Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Permissible Price of Redeeming Hostages

I know, this post is a bit out of sync. The issue was discussed at length last month, and, for the few of you who follow such matters, the Daf Yomi is from last week. But that's how it is when I travel.

Mishna: It is forbidden to redeem hostages for too high a price, because of Tikkun Olam.
The Gemarah then asks how this ruling fixes the world. Is is that the price of redeeming hostages will be exorbitant, or that paying it will encourage more hostage taking? The story of Levy bar Darga is cited: he was a very wealthy man, who redeemed his kidnapped daughters for the walloping sum of thirteen thousand gold dinars. Abbaye, however, wonders if bar Darga's action would have been sanctioned by the rabbis - and if not, it doesn't teach us anything.

Gitin tractate 45a

The most significant thing about such discussions is the underlying assumption: morality is a matter of right or wrong, not of circumstances. The reason you discuss moral issues when you're not under pressure is to have thought-out answers ready for the times when you need them; when you need them you won't have the presence of mind to think things through.

This thread began here. It's also a continuation of the Tikkun Olam thread that began here.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

On Not Knowing History

As I said, the travel this time wouldn't enable me to blog. Still, I've just found a few minutes and also something to comment on, so here goes.

In a few hours Obama will give his big speech in the big stadium. Since news people must produce news 24 hours a day, even when they have nothing to say, and patience is a characteristic that has been lost from the world, rather than wait a few hours and see if he pulls it off brilliantly or merely well, the web seems to be awash with pre-punditry: It'll be a disaster. No it'll be magical. No it'll be boring. No it'll be pure history in the making. Etc etc etc an nauseum.

Here's an unimportant item from the unimportant genre. What struck me about it was this:

Some Democrats insist the GOP approach will backfire. Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts said the visuals of tens of thousands of people cheering for Obama can only help his campaign by evoking comparisons to former President Kennedy. "I think he's in that league," Markey said.

How many times does one need to remind people that while Kennedy may have been a fine orator, he was a mediocre president, with a fiasco (Bay of Pigs), a historical mistake (not responding to the erection of the Berlin Wall), one major success (Cuba missile crises), and lots of disappointments, such as not particularly supporting the Civil Rights movement, or allowing the war in Vietnam to escalate. At the time of his assassination, the polls were certainly not convinced he'd win a second term. Is this the big model of Obama's?

Sunday, August 24, 2008

New School Year

I'm about to travel, and this time it's likely I'll not have regular Internet connections for almost three weeks, perhaps with an occasional interlude. Eventually I'll be back.

In the interval, many schoolchildren will return to school from summer break. (Not the Australian ones). So here's a short but true story I wrote many years ago, about an event that happened even earlier, back in the days when I was a brand new teacher. After this story took place, I continued to teach for the better part of a decade, proving thereby that when I eventually left it wasn't because they had beat me. They, meaning the rowdy Israeli high-schoolers I was confronting.

So here’s a story.

Once upon a time, when I was a very new teacher, first year actually, I had three classes. One was a class of 12th graders, highly intelligent, very arrogant, very tough to deal with and to control, and very proud of themselves for all this. The kind of class that I thrived on later on, when I knew my trade, but absolutely the wrong place for me to start. They tore me to pieces, spit me out, and had they been my only class that year it would have been the end of my teaching career. Then there was a class (or two?) of 9th graders. They were little, and new to the school, and we got along alright, and I have no memories of them. And then there was a class of 11th graders. They weren’t brilliant, but then nor were they particularly arrogant, either. They were unruly, as all Israeli high-schoolers have to be, but they were willing to give me the benefit of the doubt that maybe I had something to say if they’d allow me to say it, and we generally more or less got along. A chunk of each class went to discipline and riot control, but in most cases a larger chunk went into some sort of educational process. I learned a lot from them, and in the following year I went into my classes as a much more formidable challenge to the gangs.

Anyway, once day sort of near the end of that first year, perhaps in April, as I was leaving the teacher’s room and heading towards the classroom of the 11th-graders, the principle (headmaster?) of the school walked by me and announced that he’d be joining me in a minute or two, to see how the class went. That much warning I had.

Sure enough, shortly thereafter he came into class, to the great consternation of the rowdies. I began teaching, presenting a thesis and working thru it with the goons – who were all on their extremely best behavior. They responded to questions, they presented thoughts, they discussed the matter…. And after about 15 minutes the material had been covered. So I bullshitted for another 10 minutes, tying our material into what we’d done the previous week, and the previous month, and back in their kindergarten; I suggested where this might take us in the coming weeks, months, and years, and how it might be relevant to them as they graduated, went thru the army, married, raised their own kids, their grandchildren, their great-grandchildren…. By now I was pretty desperate, since there were still a good 10 minutes until the end of the period, and what could I possibly still talk about?

Eight or nine minutes before the end of the period the principle got up and left, mumbling as he passed me on his way out that he’d enjoyed the lesson. 3.24 seconds after he had closed the door behind him, a great shout went up from the bastards: “We saved you, didn’t we?!? Weren’t we great!!??.

What could I tell them? The truth? That they had basically screwed me, but that by a miracle things had turned out alright?

The principle, by the way, never visited me in class again, tho I taught there for another seven years afterwards.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Paul Berman: A Clear Headed Lefty

Due disclosure: I am fully aware that all political persuasions produce idiots and criminals; some of the worst ever were produced by the Right.

Having said that, however, let's discuss the fools from the Left for a moment. Throughout most of the 20th century there was a group, somewhere on the left of the Left, whom history calls the Useful Idiots. These were the deluded folks of the Left who lined up to promote Communism while Stalin was murdering tens of millions of his citizens in the 1920-1930; they proclaimed for Mao as late as the 1960s, when he was murdering millions of his people and doing his best to push China back into the middle ages; some of them still go around wearing Che Guevara t-shirts to till this very day, in spite of Che's main achievements being to murder large numbers of people. (It's also not clear who these contemporary idiots are useful to, given the dire condition of the Soviet Union these past two decades or so. But no matter).

The problem the Left has had in more recent decades, however, has been the infection of its mainstream. Loonies are loonies, but so long as the mainstream of the left camp was producing people such as FDR, Truman and LBJ, the loonies didn't really make much difference. Around 1968, however, as they decided to topple LBJ, author of The Great Society program, for not being good enough, something was clearly going wrong. (I'm mentioning only American figures for the sake of brevity. The phenomenon was probably even worse in Europe, and thus was not merely, or even mostly, the result of the war in Vietnam).

These days, and for some decades already, it's the mainstream that's behaving as the Useful Idiots used to; in the meantime, there have appeared new powers that actually can use their idiocy. Nowhere has this been more pronounced and stark than in the recent debacle in Georgia, where much of the Left lined up on the side of the reactionary, non-democratic, international-law-trampling Russians, merely because they're the ones facing the Americans.

