Friday, October 31, 2008

Sarah the Formidable

Eugene Robinson, who really doesn't like her, thinks that Sarah Palin isn't about to disappear. I agree, and am really puzzled by the many people around who assure me that by mid-November she'll be gone forever. That just doesn't make any sense. The woman is a natural politician, she has acquired name-recognition most politicians would kill for, and why would she go away? I mean, look at our very own Bibi Netanyahu, who was painfully drubbed by the voters not once but twice, in 1999 and in 2006, and in 2009 he's going to be prime minister again. Not to mention Shimon Peres, who lost elections for three decades and along the way was the minister of labor, industry, defense, finance, foreign affairs, prime minister twice, and now is the president. Going away after losing an election is for suckers who probably didn't deserve to win the first time anyway.

King David's Reign

Here's Reuters, and here's AP's report about the discovery in the Ellah Valley of a 3,000-year-old fortified town that was apparently ruled from Jerusalem, 20 km to the north-east. Just about the time when, according to the Bible, King David was ruling a centralized kingdom from Jerusalem. Apparently the townspeople spoke Hebrew.

That would be the real Valley of Ellah, not the bad joke.

The possibility of finding remains from the Iron Age in a land that has in the interval been built and destroyed dozens of times is slim, but the more the archeologists dig, the more they find. And then the politics kick in. My understanding of the issue is that the more they dig the more the broad outlines of the biblical story are confirmed, but there are many people who'd rather it were otherwise. That whole Zionism-is-Colonialism thesis, after all, has to start from the preposition that the Zionists came from somewhere else, as colonialists by definition always do; the possibility that they're coming back from somewhere has to be either disproved or, since it's true and can't be disproved, it must be denigrated.

The denigration can only be done by discounting the heart, body and soul of Judaism, and by forbidding the Jews to define their own identity. It seems to me that such a position should fit comfortably into any reasonable definition of Antisemitism. But of course, this is where the roars of indignation will begin, and anyway, it's a subject for another post, some other day.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Economist Endorses Obama

This isn't surprising, but nor was it obvious. As like the NYT, the Economist also supplies a link to their past endorsements; unlike the NYT, they choose their preferences on the merits of the candidates and not according to who the Democratic candidate is. This makes them more credible.

Their reasoning is mostly convincing. Actually, it's quite similar to that of Leon Wieseltier, to whom I linked a few days ago. His language is the more poetic and compelling, they're more fair to John McCain. At the end of the day, after acknowledging that Obama is a gamble that could go wrong, they wholeheartedly support him and hope for the best.

A plausible position. And, given that he's about to win, we should all be hoping he's up to the job. The world needs a strong and confident America.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Israeli Arabs and National Service

Haaretz continues its weird practice of leaving its most interesting stories offline, and I'm continuing to use footnotes.

Today (Oct. 29th 2008), section one, page 8: There is a rise of 66% in the number of Arab-Israeli high-school graduates who are volunteering to do a year or two of National Service. Their number this year (September-August, since these programs start after the end of the school-year) is at about 1,000, and the chief reason it isn't higher is that no-one allocated enough funds for additional positions. Probably because no-one foresaw the steep rise.

This service is the legal equivalent of military service; graduates enjoy the same financial advantages offered to veterans (support in university fees and mortgages, that sort of thing). Apparently a major motivation for these young men and women is therefore financial, but some of them are cited as wanting to contribute to their society, and reduce the hurdles on their way into mainstream Israel.

The Arab-Israeli politicians are vehemently against, obviously. What would happen to them if their potential voters felt more secure as Israelis, and voted according to issues, not ethnic identity? Gewald!! (However you say that in Arabic). Their position, however, should not be brushed away. The way this sort of thing works in Israeli parliamentary democracy is that funds are allocated to programs according to the pressure of sectoral politicians. The National Religious have oodles of programs with lots of money, because it's important to them that religious young women do national service rather than serve in the macho IDF. Left-wing politicians have only started directing funds to such programs in recent years, perhaps for pacifists. If the Arab MKs see such programs as a threat, it will take longer for their number to grow.

Such is the messiness of democracy.

The IDF and Palestinian Farmers

A unit of IDF infantry is ensuring that Palestinian farmers can pick olives. You can even see them in action, here, along with the farmers.

No, it's not really a positive story. Had the Palestinians not responded to Barak's offers in 2000 by launching the 2nd Intifada, this area would be part of independent and sovereign Palestine, and there would be neither Israeli settlers nor troops anywhere nearby. Had Olmert then not been so reckless in the summer of 2006 when running that stupid little war in Lebanon, he would by now have done what he was democratically elected to do, namely pull Israel unilaterally out of most of the West Bank: again, no story. Likewise if only Israel's law enforcing agencies were effective at protecting the law in those hills south of Nablus.

However, given the reality we have, this is certainly better than nothing - and demonstrates how complex things are.

"Obama stock is overpriced, and a crash could really hurt"

Along with all the other things I'm busy with, I've started reading Dreams from My Father; I hope to finish before next Tuesday evening. It's a good read, and I like the author. Wouldn't it be really cool if he could be President? Wow.

Really. Meanwhile, however, back in the real world, Simon Jenkins of The Guardian warns
Sell Obamas now. They are overpriced and the forward market has gone crazy. If he becomes president, the bubble will burst, I guess in the spring of next year.
There's much that I disagree with Jenkins about, and I understand the world from a very different perspective than he does. Not every statement in his column is correct. However, his thesis is convincing. Sometime by early summer of 2009 Obama's stock really will crash. Both because the expectations are way above the stratosphere, and because no living man could do even half of the things his fervent believers expect.

The significant question is what will happen after summer 2009. Will he be a latter-day John Kennedy, muddling along doing little of any significance, to lose the White House to a new promise in 2012, or perhaps winning a second term like Bill Clinton but still not doing much of importance? Or will he grow to the stature of Lyndon Johnson or Ronald Reagan, indeed transforming some aspects of the United States? Because even if he does, millions of people will remember him with anger, as they do those two.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

How Do We Know What We Know - And Are We Right?

