Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Ministry of Truth

George Orwell must be dancing in his grave.

Glenn Greenwald today compared the Nazi invasion of Austria, the Sudetenland and Czechoslovakia, with the American invasion of Iraq. By the end of the same post he hedges his bets, and adds that he's not really making the comparison, unless he is but he isn't. Having seen the firestorm of protest he ignited, he than adds three times that he didn't make the comparison.

Joe Klein tears into him here,and the whole thing started with an argument with Jeffrey Goldberg.

Here's my input, on a point no-one else seems to be noticing: There was no Nazi invasion of the Sudetenland, no invasion of Slovakia, hardly one of Austria and even less of Bohemia. Nazi Germany brutally invaded many countries, but those weren't among them. Go check the history books and see if I know what I'm talking about. Glenn Greenwald surely doesn't.

Update: somewhere down in the comments I've responded with additional facts.

It's the Story, Stupid, and Its Telling

Didi Remez contacted me yesterday to tell me he really didn't like my post about Bernard Avishai's Post about Silwan. He berated me for various misdemeanors such as not being up to date on my archeological reading, defining Judaism too narrowly for his taste, nationalism too broadly, and enlightenment too wrongly. It was a fun exchange of no lasting value, and I'm not going to try to refute him here.

There was however one memorable moment, when Didi said that he saw no significance one way or the other to the possibility that some "Proto-Jews" may or may not have lived on the small hillock south of today's Old City in the 10th century BCE. When I inquired about the term proto-Jew he implied I was changing the subject, or whatever.

Since identity is at the very heart of the entire Israel-Arab century-old war, as well as a few other wars that come to mind, and some non-war issues such as how women dress in Barcelona (previous post) and various other topics, it occurs to me there may be value in a quick explanation of how I understand Jewish identity.

Jews are not a racial group, although it is interesting and gratifying to learn that the more DNA research done, the more the Jews begin to look like a mildly inbred group that lived near the Eastern Mediterranean some three thousand years ago. Poland, apparently, really isn't "home", nor Iraq. The Palestinians, however, also seem to be of the same stock, and anyway, DNA research has very little contemporary political significance.

Jews are a religious group, of course, a fact which enables people to join, but for the past 250 years or so ever more Jews don't regard themselves as religious, but do define themselves as Jews. Also, while I've never heard of a religious Jew claiming not to be a Jew, and am not certain how that might work, non-religious Jews sometimes do define themselves out, and in the cases where everyone else accepts this, they effectively aren't anymore (though in many cases someone else later decided their children or grandchildren are...).

My personal preference has always been for the story-telling definition. Jews are the group which remembers the story of the Jews as its own story, while continuing the discussion about it.

Did the Jews of the Biblical era live the same way we do? Of course not. But we've taken their story and have been living in its ensuing chapters ever since. We've been reading their recounting of it, but also adding layers to the recounting, ever since. Our Jewish cultural baggage is of course much bulkier than that of earlier generations, since we keep on adding layers and generally don't discard much, but we're part of the same continuum.

The upshot, as I told Didi, is that the Jews living in Jerusalem 3000 years ago aren't proto anything, they're us. Just as the child I grew out of isn't a proto-Yaacov, nor was there ever a proto-Didi. Those ancient folks in Jerusalem may well be our direct ancestors, but the important connection is not of DNA, it's one of storytelling. A few of them wrote the Psalms while sitting on that hillock, and we've been reading those psalms n their original wording, and commenting on them every single day in the interval, from then till now. And onwards, too.

Living Law, International Law, and Meddling Snobs

I was recently involved on the edge of a legal case in which Side A demanded that Side B pay it some 50,000 Shekels (that's a bit less than $13,000). On the face of it, simply reading the relevant law, Side A's case looked plausible. Side B, however, wasn't interested in paying, and went to court. Since Side B's lawyer was better than Side A's (he was also nastier), the court ended up awarding Side A less than a third of what they had demanded.

That's what the living law looks like. There are the dry words in the rule book, there are interpretations, different ways of applying them, external considerations which turn out not to be so external after all, and so on. Lawyers may not be a popular species, but they've got their uses. If it was enough simply to legislate a law and then live by it, the world might be simpler but it's hard to see how it would be better (sigh).

This is one reason why the entire industry of international-law-punditry is ridiculous. The idea that some dames and fellows sitting in air-conditioned offices in London, say, or New York or Paris, can pontificate on the legality of actions being taken in faraway lands, is laughable - or should be.

What makes it even worse is that those dames and fellows are peddling a Weltanschauung, not some hypothetical pure law. This is inevitable, of course, since legal systems reflect the incremental and aggregate positions of the society they come from, not some objective truth. Don't get me wrong on this: I'm a firm believer in objective truth, in the cases it can be determined, but laws aren't about it, they're about organizing society. The International Law Brigades, however, don't accept that. According to them, there's a credo of sanctified principles by which all human society is obliged to live, and their job is to admonish and rebuke the delinquents, from their seat high above the fray, so high it can't be contaminated by nasty things such as reality, political compromise, accommodation of contradictory needs, or anything contaminating like all that.

Take this example. Some Spanish legislators are about to discuss a ban against full-face veils. Seen from the perspective of the philosophy of law, it's a fascinating subject, quite complex. There's the freedom of women to dress as their religion demands (assuming it does, which may or may not be the business of anyone else to say). There's the urge by men to control women by forcing them behind the veil. There the impossibility of telling which it is, and when, and when it's first this one then that one then this one again or not. There's the matter of disrupting fundamental codes of behavior and interaction between people,which also may or may not be relevant. There's the plethora of security and police measures required to preserve public order and the right of regular folks not to be harmed as they go about their business. There's the matter of the borders of the state: can it force someone to pay tax, buy insurance, refrain from making loud noise late at night, dress immodestly, dress too modestly...

Ah, and there's the matter of who gets to decide all this, and how, and if different societies might not wish to resolve the same set of questions with different sets of answers.

Not in the world of Amnesty International, however. They know the answers, all of them, and demand the democratically elected legislators in Catalonia not discuss the issue and search for a response best suited to the will of their constituents, but rather dutifully to line up on the line drawn by the almighty Amnesty International.
Amnesty International has called on law-makers in the Spanish region of Catalonia not to adopt a motion on Wednesday in favour of banning women from wearing the full-face veil in public buildings and spaces.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Legality of the Gaza Blockade

David sends me to this fascinating article about the legality of the Gaza blockade and Israel's actions on the Mavi Marmara. It's well written, and I've go no reason to comment, beyond to say (smugly, of course), that Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International don't come off as well versed in the relevant laws.

What Motivates Them?

Something like 100% of the punditry and blogosphere is fueled by folks' opinions about what makes the world tick. Minus the certainty that we're right and everyone else is wrong, what would there be to pontificate about?

The Economist this week takes a long hard look at Afghanistan. The most notable passage, to my mind, was this:
Even gauging what sort of progress Kandaharis want is not easy. Opinion polls in Afghanistan unsurprisingly point to Afghan unhappiness with insecurity, corruption and lack of economic opportunity. But nobody knows the degree to which these things drive them to the Taliban, or what sort of progress might win them to the government. Asked what NATO really understands about Afghan wants and fears, a senior adviser to General McChrystal says: “I think we know we don’t know much, though it’s not for lack of trying.”
Of course, we now know what happens when the military faces the punditry.

