Sunday, September 30, 2007

A Report from Gaza

A long report in today's Sunday Times of London. Depressing reading.

I have no doubt that Israel's involvement in Gaza these past 60 years is part of the story, but what is described in the article cannot plausibly be attributed simply to Israel, as some would like. Israel didn't "force" the Hamas thugs to be brutal murderers, nor did Israel invent any of the components of the society systems that Hamas is putting in place in Gaza. On the contrary: the Palestinian ability to do this to themselves must serve as a constant warning to us that what they would do to us if only they could would be far worse. That's not to say we shouldn't be seeking peace - we should. But we need to remember who it is we're seeking peace with, and make sure it's a safe peace.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Barak's Offer at Camp David, Summer 2000

After it was all over, and the Palestinians had responded to Barak's offers at Camp David in summer 2000 by launching the 2nd Intifada with all its violence, the Palestinian's Western apologists invented an elaborate narrative to ensure that the blame be placed squarely at Israel's doorstep. Barak hadn't really made an offer, and if he did it was far stingier than he or Bill Clinton said; any Israeli offer, if made, was intended to perpetuate Israeli domination of the Palestinians; the whole thing was a chimera, never intended to be more than theater. etc. etc. etc. ad nauseum.

Today or yesterday the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, gave an interview to the Washington Post. Near the end, he relates to a question about the negotiations in 2000. The Post asked about Clinton's offer of 98% of the West Bank (this refers to Clinton's attempt to dictate final terms to both sides on December 24th 2000, which were accepted by the Israelis and rejected by the Palestinians). Abbas deflects the question by relating to Barak's offer of July 2000: it wasn't 98%, he says, only 92%.

Perhaps. I wasn't there, and the record is indeed not fully clear. However, if Abbas says Barak offered 92% of the West Bank (and, by the way, 100% of Gaza), then this is the minimum that was offered; the historical truth must lie somewhere between 92%, as stated by Abbas, and 96%, as stated by some Israelis at the time or shortly thereafter.

All territories being offered would have been free of settlers.

So according to the Palestinian president, the 2nd Intifada was launched in response to an unprecedented offer by Israel's prime minister. It would have been legitimate to continue negotiating so as to achieve more - but that was not what happened.

Religious Belief vs. Empiric Evidence

Reminder: this string began with an explanation, here.

Rabbi Yochanan was expounding on the future glory of Jerusalem: the Lord will bring jewels of 30X30 Amah (roughly a foot), and will cut and polish them to 10X20 gems, and place them in the gates of Jerusalem. One of the students scoffed: who has ever heard of jewels of such size? Later, the student was sailing on the sea and saw angels in the heavens polishing 30X30 jewels into 10X20 gems. What are the gems for, he asked, and was told that in the future the Lord would have them set in the gates of Jerusalem. He returned to the Yeshiva he told Rabbi Yochanan what he had seen, and that Rabbi Yochanan had been right. "You empty (useless?) fool [the original uses one devastating word: reika], if you hadn't seen for yourself you wouldn't have believed? You allow yourself to mock the words of the scholars?" Immediately he penetrated him with his eyes and turned him into a pile of bones.
Baba Batra, 75a

Friday, September 28, 2007

Why Is Hamas Blockading Gaza?

As a postscript to the previous post, here's another Issacharoff report: The entity doing the most to ensure that supplies don't get into Gaza is apparently Hamas, whose men are aiming most of their mortars at the border crossings. Interesting, huh? But don't expect ever to read about this in, say, the Guardian. (Nor, I'd hazard a guess, even in the New York Times).

Is Marwan Barghouti the Solution?

We're having another long weekend, with no newspaper every second day, fewer reporters every day, newspaper editors who are filling their editions with commentary because that's easier to generate than reports from the field. This will continue for another ten days or so.

On Wednesday Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, mostly known as Fuad, gave an interview that supplied some excitement. At the moment Fuad is the Minister of Infrastructure, an unnecessary ministry that was created for coalitional reasons about ten years ago and will exist forever more; Fuad's importance, however, is that he's probably the closest ally of Ehud Barak, and Barak, we all know, intends to be our next prime minister (as do a number of other people, but Barak may actually succeed). Like Barak, Fuad is a hawk in the Labor party (and also an ex-general).

Anyway, Fuad's thesis is that Abbas will never be able to supply the goods, and the only chance for achieving peace with the Palestinians is to free Marwan Barghouti from jail and deal with him. Unlike Abbas, so Fuad, Barghouti will be able to win back Gaza from Hamas, and while admittedly he has been convicted on five counts of murder, no Palestinian is as bad as Arafat was, and since we dealt with him we can deal with anyone who's willing to deal with us.

There are two unarticulated assumptions here. The first is that Palestinian democracy will never come up with an elected leadership that will be able to cut a feasible deal with Israel- only a strongman can do that. The second is that Barghouti, born and raised in the West Bank, doesn't care about the Palestinian diaspora to the degree that Abbas does, and he'll be willing to reach an agreement with Israel without insisting on the right of return.

