows what he's talking about and also has something interesting to say, thinks the current violence is mostly the result of incitement about the Temple Mount. The Palestinian leadership and media have been convincing themselves Israel is about to harm the mosques, and their followers are convinced they must defend it. Assuming he's right, or even if he's only partially right, it begs the question How stabbing Israeli civilians might possibly be a way to defend Al-Aksa Mosque.  More significant, to my mind, it's a perfect example of irrational hatred. Israel isn't about to harm the mosques. Simply: Not. No question about it. Which means that a pile of Palestinian public figures and their followers are lying to themselves and each other, convincing themselves and each other, and then setting off to to kill Jews because of the lie.

Which has of course always been standard antisemitic behavior, centuries before Israel began building settlements. Centuries before there even was an Israel, for that matter.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Tova Herzl's Madame Ambassador

Tova Herzl's fun new memoir Madame Ambassador - Behind the Scenes with a Candid Israeli Diplomat, intended to answer three questions. What do diplomats do when they go to the office (explicit question), Are Israeli diplomats any different (explicit), and What did she do (implied question). Along the way she also answered two questions of mine (one explicit, the other implied).

Full disclosure: Tova and I have known each other since we trained as tourist guides together, many years ago. How many? Lots. Neither of us had launched our professional careers at the time, and look, Tova has already written a fine memoir about hers. At one point in her memoir, however, she talks about how being a transient diplomat means loosing contact with many second-tier friends, which is kind of generous of her, since the losing of social ties can be a mutual activity, even when one doesn't keep changing countries. Still, for all our travels and travails, we're still in touch, and I watched Tova struggle to find her voice in writing this book, and occasionally made what were probably unhelpful comments about this section or that. All the more reason, then, to tell of my delight when I finally sat down and read it, cover to cover.

So what do diplomats do? They work hard, apparently, and none of us ever give them much thought. They apparently need to know just about everything on the land they serve in, and the land they serve, and make as many useful connections as possible. They're required to smooth all interactions between both sides, so that a crass but acceptable joke made by one non-diplomat doesn't ruffle too may feathers of the other side. They need to ascertain the visiting politician doesn't get stuck in traffic, and that their own elected leaders understand how their actions will be seen by the locals they're interacting with. They need to know which idiotic local journalists need to be slapped on the wrist and which should be shrugged off. How to dress for which social event, and what needs to be achieved there (and what not). How to relate to all the other diplomats in town, some who are friendly and supportive, others anything but. They deal with economics, trade, and development, culture, politics, sport and science.

They need to do this intensively, then pick up and move elsewhere and start all over again in a new context. Moves which carry with them much promise and new opportunities, but also the jettisoning of significant baggage from the previous chapter. Unlike software coders or social media marketers, ultra-sound operators or bloggers, none of whom existed 50 years ago (OK, a handful of coders calling themselves programmers did already exist), diplomats have been around for centuries. All the more startling, then, that such a Diplomacy for Dummies handbook hasn't been written until now; if you read it, it's reasonable the knowledge you'll acquire will still be up to date after you complete the reading.

Are Israeli diplomats different? Any universal story must be grounded in the particular before it can be of general interest; any diplomat must represent some country in some other country. Yet Tova's story does have particular Jewish and Israeli and Arab parts. Being the daughter of Holocaust survivors representing Israel in the Baltic states, for example. Burying Michal Franklin, a beloved niece murdered by a Palestinian suicide murderer in 2002, while representing Israel to an overtly pro-Palestinian South African regime and society. Balancing the positions of the Jewish State and the local Jews. Visiting an Arab ambassador of Israel in a nearby country, however, was a welcome respite, as he kept kosher, as part of his understanding of his job. So there was that.

The book is organized in a series of short topical chapters: presenting credentials, working the media, life with a bodyguard, using the diplomatic post and so on. (Interestingly, there's nary a word about any sort of intelligence matters. Maybe there weren't any). Yet as we progress, it's also a memoir, giving us Tova's personal story, which is interesting as any Israeli active in the first century of the Jewish return to history.

