Sunday, January 31, 2010

Divest More

You do regularly visit Divest This, yes? You don't need me to remind you?


I don't know where Prof. Geras dug this up, but it's worth it.

Talabani on That War

Jalal Talabani is the President of Iraq. Today he's published a letter of appreciation to the British for participating in the freeing of his country. (In The Observer, the Guardian-sister paper that was in favor of the 2003 invasion). I'm posting simply to preserve the link. The possibility still exists that someday, a generation from now, Talabani's position will be self-evident and obvious. Then again, it may well not. Back in 2003 I thought it would take a decade to know; now I rather doubt that will be enough.
We suffered under Saddam Hussein in ways that too many in the international community seem to have forgotten. His regime was a republic of fear, which slaughtered Iraqis on an industrial scale and attacked our neighbours. We are fortunate he has gone and that we have a chance to rebuild our society.

The Big Lebkowsky

Here's an unimportant article on an unimportant topic you need not read. Still, it does have this fun paragraph (my italics):
Jon Lebkowsky, 60, who runs a technology company in Austin, Tex., has a few dozen apps on his phone but uses only a handful, he said. He discovered a few when he saw friends using them. Others he found by searching the app store. “I’m a Buddhist, so I searched for ‘Buddhism’ and ‘Buddha’ to see what I could find,” he said. “I found a cool meditation app and a set of the Buddha’s writings.”
Go figure.

Blair Got it Wrong

Tony Blair spent many hours yesterday testifying before the Chilcot inquiry. If the Guardian is your source of news, you have my condolences, but you'll also be able to read 11 separate articles apparently all agreeing that Blair was and remains awful. The New York Times, on the other hand, seems to have only one item on the testimony, and it's buried deep in their website where no-one will accidentally stumble across it. I guess the Americans don't really care much about what Blair says.

I'm unable to find a transcript of the testimony, which is too bad as it had some interesting moments. (I listened to parts of it live on the BBC). For me, what with my parochial interests, the most interesting parts were when he talked about Israel/Palestine.

As the Bush administration began to prepare for the possibility of invading Iraq, in 2002, Blair met Bush. One of the things the Prime Minister tried (unsuccessfully) to convince the President of was that it was important to get the Israelis and Palestinians to making peace: this would positively impact the Iraqi issue, he felt.

Blair was and remains a friend of Israel. As prime minster of the UK, he was also better informed than your average Guardian journalist or most bloggers. He'd had many opportunities to speak personally with all the main actors. None of which, apparently, made him understand what he was talking about. At one point yesterday he rather ruefully admitted that he now knows that making peace in 2002 between Israelis and Palestinians wouldn't have been possible. Since he left Number Ten he's been the top Quartet emissary to Israel/Palestine; he has an office in Jerusalem, and he spends a chuck of his time here on a regular basis. Now - but not then - he's beginning to understand what evey child, Palestinian or Israeli, could have told him back in 2002: that making peace at the height of the second Intifada was not possible. The Israelis had not yet stopped the tidal wave of Palestinian murders of civilians and the Palestinians thought they were on the way to beating Israel; Arafat was still the Palestinian leader and no Israeli government would ever again believe his word in any theoretical negotiations; and there was nothing to talk about nor any interest on either side.

Outsiders observing the Israel/Palestine conflict routinely pretend to be calm bystanders who can see reality in an impartial and reasonable way where the locals, embroiled as they are in their conflict, cannot; hence the need of the outsiders to pontificate and earnestly press upon us locals that we really ought to listen to them, they've got our better interests at heart, and given their detached viewpoint, they can help us out of our short-sighted emotional tantrums. This is always nonsense, and supremely arrogant; as Blair's admission yesterday revealed, it's also simply wrong. Even as earnest and informed an observer as the British prime minister simply didn't understand what was going on.

Amazing. Or not.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Rights Against Safety

My first post this morning favorably compared Jessica Montell of B'tselem with the rank antisemites who congregate at Mondoweiss, CiF and elsewhere. Well, here's some balance: a demonstration of the weakness in the thinking of Israel's radicals - in this case, Hamoked, Center for the Protection of the Individual.

Hamoked is not a very important organization, but it does have some presence. It's thesis is that Israel is unjust to Palestinian individuals and this must be corrected - so far, so reasonable. When you note that they have no problem criticizing the Supreme Court (High Court of Justice, HCJ, which I have recently mentioned as Bagatz) you begin to see that they're well off the mainstream. Israelis criticize the High Court sometimes, but carefully. The Left, rarely. The far Left, however, don't feel inhibited.

The reason I'm mentioning Hamoked is an e-mail they've sent out. It wasn't meant for me, but e-mails have the habit of washing up at strange shores. This one is an attempt to recruit a writer for their website. They've got eight lines of necessary qualifications, most of them just what you'd expect (English and Hebrew writing abilities, legal background, that sort of thing). Yet it's the first qualification which is telling:
מחויבות מוצקה לנושא זכויות אדם, לרבות במצבים של התנגשות בין זכויות אדם לצרכי ביטחון
High commitment to human rights, especially in cases of conflicts between human rights and security issues.

If you accept that the right to life is the highest right possible, that's a strange requirement. A higher commitment to human rights than to the defense of the top human right. Which isn't to say that there can never be a conflict between contradictory rights, and it's not even to say that there can never be cases where the security professionals fail to balance the varying considerations in a satisfactory way. There can be, which is why an organization such as Hamoked is legitimate, even necessary. Who watches the watchmen is always a legitimate issue.

But that's not what the ad requires. It seeks only people who automatically assume that rights are distinct from, and more important than, considerations of security. This, in a country surrounded by enemies with a century-old track record of eagerness to harm civilians.