This morning Avi Issacharoff engages Fuad's thesis. I've mentioned Issacharoff in the past as the single most professional journalist at Haaretz - I'd call him world-class except that I don't think there are many journalists elsewhere with his professionalism - certainly not when it comes to knowing about the Palestinians. According to Issacharoff, Bargouti is in jail for good reasons, having been one of the central engineers of the Palestinian violence earlier this decade, and there's no indication that he has changed.

To which I would add that this may be the reason he's so very popular among his public.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Juan Cole and Yaacov Lozowick

So far most of our exchange has happened on Cole's blog. I've now moved it here - or rather, since it's too long for a blogpost: here.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Ahmadinejad and Freedom of Speech - II

While I'm not particularly perturbed by his show at Columbia University (see previous post), I'm sceptical about the point of it all. The underlying assumption of many of the defenders of his being invited to speak at such an august university is that dialogue is important - even, perhaps, crucial to the avoidance of violence. This assumption, however, makes sense only if there is enough common ground between the discussants for them to be able to relate to one another. In reality, this common ground hardly even exists - or more accurately: it often doesn't exist - between people much closer to one another than Ahmmadinejad and his Western audience.

Two days ago I rasied this issue in a post titled "The End of Rational Discourse?". As an example I cited a German Blog with a Hebrew title, Shual. Sure enough, as happens with these things, Mr Shual (no real name given) came by to see who I am... and left a series of comments, mostly in German. If your German isn't very good, you won't be able to understand him, since he writes in a style that is nigh-unintelligible even by German standards, but at the end of it all, his seems to be the mind of a conspiracy theorist. And try as I might, I can see no way to connect my cognitive processses to his, even though we probably agree on most of the basics such as the mechanisms of a free society, an agreement we do not share with President Ahmadinejad nor with many millions of the people who share his cultural and epistemologial world.

Have I mentioned Prof. Juan Cole, of Michgan University? I intend soon to post here an ongoing correspondence between us. Belive me, there seems hardly any way we'll ever be able to discuss our differences away.

But, we are assured, engaging with the Ayatollahs will definately be successful, if only we are nice enough, understanding enough, contrite enough for our crimes, and so on.

Ahmadinejad and Freedom of Speech

Freedom of speech is a fundamental, basic right in a democracy. It includes the right to be stupid, to say idiotic things, to lie, to wish ill on other people. It is not absolute, however. When it clashes with other basic rights it sometimes must give way.

For a while now there has been a major argument in the US about the invitation extended by Columbia University to the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad to speak before the faculty and students of the university. Deborah Lipstadt, for instance, who knows a thing or two about Holocaust denial, has been against the invitation from the start. Denying the Holocaust falls beyond the limits of freedom of speech, and calling for the destruction of Israel from the position of the head of a government, even more so. Juan Cole, writing at Slate, predictably, frames the discussion in other terms. It's not about what you think, because "There is, in fact, remarkably little substance to the debates now raging in the United States about Ahmadinejad." (and anyway, "he allows Iran's 20,000 Jews to have representation in parliament". Wow!). Rather, Cole informs us, the real issue is the the Neocons and their ilk want to go to war with Iran, so they can't allow Iran's president to be heard. Katrina Vanden Heuval has a similar argument at The Nation. The scary (despicable?) things you're hearing from Iran aren't really serious; the real problem is what Cheney and ilk are saying - now that's evil for you (my paraphrasing).

Personally, I haven't had a clear opinion. It seems to me a pragmatic question: is the danger of silencing greater or lesser than the danger of hearing him? Winston Churchill knew how awful the Nazis really were from the very beginning, even when his was a lone voice in the wilderness, because he was listening to them - as were the appeasers all around him. He was listening and believing, they were listening and brushing aside.

Now that Ahmadinejad has been, talked, and moved on, I think, overall, that it was alright. The Coles of this world weren't listening anyway, because, as they say quite openly, they're too busy focusing on the Cheneyites. For Helene Cooper for the New York Times, on the other hand, the most compelling images were that Ahmadinejad insisted there are no homosexuals in Iran and that the Holocaust isn't fact, merely a debating point. If that's ultimately what remains in the public mind, then giving him the benefit of the doubt and allowing him the freedom to spout his rubbish was a good idea - as the framers of democracy thought it would be.

Monday, September 24, 2007

On the Responsibility of Judging

The Gemara is discussing the conditions in which there is an assumption of impurity that will prevent a woman from marrying a cohen (priest). Some young women who had been kidnapped and freed were brought to the great yeshiva of Nehardea, for their case to be clarified before the head of the Yeshiva, Shmuel - one of the greatest of the rabbis. And note that the rabbis function as scholars, and as judges, and as leaders of the community. Shmuel's father sent someone to chaperone the young women, to which Shmuel commented that it would seem a bit late for chaperones. His father responded sharply: If they were your daughters, would you be so careless with their reputations?

The rabbi of our daf yomi class says that in his opinion, this is the single most important statement in the entire Talmud.
Ktubot 23a

Sunday, September 23, 2007

The End of Rational Dscourse?