Monday, June 28, 2010

City of David

Bernard Avishai wrote the other day about a demonstration he participated in last week at Silwan. I'll write about this soon, once I find the time for a thorough article. I will however point out that Avishai's post emphasizes one aspect of the matter, which is that in their haste to reject the settler's and everything they stand for, some of Israel's Jewish critics are taking a position which essentially rejects the basic foundations of Zionism and even Jewish identity.

This site has been developing beneath the radar for several years across from the Dung Gate, where you enter to the plaza leading to the nearby Wailing Wall. Just to be clear, there is about as much evidence that King David's palace would be excavated by this project as evidence that Queen Helena actually found the grove from which the true cross had been cut in the Valley of the Cross. But like Helena's sites--she was said to be the greatest archeologist in history, because she never looked for something she didn't find--Barkat's City of David is actually meant to excite pilgrims--you know, guests to the Shapiro bar-mitzvah who are looking for something to do on Sunday afternoon.

If ancient Jerusalem isn't ancient Jerusalem, then what justification could the Jews possible have for the entire Zionist enterprise. Without history and its significance for the Jews, they really ought to go home to Poland, or Iraq, or where-ever.

Again To the End of the Land

David Grossman's fine novel To the End of the Land is to appear soon in English. The New York Review of Books has just published a section, and they've unerringly chosen the wrong one and added an irrelevant but nasty photograph. Still, it is a fine book, and the more people read it, the better.

I'm taking the occasion to re-link to my review of it from 2008, here. The only change I'd make in light of the intervening two years is to note that the extravagant reception the book had in Israel back in 2008 then petered out. At the time the book was heralded as the most important novel of its decade. I'm not certain that still stands.

Though it is on my short list.

Throwing his Glove

Jeffrey Goldberg calls out Glenn Greenwald: let's go see for ourselves. What a quaint idea.

Bleeding Palestine

The Guardian has a story today about how Hamas sometimes kills Palestinians it thinks are collaborating with Israel.

The interesting thing is that the Hamas graffiti in the article portrays all of Israel as bleeding and suffering Palestine, but the Guardian doesn't even notice.

Or maybe they did notice, and approve.

From Entebbe to Jerusalem

Maybe someday this blog will roar back into full action - it could happen next week, or next year. Then again, it might not. I'm too busy at other things - though I've got some interesting things to write about. But no time. Sorry.

To make matters worse, this morning I spent half an hour trying to get Didi Remez to admit he'd been hasty in a blog post of his last night. We've been banging away at each other here, back and forth, back and forth. There was never any chance he'd admit his mistake, of course.

Meanwhile, Claudio reminds me that he actually did imagine how the world would respond today to an Israeli raid on Entebbe; his summary of the (sort of) imaginary responses are here. It's brilliant and I highly recommend, but it's also in German, so be warned. I doubt Google Translate knows how to deal with satire.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Negotiating With Terrorists

June 27th, 1976, 36 years ago today, Palestinian and German terrorists hijacked an Air France plane from Tel Aviv to Entebbe, in Uganda. The hijackers demanded that Israel free 55 jailed terrorists in return for the 105 passengers. On July 4th the IDF stormed the Entebbe airport and freed all but one of the hostages (Dora Bloch had been taken to a hospital and was killed after the raid).

It's an interesting but idle exercise to wonder how such a raid would be reported today.

Anyway, that was then. A few days ago we marked the glum 4th anniversary of Gilad Shalit's capture and disappearance into Gaza. This morning his family set off on a highly publicized 12-day march from their home in the Galilee to Jerusalem, meant to pressure the government to pay whatever price Hamas is demanding for their son's liberation - something like 1000 terrorists, some of them convicted mass murderers. They enjoy significant public support.

Amit Segal, a Channel Two journalist, recently wrote an MA thesis about the turnaround in Israel's policy regarding negotiating with terrorists for the liberation of hostages. It has been about as total a change as imaginable: but why?

I haven't read the thesis, only a short summary of it which was published over the weekend in Haaretz (Hebrew, apparently not online), so I haven't seen the full argument. The synopsis, however, suggest that the main difference is that in the past, Israeli governments faced terrorist organizations committed to Israel's destruction and perceived as illegitimate negotiation partners; since the 1980s, however, the holders of the hostages have been perceived as at least partially legitimate interlocutors, so Israel preferred to negotiate rather than risk loss of life. Segal reinforces his thesis by noting that as far back as 1956 Israel had no problem exchanging 4000 Egyptian PoWs for four Israelis, as Egypt, although an enemy, was perceived as a legitimate negotiating party.

Perhaps. I don't have an explanation, myself, nor do I have a clear position (though I can't even begin to imagine the pain of the Shalit family, as Hamas systematically tortures them year after year in contravention of humanity and - for what it's worth - international law). I do wonder, however, what makes Hamas more legitimate a negotiating party than the PLO of the 1970s, both of which were openly committed to the destruction of Israel through the murder of its citizens.

Segal may be right in that Israel negotiates with greater ease now than then - not that the results are any better, sadly. It may however also be the case that the enemies have grown crueler, if possible. Israelis held as PoWs in Egypt or even Syria were visited - eventually - by the ICRC; their families missed them horribly but knew where they were and had some degree of contact with them. These days, Israelis in the hands of its enemies disappear totally. In the case of Ron Arad, who fell into the hands of Hezbullah in 1987, he was simply never seen again, and no-one will ever even know when he was killed or where he's buried.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Two Comments on Judaism in America

I had lunch one day this week with Yishai, a fellow from California. He gently chided me for being, on balance, pessimistic about America's non-orthodox Jews. His most interesting comment was that while seen from Israel it may appear they're drifting away, it's also the case that the level of ethnic awareness and commitment among America's Jews is higher than among any other group which has been in America that long (mainstream American Jewry hails mostly from the start of the 20th century, which means they're now into their second century).

The NYT has a story which takes this much further: apparently there's this publicly funded charter school in Brooklyn (Flatbush, no less) which looks like a Jewish school and teaches classes in Hebrew, but is open to anyone and has attracted lots of unlikely kids. America never ceases to surprise.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Hypocrites in Vienna?

The municipal council of Vienna doesn't deal with foreign policy: their job is to run the city. And to condemn Israel. But given their history, perhaps that's a local matter.

The "Occupied Gaza" Charade

Elder of Ziyon has been reading Amnesty International documents. In this post he compares their definition of Gaza to their definition of Iraq after the 2003 occupation. Will it surprise anyone that the definitions are not consistent, indeed, they're quite contradictory? No? Why Not?

A Cultural Thing

I admit that I don't see it. Actually, I do - it's crystal clear. But I don't get it.

The elected civilian leadership has, and must always have, full, complete and unquestioned control over the military. That's obvious; it's a fundamental part of democracy.

How the control is applied, however, is or ought to be a matter for deliberation and calibrated calculation. Just as Israel was right to block that flotilla but not smart about it, to give a recent example. There's usually more than one way to do things, and this goes for the relationship between elected civilians and appointed generals as much as it's true about anything else.