Then there were my two questions. Right before the end of the book, Tova tells of her friend Yaacov who wondered if an Israeli who knew the language and closely followed all the electronic media couldn't know as much about the country without having to be an ambassador; perhaps the entire profession has become an anachronism? Tova's specific response is unconvincing: she tells how much she knows about Israel which a distant Hebrew-speaking observer would miss out on: that wasn't my question. There are many non-Hebrew-speaking diplomats in Israel who are no better educated about us than distant Hebrew-speakers. Yet coming as it does at the tail-end of the book, her specific response isn't necessary. The entire book has by that stage refuted the assumption of my question. It turns out that diplomats do a real job, and if you're interested, this book will demonstrate what it is.

It has also answered a question I've been toying with for a number of years - first formulated, by the way, by Tova herself: Might I wish to be an ambassador? Some ambassadorial posts go not to career diplomats but to others. There are about two of them which I might, at least conceivably, have a shot at if I really wished, given my rank, qualifications and connections.

It would mean doing the job she has described so well, parts of which I would like and parts, not at all. Just like real life. It would also mean additional years of not speaking my own mind, and of representing the system. This is hard enough where I'm currently at, and would be too tedious to try anew anywhere else. That' however, is a subject for another day.

Monday, August 17, 2015

The passage of forty years

I first arrived in Israel late in the afternoon of July 16th 1967. I knew enough about the country not to expect camels and desert everywhere, but it did seem fitting that our first view from the windows of the plane was of sand dunes. By the time we exited the terminal it was dark, and we climbed aboard a taxi which had no air conditioning so the warm evening wind blew in through the open windows. The road up to Jerusalem was probably two lanes, but it wasn't crowded. Most Israelis  didn't own cars in those days. I remember it snaked up down and around, hugging the contours of the Judean hills; I also remember that we passed though a number of towns, and there were lots of people out on the streets, enjoying the respite from the heat of the day. Eventually we reached Jerusalem, and the cab driver had to ask directions to our destination, a hostel-like place in Kiryat Hayovel.

I especially remember the feeling of exuberance in the air. A few blocks from our destination the cabbie pulled up in front of a group of people sitting around a camp fire; a young boy rushed up to us and shouted in excitement "We won! We won!" Two blocks down a young woman also expressed delight in the victory, before directing us around the corner.

It was a month after the Six Day War.

I flew into Israel on the 16th of July this year, too, late in the afternoon. The sand dunes are all gone, covered by housing projects of 15- or 20-story residential towers. (There probably weren't more than two such buildings in all of Israel in 1967). The towns are crisscrossed by broad multi-lane highways, all of them clogged with vehicles. On the road up to Jerusalem we didn't enter a single town; the highway stays out of them all. Arriving in Jerusalem we saw no dancing groups of celebrators. People don't do public celebrations on hot summer evenings anymore.

48 years have seen a lot of change.

Forty years ago today, on August 17th 1975, I enlisted in the IDF.

The IDF in those days was still reeling from the Yom Kippur War. A year earlier recruits were reportedly given three choices upon enlistment: they could join the tanks, or the tanks, or the tanks. By the time I arrived people were volunteering to the paratroopers and being sent to the one or two other infantry units, but most people went into the armoured corps. Most of the army seemed to be there in those days; once there they served either on the Golan or in the Sinai. The enemy was Egypt, or Syria; I never had a single military encounter with Palestinians in my entire three-year stint - or for that matter, in my subsequent 30-40 months of reserve duty spread over the next 25 years. I had an officer who was certified as being shell-shocked, and a company commander who wasn't certified but should have been.

The first evening in the recruitment depot Evyatar and I crawled out under a fence and went to find a public telephone to call home. Being 18, we weren't afraid of fighting or dying; but we were apprehensive about sharing tents and training with the loud and rough-looking soldiers from parts of society we'd never interacted with. I suppose they may have been prickly about us, too, but we didn't see this at the time. Doing first rounds of kitchen duty was frightening: we were ordered around by soldiers who seemed to delight in our sense of apprehension and disorientation.

It was hot. It was strange. It was radically different. We had boarded the bus in Jerusalem cocky with the sensation that we were joining something big and important; now it looked mostly foreign and disconcerting. And l-o-o-o-n-g! Three whole years! In this?! Three. Whole. Years. Would we ever return to a normal civilian life, such as the one we'd just left so blithely behind?

Yes and no, in retrospect. We did, of course, because three years isn't, actually, very long. We didn't, in many ways, because by the time we got out we ourselves were very different.

