Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009 Summary

I'll be going offline soon. A member of our clan, a young man who fought in Gaza in the same brigade as our son Achikam, is getting married. A year ago his father and I were exchanging tidbits of information seeping out; tonight we'll dance.

An item on the news earlier this afternoon told how in 2009 the number of young Israeli Arabs volunteering to do National Service (a non-military alternative to military service) has more than doubled. Maybe we're doing something right.

The Shin-Bet has the numbers for terrorism in 2009. Not many countries in the free world would live well with such numbers, but compared to what we've been having all decade it has been a good year. I think 1997-98 were similar, more or less, but before that you've got to go back to the mid-1980s for numbers as good as these.

The Israeli economy did better than the experts expected. GDP grew by 0.5%, but keep in mind that it was 2009, and we're not China. Unemployment is at 7.7%.

There are 7,509,000 Israelis living here, give or take a few. The Jewish birthrate is inching up, the Arab birthrate is inching down, and the 4.3% of non-Jews, most of whom are non-halachically Jews from the former USSR, are still on track to disappear into the Jewish surroundings over time. Demographically, it's a young country compared with most rich democracies.

I once wrote here that after all the excitement, vituperation and turmoil, Israeli society needs to be measured by three criteria, in rising order of significance:
1. Is the economy stronger than the previous year. (Guarded yes).
2. Did Jewish creativity have a good year. (You bet).
3. Are there more Jews here than a year previously. (Yes).

So it has been a good year.

Fatuousness in Cairo

Phil Weiss will probably soon travel back to New Jersey and interest me less than he has this week, but for the meanwhile he continues to purvey high quality silliness from Cairo. It has been most helpful in getting a feel for the roots of the man's positions and those of his ilk.

Here's his most recent column. The quandary this time is whether to send 100 demonstrators to Gaza, as the Egyptians have allowed, or not.
Over the last week, as the international marchers arrived in Egypt, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry made it very clear that it did not want them going into Gaza, and it would arrest them short of that goal. But these 1400 are not tourists or milquetoasts, they are activists; and they were not going to be stopped by any old Ministry, even the ministry of a police state.
Awesome. Then the Epyptian said some could go, but most not.
Over the next 4 hours I witnessed agony and torment, and said a secret blessing that I had not tried to get on the buses last night. A crowd of those opposed to the 100 stood outside barricades set up around the buses and shouted "All or none!" and "Get off the Bus!" It turned out that they had many confederates among the 100 who boarded the buses– confederates who at a signal marched off the buses, some giving heroic speeches.

The people staying on the buses leaned out the doors to say that the Gazans wanted them to come so as to to join their march to the Israeli border on the 31st. But they wavered. Indeed, you saw some of the most resolute activists on the planet—Bernardine Dohrn, the law professor and former member of the Weather Underground; Ali Abunimah of Electronic Intifada; and Donna Mulhearn, an Australian woman who was a human shield during the beginning of he Iraq war, board the bus and get it off it, and then board it again and get off it, and on and on.

Weathermen, huh? Maybe these demonstrators are a wee bit more sinister than they let on. Here, I thought they were thoughtful people who've been carefully weighing the facts and trying to do the right thing in a complicated situation, while unfortunately reading too many counter-factual reports and so getting into the wrong positions.

Abunimah, who had been roughed up by security at the American Embassy yesterday, told me it was the hardest decision he’d ever had to make. It was an individual decision, he had no clarity on it, and no one could tell you what to do, and he respected the decisions of all parties. Mulhearn said that going to Iraq in 2003 had been easy compared to this; for that choice was in the face of physical danger and she would take that any day, this was in the face of moral doubt.

Moral doubt, yeah, that's hard. Fortunately most of us manage to get through life without much of it, and even then rarely on the level of actually getting on a bus to demonstrate. That must have been tough.

Dohrn said that the principle of "All or none" was a miserable one for activist politics. You always took what you could get and kept fighting for more. A European man in a red keffiyeh screamed at her that she was serving the fascisti. Her partner Bill Ayers gently confronted him and asked him why he was so out of control. Between getting on and off the bus, Dohrn, who wore a flower in her hair, said that she didn’t like the absolutist certainty of the people on the other side of the police barricades, and having been in the Weather Underground, she knew something about absolutist feeling.

Dohrn. Ayers. Now wait. I've seen those names somewhere. Israel must be doing something right if these are her enemies.

Yet I remind readers that good things are arising from this experience. The Americans, who are so conditioned to living with the Israel lobby, as an abused wife to her battering husband, are being exposed to a more adamant politics—we are having a rendezvous with the Freedom Riders. For another thing, our direct actions and demonstrations seem to be awaking Egypt, a little, and getting a lot of publicity. Helen Schiff told me that the front page of an official government newspaper today said, "Mubarak to Netanyahu: Lift the siege and end the suffering of the Palestinian people." We gave him that line! she said. A longtime civil rights activist, Helen told me it’s "fabulous" what happened, we are achieving more in Cairo than we would if we had gotten into Gaza.

Freedom Riders. Now that's an admirable role model, we can certainly agree on that. Young citizens willing to be arrested, beaten up, and indeed to risk their lives in a very real way, so as to heal their society of its worst affliction. That's quite a mantle Phil's claiming, isn't it. And note also that the demonstrators have been handing Mubarak his lines! (But not enough to have him let them travel to Gaza).

So there’s a tumultuous and ascendant feeling here tonight, in the little hotels that we have to meet in to make our plans. I can feel the spirit of the Freedom Riders and of the abolitionists, who fought the limits on freedom of movement of black people for so long in my country. As for the divisions, and bitterness, I think they will go away. A European friend advised me tonight that those who take the Palestinian side will find that they share somewhat in the Palestinian experience. They will experience isolation, division, bitterness, failure, contempt, manipulation. Surely not on the scale of the Palestinians; still, they will experience some of those things, and they will grow from them.

Freedom Riders move over, it's the abolitionists now. Of course, these brave folks will of course be called upon to endure great suffering in the little hotel rooms they've got to meet in, but that's how it is with the movers and shakers of history and justice.

There's something almost endearing, in a wistful sort of way, about the way Phil Weiss (and his readers) seek the confirmation of historical greatness. No, he's not Martin Luther King, of course (who is? Khaled Meshaal perhaps?). Yet if he can be a foot-soldier and chronicler of the Movement, that will satisfy him. As long as his grandchildren or theirs look back at him someday with awe for his far-sightedness and bravery.

Actually, I know the feeling, and that's what makes Phil Wiess so weird. He could easily join us.

The Geography of Mandatory Palestine

Last time I talked to him, Seth Frantzman was completing his doctoral dissertation in geography. He had been digging up old maps and traveling around the country, trying to figure out the stories of the many Palestinian villages which were gone after the 1947-48 war. As you'd expect, careful examination of factual evidence was giving a different story than the boilerplate accusations regularly aimed at Israel. I told him I hoped he'd soon finish, and I'd love to read the whole dissertation.

If the Jerusalem Post is to be believed, either he still isn't finished or perhaps a committee of professors hasn't yet finished their reading. Still, in today's column he gives a little taste of the sort of things he was coming up with. I recommend.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Apartheid Deconstruction

The Americans seem to have run into a spot of bother with these attacks on airplanes. Patting people down at airports won't stop terrorist with explosive underpants, for that you need invasive means of screening such as making informed but potentially offending assumptions about individual people in front of you (the Israeli method), or using whizbang technologies that make some folks squeamish. It's a problem, to be honest, this matter of balancing rights such as privacy vs life when the privacy will be violated always (if you're squeamish) but terrorists will be apprehended only rarely (how many of them are there, after all). Would that the world were simpler.

Balancing is of course part of life. Here:
Israel’s Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that a major access highway to Jerusalem running through the occupied West Bank could no longer be closed to most Palestinian traffic. In a 2-to-1 decision, the court said the military overstepped its authority when it closed the road to non-Israeli cars in 2002, at the height of the second Palestinian uprising. The justices gave the military five months to come up with another means of ensuring the security of Israelis that permitted broad Palestinian use of the road.“The court was saying that you can’t reasonably find every Palestinian inhabitant to be a security risk,” said Moshe Negbi, a legal commentator for Israel Radio, in a telephone interview. “The security considerations are legitimate, but they have to find other solutions.”
Let's see if we can disentangle the various strands of this story.

First, this is not about the roadblocks in the West Bank that were making life unpleasant for Palestinians between 2001-2008, but saved lots of lives on both sides. If you look at this screen-shot I made from Google Earth, you'll see that the 443 road (I highlighted it in light blue) merely cuts across a corner of the West Bank on the way from Modi'in to Jerusalem. Of the millions of Palestinians who need the freedom to move around the West Bank, no more than thousands, perhaps a few tens of thousands, are going to use this road: the ones who live alongside it and wish to reach Ramallah faster than on their local roads.