The Haaretz website is growing ever more exasperating as a source for blogging. The paper version, however, while less useful for blogging, is growing more useful for learning things. So since I can't link to English translations of articles, nor even to Hebrew originals from previous days (until recently articles stayed up for a week: now only sometimes), I'll use the old system, the one historians have been using for about 150 years: footnotes. I'll back up the footnotes with links to research queries on the Haaretz website that tell of the cited articles, even though they can't be seen unless you pay. (I already pay for the paper version, but that doesn't help).

On Friday October 24th 2008 on page 9 of section 2, alongside the regular column by Gideon Levy, there's a letter from Dr. Yuval Or, a physician who recently returned from service in his military reserve unit. He objects to a previous column by Levy, published on October 10th 2008, in which Levy told of an IDF raid on a Palestinian home, during which one of them pushed the 60-year-old grandmother who fell, hit her head, and died. (The search result is here).

Dr. Or was part of the IDF unit that carried out the raid. He points out that it wasn't a general search, as Levy states, but rather a pinpointed raid to arrest a specific Hamas figure known to be in the house. As the soldiers entered the building, the woman was asked to sit on a low wall (60 centimeters) in front of the house. While she was sitting there she had a heart attack, fell over, and died. Dr. Or treated her immediately, assisted by the information supplied from her family whereby she was known to suffer from diabetes, high blood pressure, and... heart disease. The doctor and four medics spent more than half an hour doing their best to save the woman's life, but she couldn't be saved. The cause of her death was a heart attack, not the minor abrasions on her head that were caused by her fall during the heart attack.

So yesterday Haaretz told us that Btselem routinely supplies unreliable data about Israeli military actions. This tells us that Gideon Levy, one of Israel's harshest critics, may perhaps also not be totally reliable (some of us have known this for years, but it's nice to read in the paper, too). What about the mainstream press? Say, Ilana Dayan's investigative TV program Uvda (Fact)? Her program is probably the most influential investigative program in the history of Israeli TV, and Dayan, a doctor of law and immensely talented reporter enjoys about the highest credibility in the branch.

She's on trial right now, sued by Major R, the Druze officer who on October 5th 2004 shot and killed 13-year-old Aiman el-Hams on the perimeter of an IDF outpost near Rafah. The international media told that the officer (his name is still under a gag-order) had murdered the girl in cold blood, and Ilana Dayan did a report documenting this fact. Alas, (or perhaps, thank God, depending on your perspective), once R. was indicted, the court threw out the whole case, having been convinced that, tragic though the death undoubtedly was, the officer had behaved professionally and in accordance with the conditions and what it was reasonable to think was going on. He was fully exonerated and reinstated; it wasn't a case of lack of evidence or reasonable doubt.Amos Harel from Haaretz reported from the courtroom on October 27th on page 9 of section one (here's the search result).

Dayan is apparently furious that she's being forced to answer questions, and that her interrogators are allowed to cut her off when she seems to be straying; the judge has had to reprimand her a number of times that the rules in a court of law are different than in her TV studio. She has repeatedly responded to specific questions about her editing practice ("why did you show that and not that") with the statement that she's experienced and that's her job. She has admitted that she never visited the outpost itself and drew all her information from the raw material - the same raw material that led the court fully to exonerate the officer, one might add. She admits that journalists often don't have a full picture, but claims that if they had to wait for fully convincing evidence they would have to shut up most of the time. And so on and on.

Btselem, Gideon Levy, and Ilana Dayan are all Israelis. They know Hebrew (though pehaps not Arabic), and should be able to understand nuances, complexities and to have a feeling for what is plausible and what not. They are vastly more qualified to be doing their job than almost any foreign journalist stationed in Israel who is here today and gone tomorrow. And yet, the closer you look, the more you have to ask yourself if they're reliable. I'm not talking about their interpretations of the facts, I'm talking about the facts themselves. If they aren't reliable, how can the foreign fellows be reliable? And if the foreign professionals may not be reliable, what are we to do with the pundits, politicians, bloggers and other bloviators?

PS. Of course, none of this discussion will be relevant to the those who reject Israel's right to exist, and hence it's right to defend itself or its citizens. But then, those folks don't need facts anyway, nor are they interested in them, unless as dressing for their animosities and prejudices.

On Being Responsible for What Happens to You

The Gemara in Kiddushin that we're going through these days is involved in a long and detailed discussion of Avdut - generally translated as slavery, though the details make it clear that actually indentured service is a more accurate translation. As with many segments of the Talmud, it seems devoid of direct relevance as the whole institution being described is long since dead. It's the indirect relevance, however, which is so interesting.

Most of the discussion so far has been highly legalistic. Today's page suddenly veered off in a different direction, and wondered how the actions of the indentured man contributed to his getting there; the assumption being that had he lived correctly, he wouldn't have.

It's a startling assumption, seen from our perspective. We live in a world where people who suffer are victims, and victims by definition suffer because of the malice of perpetrators - or at best, societal conditions which were created by malicious people. If anyone ever tries to say otherwise, he is immidiately castigated for "blaming the victims".

Sometimes you have to go back 1,700 years for a breath of fresh air.

Kiddushin 20, a-b.

This thread began here.

Arabs Serving in the IDF: Not what you Thought

No matter what you think is the truth about Arabs serving in the IDF, this article will surprise you: the numbers are rising, but they're small, the reasons are economic, except when they're other, and so on and on. One of the most surprising news items I've seen in a while.

And it's only available in Hebrew. I'm continually befuddled by what Haaretz translates and what not. But then I tell myself that perhaps it's not so important. If anyone seriously wants to know what Israel is about, there's no alternative to knowing the language, obviously.

France: Unilateral US Actions would be Problematic

Of course, this s a line we've all heard before, and coming from the so-called "Cheese-eating surrender monkeys", what do you expect?