Odd, isn't it.

Update: Fabian in comments (see below) points out I"m being too generous. Hamoked isn't requiring a primacy of human rights over security issues, but rather over security needs. They're being quite explicit.

A Small and Weak Country

What happens to a small and weak country, when it tries to move in a direction the neighbors don't like, and it must rely on its powerful friends to protect it?

It's not a nice place to be. Ask Georgia.

Better to be not weak, and not dependent on friends, no matter how nice they are. Ask Israel.

Choosing a Speech

Once I finally found time this morning I had to choose. There were two speeches in the US yesterday, I could most likely find both on You-Tube: but which to prefer?

To be honest, it wasn't much of a dilemma.The fellow on the West Coast is much the more cool of the two, and also has a proven record of (sometimes) changing things in the world; the fellow on the East Coast has indeed given a handful of important speeches in his day, and if this was of that class I'd surely hear about it sooner or later. So I went to the one by Jobs, not the one about jobs.

It was a fine show, obviously. But this new Thingy he introduced: what's it for? It doesn't make phone calls. I can't blog from it. I can read books on it, they say - but I've got shelves full of unread books already, and each visit to Amazon makes that predicament worse. How is a new gadget going to solve the real problem, lack of time? It's the very best viewer for surfing the Web, he tells me. OK, I certainly spend far too much time on the Web.The thing is, much of what I spend time doing is somehow interactive. I read and respond. I read, download and later process. I collect stuff and blog about it, or integrate into other things I'm doing, using other software tools such as scrupulously weren't mentioned in the speech yesterday. Not "apps", whatever they are; I mean real programs. I do lots of thinking while leaning on software, and lot's of talking about it, too; he never mentioned the possibility of doing a presentation from his new toy, and anyway, why would it be better than the toys I've already got. And what's this i-affectation, anyway? iPod, iPhone, iPad: enough already. Better to go back to apples.

Did I choose to watch the wrong speech, pray tell?

Seen in Jerusalem

Three scenes:

I've pointed out repeatedly in the past that Israeli hospitals disprove all the stereotypes about ethnic relations in this country. Well, yesterday I spent a few hours at one of our local colleges (not the university). A three-building campus chock full of young people busy learning so as to do better in life. I saw religious Jews, including many head-covered married young women; secular Arabs (in jeans), secular Jews (in jeans), and religious Arabs (more severe head-cover than the married Jews); I heard Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, French, and American; and the halls were even more crowded than necessary because small roving teams of art or photography students seemed to be engaged in some project which called for them to be filming life between classes. The teams seemed to be as multi-ethnic as everyone else in the halls.

This morning I sat for a bit in a hallway at one of our medical centers (not a hospital) waiting for some document. Behind a counter were two young women, one secular (jeans...) and the other haredi, head cover and all (a wig. Young married haredi women, unlike young married mdern orthodox women, eschew hats, scarfs, kerchiefs and so on, and stick with the appearance of natural hair. See if you can figure out that one). By and by a 40-ish doctor came out of his office and started chatting with the Haredi woman:
Dr: I hear they're sending you to some course?
Haredi woman, grinning: Yes! I'm going to study administration!
Dr: And what will you do with it once you've studied?
She: Maybe I'll run this department.
Dr: Or another department, elsewhere. Lily took that course, and now she runs the branch in French Hill.
She: And then, who knows, maybe I'll run this entire organization [which is large. What the Americans would call an HMO].
Dr. Well, I don't think they'll let you run it, that's a slot that a physician will always fill, but you could be the top administrator, would that be good enough?
She: Yes, that's a goal I'd aim at.

Third story: Earlier today in one of the warrens of 19-century vintage small apartments and narrow alleys, south of Jaffa street. No cars can get in here, and very few pedestrians pass through. Two very old men are sitting in the perfect winter sun that Jerusalem sometime has in January, one talking animatedly and his friend leaning towards him and listening earnestly. As I pass -
I've never raised my hand at her. But if you listen to her, I've ruined the family, I'm the cause of all evil, everything's my fault. So I said to her, You know what? I'm a bad man, my intentions were always to ....
That's all I can tell you about him.

Jeffrey's Taking bets

About Israel's long-term expectations...

Being Antisemitic is Hard Work

Jessica Montell, boss of B'tselem, has written Mondoweis to say that she's not certain there was an explicit Israeli intention to harm the populace of Gaza, but that an independent investigation would tell us more than we presently know. And of course, intention or not, Israel did all sorts of awful things in Gaza.

The readers of Mondoweiss don't like this line of reasoning, ultimately saying that no Israeli investigation will ever tell the truth, and Montell herself is too Israeli for their taste, and too squeamish (I'm paraphrasing).

I've got my issues with Montell and her small corner of Israeli society. Yet they are rational, facts matter to them, and they wish Israel would do better according to their lights. While the result of their actions is too often to supply false fodder to Israel's enemies, that's not their putative goal.

This means there are fundamental differences between them and the Mondoweiss part of humanity. The Mondoweiss gang imbibes a diet of untruths, outright lies, warped interpretations and malice. It's not possible to argue with them, because their assumptions, methods and frames of references are constructed so as to strengthen their opinions, irrespective of reality. They're so far out that a radical Israeli such as Montell is ultimately unacceptable to them, since she does care about facts, and does think that Israel can be saved from itself. The Mondoweiss gang don't think Israel can be saved from anything because in their minds, Israel is the problem. The root cause of Israel's evil is that Israel is evil.

The Mondoweiss community puts daily efforts into maintaining their edifice of malice. They've got a detailed narrative of Israeli evil, and they're constantly tinkering with it, bolstering it, adding new layers, incorporating events as they happen (or rather, incorporating a false version as reality does something else). They work hard at it. For these people, hating the Jewish state isn't a passing interest or an idle whim. It's a passion; it's a collective effort; it's a cult.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Ups and Downs: They're Life. Both.