As I wander around the Internet and look into the minds of people who post their thoughts on it in all their glorious diversity, it is often striking to note how incompatible some lines of reasoning are to others. My post about Juan Cole's blog is one small example. He's a professor, I'm a PhD, but there's no fundamental common ground on which we can both agree.

Here's another small example. At the end of four days of extreme effort Israeli forces rolled up a Hamas squad of murderers in Nablus, and following their interrogations of the arrested members they uncovered the intended weapon, a belt of explosives, in Tel Aviv.

In response to which a strange German with a Hebrew-named blog called Shaul (fox) explains that the whole thing is a hoax. Part of his proof for this is the fact that the attempt was supposed to be against a Tel Aviv bus, but on Yom Kippur there are no buses in Tel Aviv.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Yom Kippur, 2007

At 11 am on October 5th 1973 I was sitting in a bus, lazily half-listening to the news on the driver's radio. I don't remember the first items, but the third or fourth mentioned that there was some tension with the Syrians. I even remember precisely where the bus was, and what I was looking at.

The reason I remember is that at ten to two the next afternoon, home for a couple of hours from the synagogue that day of Yom Kippur, when the sirens suddenly went off, I immediately recalled the item on the news and knew that the siren was serious.

Most of the intervening years I've lived elsewhere, but now I'm back in the same part of Jerusalem. This morning, close to 11 o'clock, I walked by the same spot. The gray asphalt of the sidewalk has in the meantime been replaced with reddish bricks. Fidel Castro still clings to life but communism is dead. The bus route has been repeatedly re-numbered, so that what was once number 15, then 6, is now 13.The youngest of my children is a few years older than I was on that morning. On page two of Haaretz an item of secondary importance tells of tension with Syria.

May we have a peaceful year.

A Creative and Original Thinker

Back when I was in elementary school, there were two really good students in our class, and two really really even better ones. Of the first two, one grew up to become a doctor but was killed in a traffic accident, and no-one has ever heard of the second since he went off to do a PhD in mathematics somewhere in the US in the early 1980s. Of the two real stars, one became a hydrologist at the Weizman Institute; since Israel is not blessed with anywhere near as much water as, say, Canada, hydrologists are important people.

The most brilliant kid in the class told me once, when we were about 11, that when he grew up he was going to be a rabbi, but an unusual one. How unusual? Well, for a start, he was going to be a rabbi on a kibbutz, and would wear short pants.

Sure enough, he became a rabbi. Not on a kibbutz, and I doubt he wears short pants in public. But yes, he's unusual.

For quite some years already he has been the head of a yeshiva, which is admittedly a sign of unusual seriousness but is after all what important rabbis kind of expect to do. In recent years I've been hearing rumours about him, but I haven't spoken to him for well over 20 years - no falling out, simply separate tracks of life. A few evenings ago he was to participate in the launch of his new book in a synagogue near us, so I cleared the evening and went to see for myself.

It was a very strange evening. Most of the audience were either his students or his graduates; there were a smattering of the intellectually curious. It was immediately obvious that his people have their own vocabulary, and that they indeed are not your usual run-of-the-mill yeshiva students (whatever those would look like). There was a lot of talk about mysticism, for example, but also about post-modernism, Hegel and Descartes got mentioned, and lots of talk about God and his presence in the world - which, you'll have to take my word on this one - is far from obvious with yeshiva students, strange as it may seem. (Or not: go read my Daf Yomi thread to get an idea). One of the speakers was a prominent professor of Jewish philosophy; he had read the new book and could talk about it. One of the other speakers was a well-known local rabbi: he had read the book but admited that he didn't understand what it was about. A third speaker was a rabbi I'd never heard of; if anyone understood what he was talking about, they didn't let on.

Finally, the Rav Re'em Hacohen himself got up to speak.

He was electrifying. Charismatic, compelling - and indeed, just as he promised me all those years ago, unusual. I think what he's doing contains some of the following componants. One, he doesn't buy into any of the shallow slogans common in many orthodox and ultraorthodox circles these days who insist on a rigid reading of the traditional texts - what would perhaps be called fundamental if they were American Protestants (Or not: what do I know about them?). He was decisive and outspoken in his rejection of that. He wasn't using post-modern terminology nor embracing it, but I could see why other speakers had brought it up. He's willing to take things from them.

The professor had made the distinction between the strand of religious thought that focuses on the infinite distance between man and God, and a second strand that focuses on the intimacy - he thought that Hacohen was trying to fuse the two. Re'em Hacohen himself spoke more about his life-long attempt to see God's "Shefa" (wealth? hardly) in the world, and told that his teaching is an attempt to show it, but that his teaching keeps changing because the Shefa is so great and unencompassible. Judaism contains three levels of learning the biblical texts - pshat, drash and sod (very roughly: what's in the literal text, what's the meaning of it, and what's hidden in it). Hacohen was moving effortlessly between all three.

Did I understand what he was talking about? Nope. But I came away with the conviction that he is charting his new waters in a creative and original way.