The point of this brief and condensed history of the past 70 years has been to put a context on this article, by Paul Berman. Berman is one of the few voices on the Left who hasn't lost his moral compass, not even for a minute, this past decade. He's proof that when it retains its soul, the Left can and should be a power for improving the human condition.

Today, any time some large group of people behaves in a way that defies a logical calculation of potential gains and losses, the people in question are said to be reacting to "humiliation," or what used to be called "ressentiment." Humiliation, though, taken as a political experience, exists only where it has been ideologically constructed, and not otherwise. Germany, having been defeated in World War I, was afterwards said to be undergoing "humiliation"; and yet, after World War II, having been defeated ten times more cruelly, Germany was no longer said to be "humiliated." That was because the German political doctrines promoting a feeling of "humiliation" disappeared after World War II. It was the doctrines, not the experience of misfortune, that had created "humiliation."

PhD as Invective

There's been this spat going on all week at Y-net, between a bunch of rabbis. The details are really and truly not important. They deal with some arcane reason about why when a restaurant is kosher maybe it isn't, but perhaps it is. It's August over here in Jerusalem, it's hot, people's minds get addled, nothing serious.

The funny part of the story is that one of the rabbis wanted to belittle one of his predecessors in the discussion. The one being belittled is our rabbi, Rabbi Dr. Benny Lau. The fellow who wanted to belittle him pointedly refused to refer to him as Rabbi; instead, his article kept referring to the nonsense Dr. Lau is spewing. The effect this had was to change the focus of the discussion: everyone's forgotten the original issue about whether the resaurants are really kosher or not (and a good thing, too), and now they're in an uproar about how offensive it was not to call Mr Lau Rabbi, but merely Dr.

The fray has now been entered by a relative heavyweight, Rabbi Yuval Sherlo: he says that he mostly agrees with the positions of Rabbi Lau, but most of his article deals with the offensiveness of pretending Lau isn't a rabbi, merely an academic. Sherlo, by the way, is my age (we were teenagers together, rather some years ago), which means that he's got at least 20 years to go before he can become a really important rabbi. For that you need a good 50 years of study, at least.

The interesting thing is that not a single participant in the discussion has any problem with the underlying text, whereby the title Rabbi is clearly more important than Dr. They may even be right.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Benyamin Gibli, 1919-2008

Benyamin Gibli was one of the darker figures in the story of Israel's first decade, as two items in today's Haaretz briefly (well, hardly) explain. (One; two). It's probably inevitable for an army to have such figures, but they're not pleasant to have. Gibli, by playing a central role in the Lavon affair, contributed to the toppling of Ben Gurion himself, who in this, as in most things, was ahead of his time. True to character, Gibli apparently never felt he'd done anything wrong.

Arrogant and Uninteligent Journalists

Two years ago this week The Media Line staged an event for the enlightenment of the citizens of Jerusalem. They put together a panel of 8 journalists, two of them Israeli, one an Arab (the head of the local Al-Jazeera office), and the rest Americans and British: Steven Erlanger of the New York Times, and some fellows from the BBC, CNN and others. With the exception of the host there were no women on the panel, which caused an interesting diversion by some peeved feminists. The point of the exercise was to give us a better understanding of how the media operates at a time of war, and how the Israeli establishment doesn't help. The context being the rather widespread impression that while the recently waged war between Israel and Hezbullah had not been one of Israel's finest hours, the media didn't have much to be proud of, either. The Media Line folks wanted to see if they could fix that.

They mostly failed, of course. Jerusalemites aren't fools, generally speaking. What struck me the most was the degree to which most of what the journalists had to say was, quite simply, not intelligent. So the next morning I wrote some questions and sent them to the woman who had organized the event; she responded immediately, thanked me for my time and effort, and said she was forwarding my questions to all of the panelists - so I think it's a safe bet they all saw my mail. None of them ever responded, of course. As a general statement journalists don't feel any need for discussion with their public: their job is to tell us things, while our job is to imbibe and shut up.

So it occurs to me that in honor of the 2nd anniversary of the glum event, maybe I should post my so far unanswered questions, in the hope that perhaps, who knows... naa... it'll never happen...

Hi -

Your panel last night was quite interesting. I would appreciate hearing the response of some of the panelists to the following:

1. Access (1). A number of the speakers felt it to be very important, and they were disturbed that they weren't given it by the IDF. But isn't being with the grunts on the field of battle the worst place to be, if you want to understand a war? All the soldiers see are their immediate surroundings - and even that from a severly limited perspective. The most one can expect to learn from that vantage point is about the ambience of soldiers. And for that, one would need to know the soldiers' language.

2. Access (2): How can one ever achieve true access, if one doesn't speak the language? Yet none of your foriegn-press people seemed fazed in the slightest by the fact that they don't speak the language. Isn't this limitation in their abilities far more severe than any limitation the IDF can impose? (In which context it was fascinating to see that al-Jazeera, of all foriegn groups, has resolved this issue best. And also the only one that made absolutely no pretension of striving for a balanced story).

3. Balance: War is the second most extreme behavior in which a community can engage, because its essence is that one determines to kill people so as to achieve one's goals, while taking the chance of being killed oneself. Only mass murder and genocide are more extreme, because in them the community decides to kill people for their purposes, without the risk of getting killed themselves. Yet just as with genocide, it would never occur to us to seek a balanced description, so the glaringly obvious question not dealt with yesterday evening was, if one is engaged in describing a war, why would one strive for balance? Admitedly, there have been wars in human history where both sides were equally wrong, but the norm is that there is an agressor and a defender. Wouldn't the task of journalists in a democratic society better be defined as the search for the aggressor and the defender?

4. Steven Erlanger spoke at one point about a "legally proportionate war". When asked if there ever was one, he mentioned Kosovo and Chechnya, but what he meant were other cases where the journalists found disproportionality. The question remains, however: has there ever in the annals of war been one that was waged "proportionally"? I think not, but perhaps you will enlighten me.

5. Relevance: Danny Rubinstein spoke of the criteria for newsworthiness: that it be interesting and important. Steven Erlanger spoke of what interests him. I was struck by the fact that truth was not mentioned at all. Shoudn't that be the first criteria? Matter of fact, if one is seekng to understand events, it would seem to be the primary criteia. Do journalists think otherwise? And if they think otherwise, shouldn't they then change their narrative, and be honest about the fact that what they're telling us is not the truth, but rather what interests them?

And note, that all my questions are general, and not specific to the war we just had.

I look forward to hearing from you,

Dr. Yaacov Lozowick

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Idiocy of an Israel Hater

Diane Mason prides herself on knowing Hebrew, but I see very little indication she uses it. In this post she deduces from some quotation marks in a caption on the English side of Haaretz that... oh, I'm not even going to give her the respect of repeating her thesis. Suffice it to say that had she looked at the Hebrew version (and remember, Haaretz is a Hebrew newspaper, with some translators added on) she'd know that there were no such quotation marks, because that whole pernicious method isn't used in Hebrew.