Michael has responded to this morning's blogging with a story he heard from his father, who survived Buchenwald:
Otto had been a chess champion (won the Belgian title in 1936), and his chess hero had always been a Russian named Alekhine. One day in Buchenwald, in the latrine, Otto came upon what he thought was a miracle of sorts: there on the ground was a page from a recent German chess magazine, undoubtedly discarded by an SS guard, with an article by, of all people, Alekhine. So Otto's heart skipped and his mood soared. Until he began reading. Then he discovered, for the first time, that Alekhine had become a rabid antisemite sympathizer with the Nazi cause, and the article was all about the evils of "Jewish chess..." And Otto then sank into an especially low depression. But then there was another uplift, because it occurred to him that if he was still capable of experiencing both joy and depression it must mean that his humanity had not been destroyed, even by the Nazis. And this awareness, that he was still human, gave him hope and the will to continue.

The Great War: History

I've been busy in the real world today, so blogging has been light. Here's a third article on today's theme of memory and how it passes.

The Economist recently offered a respectful and touching description of the war memories of Harry Patch and Henry Allingham, the last two British veterans of WWI who died, implausibly old, in 2009. They began telling their tales only once they had reached extreme old age; the memories were literally snatched from the jaws of oblivion at the very last moment.

Mrs. Ames, RIP

I had a teacher just like Mrs. Ames - Mrs. Shellas. They even looked alike, if memory serves. If she's still with us she must be in her 90s, at least. They did important work, those women; we remember them fondly.

65 Years

Auschwitz was liberated by Red Army troops (who didn't know it was there to be liberated until they stumbled upon it) 65 years ago today.

A few twins held by Mengele for his experiments survived as children. Other than them, the youngest survivors were in their mid-teens; most were in their twenties.

Living memory of Auschwitz is to be found, today, only in the minds of octogenarians. Not many of them left, either. The living memory is slipping away.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Odd Case of Seismic Shock

For the past few days I've been getting all sorts of suggestions that I blog on the odd case of Seismic Shock. It seems Seismic is a British blogger who doesn't much like people who don't much like Israel. (Sounds like my type of bloke). Last week the police themselves uncovered his identity and had him shut down his blog. I haven't had the time to look into the matter, but in the meantime, the BBC has - and what's more, the BBC fellow doing the reporting is very much on the side of Mr. Shock. The BBC readers, predictably, can think of various reasons why shutting down free speech is fine in this case.

Yet another case, alas, where the Brits don't demonstrate tolerance for free speech. I can't say what's going on over there.

Beyond the e-mails I've been getting and the item on the BBC website, I still haven't had the time to study the full facts of the case. If anyone wishes to enlighten us, the comments section on this blog is not (yet) censored.

In addition, here's a suggestion for all the oppressed Zionists in the United Kingdom, suffering from anti-Jewish agitation and the cruel hand of the Inquisitors: Me, I'm out of range. This allows me not to hide my identity, and certainly not to worry about policemen at my door if I poke fun at nasty clergy. (Though if you believe our homegrown radicals, our police are also cracking down, but that's tosh). So if any of you have got any samizdat materials you'd like to smuggle out to the West (well, east), I'll be glad to serve as a post board. You can find my e-mail address on the lower left of this screen.

(hat tip for the bbc link: rob dwek)

Lots and Lots and Lots and Lots of Books

The Hebrew paper version of Haaretz has a nice article about Bar Ilan university's Jewish books project (פרוייקט השו"ת). The project began in the late 1960s and is still far from completion. The idea was to collect all halachic literature ever written in a searchable database, along with bells and whistles such as Hebrew translations of Aramaic texts, and further down the road, scanned images of them alongside the content.

So far there are 220,000,000 indexed words in the database, representing a large cross section of rabbinical writings. That means you'd need to read 7534 words a day, every day of the year from age 10 to age 90, never taking a day off and never going back to read anything twice, merely to see all those words. If you want to understand them all, even without going back to re-check anything ever, you'll need six or seven centuries assuming you're a fast learner. And remember, the database isn't complete yet (and new things are being written as we sit here).

The modern day affectation about how human knowledge has become too large for anyone to know all of it is of course true, but it's not new. The Jewish rabbinical literature alone passed the point of individual encompassing many centuries ago.

A friend and I recently did an interesting small experiment on this database. We asked it to count the number of times the word Jerusalem (ירושלים) appears in some of its various layers. Not Zion, Moriah, not Temple, nor any other permutation: simply the name of the city, straight.

In the Bible (Old Testament, of course): 670
Mishna: 125
Tosefta (a mishna-era compendium): 152
Extra tractates: מסכתות קטנות 149
Babylonian Talmud: 658
Jerusalem Talmud: 335
Halachic Midrash (a Talmud-era compendium): 197
Midrash: 3,400
Gaonic and Rishonim literature (roughly 7-17th centuries): 32,000

After Haiti

The IDF field hospital in Haiti will be shut down on Thursday. The staff will come home; the equipment will be donated to a local hospital. The arrival of the Americans in full force has made the field hospital unnecessary:
Israel's main accomplishment was in the quick deployment of the field hospital in Haiti. "For five critical days, it was the best hospital in Port-au-Prince," said the officer. "We provided timely medical care to about 1,000 people, we conducted 300 operations and delivered 16 babies. In the past few days the Americans arrived and then you can put things in proportion and become more modest in the face of their airlift and the scope of their aid. You need to understand that those who will continue to treat the main suffering there are the Americans," he added.