For most of history the route taken by 443 was the main road to Jerusalem. The story in the book of Joshua about the sun standing in the Ayalon valley happened here. The Hasmoneans had a big battle with Seleucid troops whom they were trying to block from reaching Jerusalem - on this route. The Romans paved the road, and you can see sections of their pavement to this very day. The Crusaders marched to Jerusalem on this route.

It was only in the 20th century, with the advent of motorized vehicles that weren't bothered by climbs, that the main road to Jerusalem moved a few miles to the south. The present route of highway 1 makes three climbs and two descents on the way up to Jerusalem, while the ancient road climbs once. However, as highway 1 became congested in the 1970s, traffic moved naturally to the ancient route, which was paved by the British and meandered through the center of a number of villages. This wasn't politics, it was simply drivers seeking the shortest drive. There was a well-paved highway with traffic jams, and a by-road without them. In the 1980s the Israeli authorities decided to follow the public behavioiur and pave a highway that wouldn't go through the center of three or four villages. In those days such road-paving projects were happening all over the country.

Of course, in this case the road went through a corner of the West Bank, and these particular villagers were Palestinians. Whenever a highway gets paved someone's private property is lost, and this often goes through the courts - in every normal country. Here, however, the lawyers arguing the case were not out to ensure the highest compensation for their clients, but the Civil Rights brigade, who use human rights to cloak their political agenda. They'd never dream of regarding land confiscations for the new road up to Safed as a human rights issue, but will swear their only reason for arguing against plans to pave 443 is human rights.

As you can see from the next screen shot, there are seven affected villages. The state argued that they, like everyone else, would benefit from using the snazzy new road, and the court allowed the project. When the new road opened, each village had its own connecting road feeding into 443. The section of the road that goes through the West Bank is 13 kilometers long.

Just for coincidental context, here are two items from today's New York Times, both dealing with conflicts between locals and large projects. This one is from North Dakota, and this is from China. Don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying the paving of route 443 was an innocuous case of civil differences of opinion and confiscation of land for public purposes. The bi-national conflict really was there, and is. But it's not the reason for the road's being put there, and it cast banal considerations into highly charged terms.

Someday, if Israelis and Palestinians ever manage to agree on partition, there will be a road connecting the Palestinian West Bank and Palestinian Gaza strip. Laying down that road will require confiscation of land from Israeli farmers. Don't expect the Association of Civil Rights to come to their defense, of course, and even if they do the confiscations should still happen. National considerations are often stronger than individual ones. My understanding of the Olmert proposal of September 16th 2008 was that route 443 would remain under Israeli control (but not the villages alongside it), as a corollary to that Palestinian road.

Tragically, when the Palestinians launched the second intifada, they also began killing Israelis on route 443. Six Israelis were murdered on the road between after 2001, and also one Palestinian from Jerusalem whose car, naturally, had an Israeli license plate. Part of the Israeli response was to prevent Palestinian vehicles from using the road. This measure, along with many others, was eventually crowned with success, the second Intifada was defeated, and lives on both sides were saved. This was good, make no mistake. It also promoted the ultimate human rights.

The question is, for how long. Defensive and preventive measures that were clearly justifiable when the level of violence was high, do they remain justifiable once the violence is over? The families of the victims and the mayor of Modi'in, along with the army, would all like the measures to remain in place. The villagers want to use the highway. The supreme court has carefully accepted the position of the villagers, but has given the army five months to devise alternative security measures before opening the road to the villagers: the court recognizes that there may still be a danger, but thinks it's time to balance it.

And ACRI, those proud campaigners of human rights irrespective of politics? As their spokeswoman says: it's occupied territory. Interestingly, she doesn't suggest that the Israelis plow up the road so the villagers can go back to where they would have been had the occupation not intervened. As she sees it, since the Israelis have paved the road, the Palestinian villagers mush have access to it, but the Israelis: not.

Dead Children at War

A team of official Afghan investigators has determined that NATO forces killed eight children last week in the Narang district, after NATO officials claimed they had killed only insurgents. As I never tire of saying, such tragedies are inevitable at wartime, warring powers need to do their best not to make such mistakes, but the deaths of innocents are not the single, critical component of the justness of a war.

The item also contains some UN figures on civilian deaths in Afghanistan between January and October 2009 - i.e not including the deaths of those children who were killed in December:
The latest figures released by the United Nations show that 2,021 civilian died during clashes in the first 10 months of this year, up from 1,838 for the same period last year. Taliban insurgents were blamed for 68 percent of the deaths this year — three times more than NATO forces, according to the U.N. (Actually, 68% is twice as many, not thrice- ed)
Since the article helpfully doesn't quite do the maths, I'll do it for them. 32% of 2,021 is 646.72 dead civilians, killed by NATO forces in Afghanistan by the end of October this year, or 65 a month, or two a day. Afghanistan is mostly a rural place, not densely populated.

It looks to me, reading the UN numbers, as if NATO killed about the same number of civilians in Afghanistan this year as Israel did in Gaza, though the Gaza numbers may be a bit higher or lower depending on whom you ask. But the magnitude is similar.

The Solidarity March For Afghanistan will be setting out soon, I expect. Mondoweiss will have the details.

Mondoweiss: We're Liberating the World

Adam Horowitz (he's the Mondo half of Mondoweiss) is apparently also in Cairo, and is attributing a new success to the 1300 enemies of Israel camped out on its streets. Apparently some Egyptians held a demonstration yesterday, with Arab-language placards, not English ones, demanding - so far as I can make out - more liberty in Egypt. This, Horowitz tells us, may be a sign of the success of the thwarted Gaza marchers, that they may yet bring down the autocratic regime of Egypt.

Let's pretend, if we can, not to notice the hubris of some foreigners flying into Cairo and showing the Cairenes how to do protest and democracy. It seems to me that if it's freedom liberty and democracy you're trying to create, there are any number of possible things to be demonstrating about these days. Iran comes to mind, or Zimbabwe, or Russia, or any number of other places. Trying to bolster freedom and democracy - or even plain decency - by bolstering the antisemitic, anti-democratic anti-liberal and anti-human regime of Hamas seems a bit odd.

US Administration: Politics, not Lawfare

The Obama administration, just like the Bush administration before it, isn't interested in allowing a damages case against the Palestinian Authority for the murder of an American citizen, Esh Kodesh Gilmore, in 2000. Of course, the government shouldn't be the one to decide that sort of thing, you'd think, but the reality is that it does, even in the United States.

There's also the ironic twist, not mentioned in the news item, that Gilmore was murdered by Palestinians while guarding the East Jerusalem office of Bituach Leumi, the Israeli equivalent of Social Security - i.e, the place that pays large sums of money to Palestinians in East Jerusalem who aren't even Israeli citizens, as has been mentioned here in the past. Makes you wonder who the Palestinian murderer thought he was attacking.

Personally, I support the administration's position. Gilmore's murder was part of a political struggle, not a bank robbery, and the trial is intended to impinge upon a political process. The American government - a political entity through and through, by definition - wishes to keep the lawfare part out of the politics part. So long as they do so consistently, they're right. It would be pleasant for once to see our enemies squirming on the lawfare defendant's bench, but it wouldn't make the world a better place. Lawfare is a bad thing, no matter which side is doing it.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Blindness in Cairo

The story of the 1,300 demonstrators stuck in Cairo continues not to attract much attention. The Guardian, generally exuberant in seeking vehicles to cast mud at Israel, doesn't seem to be noticing: I think this is because they're embarrassed. Even the editors of the Guardian don't see how the tale can be told without somehow attracting attention that it's the Egyptians, not the Israelis, who are doing the blockading. The BBC visited the story yesterday, but seems not to have returned today. Been there, done that.

The Mondoweis universe is, of course, bursting: Electronic Intifada, Antony Loewnstein, those folks (but not Richard Silverstein, for whatever reason). I continue to be fascinated by Mondoweiss itself. Yesterday they offered us the reflections of Emily Ratner:
We remember the more than 1,400 that were murdered. We remember the hundreds more who have died as a result of this horrific siege. We remember the tens of thousands who are still homeless, one full year later. And we remember our sisters and brothers on the other side of the Rafah border who have breathed life into this historic march every day for months, who have guided our feet to Cairo, and who light the shadowy path to Gaza. Most of all we remember that they will still be caged in Israel’s massive open-air prison long after we’ve safely returned home.
She sees the Egyptians blocking her, but her hatred of the Israeli prison is unaffected. She's in Cairo, for crying out loud, a city where millions live in squalid cinder-block structures under an undemocratic regime, and in the dimmest way she even knows this, but what comes out is a mishmash of romantic verbiage:
The Egyptian government taunts us, encouraging us to enjoy the tourist attractions Cairo offers during our mandatory stay in the city. And some of us do. We even take Gaza with us: Yesterday, Abdullah Anar, a Turkish Muslim, and Max Geller, an American Jew, raced up the face of one of the pyramids to unveil a 12 meter by 6 meter Palestinian flag. For about three minutes one of the most resilient structures on earth proudly called the name of one of the world’s most unbreakable people. We smuggle stories like this one through the tunnels connecting our hearts, exposing them in whispered reminders of the beauty and truth in this struggle, and the unending patience and flexibility we are slowly learning from our friends in Gaza.
Tunnels connecting hearts in beauty. Do you think she can image real people, living real lives?

