Monday, December 31, 2007

End of an Era

December 31st, 2007. Today was my last day of employment at Yad Vashem. I was first employed there as a research assistant in December 1982: 25 years.

I spent a large chunk of the day erasing all sorts of traces of my activity: e-mails, files, tons of paper. Things that were important enough to make their way into the archives are obviously still there, but the rest... all gone. Not the kind of thing you'd expect an archivist to do, admittedly, but I have always been a rather unusual archivist. Anyway, that's what I did, take it or leave it.

Israel's Inverted Moore's Law

Remember Moore's Law, which predicts a doubling of computing power every 18-24 months, or something like that? First postulated in 1965, it's still running strong more than 40 years later, which is why we can have the blogosphere.

Well, since the peak of Palestinian violence in 2002, Israel has cut the number of it's casualties by half, each year. Including 2007, in which 7 Israeli civilians were killed, compared to 17 in 2006. Predictably, the number of dead Palestinians also fell significantly. (These numbers and others can be found in a B'tselem report cited here).

The moral of the story, as I've often told, is that violence is often best answered with superior violence. Especially in the cases where the original violence is fueled by animosities that cannot be made to go away except perhaps through abject surrender to the haters.

Targeted Killing

As anyone who regularly follows the news has noticed, Israel's ability to identify specific Palestinian fighters and kill them without killing surrounding civilians is continually on the rise. Now there's a report with some interesting numbers. It turns out that appearances are correct, and the ratio of dead targets to dead bystanders has recently reached 30:1, which still leaves lots of room for improvement. The optimal number to strive for would be lots:0. And the perfect numbers would be no-killings at all, for lack of need.

How should we read these numbers?

Killing people is never something to be joyous about. However, killing armed men who are members of organizations committed to destroying Israel, and who wish to kill Israeli citizens as the primary way to achieve their goal, seems pretty reasonable to me. Especially as the trend over the past five years has consistently shown that violence against violent Palestinians indeed reduces the overall violence. So that's alright.

Also understandable is that the longer an army (or any organization) has to work on a problem, the better it gets. The fact that Israel's ability to kill far fewer bystanders in 2007 than in 2002 is, unfortunately, natural. This may sound callous, but is simply the way of the world: practice makes good, and no army in history ever figured out how to do its job perfectly, even less so immediately. Especially as the tasks most often appear unannounced, and you have to devise a response while people are getting killed.

A careful reading, however, also tells a regrettable story: that it was a decision from the top that made a difference. So long as the commander of the Airforce was Dan Halutz, not enough care was taken not to kill Palestinian bystanders. (Some care was taken, but not enough). How do we know this? Because once Halutz was replaced by Eliezer Shkedi, and he made an issue of the matter, he also got results.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Mandarin Bus

The other day I was on a bus to Tel Aviv (buses are interesting places). Sitting next to me was an earnest young man with a fancy beard reading one of our least serious newspapers, that is handed out for free at places like bus stations. He was reading his rag sheet, I was deciphering my daf yomi, until suddenly his cellphone rang, and he launched into an animated conversation in... Mandarin Chinese (Believe me, that's what it was. I wasn't certain, so I asked him, after the conversation was over. "Funny", I told him, you don't look Chinese").

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Rape - 2

Following Lydia's comment on the previous post, and a lively discussion last night over Shabbat dinner, here's a theory about the harshness of Landau's language.

The Hebrew word for rape is Ones, or La'anos. La'anos, however, can also be translated as coerce, a much more likely meaning for Landau to have intended. However, English is Landau's mother tongue, and it's probably what he used when addressing the American Secretary of State, especially this one who's Hebrew is probably rather poor given that she's a trained Sovietologist. How then to explain his use of the wrong English word? Is it possible he thinks in Hebrew? Especially when people who really know multiple languages generally think in whatever language they're talking in?

More likely, it seems to me, is that one of the Israelis present at the meeting heard the (English-language) exchange, and then leaked it in Hebrew, from which it then seeped back into English. This still doesn't explain why Landau is basically confirming what he said ("My words were quoted out of context" means, in Israeli parlance, yes, you've got me, but I need to appear as if I'm denying without outright lying in case some has it on tape), but perhaps he was confronted in Hebrew, too, and the whole incident has been mistranslated.

The essence, of course, remains, but I'm in a rush to some meeting and may or may not comment an that later this evening.

Friday, December 28, 2007

David Landau: Israel Should be 'Raped'"

David Landau, Editor in Chief of Haaretz, told Condoleeza Rice back in September that Israel is a failed state, and should be raped to end the occupation.

I've seen quite a bit of buzz on this over the past 24 hours (here's LGF, for example, linking onwards).

There's actually nothing particularly surprising in Landau's statement. He is part of a political camp that ultimately doesn't accept Israeli democracy or the will of the Israeli electorate, and is convinced that it knows better; they don't even pretend otherwise.

Benazir Bhutto's Death

I know nothing about Pakistan, and can't tell you anything important about today's assassination, who did it, or which American politician will benefit and who can be blamed. Andrew Sullivan, however, has it right when he writes:
This world is a darker, more irrational place than we know. And these convulsions will surely continue.
A sentence that has been true since forever, and will remain so, in spite of our fervent wishes otherwise.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Formative Power of Culture

Matt Bai shows how the political cultures of Massachusets and Arkansas each consistently create different types of public figures. It's an interesting spinning of Nature vs. Nurture.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

"Illegal According to International Law"

Haaretz tells (yesterday) that the top lawyers of the IDF feel that the use of cluster bombs in Lebanon during last year's war was legal (and the kind of thing that other Western armies also do).