The Return of Sovereignty

As we slowly gain perspective (we don't have it yet), it may one day become clear that the 1990s were the apogee of the multilateral moment. The end of the Cold War gave the EU a tremendous boost. International institutions and internationalist concepts forged in a radically different post-war context in the late 1940s seemed poised to acquire Utopian goals such as the end of particularism, or the ascendancy of universal values such as human rights over such outdated concepts such as national sovereignty. In our own small corner of the world, those were the days when people such as myself earnestly explained to incredulous folks with lesser education that what with sovereignty on its way to the dustbin of history, we could afford to relinquish parts of it in order to achieve peace with our Palestinian neighbors. (Yossie Beilin and Shlomo Ben Ami, being prominent politicians and also interesting intellectuals, were the top two purveyors of this line of reasoning).

Part of the fury directed at George Bush had to do, I have no doubt, with how he seemed to be harking back to an earlier age, one that should have been on its way out were it not for his obstructionism. Some of the acrimony surrounding the definition of the enemy facing humanity after 9/11 had to do with the degree people were willing to admit that the emerging new world order was perhaps not realistic after all.

Last November, when I added the "multilateral sovereignty" tag to this blog, it was in response to the audacity of the Goldstone Report in admonishing Israel for minor issue with no bearing on its mandate, and the insistence of a law professor that yes, the Report is fortunately the face of the future.

Probably not. A major weakness of the entire philosophical edifice is that it's based on Europe - the rich but declining former center of the world - and assumes everyone else is interested in following. What if they aren't, all the rest? What if lots of people are actually enjoying their national sovereignty, and have no intention of whittling it away anytime soon? What if this camp is headed by the rising power: China?
In Brussels it is hard to overestimate the shock caused by the EU’s failure to achieve its goals at December’s climate-change summit in Copenhagen. In the EU hard problems are fixed like this: call a summit of leaders, set out public goals for action, declare a final deadline and then thrash out a compromise behind closed doors. Deals are done with a judicious blend of appeals to principle, arm-twisting and redistribution towards less wealthy nations. That model failed utterly in Copenhagen...
China was amazingly rude at Copenhagen, sending a deputy minister to shout at with Mr Obama, for instance. Such assertiveness punctures happy Euro-dreams of a multipolar world. It turns out that the only thing that alarms Europeans more than a swaggering American president is one who seems weak. And Copenhagen popped yet another bubble—the idea that leading by example can be used to coerce others. Europe’s strategy was to press others to match its own concessions on carbon emissions. But the EU barely existed at the talks.
Much that China does is regrettable; many of the particular values of the post-sovereignty brigade are appealing. That's life; that's human history. It's not about to change. Live with it.

(PS. If they'd ever get their act together, the real rising power could be India, which would be a more appealing proposition; and the US isn't going anywhere, and will likely stay at the top for this century, at least - so democracy and its fine attributes aren't on their way out. But that's a matter for another day).

Tony Strikes Again!

A while ago we debated the existence or spoofness of one Rabbi Tony Jutner, a fellow who posts outlandish comments on articles of The Forward. One of the editors later told me he's convinced the fellow doesn't exist, and he deletes his comments when he sees them.

Well, he's back, is Tony, and this time he's clearly here for the fun. David Hazony has written a column about the need to preserve archeological findings in what will probably one day become Palestinian territory. His article is reasonable, though some of the subsequent comments add complexity to the issue. Then there's Tony:

I say give them the scrolls. It would be a goodwill gesture where it is badly needed. The scrolls dont inform my daily existence. However, if the Palestinians insisted on Portnoys Complaint, I woould resist this with all my soul

And I say, Forward People, please don't delete this one. It's an interesting attempt at deflating the seriousness of some of our discussions, and spoofs can also be part of the debate, why not?

Monday, January 25, 2010

Black Bus

Anat Tzruya, a talented creator of documentary films, has recently released her third, which, like it's predecessors, immediately began garnering prizes. The 74-minute film tells of the repression of Haredi women, and focuses mostly on the segregated "black buses" in Bnei Brak and some areas of Jerusalem, where men sit up front and women - in back. The heroines of her film are two young women who grew up in the haredi world and left: Sarah Einhorn has a blog about the strange things that happen in the haredi world, and Shlomit, now a law student in Jerusalem, compulsively returns again and again to the neighborhood she left and photographs its denizens. (Update: Sarah Einfeld, not Einhorn, and her blog is here)

It's a compelling film,and underlines how very far away the haredis are from the world the rest of us live in, even if geographically they live amongst us.

The NIF, New Israel Fund, a left-leaning philanthropic third-sector operation which supports many of the Israel NGOs of the Left and radical Left, has set up a new program to offer succor and assistance to haredi women who suffer from discrimination. They've also got a blog, here.

The film has an English language version, and will soon set off to be screened at international venues where this sort of film is screened. I'm not aware of Haaretz having written about this yet, but it will, sooner or later. If you don't know much about Israel, or if you learn only from a certain type of information outlet with a recognizable agenda, the film will easily convince you that the haredi community is well down the slippery slope towards totally unacceptable behavior.