Except that this time, it's the French president criticizing a potential willingness of an Obama administration to break ranks with the Europeans and go soft on Iran.

And it gets better! According to the Haaretz sources
Sarkozy has made his criticisms only in closed forums in France. But according to a senior Israeli government source, the reports reaching Israel indicate that Sarkozy views the Democratic candidate's stance on Iran as "utterly immature" and comprised of "formulations empty of all content."
Is it conceivable that two years of elementary school in Indonesia were not enough to teach Obama about international relations? Look's like we'll be finding out pretty soon.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Btselem is Reliably Unreliable

According to the Hebrew side of the Haartez website, a new report documents that Btselem is consistently and significantly wrong in its reports. Aggravatingly, the report itself isn't yet online at the website where it should be, here. This is standard fare: when it comes to presenting things correctly we're often bumbling idiots. So once this goes online I may revisit it. In the meantime, however, two quick comments:

1. Btselem routinely reports the deaths of Palestinian combatants as if they were non-combatants, sometimes even blatantly so.

2. The research arrived at this conclusion by comparing Betselem's reports with... Palestinian reports! Which means, it seems to me, that Betselem makes Israel look worse than even the internal, Arabic language Palestinian sources do. Can you believe it? More important: can you explain it?

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Best Endorsement so Far

Leon Wieseltier, perhaps the most articulate polemicist in America, comes out for Obama. This isn't particularly surprising, but his reasoning is unusually lucid, and his depiction of Obama is, I hope and fear, right on.


This evening we went to see Shiva'a, a new Israeli film that has been getting prizes at all sorts of festivals.

I warmly recommend, though perhaps not if you're too young to understand the dynamics of families, and also not if you're into action films.

The film tells the story of a large family of Moroccan Israels sitting shiva for the death of Morris, a 40-something man who has died suddenly, leaving a wife and two children, but also seven brothers, two sisters and an aged mother. The film follows the rancorous yet ultimately loving relationships among the siblings and some of their spouses. It's January 1991, and in the background Saddam Hussein's Scud missiles are occasionally landing nearby, but this adds more comic effect than anything else; the seriousness and intensity of the family turmoil are far greater than the outside world.

Like any good story, its universal appeal is rooted in it's specifics. The family is Moroccan-Israeli, and is instantly recognizable as such by anyone who know anything about Israel - but it's probably adaptable to any family the world over where family members are capable of expressing the full range of emotions, including many destructive ones, while preserving the basic family bonds.

Now that I think of it, maybe that's not so universal. It's certainly not unique to Israelis, but I can think of some societies where not only would tensions like those in the Ohayon family irrevocably tear families apart, they'd never even be allowed to develop in the first place, for precisely that reason. I can think of a society where most people wouldn't even be able to fathom the dynamics, even if it's "only a movie".

Besides the main story, I loved the way the family used three languages (Hebrew, Moroccan-Arabic and French) in a totally interwoven way, sometimes moving from one to the next on to the third and back, all in one paragraph. (At one point two figures wandered off into a discussion in German). Also interesting, and convincing, was they way siblings of different ages, who grew up in different stages of the immigrant story of this family, look and behave differently, to the extent that the youngest brother isn't even obviously a sibling, so far removed is he from the experiences of his oldest brothers.

Ronit Elkabetz is a great actress. And, in a totally different way, so is Sulika Kadosh, the ancient matriarch who acts almost wholly without words.

Go see the film if you can. If you live here, it will make you feel good in a fundamental way. If you don't, it'll give you a perspective on Israel you're unlikely to get elsewhere - though I doubt you'll find the film in your nearby cinema.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Understanding the Economic Crises, Perhaps

Someone sent this to me the other day:

Once upon a time in a village, a man appeared and announced to the villagers that he would buy monkeys for $10 each. The villagers seeing that there were many monkeys around, went out to the forest, and started catching them.

The man bought thousands at $10 and as the supply started to diminish, the villagers stopped their effort. He then announced that he would now buy at $20. This renewed the efforts of the villagers and they started catching monkeys again.

Soon the supply diminished even further and people started going back to their farms. The offer increased to $25 each and the supply of monkeys became so little that it was an effort to even see a monkey, let alone catch it!

The man then announced that he had to go to the city on business and when he returned, he would buy monkeys for $50 each.

He left his assistant in charge and departed for the city.

In the absence of the man, the assistant told the villagers, "Look at all these monkeys the man has collected and put in the big cage. I will sell them to you at $35 each and when the man returns from the city, you can sell them to him for $50 each."

The villagers rounded up all their savings and bought all the monkeys.

They never saw the man or his assistant again, only monkeys everywhere!

Now you have a better understanding of how the stock market works!

Actually, if you're willing to spend a few hours time reading something serious that tries to understand what's going on, the Economist has a special report for you.

Two Presidential Endorsements

The NYT has endorsed Barack Obama (next to a picture of Abraham Lincoln. Hint hint). Charles Krauthammer has endorsed John McCain. (And before you jump down my throat for the audacity of positioning Krauthammer as the equal of the editorial board of the New York Times, bear in mind that Krauthammer is one talented commentator with a few assistants, and the editorial board of the NYT is a small group of journalists, none of them individually as influential as Krauthammer - so positioning them next to each other isn't so outlandish).

Neither of these endorsements is remotely surprising. Any other result would have been news so startling it would have made the front page of the New York Times (ah... Well, forget I said it). Actually, the only serious endorsement out there that is in any way not fully obvious in advance is that of the Economist, next week, and they're going to flow with the tide and endorse Obama, just wait and see.

Still, one can make a number of comments about the Krauthammer-NYT comparision. In a nutshell, the NYT backs Obama for being a healer; Krauthammer supports McCain for being a fighter. These two preferences are the result of a deeper difference of opinion, where the NYT feels that top-notch human-relations skills, such as they think Obama has, will tame the world, while Krauthammer feels that at this moment in time (and perhaps always) the world is a very dangerous place, no matter how good the American president is at diplomacy.