Ratner is young, I"m told, not that that's much of an excuse: she's of my childrens' generation, and since they've all carried life and death responsibility by now, they don't need to wallow in such nonsense. Phil Weiss, however, is my age, more or less and can't cite youth to defend his malice.
No one here is talking about the two-state solution or land swaps. They know what the Goldstone report says–those missiles aimed at houses with sleeping children–and they are morally clear on the question. They reflect an international consensus: the end of patience for war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and an ideology of Jewish exceptionalism supported by western governments. Those governments have failed to act so we are speaking out as civil society
At the end of his report Weiss is quite revealing:

We didn’t do what the brave French did, and try to claim the UN plaza with sleeping bags and tents, but when we left we sang We Shall Overcome, mingling the American civil rights anthem with this international cause. Gaza will be free-ee-ee. No it doesn’t look like we will be getting into Gaza, still we are doing important work in Cairo, to transform ourselves and our presence on the world stage. (my italics)

It's all about ME, isn't it, Phil. At the end of the day, it's an exercise in narcissism.

An Opportunity to Bash Israel! Wow!

The Guardian is engaged in a series of daily reports from Gaza, commemorating the Israeli operation of last year. Here's one of the series, predictably telling how awful Israel was and is.

Commemorating the anniversary of a news event is standard, especially if there isn't much else going on and you've got to fill your pages or time-slots. Revisiting an event day after day after day for the duration of the original event is, however, a bit odd.

2009 was a bloody year, as these things go. There was lots of violence in Sri Lanka, in various corners of Africa, not to mention big chunks of southern Asia. Pakistan ousted millions of its own citizens from their homes; no-one knows how many innocents they killed because no-one thought to ask. And the list goes on.

Don't expect daily re-screening of any of these events. Most of them didn't attract much of the Guardian's attention the first time around; re-visiting them a year later would be inconceivable.

Sorry for boring you.

Construction in Jerusalem

The White House is peeved at Israeli plans to build 700 apartments in East Jerusalem (well, north and south-east Jerusalem). So are the Swedes, if you care, and more significantly, so are the moderate Palestinians who are Israel's putative negotiating partners.

The Mondoweiss universe is derisive, but the sun also rises in the east, so that's OK.

Jeffrey Goldberg gives some context, but still regrets the decision.
I understand the impulse behind the building of these housing units. They are going up in areas that no one -- Israeli, Palestinian, or American -- believes will become part of the Palestinian state. They are being built on land that will be swapped for territory now under Israeli sovereignty. The Netanyahu government, under pressure from the Obama Administration, is trying to solidify even further -- these neighborhoods are already thickly-built -- Israel's claim to these places. So the impulse is understandable, but Netanyahu shouldn't give in to this impulse, for two reasons. One, he will never please the settlers and their partisans in the cabinet. They will always demand more. Two, building like this, and right now, undermines Israel's relationship with the United States, at a crucial moment. Next year may be the year of decision on the Iranian nuclear program, which Netanyahu calls an existential threat to his country. You would think that he would want the strongest possible bond just now with the American president. But this new building binge only serves to alienate the President, and for what? Does Israel's existence depend on these 700 apartments?
I like Jeffrey, and once told him I agree with him 88% of the time. In this case I fully understand his position, which unlike the Swedish one is well-informed, but beg to disagree.

These neighborhoods are not and never will be part of a Palestinian state. There are more than 100,000 Jews living in them. Adding 700 apartments for, say, 3,500 people in neighborhoods that already have 100,000, shouldn't be a news item; demanding that 100,000 people not expand merely as a symbolic tactic should be newsworthy for its peculiarity.

The fundamental problem with the demand is that it emphasizes how very shaky the prospects of peace are, so shaky that Israel is required to make-believe and pretend so as to create an undefinable positive atmosphere.

Peace between Israel and Palestine will succeed only if everyone honestly accepts what it's about, and sincerely accepts the compromises both sides will be required to make. That means the Israelis accept that the Palestinians be sovereign and the occupation truly end; it means the Palestinians accept we're here to stay and don't need their permission to live our national life. Pretending that new apartments in Pisgat Zeev somehow offend Palestinian sensibilities merely demonstrates that Palestinians still hope we'll not be there eventually.

Another way to put this is that peace must be achieved by adults.


David Newman tells about the Limmud phenomenon, where thousands of Jews of all stripes (except the leaders of the Haredi community) get together for an intensive week of learning about all matters Jewish, taking advantage of the Goyishe holidays and empty college campuses.

And despite this early, cold, uninviting hour, most of the lecture halls are full with people who have decided to spend the Christmas week in a program of intense, voluntary study. There will be classes on almost every possible topic relating to Jewish culture, religion, history and literature, as well as discussions and lectures on anti-Semitism, Israel, liturgy, prayer - just think of a topic and it is there. There will also be films, evening events, concerts and, for those who wish, an entire weekend Shabbat program prior to the commencement of the main conference.
I once participated in the Australian version, which is smaller than the UK original, and can testify that the copy was very impressive, so the original must be even more so. A week of learning: what could be more Jewish than that?

Near the end of his report, Newman wonders why there's no Israeli equivalent:
Limmud has also become international. In recent years, similar conferences have been organized in almost every part of the globe where there are significant Jewish communities. But the one place where it has been tried but never really taken off is in Israel. While many Israelis attend the annual event in the UK, their subsequent attempts to create similar meetings here have met with only limited success.

The idea that so many different people, professing so many different affiliations and attachments to Judaism and the Jewish world, could sit in one place and politely listen to each other, exchange views and learn from each other seems to go against Israel's non-pluralistic norm. Or perhaps it is the mistaken attitude that we in Israel don't have anything to learn about Judaism and Jewish ideas from the Diaspora. But ask any of the Israeli teachers, rabbis and professors who attend Limmud and they will all tell you what an exhilarating and refreshing experience it is.

I don't know how Israeli Jewry can be construed in any way as non-pluralistic. The variety of Jewish expression thriving within one mile of the Jerusalem room I'm sitting in right now is greater than at any time since before the destruction of the Second Temple (I mean it). He's right, of course, that Israelis are not capable of politely listening to one another, I'll grant that. Whether the idea comes from abroad or not is irrelevant to the local success, I'd think: you don't decide to go to a conference or not because there have been previous ones elsewhere.

I expect the failure of the Limmud model in Israel stems from a combination of factors. There's no equivalent "week off" in Israel except in August, but then anyone with children (=most people) go off to the beach or wherever the kids demand. There's no real reason to dedicate a week to reinforcing one's "Jewishness". There are ample opportunities to learn Jewish stuff all year round. There must be 12 other reasons. Still, he's right: there is no Limmud in Israel, and it's too bad.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Yet Another Tenth of Tevet

Yesterday was the Tenth of Tevet, an ancient day of mourning which is still unbearably contemporary. Since the Jewish and Gregorian calenders are not fully aligned, last year this day fell on January 6th, two weeks into the Gaza Operation. It was a grim day, as I described then.

As last year so also this year, our synagogue had one of the old-timers tell how he survived the Holocaust. Concurrently, however, in a different room, there was a commemoration event for Nitai Stern - the same Nitai whose funeral I wrote about last year. His grandfather is a member of our congregation. Before going to the main event I chatted briefly with Reuven, Nitai's father. "Let next year be better for you than the last one".

The Holocaust survivor telling his tale this year was Baruch. Baruch, a simple 85-year-old man, has been the chief gabai at this synagogue for decades. The direct translation of gabai is deacon, but my minimal familiarity with church matters doesn't let me say if the translation works. A gabai such as Baruch, at any rate, is the person who makes the synagogue run, the all-purpose-fellow without whom the congregation would grind to a halt. Not only has he been at it for decades, Baruch manages also never to fight with anyone, a feat which is theoretically impossible. So the hall he was speaking in was packed, with hundreds of people from 8-year-olds to sages in their mid-90s.