The narrative is that everyone, left to right, agreed that McChrystal had to go: you can't have a general bad-mouthing the elected leaders (though why saying that Obama was uncomfortable at an early meeting with the generals is bad-mouthing, is beyond me. It was an observation, probably an accurate one, and not denigrating in any way I can see). According to the New York Times, however, this isn't so: there was a fierce argument about balancing the need to discipline the general and the possible damage to the war effort.

But it was a short argument:
The press secretary, Robert Gibbs, walked a copy of it to the president in the private quarters. After scanning the first few paragraphs — a sarcastic, profanity-laced description of General McChrystal’s disgust at having to dine with a French minister to brief him about the war — Mr. Obama had read enough, a senior administration official said. He ordered his political and national security aides to convene immediately in the Oval Office.
George Patton, anyone?

I read the Rolling Stone article. There was bad-mouthing in it, and jack-assing, if there is such a word. The general and his staff come off as top-notch soldiers and poor politicians, though McChrystal's relationship with Afghanistan's President Karzai indicates he's not a bad diplomat when he feels it's essential to his mission. I didn't see any insubordination, and certainly no threat to democracy. Sorry: I didn't.

But as I say, this may be a cultural thing. As I've repeatedly explained in the past, Israelis use words differently than Americans. Very differently. This isn't to say there's a right way or a wrong way. My feeling after reading the article was that Obama should have pulled in the general, given him a severe tongue-lashing, the general should have submitted his resignation, and the president should have glared at him and said "Are you kidding? You've got a job to do! Now go back and do it, and I don't want any more of this behaviour from you ever again. Dismissed".

It's not true there's no-one who can't be replaced. Sometimes, removing a key figure at a crucial moment results in significantly different outcomes. Were this not so, we'd never try so hard to replace/retain political leaders whom we feel strongly about, for example.

I, for one, am uncomfortable that there's such a broad consensus in an America at war that careless words so obviously trump carefully-planned actions. This may reflect an Israeli feeling that blunt words are better than civil ones, since they're closer to the truth; it may reflect a lifetime of living near or at real war, an experience most Americans, fortunately for them, don't have.

Barry Rubin, another Israeli who writes often in English, thinks the real problem is that McChrystal's words were mostly true.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Know Thy Enemy, 2

Shelby Steele, a professor at the Hoover Institute, tells it as it is:
This is something new in the world, this almost complete segregation of Israel in the community of nations. And if Helen Thomas's remarks were pathetic and ugly, didn't they also point to the end game of this isolation effort: the nullification of Israel's legitimacy as a nation? There is a chilling familiarity in all this. One of the world's oldest stories is playing out before our eyes: The Jews are being scapegoated again. (via Goldblog).
So which is it? New, or ancient? Both, actually. It's new, because back in 2005 as Israel was unilaterally leaving Gaza, people didn't talk this way for a moment; newish, because in the 1990s, as Israel seemed to be handing over control of the Palestinians to their own government, it wasn't the fad to talk this way; vaguely new, because in the 1950s and 1960s, when folks were occasionally mighty embarrassed about the poor Jews of Europe, it was really bad taste to talk this way.

Ancient, because the idea that the Jews are uniquely evil is at least 2,000 years old, and never went away throughout, though it did rise and subside from time to time. It was also a motivating force in Zionism, the understanding that sooner or later it was inevitable that things would get worse for the Jews, and the time had come for them to take care of themselves.

It is this sense of community, forged both by the negative parts of being derided by others, and the positive parts of pride in the community itself, that underlie much of Jewish identity and of course Zionism. Not jingoistic "we're right no matter what", rather the more basic "we are we, we've got the right to be we, and we're important enough to ourselves to commit further efforts to being we".

The enemies of Israel repudiate that: "you don't deserve to exist as a community unless you don't bother anyone, and we'll define what might be a bother according to whatever whim hits us at whatever moment" - that's basically what they've been saying these past 2,000 years, give or take a century. There were long periods when Jews had no choice but to bend with the whims and accommodate themselves as well as they could; Zionism is the decision to build a whim-resistant place.

In this context, Assaf Sagiv's fascinating article in Azure is a worthy contribution, even if it has the length of an academic article rather than an op-ed. Titled The Sad State of Israeli Radicalism, he convincingly shows that Israel's far left is quantitatively different than its Zionist left. The Zionist left is in favor of the Jews having a state, and they hope to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians by partition (code word: 1967). The radical left is against the Jews having a state of their own at all, and have nothing good to say about it in any way (their code word is 1948). The Zionist left is sometimes uncomfortable with some actions of the Zionists; the radicals are simply anti-Zionist. They are against Jewish nationalism, insist it's an invention of European colonialism, and hope for its demise as an anachronism.

The irony of the radical position is that by joining in the general negation of Zionism, they're reinforcing the justification for its existence: it is irrational to single out the Jews, but since it's happening nonetheless, it's proof that the Jews cannot do anything rational that will make themselves acceptable, except for disappearing.

Equally ironic is the fact that Israel's anti-Zionists pretend to own some universally moral high ground, when in reality all they do is embrace the genocidal rejection of the Jews (either directly genocidal as with Iran Hezbullah and Hamas, or implied genocidal as in "the Jews don't deserve to be a nation"). According to them, Jews seeking national expression is criminal, while Palestinians seeking national expression is universal morality.

Like this:

Know Thy Enemy, 1

The American media is all a-buzz and agog about Michael Hasting's long profile of General Stanley McChrystal which appeared yesterday on Rolling Stone, of all places. Tellingly, most of the commentary is by people who haven't read the article, and are relying on the few who have. As you'd expect, this ensures that the soundbites at either end of the article hog all the attention, and the substance gets lost in the excitement. There's lots of excitement, however, since the soundbites draw an image of McChrystal as a rogue general, insubordinate to the president, derisive of most politicians, a loose cannon who threatens the democratic tradition of civilian control of the military.

Cast that way, there's sense to calling for the general's departure. One hopes the president makes decisions in a calmer way than the punditry.

The oddest thing about the article is that it never says what the war in Afghanistan is about, who the enemy is beyond that they're called Taliban, and what is at stake. It tells that the war won't end with drama or parades, but it gives no inkling of what the world will be like so that we'll know it's over. Of course, one might say that's not the job of Mr. Hasting, who is writing about the general, not the war, but that seems a weak argument. The general is worthy of such a long article because of his centrality to the war.

This glaring drawback is a fundamental aspect of the war itself - the war that dare not be named, the war against the enemy who can't be there. I've written about this before, and will continue to do so, since the idiocy of this strategy is - in my opinion - probably the greatest weakness in the war effort, and therefore a major threat to humanity in its war against the Islamists who would destroy it. (There, I've said it). President Obama may bow to the politics of the matter and fire General McChrystal, or he may decide the general's flaws may be commensurate to his abilities and order him back to work. Either way, the history books will discuss Obama's leadership over this section of the war, not McChrystal's. On that point, Obama's adamant refusal to say what the war is about is of greater significance than the general's career.