So that's an interesting contrast.

Does history prove the consistent veracity of either set of propositions? Is it possible to make a general rule that this side or that is more convincing, given the precedents? No. Not that I can see. The world really is a nasty place and will remain so, but healers can make a difference sometimes and when so it's a fine thing; fighters sometimes heal the world without fighting, and healers sometimes go to war. Just some obvious examples off the top of my head: Johnson was a healer who went to war. Reagan was a warrior who contributed more than most to healing the world. De Gaulle was a warrior who healed. Wilson was a healer who went to war.

The non-interesting contrast is about the way they interpret the campaigns. I don't think anyone would dispute that Obama has run a magnificent campaign, one of the best ever. The NYT feels this proves his ability to manage the world, which is more or less what the president of the US tries to do; for the life of me I can't say why they feel this. They then lambast McCain for running a nasty campaign, and deduce from it that he has lost the qualities they liked about him for decades, and disqualifies him to be president. Hogwash, of course. The first George Bush ran an extremely nasty campaign (remember Willie Horton), then went on to run the world in the way the NYT yearns for Obama to do, with diplomacy, coalition building etc, and still the NYT was against him. Campaigns are narrowly focused things: you know who you're up against, you know the rules of winning, you know the date of the decision, and that's it. Doesn't resemble the real world in any parameter.

NYT Presidential Endorsements

The New York Times has put up a cool web-page that show's who they've endorsed in every presidential election since they endorsed Abraham Lincoln in 1860.

It's lots of fun to play with. In the past 38 presidential elections the NYT has supported Democrats 26 times (well, make that 25, because in 1896 they supported John Palmer of the National Democratic Party). Back in the 19th century they endorsed illustrious Republicans such as Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant; in the 20th century they also went for a famous (lite) Republican General-War-Hero-turned-politician, Dwight Eisenhower. Since Eisenhower, however, they've never found a Republican they could like. Moreover, the last two times they did endorse Republicans, their choices were a bit odd: Wendell Willkie, in 1940? Huh? Thomas Dewey in 1948: heh heh. And they were against Theodore Roosevelt, back in 1904.

So looking back, how good has the NYT been at choosing fine presidents? Mediocre, I'd say. In spite of them being The Grey Lady.

A New Blog You Needn't Read

Some months ago I offered the Argentinian fellow who hides his true identity behind the title Ibrahim ibn Yusuf the option of sharing a blog. The idea - or at any rate, my part of it - was to have a thoughtful, systematic discussion between two people who radically disagree about Israel. I intended to look into Ibrahim's methodology, his thought processes, his relationship to facts and sources, and eventually also his motives. I don't know what his intentions regarding me were, but it was a free platform and he could have taken his part of it in whatever direction he wished. Theoretically, he could have bested me, though I admit I didn't think he would. The little I'd seen of hs work and the much I'd seen of others of his ilk left me mildly confident that most careful readers of our blog would find him to be the second most convincing of the two of us.

Shortly after we started some serious doubts began to accrue regarding Ibrahim's honesty in presenting himself. He himself admitted that it would have been easy to dispel the doubts, had they been based on falsehoods, but he was adamant in his refusal to do precisely that, eventually telling me that in the meantime the whole exercise no longer interested him. Personally I felt at the time and feel still that he feared he'd gotten into something he hadn't reckoned on so he ran, but I can't prove that, obviously.

What I can do, however, is to point you at his new blog, The Hasbara Buster. In one of his recent comments he said he's glad he has pro-Israeli readers and commentators, because that way he gets to understand how they think. Interesting comment, given his past behavior, and I'd suggest that what he really means is that he looks forward to talking to such people in an environment that he controls.

There's a pro-Israeli blogger named Yitzchak Goodman, author of Judeopundit, who is doing an admirable job of responding to the Buster's posts. I wish him luck, though I ask myself if he's not wasting his time. The Buster is way out there on the fringe of anti-Israeli bloviating, and it's unlkely that he makes any difference in the world. People such as myself, and also Goodman, need to ask themselves each year if any of the following three things are happening:

1. Are there more Jews in Israel than there were the previous year?
2. Is Jewish cultural (or religious) creativity as strong as it was last year, or perhaps even stronger?
3. Is Israel's economy, and with it the condition of the Israelis, better than it was last year?

In any year where the answer to any one of these questions is positive, we're doing alright, no matter what the Busters of the world do. Since most years all three questions have positive answers, why care about what those feverish folks think or say? Enemies of the Jews have been spewing their ire for millenia, and the Jews keep on doing their thing; these days, their thing is pretty miraculous, all in all, in spite of the blemishes.

The question that does remain, however, is why. Why should an instructor of language (Catalan, I think) in Rosario have this urge to "bust" things Israelis say about themselves. It's not because he has a good case - you're free to go visit and see for yourself how sloppy and often silly he is. It can't be because Israel is uniquely worse than other societies, because it isn't. Sometimes he tells that he's compelled to unveil Israel's crimes because the Israelis claim they're better than others. OK: and the Israelis are the only ones in the world who claim they're better? And even if they were the only ones, why should this be such an obsession in faraway Rosario?

In a recent post the Buster said I'm engaging in character assassination for posing this question. I don't agree. Not given the history of the Jews and their detractors these past few millenia.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Postville - a Review

A few months ago I wrote about the scandal (it really is a scandal) at the kosher slaughterhouse at Postville, Iowa. Now I've read the book, and have put up a review of it here.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Pilar Rahola, Fighter

The other day Haaretz had an interview with Pilar Rahola. Unfortunately they never translated it to English, and didn't even put the Hebrew original up on their website. Freudian, perhaps, and too bad, because it was interesting.

Ms. Rahola, it appears, is a Spanish columnist. She comes from the political Left, and has an impressive pedigree of anti-establishment free thinking. A great uncle was executed for being against Franco, and the family hasn't become more docile since then.