Baruch has never told his story in public. As the rabbi explained: "Everyone knows Baruch. Whenever I'd ask him to tell, he'd say 'what for. Everything's alright, and we need to keep on going'". What made this year different was that one of Baruch's granddaughters, a woman in her 20s, refused to accept his stubbornness, sat him down in front of a camera and forced him to talk. People in the field will tell you it's often so: Holocaust survivors who refused to talk for generations open up when their grandchildren demand it. So the evening was based on the film, and Baruch himself sat in the front row, surrounded by his children and grandchildren (the great-grandchildren stayed at home).

It started out a simple tale, in simple language. Baruch really isn't a talker. Much of the tale was punctuated by ever-repeated comments that "well, we had to keep on going". Yet it grew ever more riveting, eventually centering on two events. The first, a death march in April 1945, when 2,000 people left Buchenwald, and two (two) were liberated in May by the Russians. Baruch was half of the one tenth of one percent who survived.

The second event was the battle for Gush Etzion in April-May 1948. Baruch had made his way to Mandatory Palestine, found his way to the Gush, and participated in the bloody battles which resulted in the destruction of the Gush on May 14th 1948, at which point he fell into Jordanian captivity and remained there for 10 months. "When we returned to Jerusalem in March 1949 we were received by Ben Gurion who told us our battle had saved Jerusalem by holding off the Arab Legion for those two weeks. Well, and then it was time to keep on going". So he did. And still does.

We all do, as we have been for millennia, pausing each Tenth of Tevet but then continuing. According to Haaretz, in 2009 the number of new immigrants to Israel was 16,244. It's not a very big number, but it's up from 13,859 last year. Sasa, a left-wing kibbutz a few miles south of the Lebanese border, has inched into first place worldwide in supplying armoured vehicles that can withstand anything the Islamists throw at American troops. I recommend the item behind that link: it has some interesting observations in it.

Rabbi Jutner Says...

The Forward continues to follow the spat that began last week when Hannah Rosenthal, the new Antisemitism Czar(ina) in the Obama administration, rebuked Michael Oren for not being nice to J Street. It's not an important story, and I don't expect to come back to it.

The reason I'm posting on it at all is that among the readers who commented on the Forward's item is one Rabbi Tony Jutner, who writes, and I quote with no embellishments:

I agree with both Norman,s and as leader of New Judaism, I can comfortably state that I represent most American Jews. Judaism demands social justice, and that means supporting the Palestinians in all of their aspirations, including the Right of Return. The Jewish people need to make the ultimate sacrifice by giving up zionism and therefore usher in a golden age of peace for all. The international community of world citizens demands it

I don't know who this fellow is, nor can I say if he's for real or perhaps spoofing. The spoofing possibility looks plausible to me, given the utter clarity of the position he espouses: no ifs, buts, simply dismantle Israel and world peace will happen. So I asked Professor Google if she knows the rabbi, and she doesn't, but she did dig up a comment he left on an earlier Forward item:

I wont support Israel as long as it is a flawed country. San Francisco is my Jerusalem.

Well, glad we've clarified that, then.

Queen Victoria's Granddaughter Complicates Jerusalem

Rule of thumb number one when dealing with Jerusalem: There will always be significant parts of its story you've never heard of. First Corollary to the First Rule of Thumb: These previously unnoticed things will have weighty contemporary implications. First Golden Rule stemming from the First Corollary to the First Rule of Thumb: Things will always be more complicated than you expected.

I've been living here, mostly on and occasionally off, for more than 40 years, watching closely and always fascinated the whole time. I don't regard myself as more than a modestly knowledgeable observer, however. Here's a story - from the Economist, of all places - the general outlines of which I've known for a long time, but never in so much detail. It's about a granddaughter of Queen Victoria (remember her? She died in 1901, aged 82) who was murdered in the Russian Revolution and serves as an anchor for Vladimir Putin's very considerable interest in Jerusalem.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Immunity to Facts

Well below the radar of most media, there's a fascinating drama happening in Egypt. Yesterday the BBC did take note, in a telegraphic tone:
Egypt has rejected a request to allow activists to march across the border into the Gaza Strip to mark the anniversary of last year's conflict.

The Egyptian foreign ministry said the march could not be allowed because of the "sensitive situation" in Gaza.

Over 1,000 activists from 42 countries had signed-up to join "the Gaza freedom march" planned for next week.

Egypt warned that anyone attempting the crossing from Egypt would be "dealt with by the law".

Mondoweiss have been on the story for a while, and Phil Weiss has apparently gone to Egypt, perhaps to convince the Egyptians it's bad PR for them to be on Israel's side, I don't know. Recently they posted a letter from the organizers of the march to President Mubarak, which contains a number of fine demonstrations of pure Orwellian Newspeak:
As individuals who believe in justice and human rights, we have spent our hard-earned, and sometimes scarce, resources to buy plane tickets, book hotel rooms and secure transportation only to stand in solidarity with the Palestinians of Gaza living under a crushing Israeli blockade...
It is practically impossible, this late in the game, to stop all these people from travelling to Egypt, even if we wanted to. Moreover, most have no plans in Egypt other than to arrive at a predetermined meeting point to head together to the Gaza border. If these plans are cancelled there will be a lot of unjustified suffering for the Palestinians of Gaza and over a thousand internationals who had nothing in mind but noble intentions. (My italics)
I don't know if the Egyptians will relent in the end or not (if so it must be this week). One way or the other, they have already disproved the central tenet of the demonstrators, namely that Israel and Israel alone is to blame for everything and anything. Not that you'd ever know this from listening to the putative demonstrators.

From Idiocy to Farce

In the previous post I lambasted our narcissistic thin-skinned far-lefties who never tire of telling the world how awful we are, but have convinced themselves that a couple of irate murmurs by grumpy politicians who dislike them signify the end of freedom of speech in Israel.

One of the fellows cited in the Guardian article is Michael Sfarad:
"There has been a huge change in the way the government treats those who dissent," says Michael Sfard, an Israeli lawyer representing several human rights groups. This process, he adds, has accelerated in the year since the attacks in Gaza: "The gloves have come off."
(The man's name, of course, is Sfarad, not Sfard, which would be like a referring to Gordon Brawn, but why be nitpicky).

In a case of perfect timing, Sfarad demonstrates how his allegation has no factual base. Today of all days, while he's moaning to the Guardian that the nasty Israelis are blocking his right of free speech, Y-net - Israel's most popular news website, no less - gives him a platform to tell us that during the Gaza operation we finally rid ourselves of the yoke of morality, and we wallowed blissfully in wanton murder, barbarity and bestiality.

The mildly funny part of the story is that I could go through his litany of horrors and disprove them with quotations from the Goldstone Report, so outlandish is his tone. The hilarious part, though, is that he's forgotten that the way he tells it, our repression brigade should be blocking him from saying all these things. How inept of them.

Y-net, fortunately, doesn't see the need to translate this spite into English, so it remains an insider's joke.

It's the Repression, Stupid

The Observer section of the Guardian website offers an innovative way to spin the weekend's story of violence in the West Bank. It starts just as you'd expect it to: Israel is shooting Palestinians, jeopardizing the cease fire and generally being its usual vicious self. Yes, there's a quick mention that the Israeli action in Nablus might be connected to the shooting of a settler, but the journalist races by that point in the fourth paragraph and never returns.

Then the fun begins. 14 of 20 paragraphs of the item report how Israel is clamping own on its own human rights organizations.

The shootings have come as Israeli human rights campaigners issued a stinging critique of how Israelis who opposed the war in Gaza have been treated by the state, claiming that they have been silenced, accused and vilified. In its annual report, the Association of Civil Rights in Israel states: "Instead of taking an honest look at its reflection, Israeli society and its institutions chose to smash the mirror."

I sometimes try to keep my language reasonable and civil. This line of argumentation, however, is so far beyond idiocy, that it can't be fudged. First, note that there's no news in the item: all the allegations are months old, and the threats of the politicians never led to any action, as any reasonable observer would have known in advance. Second, all these organizations (there are many dozens of them) have websites where they purvey their bile in English, even though the Israelis they're trying to educate prefer Hebrew; none of the websites is or has ever been censored in any way, nor could it be. Every one of these organizations can be found in the phone book (or its online version), and you can call them up, make an appointment and go visit them. They don't hide their addresses, as the Samizsdat publishers of the communist world once did. They routinely publish their opinions in the media. I can't think of a single arrest ever made of one of their members or staff, and certainly not of an indictment or court case. Of course not. No-one has ever been roughed up on a dark alley by thugs, nor been threatened by shady organizations with blurry lines to state organs. None of anything.