But even if there were: she has taken decades of Israeli social history, contrasted it with one caption in a newspaper, and found her interpretation of the caption more convincing than the entire story of a society. I have no better description for her method and reasoning than idiocy.

The question remains, however: how is it that an educated young woman is willing to broadcast such idiocy?

Monday, August 18, 2008

More on Hebrew, the Language of the Bible, and MBAs

Ori Orbach, Israel's top orthodox satirist, writes about a new translation of the Bible that has just come out, into modern Hebrew. The quotes he brings are all awful, especially if you can read the original. One of the things that often get lost in translations of the Bible is the incredible power of its language. Orbach concedes that modern school children who've never read the Bible may not easily understand all of it, but suggests that rather than stooping to their level, they should be required to work at it until the problem disappears, leaving us all much richer.

(The link is to an article that appeared only in Hebrew. Heh).

This seems to have echoes of a broader discussion: the post-modern claim that there is nothing intrinsically more valuable in high language than in gutter slang. Whatever people speak is their language. You may subscribe to that theory, if you wish, but the price you'll pay will be the loss of high language. Come to think of it, once this idea permeates an educational system and relieves children from the "burden" of working at learning their language, everyone loses, in whatever language. Words such as these, and also these, were formulated by men who well understood the power of language at its best, and had worked hard to achieve it.

In a parallel development, the Technion has decided to attract foreign students by teaching its MBA program in English. This bothers me less than you might think. English really is a the primary language of business, so having the ability to conduct your business in it is no problem. So long as you have a fine control of your mother tongue first (most people only do MBAs many years after they've learned to read, write, and think).

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Impending End of the World

The most cock-eyed scenario yet to come from the Church of Global Warming says mankind is nearing extinction, no less. Even the Guardian feels that's a bit steep, so they allowed Heretic Number One to make a rebuttal. Bjorn Lomborg actually agrees that the world will end some day, and even from over heating, but suggests that since we still have a good 4 billion years to go, perhaps at this stage we'd do better to find cheaper sources of energy.

The German Norman Finkelstein

Her name is Evelyn Hecht-Galinski, and, while she isn't a published historian, her pedigree as child of Holocaust survivors is decidedly better than Finkelstein's: her father was Heinz Galinski, Germany's top Jew in the 1980s. Both Finkelstein and Hecht-Galinski put lie to the canard that Jews can't be antisemites. Apparently, Henryk Broder has decided to take her down, and we should all be rooting for him. (One of the myriad peculiarities of contemporary Germany is that only another Jew could afford to stand up to Hecht-Galinski the Jew).

Broder himself, another child of Holocaust survivors, is probably Germany's most formidable columnist and a fascinating person on his own right. He knows a thing or two about antisemitism, and in the 1980s he wrote a great book called Der Ewige Antisemit (The Eternal Antisemite), in which he devastatingly documented the extent to which already by then the Left had become a bastion of antisemitism, while pretending to hide behind mere criticism of Israel. It was quite an eye-opener, I remember.

Jordanian Antisemitism?

A group of Israeli tourists set off on a tour of Jordan but were blocked at the border because they insisted on bringing their tefillin.

Seen on it's own this doesn't prove antisemitism. It could be a rather bad case of idiocy and ineptitude, which are, after all, universal traits. Still, it's hard to think of any countries outside the Arab world where such a case would conceivable.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Inexhausible Capacity to Spin Convincingly

I've been reading Seamus Milne, one of the Guardian's top columnists, for years, and in my opinion the man is barking mad. But he's intelligent, and articulate, and his columns often present cogently what many in his ideological corner cannot say as well, so he's worth following. Today he explains that the war in Georgia was caused by American aggression and imperialism, and that Russia is the victim. Russia, the victim of imperialism. You heard me. It even says so in the newspaper.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Fewer Ruminations

This is to announce that Ruminations is changing format. I'm going to be traveling much of the coming month and will not be able to do much posting; even once I'm back I expect to slow the pace of blogging. So far I've aimed at a daily post or more; from now on I'll post less though perhaps the posts themselves may be more substantive. I find the blogging has been taking up too much time on a daily basis, but I'd like to continue using it as a place to formulate thoughts.

Another use I may decide to make of the blog will be as a footmarker, with links to illuminatingly ridiculous items, but without much discussion of them. As I've mentioned already, I'm mulling the possibility of writing a book on how to recognize antisemites. This won't happen until my business is solid enough, but in the meantime, why not mark the evidence for the prosecution?

Tikkun Olam

Set aside the myriad layers of power ploys, hypocrisy, bad faith, obfuscations and general human orneriness and cussedness that confuse the issue. At its fundamental level, an important distinction between Progressives and Conservatives is that progressives think the world can be perfected and the aim of politics is to do so; conservatives don't think the world can be perfected, and prefer social resources to be applied in fixing smaller things. This is one reason why neo-cons aren't really conservatives, and it's probably a reason the Left hates them more: acrimony is often greater among neighbors (metaphoric or real) than among total strangers.

While Jews (and others) would like to believe that Judaism is squarely on their side of the discussion, it isn't, since the Jewish discussion was well underway a millenium or two before the modern discussion ever began.

The case of Tikkun Olam demonstrates this. In contemporary progressive thought, this term is regarded highly, and serves both as a formulation of the progressive ideal as well as proof that Jews are supposed to be on the right (=left) side of the contemporary discussion. The best and most obvious illustration of this being, of course, Michael Lerner's Tikkun Magazine.

Of course, if you go back to the sources, this isn't what they were about at all. An important source of the concept is in the Gitin tractate, which offers a series of rabbinic decisions made "for the sake of tikkun olam". Take the one from today's daf yomi. The subject is the power of a husband to retract a letter divorcing his wife (called a Get) once it has been sent. Strictly legally, in some circumstances this is possible, but the Old Raban Gamliel (there was more than one) decreed that this not be permissible, "for the sake of tikkun olam", meaning he used his authority to override the logic and consistency inherent in the legal system. The Gemarrah then asks how exactly this interference was supposed to fix the world, and gives two answers. If you go with rabbi Yochanan, who was of the opinion that the Get can be retracted in the presence of a mere two men, the danger is that the retraction won't be well known, the woman will think she's free of her husband and will remarry, and her children from the second marriage will be mamzerim (translated incorrectly as bastards, but in reality a far worse status). If however you follow the opinion of rav Sheshet, who thinks the husband needs a full court of three men to do the retracting, the decisions of a court are publicized, and in some cases the woman will think she's still married even if she isn't (the decision hinges upon circumstances), and she won't get on with life.

One way or the other, the Tikkun Olam is not a Healing of the World, it's a mechanism for preventing very specific, though painful, complications. None of which makes the latter uses of the term illegitimate; it merely demonstrates that the latter use may well have started as external ideas, which someone then went looking for in the already existing tradition.