The reason she's of interest is that one of her main themes and bones of contention with her environment in general and the Left in particular is their obsessive interest in Israel, which they see as the greatest of the world's evils, comparable perhaps only with the United States. This is not particularly novel; actually it's quite banal. Still, when it comes to her analysis, it is rather interesting, even if not new: The Left is obsessed with Israel's crimes. Admittedly, not everything Israel does is justifiable, but there is no rational proportion between Israel's actions and the criticism of them, and certainly nothing to lead to a blanket condemnation of Israel's right to exist. Nor is there any rational proportion between the bestialities of all sorts of other regimes and societies and the lack of the Left's interest in them. Most people of this sort think in shallow slogans, and know next to no facts.

When Rahola tells of personal experiences, it gets more interesting. She tells, for example, of the indoctrination in Jew hatred she imbibed in that free thinking family: think what must go on in the conformist families. She attributes the blanket rejection of Israel to this antisemitism (though this doesn't explain the parallel animosity to the USA). Most interesting, since she's a long-standing fighter, she's had scuffles with loads of people who disagree with her, but the only topic where differences of opinion have led to severing of friendships is... you guessed. Her insistence on defending Israel.

Her website is here, and some of it is in English.

Long time readers of Ruminations will have noticed that we have our own in-house example of what Rahola's talking about. We've got a self-described "progressive academic" from distant Rosario, home town of that murderer Che Guevara, who has nothing better to do with his time than to seek, and occasionally invent, Israeli misdemeanors, as justification for his theory that Israel shouldn't exist. Since even he knows there can be no rational explanation for his obsession, he has apparently even invented himself an Arab identity, to give his problems a veneer of plausibility. Yep, you guessed: our very own Ibrahim ibn Youssuf.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Spinning the Mayor

A week after Obama gets elected next month we have municipal elections in Israel. In Jerusalem there are three candidates of interest, along with various irrelevancies no-one's ever heard of (such as the candidate of Likud. Kadima and Labor apparently aren't even running anyone). The three, in alphabetical order, are Nir Barkat, Arkadi Gaydamak, and Meir Porush. Barkat is a very wealthy hi-tech intreprenuer who can afford never to work again and still his great-grandchildren will be covered. Since he doesn't have to make money he wishes to make the world better, and he's been concentrating on Jerusalem for about ten years. Last time (municipal elections come around once every 5 years) he came in second, with 44% of the vote, which was pretty good seeing as almost no-one had ever heard of him. He has spent the ensuing 5 years as the head of the municipal opposition, thus convincing many people that he really means it, and apparently he has a reasonable chance of winning this time. He's about 50, by the way, maybe a bit less.

Gaydamek is a mystery. He's Russian. No-one knows when he got here - probably sometime in the early 1990s. He's super rich, probably far more than Barkat, but no-one knows how he made his money. Something to do with the demise of Communism, perhaps. Or weapon running. Or both. Or neither. Apparently he has a 30-something son who owns an English football club (Chelsea?). The Israeli police have been muttering about his being a crook ever since he first appeared, but they have yet to indict him for anything. He's been on the scene with great intensity for five years or so. He's famous for throwing large sums of money at problems the politicians can't deal with, especially if there are cameras around. Most famously, he's the fellow who in July 2006 set up a five-star camp of air conditioned tents in the south, and hosted thousands of refugees from the Gallillee while Olmert&Co. ineptly didn't manage to destroy Hezbollah. That alone made him one of the most popular people around, except with the socialists who believe that solutions must be paid for, always, by the goverment. For those folks Gaydamek is the epitomy of all evil, a fact which probably does him no electoral damage.

No one knows why he wants to be mayor of Jerusalem. Knesset members enjoy legal immunity until they don't (ask Olmert), but mayors don't even have that. No-one has any idea if he knows anything about running a city the size of Wassila, and Jerusalem, believe me, is more complicated than Wassila. Probably more complicated than all of Alaska. Actually, almost no-one knows anythng about Arkady, especially since the only language he speaks, apparently, is Russian. (He communicates with Israeli non-Russian journalists in pidgin-English). So his handlers have invented a very simple message for him: they've plastered his face all over the city with the slogan: "Arkady Gaydamek. He doesn't talk, he does". And some wags have altered some of the signs to say "Arkady Gaydamek. He doesn't talk Hebrew".

I think (and hope) he doesn't stand a chance.

Meir Porush is the scion of a well-known family of Haredi politicians who happen also to be rather wealthy. His father was in the Knesset for many years; Meir replaced him quite a while ago. People tell me it's possible to be a US senator of the first rank for decades and still have only limited name recognition in most of the US. Well, it must be a big place, what can I say, or perhaps people don't pay attention. In Israel it is impossible to be an active Knesset member for a term or two without everybody knowing all about you (or thinking they do), so Porush has name recognition most American politicians would kill for. Alas: everyone knows he's Haredi, a fanatic, with a great big white beard, black overcoat, 11 children or more, and no-one except his own kind would vote for him.

So why is he running? Two reasons. First, his own kind constitute some 30+% of the Jerusalem electorate, and they vote early and often. Second, the other 70% don't vote hardly at all (the Arabs), or only in a lazy sort of way (all the rest). So all Porush has to do is convince a few non-Haredi folks to vote for him, and to reinforce the rest in their reluctance to drag themselves to the polls (usually about two blocks away), and he's in. That's how his predecessor, Haredi Uri Lupoliansky, won in 2003. Except that Porush is recognized, unlike Lupo, as being full-fledged Haredi. Lupo was sort of Haredi-light.

Purush's handlers have dealt with this handicap in a very cute way: unlike any politician you've ever heard of, they're not showing his face. Instead, they're smothering the city with a cute little cartoon figure with a benign smile and twinkling eyes, and the slogan "Jerusalem will like Porush". If you visit his website, here, you can see what I mean. The website also has his real picture, but websites aren't very important in Israeli politics. Everyone uses the Internet, but not for politics (nor for blogging). All those secular looking people on his homepage are exactly what you'd think: secular folks saying Meir's a great fellow. Not a single Haredi face there, notice. Heh.