As I've explained in the past, I'm not much of a fan of international law as it's commonly used these days. This story, however, emphasizes the extent to which the name of international law is used in vain. Journalists, politicians and activists, mostly with no legal training, regularly pontificate on how many of Israel's actions are illegal according to international law, quite disregarding the fact that in any normal legal system what is or isn't legal is often disputed by lawyers and decided by courts, and the art of finding and closing loopholes is at the center of the legal practice. Here we have a bunch of lawyers arguing the case for their client (the IDF), and the only possible way to answer them is by using the same legal tools - which most pundits couldn't do if their life depended on it. Fortunately for them, their life doesn't depend on it, and not even their livelihood, since their editors and readers aren't interested in the legal aspects, only in the political ones. International law is cited because it sounds impressive, not because it's understood.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Iranian Immigrants to Israel

I'm not quite certain what to make of this story, telling that the Jewish Agency just brought 40 Jews from Iran, mostly Teheran, to Israel via an undisclosed third country that is probably Turkey (what else could it be? Barbados?)

On the one hand, you get all the usual boilerplate stuff about how this is what a Jewish State exists to do, and if there had been one back in 1937 think how much things would have been better, and so on. Which is actually all true, but not overwhelmingly convincing in this case. As one of the young Iranians who has been here for a while tells, there actually isn't much danger facing the Jews of Iran, which makes sense because the antisemitism of that regime is directed at us, not the tiny local minority (most of the time). You also have to ask who they are, those Iranian Jews, and what they're still doing there, almost 30 years after the rise to power of Homeini, and in spite of decades of the Mossad and others getting those out that need to leave. You also need to know that the Jewish Agency, once the effective government of the pre-State Yishuv, has been losing its way, its clout, its significance, and eventually even its justification to exist for decades already, and stories like this, even though true, aren't really enough to keep them relevant. Did you notice, by the way, how some of the new immigrants or their Israeli family members can't wait to reach the parking lot at the airport to start kvetching about the things they're not getting?

Finally, the comparison with Germany in the 1930s leaves me unconvinced. In this context, anyway. I suppose you could say that getting Jews out of Israel, where there are all these wars and such, is a rational thing... but I'm not going there.

How to Interpret Animosity

It seems there's a columnist at the Guardian named Julie Bindel. You can see a list of her articles here. I must admit that until this morning I'd never even heard of her, and certainly hadn't read anything she's written, but a quick glance at her titles and synopses indicates that she's much involved in the less savory aspects of relations between men and women.

This morning she put up an article titled "Why Men Hate Me", which turns out to be slightly misleading because it's mostly a wail about the fact that some of the men who comment on her articles aren't so nice. And she helpfully brings lots of examples, so we can judge for ourselves. (If this were really important we could of course go read the articles themselves and their comments, and decide for ourselves if Ms. Bindel is portraying things fairly, or not. I didn't feel it to be THAT important, sorry).

Why is this noteworthy, I hear you asking? Well, here are some reasons, and if I don't convince you, feel free to cancel your subscription to Ruminations.

1. Ms. Bindel proudly informs us that as a general rule, she doesn't read comments. Typical for a journalist to feel that the natural way of the world is that they should preach at us, but they don't listen to our opinion of them or their arguments.

2. Seen from the perspective of someone who regularly reads the comments on Guardian columns that deal with Israel, the things that rile her seem pretty tame.

3. Which may simply mean that each of us is sensitive to our own selves and subjects, and indifferent to the selves and subjects of others.

4. Someday, should I find the time, I'd like to write a book called "How to Recognize an Antisemite". Since the Guardian will be an important primary resource, I suppose I'll have to sort out this issue.

5. Of course it's possible that the readers of the Guardian are antisemites, and misogynists, and misanthropes, and Ms. Bindel is a misandrist. This would tell us something about the Guardian, wouldn't it? A newspaper that prides itself on being intellectual and serious.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Gambling with Settlements

The same Guardian article cited in the previous post also states that:

In a separate development, an Israeli cabinet minister confirmed that Israel had new plans to build apartments in two settlements in East Jerusalem and in the occupied West Bank. The announcement brought quick condemnation from Palestinian leaders and presents a new obstacle to attempts to revive peace talks between the two sides.


Israel's construction ministry has budgeted plans to build 740 new settlement apartments next year: 500 in Har Homa, in East Jerusalem, and another 240 in Ma'ale Adumim.

This is a bit misleading, but indeed Israel does most of the damage to itself. There are hundreds of thousands of Israelis living in East Jerusalem, and tens of thousands in Ma'ale Adumim. There is no way they'll be moved, not even in the case of a peace agreement. This was acknowledged by Bill Clinton in his dictated directives for making peace, 7 years ago today, and it was even accepted by both sides of the Geneva Accord, who agreed that the largest Jewish settlements in the West Bank would remain in place and Israeli territory along Gaza and the southern West Bank would be transferred to the Palestinians instead. So if you want to be precise, Israel adding additional apartments to territories everyone knows will not be part of Palestine should not be such an obstacle to peace negotiations, and if they are this tells something about the sincerity of the Palestinian negotiators who are more interested in winning points than in winning peace.