Instead, this tiny corner of Israeli society, perhaps two thousand people all told, busily churn out reams of reports and mountains of allegations about how awful we are, most of it in English, and enjoy an international exposure beyond any remotest relation to their size and more important, to the truth of what they say. After doing so for years (more than 30, in the case of ACRI, cited above), some politicians got peeved and sort of vaguely badmouthed some of them. Not nice, perhaps, but not a fraction of what they routinely dish out, either. This sent them into a paroxysm of narcissistic horror at the extent of their existential predicament as the last bastions of human decency in a society rapidly descending into bestial darkness.

The Guardian laps it up, predictably. Bahhh.

Flare-Up 0f Violence, Cont'd

In response to my previous post, Gavin wonders if perhaps Israel should have made a big show of having the PA arrest the killers, rather than go in and kill them, which doesn't look good to him. My inclination is always to listen respectfully to Gavin, since his perspective is so different than mine.

On an emotional level, I recognize the simple satisfaction these deaths give me: three terrorists who will never be set free in some future exchange of 1,456 Palestinians for two kidnapped Israelis who have been kept totally incommunicado for years by their Palestinian captors. Yet I also know that gratifying as such sentiments may be, they're not particularly laudable. Killing your enemy in battle is what battle is about; arresting criminals and bringing them to justice is what police-work is about - and this case falls somewhere in between.

The IDF seems to recognize this. Throughout the 2nd Intifada, targeted assassinations of Palestinian terrorists became ever more rare in the West Bank, as the Israelis reasserted their direct control after relinquishing it in the 1990s, and they were increasingly able to arrest their targets. Meanwhile, in Gaza the option of arrest basically didn't exist and targeted killings were the norm.

The option of having the Palestinians arrest and try these men doesn't exist. True, as Gavin points out, the PA has capital punishment - but not for attacking Israelis. Capital punishment in the PA is mostly for suspected collaboration with Israel. The possibility that Palestinian killers of an Israeli settler would be brought to justice and serve their sentence in the PA is non-existent.

This leaves the option of the IDF arresting the killers, a capacity that clearly exists since Israel arrests terror suspects at will throughout the West Bank. That's who those 1,000 prisoners being demanded by Hamas in exchange for Gilad Shalit are: Palestinian activists and killers who have been arrested and tried by Israel. The knee-jerk reaction of B'Tselem yesterday is to be understood in this context: They're saying these three men ought to have been arrested, not killed.

What it boils down to are two issues:
1. Would it have been possible for the ID to arrest, not kill these men?
2. If it were possible, was there a decision, or even only a trigger-happiness, that encouraged the IDF to kill them quickly?

I wasn't there, nor was B'Tselem nor any other media outlet - nor was Salam Fayad, the Palestinian prime minister. So none of us have the full facts. Ultimately, it was probably a spilt-second decision of the commanders on the spot. Still, it's worth keeping in mind that the arrests were being made in the Casbah of Nablus, a warren of alleys, jumbled homes, passages, and an occasional tunnel (one of the men was killed inside one of them); even back in the 1980s, when there was no PA and Israel controlled the town itself, the Casbah wasn't the kind of place policemen or soldiers simply strolled through.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Flare-Up of Violence

On Thursday Palestinian gunmen killed Meir Avishai Hai, 40, father of seven, in the northern West Bank. On Saturday IDF forces killed the three killers. What you make of this story depends upon who you are and what positions you held prior to the events, obviously. Yet it also works the other way: the kind of information you routinely take in impacts how you understand the story.

First, the NYT. Ethan Bronner, whom the Mondoweiss crowd has long since written off as hopelessly pro-Israel, puts all of what he sees as the essential elements in his first short paragraph, then gives two conflicting interpretations in the next two paragraphs, and then gives details about the events.
The Israeli military killed six Palestinians on Saturday, three in the West Bank whom it accused of killing a Jewish settler and three in Gaza who it said were crawling along the border wall planning an attack. It was the deadliest day in the conflict in nearly a year.
Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister, called it “a sad day for Palestinians and their National Authority” and condemned the West Bank operation as an “assassination” and “an attempt to target the state of security and stability that the Palestinian Authority has been able to achieve.”
Maj. Peter Lerner, spokesman for Israel’s Central Command, which controls the West Bank, said that its forces had spent the past two days looking for the killers of the settler, Rabbi Meir Hai, a 45-year-old teacher and father of seven, who was shot dead on Thursday as he drove near his home in the settlement of Shavei Shomron.

The BBC's headline tells of Six Palestinians killed in West Bank, Gaza attacks. Who attacked? The headline doesn't say, and the short item wanders around the hill doing its best not to be clear about anything:

Israeli troops have killed six Palestinians - three in the Gaza Strip and three in the West Bank.

The Israeli military said three Palestinians suspected of trying to infiltrate from Gaza were killed in an air strike near the Erez crossing.

It is the largest number of deaths in a day since the Gaza conflict a year ago.

Separately, Israeli forces said they had killed three men - who were suspected of killing a Jewish settler - in the West Bank city of Nablus.

Palestinian sources in Nablus say two of those killed were militants from the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the militant faction of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah party.

The faction was one of two groups which said they had killed the settler, a father of seven, two days ago - the first fatal shooting of an Israeli by militants in the occupied West Bank for eight months.

The item was later folded into a longer item in which the theme was how angry the Palestinians are at the Israelis. Palestinian leaders condemn Israeli raid in West Bank:

"This [Israeli] operation represents a dangerous escalation," Mr Fayyad said. He said the raid in Nablus "can only be seen in the context of targeting the security and stability that the Palestinian Authority has been able to bring about".

That would be Salam Fayad, the most moderate leader the Palestinians have ever had, not some firebrand Hamasnik - not that you'd ever know it from the BBC.

So far as I saw, the BBC never manages to mention the dead Israeli without reminding that he was a settler. As regular readers of this blog will recognize, human rights are a slippery thing, to be applied differently according to ethnicity and identity. A dead Palestinian may or may not have murdered a Jew, but the dead Jew most certainly was a settler, with the unspoken implication that his human rights are thereby diminished.

Then again, why complain about the BBC when we've got our very own B'telem? None of their people were on the scene, but they're already calling for the IDF to investigate itself on the accusation that its troops wrongfully executed innocent Palestinians:

An investigation into an overnight Israel Defense Forces operation in the West Bank city of Nablus early Saturday suggests that Israeli soldiers may have executed two of the three Palestinian militants who were killed, the left wing rights group B'Tselem said Saturday.

In the operation, the IDF killed three Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades operatives, whom officials said were responsible for a shooting attack on Thursday which killed 40-year-old father of seven Meir Hai of the settlement of Shavei Shomron. The troops surrounded the homes of the three and called for them to exit, and killed them when they refused to surrender.

Haaretz gives B'tselem space, but also quotes an IDF officer:

Meanwhile Saturday, a senior IDF officer rejected claims that the militants had been executed, telling Channel 10 news that "the soldiers called on the terrorist to surrender and turn himself in. He refused and hid in his room and sent his wife out toward us. In cases where there is a threat to our troops and a wanted militant refuses to surrender, IDF forces are permitted to open fire in order to neutralize the threat. I am pleased that none of our fighters were hurt, but the risk factor was very high in this operation."
Another senior IDF official told Israel Radio that the three militants had not fired at Israeli troops and that two of them were unarmed, but that the Israeli soldiers knew that the terror squad that carried out Thursday's attack, to which the three belonged, were highly skilled and had access to firearms and therefore posed a threat. He stressed that the operation was carried out in accordance with IDF regulations, and that the soldiers first fired protest dispersal ammunition, then fired at the walls, and only later fired at the militants.

Earlier, Friday's edition of Haaretz had some discussions that are totally absent in the non-Israeli media: what is the significance of Thursday's attacks? It turns out there were two roadblocks in the immediate vicinity of the site of the attack that were both recently removed. Depending upon your political views, this removal was either crucial, and encouraged the attackers, or totally irrelevant and had no connection to anything. None of the folks voicing opinions can know if they're right, of course, but the question is worth posing, which is why the foreign media doesn't. This little nugget, however, seems very important to me:
Over the past year, the number of terror attacks in the West Bank has dramatically decreased thanks mainly to the Shin Bet security service and IDF. However, IDF officials say attempts to carry out terror attacks continue, especially those perpetrated by local individuals working alone.

Anyone watching knows that matters on the West Bank have been getting dramatically better this year, yet cells of local Palestinians are trying incessantly to attack Israelis; we don't hear much about them because they're being thwarted. Kind of important, isn't it?