Although you'll never guess this from reading Haaretz, these are times of great vitality and growth in the Jewish world - very unusually so.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Last Words of a Patriotic Goofy Warrior

Y-net has posted a short film made by a military film-maker who was with the unit of paratroopers that spent most of the week near Nablus hunting a Hamas squad that was trying to send a suicide murderer into Israel. In three or four days of skirmishes at least three Palestinians were killed, and one Israeli; if I understand correctly, earlier today the Hamas squad was caught.

The film was made at night inside the confines of some sort of troop carrier. The camera focuses for a moment on Benzion Hanemann, who grins into the lens and says: I'm Benzion Hanemann, I'm from Nov on the Golan heights, I've got 9 siblings of all sorts of ages, we've got a great country, a great army, good luck to everybody." Then an officer says something about how they're going into battle, they have a job to do, and if they don't do it no-one else will. Good luck. They then sing the national anthem, Hatikva, followed by some sort of teenager ditty about someone's aunt who raises chickens. And then they clamber off the vehicle, and an hour or so later Benzion was dead and his friends had killed the Palestinian who had shot him.

It's a shooting war, and the men fighting it believe in what they're doing and go into battle with big grins and goofy songs.

Two Albums from Auschwitz

The New York Times yesterday told of a photo album put together by Karl Hoecker, adjutant to the commander of Auschwitz, depicting scenes from the camp, but mostly, pleasant scenes from the daily life of the SS staff. From there you should go to the website of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, where the newly discovered album is, and they've put up a very fine online exhibition. Take your time, because this is an incredible document. And then go to the website of Yad Vashem, which owns the only known other album from Auschwitz, and compare the two. The YV album depicts Jews arriving at the camp to be murdered.

Each of these two albums on its own is important, the juxtaposition is blood curdling.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Juan Cole is Unintelligible - II

Just tried to post a comment at Cole's blog, relating to his statement about Gaza, but it turns out he doesn't allow unvetted comments. You can submit, but he decides if it gets posted. So just in case he decides not to post it, I'm putting it here. Ruminations, alas, has far fewer readers than he does, but at least it'll be up and Google will find it. Here it is:

"Gaza is the worst outcome of Western colonialism anywhere in the world outside the Belgian Congo."

I have been thinking about this statement for the past 24 hours, and still cannot make head or tail of it. What could it possibly mean? What were the criteria used to produce it? What set of hypothetical facts might refute it? (Using Karl Popper's method of verifying historical theses).

The best I can do is to suppose that it's a statement of an article of faith, a derivative of a set of religious beliefs whereby colonialism is the fundamental organizing principle in human relations, or at least in the relations between nations, and that the status of each group in the hierarchy of colonialism somehow confers a moral position irrespective of one's actions (shades of Calvinism, perhaps, with Grace but without God?)

If it's not that, I can't imagine what it might be. One way or the other, it certainly isn't an expression of any type of empiric thought that I've ever seen.

Update 25 hours later: Cole didn't have the guts to post my comment. I report, you decide

Juan Cole is Unintelligible

Prof. Juan Cole of Michigan U is a well-know commentator of many matters including the Mid East. Unlike many pundits, he speaks fluent Arabic. His blog, Informed Comment, is well known, oft cited, and has been awarded various prizes. Yesterday he posted the following sentence: Gaza is the worst outcome of Western colonialism anywhere in the world outside the Belgian Congo.

I truly and honestly don't know what this sentence might possibly mean. If anyone wants to educate me, I'm here.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

How Should We Praise A Bride?

For the beginning of this thread and its explanations, see here.
Ketubot tractate, page 17a:
The rabbis asked: What praise do we sing of a bride? The school of Shamai say: praise her as she is. The school of Hillel say: Beautiful and coy. The school of Shamai asked the school of Hillel: What if she's a cripple, or blind, how can you say she's beautiful and coy? After all, the Torah has told us "Keep your distance from lies"? (Exodus 23 verse 7). The school of Hillel responded to the school of Shamai: by your method, when someone makes a poor purchase, should we praise their choice or mock it? We should praise it (implied: tell a white lie). Therefore the rabbis said: one should always strive to be engaged with all people. And Rashi adds: to encourage each person.

(My rather clumsy translation)

Anti Israel Boycott

The Economist has a balanced description of the phenomenon of trying to hit Israel through "Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions - BDS". It's not going to work, they say, nor perhaps should it, they're willing to add.

The funny part of the item - if funny is the word - is that all the people or organizations directly quoted, those against the boycott as well as for it, are themselves Israelis.

Blogger Play

Blogger has put up a new feature that allows you to see the images that are being uploaded to all blogs as they're going up, or, as Blogger puts it: a real-time slideshow of photos Blogger users have recently uploaded to their blogs. It's a great snapshot of what people are thinking and posting about, right now!

What you get when you go there is an endless series of basically random images. There must be hundreds of thousands of active blogs that include images, run by people from all nations and all walks of life, excluding only those with no access to the Internet - and there are fewer such people than there used to be. The diversity is effectively infinite. A snapshot of what's preoccupying humans at a given moment. No particular context, no order, no organizing principle. Pictures that people want to show other people.