HOWEVER... this would all be acceptable if Israel was building only in those few areas it's clear she's not leaving and might even pay for with alternate territory. Unfortunately, there is quite a bit of building activity in settlements we all know are eventually going to be disbanded, not to mention the ongoing construction of brand new settlements. This is a waste of money, to say the least, and it's also bad tactics, bad strategy, and generally a bad idea. Why do we persist? Mostly because the settlers have figured out how to manipulate the system, but that's a rather feeble excuse. A solid majority of Israelis know we're never going to stay in most of the West Bank, and most of the far-flung small settlements aren't going to stay there. Since we know this, we should find a way to have our government act accordingly.

Gambling with Violence in Gaza

The Guardian tells, with a scandalized undertone:

It is increasingly clear that Israel's policy in Gaza is not simply to halt the rocket fire but also to depose the Hamas movement. Yesterday Haim Ramon, Israel's deputy prime minister, confirmed that his government wanted to topple Hamas.

"We are fighting Hamas and are seeking to weaken its control of Gaza, and bring about the end of its reign there. Hamas should hand over control of Gaza to the Palestinian Authority," he said.

A number of comments to this:

1. I can understand a principled position whereby violence is always an unacceptable tool of politics. People with this position should be called upon to condemn the Palestinian insistence on using violence to promote their goals at least as much as they condemn the Israelis, with no ifs and buts. I would disagree with them, alas, but on grounds of realpolitik. In a perfect world, I'd agree with them fully. (Actually, in a perfect world we'd never have to have the discussion at all...).

2. The Guardian folks aren't principled in that way. Not even in this article, which isn't bad by Guardian standards. Israel, we're told, is not interested merely in a cessation of attacks ("by makeshift rockets"); not a word about the Palestinian insistence on shooting the rockets in the first place.

3. Having had my swipe at the Guardian (yes, it makes me feel better) it does need to be noted that the Israeli gamble here is a bit fraught. At the moment we vaguely feel we're winning. In a series of successful attacks on Palestinian "militants", we have managed to kill only terrorists or fighters, and no civilians. The leaders of the militants or fighters are beginning to feel the heat, and may be suing for a reprieve; if by not giving it to them we can drive them further underground, perhaps even force them out of their positions in Gaza - well, that's certainly a legitimate goal of war, and we should stay the course. But what happens if anytime soon we accidentally kill 12 civilians, and then have to desist from our pressure with the rockets still raining in, what then? Or what if the Palestinians figure out a way to tilt the balance back in their favor: wouldn't it have been better to stop now in return for a lull that won't be offered then?

4. All the fools who endlessly preach about how violence can never bring any positive results should kindly note that the facts say otherwise. Violence will never make the Palestinians love us. It will also never convince the Israelis to move "back to Russia", as Dr. Rantisi once suggested to Ariel Sharon before Sharon had him killed. But sometimes one goes to war for less than total victory. Actually, for as long as humans have been doing history, violence and wars have been bringing results. The tricky part is making certain that it's the results you want and not the ones the other side wants.

5. Using force to get rid of the Hamas control over Gaza is a legitimate goal to strive for. True, they were elected in democratic elections (and then helped themselves along with a wee bit of violence, which brought them what they wanted, see previous comment). But that's just the point. The Palestinians are free to make their own choices... and to pay the price for them, too. If having a Hamas government is painful and they decide they still want to have it, fine. The fact that the Palestinians want a government that wants Israel to disappear doesn't have to mean that Israel must disappear.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Beating the Army's System

A friend and I were yesterday comparing stories from our sons in the army (Achikam is already 5 months in, the other guy's son is newer, and still in basic training). One of the many aggravating things about basic training is how they force you to be part of a group, and someone else decides everything about the group. For example, when they are addressed by some superior (very often), they must stand in three straight rows, forming the shape for the Hebrew letter Cheit. This is degrading, and meant to be so: you're not worthy of being talked to unless you're standing in an unnatural formation.

Except that Shlomo, the other guy's son, has figured a way to turn the tables on his commanders. He never stands in the Cheit, no matter what they tell him. He stands in a Kaf.

If you don't read Hebrew, this chart may be helpful.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Inheritance by Gender

Mishna: A man passed away and left sons and daughters. If the inheritance is large, the sons inherit and the daughters must be taken care of from the inheritance. If the inheritance is small, the daughters must be taken care of, and the sons should go begging. (Ktubot 108b).

Not very modern (actually, it's about 2000 years prior to modernity), but interesting.

This thread began here.

Interpreting Events in Iraq

I don't often talk about Iraq, since others do so all the time, and it's rather on the edge of the themes of this blog. On the other hand, on the edge doesn't mean totally uninteresting (as, say Finnish basketball or ancient Malaysian nanotechnology are). Anyway -

If I were to postulate what a slow winding down of a brutal and fiendishly complex civil war might look like, this could be it. (In The Guardian!). And this is what you'd expect from someone who has invested his ideological fervor in hoping for an American defeat. (The bottom third is especially helpful). And yes, this is what you'd expect from someone who always supported the war.

There is an ancient Jewish saying whereby "since the destruction of the Temple, prophecy has been given only to the fools".

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Gaza Conundrum

Steven Erlanger, bureau chief of the New York Times in Jerusalem, doesn't always get it right. He has some of the usual inbuilt weaknesses of foreign journalists in these parts, and maybe some day I'll tell about an encounter I once had with him regarding these handicaps. This article, however, is quite good in presenting the impossible situation Israel finds itself in facing Gaza, almost two and a half years after pulling out. Were I to insist on being grumpy about anything in his report it would be that he somehow forgets to mention that if and when Israel does invade some day, he and his ilk will do their best to portray it in the worst light they can plausibly get away with. When that happens, I'll link back to this piece.