That first evening, in a hot tent on a prickly blanket on a steel-frame cot was one of the most important points of my life. The thing is, I knew it at the time, too - and yet I didn't. Donning the ugly and uncomfortable olive uniform and clunky boots gave us the feeling of now being adults, citizens, contributors to society, lords of our destiny. And also hopelessly young and inexperienced, rookies, untested and insignificant cogs in a large machine which didn't at all care about who we'd been so far. We knew we were on the cusp of one of life's biggest adventures; we didn't have the slightest inkling of what we were facing. We knew we were setting out on a rite of passage; we didn't comprehend the rite or where we'd pass to. The system was reeling after war, and it looked solid and impregnable; we were over-confident and exuberant; ignorant of what we'd be called upon to deal with and what growth we'd be required to perform.

Evyatar eventually made it all the way to full Colonel. I climbed up to first sergeant. Yet each of us and all of us really did acquire a personal confidence based on achievement and the satisfaction of successfully coping, functioning in the system, and mastering its requirements. By the time we walked out, we really were adults, citizens, contributors to society and, oh yes, lords of our destiny to the degree this is granted to mere mortals.

And a good thing, too, because the country was changing. From two-lane roads across sand dunes, to highways between hi-tech development centers; from the simplicity of singing around a campfire on a hot summer evening to the complexity of a multilayered, multifaceted society smack in the middle of one of the world's most volatile regions. There is more than one path we can take in life, and more than one direction society can move in. Our ability to participate in the way we have, to contribute in the ways we've managed, to own our society for better and for worse, were profoundly forged by what followed when we woke, for the first time, in those hot ugly tents on the morning of August 18th 1975 to face our first full day in the army.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

How Air Berlin consciously, purposefully and cynically screwed its passengers - three times in a row

About a month ago I apologized to my readers for branching off into a bit of consumerism, and told how Air Berlin had intentionally lost the luggage of a few hundred passengers. Since then the story has gotten worse, so I'm posting a quick summary.
On July 5th 2015 Air Berlin sent off flight  AB3546  from Tegel airport in Berlin to Reykjavik in Iceland with about 250 passengers, and perhaps 50 pieces of luggage. This was not an oversight, nor the accidental misdirecting of a suitcase. You can't misplace 200 pieces of luggage without noticing what you're doing. Later, in Reykjavik, someone told us Air Berlin preferred some other cargo over our luggage. I don't know if this is true, but it seems plausible. Someone at Tegel decided that Air Berlin had more to gain by harming its passengers than by treating them as they expected when they bought their tickets.

So that was the first time Air Berlin  purposefully screwed us.

We spent the next 12 days in Iceland, having a wonderful time hiking in the mountains. Iceland really is spectacular!
Some time soon I'll post on Iceland and JRR Tolkien, but not today.

During our entire time in Iceland, Air Berlin never made any attempt to contact us, much less offer information about what we might expect. The night of the flight they uttered nary a word, though of course they knew even before taking off that they were about to inflict harm on us. We arrived in Reykjavik at about 3am, and were left to figure out on our own what was going on; there was no Air Berlin representative in sight. The next morning we had to decide if and what to purchase to replace or not replace the lost luggage. No word from Air Berlin. Actually, we never managed to be in contact with an Air Berlin representative throughout our entire stay. Any updates and eventual retrieval of our luggage was all organized by the The Icelandic tourist company giving us logistic support for our hike. (Icelandic Mountain Guides, if you're interested. They were excellent. The diametric opposite of Air Berlin). So that was the second time Air Berlin harmed us.

Our luggage trickled in over the next 12 days. The first pieces reached our group on Friday, on the 5th day after the flight; mine arrived on the following Wednesday, just as we were on our way back to the airport to fly out of Iceland.

Since returning home we've all lodged complaints on the Air Berlin website. Interestingly, this website does not dwell on the possibility that the airline sometimes purposefully harms its passengers.  Air Berlin's responses to our claims are exactly what you'd expect of a company which holds its clients in contempt. Most of us have been offered small rebates the next time we fly with Air Berlin! As if any of us ever will! The sums seem to be totally random, except that they're all small. One or two of us got other offers, equally unacceptable. I was initially told to re-submit my claim, at a section of their website which refused to accept the claim.