The New York Times this morning offers yet another example of how deep-seated the refusal to recognize reality has become. It's a story about Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani-American who has now admitted in court to trying to blow up Time Square, while making no secret of his motives. Not that the NYT accepts his word:

However, interviews with American officials suggest that Mr. Shahzad’s visits to Pakistan and the friendships he formed there were critical to his militant evolution. Mr. Shahzad seemed to lack “validation” from his family and work environment, finding it instead with “a bunch of like-minded brothers,” said an administration official who, like others interviewed for this article, spoke on condition of anonymity because of the continuing investigation.

Mr. Shahzad appears to fit a pattern among young Muslims in the United States who have joined militant groups over the last year. In contrast to their predecessors — the 9/11-era jihadist leaders who framed their movement in religious terms — Mr. Shahzad and other recent recruits carry the attributes of “foot soldiers,” driven less by religious rhetoric than by personal bonds and their sense of obligation to the ummah, or global Muslim community, the American officials said.

Comforting, isn't it. Militants - never terrorists - dislike us and do bad things to us because we're not nice to their friends. True, the friends just happen to be Jihadis, but Jihad, as we all know, can be a positive struggle for human improvement, so that doesn't tell us much, does it.

Can anyone imagine Churchill, say, or Roosevelt, or anyone else, pretending their enemy was "chauvinists who are perverting the proud traditions of the German nation"? Or "Militarists who have hijacked the beauty of Japanese tradition"? Can anyone imagine the West winning the Cold War had it defined its enemy as "Misguided intellectuals who have imposed themselves on the long-suffering Russian people"?

I don't know enough about the Japanese, but the other two enemies were Nazism and Communism. Powerfully potent ideas which motivated armies of otherwise regular folks to engage in mass destruction and murder of tens of millions. That's what ideas do, sometimes: they motivate people, inform their actions, guide their behavior.

Here's the sort of idea which is informing the understanding of children across the Arab World these days. Pretend this isn't happening at your own peril.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Various Stuff

Here are some links to interesting things which I'm not going to comment on in depth.

Chas Newky-Burden, a non-Jewish Englishman, explains why he writes a blog in support of Israel (called Oyvagoy). Even he recognizes this is a strange thing to do. We're so used to faraway folks spending inordinate chunks of their time fussing about us that it's startling when some of them go the opposite way. (Of course, there are a few such readers on this blog who regularly comment). (h/t Nomblog via Twitter).

Tablet magazine has an article about a book about the Birthright program. The theme: what is it more: sex, booze, indoctrination or what? Tablet is an American magazine, and the author of the book likewise, as are most (but not all) participants of the Birthright programs. Still, it is interesting to note that no-one involved seems at all curious as to the impact of Birthright on Israel, Israelis, or the relationship between them and their American cousins. It's almost as if Israel is a prop for the use of America's Jews.

In which context it's interesting to learn that some Israeli hospitals are setting their sights on America as a source of medical tourism. The sums are still modest, but growing dramatically, mostly as East Europeans begin to identify Israel as a nearby place with highest-quality medicine. The Americans already have the high-quality medicine (at least the ones who might consider coming to Israel to be treated), but apparently Israel can compete on quality and price, both. Imagine someone from the Mondoweiss Conspiracy having to come to Israel for medical treatment: how mortifying.

Amira Hass explains, from Gaza (where she once lived), that Israel lifting its blockade isn't enough. For Gaza to bloom, the Gazans must be allowed to live in normality alongside Israel, which will purchase their cheaper goods. Uh-huh. Can anyone think of any reason Israel might have for not wanting this? Is the absence of normality Israel's doing? Do you think?

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Fierce Urgency of ME

On January 4th 2009, about a week into the Gaza operation, I noted on this blog that Andrew Sullivan was moving into the anti-Israel camp. A number of readers took me to task for saying so, but in this line of work we sort of develop a sensitivity for what's plausible criticism of Israeli actions and what's irrational animosity, and Andrew was clearly heading into the irrational camp.

18 months later he admits that was the moment (h/t Judeosphere). Which is alright. There's no law saying people must be rational - though irrational enemies of the Jews need not expect us to take them seriously when they speechify at us about what we may or mayn't do.

What's noteworthy about Andrew's column is how odd his arguments are. First he spells out that Israel really angered him because it didn't have its citizens wait around under a steep increase in Hamas rockets while Obama moved into the White House and fixed the world. He really says this, and apparently sincerely believes it. Then he talks about how the American press is rabidly pro-Israel, but he and his fellow bloggers have now broken the taboos, thus allowing America to free itself from the grip of the neo-cons. Finally he cites the bravery of Peter Beinart as demonstration that America has broken with Israel ("the special US-Israel relationship is now over").

In the past I've noted how the folks at Mondoweiss and Richard Silverstein seem afflicted by severe cases of narcissism: they perceive themselves as heroic figures turning the tide of history, they're eager to don the mantle of the Civil Rights heroes, and they obsessively gaze at their navels to vindicate their greatness, their prescience and of course their shining morality. This means they rarely have time to notice the people living in the conflict, who are at best props for the hubris, and like all props, lack identities, sovereign will, or human depth.

Andrew's column is a fine example of the genre.

Freedom of Movement in Palestine?

Today, for the first time since the year 2000, a group of Israeli tour guides were allowed into Bethlehem. Not on their own, of course, in a special bus. This is in preparation to perhaps allowing them in with their groups - perhaps.

Bethlehem is about four miles from where I live, near the center of Jerusalem. At this rate, it's just possible that by 2025 Jews will have freedom of movement throughout the territories of their ancestral homeland, and there will be no Apartheid. But don't get your hopes up.

Perhaps Not Easing the Blockade of Gaza

Israel decided yesterday to ease the blockade of Gaza. Or not. It depends which media outlets you imbibe.

Haaretz tells that the easing is dramatic, and adds gloatingly that the Turks did it.

The New York Times says Israel bowed to pressure following the Mavi Marmara incident, and the American administration is pleased.

The Washington Post reports that Israel is switching from a short list of permitted items to a list of forbidden ones, and speculates that this may be a good thing - the administration thinks so - or may not. We'll have to see, is the tone.

The London Times starts with Tony Blair, and continues with him: their evaluation of the decision is whatever he says, i.e. it's dramatic, it could of course have been even better but it's still good, and of course the Israelis must implement it as decided.

The BBC has a long report, mostly devoid of snark: they tell what changes Israel is making, cite American approval, underline that Tony Blair was instrumental in the decision, and end with a quote from unidentified Palestinians who say the whole thing is a sham. Ah, and they mistakenly tell that the blockade began in 2005 (which is when Israel left Gaza), when in reality it began only in 2006, after Hamas won the Palestinian elections.

The Guardian is greatly impressed by how the pressure on Israel worked, after its "deadly interception" of the flotilla. They explain what Israel proposes to do, but also explain that it's not clear what this really means, and then give space for various critics of Israel to explain why it's either not significant or not really going to happen. Unnamed "aid agencies", a top Hamas fellow, an Israeli radical NGO, those sort of people. Still, they add, the White House is pleased. Of course, the main reason must have been to foil the arrival of additional ships.

UNRWA says nothing less than Israel fully throwing open its border is acceptable, so this move isn't.

Juan Cole, whom I rarely read these days, starts with an article from the LA Times about how the Israeli decision is only marginally significant, and may well not really change anything. Cole then goes on to poke fun at Israel's security agencies, who don't understand the Arab world and are ridiculous.