You also might want to notice the numbers of rockets and mortars launched against Israel since Israeli forces left Gaza, compared to their numbers while Israel was still there. The numbers are at the very end of the report.

Islamic Jihad Associates

Ever since Israel unilaterally left Gaza, in 2005, giving the Gazans the chance to forge a better future on their own, the Gazans haven't been. Part of not doing has been to shoot so many rockets and mortar shells at Israeli civilians that the town of Sderot is slowly disintegrating. The Israeli government has been playing a cynical game whereby so long as it's "only Sderot and vicinity", and the number of casualties is small (and note: small is not non-existent), the response is gaged so as not to cause major turmoil. Should this change for the worse (the decision being 100% in the hands of the Gazans), Israel will have no choice but to escalate its use of power. (The option of peace-making is not even theoretically possible when you're dealing with the Islamic Jihad organization, a gang of extremists that make even Hamas look, well, less awful).

So the discussion rages, the rockets land, and this week the IDF escalated, mostly, at this stage, by hunting down the Jihad men. The BBC reports this morning, and I quote: "The attack [on Harazin's] car killed an Islamic Jihad associate". Harazin himself, we're to understand, was a senior associate.

Echo Chambers or Not

I started this blog not long after announcing my intention to leave my job at Yad Vashem. That job generally kept me too busy, too much of the time. Since then I've been winding down there, and not fully winding up elsewhere, thus leaving some time for blogging. As of January 1st I'll be fully in the next chapter (details will be supplied in the fullness of time), and it remains to be seen if I find the time for blogging. The experience of the past week, which has been heavily "next-chapter" weighted, is not clear.

Having said that, here's an introduction to an intelligent blog that could easily be worth your time. It's written by Norman Geras, a retired professor from London who knows all about Karl Marx, and a lot about lots of other stuff. He reads, reflects, writes... just like I'd like to do here, assuming I continue to have the time. He reads the Guardian, probably out of conviction, so we disagree on that, and he supports Human Rights Watch, which may mean we disagree on that, too. He supports Zionism - we agree on that. And he seems to feel that thinking rationally takes precedence over one's political positions. We can certainly agree on that, in a world where many don't.

And today he has a post pondering the question of the benefit of the Internet for encouraging cross-pollinating of contradicting positions. I'm all in favor of that sort of thing, which is why I link to the Guardian and Good Old Juan more than to, say, LGF.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Got Any Spare Cash?

Actually, I'm serious. If you're looking for a worthy cause to which to donate at the last moment before the end of the tax year, these folks are worth a look.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

On the Woes of Building an Unread Library...

What a sad tale. Reading blogs makes it even worse.

Balancing the Budget of the Temple

Even in this twilight of my tenure at Yad Vashem, one of the few subjects I still deal with is the budget: how to ensure that the budget of 2007 will be fully utilised, and that of 2008 correctly planned (tho that will be someone else's problem...). Last week in Poland some of my discussions with various Polish officials were influenced one way or the other by the approaching end of their budget year. And the previous week I was approached by an institution that wished me to join them in launching a project quickly, before year's end. (Actually, there were two such entities).

None of this is particularly modern, as witnessed by this morning's Daf Yomi, which dealt extensively with the budget of the Temple: which expenses can be written on which budget line, what can be done with surplus funds and how they can or cannot be invested - that sort of thing. As Yogi Berra said: deja vu all over again.
Ketubot 106a and b.

This thread began here.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Nostradamus Sort of Says...

According to this fellow, Nostradamus says we're in for a rough ride...

Jewish Identity and Acculturation

Two articles in The Forward with seemingly no thematic connection together tell an old and well-known story: In the modern era, well acculturated Jews (outside Israel) often have a weaker Jewish identity.

The first tells of a fascinating recently declassified KGB document, created in 1973 after Leonid Brezhnev had the agency find out which Jews were trying to leave the Soviet Union. Surprisingly to the authors of the report and its readers, the educated intelligentsia in Moscow and Leningrad weren't leaving, while the less educated ones from Georgia and the Baltic states, were. (We knew this back at the time, but had no connections to the KGB so as to inform them).

(Also, it's interesting to note that even the top brass of the USSR felt that facts were important to policy making. As regular readers will know, not everyone these days is so enlightened).

On a seemingly totally different topic, the American Jewish Yearbook attempts to understand the long-term impact of intermarriage on Jewish identity. I really don't mean to compare the American Jewish Yearbook with the KGB. Honestly. On the other hand, what can I say? The article seems to say nothing to assuage my suspicion that the further removed Jews are from a meaningfully Jewish life, the further away they are. However you might define "meaningful Jewish life", and there must be many definitions.

Tony Blair (and Most Everyone Else) is Wrong

The accepted wisdom whereby Israelis and Palestinians mostly understand and even sort of agree on what it will take to reach peace, is wrong, says Yossi Alpher. Alas, I fear he's right.

Omer Bartov's Galicia

Omer Bartov talks about his new book "Erased: Vanishing Traces of Jewish Galicia in Present-Day Ukraine" (Princeton). Omer is a fine historian and the talk he gave at Yad Vashem about his ancestral town of Buchach in 2004 was fascinating; the interview is interesting, and I've no doubt that the book is worth reading. I've added it to my list.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

A Different Perspective on Making Peace Or Not

Noah Pollak sent me this link. David Wurmser, postulating that the process started recently at Annapolis isn't going to succeed. I'm a wee bit less impressed by Wurmser's arguments than Noah may be, but I agree with him that his arguments need more of a hearing than they're probably certainly definitely ever going to get. Wurmser, btw, is probably a figure some people will turn off automatically and not listen, but I trust my readers know by now that I prefer to relate to arguments on their merits (factual merits, where possible), rather than on the identity of their propounders. Tho of course, some propounders are rather consistent in making factually-challenged arguments.