Earlier this week there was a screening of the film, sponsored by one of our political parties, at the Hillel House of the Hebrew University. Here's my translation of what transpired, as narrated by Naama Lerner, who was present:
[After the film] Anat Tzruya got up to speak. Her language was abusive, and she'd never use such terminology had she been talking about any other minority. She set out to draw a profile of the typical haredi woman, since the students wouldn't be likely to know any of them. After all, she spent four years studying the matter. These are women who live under severe gender repression. They are purposefully kept undeveloped and primitive. They are cut off from sources of information. They live under permanent threats of the dangers of the outside world. If any of them ever try to contact someone from the outside world she will be punished and ostracized. They are demeaningly segregated in all parts of their lives - at home, on the street, on buses, everywhere. They must have permission from their husband and a rabbi for any activity. They plead and beg to be let out of the pit into which they've been thrust, but are not allowed out and fear the repercussions if they try. Some of them called her secretly, and begged of her that she do something about the buses, which is what motivated her to dedicate four hard years with no remuneration to the matter....
So far, roughly what you'd expect. Naama's report then takes an interesting turn. She quickly raised her hand and was allowed to pose the first question from the public:
I identified myself by my full name - I've got nothing to hide, after all. I'm from a hassidic family. I studied in Beit Yaacov, the school Anat had described as the most backward of them all. I"m married to a haredi man from the Litai camp (non-hassidic haredi). We met four times, an hour each, before we got engaged. My husband is a rabbi on a haredi court. We've been married 25 years, and our sons are all haredi, and learn in haredi yeshivas. We have one granddaughter and a pregnant daughter-in-law. We don't own a television, and if a non-haredi freind hadn't told me about this film I'd never have heard of it. Having said all that, however, for all my soul searching I cannot see a single point of contact between my life and anything portrayed by Ms. Tzruya, nor can I think of a single one of the hundreds of women whom I know who would recognize themselves in any way.
From this point, most of the questions from the public went to Naama, not Anat, and Naama remained talking with some of the students long after the event was over:
Some of the questions were ridiculous, such as if my husband knew I was here and had he authorized my coming. Some were thoughtful and penetrating. After I'd explained how haredi women understand the segregated buses, I was asked if there's any way for us to forge a common language. The fact that I work in a human rights organization and have full command of its terminology and ideology had them totally discombobulated.
What can I say? I've got some serious issues with the haredi form of Judaism, perhaps all the more serious for being able to see them from a perspective rather close to their own, which I understand while not agreeing with. I've also got lots of respect for the parts of their world I find admirable. Either way, I've got a reasonable base from which to observe. I've seen the Black Buses film twice, and recognize how it manipulates its viewers.

Now think what happens when total outsiders with no tools to comprehend what's going on, barge in with their irrelevant conceptual explanations, and set themselves up as hostile anthropologists and prosecutors all rolled together. What are the odds they'll learn anything?

Recruiting the Wrong People

Siblings or children of people killed in the IDF serve in combat units only with parental consent. You'd think this would be a good thing, enabling bereaved families to avoid losing a second family member. The problem is that in many cases, the young man (it's usually men) insists on serving in a combat unit, and sees his mother (if she's the widow) or his parents (if his brother was killed) as blameworthy for not allowing him to serve as he "ought". Sometimes the parents give in; and sometimes after they do, the young man is killed, leaving the twice bereaved parent with the additional grief of having allowed it to happen.

I don't know why the IDF doesn't simply refuse to recruit bereaved young men to combat units. Back in Israel's early years there may have been a serious dearth of qualified young men to serve in some units, but there's hardly such a problem these days; moreover, there's no lack of important jobs that need to be done which don't involve combat. The poor mother shouldn't be the one who decides, and the one to face the reproach of her young son who doesn't understand mortality, even after having lost a brother or father.

Apparently the army is finally recognizing the problem, though according to Tzachi Hanegbi, they've still not reached the position they should be in.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Mother of All Floods

Yossie Fatael, managing Director, Israel Travel Agents Associations, back from the Negev with pictures and films from last week's floods.

A Comment to President Obama

President Obama tells Time Magazine he and his team didn't anticipate how hard peacemaking between Israelis and Palestinians would be.
I'll be honest with you. A) This is just really hard. Even for a guy like George Mitchell, who helped bring about the peace in Northern Ireland. This is as intractable a problem as you get. B) Both sides — the Israelis and the Palestinians — have found that the political environment, the nature of their coalitions or the divisions within their societies, were such that it was very hard for them to start engaging in a meaningful conversation. And I think that we overestimated our ability to persuade them to do so when their politics ran contrary to that. From [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas' perspective, he's got Hamas looking over his shoulder and, I think, an environment generally within the Arab world that feels impatient with any process.
You're the president of the United States of America. The single most powerful individual in the world, with the best decision-making infrastructure ever. All you needed to do was read some Hebrew and Arabic language newspapers - nothing deep and profound - to know that the sides are too far apart for easy peace-making.

Of course, you don't read either Hebrew or Arabic, but that's what staff is for. Nor is anything they'd have told you hard to grasp. The Israelis thought they were making peace in the 1990s, and ended up with suicide bombers in their city centers; they tried unilaterally moving out of Lebanon in 2000 and Gaza in 2005, and got two wars in response. So they're wary. They'd be suicidal if they weren't. Nor are they feeling particularly generous, full of brotherly love for the folks who've been doing their best to kill their children.

The Palestinians I can't speak for, but from listening closely to lots of people who've been listening closely to them, it seems to me they've yet to reconcile themselves to the finality of a Jewish State on land they feel is theirs by right, and theirs alone. Certainly ever more of their English-speaking allies feel the Jewish position can't be justified, so even if lots of Palestinians might once have begun to resign themselves, why should they? Lots of people tell them they're right not to give up.

None of this is hard to understand. The American president, however, influences the scene merely by looking at it, not to mention when he intervenes. That's also not hard to understand.
if we had anticipated some of these political problems on both sides earlier, we might not have raised expectations as high.
Mr President, it's people's lives you're fiddling with. This isn't the autonomy of banks, not numbers of unemployed, nor even the eventual cost of insuring people from illness. When you intervene first and then set out to understand only second (and I'm not clear you do yet, even now), people will die.