Ah. In the name of even handedness, here's Barkat's website (the English part). I don't think Arkady has a website (Google doesn't either). So here's something else, instead.

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Road to Hell is paved with Good Intentions

Timothy Garton Ash argues against the growing European trend to legislate what must be remembered. True, the legislators would have us remember various atrocities and never deny them, but is this really the job of legislatures? Why?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Economist on Daf Yomi

Someone at The Economist has been reading Ruminations, and has been moved to write an article about Daf Yomi. In the midst of the world's worst financial crises in 70 years, mind you. Even at the Economist they can distinguish between the ephemeral and the permanent.

We've been writing about Daf Yomi ever since this.

Buying Things Without Money

Today's daf yomi has a convoluted discussion about methods of purchasing things without people using any of their own money. 2000 years ago, I remind you.

Kidushin teractate, 7a.

This thread began here.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

An Iranian Child in an Israeli Cancer Ward

Haaretz has a touching story about a 12-year-old Iranian child who's apparently dying of cancer but has been brought to an Israeli hospital, international politics aside, as a last chance.

The story is unlikely ever to appear in any of the forums that regularly tell about how nasty Israel is in general and to Palestinian children in particular. On the other hand, should any of our own homegrown haters ever stumble across the story - you know, the Gideon Levys, Amria Hasses - well, they'll use the story to tell you how one-sided our propaganda machine is. Here we routinely crush Palestinians for the fun of it, and then run to the world to tell how great we are because we helped one Iranian child, who actually isn't more than a cynical fig-leaf.

The true irony is that the entire story, from top to bottom, is all wrong. Not the specifics about this poor child. I have no doubt about them. What's all wrong is not that he's a fig leaf for our general bestiality, but rather that there are so many of his sort that there's no story. In the case of this particular hospital I know, because my daughter spent two years of her life working in the same cancer ward this child is now in, and saw large numbers, not of Iranians, but of children from many nationalities including many Palestinians. (Before Hamas took over Gaza they were mostly from families connected to the PLO. And afterwords, they were mostly from families connected to Hamas, because now it was Hamas deciding who'd get sent to Israel, not the PLO - that's what she told me at the time: now let's see the Guardian get their minds around that concept).

But truthfully, I didn't need my daughter to know this. It's enough to visit my nearby hospital here in Jerusalem, which I've done rather a lot recently because of this and that: The proportion of Palestinians in the departments is quite high. Some of the staff are Arab too, because in spite of what they tell you, capable Arabs in Israel can be physicians just like anyone else, and then get jobs in "Jewish" hospitals.

So that's the real story: that Israelis routinely treat ailing Palestinians in their hospitals, and the number of Palestinians who have been healed by Israelis is vastly larger than the number of Palestinians ever injured or killed in the wars they've foisted on us.

Ah, and there's another story: that Iran may be reaching for nuclear power, for whatever reason, but until then Iranian children ought seek top-class medical care elsewhere. As ought children from just about the entire Arab world (Iran's not Arab, I know). When you start hearing about ailing Swiss children seeking succor from Syrian hospitals, or even Saudi ones, drop me a line.

Jewish Genetics

Hillel Halkin, who always has interesting things to say, discusses what the rather new science of genetic genealogy apparently tells us about the Jews. Bottom line: yes, the Jews came originally from the Middle East, just like they always said they did. But while they were away, there was a substantial amount of intermarriage with locals, whether through conversion, rape, or simple hanky-panky. Which isn't surprising either, human nature being what it is and always has been.

Traditional accounts of Jewish history, it would appear, are part true and part myth. Despite their dispersion in space and time, the Jews have continued to be that most curious (and in the eyes of many, preposterous) of combinations: at once a people or nation, fellow communicants in the world’s oldest monotheistic religion, and a family or tribe belonged to only by those born or married into it. They could not have remained such an amalgam had they not clung to strict rules of membership and admission.

Yet these rules were not observed everywhere or always. There were periods and places in which a blind eye was turned to them, most often when violations were not remediable. Had a rabbi arrived in Yemen or Bukhara soon after the founding of its Jewish community, he might have been able to insist on the halakhic conversion of its handful of Jews. But this would no longer have been practicable after several generations had gone by, especially since Yemenite and Bukharan Jews would have forgotten by then that their maternal progenitors were not halakhically Jewish and would have reacted with resentment to such a demand. Similarly, Khazars identifying themselves as Levites were accepted as such without inquiries into their past. It is an old rabbinic adage that one does not inflict demands on the public that the public is incapable of meeting. Better a tolerated myth than an intolerable truth.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

A Small Fortune in Israel

When I was a teenager the joke was that the way to make a small fortune in Israel was to bring a large one. Those were the days when American Jews were willing to donate money to Israel, but never to invest here.

That was then, and now is now. With stock markets the world over plunging in an interlocked world, the Tel Aviv exchange has been going up and down rather erratically, more down than up, but nothing serious compared to most of the big guys.

Or compared to the not-so-big-guys, either. Here's a report at the well-known-Zionist-propaganda-station, the BBC: Middle East stock markets plunge. It's the usual doom and gloom, except for this:
While billions of dollars were wiped off share values in the Arab world, the Israeli stock exchange rose sharply after the central bank cut interest rates...

Meanwhile Israel's TA-25 index rose by nearly 4% after the Bank of Israel announced a 0.5-point cut in its base rate to 3.75%. Its tech stock index performed even better with a rise of 6.75%.

OK, it's the stock market, what goes up today can go down tomorrow. But then again, perhaps we're really doing something right? Perhaps even better than most others? This might be why our economy has been growing faster than most of Europe and America since the beginning of the 1990s; it might explain why the Shekel insists on rising and rising and rising?