I'm not much an admirer of post-modernism, but this is essentially the Platonic ideal of post-modernism: and it turns out to be poignant and moving.


Monday, September 17, 2007

Freedom of Information and other Necessary Evils

Still no clear idea what the IAF did in Syria almost two weeks ago. I assumed, along with most people I suppose, that once CNN had tried to decipher the event the floodgates would open and it would only be a matter of days before the full story came out. This seems not to have happened, and it now begins to seem possible that it will take a while. Truly a strange scenario.

Since the story itself isn't clear, our local critics can't lambast us for it, not with any credibility. So they're casting about for other lines of attack. Gideon Levy, one of the most vehement of them all, lashes out at all of his colleagues for their craven silence. I'm not a shrink, nor do I have the full picture, but I'll allow myself a wee speculation that Levy is frustrated because some of his colleagues must know considerably more than he does on this story, and this way he can feel better than them in spite of their being better informed. Zahava Gal-On, one of my least favorite MKs, almost certainly read Levy over her cornflakes and muffins (nah, I don't believe even Zahava starts her day with bacon and eggs); highly capable creator of headlines as she is, by early afternoon she was in all the media with her demand that the government report to the Knesset immediately, right now, this moment, before the evening news. Note, however, that the head of her party (or at least the putative head of her party), Yossie Beilin, no government wimp himself, doesn't agree with her. Sometimes confidential matters need to remain confidential, he says. Hmmph.

Finally, Shlomi Barzel floats the hypothesis that perhaps the Israeli journalists who are in the know (and there must be quite a number of them, in many competing companies, who've all taken Journalism 101 about scoops) - maybe they're actually being responsible citizens for putting strategic considerations above their ingrained reflexes (my formulation).

Since I don't know what our planes did, I can't tell who's right in all this. As you'll have guessed, however, the measured and sophisticated reasoning of Barzel appeals to me where the strident but always predictable carpers merely grate. Also, note to its credit that this is all from Haaretz. Image what would happen if the Guardian knew how to think simultaneously on three tracks.

Ian McEwan, Saturday

Another try at literary commentary. No Jews are mentioned in the book, and Israel is mentioned but once, quite in passing - but there are ways this book ties into the subjects of this blog.

Sunday, September 16, 2007


I'm back, but not fully so. Hopefully I'll have time for some real blogging this evening or tomorrow. In the meantime, here's a link to a section on the English-language version of the website of our National Library that deals with the Shmita. Unfortunately, most of the content itself is on the Hebrew side of the website.

Someday someone ought to gently nudge the fine people at the National Library to do more with the collections they have online than they're presently doing. But this has to do with an aspect of my professional life I don't generally discuss on this blog.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Rosh HaShanah: Netane Tokef

Rabbi Amnon of Magenza (Mainz), 11th Century:

On Rosh HaShana it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: how many shall pass away and how many shall be created; who shall live and who shall die; who at his appointed time and who before it; who by fire and who by water; who by the sword and who by wild beasts; who from hunger and who from thirst; who by earthquake and who by plague; who by strangling and who by stoning; who shall rest and who shall wander; who will be tranquil and who harassed; who will be at ease and who afflicted; who will become poor and who rich; who will be brought down and who raised up. But teshuva, tefilla and tzedaka will prevent the evil decree.

(Cut and pasted from here)

For the full (Artscroll) English version, here.

Two very very different blogs talk about Netane Tokef here and here. An orthodox Rabbi talks about it here; if you prefer a far-left perspective, check here. Here's another blog. And another Orthodox rabbi here.

May we all be judged for the better.

See you next week.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Educated Discussions about War

This morning a lone Kassam rocket wounded 67 Israeli soldiers. The New York Times reported that this drew "calls for a major military operation". (The Guardian predictably captioned the story with "Call for major Gaza incursion", but I tire of them sometimes).

It's striking how far these reports are from reality. Not that they're outright lies - they aren't, and indeed such calls have been called today. Not even that surprising, given that the Palestinians in Gaza are shooting into Israeli territory, sometimes killing civilians and sometimes wounding soldiers. But what these reports totally and completely miss is the degree to which Israeli public discourse of military matters is carried on by an experienced and highly educated public - moreover, a public that remembers things, and learns from them. We all know perfectly well that a "major incursion to Gaza" isn't in the cards, because it wouldn't be able to achieve its putative goal. Not to say such a thing will never happen, but not now, and when it happens it will be because we've decided, as a society, that the very bad military options are better than the even worse alternatives. And we'll know that the most that can be gained is a temporary lull in a very long war. Remember: many of us know about guns; almost all of us know about what can and cannot be achieved with them, as well as the dangers of using them. We speak from intimate and very long experience.

How different than the discussions I'm following on American websites this 6th anniversary of 9/11, the day after General Petreus gave his report. The Americans, as befitting a society well versed in free speech and free thought, deliberate seriously - but not particularly well informed. Most of the voices I'm reading don't sound like they understand much about war, guns, and similar things that are essential to the discussion.