Contracts, the Iternationale, and Massachussets

We're nearing the end of Bava Batra, the longest of all tractates. The final chapter, from page 150, deals with the technicalities of contracts: who writes them, what's their correct form, and so on. On page 157a there are a number of sayings and stories from Abayeh, one of the major scholars of the 4th generation of Babylonian Amoraim, so early 4th century. Thus, if someone asks for an example of your signature, always write it at the top of the page, otherwise they may write obligations above it and you'll have to meet them. The Gemarah then tells of a Jewish tax collector who came before Abayeh: "If your honor would give me a sample of his signature, in the future I"ll be able to reduce the tax on scholars recommended in writing by your honor". As Abayeh was about to sign at the top of the page, the tax collector tried to pull it up so as to leave space above the signature. Abayeh told him the rabbis had already warned us of scoundrels such as him.

We learned this page last week. Also last week, the New York Times had an article about internet passwords and how many of us make it easy for hackers to break through them. Apparently the single most common password is "123456", and many millions of users use one of 20 popular passwords.

The differences between the world of 310 and 2010 are too numerous to count. The issues, whoever, are exactly precisely the same. Abayeh, were he alive today teaching Bava batra, would easily recognize our modern day scoundrels, and would remind us that "the rabbis already warned us about them".

In 1871, in the excitement of the Paris Commune, a fellow named Eugene Pottier wrote a poem called the Internationale. Within a few decades it was the socialists' anthem world wide, and after 1918 it became the anthem of the Soviet Union. It never really caught on in the United States, but in many parts of the world it was the rousing anthem. Israeli socialists were still singing it into the 1980s (though I expect they're mostly glad we've forgotten this). The song had many versions in dozens of languages, but all included the theme
This is the eruption of the end
Of the past let us wipe the slate clean
Enslaved masses, arise, arise
The world is about to change its foundation
or, in a more rousing rendition:
For justice thunders condemnation:
A better world's in birth!
No more tradition's chains shall bind us,
Arise you slaves, no more in thrall!
The earth shall rise on new foundations:
We have been nought, we shall be all!
(Wikipedia, predictably, offers many versions. The Hebrew is a pithy "Olam yashan nachriva").

The idea of destroying the old world so as to build a better one has rather fallen out of fashion recently, to the extent that most people today don't believe how real the intention was. Yet not long ago this impulse was the motivating idea behind humanity's worst political movements, Nazism and Communism both (but probably not fascism, which is ironic as today that term is the one used for "whatever nasties we don't like"). In their different ways, Communists from Petersburg to Phnom Penn really did intend to build a new world with new people, and the Nazis agreed fully.

Yet the impulse is still there. Not, admittedly, through violence. No, today's inheritors of the idea hope to re-wire humanity and start history anew by smothering us all in kindness, I can't say it any other way:
Our point was simple and direct: "Your success depends on helping people believe that they can count on each other, that they are not alone in a ruthless world in which people are out for themselves, and there is a possibility of building a society based on kindness, generosity, and caring for each other. Unless your programs actually allow people to feel in their own lives that they are part of build a new society based on love and generosity of spirit, they will soon fall back into the older paranoid view-that we are all competing with each other and have to look our first for number one. And that will likely them right back into the hands of the most conservative forces in this society. It's that simple, President Obama: if your policies do not give people a personal experience of caring and generosity, people will quickly succumb to the fearmongers who compete in the media over who can make people most afraid, most cynical, and most angry."
Written and e-mailed last week By Rabbi Michael Lerner, of Tikkun Magazine, cited by Jeffrey Golderg, who seems to be on the mailing list. Goldberg pokes fun at Lerner, and right he is in doing so, but I'm more interested in the underlying theme. All that happened was that a Republican won a by-election in Massachusetts, after all. For Lerner, this is the demise of the chance Obama never properly grasped to change human nature.

Lerner is a side show, yes, but he's not Richard Silverstein or even Mondoweiss. He's been in the public eye since the Civil Rights Movement reached Berkley, Bill Clinton reputedly read his Tikkun Magazine even while at the White House, and perhaps his wife does still, who knows. He thinks it's possible, indeed, the only admirable option, to reform humanity into something it isn't, never has been, and - if Bava batra is any indicator - unlikely to be anytime soon.

(As an aside, sometimes I wonder what kind of rabbi Lerner is? He must have learned Bava Batra, no? How does he fit it into his understanding of the world? And also, since he's a strident critic of much Israel has done these past few decades, what does that say about Israel?)

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Responding to Goldstone?

Sometime soon the IDF's response to the Goldstone Report will be made public. At which time I'll read it and comment on it. Together, we'll see who else reads it, and who rejects it unread.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Democratic Decisions.... and Others

What are the odds that a large number of people who have been re-electing Ted Kennedy their entire life, will turn around and vote for his opposite? Pretty slim, don't you think? If it happens nonetheless, what does it mean?

I'm in favor of everybody, everywhere, having reliable lifelong health insurance. So may we set aside that issue?

I realize - and a number of readers made this palpable earlier this week when I blogged on an adjacent subject - that it must be extraordinarily frustrating to win a large majority in democratic elections, and still not be able to legislate your agenda.

The question remains: what does it mean? Too many people think it proves their political adversaries are fundamentally evil, or insane, or at least petrified by some irrational fear. This rather undermines the entire democratic system, where the starting point is that as a general rule a majority of the electorate will most of the time either make reasonable decisions or quickly correct its mistakes. If you don't accept that premise, in what way exactly are you a democrat? We've got such people here in Israel, small groups at both ends of the political spectrum, and I recognize the thought pattern. It's not an admirable position to be in.