Finally, in Hebrew only, Ron Ben-Yishai, tries to figure out what's significant and what not. The dismantling of those two roadblocks: Ben-Yishai admits it didn't help, but expects the attackers could have attacked anyway by shooting from the roadside. At least one of the three attackers signed the agreement with the PA and Israeli authorities whereby he renounced terror and was let off Israel's list of target. Yes, but so did 400 others Palestinian terrorists, and most have indeed honored their signature. The IDF acted on its own yesterday, without coordinating with the PA's police forces except to notify them at the last moment so they should still uninvolved: yes, says Ben-Yishai, that wasn't really nice, but then maybe it's better that they obviously weren't involved so that the Palestinian populace not think their own police is cooperating in killing terrorists.

And so on.The difference between the reports in Haaretz and Y-net, on the one hand, and the non-Israeli media on the other, is that the Israelis are trying to understand the complexity of the situation. Not surprising, given that it's their fate. The outsiders offer a superficial story, more or less biased, but in any case offering only bits of the story. The dramatic bit, yes, but not the bits that explain what's going on.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas!

I'm not online today, and I know many of you are Jewish anyway - but some aren't. So for those who celebrate today: Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

War as Tool or Goal

Yitshak (Ike) Aharonovitch, captain of the Exodus, has died. He was 86. Yossi Harel, Haganah commander of the operation and Aharonovitch's superior, died last year. He was also in his 80s (89, I think). May they rest in peace; we owe them both.

Apparently the two never ceased arguing about the outcome of their glorious moment, not when they were in their 20s, and not when they were in their 80s. Harel was willing to kill or be killed for the national goal, but in a pragmatic sort of way. Aharonovitch wanted to die with glory and justice, and was peeved for the next 60-some years that he was destined to die in bed. Yoram Kaniuk, another old-timer writes about their arguments that ended only in death (the translation is awful, you've got to pretend you're reading it in Hebrew).
All of Zionism is the story of the struggle between Yossi and Ike. Ike wanted Yossi to continue the war to show that we were heroes and in order to beat the British and Yossi said he didn't bring the ship so that 4,500 Holocaust survivors would be killed, and if Ike's Palmach wanted war he should bring the young people from the kibbutzim. Ike didn't forgive him. No logic would get through to him. He accepted the battle that was almost Masada in the sea. Yossi wanted life. Ike wanted struggle and victory.
Historians can't know "what if" - so how can we know Harel was right, and Aharonovitch was wrong? Unfortunately, because while in the Zionist camp the Harel's mostly win, with the Palestinians the Aharonovitchs always win.

Lawfare in the Other Direction

A group of Israelis with Belgian citizenship are taking Hamas to court in Belgium.

This sort of thing will never bring peace. No matter which side initiates it. Yet if the anti-Israel lawfarers lose the comfort of owning the battlefield, maybe they'll use it less. That's certainly a reasonable target to aim at.

Strenger on Carter

Jimmy Carter apologized recently for his harsh anti-Israel position of recent years. The JTA smells politics. Goldblog is guarded, and working on it with his readers. Yourish is dismissive. There's a lot more of that out there if you care to look for it.

Carlo Strenger looks at some of the longer-term aspects. He says nothing new, but most of us generally don't. I"m linking not for the novelty but because he's right.
Israel and the Christian world have been locked in a very complex relationship that has deep historical and theological roots. The theologically based hatred of Christianity towards Jews was transformed in the 19th century, and received its racial formulation from 1873 onwards, when the Austrian journalist Wilhelm Marr coined the term anti-Semitism. This form of hatred of Jews led to the horrors of the Holocaust, and the Western world has yet to come to terms with its refusal to do anything to stop the genocide.

Jews have been the bad conscience of the West for a long time - and even more so since the Holocaust. French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy has pointed out that many in the West have never come to terms with the fact that Jews, the perpetual victims, now have a powerful army, and are no longer in the position of having to beg for protection and recognition. But most of all, for many there was relief: now that Jews had become the victimizers rather than the victims, the guilt of the history of persecution ending in the Holocaust could finally left behind. Many in the West used a ubiquitous defense mechanism: humans tend to hate those who induce guilt in them - and finally guilt against Jews could be transformed into hatred against Israel.

Bomb Iran. Repeatedly.

The New York Times has an op-ed by one Alan J. Kuperman, who has a snazzy-sounding title at U. of Texas, Austin. He spends a chunk of time setting up his credentials as an expert, but then suddenly takes off in a belligerent direction: The only thing that will stop Iran from causing nuclear damage is to bomb it. By the US, not Israel, because it will need to be bombed repeatedly.

I don't say much on this matter, because I don't know enough about the many technical and cultural aspects to have anything meaningful to say. (Though I did once, in some detail, here). Nor do I know to tell how representative this Kuperman fellow is of anything. I doubt he has a hot-line to the White House. Still, Obama's outstretched hand has clearly found a clenched fist in Teheran, with sharp steel knuckles. Something will have to happen.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Lies, White Lies and Statistics

This post is a carryover from my professional life. For whatever reason, I needed to know how many university students there are in various countries. Not that much to ask, you'd think, especially in our Google era. Indeed, finding lots of fine data for the US was easy. The rest of the world: not so easy. Would you believe, for example, that no-one in Canada knows to say how many students there are in Canada? Yep. Germany isn't much better - though India isn't bad (12.8 million students in 2005. I don't know about 2006,7,8 or 2009).

As I wandered around, increasingly frustrated, someone told me about this fellow, Clifford Adelman, who recently wrote a 59-page report about my travails. Adelman, it seems, knows all about statistics, and he spent a bit of time peering at the fog of numbers thrown up by various statistical units on five continents, and came back to tell his tale.

But Let Us Straighten Out the Core Propaganda Before We Begin
An all-too-common rhetorical convention of reports and declarations
on the status of U.S. higher education is to open with a
statement that compares our participation and degree completion
rates to those of other economically advanced countries—
and always to our disfavor. It’s a way to stir up the competitive
juices: we have to be number one—or close to it—or, it is said,
our future economic life is at risk. One can cite these reports and
statements by the dozens—no, make it hundreds.
Will it surprise anyone in the house that other countries with
advanced economies utter similar statements and claim that
the United States is ahead of them in higher education? (p.14)

Those of you who are interested only in antisemitism and related cheerful matters, need not go read Adelman's report. Those seeking some light humor for their holiday readings could do worse than to have a peek.

The Real Rain Man, RIP

Kim Peek, the real-life inspiration for the Rain Man film, has died, age 58.

He apparently made more of his life than could reasonably have been expected, and helped may others through his example. The even greater hero of the story, however, seems to have been his father, Fran Peek. Fran will be missing him sorely now.

Campbell at Normblog on Lozowick

Jonathan G. Campbell uses Normblog's weekly book-review slot to offer a thoughtful analysis of my Right to Exist: A Moral Defense of Israel's Wars. I'm honored by his reading.

Campbell himself is a don (I think that's what they call them over there) at the University of Bristol. If you look him up on Amazon UK you'll see all sorts of things he's written. My guess is that the book most likely to appeal to a wide audience is Deciphering the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Norm himself, of course, wrote lots of books, focusing most, it seems to me, on aspects of Marxism (remember Marxism? It used to be an extremely fashionable religion once upon a time). If I had to chose one book of his to recommend to a general public of thinking folks, I suppose it would be The Contract of Mutual Indifference: Political Philosophy After the Holocaust. (Unless he writes to tell me I'm all wrong about this. Norm does that from time to time, always in calm and polite tones).

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Boycott Victorious... Er... Well...

The BBC tells the tale of a British Choir that set up a tour of six concerts in Israel, then tried to set some up some additional ones in the West Bank.

Nope. The Palestinians decided to boycott the choir, in spite of the fact that it's director, one Tim Brown, says he's actually on their side:

The choir's director says his frustration is borne of what he describes as his own pro-Palestinian stance: he has taught and performed with Palestinian musicians. Mr Brown was very keen for his students to see the West Bank barrier and, as he put it, the "privations" caused by the Israeli occupation. Betty Hunter, the general secretary of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, says that desire to travel to the West Bank does not excuse the choir's tour of Israel. That tour, she says, is "surprising and shocking" - something which, in her words, "promotes Israel as a normal state rather than one which represses Palestinians".

Jeffrey Goldberg blogs on this from a position of ridicule. Mondoweiss, predictably, approves, calling the story the "boycott's latest victory". A Mondoweiss regular commenter, one "Potsherd",asks why Israel would have the singers in the first place:

Is it not a Jewish State? Is it not busily engaged in purging all aspects of Christianity and its subversive Christmas manifestations? Are its puritan zealots not making war on Santa Claus and Christmas trees, which aren’t Christian at all? How much more so must they purge performances of the music of Bach, which is flagrantly Christian, which mentions. (making me wonder why Bach and not Handel’s Messiah)
You've got to admire these folks' firm grasp on the reality they pontificate about incessantly.