The Europeans - well, don't even get me started.

PS. Lest I be misunderstood: for all our experience, we sometimes make dramatic mistakes. And then we add them to our aggregate experience.

Monday, September 10, 2007

The Guardian: Neo Nazis in Israel are Victims

The story is strange enough without the Guardian pitching it their way. A couple days ago the Israeli police arrested 8 young men, all immigrants from the ex-Soviet Union, for what has been described as Neo-Nazi activity. Haaretz, as usual, supplies a decent description. Thugs, non-Jews with some degree of Jewish ancestry that allowed them into Israel by the Law of Return, who didn't fit in and turned to vile actions such as spray-painting swastikas on synagogues and tattooing themselves likewise, and vicious actions such as beating foreign workers, ultraorthodox youth and drunks. Predictably the populist elements of the story set agog all the instincts of all the politicians - and Haaretz details that, also.

The element of the story that Haaretz dares not mention is the innate degree of hatred in general and hatred towards Jews these young thugs have. It must have come from somewhere, and I think it's wrong to tell the story without ever even mentioning the possibility that their Soviet cultural background might have some wee influence over their behavior.

The Guardian uses the story to lay on their usual fare of anti-Israeli reportage. Some examples:

Many Russians live in large communities in Israel's cities in which they have little interaction with other Israelis. They have their own supermarkets where pork is available, unlike in the majority of stores. Russians feel they are victims of discrimination in Israel and many are denied the right to marry by the Jewish authorities.

Well, sort of. Large communities, yes. Little interaction with other Israelis? Come on now. Supermarkets with pork, true, but what does it prove? Russians feel they are victims? Hmm. Among some million and a half people there certainly must be such people, but the word "Russians" is not helpful in telling if there are 1,000 of them or 250,000. Many are denied the right to marry - yes, that's an accurate description of about 15% of the issue.

For whatever reason, the Guardian seems constitutionally unable to take Israel seriously as a complex and human society. The only way they can see us is through some narrow ideological filter that reduces us to flat stereotypes.

Scientists Prove Silliness Common even Among Scientists

The LA Times has a report today whereby scientists have proven that Liberals have more flexible minds than conservatives, and so on. Now since Israel uses different monikers, I couldn't say if this works for us, what with our not having either liberals nor conservatives, merely clear thinkers and befuddled ones. Still, it seems to me that if you're going to make such a major statement, it might perhaps be a good idea to base your findings on something marginally more convincing than the way inebriated freshmen type M's and W's.

Me, I'd nominate this study for the Ig-Nobel prize. The editor, on the other hand, should be sent back to covering Tinsletown.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Nooks and Crannies in Jerusalem

Here's a thread intended to offer quick evocations about one of the most fascinating towns in the world. Installment number 1:

82 Prophets st. (Or is it Prophets' st? The Hebrew, Rechov Hanevi'im, could mean either). A block north of Jaffa st, basically smack in the middle of downtown, or at least very nearby. A closed compound most Jerusalemites have never entered and never will. I was once in there, 40 years ago, and remember my astonishment at the oasis of serenity in the middle of a town about with much can be said but not serenity.

Built in 1878 as a hospital by the Anglican Jewish Mission Society. At the time this would have been at the edge of town, but in a good area. I can't tell you if the good Anglican missionaries intended to aim only at Jews and not Arabs, or if the Jewish part sounded better for fundraising purposes. The architect was one Bradford Pite. Probably not an ancestor of Brad Pitt, but who knows? After the war of 1948, when the Haddasah hospital had been shut down for being on the wrong side of the border, the Haddasah organization used the compound for a while. By 1967, when I made my single, memorable visit, it was being used as it is till this day, as the Anglican school in Jerusalem. It's about a block away from some ultraorthodox neighborhoods, who leave it alone, so that's as good an indication as any that the Anglicans of today aren't missionizing the Jews, since the Ultraorthodox are very sensitive about such things.

Most of the students at the school are children of Christians in Jerusalem - UN officials, diplomats, that sort of thing. And a few more colorful characters about which I ought to tell someday.

As for the missionaries: I'd be willing to bet 18 Shekels that 130 years later, Judaism is a more vital religion than Anglicanism.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Power, Morality, and How to Write About Them

Here are two articles with similar themes but very different tones. The first, the editorial of this week's Forward, bemoans the clash of morality with Realpolitik in two recent Israeli decisions, one regarding Israel's bowing to Turkish pressure and essentially denying the Armenian genocide of 1915, and the other to turn Darfurian refugees away from the border. The second is Eliyahu Salpeter in Haaretz, and he's bemoaning a longer list of items all of which sully the memory of the Holocaust; prominent on his list are the two items that so aggravated The Forward.

I can't quite put my finger on it, but something bothered me about the Forward piece and didn't with Salpeter. Nothing scientific, and you are welcome to disagree with me.