Gittin 33a.

This thread began here.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Never Be Weak

That's the clearest message I can think of from the Russian attack on Georgia, no matter what the precise details of its onset may have been. If you're small and can't take care of yourself, no-one else will do it for you. They may wring their hands and bemoan your fate, and then again, they may not; neither will be of much use.

The second lesson is that the human story continues unabated. All this talk about international law, international organizations, international courts - they all have their uses, of course, and none of them are going to make history stop trundling along in its traditional ruts. Might often makes right, regrettable as that may be. And if the might is being wielded by the right (=wrong) side, even the most outspoken propagandists of the Internationalism Narrative will forget their principles in favor of their dislikes. (Translation: if the bully is acting against America's interests, let us see if we can't justify his being a bully. In the Leader of the Guardian, no less).

Monday, August 11, 2008

A Comment on AIDS

This really is a bit beyond the admittedly vague lines of Ruminations, but I couldn't resist. The Economist has a big article about a recent big international conference on a big problem: AIDS. It turns out that after more than two decades of pouring zillions of $ into research about this horrible affliction, humanity has figured out how to stop HIV from becoming AIDS, but still has no clue about the AIDS itself. Given the ever-rising cost of preventing millions of HIV bearers from tipping over into lethal AIDS, this is a big problem.

In the meantime, however, a number of preventive measures appear ever more useful. We all know about condoms, that's not new, but apparently there are two other measures that are quite effective. The first is monogamy (surprise!). And the second is circumcision. Heh.

Aggression, International Law, and Hypocrisy

A while back our in-house anti-Zionist, faux-Ibrahim, claimed that Israelis and their supporters determine their political positions by the single criteria of affinity to Israel: if the holders of a position support Israel, all their positions will be perceived to be correct; if a position is stated by people who otherwise don't like Israel, the position in question must be wrong. He even wrote a small algorithm to demonstrate how this works.

At first glance this is hardly more serious than most statements made by faux-Ibrahim, but it has stuck with me, and I've been thinking about it and it seems that he may be on to something, though as usual he's got the dynamic all wrong.

If you assume that Weltanschauungen are made of clusters of positions and beliefs - and that's certainly a reasonable, perhaps unassailable assumption - then it's not unreasonable that people who feel strongly about Israel, one way or the other, may carry this over into other fields, too. Why shouldn't unthinking animosity to Israel, impervious to any rational analysis, not express itself elsewhere, also, as unthinking animosities to other things? I mean, once you've got the habit, why limit it to a single subject? Indeed, once one has the propensity for wrongheadedness, why limit its application?

As I've shown from time to time, the world really does work this way, and the foolishness of idea expounders such as Juan Cole and the Guardian expresses itself in many areas. I must say, however, that the present outburst at the Guardian has caught me just a wee bit by surprise. I'm referring to that nasty little war that erupted this week in Georgia.

No matter which narrative you choose to follow, Georgia didn't attack Russia, and the entire drama is taking place within the internationally recognized borders of Georgia. You would think, therefore, that the reportage of the violence would make use of the usual, well-worn vocabulary of International Law, Naked Aggression, Brutal Killings of Innocent Bystanders, and so on and on. You've heard it all before, after all, ad nauseum.

Well, I've just spent some time at the Guardian's website. To their credit, at least they are in an uproar, unlike, say, when millions of Africans in the Congo get murdered. But so far as I could tell, not a single one of the relevant terms has been used, not even once. No-one at the Guardian has made any use of the vocabulary they so routinely use against Israel. At least this opinion piece, by a guest writer, has the essentials right. But look at James Poulus' piece:
Treating the Georgia we see on the map as if it were as sovereign and whole as the state of Israel, or Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, sets us down a path of danger and confusion. But the pro-democracy ideologues confusing big hearts for big brains make this mistake by design.
And then, if you're really into understanding the depravity of the Guardian as expressed by one of their top columnists, go read Jonathan Steele on the matter: It's America's fault.
The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline is only a minor element in a much larger strategic equation: an attempt, sponsored largely by the United States but eagerly subscribed to by several of its new ex-Soviet allies, to reduce every aspect of Russian influence throughout the region, whether it be economic, political, diplomatic or military.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Hebrew and Memory

Isabel Kershner has a fun article in the NYT about Hebrew, ancient and modern. She wonders if perhaps modern Hebrew is developing so swiftly that sometime soon it will leave biblical Hebrew behind, and the two will no longer be the same language. Then again, she admits, the case for this may not be very strong; perhaps it's more a case of general Israeli angst (along, I'd add, a pervasive Jewish propensity to kvetch).

This fellow is a young Israeli linguist who teaches at a university in Brisbane (which is pretty far away). I met him at that conference in Melbourne, where he gave some excellent lectures which I enjoyed no end while fundamentally disagreeing. He thinks Modern Hebrew is so far from Ancient Hebrew that it should be called Israeli.

It seems to me that this is a cultural matter. If you live in Tel Aviv, are secular and know next to nothing about the vast Jewish literature created in Hebrew these past three millenia or so, but enjoy the vitality and exuberance of the local language, you can be forgiven for thinking it's new and going places. If on the other hand that literature is something you engage on a daily basis, it's hard to see how your present language is going to detach itself from the traditional one. English, I'm told, is evolving so rapidly that Shakespeare, who wrote a mere 500 years ago, is already falling out of contemporary English. But then again, what proportion of English speakers read Shakespeare on a daily basis?

Today is Tisha Be-Av, the 9th day of the month of Av, the main day of national mourning on the Jewish calender. At the services yesterday morning we read the first chapter of Isaiah, just as Jews have been doing Saturday morning before the 9th of Av for the past 2000 years:

16. wash and make yourselves clean.
Take your evil deeds
out of my sight!
Stop doing wrong,

17 learn to do right!
Seek justice,
encourage the oppressed.
Defend the cause of the fatherless,
plead the case of the widow.

Except that we read it in Hebrew, of course, and any school child can understand it. I have always found it striking that the basic Jewish texts are not heroic paeans but rather stern admonitions about all the things we're doing wrong. Yesterday evening and again this morning we read another section of the Bible, Lamentations, again in Hebrew anyone around here can understand effortlessly (probably better than the rather stilted English):

chapter 2, verse 17: The LORD has done what he planned;
he has fulfilled his word,
which he decreed long ago.
He has overthrown you without pity,
he has let the enemy gloat over you,
he has exalted the horn of your foes.

An interesting sentence. The author, traditionally Jeremiah himself, having recently survived the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE by Nebuchadnezzar, ruefully admits that this calamitous event was prophesied long before, in ancient times (yemei kedem) - from his perspective, after all, 568 BCE isn't ancient at all, it's the present. 2,600 years later, here we still are, reading his exact words, just as we've been doing ever since they were written, more or less:

chapter 5, 18: for Mount Zion, which lies desolate,
with jackals prowling over it.