Me, I'm mostly amused. Some of the score keepers seem to have lost their instructions. The purpose of the boycott, if it has one beyond merely being spiteful, is to quarantine Israel, hurt it's economy, and force it into siege. (I think these are the goals). In this particular "victory", the pro-Palestinian choir master and his charges, some of whom may agree with him, will be singing six times before Israeli audiences who may even turn out to be cultured and reasonably human, and they'll not be preforming to any Palestinians. Did I miss something?

PS. The reason, of course, being money. They'll sell far more tickets in six Israeli concerts than in two Palestinian ones. Such an unseemly consideration.

Jerusalem Jerusalem

I'm going offline for most of the day, and won't have the time to respond to the many interesting comments on the "terms of compromise".

As an introduction to writing about Jerusalem, which I"ll need to do soon, I'll recommend that you really ought to read Morey Altman's recent post Jerusalem Jerusalem. It's chock full of all sorts of interesting information.

News or Antisemitism

JTA carries a story about how Yehuda Hiss, the former head of Israel's forensic institute at Abu Kabir, admitted to using organs from cadavers without permission. He seems to have been an equal opportunity crook -
Hiss told an American academic in the interview, parts of which were broadcast on Israel's Channel 2 over the weekend, that the institute used corneas from bodies, including Israeli soldiers, Palestinians and foreign workers. Channel 2's report said that corneas, heart valves, skin and bones were used from the corpses without families' permission.
Avigdor, who signs as Victor at this blog, has some important comments and links:

I don’t know how many of you are in the medical field, or follow medical ethics, so let me say that what happened in Israel, and what apparently stopped “a decade ago”, is actually quite common. Countries like Sweden, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland and France (and soon the UK) have all passed “presumed consent” laws with respect to organ donation. “Presumed consent” means that, unless you specifically dissent from organ donation in your lifetime, you are presumed to consent to organ harvesting upon clinical death.

This is why the Abu Kabir forensic institute did not discriminate between Jews, Arabs, or foreign workers. It appears there was simply a lack of clarity in law, policy or the implementation of that policy as it concerns “presumed consent”.

Presumed consent is the law in Israel. However, it’s not a simple as that. The law is different in various countries. Let’s say someone did not dissent during their lifetime. Upon death, should their spouse be allowed to make that decision? Should their kids? Should their cousin, third removed? Their friend? In some countries, practically anyone with any close connection to the deceased can dissent on their behalf, the idea being that they would know the wishes of the deceased.

Remember, also, that medical professionals in the field of organ transplant face a ghastly task of watching a substantial portion of their patients succumb to organ failure. In a country like Israel, with one of the lowest organ donation rates in the world (8 donations for every million people, compared to 34 in Spain), the administration may have felt that fudging already unclear laws or policies in order to save lives, or restore sight or mobility to living human beings was a simple moral choice.

The most important point that all of us should understand, is that despite our personal feelings about the state of Israeli law or medical ethics policy, or the improper actions of the Abu Kabir institute’s administration (people were disciplined, after all), this story has nothing to do with the vile accusations hurled, without any substantiation, by a Swedish newspaper some months ago, that the IDF was murdering people in order to harvest their organs. That’s NOT what this particular case was about.

Antisemitic allegations almost always start from some grain of fact. What makes them antisemitic (or even merely slander) isn't the original grain of truth but the edifice built on it. In the Rostom blood libel earlier this year the slander was that IDF forces were regularly killing Palestinians so as to harvest their organs. The grain of truth uncovered here (which actually isn't news at all, it has been known in Israel for years, which is one reason Hiss no longer heads the Abu Kabir institute) has nothing to do with those allegations, and doesn't substantiate them in any way.

Actually, what we've got here is a fine litmus test to discover antisemites. Anyone who spins the true story in the direction Rostom took it are essentially setting themselves up. They need to be asked why they took that particular grain of truth in that particular direction.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Terms of Compromise

All I am is a blogger. My positions on how peace might or might not be achieved are exactly as unimportant as those of anyone else. I've got one vote in Israel, and as often as not the folks I cast it for don't end up in the government (this time, for example). I've also got an expat vote in the US, but since I'm registered in California (don't ask), my vote always automatically goes for the Democrat, no matter what my opinion may be.

The only reason to write a blog post about how I think peace between Israelis and Palestinians is to give context to the rest of the blog. In recent weeks there have been quite a few cases where readers though that since I'd just made comment A, my overall position must be B. Since it ain't necessarily so, these assumptions deprive some of what I am saying of its impact.

Interestingly, none of my basic positions have changed since I wrote Right to Exist in 2002. So if you really need a full exposition of the matter, feel free to go read it.

The resolution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict has next to nothing to do with justice, and the large numbers of people on all sides who are, or claim to be, seeking justice, or assuming peace can't be had without justice, or any of those tired formulations, are all wrong. The fundamental structure of the conflict is that both sides are right, both of them have truly just claims to the entire (very very small) land, and these rights are mutually incompatible. If it's the historic homeland of the Jews, which they never renounced and actively focused on for millennia, while preserving a presence there the entire time, how can it also be the homeland of the Palestinians? And if it's the place the Palestinians define as their homeland because that's where they were when they became nationally aware (same as the Jews), how can it be the homeland of the Jews?

So if it's justice you're seeking, at least recognize that the only way for anyone to have it is for the others to have injustice. On the justice field it really is a zero-sum game.

The second thing to keep in mind is that international law is irrelevant. I honestly cannot think of a single lethal conflict in the history of the world that was ever resolved by international law. Some minor disputes, about which no-one is willing to kill or be killed, can perhaps be resolved that way, but never any shooting wars. If either side or both are willing to kill and be killed over a matter, no group of chattering outsiders mouthing legalese will stop them. In the Israel-Palestine conflict both sides are willing to kill and be killed, because they care deeply and are not about to stop caring.

One way to achieve peace is for one side to a war to win so decisively that the other side gives up. This can't happen in the Israel-Palestine conflict. That includes also the various dreams floating around about bludgeoning the Israelis to accept the agenda of the Guardian, perhaps by boycotting Israeli tomatoes and lectures by Israeli professors of comparative literature (but never medicine), or the contra-dreams of building so many settlements on the West Bank that the Palestinians will all move to Florida. Always keep that brutal reality in mind: Both groups are willing to kill and be killed rather than give up; given that reality, what other coercion might be even more compelling?

There's only one way to end a conflict such as this one, and that's by compromise. Each side needs to define the things it will continue to be willing to kill and be killed about, while making its list of things that are really important but not enough to die for. Peace will happen when both sides have the things they're willing to die for, along with as many of the other goals as possible while enabling the other side their minimum list. Hard-nosed horse-dealing and arithmetic. It's that simple.

Well, theoretically.

Logical condition number one: Both sides must recognize they can have only what's compatible with the list of the opposite side. Which means, neither side gets the entire land for themselves. There has to be a partition of some sort.

(I'm not going to deal with the One-State solution because it contradicts the fundamental list of the Israelis and is a non-starter. It may well also contradict the goals of the Palestinians, but that's immaterial. The moment a goal contradicts the fundamental needs of even only one side, it's off the table - assuming a resolution of the conflict is being sought. If not, what's the discussion about anyway?)

Partition means both sides reconcile to the fact that part of the ancestral homeland will be in the other country. This is why the positions of Hamas contradict the possibility of peace. Maybe one day this will change, but it hasn't yet. There are Israelis who likewise reject partition, but they don't win elections, and haven't since the early 1980s. Not remotely.

Here's the list of essential Israeli goals as I understand them. First, what Israel needs to have:
1. A sovereign Jewish state. Since the Israelis want it to be democratic, there has to be a large Jewish majority.
2. Once the price for peace has been paid, the wars will be over. We don't pay the price and then keep our fingers hopefully crossed; we don't pay the price and then keep on facing terror.
Thus, goals that must be supplied by the Palestinians:
3. A formal, binding, legal and unambiguous End of Conflict declaration.
4. Since words are cheap and can be renounced, the Palestinians must accept some limitations to back up the declaration. Essentially, this means they can't have a full army. There have been other countries - the most obvious is Germany - which had sovereignty along with limitations on the size of their military, so this need mean the State of Palestine won't really be sovereign. It will, but with limitations on its military.

Jerusalem: The city is at the heart of the conflict, but too complicated for this post. For the moment I'll simply say both sides will have to agree to an accommodation regarding Jerusalem.