The Forward uses hand-wringing hyperbole:

History usually passes from one era to another in a slow, glacial process, too gradual to be discernible until the change is complete. There are times, though, when the change happens in an instant, like a flash of lightning splitting a summer night. Such was the birth of the atomic age at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 62 years ago this month. Such was the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of communism, when Boris Yeltsin stood on a tank in Moscow and defied the tyrants, 16 years ago last week. And such, we may learn to our sorrow, is the end of the post-Holocaust era in Jewish history. That age may have evaporated last week in a haze of wrenching moral contradictions, as the imperatives of remembering and resisting genocide collided with the needs of Israeli security.

This is not serious. The Turkish story has been going on for decades, and some day the international community - or maybe merely the United States - will tell the Turks to knock it off, at which point the Turks will knock it off, and in any case they'll stop twisting Israel's arm because if the Americans call a genocide a genocide, who cares what the Israelis say. Israel's treatment of the Darfurian refugees is outrageous, but a bit of perspective can be called for: The real outrage is that there's a genocide going on there, and that before it there was a larger one in the Congo (4 million dead), and before that another one in Southern Sudan (2 million dead), and in Rwanda (800,000 dead). In all of these cases, Israel's ability to make a difference has been minor, at best.

Salpeter's tone is not agonized, it's angry. He's not kvetching that some unmaintainable moral standard has been desecrated, he thinks his (our) political leaders are cynical bastards, pardon my language. What can I tell you? I prefer the anger to the agonizing.

Marketing at 'Ruminations'

A famous Jewish saying says that people who correctly attrribute sayings hasten the arrival of the Messiah. I don't know why this might be so. Nor, unfortunately, can I tell you who originated the following. Tova got it from Dvora who got it from Carol, if that helps. If anyone knows, feel free to tell me and I'll do my bit of encouraging the Messiah to come already. Until then, if you can follow the Yinglish, enjoy. If you can't, I suggest that next time you're about to be born (reborn? reincarnated?), you request to be stationed in an environment that contains Yiddish.

The Management
Chumra of the Week

Human Nature vs. History

In our Daf Yomi series we've finished the Yevamot tractate and started K'tubot. The K'tuba is the marriage contract, but in standard form the tractate starts not with its putative subject but with a nearby issue: on what day of the week is a marriage supposed to take place? The rabbis discuss back and forth, if it has to be Wednesday or perhaps Tuesday, and why not Monday... After a while the question is raised if they are authorized to change a rule that seems to have been laid down in the Divine scriptures of the Torah, and the flat answer is yes, they have that authority, end of discussion.

They then ramble off into a discussion about dealing with persecution, and if the rampaging Romans who can be expected to interfere with Jewish weddings if they always take place on the same day of the week intend to kidnap the bride or merely rape all the wedding guests, and how to dissuade brides from committing suicide. These, however, it must be noted, are not sufficient reasons to change the basic rules. It is permitted to move weddings because of Romans but as an ad hoc measure, that's all, since Romans come and go (after a few centuries). Given that the Roman Empire is ephemeral, you can't change divine rules because of it. You merely wait for it to pass. (K'tubot 2-3).

Monday, September 3, 2007

Professional Warriors and Morality

Robert D. Kaplan has a long and slightly rambling article at The Atlantic Monthly titled Rereading Vietnam. You don't have to read more than the first third, perhaps half, though he does put the punchline at the very end.

He assumes we're all aware of the distinction between civilians who know almost nothing about war and the citizen soldiers, who do. What he does is to tell about a third class, the professional warriors, who are so far removed from the civilians that even their historical memory is contradictory. The professional warriors read books the civilians have never heard about, and in the case of Vietnam, these books describe a war the civilians would never recognize (nor accept). A war that America came near to winning, and also a war that was morally just. Whew.

Near the end he talks a bit about Israeli soldiers, and then finishes with the statement that professional warriors must be controlled - though since the civilians are irrelevant to their world, the controlling needs to be done by their own officers.

I would say that the distinctions are not helpful for understanding the Israeli case. This place is too small, the war is too near - and, most significantly, I don't think we have either the first group, the uninitiated civilians, nor the third, the professional warrior class.

Haaretz and the Supreme Court - 2

As you'll have noticed by now, the attempts to reform the High Court are a recurring theme on this blog (click on the label `Israeli Democracy` and you'll see the entire string). Last week I devoted one post to the way Haaretz is participating in the discussion. This morning saw an interesting development in that sub-plot.

Amos Schocken is the grandson of Zalman Schocken. Zalman was a very wealthy German Jew, an owner of department stores and other enterprises. In 1913, for example, he founded the Schocken publishing house so as to enable Germany's Jews, who were losing their command of Yiddish and certainly Hebrew, to be able to read important Jewish books in German. In 1934 he moved to Mandatory Palestine, well before most German Jews realized they had to get out. In 1939 he purchased the small, and not very important newspaper `Haaretz` as a wedding present for his son, Gershom.

Amos Schocken is the son of Gershom Schocken, who published and edited Haaretz from 1939 until his death in 1990. At one time, back in the 1950s, he was a member of the Knesset representing the Progressive Party (which disappeared long long ago...).