Except that it isn't desolate, is it, and there aren't any jackals prowling over it. I know because it's less than two miles from here, and I was last there about a month ago.

It's days like this which underline how extraordinarily foolish some people can be when they rant about the foreign Jewish colonialists who barged in to someone else's land.

Lawrence of Cyberia: Malicious Cherry Picker

Some insights into the ugly mind of an Israel hater. Because of its length, I put it here.

Update: Faux-Ibrahim has demonstrated to me that when Ms. Mason seems to be reading Arabic, all she's really doing is using an automatic translation program. He seems to feel this weakens my case against her. I think rather the opposite.

Calling off the Actuaries

People who manage to live to 100 don't have much to worry about, as it's a well-documented fact that very few people die after 100.

The Rabbis of the Gemarah knew this joke almost 2000 years ago: There's this discussion going on about how to relate to a missive that has arrived from far away, sent by an old man (this was in pre-Blackberry days). One position is that so long as he was younger than 80, we assume he's still alive when the document arrives, but if he's beyond 80, we can't depend on it. Abaye, however, says that if he was 100, we assume he's still alive when the document arrives, since he has a proven track record of not dying. ("Keivan de'iflig, iflig: since he's already lived long, he'll continue to).

Gitin 25a.

This thread began here.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Strategic Change in Iraq

The week of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, I wrote some e-mails (didn't have a blog in those days) forecasting that it would take a decade before it would be clear if the invasion had succeeded or not. By success, I defined a mostly functioning democratic Iraq, somewhat resembling Bulgaria or Slovakia (Slovakia has gotten better since 2003). I admit I didn't foresee the ghastly violence of 2006; nor did I foresee the massive use of suicide bombers by Arabs on Arabs: I sort of thought that kind of insane brutality was reserved for Westerners and of course for Israelis. However, now that we're in the sixth year of that decade, you've got to admit that things are looking cautiously optimistic.

Well: "you've got to admit", if you're into weighing facts. If you're into ideologies ueber alles, you don't have to admit anything, and the Web is full of those sort.

Here are two interesting articles. The first appeared in the NYT on Sunday, and tells about how the Americans are learning from experience and getting ever better at their job; there are all sorts of Iraqis who are stepping up to the challenge, but there is an internal-Shiite dynamic which is beginning to muddy the waters, but this is a challenge, not a knell of doom. My favorite part of the article:
The goals of the surge against Sunni insurgents and Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia were political as well as military. The old strategy assumed that elections and the transfer of sovereignty to Iraqis would take the steam out of the insurgency and help the United States to manage with fewer and fewer troops. Iraqi politics, it assumed, would enable the military strategy.

This was the result of the Weltanschauung whereby foreign intervention is imperialism is Always Very Bad.

Petraeus’s new approach turned that formula on its head. It postulated that a troop increase — and a strategy that put a premium on protecting civilians — would win over hesitant Iraqis, generate intelligence about the insurgents and give Iraqi leaders the confidence to turn away from their militias and private armies and work together. More than half of the American reinforcements were allocated to the regions surrounding Baghdad that Al Qaeda militants used to mount their car-bomb attacks, while the rest were distributed throughout the city. The theory was that once Al Qaeda was weakened, that would eliminate the rationale that Shiite militias like Sadr’s Mahdi Army and the Badr Corps of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq were needed to protect the Shiite population. Breathing space would be created for political reconciliation. Military action would enable Iraqi politics.

Which proves, that foreign intervention (with bayonets) can sometimes be better than all the other alternatives.

The second article, by Biddle O'Hanlon and Pollack in Foreign Affairs, describes at great length how the American intervention goes about supporting the Iraqi attempts to build a reasonable state. It takes awhile to read, but if you feel you have a stake in the subject, and many of us do, it's worth the time.

The fundamental truth underlying the entire story, to my mind, is that the Americans have basic values that are good for people in general. Rule of law, human dignity, and also the willingness to think rationally and try to figure out better ways to do things when needed; the steel to shoulder the burden doesn't hurt, either. Since these are guiding principles for the Americans, sooner or later they'll bring results.

I'll stop here now and leave room for people to rant about the CIA, Oil Companies, Imperialism, Occupations, and all that stuff.

Germans, Jews, Smart-Alecs

Tanya Gold, undoubtedly a Jew herself, writes in the Guardian about Germans who have converted to Judaism and moved to Israel. It's an interesting phenomenon, larger in scale than her description might lead you to think. One of the interesting things about it is that once they become Israeli Jews, these former Germans do just what the rest of us do: they spread all over the political landscape, from far Left to far Right, and they pop up in some of the less obvious corners of Israeli society, especially when they marry native Israelis from those corners. So the briefest glance will inform you that if they're all part of the same phenomenon, it's a mighty complex one. If, perhaps.

So that's the first part of the story.

The second part of the story is about Tanya Gold and her newspaper. Start with this sentence, depicting her first encounter with one of the four people she tells us about.
He opens the door and looks like every other rabbi I have ever met - a black suit, a beard, a questioning shrug.
Umm, Tanya?

OK, a spot of caricature doesn't really hurt. But a few paragraphs later she's showing her innate arrogance in a more obvious way:
I walk through the Old City, pondering my encounter with this strange, kindly man. Something seems to be missing from his story. To stand in front of a rabbi whose father was in the SS and to hear he became a Jew because he doubted the Trinity is absurd.
I can see how the encounter would be startling, even unsatisfying. People don't always fully explain themselves to themselves; baring everything before a journalist (from the Guardian!) isn't inevitable. That doesn't mean their portrayal is absurd, nor that a professor at some university can do so better. Due disclosure: I know and respect Dan Bar-On, heavily cited in the article as Gold's oracle. But when it comes to understanding religion, and Judaism in particular, he's not much more of an expert than Tanya Gold herself, and the fact that she asked him to make sense of the issue tells you more about her than about it.

Gold's description of Yad Vashem is mostly factually wrong, but why quibble when she offers us bloopers like this:

I call Bar-On again. I feel the converts are giving me half-answers, scraps of answers. They talk about despising the Trinity and the terrible things that the Germans did to the Jews, but it seems like they are talking a genocide that doesn't exist, even in their memories. I can't escape the feeling that it is all about something else.

I tell Bar-On they talk obsessively about the Trinity. But is incredulity really a reason for abandoning a religion with a three-in-one god for one that still believes bushes talk and that waves are parted by the will of God? "That is another way of saying what I have already told you," he says. "They want to join the community of the victim. They may have their own way of rationalising it."

Yes, I can see how if you think Judaism is about believing in talking bushes and such, you might indeed feel smug and superior when faced with people who have chosen to join it. Gold is merely being your usual Guardianista here: embarrassingly ignorant and unaware of it at the same time.