Is there such a word: propunders?

Stalin Lost

This should come as no surprise, but Communism is gone from Warsaw. I just wandered through a spanking new mall, which is an exact copy of a spanking new mall in any affluent Western city, including the prices.

But memories linger. Two young American tourists in the lobby of the hotel were saying to each other that it's incredible that this is what a hotel in Warsaw looks like.

Other Hannukah Candles in Warsaw

It wasn't a joke, that quip I made last night about the Stalinistic monstrosity in downtown Warsaw.
Here's a collection of pictures of many buildings in the genre, all awful, some ghastly; in it there is at least one picture of the Warsaw one, called the Palace of Culture and Science. Orwell's Ministries of Truth, Peace and Whatever in 1984 were referring to these things, as one glance will confirm.

This afternoon I was in a car with some Polish fellows and we drove by the edifice (it's hard not to what with it's being at an intersection of various main roads). My hosts confirmed that it had been presented as "Stalin's Gift to the Polish Nation"; when I asked why somebody doesn't simply tear it down and build something else (the area is full of brand new 30-40-story buildings all built since the end of Communism), they told me that actually there are plans to somehow retool the exterior of the building, so as to make it look like something else. Perhaps.

Anyway, my hotel is sort of at the back of the thing. We drove by the front. On its steps is a large Christmas tree, which is fine, and about 30 meters in front of it is... a Hannukia, all lit up. More or less precisely where the south-eastern corner of the Warsaw Ghetto was, if you'll pardon my being morbid.

My guess is that the local Lubavitchers put it there, with the agreement of the mayor, one has to assume. How do I know there are local Lubavitchers? Because of the Hannukia, obviously.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Lighting Hannukah Candles in Warsaw

Once upon a time I arrived in Berlin on a cold and wet night just like this one, and ended up staying in Adolf Eichmann's hotel. But that's a story for some other time.

Tonight I'm in Warsaw. It's late evening, cold and wet, but the hotel I've just checked into is a modern tower with all the amenities and gadgets. Across the street is the Stalinistic tower presented to the Poles in the 1950s. It takes up a large city block, which was empty at the time, just like the site of this hotel, because all its original buildings had been destroyed in 1943, when the ghetto uprising was put down by systematically razing every single structure. There's something unhealthy, if inevitable, about how I check into a luxury hotel while noting its address in relation to the Shoah, but there it is.

My own family had left by then. One set of my great grandparents - educated, modern, members of a Reform congregation - left Warsaw more than 100 years ago, in 1903 or 1904. They were probably in their 30s, and already had a large family of children, but whatever it was they understood, they picked up and left, thereby saving their lives and enabling the lives of all their descendants. I must be the first family member to light Hannuka candles in Warsaw in 103 years.


I'm off to a spot of travel for the rest of the week, and may or may not have access to cyberspace. In the meantime, have a look at this chap's website (reading German will help), put up by someone I met on an earlier trip. The man seems to make a living from running up stairs, and the more the merrier.

What can I say? People are interesting.

Monday, December 10, 2007

A Challenge from the New York Review of Books

Someone at the New York Review of Books must be reading Ruminations. About three weeks ago I pointed out that different Americans were engaged in totally different intellectual exercises, to the extent that it's probably getting hard simply to have a conversation based on a common cultural basis.

No sooner had I said that, Michael Massing went to read some of the war literature the folks at Radcliffe may not be reading. He poses a serious challenge to the part of American society willing to take the present war seriously enough as to read books about it.

One could of course nitpick his article. He uses the Beauchamp episode at The New Republic in a way hardly warranted anymore even by TNR's own editors. He chooses which books to read, which ones of those he'll report on, and it's far from clear to me if his rendering of their themes are quite what the authors intended.

One could argue against his thesis from his own findings. At one point he leads us to believe that a unit of marines has just opened fire at Iraqi soldiers hiding behind Iraqi women, only to tell us later that in the entire campaign that unit only killed three Iraqis with direct fire: something smells of creative editing to me. Or he'll tell of American war crimes and in the following paragraph he'll tell of Iraqi civilians clamoring for aid from the same soldiers - again, not a coherent description.

One could argue about his use of history. He sort of implies that American troops in previous wars were better, but then again, in his haste to say that war is always bad he taps away at the myths of the 2nd World War, reminding us (thru the words of one of his authors) that Kurt Vonnegut, Norman mailer and Joseph Heller were all anti-war.

And yet, I don't think any of these methods are to be recommended, because his thesis will withstand them all. The power of his thesis is not in the various sleight of hand tricks he uses but in its simplicity: War is evil, and the waging of it is wrong. Period.

I have responded to this elsewhere. There's an article over here, and an entire book here. The book, however, deals mostly with Israel, and ironically, although Massing almost certainly didn't intend this, his article largely exonerates Israel's actions at war, because most of what the American forces are indited of, Israeli's try not to do.

There are two points to this post. First, it's part of an attempt to tell things as they are, in the assumption that rational discourse cannot shy away from relevant facts. The second is to say that while to my mind the American's can mostly respond to this ideology whereby waging war is wrong, period, it needs to be done; moreover, the responding needs to take as its starting point precisely the facts presented in these accounts.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

A Presidential New York Times

The top screen of the New York Times this afternoon has three articles about Senator Clinton, in addition to two large pictures and two small ones. There's one caption about Senator Obama, and one about Huckabee (which also contains the words rapist and AIDS).