So the third unacceptable treatment Air Berlin has meted out is its cynical ignoring of us, and its intentional disregard of all our attempts to obtain some sort of reimbursement for the costs we incurred through their direct actions. Clearly someone in Air Berlin has thought about the matter and decided that they're a big company, and we're small individuals, and that's simply a fact. Big companies can aford to despise small individuals secure in the knowledge that they'll get away with it.

And the source of their smug impunity? It's the fact they've done it before. In 2013 they lost all the luggage of an entire flight, didn't own up, disdainfully screwed the passengers, and lived to tell the tale. A mere two years later all the members of our group blithely bought tickets on an Air Berlin flight without any inkling how atrocious the airline is. Since July 5th lots of other folks have bought Air Berlin tickets, ignorant of the pernicious record of this airline. So why should Air Berlin give a hoot how much damage they inflicted on us?

Unless of course it eventually occurs to the leaders of Air Berlin that one nasty story, and another, and another, and another, will eventually dent their reputation and begin to have a cost. Perhaps even a higher cost than reimbursing their passengers in a fair manner.

Legalese postscript: There's a thing called the Montreal Convention which details what an Airline such as Air Berlin owes its passengers when it causes them harm. Article 22 details what happens when luggage is detained. Paragraph 5 is particularly interesting, and unambiguously describes the behavior of Air Berlin in our case:
The foregoing provisions of paragraphs 1 and 2 of this Article shall not apply if it is proved that the damage resulted from an act or omission of the carrier, its servants or agents, done with intent to cause damage or recklessly and with knowledge that damage would probably result; provided that, in the case of such act or omission of a servant or agent, it is also proved that such servant or agent was acting within the scope of its employment.
Interestingly, if you look long enough you'll find a document on the Air Berlin website which rather grudgingly admits (in passing, on page 15) that Air Berlin is, actually, aware of the Montreal Convention.

What have we learned from this? That NO ONE SHOULD EVER EVER FLY AIR BERLIN!

Pass it on.

Addendum: Here's a story by some other fellow who's really really angry at Air Berlin.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Never fly with Air Berlin

I don't generally post about consumer issues, but there's always a first time.

Last night we (a group of 14) flew from Berlin to Iceland with Air Berlin. We now know that the airline simply refrained from loading our luggage, not that they said anything about it. They left us to stand for an hour at the baggage claim area along with dozens of other passengers to eventually figure it out.

Today there was no-one to talk to. No representative, no phone number to call, no office where somebody will tell tall tales. Simply nothing. An email I sent they responded to with a standard form. Will our kit ever arrive, in Iceland or back home? Will we be reimbursed in any way? Can we expect someday, even if only weeks from now, to see the personal items in those bags? Your guess is as good as mine. Air Berlin, at any rate, ain't sayin.

Never fly Air Berlin.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

How Israel avoided its Grexit moment

30 years ago today, on June 30th 1985, Prime Minister Shimon Peres convened the Cabinet for a dramatic meeting. Israel had been living with monthly double-digit inflation for a number of years; now, less noticed by the populace but more dangerous, the money had run out. Within days the economy was expected to collapse. It was essentially the last possible moment to avert catastrophe. For weeks Labor PM Peres, and Likud Finance Minster Yitzchak Modai, had been overseeing the formulation of a complex package of measures, some of them quite harsh and most of them politically explosive or worse, and now the Cabinet was called to adopt them.

The meeting went on, almost unbroken, for 20 hours until the early morning of July 1st, at which point the ministers, most of them visibly exhausted, narrowly voted to adopt the plan.

On the anniversary of the event the Israel State Archives has declassified and published the transcript of the meeting (300-some pages). We have also put online recordings of some of the meeting, so you can hear the deliberations, not only read them. And we've asked two economic historians to write their impressions of the documents. If you know Hebrew it's worth your time to peruse some of this.

I've put all the links here.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Henryk Gorecki, Catholic

I don't write much on this blog anymore; when I do it tends to be about impersonal matters. Israel, books, stuff. This post is very personal, but it's important enough for to put somewhere.

Earlier today I stumbled upon a Youtube link to Henryk Gorecki's Symphony nr. 3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs).