Then there's the far-Left convert,who gives Gold one of the lines you always know you'll ifnd in an article in the Guardian that gets anywhere near these subjects:
"I felt that I was being told that to be a good Jew, you had to hate Arabs." So she stands at West Bank checkpoints to observe the behaviour of Israeli soldiers towards Palestinians.
Well, if you think rabbis all have beards and base their lives on talking bushes, why not believe that statement, too?

Finally, there is the meta-text, so typical of the Guardian, so disconnected from how human beings are: the idea that people want to belong to a victim group, because being a victim carries moral weight. I suppose if you believe that circumstances make of us what we are and human choice is at best of secondary importance, it's better to be weak and incapable of bettering your condition, than strong and perhaps responsible for your deeds. After all, the end result is that people are flawed, and realilty is never perfect, so the less responsibility you have, the more you can shove onto some others who are stronger, the better.

But that's a long discussion for another day.

Kosher for the Goyim

Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld has an op-ed at the NYT about a scandal in America's largest kosher meat-packing factory.

The substance of the story isn't that surprising. The people running the factory, catering to a reliegious clientele and probably orthodox Jews themselves, should be expected to have high ethical standards, yet it appears they don't. The leaders of the community can be expected to be the public guardians of these ethical standards, yet faced with the scandal, they're either trying to fix it behind the scenes or they're not even doing that; their public stance, in any case, leaves much to lament, if Herzfeld's depiction is accurate. I wouldn't know: this is the first I've heard of the matter.

And there-in lies the true tale. The willingness of an orthodox rabbi to air grievances from inside the community in the most important newspaper in the land bespeaks a level of comfort, of being at home, of self-confidence in his identity as an orthodox Jew who is fully a part of American society as such, not in spite of it. These all really are taken for granted in the United States, to the extent that some of you will be wondering what this post is even about. A situation inconceivable for thousands of years is, quite simply, boringly banal.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Applebaum on Solzhenitzyn

Anne Appelbaum knows a thing or two about the Soviet Union, so her's in the kind of obituary you go looking for this week.

In the end, she writes, although Solzhenitsyn the man was flawed, it's his words that were important. Very important.

In the week of his death, though, what stands out is not who Solzhenitsyn was but what he wrote. It is very easy, in a world where news is instant and photographs travel as quickly as they are taken, to forget how powerful, still, are written words. And Solzhenitsyn was, in the end, a writer: A man who gathered facts, sorted through them, tested them against his own experience, composed them into paragraphs and chapters. It was not his personality but his language that forced people to think more deeply about their values, their assumptions, their societies. It was not his television appearances that affected history but his words.

His manuscripts were read and pondered in silence, and the thought he put into them provoked his readers to think, too. In the end, his books mattered not because he was famous or notorious but because millions of Soviet citizens recognized themselves in his work: They read his books because they already knew that they were true.

They knew that they were true. How many authors, or any one else for that matter, say the truth?

On the Sanctity of Internationally Sanctioned Borders

Well intentioned folks (and also some not so well intentioned ones) have been telling us for years, indeed decades, that internationally recognized borders between nations must be respected at all costs, and in cases of differences of opinion about them, old maps drawn by whomever are the only thing that count. Anything else would be unacceptable, and acquiring territory by violence would be the most unacceptable of all. Thus spake International Law.

This was always not convincing. First, because every border in human history drawn prior to a few decades ago was either created by God (see the borders of the UK, for example), or by men backed by the power to do the drawing. When you look at Israel's borders you'll find that respectable countries such as the US of A, the UK, and others, were still hatching plans to cede Israeli territory in the promotion of their interests, at least until late in the 1950s and probably all the way up to the Six Day War in 1967. (Michael Oren has some details in his excellent Six Days of War). The moment in time at which Israel's borders were sanctified and consecrated was the moment after they changed, and the old ones took on holiness to prevent the new ones ever being accepted.

Be that as it may, when it comes to the borders with Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan, the lines drawn by some English sahibs in 1906 or 1918 or 1920 are generally regarded as sacred, and in each case Israel has been required to respect them down to the last inch (see: Taba) so as to have peace (or, in the case of Lebanon, so as not to have peace). The lines with the Palestinians that are regarded as sacred are the armistice lines of 1949; this is the line Israel accepts with Gaza, and doesn't accept on the West Bank. This non-acceptance generates endless opprobrium from most of the so-called "International Community", though in recent years some American presidents such as Bill Clinton and his successor have stated that perhaps some other line, should both sides agree, might also be acceptable if only agreement could be reached. The folks over at the Geneva Accord, by the way, also accept this. (Some prominent Palestinians among them, and no Likudniks).

And then there are the Syrians. They don't accept the internationally sanctioned lines, nor the lines they themselves agreed to in Rhodes in 1949. The only line they're willing to accept is the one they held on June 4th 1967, after they had used post-armistice force to take territory from Israel. Shlomo Avineri has a short but excellent article outlining the issues. Syria can't accept a line drawn by imperialist Europeans after WW1, only a line drawn by its own military; it can't even compromise for peace. And the entire concept of Lebanon is likewise unacceptable, since Lebanon was invented by the French.

The implication for Israel is that borders are determined by European imperialists when that's convenient for Egypt Jordan and Lebanon, by the 1949 armistice lines when that's convenient for the Palestinians, and by the force of arms and violence when that's convenient for the Syrians. I'm not necessarily saying these lines shouldn't be acceptable, but let's be clear about the total lack of consistency of it all.

Pot Calls Tablecloth Black

Haaretz TV has an item which is either hilarious or frightening, and I suggest we prefer the hilarious option.

Apparently the Israeli franchise of Nissan has a TV ad with a spoof on Saudi sheiks who are furious at the new model which doesn't guzzle much fuel (says Nissan). A Saudi TV newscast is truly furious at this racist depiction of the poor Saudis, and also threatens Nissan with a boycott for their cheek. But the Israelis are the worst, racist foreigners that they are. Bit rich, coming from the Saudis.

The whole thing, by they way, is a demonstration of what Rattling the Kettle and I have been saying all along, that weaning us of fossil fuels needs to be done to cut down the Saudis, global warming or not.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Persecution, Revenge, and Morality

Jonathan Freedland has apparently written a novel based upon the story of those Jews who tried to punish Nazis after the Shoah; his paper has helpfully given him space to write about the subject, here.

You can quibble with his contention that almost no-one was punished for murdering Jews. The Soviets hung quite a large number of Nazis, though not in Western-style trials. In the 1960s the (West) Germans began a process of identifying Nazi criminals and investigating their crimes with an eye towards bringing them to justice. Well over 130,000 pf them were investigated, and in the process the documentary evidence was vastly expanded; most serious historical research of Nazism would be far poorer if it hadn't been for those efforts. Sadly, somewhere on the road from investigations to convictions almost all of the suspects managed to get off and wander back home, where they died in their beds.