Sound's like a done thing, doesn't it?

(The link will show different results if you use it later than this afternoon).

A Presidential Pizzeria

Ovadia St. is a tiny, grimy alley off the main thoroughfare of Shivtei-Israel/Mea Shearim. This is where the poorest of the haredi community lives, and only they. No-one else would dream of living in this part of town - tho 60 years ago, the child who would one day grow up to be Amos Oz lived two small blocks over. (He was named Klausner in those days). And Haim Beer lived a block or two in the other direction, but he at least was orthodox (and also had a different name, which escapes me at the moment).

The Haredi community is probably the only one anywhere that can comfortably give the Palestinians of Gaza a good run for their money in matters of fertility (and maybe even win), so this whole section of town is always teeming, mostly with young people, young people with children, children with baby siblings and so on. It's a poor area, by definition, because those of the community who can afford to do so, move elsewhere, often to small towns that they're filling up such as Beit Shemesh, or Beitar, or Kiryat Sefer, or others.

So it's teeming, and it's poor. Also, most people here are very highly educated, yes, but in the things they're interested in. So, not the things you'd recognize in a neighborhood of highly educated people. Lot's of bookstores, for example, but no titles that can be found on Amazon, and hardly any titles that can be found in the bookstores in the center of town, a mere half mile to the south.

Ovadia St. is named after the last of the prophets, but to be honest, it doesn't give him that much to be happy about, if he's looking down on us. Dingy. Ugly. A scraggly tree or two. The stores are all small, cluttered, and unappealing. About half a block off the main road, on the left, is a hole in the wall that calls itself a pizzeria, with a counter, three stools, two small tables, all behind a dusty windowpane and illuminated by a few rather forlorn fluorescent bulbs. For some unfathomable reason, given the surroundings, the owner has chosen to name himself after an American president, and to make his point, has even done so in English:

Klinton's Pizza.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

"Understanding Our Modern Civilization"

Professor Robert P. Blake, Director of the Harvard University Library, on November 2, 1929, encouraging Lucius Littauer to assist in the acquisition of a collection of Judaica books for the library: ".... it will be directly in line with the finest trait of Harvard scholarly tradition - a sympathetic and friendly understanding of all the disparate elements which have gone to make up our modern civilization".

Hard to conceive of a university administrator or scholar expressing quite these sentiments these days, isn't it? Too bad, actually.

(Charles Berlin, Harvard Judaica, Harvard College Library, Cambridge MS 2004, page 14)

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Eurocentric Antisemitism

Jeffrey Herf discusses the fact that while many in Germany are committed to learning from their past not to tolerate antisemitism, they aren't so good at recognizing non-European versions of it, such as in Iran.

(I'll bet some fools will be found who will now claim that the NIE has proved there is no antisemitism in Iran.)

Daniel Levy as Juan Cole

Noah Pollak fact-checks Daniel Levy, and finds his arguments less than persuasive.

I'm all in favor of people looking at facts, listening to interpretations of them, and making up their own minds, including inventing new insights of their own. It's when the pundits begin to mis-state facts, not inadvertently but as a system, that you begin to wonder - first, about them, then about their positions. Well argued positions should withstand fact-checking. Without them, we're sliding out of rational discussion.

Anti-Zionism and Antisemitism

David Hirsh, a professor at the University of London, has published a book-size reflection on the topic, which you can read or download or both, here. Hirsh is also the editor of Engage, a group, or website, or project of some decidedly left-wing British academics in the forefront of the efforts against the rising tide of antisemitism in the UK. Their website has all sorts of interesting things.

The report has been published as Working paper #1 of the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism - also a website worth a visit.

Finally, should you be in the mood for some authentic, raw antisemitism, have a look over here. Yossie Alpher has written an article which totally disregards the platform on which it's being published (one wonders if this wasn't a manipulation of the editors of the Guardian: "let's give space to an Israeli who can be relied upon to make Israelis look like the bloodthirsty war-mongers we know them to be"). Sure enough, the comments are full of what you'd expect from the readers of The Guardian. This is significant, because it gives us an idea of what many of the readers of this intelligentsia-minded newspaper think; and keep in mind that comments at the Guardian are monitored. You can't just write your ire and publish it there.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Silicon Valley East

Here's a nice optimistic report for a change. As the investors well know, Israeli hi-tech is such that investments in it are out of all proportions: there are more start-ups there than anywhere else outside of the US.

When I was a wee lad, the grim joke was that the way to make a small fortune in Israel was to bring a large one. This has dramatically changed over the years, and these days there is a brand of Zionists out there who are not Jews, aren't interested in biblical prophecies coming true, greening of deserts or anything else. They're interested in seeing impressive returns on their $, and have figured out that Israel can be a fine place for that.

This in spite of wars, terrorism, regional instability, and all the other things that the texts describe as automatic business killers.