Richard Silverstein manages not to notice the matter at all, so I don't have to link to him and you don't need to check - which is good, because he's inordinately sensitive to his page hits. Mondoweiss also hasn't noticed: odd, that. Those folks never miss a report about how ghastly Israel is, but this one seems to have escaped their attention. At least Andrew Sullivan noticed. He agrees with other bloggers that it's a scandal that Israel may wriggle out of an international investigation of the flotilla incident in return for easing the blockade, but admits the easing itself is a good thing.

The IDF announced it is expanding supplies into Gaza by 30% immediately, with more to come.

Meanwhile, watch the market: prices in Gaza are tumbling since yesterday. Not because shortages will now disappear, but because goods brought in from Israel are of higher quality than those smuggled in through the Rafah tunnels, and are also cheaper.

We're not talking about learned scholars disagreeing about an event from, say, 500 years ago. This all happened last night.

Never Say the I-Word

Newsweek, not famous for its biting politics, is uncomfortable that America's government refuses to name its enemy at a time of war, preferring to pretend - oh, I don't know what they're trying to pretend.
Hedieh Mirahmadi saw this trend firsthand as part of the steering committee for a conference on radicalization sponsored by the State and Defense departments and the RAND Corporation in mid-May. Throughout the discussions, the draft report on the meeting’s minutes was titled a “Defining a Strategic Campaign to…Counter and Delegitimize Radical Islamism.” “We made it all the way through the day of printing with that title,” Mirahmadi told me. “There were probably 15 drafts.” But when the report finally arrived two weeks ago, the title had been changed. The term “radical Islamism” had become “violent extremism,” even though the 97-page report itself, which was made public on June 14, deals almost entirely with problems in the Muslim world.
In Harry Potter's world, not naming the enemy was an act of fear. This seems simply to be an act of silliness - which is probably worse.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Let's Shoot Some Israeli Citizens

Says Mahmoud Al-Zahar. Nice of him.

He's got a whole series of codes in this short statement. Feel free to see how many of them you can identify, while I'm offline, and we'll make a full list later.

Turkish Delight

A friend recently sent me this link, to a strongly pro-Israel article on an American political website. It's a gratifying read (even if she's got a few of her numbers wrong), but that's not the point, since if you know where to go looking, you can always find people who are even more hawkishly pro-Israel than many Israelis. (Hint: most American outlets who don't define themselves as stridently liberal). The point of the story was the person who sent me the link, a moderate woman who doesn't deal much with politics, with whom I've had past discussions from the left. In recent times, however, the amount of blatantly irrational invective being directed at Israel is so outlandish, that she's seeking comfort from wherever she can find it, even from folks who are not her natural allies.

This irrationality is becoming one of the main stories of our time, and probably deserves closer scrutiny than I'm giving it.

Which is why Thomas Friedman's column about Turkey is important. Not because he's right - I fear he's significantly understating the case - but because he's got the basic dynamic right. The deterioration in Turkey's relationship with Israel is mostly not Israel's doing, and its slower deteriorating relations with Europe and the US are also not Israel's fault. Actually, the possibility that they might be, the mere idea that Israel be blamed for sovereign Turks doing what sovereign Turks choose to do, shows how bad things are getting, how deep the rot of irrationality is reaching. It's a glum day when we need to pat ourselves on the back that the top NYT columnist on international affairs is being rational, but that's where we've arrived. So at least enjoy it, because this also may yet change.

Death of an Evil Man

Jose Saramago has died of old age in his bed. The Guardian has two items about his passing, neither of which manage to mention or even allude to the fact that he was an antisemite. The New York Times noted his passing here, and offered an obituary here, noting that he once compared Rammallah to Auschwitz but missing the antisemitism. Ditto the Washington Post. The Sueddeutsche Zeitung, one of Germany's most important papers, titles their piece on his passing "The Moral Attacker", no less, with no mention at all of his antisemitism: you sort of hope Germans will notice that sort of thing.

Yet another case where Jews see one reality, and most non-Jews see an alternate one.

(Updated the final sentence following David Siget's comment)

Friday, June 18, 2010

Remember Soviet Jewry?

Gal Beckerman tells about the international struggle to free the Jews of the Soviet Union. For years this was a major story; most people have forgotten it, so I'm linking for educative reasons. Beckerman eventually attributes to the activists a contribution to bringing down theSoviet Union which is way beyond what they deserve or what common sense would grant them, not to mention that he'd need Soviet sources to say, not American ones. The Soviet Union did not collapse because Jews wanted out. But it was a dramatic story.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Music You Can Hear at a Wedding

Foreign observers can be forgiven for thinking Israel is teetering on the edge of a slope that will drop it to its destruction. (Some hoping gleefully, others fearing the worst). I'm not even going to collect any links, since you've all seen lots of them on your way over here; there are piles of them everywhere.

Though this particular article, by Gadi Taub who is a very reasonable and respectable Israeli observer, is worth reading. His thesis: Netanyahu and Barak are managing things so extremely poorly that the world is now convinced that Hamas is the victim, and Israel the aggressor; in Taub's opinion this is an existential threat for Israel. He's spot on about our leaders, and all wrong about the existential threat. (h/t Norm)

May I cautiously suggest that if the threat was so existential, we'd not be so up in arms about our Haredi cousins, see the previous post?

Yesterday the number crunchers announced that the economy is growing even faster than expected, and the initial forecasts weren't bad compared to the rest of the developed world. If the economy is booming, where is the falling apart supposed to come from? A society tearing itself apart, perhaps?

Last night we were at a wedding, an event which convenes hundreds of people from various camps, most of whom don't know most of the others, and has them collaborate on making a memorable event for two young folks to cherish for the next fifty or seventy years. We got there from the side of the groom, though our original connection is through his stepmother. The groom's family is from Georgia (in the Caucus, not the American South) but they've been here for a century or so. The stepmother's family used to be Old Yishuv, which means Ashkenazi Haredis who have been here for 200 years, or 300, or who knows how long. Most of their descendants are of course mainstream Israelis, not Haredi. The bride's family were mostly Yemenite, who came here either in the late 1880s, or in the 1940s, or both. The rabbi was North African.

The bride is a number cruncher, the groom a lawyer, and his father, if you're into cool stories, is an engineer whose company sells world-class special equipment in outlandish places like Columbia Germany and Pakistan. If you've ever heard stories about how Israeli society is divided along discriminatory ethnic lines, the wedding would have been a bracing experience.

The most interesting part for me was the music. The band offered the whole gamut, from a few hassidic tunes, through the standard modern-orthodox religious music, all the way into Yemenite music, some of it with Greek overtones. Most of it had been adapted to sound like Mizrachi music, irrespective of its origin. At one point, however, the band did a solid 15 minutes of a Yemenite dance, and the Yemenite celebrators, teenagers to grandfathers, responded in an intricate set of steps that I wasn't even able to capture as an observer; with the exception of the groom's family, none of us non-Yemenite tried to join.

I'll bet 98% of the guests have never heard of the Guardian, not would they care one way or the other if an aggrieved columnist there thinks that past English crimes have enable the greater crimes of present day Zionism. She and her ilk do not touch upon their lives in measurable way. (h/t Hawkeye for that laugh).