The essential Palestinian goals as I understand them
1. A sovereign Palestinian state.
2. The Palestinians have as good a shot as anyone in the Arab world at having a democratic state, so they can reasonably expect to have no more than a small minority of Jews, and these Jews may not have the preferential status of somehow being protected by Israeli law or military might. My understanding is that many Palestinians might be willing to accept Jews who are willing to be Palestinian citizens; I doubt many Jews will be eager to test the proposition. The Palestinians reject the possibility of having settlements of Israelis in their territory, and whether this is nice of them or not is immaterial.
3. The Jordanian and Egyptian territory of June 4th 1967, i.e Gaza and the West Bank in their entirety. This is not because of any mystical holiness of the1949 armistice lines, which were officially defined as temporary in 1949; they are simply an expression of what the Palestinians seem to have decided: they're willing to stop killing and being killed for a state in those lines, but anything smaller they'll continue to kill and be killed for. There can apparently be small land swaps.
4. A land connection of some sort between Gaza and the West Bank. A bridge over Israeli territory, or a tunnel under it, or a combination, or something.
5. Right of return of refugees. This, alongside Jerusalem, is an issue where the basic Israeli requirements andthe basic Palestinian ones are still not reconcilable. Any significant return of Palestinians to Israel would endanger item number 1 on Israel's list. The question which has not been resolved yet to the best of my knowledge is if there's a compromise to be had. Some Palestinians have said that if Israel grants the legal principle the Palestinians will do without the practical application. Personally, I wouldn't trust that sort of an agreement, which to my mind would contradict the need for an "End of Conflict" declaration. Well-intentioned negotiators on both sides may someday come up with a mutually acceptable fudge. They haven't yet.

So far for today's lesson.

These are the principles, so far as I understand them, of a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I did not spell out what they mean on the ground - that's a subject for another day.

As of the end of 2009, the sides have not yet fully accepted all of the principles.

Ah, and as I noted, there's Jerusalem....

How to Derail International Diplomacy

Silke sends me a link to this Times Online report about how easy it is for any two deranged activists in London to screw up the business of international relations.

Still, the UK, unlike the "International Community" has the tools to correct its loonier legislation once the damage is noticed. I expect cooler minds will make this go away - something that's almost impossible to do in the sovereign-less world of International Law.

If they don't make it go away, I expect a cell of excitable students from our side to get their act together and halt the travel of Saudis, Iraqis, Pakistanis, Palestinians, Syrians, and anyone else about whom anything can be alleged, to the UK. Keep in mind that the allegations don't need to be proved, they merely need to have some plausible-sounding background. I don't see why, for example, Bill Clinton couldn't be arrested next time he flies thru Heathrow. I've heard that Whitewater thing was never totally cleared. Mostly, mind you, but not totally.

Hanukka in Berlin

I admit to having mixed feelings about this. Do there need to be Jews in Germany at all? If so, do they need to be so in-your-face? Then again, might it not be an accumulation of such things that over time might make of Germany (or anywhere else) the sort of place the US already is? Then again, whom am I kidding? On the other hand, perhaps the whole thing is unimportant and forgettable, one way or the other?

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Dead End of Legalism

This afternoon I participated in a small blogger meeting. One of the drawbacks of bashing the Left so often is that people forget that doesn't make me Right. This afternoon's event was the second or third such a get-together where I've found myself way off to the left of a roomful of true Right-wingers.

A central theme of the meeting was that International Law must be wrenched back into the service of the Right, by demonstrating that settlements are legal, the Palestinian's claim to the West Bank is, at best, less credible than Israel's, and so on. The funny thing is that these cases really can all be made using legal tools - which if you think about it isn't that surprising. The art of being a lawyer is that you build a legal case from the position you're handed, no matter what it is. In a nation-state there's a universally accepted judiciary which decides who's case is more convincing, there are layers of judicial appeals, and there's a legislature that can change things if the laws have become outdated or unacceptable by enough of the voters.

None of this exists between states, so ultimately, the entire international law aspect of the conflict (and most other conflicts, too) is at best an attempt by one side or the other to bludgeon their adversary into accepting a position they aren't willing to accept.

None of the discussants at the meeting ever broached the subject of what the Palestinians are supposed to do with the positions being mooted. Nor did they need to. A legal confrontation isn't about finding common ground; it's about using the law to achieve your desired outcome.

I need to describe how the Israelis and Palestinians might find that common ground. Or not find it.

Contra Pragmatism

Leon Wieseltier prefers hatred, at least in some cases.

2009: A Fine Year

Once the operation in Gaza was over, and Hamas spent another few weeks shooting off rockets merely to prove it was still able to do so, 2009 has been one of the most peaceful years Israel has had in decades. Avi Issacharof tells that in the West Bank it may have been the best year since all the way back to 1948:
The current situation in the West Bank is one of the best, if not the best, since 1948. Quiet prevails in the streets of every city there, the economy is starting to take off, the civilian police are maintaining law and order, and even the courts, despite their tremendous caseload, are upgrading their activity with every passing week.

Of course, this will never be mentioned by the anti-Israel brigade. It's no coincidence they've switched their attention to Gaza with a near-total neglect of the West Bank: the reality in which Israel and the PA are stingily figuring out how to live and let live even without peace, and actually, even without much high-level peace negotiations, simply doesn't fit the usual templates for explaining the conflict, so it's not noticed, and certainly not elaborated upon.

The Primacy of Politics

I honestly appreciate the many thoughtful comments people have been writing here the past few days, including over the weekend where I disappeared from the blogosphere. Thanks for the interesting perspectives.

I see the time has come to write a few basic posts about long-term matters such as what my position is on the potential outcome of peace negotiations, Jerusalem, settlements and such matters, so that readers can understand if they agree with me or not at all. I take pride in the fact that not all of you will agree: this blog has a mildly eclectic readership

OK, I've noted the need.

In the meantime, one fundamental position which seemingly wasn't clear enough in my post about human rights in Hebron. Although there's much about the matter I still need to study, for the time being my position is that politics are superior both to international law and to human rights. I expect some of you may cringe, and there are millions of folks out there who'll never read this blog who would respond with abysmal derision, but that's life. As JRR Tokien once wrote, I don't expect I'd much like what they write, either.

Human rights and international law are not the same thing, though people who unthinkingly bandy the terms around as magic charms to ward off reality don't always recognize this. That post I just mentioned wasn't very well written, I see, but its point was to say that since human rights are separate from matters of international law, you'd expect its champions to be able to recognize that the current desolateness that is central Hebron is better - from the narrow perspective of human rights - than its preceding alternatives in which lots of people were dying. Yet they can't recognize that, and one of the reasons they can't is that they aren't truly champions of human rights. They're bearing the mantle of human rights in vain, while actually talking politics.

The reason they engage in this charade isn't hard to understand. Human rights are noble (really!), and we'd all like them to exist, and be respected, on a higher plane than mundane and unseemly politics. Moreover, using the terminology of human rights in a political discussion is like playing poker with only the strongest cards: the other side can't win. If one side is noble and the other is mundane and the best it can offer is the cynicism of politics, clearly the noble side wins automatically. My point was to poke a hole in the intellectual pretension. B'tselem and their like are framing their view of human rights in Hebron (and everywhere else) in the terms of their political position, not in terms of some universal context as they ought in order to be intellectually consistent.

The other point I made, but mostly in order to set up the main argument, was that international law and human rights aren't the same, and at times can even contradict each other. It may be that international law frowns on Jews living in Hebron (which is a reason to have reservations about international law), but human rights can't have an opinion on the matter. A champion of international law may feel comfortable in saying there should be no Jews in Hebron; a champion of human rights must say the international law is irrelevant for the matter of the rights of the Jews who are there, irrespective of how they got there.

Having hopefully clarified that, let me add that in my humble opinion, politics trumps them all, human rights and international law. Yes, at first glance politics is messy, cynical, full of backhanded deals between tired and jaded negotiators with all matter of hidden agendas, while international law and human rights, both, profess to be clean systems of orderly thinking and finest principles. How nice, and what is there not to like.

Politics, like them or not, are the space where societies work out how they're going to get things done, and then change their mind when reality intervenes; they're also the space where different societies work out how to live with each other, or fight with each other, or fight and live. A society which is contained within one political unit will hopefully have a healthy balance of law, rights, needs, agenda and so on, and its political discussion may take place within the limits of its accepted consensus. Separate societies which don't share a basic set of assumptions, don't. Pretending they do won't change that. Suggesting they ought to is.... politics. It's legitimate, but as part of the political discussion, not as some divine set of aces which over-ride the political process.

Coming down from the heavenly spheres, this means that Israelis and their neighbors need to find accommodations that work. Human rights, international law, emotional drives, history, economics, clashing religions, global warming, hummus and tabuleh, American politics, European politics, South American politics, swine flu, military power, water tables, and zillions of other things are all relevant if they are. It all gets worked out - resolved, or unresolved - in the space where societies work these things out.


PS. In democracies, at least, politics are where the will of the people expresses itself. Can't get any nobler than that, can you?