Juan Cole and the Ability to Read

I apologize for hitting so often on poor misguided Prof. Cole on this blog, but he seems to have many followers, for reasons I can only speculate on, while being such an easy target. Yesterday, for example, his response to the NIE report on Iran's nuclear capabilities concluded with an attack on the Washington Post for their crime of having read the NIE report.
Here's Cole:
Ominously, whereas the Los Angeles Times leads this story with "Iran has no nuke program, U.S. intel says," the hawkish Washington Postleads with "Iran Is Judged 10 Years From Nuclear Bomb." The WaPo diction (for which poor Dafna Linzer is almost certainly not responsible) implies facts not in evidence. Iran cannot be 10 years away from a bomb if it has no weapons program. It would have to constitute a weapons program and then it would be X years from having a bomb. But the WaPo way of putting it is going to dominate the debate from here on in. Cheney may yet have his way, down the road, by inspiring younger hawks.
And here's the NIE (page 7):
D. Iranian entities are continuing to develop a range of technical capabilities that could
be applied to producing nuclear weapons, if a decision is made to do so. For example,
Iran’s civilian uranium enrichment program is continuing. We also assess with high
confidence that since fall 2003, Iran has been conducting research and development
projects with commercial and conventional military applications—some of which would
also be of limited use for nuclear weapons.
E. We do not have sufficient intelligence to judge confidently whether Tehran is willing
to maintain the halt of its nuclear weapons program indefinitely while it weighs its
options, or whether it will or already has set specific deadlines or criteria that will prompt
it to restart the program.

National Intelligence Estimate, and Truth

As I noted in the previous post, sometimes it is possible to know what's happening even in a fog-enveloped war zone. And sometimes, it's equally clear, it is not possible to know crucial things even where there is no war. Take, for example, the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities. Media outlets the world over put it on the top of their pages, websites, or the beginning of their broadcasts yesterday, and many of them continue to do so today. Not to mention the blogosphere, which is all agog. Predictably, everyone is spinning the story the way you'd expect them to. (Sometimes, making predictions, even about the future, is no problem at all).

My suggestion is that people read the damn thing, for crying out loud. Here, I'll link to it again. It's all of nine (9) pages long, the first one with ten words. You can read it in ten minutes, and many of the commentators either haven't, or they know we won't, or they're fools, or all of the above.

Top quality military intelligence enables its owner to destroy all the air forces of it's enemies, on the ground, in one swoop, while not bombing the decoy planes parked on the same runways. Top quality military intelligence enables its owners to kill or arrest almost the entire command structure of terrorist organizations deeply embedded in their society, and to do so uninterrupted for a number of years, so that each time a commander disappears the life expectancy of his replacement is weeks, no more, until finally the violence dies down and lives are saved on all sides. Top quality military intelligence enables its owners to destroy an entire mid-range ballistic missile system aimed at civilians in one attack. That's what top quality military intelligence can do.

Now, go read the NIE (it's right here), and weep:
We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons
program1; we also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is
keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons. We judge with high confidence
that the halt, and Tehran’s announcement of its decision to suspend its declared uranium
enrichment program and sign an Additional Protocol to its Nuclear Non-Proliferation
Treaty Safeguards Agreement, was directed primarily in response to increasing
international scrutiny and pressure resulting from exposure of Iran’s previously
undeclared nuclear work.
• We assess with high confidence that until fall 2003, Iranian military entities were
working under government direction to develop nuclear weapons.
• We judge with high confidence that the halt lasted at least several years. (Because of
intelligence gaps discussed elsewhere in this Estimate, however, DOE and the NIC
assess with only moderate confidence that the halt to those activities represents a halt
to Iran's entire nuclear weapons program.)
• We assess with moderate confidence Tehran had not restarted its nuclear weapons
program as of mid-2007, but we do not know whether it currently intends to develop
nuclear weapons.
• We continue to assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Iran does not currently
have a nuclear weapon.
• Tehran’s decision to halt its nuclear weapons program suggests it is less determined
to develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005. Our assessment
that the program probably was halted primarily in response to international pressure
suggests Iran may be more vulnerable to influence on the issue than we judged
B. We continue to assess with low confidence that Iran probably has imported at least
some weapons-usable fissile material, but still judge with moderate-to-high confidence it
has not obtained enough for a nuclear weapon. We cannot rule out that Iran has acquired
from abroad—or will acquire in the future—a nuclear weapon or enough fissile material
for a weapon. Barring such acquisitions, if Iran wants to have nuclear weapons it would
need to produce sufficient amounts of fissile material indigenously—which we judge
with high confidence it has not yet done.
No-where does the document say anything along the line of "This is what we know for fact". The whole thing is an exercise in obfuscation of the simple fact that it's authors don't know what they're talking about. They don't really know, so they're guessing. On the one hand, they're trying to guess intelligently, on the other they don't want any politicians to be able to cite them as having irrefutably said anything.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Scott Beauchamp and the Reality of War

Franklin Foer, editor of The New Republic, has published a long article deliberating the veracity of the reports published in his magazine last summer by Scott Thomas Beauchamp, an American soldier serving in Iraq. Bottom line: TNR is not certain. Maybe Beauchamp's stories sort of happened, more or less, but not exactly as he told them, and TNR isn't quite sure how to tell because, as Foer's title puts it, there's too much "Fog of War".

Some of the uncertainty stems from the foibles of human memory, and I'm willing to accept that this indeed played a role in the debacle. But a debacle it was, because Beauchamp's stories were published not as rumours from a far away war, but rather as an Iraqi re-run of horror stories told about American troops in Vietnam all those years ago. On that level, Foer's report, since it deals with the minutiae of reporting, obfuscates the greater truth which is that one cannot plausibly pin on America's troops in this war any of the stories of that war. That seems to me a very important statement, one that Foer doesn't make.

It turns out that one actually can peer through the fog of war and discern the outlines of the large picture. In our age of post-modern undermining of truth, that's an important statement.