The Haredi Revolt Against the State of Israel

The stormy relationship between Haredi Judaism and the Jewish State is at one of its crescendos these days. In recent weeks the Haredi attempt to foil construction of a new wing at Barzilai hospital in Ashkelon was blocked; the Supreme Court struck down the decades-old system of government subsidies for Haredi families; and of course today we've got the story of dozens of Haredi parents who are going to jail rather than allow their children to go to school with the "wrong" children, in one of the most dramatic clashes ever between the rabbis and the High Court of Justice (which is the Supreme Court under a different hat). As I write this hundreds of thousands of Haredis are setting out to demonstrate against the court.

Is there any way to make sense of any of this for people who haven't been following the story for 300 years? Probably not, but I'll try.

One place to start would be the middle of the 18th century, when a charismatic mystic known as the Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760) responded to the preceding century of chaos in Eastern European Jewry with a new set of teachings. His followers took the Talmudic title of Hassids, and created the part of Judaism known as Hassidism. One effect of his teaching was to energize simple Jews who had been marginalized in the existing structure of Jewish society built around specialized scholarship. Another, perhaps unintended, was to create the institution of Hassidic courts (hatzer, as in the royal court, not legal court), headed by revered dynasties of Rebbes. (Oy am I oversimplifying).

The existing establishment didn't take the new phenomenon lightly, and for the next few generations there was a civil war in Polish Jewry (meaning most of Eastern Europe). People didn't get killed, but the animosities were so great that the other side was regarded as worse than goyim, intermarriages were forbidden, and excommunications were thrown in all directions. The anti-Hassids were called the Misnagdim, a Yiddish word from the Hebrew mitnagdim which means adversaries. Their single most important leader was the Gaon of Vilna (1720-1797).

Then in the 19th century, new dangers appeared. The first and greatest was the Haskalah, the possibility that Jews might join Enlightened European society. The legal and physical walls of the ghetto were torn down, and at least to a degree the Jews were offered the option of being like everybody else. (To a limited degree, but that's another story).

For some Jews, this was a Very Bad Thing. The ghetto had been unpleasant, true, but now that it seemed to be gone, what would protect the Jews from indeed being just like everyone else, and in that case, how would they remember what they were supposed to be dong until the Messiah would one day redeem them and fix the world?

Some Jews responded by indeed leaving, and in the 20th century the Nazis tried to figure out who their descendants were. Others tried to create methods of simultaneously being Jewish and just like everybody else. Others, a bit later, invented Zionism, as a way of being just like everybody else in a place where the locals wouldn't prohibit them from doing so. The haredi method was to fend off modernity, to create a reality without it.

This is not easy to do. It requires eternal vigilance, monitoring every aspect of life and shutting any cracks in the social walls. The most obvious measure was to freeze fashion: at the moment the shutting off began, it just happened to be that Jewish men in Eastern Europe were wearing the garb of Polish gentlemen of a century earlier, with long black frocks and fancy black hats. Since all change is forbidden, that's what they're wearing still. The fact that this makes them look outlandish is an advantage, since it dramatically reduces the gray areas and makes policing easier. A black-garbed man can't stroll into the public library or the local university without everyone noticing. The extreme enmities of the previous generation were mostly set aside, and the Hassids and Misnagdim banded together to fend off modernity. Interestingly, the Hassidic institution of rabbinic leader with power of decision over the lives of the followers seems to have been adopted by all haredi.

It goes without saying that the Haredi, as they called themselves from the early 20th century (the word means fearful, as in fearful of God's word), were against Zionism, which was an ultra modern phenomenon. Even though there had been precursor-Haredi communities in the Land of Israel for centuries: as devout Jews, this was the homeland. After the Shoah, however, there were only two places which seemed welcoming: New York, and Israel. In the early 1950s there was a meeting between Ben Gurion, who had rejected the haredi world in his youth, and the Hazon Ish (1878-1953), the generally accepted leader of the Haredi world to the very limited extent there could be a single leader. As a result of their discussion, Ben Gurion made perhaps his most colossal miscalculation. The Hazon Ish, reeling from the the extent of destruction of Eastern European haredi Judaism, asked of Ben Gurion that Israeli law exempt the haredi yeshiva students from military service so their studies wouldn't be interrupted, and they not be exposed to the extreme influences of military life. Ben Gurion, probably sentimentally thinking he was granting a stay of execution to a dying breed, granted the request. How could he have known they would come back from the near-dead, rebuild their communities, and spend generations breaking all the laws of demography by having an average of 9 children per family, all while pretending not to be part of Israeli society, not serving in the military, and not educating their children to participate in a modern economy? How was he to know that their birthrate would give them the political clout to dictate these terms to whoever needed their support in a coalition, until- well, we don't know until when, do we. So far, in any case.

The American haredi communities took the same path, without Ben Gurion. The military wasn't an issue, but having the state support them with subsidies was never an option, so they work. Yet the differences aren't as great as all that. The uniforms are the same, the staving off of modernity, the insistence on not allowing in the modern world and especially its education. The haredi world has hundreds of sub-groupings and strains (literally), some more open to the world, others less, but they're all pretty distinct from the rest of the Jewish world, with the exception of Chabad-Lubavitch who are another story.

Enter the mizrachim, the Jews from the Arab world. The Arab world didn't have the Enlightenment on its own, as readers of newspapers can tell if they're open to reality. In some places it did have 19-century European colonial powers who imposed it from above, and in many of those cases the local Jews eagerly joined, since life under the Muslims hadn't been so great. This made for a very different dynamic, and (again, in a crass over-simplification) mizrachi Jews haven't felt the need to fight modernity. Once everyone came together in the state of Israel, the haredi ashkenazi had no interest in the mizrachim, and when some of the mizrachim eventually tried to join, attracted by the high committment to tradition, they were rebuffed. They didn't speak Yiddish, they weren't part of the narrow accepted world, they seemed outlandish; they also lacked the fervent rejection of modernity. They also served in the army, and then went to work. Yet some of them really did want to join the haredi world, and were willing to dress in black garb and live by the severe strictures.

In the early 1980s they set up their own party, Shass, and their own educational system which resembled the haredi one in many ways. For various reasons their electoral power is about double that of the ashkenzi haredi, which means that in many discussions the haredi were now eager to have them, so long as they remained separate.

How much of all this fits reality? Are the Haredi really staving off modernity? Do they truly resemble "traditional Judaism", or even only the 18 century version of it? Are they really indifferent or even against Zionism? Of course not. None of the above. They are as modern as anyone else, both in their embrace of technology (and modern medicine), but also in their confidence that Jews need to form the reality they live in, which is of course the fundamental insight of Zionism. They may not be Herzlian Zionists, but they are as much Israelis as anyone else, and participate in the Zionist project as active players, often from the center of the stage.

Nothing demonstrates this better than this week's events. The attempt to stop the construction of a hospital wing in a city with hardly any haredi (Ashkelon) is an expression of their sense of responsibility (by their values) for the entire society. The anger that the court has knocked down a national system of subsidies which helps only them will be met by a determined effort to manage the political system so as to make the problem go away. The insistence that the court has no right to interfere with the policies of their schools is part of a much broader discussion about how active the court should be.