Might it be the rules? Each functioning democracy has its quirks that snarl up smooth legislation, but also protect this or that minority from the majority, which is why they're there in the first place. The rules have generally been there for a long time, so they can't plausibly be "against" this particular government, or that one. Clever leaders know how to get their agendas through the system they have, at least sometimes, precisely because they know the rules and know how to operate them. This ability is ultimately one measure of politicians' true leadership.

Sometimes, however, a democratic society really can't decide. A majority of Israelis hasn't managed to get the Haredis to serve in the army or pull their weight in the economy (though there are inching improvements); a majority of Israelis would like to end most of the occupation, but that isn't working, either. In none of those cases are the minorities evil or irrational. They've got a different agenda, and they've figured out how the system can be manipulated to serve them.

It's a price a society pays for enjoying democracy.

The economist has a sobering article telling how ever more countries are abandoning democracy or whittling it down. That's far worse than not being able to enact a law, be it ever so important.

The Dangers of Peacemaking

All too often the goal of diplomats and other peacemakers is to achieve a document which somehow addresses or fudges or constructively circumvents all the issues over which a set of parties are seriously disagreeing, perhaps even warring. The assumption is that if all sides sign on the dotted line at the bottom of the document, the issues will stop hurting and everyone will get on with life minus the squabbles. With major squabbles, the architects of the document may even have a shot at a prize from Oslo.

And then?

What if it doesn't? (Make the issues stop hurting and go away?) What then?

The point being that for all the sometimes fiendishly complicated matter of forging an agreement, ultimately the entire effort is merely the prologue. The real effort is changing the reality to reflect the agreements.

This wasn't always so. For most of history, wars were fought and won, at which point the side which had won dictated most of what it wanted, and the side that lost grimly accepted; sometimes wise heads on either or both sides left the vanquished enough wriggling room to fend off irredentism. It didn't always work.

In the supposedly better world in which we now live, however, wars and war-like conflicts are not supposed to run their bloody course; rather, they're to be negotiated away. Whether this really works, and if so if it's really an improvement, are questions I'd need to think a lot more about before answering. The best I'd say right now is: perhaps. What should be clear, however, and mostly isn't, is that the intervening outsiders bear far more responsibility for the ultimate outcome.

What happens if they shun its consequences? Mostly, like nature once it overcomes artificial barriers, the conflicts erupt again, or perhaps never ended in the first place, no matter how many accolades were sung and prizes handed out. As someone with personal experience of living in such a post-success-disaster I can tell that it's not pleasant.

Do the peacemakers learn from their mistakes so as not to repeat them (see my previous post)? No. Not as a rule. Here's the glum story of how the peacemakers in Sudan in 2005 failed dismally to keep their attention once the ceremony was over, and it's not they who are paying the price.
But these planned elections have fallen victim to a general malaise that has permeated the CPA from the beginning. The deal was imposed on Sudan largely due to the relentless pressure of foreign countries, principally the United States. If it was to succeed, it needed outsiders to keep up the same degree of pressure after it was signed. Yet the war in the western region of Darfur, which reached its most violent stage as the CPA was being finalised, has eaten up most of the foreign diplomatic and financial resources that were promised to bolster the north-south agreement. So the implementation of the CPA, an extraordinarily complex document, has fallen far behind schedule. Little of the cash promised to build such things as joint military units, bringing together the forces of north and south in order to build confidence between the two sides, has materialised.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Field Hospital in Haiti

Jeffrey Goldberg is kvelling about Israel's field hospital in Haiti, here and here. (He also has a fine expose of the under-reporting of Egypt's brutal siege of Gaza, here, but that's not my present topic). Indeed, if you believe CNN or CBS, it's an impressive story.

I once asked Richard Silverstein why he only ever had bad things to say about Israel, and what that told us about him, but he rejected my insinuation: there's precious little about Israel that's positive, but in the rare cases there is, he's glad to report it. OK, fair enough (just barely). A team of Israelis saving lives at the other end of the world: moderately positive, don't you think? Not if you're Richard Silverstein. He has found a grumpy Israeli who has nasty things to say, and he gleefully amplifies his kvetches. The bottom line: Israelis saving lives in Haiti is a Bad Thing. (His blog, you'll recollect, is called Tikkun Olam).

Mondoweiss would prefer not to talk about the topic, but does mention it: why are Jews so great for everyone but the Palestinians? (Why, indeed. Let's see if we can think of any reasons).

As of yesterday, a week after the catastrophe, there were two field hospitals in Haiti. One was Israeli (the better equipped one, apparently). I looked for this fact on the Guardian's website, but was unable to find it. If any of you do manage to find it, feel free to correct me. Sometimes a lack of reporting can be as damning as a false report.

The interesting question, to my mind, is how come. OK, so Israelis are cynical and will bend over backwards to garner a positive mention on CNN, even if they have to cross the world and save lives to do so. This doesn't explain how they manage to do so, ahead of everyone else (or anyway, ahead of those who try at all). The answer to that, it seems to me, is that they think about such matters, and constantly try to improve. A fundamental aspect of the IDF (and of some other sections of Israeli society) is the commitment to learn as you go. Every event is analyzed. Participants, from the junior grunts up, are encouraged to think, and then to tell what they see and what their opinion about it is and how things could be done better. There are frameworks for learning from experience and not repeating the same mistakes (hafakat lekachim) - though there will always be new mistakes to be made, life being what it is.

Israelis go through more life threatening events than most people; they've got a culture that accepts and tolerates first-time mistakes, while encouraging everyone to think about how to avoid them the second time; and given their neighborhood, the potentials for future scenarios is great so at least some of them are thought about in advance. All this makes for abilities to respond which are greater than those of some other places. Yesterday, for example, they held a big exercise enacting a mass bio-terrorism attack on Tel Aviv by terrorists from Europe. Experts from 30 other countries decided not to boycott Israel but rather to come to Tel Aviv and observe the exercise.