The (East) Germans occasionally meted out justice to an old Nazi, but mostly they didn't.

Freedland's story, however, is about the survivors and some British-uniformed Jews from Mandatory Palestine who tracked down specific Nazis and executed them. Probably hundreds, though the documentation, obviously, is sparse, and the executioners themselves mostly never told.

Critics of Israel and apologists of Arab terror love to tell about the suffering that preceded the terror, thereby explaining it and in many tales even justifying it. They also love to tell that Israel's actions are equally evil, except that since they're state-sanctioned, they're worse. The poor Arab terrorists don't have a government and a big army, you see, so they engage in the poor man's version of violence, while the Israelis get to engage in the rich man's version. Finally, they tend to add, the Israelis insist on talking about the Holocaust all the time because they are trying to monopolize the victim status, since - as the previous two points demonstrate - being a victim is a higher moral status than anything else, and even lets you engage in all sorts of horrible actions without being fully tainted by them.

The real story of the Jewish avengers, somewhat unmentioned by Freedland, is that it disproves all those themes.

1. Over the past 1500 years or so the Jews were persecuted more than any other group (not all the time, mind you, but again and again and again). Yet they never resorted to violence against their oppressors. (OK, I can't vouch for "never", but if it happened it was extremely rare and isn't in the history books).

2. Until very recently, the Jews didn't have armies or governments or other vehicles of letting off steam as such, and they still didn't engage in violence.

3. The previous comments were true for at least 1500 years, long before the Nazis. The Nazi persecution, however, dwarfed anything that preceded it - but even it did not call forth Jewish revenge in the primary use of the term, not under the Nazis before 1945, and not in Germany after 1945. The stories that Freedland has uncovered were of rough justice and were aimed at specific German men. In one case they were aimed at a camp of captured SS men. They were never committed against the general German populace - even though the general German populace had heartily supported the Nazis, and mostly knew that the Jews were being horribly tormented by them.

All of which demonstrates that the decision to murder or not is a decision, not an irresistible and uncontrollable urge. Jews who were persecuted over the centuries figured out ways to get on with life. If they did, anyone could; if others don't, it's because of their decisions, not their circumstances.

Primaries: The Black Man vs. the Woman

Amnon Levy compares the primaries in the Democratic Pary and those in Kadima: The first real black candidate (meaning, in this case, Mizrachi, i.e. non Ashkenazi), vs. almost the first woman candidate (Golda, he reminds us, wasn't really much of a woman).

Actually, Mofaz, should he win in Kadima, would be the fourth Mizrachi to go to elections as the head of a large party. Itzchak Mordechai was the first, in 1999, though his party evaporated during the campaign, Fuad Ben-Eliezer was the head of Labor, though they threw him out as the elections approached, but Amir Perez, flagrantly non-Ashkenazi, led Labor into the elections of 2006.

Levy's piece is largely tongue-in-cheek, but not completely. His bottom line is actually serious: There are no worthy candidates in the upcoming elections, but Livni's advantage over Mofaz, Netanyahu and Barak (Ehud) is that she has no proven fiascoes to her name.

I'm rooting for her - though not enough to join Kadima so as to vote for her in the primaries, where it's apparently a close call. There are limits to political loyalty, don't you think?

Monday, August 4, 2008

"Solzhenitsyn, Dominant Writer of the 20th Century"

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn has died.

The NYT has a fine, long obituary, that captures much of the complexity of the man. (The Guardian has a brief, perfunctory obit, the barest courtesy. Perhaps they didn't like him. I'm not even going to link to it).

Solzhenitsyn was one of the formative figures of my life. As a child and teenager I heard of him, obviously, but hadn't read any of his books. I eventually did so during my university years. The final push came when I read Terrence Des Pres, The Survivor. The Survivor is near or at the top of the shortlist of best books I've ever read about the Shoah; it's an attempt to understand how people survived the camps. As worthy of a book seeking the fundamental truth rather than the froth, Des Pres began his disquisition with a reading of the more important literary efforts about the camps, and Solzhenitsyn was cited heavily.

Once I'd read Des Pres I spent most of a summer reading Solzhenitsyn's books, one after another. He talked about cruelty and suffering, malice and hope, callousness and friendship. Without elaborating on the word, he described evil. His books inured me forever - had I ever been so inclined - of the ability to relativize, to excuse away, to engage in foolish comparisons between mundane wrong doing and strategic large scale destruction.

As the NYT obit tells:

By this time, Mr. Solzhenitsyn had completed his own massive attempt at truthfulness, “The Gulag Archipelago.” In more than 300,000 words, he told the history of the Gulag prison camps, whose operations and rationale and even existence were subjects long considered taboo.

Publishers in Paris and New York had secretly received the manuscript on microfilm. But wanting the book to appear first in the Soviet Union, Mr. Solzhenitsyn asked them to put off publishing it. Then, in September 1973, he changed his mind. He had learned that the Soviet spy agency, the KGB, had unearthed a buried copy of the book after interrogating his typist, Elizaveta Voronyanskaya, and that she had hung herself soon afterward.

In some countries, people were interrogated until suicide for telling the truth. In others, they get bad-mouthed in the literary circles. Long live the difference.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

A Conservative Chronicle

As a young academic-in-training, I partook in the political ethos of the group that considered itself Israel's elite - an ethos resembling European social-democracy, more or less, in the broadest meaning of the term including many components beyond daily politics. In retrospect my doctoral dissertation, which argued that the Nazi program of murder was less a result of circumstances and more a result of purposeful decision-making, was a fundamental departure from this ethos, though at the time it didn't effect the way I voted in elections. That departure had been a painful intellectual process, and happened over 3-4 years in which the large amounts of documents I was reading demanded of me that I recognize their content was different from what my expectations had been. I eventually published all this in Hitler's Bureaucrats.

The change in my voting habits came very abruptly, within the three months of November 2000-January 2001. This abruptness was caused by the Palestinians, as I described in Right to Exist. It was about then, say, in 2001, that I became aware of what Americans would call the conservative intellectual tradition.

Among Israelis there had always been a large number of highly and extremely highly intelligent and educated people who stood outside, even against, the reigning intellectual mainstream. Most of them, however, belonged to one of the various orthodox strands of Judaism, and they mostly didn't engage the secular thinkers at all: they were indifferent to them. The academia-media-secular elites had their shticks, the orthodox had theirs, and the two never touched (and each group observed the others mostly with disdain). As I looked around the new political scenery in early 2001, however, I needed secular intellectual voices on my new part of the field, and I remember my surprise and relief that in the US there were large numbers of them. Not everything they were saying was convincing to me, of course. I was, and remained, a graft between a centrist and a Querdenker (someone who holds opinions for their value, not for their political hue). Still, it was comforting to know they were there.