Above all, however, their willingness to take to the streets in mass demonstrations to ensure their rabbinical authorities stay above the secular ones, is a demonstration of the extent to which they feel this Zionist state needs to be more Jewish as they understand the term. It would be inconceivable for them to thwart American law - because in America they're guests. This, on the other hand, is home. They own it.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

IDF Soldier to be Indicted for Gaza Killing

The IDF investigations into the events of last year's Gaza operation have identified a case where an IDF soldier seems to have killed two Palestinian women in criminal circumstances, i.e beyond what can be justified by the context of war. He will be charged according to the evidence, and tried; should the evidence suffice he'll be convicted. Which is as it should be. We're a democracy and live by the rule of law.

Does this bolster the credibility of the Goldstone Report? Of course not. On the contrary. The biggest lie of the many lies of that document was that Israel engaged in a purposeful policy of killing Palestinian civilians. If anything, this case proves the opposite. Another thesis of that report was that Israel, alone among all democracies, cannot investigate itself. This case seems to say the opposite.

(If you missed it but are interested, my reading of the Goldstone Report is here).

Peace in the Middle East

The Egyptian Actors Guild is seeking to punish one of its members for the crime of participating in a film with an Israeli actress.
The different professional associations in Egypt forbid any type of normalization with the Jewish state and strongly condemn any association member who challenges this demand.
Israel and Egypt have been at peace since 1978. Egypt has no territorial claims against Israel.

At Nitai's Grave

Achikam (my youngest son, for those of you who don't know), spent most of the past week with a busload of young American college students visiting Israel on a Birthright tour. A standard part of these tours is that IDF troops join the Birthright groups. We haven't had much time to talk, and early tomorrow morning he's returning to his unit, but he briefly mentioned that American Jews and Israeli ones seem to express their Judaism in very different ways.

The last station of their 5-day joint tour was dedicated to Yad Vashem and Mount Herzl: Holocaust and Zionism, which not coincidentally are on the same hill, on the Western edge of Jerusalem: The Holocaust being the ultimate proof the Jews cannot rely on existing as a powerless minority among the nations, and Zionism being the movement to ensure they've got political power in their own nation.

The third part of the hill is the military cemetery: the price of having the political power. At the end of the day, before the IDF guys parted from the American Birthright group, Achikam took them all to visit Nitai Stern, his childhood friend who was killed last year fighting in Gaza.

Veteran readers may remember that Achikam was not able to be at Nitai's funeral, since he he was also fighting in Gaza at the time, so we went. This was what I wrote that day. More than a year after his death, he has now been introduced to 40 young Jews from New Jersey and Florida.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The World is Shot

I'm way too busy at the moment for much blogging, sorry. Not for lack of things to blog about, however, since the world has not grown any saner since last week.

If possible, even less so. The NYT has a prominent story on it's website about a really big blogger: I Can Haz Cheeseburger. None of this political stuff for you, this fellow knows how to generate traffic to his blog. Over at the Guardian they've got an unusually clear demonstration of how they're losing their marbles. A fellow named John Crace, who for all I know may be an archetypal eccentric Englishman, tries to explain why he doesn't like Melanie Phillips, Israel's best friend in English journalism. I invite you to read his column on the matter and tell if you can comprehend any of it. I mean, most of the words are familiar enough, but I found the sentences a bit hard to follow, and by the time I got to the paragraphs I was lost. This, in a newspaper that prides itself on its quality. Then there's They just sent me one of their routine recommendations for spending money on their products; this time it was a list of the most popular history books of the week. One, ranked 69 which means it's selling briskly, apparently would have us accept that our hunter gatherer forefathers 12,000 years ago had it much better than we do, what with obesity, bad teeth, and idiotic columns in the Guardian. I spoof you not: go read the book's web-page.

Unless the book's web-page accidentally slipped off the blog about the cheeseburgers, and isn't meant to be on Amazon at all. That might explain it.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Hillel Schaechter, 1923-2010

Hillel Schaechter died last week in Jerusalem. He was born in Leipzig, and some parts of Leipzig never left him. All the years - 14, I think - in which I was his boss at Yad Vashem, he always insisted on calling me Dr. Lozowick. I had a staff of 150, most of them younger than I, and everyone called me Yaacov. But not Hillel Schaechter. He would come into my office sometimes, "Dr. Lozowick, I know you're busy, but I'd really like to tell you about the files I'm working on right now". But I'm running ahead with the story.

He was 15 when Kristalnacht happened, in November 1938. He was a German citizen, but his parents were Poles, so the event was doubly terrifying: All Jews were being attacked and their property assaulted or stolen, but the Polish Jews were being deported. His parents hid on the grounds of a consulate, if I remember the story he told me. Each year on November 9th he'd come around and remind me of those traumatic few days, to ensure we didn't forget, nor overlook it because of the worse events that followed.

He had been lucky not to have seen what followed. In August 1939 he bade farewell to his parents, and boarded a train that took him to a camp that sent him to a ship that took him to Haifa in Mandatory Palestine. He was 16 when he arrived; if I've go the story right, he had an older sister who was here already, somewhere. (She's still alive, deep in her 90s).

He was sent to a religious kibbutz in Gush Etzion, thirty years before Jewish settlement there was defined as being illegal by international law. Later he was transferred to a different kibbutz,where he worked as his parents and entire family were murdered in Europe. After that war, and then after the one in Israel, he met and married. He and his wife had four children, and they lived in Kfar Haroeh, where he spent his career dealing with administration, and logistics, and accounting, and what's now called human resources; in the 1967 war he was still fighting in the reserves.

Then it was time to retire. He and his wife moved to Jerusalem; soon thereafter she fell ill and died. It was about then that he came to Yad Vashem, where the archives made use of his ability to read German handwriting, and especially the Gothic handwriting that has long since been disused so younger Germans cannot decipher it.

He had been an administrator, not a historian or archivist. Yet the documents he was dealing with were from the world he'd been born into; the descriptions were from his world. Many times he'd come by to tell me how important it was that the latter generations be told about the things he was finding on those files: irrational antisemitism of the Nazis; hopeless attempts by Jews to extricate themselves. It was almost as if, on the smallest of scales, his efforts were directed at fixing what could never be fixed.

One morning five or six years ago he came to work with a platter of cakes and invited us to celebrate with him: his eighth great grandchild had just been born, and he did the arithmetic for us: "I lost 36 members of my family in the Shoah, but I'm almost there again", he told us, counting his children grandchildren and great grandchildren. "That's my revenge on the Nazis, all those descendants".

This morning I went to visit his children as they sit shiva in his son's home, about two miles from the first kibbutz he stayed in, in 1939. "He lived to see 41 grandchildren and great grandchildren", his oldest daughter said, "he had a full professional career and then a second one at Yad Vashem. Yet throughout it all, he was always that frightened 16-year-old, taking leave of his parents forever at the train station in Leipzig".

He was a good man.

Does Anyone Choose the Nicest Idea?

Amos Oz is our best author. We've got lots of talented authors, but Oz is the best. That's my opinion, anyway. When Oz is good, he's very very good.