It is overpowering. Overwhelming.

While I think I've encountered parts of it in the past, this was the first time I ever listened to it. Now that I'm consciously aware of it, if it's ever played at a Jerusalem theater I won't go. Who could sit in a hall full of people and publicly listen to such a piece of music?  The danger of losing emotional control in the presence of all those strangers would be too great.

So I did a spot of googling, and came upon this website. And on the website I found this picture:

Where I grew up, Polish people were suspect of having been nasty to Jews. Crucifixes were not suspect, they were known with certainty to have been wielded with fury by pogromists or with hatred by inquisitionists. Poles with crucifixes were, at best, to be avoided.

That was half a century ago, but childhood rumours are generally more powerful and rooted than much of what we pick up later.

Yet listening to that soul-arresting music, looking at the Pole sitting in his room full of Catholicism was profoundly comforting. There's a connection between his religion and his soul and his ability to create music that touches my soul. In a world awash in rampant soulless secularism, arrogant ignorance, rabid relativism and all-conquering vacuity, here's a man who sat under a wall of crucifixes and achieved transcendent beauty which touches eternity.

Update: It turns out that Gorecki explicitly tied his symphony to the Polish history of the 20th century in general, but also to Auschwitz in particular; and that the three sorrowful songs are between a mother and her son and daughter, perishing in the maelstrom. Here's a recording of the symphony interspersed with takes of Gorecki himself, wearing a heavy homey sweater.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

On completing Creation: on the 48th anniversary of liberating Jerusalem

It's the evening of 28th of Iyar, the Hebrew date of the Battle of Jerusalem in June 1967 on which the IDF captured the Old City of Jerusalem from the Jordanians (June 7th 1967).

In my study of the Bible I recently passed the chapters in the Book of Kings relating the story of King Solomon, and how he built the (first) Temple in Jerusalem. After a long and detailed description of the construction, and just before telling about Solomon's prayer to God upon opening the Temple, there's one of those many verses which contain more in the original Hebrew than in the translations: ותשלם כל המלאכה, Vatishlam kol hamelacha, When all the work was finished. (Kings 1 chapter 7 verse 49). The modern Daat Mikrah interpretation of the Bible points out the relationship between the word Vatishlam and shalem - became complete and complete, and the name Shlomo (the original of Solomon). It then brings an interesting Tana'itic comment, according to which it was not the construction of the Temple which was completed, but ALL the work. By completing the construction of the Temple, Shomo had completed the divine project of creation.

Historian that I am, I found this commentary particularly poignant. The Tanaim lived after the destruction not only of Solomon's Temple, but also after the destruction of the 2nd one; actually, they lived shortly after that second destruction, and in the world created by the wars against the Romans. Their world was anything but complete. Yet there it is, a theological statement that completion of the construction of Solomon's Temple had completed Creation.

This interpretation came to mind when I then read Yossie Klein Halevi's
Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation. Klein Halevi tells the story of the group of young reserve paratroopers who fought in Jerusalem in June 1967, and were the first to reach the Temple Mount and then the Kotel, the Western Wall. In a typical Israeli twist, it turns out that the small group of a few hundred young men included figures that were to be household names in Israel for decades, but were spread all over the map. Left-wing kibbutzniks such as Arik Achmon and Avital Geva, who grew up to be a founder of Israel's free-market economy and a kibbutznik artist, and both members of the peace camp; Yoel Bin Nun, Hanan Porat and Yisrael Harel, three very different leaders of the settler movement, Udi Adiv, a kibbutznik who spent years in an Israeli jail after being convicted of spying for Syria, and Meir Ariel, a maverick songwriter who fit into no-one's pigeonhole at any time until his death in 1999.

Following Yoel Bin Nun onto the Temple Mount on that historic morning after a night of battle, Klein Halevi tells how the event seemed to be the end of history, the culmination of Jewish history. As close as one can imagine to a Vatishlam kol hamelacha moment. Yet the book itself was published in 2013, and most of it is a recounting of the complications the young men lived through since that historic moment. If the morning of June 7th 1967 could have seemed like the happy ending to Jewish history, it certainly doesn't look like it today, 48 years later. History continues with a vengeance.

Unless you take the perspective of those post-destruction Tanaim looking back 1,200 years, not a mere 48.