I'm not an economist by any measure, but here are some things that may have helped: we're still enjoying the effects of the gigantic wave of immigration from the disintegrating Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Binyamin Netanyahu's Milton-Friedman-inspired policies earlier this decade put new pizazz in the economy just as the effect of the immigration was beginning to wane. Hi-tech innovation fits perfectly with the chaotic insistance of Israelis never to do things the standard way if a short-cut can be devised, coupled with their intense determination to push so as to better their conditions.

Slichot at the Western Wall

Tomorrow is Yom Kippur, the culmination of 40 days of spiritual introspective reflection. We just got back from the Kotel (the Western Wall), where they've been saying slichot every night (except Fridays) for almost seven weeks; slichot being the (mostly medieval) prayers recited at this time of year. There were easily 50,000 people there, perhaps double, and with masses of people coming and going all night long the total will probably be 200-250,000. Who are they? Jews. Mostly Israelis, though you heard some English from the Teaneck crowd of young Modern-Orthodox students here for a year or two. I'd say that well more than half were non-religious, or at least non-religious in their daily lives. At about 11pm the sephardi Chief Rabbi arrived (or was it his far greater predecessor, the Rav Ovadia?) and one of his fellows was leading the services through the PA system, and it was clear that many of the obviously secular folks knew the services by heart. Ten of thousands of people singing together is quite impressive.

Meanwhile, large numbers of tourists were wandering round the old city (and not only the old city), hearing tales of Jerusalem. They'll get to the Wall later tonight. By tourists, I mean of course Israelis; the groups are mostly secular.

While tonight is probably more crowded than most, the phenomenon has been going on since Tisha Be'Av, exactly two months ago; it's a custom that has been growing year by year in popularity: some night in August or September the Israelis go up to Jerusalem, tour the city, and eventually, late at night, they converge for slichot at the Kotel. There's no way their number is smaller than 5-600,000 people, and it well may be more; this, from a Jewish population of about 6,000,000. That young Arab who ploughed his car into a group of soldiers late one night a few weeks ago: they weren't on duty, they were touring, and were on their way to the Kotel for slichot. Not that any of the foreign media mentioned this, because even had they known it's most likely a phenomenon they can't even begin to fathom.

But I expect the forbears of these tourists, the past 80-100 generations, they'd appreciate it.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Obama vs. McCain, Summary

The New Yorker has an editorial up that starts thus:

Never in living memory has an election been more critical than the one fast approaching— that’s the quadrennial cliché, as expected as the balloons and the bombast. And yet when has it ever felt so urgently true? When have so many Americans had so clear a sense that a Presidency has— at the levels of competence, vision, and integrity— undermined the country and its ideals?

The incumbent Administration has distinguished itself for the ages. The Presidency of George W. Bush is the worst since Reconstruction...

You're free to believe that, of course, but I don't. Not that the Bush's presidency has been the worst in 140 years, nor that the upcoming election is the most important in 80 years (that's Jan Assmann's definition of living memory in his seminal book Das kulturelle Gedaechtnis).

The NYT Magazine offers a rather more level-headed analysis. Michael R. Gordon tried to figure out what the two candidates really think about Iraq and where it needs to go:

The issue was barely discussed in last month’s foreign policy debate. But in recent interviews with The New York Times, the two candidates made clear that they would confront the challenge in starkly different ways.

In the interviews, Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain offered conflicting visions of how to shrink the American military presence in Iraq, the best way to encourage further political progress there and what it would mean to succeed after more than five years of war.

They also provided telling clues about how much flexibility the next commander in chief would grant to his generals...

Alas, I don't believe a word of that analysis, either. It's not that Gordon is out of touch with reality, as the editors of the New Yorker apparently may be. Rather, I don't see how anything the candidates have to say these days can be much of an indicator of what they'll do when they find themselves behind the desk where the buck stops. As a voter, I've been watching Israeli politicians for decades as they spend a lifetime saying whatever they say, with or without conviction, and then they do otherwise once they're prime minister. As an historian, I've been watching that happen for centuries, you could say. It's not that circumstances always force leaders into decisions irrespective of where they came from, but it's very often so; to a degree, it's almost always so. And some of the more obvious exceptions - Hitler is at the top of the list, but Lenin is on it also - are the kinds of leaders you'd rather not be living under.

So what's a chap to do? Unfortunately, it seems the best place to go these days is The Economist. If you want cool-headed and dispassionate analysis, that is. They offer large portions of it, most noticeably this week in a very long special report, here if you're reading online, in which case you need to keep on clicking at the end of each page, or here if you want to print it out and read off dead trees. They'll endorse a candidate on November 1st, and I get the feeling they'll endorse Obama, but I could be wrong. Their report is calm, balanced, nuanced, and informative. A-Mechaye, as they say in Yiddish.

Personally, I have decided to sit out this election. I always vote in Israeli elections, as a matter of principle, since it's my society and country. Although I'm a tax-paying American citizen, I don't live there, don't understand many of the issues, and won't pay the price for being wrong, so it seems a bit unethical to cast my vote in local or state-level ballots. Especially as I'm registered in California, where I've never ever lived. Presidential elections are different, however, especially the ones where foreign policy are central, so sometimes I do vote in them. But only when I feel strongly. This time I don't.

Why don't I, in spite of what the New Yorker tells me? First, because as I've said often enough, both McCain and Obama seem honorable men and worthy candidates. It's a choice between two good options.

Second, because of the Amotz Asael criteria. Asael, an Israeli journalist who went to school one year below me, he has suggested that from an Israeli perspective the single most important thing about an American president is that he (or she, someday) keep America powerful. And confident, I'd add. Does anyone know who'll do that better this time?

On the narrow "How would he relate to Israel" question, by the way, there's no discernable difference between the two, so far as I can see. On Iran, which is a crucial issue, I also can't see who will be better - we'll have to wait and see what happens when that buck comes to the Oval Office.