Just Plain Wierd

Five years ago John Darwin, 52, disappeared while canoeing off the coast of England. The wreck of his canoe was found a week or two later, and he was assumed dead. Yesterday he walked into a police station in London and said he thinks he's a missing person.His two grown sons recognize him as their father, but neither he nor they can offer any explanation for the hiatus. His wife, meanwhile, recently sold the house they had lived in and left so abruptly that the buyers had to empty the place of its content, all of which was still in it. She may be in Panama, but then again, maybe not. No-one seems to know.

If, after all this, you want an example of English stoicism, here's the reaction of John's father, now 90 years old:
Told of his son's sudden reappearance, 90-year-old Ronald Darwin, of Blackhall Colliery, Co Durham, said: "I always thought he would turn up. It didn't seem right," he said. "I said to the police that it might have something to do with his work as a prison officer, I always wondered whether that had something to do with it."

Monday, December 3, 2007

Publish or Perish, with Ghosts

An interesting article claims that too many professors don't actually write what they write. Or, the covers of their books identify them as the authors of books the paid underlings wrote. And it's not only professors:
Some popular authors, such as Robert Ludlum and V.C. Andrews, even continue writing books after they’re dead, thanks to the help of hired ghosts.
Something tells me I'm doing this wrong. I have the outlines of seven or eight books in my head, but so far have published only two. Any ghosts around who might want to help me here?

Honor Killings in Israel

Yes, there are such things. I honestly don't know enough about Arab society to say how honor killings of Arab women are regarded by various groups, and I'm willing to assume that most Arabs regard them with as much horror as the rest of us do. Still, you can't change the fact that honor killings do exist in Arab societies, while they don't exist in other societies. The case of the Arabs in Israel is interesting, since they're a minority, and the majority society around them totally condemns the practice, which means that there is no chance that the police and courts might be convinced not to investigate, as - you'll pardon my saying - could conceivably be the case in, say, Saudi Arabia or Sudan. Minority or not, there are Arab Israeli men willing to murder their sisters or cousins if they feel the sisters have defiled their honor.

The honor of the men, mind you. The way they see it, they're the victims. That's the mechanism.

The most famous case in recent years has been the serial murder of the women of the Abu Ghanem (pronounced Abu-Ranem, with a deep R) clan of the violent neighborhood of Jouarish, in Ramle (not Ramallah. Ramle is in Israel, about ten minutes from the Ben Gurion airport). After the eighth murder, in January this year, some of the women of the family broke the rules, went to the police, and told everything they know. Which means that a mother and her daughters and nieces testified to put the son/brother/cousin into jail for the next 20-25 years. And then their fears overcame some of them, and they began backtracking; one of them hasn't been seen for quite a while and may already be dead. Yesterday, however, the mother and a cousin testified before the courts. It is now irrevocable.

Yet to be seen is if this case will manage to prove a significant turning point in eradicating the entire phenomenon among Israel's Arabs, or merely an isolated case, or perhaps even less than that. Clearly it's an extremely dramatic case, about love, hate, tradition vs. law, fear, violence, heroism. No doubt it's only a matter of time before Hollywood makes a major film out of it.

No? Hollywood won't?

Engaging Hamas May be Less Than a Fine Idea

Noah Pollack has a good article that explains why reaching out to Hamas may not be good tactics, not to mention that it won't work. All this should be self evident, but as a daily reader of The Guardian, Juan Cole and others of their ilk, I've long since understood that there is nothing self evident left.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Living by Religious Time

A while ago I disagreed with a column penned by Jay Michaelsen in The Forward. Now I want to agree with one. This time, he argues for observing the Shabbat according to season, i.e. early on Friday in the winter, late into Saturday in the summer. Actually, I wouldn't have thought there is any other way possible, but obviously I'm uninformed on that. Anyway, Michaelsen's column contains all sorts of interesting points, about Shabbat, about observance in general, and about belief vs. practice.

Btw, the whole issue is an American vs. Israeli one. In America, the surrounding society doesn't have Shabbat, so observing it at its extremes causes problems, hence the need to tinker with its schedules. In Israel, whether you're orthodox or not is irrelevant: The Shabbat starts according to sunset. Just to give an example: an army unit sending its soldiers home for Shabbat has to allow them to get there before sundown, be that 4pm or 8pm, and even if all the soldiers in the unit are Druze.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

One State Imperialism?

Gadi Taub, one of Israeli's more interesting young historians (but remember that historians, unlike basketball players, only really get going at about 40), systematically demolishes the idea of a one-man-one-vote solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. His final shot:

What, then, makes these solutions so popular in Europe? It seems that European polite society is finding it hard to let go of its old colonial instincts. The various plans now circulating in Europe are not based on inquiring what the natives (Jews and Arabs) want or need, but on what the West knows they should want. In other words, Europe is once again ready to shoulder the White Man’s Burden, and teach the natives what the right form of self-determination should be. It would be a good idea to remember that the price of this pedagogical enterprise, if implemented, is likely to be a chronic civil war. And it may also be wise to recall that the colonial presumption to know better than the natives what is good for them has repeatedly fallen short of success.


Maayan Rotenberg, RIP

19-year-old Maayan Rotenberg, who enlisted the same day as Achikam, and has been going through the exact same training at the same base, has been killed in a tank accident. His family donated his organs to seven others; since he had a rare blood type there was no Israeli candidate for his liver, which was flown to Germany. This link goes to a Hebrew-language report, but there's a fine picture of Maayan, taken the same day and at the same place where I took the picture of Achikam which I posted here.

What these young men are dealing with is no game.