Upon his father's death, Amos became the publisher of Haaretz. As far as I can tell, this is a hi-falutin word for `owner`. Unlike his father, he chose not also to be the editor in chief, but late in 2004 he demonstrated to us all that not being the top editor doesn't mean not being in charge, when he forced out Hanoch Marmari, the editor apparently chosen by his father. The paper's line throughout the 2nd Intifada had been far to left of mainstream, so much so that a number of prominent figures had publicly announced the cancellation of their subscriptions- and eventually Marmari had enough, and left. Amos remained steadfast. Perhaps this was admirable, it certainly didn't make him popular - and it told us something quite fundamental about Haaretz.

All of this is background to clarify today's move. Following the airing of Shlomo Avineri's pro-reform position last week (see that link above), Amos obviously felt that his people at the paper weren't succeeding well enough, so he himself joined the fray. Essentially, this is the heaviest gun the paper has, and his article not only takes a position in the on-going public conversation: it defines, with crystal clarity, what the position of Haaretz is.

I remain, as before, an agnostic ignoramus regarding the proposed constitutional changes themselves. However, I am on the side of those saying that the thought itself, of redefining the positioning of the courts, is not only not heresy, it's actually rather plausible. Schocken's article this morning only reinforces this, because the essence of his thesis is that things have been just fine so for, therefore woe to us if we allow them to be changed. But that is precisely the starting point of the entire discussion: that too many people think that the present situation is actually quite problematic.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Tradition as an Anchor

Fascinating article at The New Republic about Evangelicals who are turning toward the Orthodox Church (mostly toward the Middle Eastern versions of it, more than the Greek or Russian).

And how does this fit onto a blog that deals mostly with Jewish matters?
1. So it doesn't - so what?
2. An issue not addressed in the article: while Catholicism and parts of Protestantism are facing up to their traditions of Jew hatred, the Orthodox are not. Which raises the question if these people are more Orthodox or more American and enlightened?
3. Beyond all that, however, I found the article so fascinating because it seems the explanations many of the converts are giving themselves for their decision have to do with a feeling of rootedness, of being part of something that is simultaneously ancient and deeply intellectually satisfying, unlike much of the transient culture around them.

Sentiments any Jew who taps into Jewish tradition can identify with immediately.

This is how WWII Began

Probably the single most ominous weekly portion of Torah reading of the entire year is Ki Tavo - Deuteronomy chapter 26 verse 1 thru 29 verse 9. So ominous that the reader who stands at the podium and recites out loud while the congregants follow lowers his voice and mumbles. So ominous that while at any other segment it is a sign of public honour to be called "up" to recite a blessing at the podium during the reading, at this one section it's not an honour at all, and either the reader says the blessing since he's already up there and doesn't need to be called, or one of the gabais, the officers of the synagogue, if you will, is called up, as a duty, not an honour.

And why all this? Here's a link, so that you won't have to get up and walk over to your bookshelf. Moses is summing up, before his death. In the first half of the portion he tells of all the fine things that will happen if the Israelites live according to God's commandments. Then, in the second, he turns to the possibility that maybe they won't. Chapter 28 verse 15 sets the tone: "You will be cursed in the city and cursed in the country... The Lord will cause you to be defeated before your enemies. You will come at them from one direction but flee from them in seven, and you will become a thing of horror to all the kingdoms on earth.... Your carcasses will be food for all the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth, and there will be no one to frighten them away.... day after day you will be oppressed and robbed, with no one to rescue you.... The sights you see will drive you mad.... The Lord will bring a nation against you from far away, from the ends of the earth, like an eagle swooping down, a nation whose language you will not understand, a fierce-looking nation without respect for the old or pity for the young....

And so on, and on, and on. In every synagogue in which I've ever been on the Shabbat in late summer when this portion is read, there is always a hushed silence as the reader rushes through the curses, as they pile higher and higher, and we slump lower and lower.

This is what was read in the synagogues the world over, but especially, in Poland, 68 years ago today, on the second day of the German invasion that was to become World War II - and the Shoah.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Items about Israel-Palestine

If there is one journalist whom it is consistently worth reading at Haaretz, it's Avi Issacharoff, who reports on the Palestinians. He speaks their language, he is well connected, and although we know his political preferences he never lets them interfere with the story he has to tell. In Friday's edition he tells about the efforts the Israelis are making to ensure a supply of food to the populace of Gaza, in spite of the attempts by Hamas forces to shut the crossings. Not a story you'll ever find in the Guardian.

Aluf Benn and Shmuel Rosner ask themselves why Olmert and Abbas seem to be deep into negotiations, and no-one seems to care. They suggest three explanations, all plausible:
1. After 15 years of talks that have led nowhere, no-one believes these will, either.
2. Both men are so weak politically that neither will be able to deliver (this is actually a variation on the previous one).
3. It's August, it's hot, people are on vacation, and no-one can be bothered.

But if the negotiations ever go anywhere, this will all seem mildly strange in retrospect, won't it?