The economic issues I don't understand and rather doubt either of the candidates do, either. So it's a question of which of them will put together a better team of advisers, and then have the intelligence to overrule them. The only way to know that is by electing one of them and hoping.

Some of the cultural issues are beyond me and irrelevant to my life. Gun control, for example. The Swiss and Israelis both prove that you can have an armed populace with little violence, and the periodic rise and fall and rise of American crime doesn't seem much affected by the availability of guns, but I'd never vote for president based on such an issue, which has no connection to my life. I wouldn't vote because of same-sex marriages, either, even though I'm against them. I like the Israeli solution, which gives wide legal equality and freedom to homosexuals, and even recognizes partnerships for all sorts of purposes, but doesn't tamper with the institution of marriage, an institution which goes beyond the legal construct of two people living together.

Abortions are likewise not an issue I'd vote on, though I'm mostly against them but not always - which is the Jewish halachic position. Incest, rape, the real health of the mother (but not her "feelings"), these can all be reasons to abort what will otherwise become a living human being. Framing the issue as one of "choice", however, seems like a cop-out. It's a question of responsibility. If you don't want the responsibility for launching life, keep an aspirin pill between you knees, or whatever other system you prefer. Once it has happened, however, it has nothing to do with "a woman's control over her body", or her choices about what to do with it, since it's the child's life, not hers.

Anyway, the real issue is probably quite different anyway: who decides such matters, the (supreme) court, or the voters? I'm a staunch supporter of democracy, and don't think courts should decide such things. We've got this same question in the Israeli public discussion, with the same groups on each side: those who think they know the truth better than everybody but need the courts to decide because the voters just don't get it, versus those who want the polity to decide.

Yet before you write me off as a die hard Republican, I must add that when it comes to that other major issue in American politics, health insurance, I'm far to the left of them all. No matter what's going on with the economy right now, seen with historical perspective the United States is one of the richest societies in human history, perhaps the richest alongside Western Europe, which has been free of the costs of defending itself for decades because the Americans do it for them. There is no possible defense of the fact that millions of Americans don't have reasonable medical insurance. I don't care how it happened, who's to blame, or even which precise mechanism is chosen to rectify it, nor by which candidate or party. It has to be rectified. But I wouldn't vote on the issue because I don't understand the mechanics of fixing it, and anyway I mostly won't be paying for it nor using it. (Israel has a reasonably good universal health system).

So since I vote on foreign affairs, and have the feeling but not the certainty McCain is a safer bet, why not do what I always do in Israel: focus my attention on all the available data until I can make a decision? Because Obama is black.

On October 16th 1901 - that's 107 years ago next week - President Theodore Roosevelt invited Dr. Booker T. Washington to join him for dinner at the White House. Washington was black, it was an unprecedented event, and Roosevelt drew so much public ire for his audacity that he never repeated it. More than 60 years later, President Lyndon Johnson, he who was hounded out of the White House because the Baby Boomers couldn't stomach his foreign war, was braver than Teddy Roosevelt, and did more than is reasonable to expect from a politician. Barack Obama needs to be qualified enough to do the job; the color of his skin isn't a reason to vote him into the most difficult job on earth. Since I'm not convinced he's qualified enough, I'm not going to vote for him. But then again, I'm not convinced he isn't qualified enough, and actually think that after a disastrous 18-24 months he may learn to do it well; add his race to that and I don't see how I could vote against him.

PS. There is one twist that could make Obama far the better choice. If, as I rather expect, his foreign policies will be closer to what I think they should be, and further from those the Guardian is so fervently praying for, this will have a salutary effect on the way the world operates. McCain can't do that, because he'll always have at least 45% of Americans and 80% of everyone else against his foreign policy.

Creativity Under Persecution

Mishna: When someone has been thrown into a pit, and only his voice can be heard saying "Give my wife a divorce", whoever hears him may write a get (divorce letter) and give it to the wife.

The Gemara then goes into what I insist is a humorous discussion: What if the man's voice is being impersonated by a demon? When the observers saw a human form. Maybe the demon impersonated the human form, also? When they saw the form's shadow. Maybe the demon impersonated the shadow, also? Rabbi Hanina countered with by telling that his son Yonatan told him demons don't have shadows.

At which point one of the rabbis from the school of Rabbi Yishmael put an end to the fooling around, and reminded everyone that it's a serious subject: at a time of widespread persecution, it's necessary to stretch the rules in order not to have women stuck in uncertainty and legal limbo.

You can literally hear the jokers with the black humor - after all, they also know how bad things are, but refuse to be cowed by it; the last fellow is too serious for such things.

The next page adds another dimension to the dire situation and the rabbi's insitence on defining the law no matter how bad things are: in a discussion about how many men need to hear the wish of the husband in order to allow them to write a get, Rabbi Meir has an opinion which is then reinforced by the opinion of rabbi Hanina of Ono, even though he has to send it from his cell in a Roman jail, where he was awaiting execution for his part in the insurgency.

Gitim 65a,b

This thread began here.

Friday, October 3, 2008

See'ya later, Sarah Palin

Vice Presidential candidates are important, I'm told, three times only. The day they're chosen, at the convention, and at the VP debate. Well, Sarah did fine at the first, even better at the second, and my impression (I didn't watch) is that she did quite well at the third.

And that's the end of that. It's pretty clear her boss is going to come in second, which means that on a Wednesday in early November she'll be going back to Wassila, a place none of us had ever heard of until 5 weeks ago. I expect, however, that once there she'll take out a subscription to the NYT, the Economist, and a few other important news outlets. She then has about two and a half years to work on her main weakness this time, namely that she knows nothing about the world and not too much about the USA. She seems intelligent, so 30 months will easily be enough to fix that. Expect her to be back with a vengeance next time round, perhaps even taking on President Obama himself.

In which case, John McCain's most important legacy at the presidential level will have been to invent Sarah Palin. Whether this will be good or not, I have not the faintest idea.