Anyway, what was novel for me was stale news for many people in the US. One of them, it seems, was Adam Bellow, whom I met in 2002 when he took upon himself to be the editor of Right to Exist. (He was a terrific editor). He recently published an article - or perhaps it's something of an intellectual memoir - about his life on the front lines of the American intellectual culture wars. You don't have to agree with all of his positions, but it's an interesting story.

Dwindling numbers of Arab Christians

From time to time nice people blame Israel for the dwindling number of Christian Arabs in Israel and the PA. This is spite of the fact that the number of Christian Arabs all over the Mideast has been sinking dramatically for generations and is now close to zero in most countries. Apparently, Christian Arabs have an easier time getting out and into Europe, or North or South America, and they're taking advantage of it. Anyway, here's an article about the single large Christian Arab community that seemed, at least until recently, still mostly to be hanging on: the Copts in Egypt. Apparently, even though there are millions of them, it's getting harder and harder for them to remain amongst the majority Muslims.

By the way, it's interesting to note that the number of non-Arab Christians in Israel is actually rising, what with the influx from the ex-Soviet Union, and foreign laborers.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

The Lesser of Two Evils

Hamas is shooting Fatah men in Gaza again. So what are the out gunned Fatah men doing? Asking the Israelis to save them. Who'd have thunk.

Update: Hamas forces shot mortars at the area in Israel where they thought their fellow Palestinians were concentrating after escaping Gaza.

Summary of the day: Fatah men trust Israel with their safety more than their fellow Palestinians of the Hamas version, and Hamas breaks the ceasefire with Israel in order to try and kill the Fatah fellows. You couldn't make up this stuff.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Raising the Stakes, or: From Tragedy to Farce

Remember the long defunct Kyoto agreement, that was crafted to save the world? This was about ten years ago, and at the time the expectation was that the catastrophe would come slowly and make itself felt in the second half of the 21st century. No longer. A panel of experts now tells us we have a mere 100 months left (such a pleasing clean number).

If I believed mankind had all of four years left to save the world (which I don't, not for a moment), I wouldn't be writing the article Andrew Simms has just given us. In essence, what he says is that the UK must take drastic and painful measures, and then the Chinese, Indians, Saudis, Brazilians and everyone else will be shamed into following, or inspired into following, or something. A more arrogant and simultaneously naive thought is hardly conceivable.

So how will the UK achieve this act? By emulating the sacrifices of WW2.

The challenge is rapid transition of the economy in order to live within our environmental means, while preserving and enhancing our general wellbeing. In some important ways, we've been here before, and can learn lessons from history. Under different circumstances, Britain achieved astonishing things while preparing for, fighting and recovering from the second world war. In the six years between 1938 and 1944, the economy was re-engineered and there were dramatic cuts in resource use and household consumption. These coincided with rising life expectancy and falling infant mortality. We consumed less of almost everything, but ate more healthily and used our disposable income on what, today, we might call "low-carbon good times".

A National Savings Movement held marches, processions and displays in every city, town and village in the country. There were campaigns to Holiday at Home and endless festivities such as dances, concerts, boxing displays, swimming galas, and open-air theatre - all organised by local authorities with the express purpose of saving fuel by discouraging unnecessary travel. To lead by example, very public energy restrictions were introduced in government and local authority buildings, shops and railway stations. This was so successful that the results beat cuts previously planned in an over-complex rationing scheme. The public largely assented to measures to curb consumption because they understood that they were to ensure "the fairest possible distribution of the necessities and comforts of daily life".

Well, no. There were bombs falling on London, and though Simms doesn't mention them, I'll bet they were more effective at causing change than all those marches. And it's a wee stretch of the imagination to call those years "low carbon good times". How obtuse can a person be?

Anyway, it's telling that throughout the article, chock-filled with alarmist gobbledygook, there is no suggestion of pouring the zillions of $ (or Sterling) all this will cost, into finding the technologies that will enable us to get on with our good lives while freeing ourselves from the yoke of Chaves and the Saudis. That would be the wrong agenda, you understand.


Obama and Israel

Last week while he was here, I never got around to commenting on Obama's visit.

The most important thing to note is that the evening he left his cavalcade interrupted my evening walk. Or rather, I was walking along interfering with no-one, and a gaggle of security types blocked the road and I had to wait until the cavalcade had sped off into the night before I could keep on walking. So I guess he lost my vote. (He was off to have supper at Olmert's house, so I theoretically could aim my electoral ire at Olmert, but it doesn't look like there will be any opportunities anytime soon).

Shmuel Rosner sums up the visit quite well over here. (Did I ever tell you Rosner was a student of mine when he was an unruly teenager? No? Well anyway, he obviously turned out alright in the end). His thesis is that Israel's Left, just like America's, is pinning all sorts of unrealistic hopes on an Obama Administration; inthe case of the Israeli Left, the fallacy is doubled because Obama isn't even running for the job of President of Israel, meaning that at the end of the day, Israel decides, not the White House.

Any American president, certainly including Obama, will be a friend of Israel because of fundamental ways in how Americans understand the world. There's some leeway - Clinton was a friend differently than Bush 2 was, while Bush 1 was arguably less friendly than either of them, but no American president will treat Israel as, say, some French presidents do.

The Israeli response to Obama was interesting. His great appeal and the reason he's come so far and may go further is that he's a magnificent speaker, and that he's Black while (partially) transcending his skin color. The first part is not relevant to the Israeli public at this moment, as the Israeli public doesn't know his speeches and hasn't been queuing up in front of YouTube to see them.

The second aspect - well, any Israeli with the slightest education knows that the Americans had black slaves, and there was a war about that, and Lincoln was shot, and all this happened long before television, and if pressed, it probably happened long before the Turks left our part of the world.... and that's about it. It's a rare Israeli who can tell you about how slavery was the Original Sin of the United States, and how that has played out over the past few centuries and still does today, and all that stuff. All of which goes to say that Israelis don't see how Obama's road towards the White House is revolutionary for the Americans. They don't see what all the excitement is about. As Ayala Hason, one of our more prominent and less impressive TV reporters said: he's kind of bland. What's the big deal about him?"

On the other hand, to the extent Israelis follow American politics (and they mostly do), I'd say Obama's recent ideological zig zaging has been noted with approval by many Israelis. Clearly, the fellow is a canny politician, meaning he's a cynical ego-maniac who says whatever needs to be said for the political purposes of the moment. We've got lots of those, and feel comfortable with them even while purporting to despise them, so if Obama's just another one of the same breed, he'll be alright and we'll be alright with him.

Olmert's not Leaving

Just a quick note here: Given the fiendishly complicated rules of Israeli parliamentary politics, the soonest conceivable date at which Olmert will leave his job is near the end of October. November or early December are a bit more plausible, January, February and probably most of March 2009 are not possible dates at all for replacing him with someone else, and the scenarios in which Olmert remains prime minister until April 2009 are perfectly reasonable.

We could even see him traveling to Washington in February or March 2009 to discuss matters with the new fellow in the White House.