Don't get me wrong: there is as much stupidity in Israel as anywhere else, and it hurts just as much. But not all the time, everywhere, and sometimes, mostly where it's most important, the stupidity gets sidelined. This can be a matter of life or death for Haitians.

Legalites and Niceties

Earlier this week I fortified myself with a large stiff drink, gritted my teeth, and set out to defend the right of our wrongs to have their say.

Well, that opened a floodgate of discussion. Much of it focused on legality, the universal application of the law and nearby important topics. This is not a field I'm that well versed in, but let's see if we can't disentangle some of the threads.

Within the borders of what was once Mandatory Palestine there are a number of legal systems. In Israel proper there's Israeli law, which applies equally to all Israelis and usually to most other people within the jurisdiction, too. In what's called Area A territories, that's areas under full Palestinian control, the law is what the Palestinians have legislated. Jews aren't allowed into those areas, so there's no question of applying Palestinian law to Jews. There are Area B territories, where Palestinian law applies but the IDF is allowed to be active and has certain remnants of legal authority. There's Gaza, which is 100% Palestinian; I have no idea how Hamas deals with the PA legal system, nor am I particularly interested. There are Area C territories, mostly rural areas on the West Bank, which were not yet transferred to the PA when the Palestinians decided to destroy the Oslo process in late 2000. These areas have a mixture of legal systems, partly PA, partly Jordanian, partly Israeli military law - and, to make the picture even murkier, in the settlements there's a big dose of Israeli law, but in a limited way. Mostly this means Israeli law is applied to the Israeli citizens in the West Bank, but not to the territory, and not fully. No Israeli government ever applied Israeli law to the West Bank.

Except in one way: Israel has what I'm told is a unique institution called Bagatz, the High Court of Justice. The justices are the members of the Supreme Court, and the chambers are the same chambers, but unlike the Supreme Court which is the instance of final adjudication for cases coming up from lower courts, Bagatz is a place where an individual can go directly for immediate protection from the authorities. In summer 1967 the Israeli government granted access to the people of the newly controlled territories. This momentous decision was made so that the Arabs might defend themselves from the Israelis. Yes. Over the years Bagatz has dismantled an entire Jewish settlement built on Arab property (Elon Moreh, 1978) and forbidden the construction of others; it forced Rabin's government to take back 400 Hamas leaders deported in 1994 (after a year); it forced Sharon's government to redraw the line of the Barrier in 2004-6, and various other such events.

Before continuing let's note that a very large number of Palestinians - probably 85-90% of them - live under Palestinian law, in Gaza and areas A and B. Israeli law doesn't effect them at all. In Gaza, since there's no occupation at all anymore, even Bagatz is no longer relevant: as good a sign as any that the Palestinians of Gaza recognize they're no longer being occupied being the fact that they don't turn to Bagatz anymore, and how could they? They're not under Israeli jurisdiction in any way.

Then there's Jerusalem. In June 1967 Israel applied its law to an area - mostly empty hilltops - around Jerusalem; thus was born "East Jerusalem", an entity that had never previously existed in that form. It had something like 70,000 Arabs, many of whom didn't think they lived in Jerusalem at all but rather in villages near the city.

If you wish, it's legitimate to add the many Arab and Eastern European states where Jews once lived but left without their property, and they can't get it back because since they're not citizens anymore they've lost their legal standing. But I'm not getting into that: those issues are all clearly political, not legal.

Prior to 1948 there was Jewish property in what became the West Bank, and there was Palestinian property in what became Israel. No Jews became Jordanian citizens. Some Palestinians became Israeli citizens, and by and large they retained their property, though not always. Some Israeli Palestinians lost title to their property in various cases, as did some Jews, too, and there are even a few ugly cases such as Ikrit and Bir'am where it's hard to justify how the Arab property was taken over. In the large picture, however, these were minor lapses.

(There was Jewish property in Kfar Darom, in Gaza, but after a long and convoluted story, it doesn't belong to Jews anymore.)

After 1967 some efforts were made by Jews to re-acquire their property in what had been Jordanian controlled areas. I'm not acquainted with each case, but 42 years later we're talking about a small part of the Gush Etzion settlements, five buildings in Hebron - and that's it. As a general statement, Israeli's who have acquired land or property on the West Bank needed either to get it from the government if it didn't previously belong to any individual (most of the settlements), or they had to buy it.

Non-Israeli Palestinians can't get their pre-1948 property back, just like the Jewish Iraqis or Poles can't.

Jerusalem is the trickiest part of the story. The Palestinians of East Jerusalem are either citizens or permanent residents, so the applicable law is Israeli law, which makes no distinction between Jews or Arabs. I don't know the percentages, but I'd guess that about 99.9% of what is now Jewish property in East Jerusalem was acquired through government action. Some of it was confiscated from Jews, more was confiscated from Arabs, and most wasn't confiscated because it didn't belong to individuals. The story of Sheikh Jarrah, where individual Jews are trying to re-acquire pre-1948 property is very rare, and it's mostly not working. In places like Siluan-Shiloach (the City of David area), the Muslim quarter of the Old City, the Mount of Olives, and even Sheikh Jarrah, most of the Jews moving in have bought the properties they're moving into. The most recent case, in Sheihk Jarrah, is unusual because a few families refused to pay rent and were eventually evicted. Their neighbors who did pay rent are still there and will probably remain.

Arabs living in homes they owned were not evicted even when fields around them were being confiscated, which is why there are Palestinians living in their homes inside Jews neighborhoods such as Gilo, East Talpiot, Pisgat Zeev and French Hill.