In a memorable comment, Oz once explained that when he's convinced about something, he writes a letter to the prime minster, or perhaps an op-ed. It's when he's not certain, he said, that he writes literature. So he must have been pretty certain, the other week, when he wrote a column that appeared on the front page of Haaretz, but also in the New York Times, and probably elsewhere, where lots of people read him and agreed with him.
But Hamas is not just a terrorist organization. Hamas is an idea, a desperate and fanatical idea that grew out of the desolation and frustration of many Palestinians. No idea has ever been defeated by force — not by siege, not by bombardment, not by being flattened with tank treads and not by marine commandos. To defeat an idea, you have to offer a better idea, a more attractive and acceptable one.
Today Dina Porat responded, in Haaretz but not in the New York Times. Porat is a professor at Tel Aviv University. She's a competent writer but not an artist, a knowledgeable person but not an orator. Her power as a wordsmith is reasonable, while Oz has the power of a world-class master. Normally, this wouldn't make much difference, since Dina Poart and Amoz Oz are both of the same political camp: secular, moderate, peace-seeking and deeply Zionist. Amoz Oz is a very public figure; Dina Porat I've known for many years. So far as I can tell, they've both been voting for the same parties, certainly for the same camp, throughout their adult lives. Yet something about the strident certainty that led Oz to pen that column set off so many bells ringing for Porat, that she publicly reprimanded him:

You say that "to defeat an idea you have to offer a better idea, a more attractive and acceptable one." This, too, is an enchanting phrase; one can only dream that an idea could be defeated by the proposition of another one. I'm sure you are aware that throughout history wars have been waged not only because of conflicting interests, but also opposing ideas that carried the masses on each side. The idea of white supremacy, the idea of the righteousness of Christianity and Islam, the Bolshevik and the Fascist ideas all claimed millions of victims, even though other ideas were proposed at the time. Western culture today offers an alternative to fanatical Islam: democracy, rights for women and minorities, education allowing students free thinking and choice, technological progress, independent cultural pursuits. Here is an attractive, very reasonable idea. What do you think?

Porat spends her days researching antisemitism; Oz doesn't. Perhaps that's the difference between them. It's hard to study antisemitism honestly and think people can be weened off it by civility or niceness, as if the hatred were only ever a matter of rational aggravation caused by Jewish misdeeds.

I don't pretend to be of the Porat-Oz political camp, so I'm allowed to say what they are not: Nazism was never defeated by an idea. It was defeated by the massive violence of the Red Army and the American and British air forces. Fascism wasn't defeated by ideas, either; it was destroyed by war. Even Communism was hardly defeated by an idea; it was defeated by superior economic prowess, which is why the Chinese Communist Party is still in power (that, and the treads of tanks in Tianmen Square). The human story is complicated, and there are no absolute rules for what works and what doesn't. Sometime this does, sometimes that, sometimes nothing works, sometimes no-one knows why what did work, did.

Still, it's part of our story that most Israelis know that Amoz Oz is wrong on this, while most external observers - those that care at all - swoon over the humane wisdom that he expresses.

Don't Lift the Blockade, Says.... Guess Who?

Mahmoud Abbas.

One of the points that Abbas raised is that the naval blockade imposed by Israel on the Strip should not be lifted at this stage. The European diplomats said Egypt has made it clear to Israel, the U.S and the European Union that it is also opposes the lifting of the naval blockade because of the difficulty in inspecting the ships that would enter and leave the Gaza port.

This can be read more than one way. The article would have us believe that Abbas is aware the lifting the blockade of Gaza will be a victory for Hamas, which is the last thing he wants. (Ditto the Egyptians). It's also possible, however, that Abbas is enjoying the damage the blockade is doing to Israel, and wouldn't want that to end, either.

The significance of the story is not that it won't be reported prominently anywhere else, but rather that it is being reported in Israel. There's a long-term and fundamental dissonance between how Israelis understand the world, and how it's routinely reported everywhere else. This dissonance is the cumulative result of decades of different narratives: the one about the world Israelis know they live in, and the imaginary fabrication most external observers tell themselves about.

(thanks AKUS)

Friday, June 11, 2010

Plan F

Forecasting is never easy, especially about the future, which is one reason I've had nothing to say about where the Iranian attempt to develop nuclear weapons is going to lead: I haven't the faintest idea.

Alas, it's not clear the Obama administration is in any better position than I. Which is a bit unsettling.

And no, don't say there wasn't anything that could ever have worked. This is not true.

Shir Eretz - Poem of the Land

Natan Yonatan was born in Kiev in 1923, and came to Mandatory Palestine in 1925. His writing, written between 1940 and his death in 2004, straddles the line between poetry and song lyrics, and I'm not to exert to say how one knows the difference. About 200 of his poems became Shirim.

His oldest son, Lior, was killed in the Yom Kippur War.

Shir Eretz tells of the love for the land, and its price.

Hebrew lyrics
English translation:
A land which eats its residents
and flows with milk and honey and the blue sky
somethimes even it itself plunders
sheep of the poor.

A land sweetened by its clods
and all its shores are salty as weeping
that gave it its lovers
all that they could give.

The white sqill/sea onion comes back to bloom
there on the single road
and the jasmine will bring back the scent
of its lost fields of time.

A land sweetened...

All of spring its ragworts return
to cover all the wrinkles of its face
the summer wind will be stroke its rocks' sadness
in the light.

The autumn returns with the weight of its clouds
to cover in gray all of its gardens
and the winter will close all those whom
its weeping eyes watch over.

Sasha Argov wrote the music. Here's Chava Alberstein singing Shir Eretz

And here's Ora Zitner

Here's a recent recording, by Marina Maximilian Blumin. The best shirim never die, they just get recorded again. Marina was born 13 years after Lior was killed; she came from the Ukraine, just like Natan Yonatan.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

NGOs, International Law, and the Persistence of History

Two interesting articles sent in by readers, both sort of saying the same thing: The idea of having international norms of morality so powerful they trump national sovereignty was nice when it started, but now it has been hijacked by unexpected players. On the one hand there's the international guild of silly journalists who know almost nothing about international law or when and how it would be applicable yet swear by it to castigate Israel and Israel alone; on the other there are the NGOs who were supposed to batter thuggish repressive regimes when their own democratic governments held back for Realpolitik reasons, who have now spawned NGOs from thuggish repressive regimes who batter democracies for trying to defend themselves - the prime example being, of course, Israel.

The article about the silly journalists is by Prof. Eric Hinze, here (h/t Tamara). The one about the thuggish NGOs is by David Rieff, here (h/t Silke, I think).

There's nothing new or surprising about the fact that the Jews, ever one of civilizations' mine canaries, stand at the center of the onslaught on decency. Still, perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Mavi Marmara incident is how extremely crass it is. When Israel bungled a defensive war against Hezbollah-of-the-genocidal-ideology, one could at least castigate Israel for its bungling. When Israel mostly didn't bungle its defensive war against Hamas-of-the-genocidal-ideology, one could at least plausibly regret the price of a proportionate response to Hamas aggression, and bewail that so much damage had to be inflicted to convince Gaza's thugs to desist from attacking civilians.

In the Mavi Marmara incident, however, not one single innocent bystander was killed. The act of enforcing a blockade was legal. The whole event was carefully framed in advance by ideologically motivated Turks, not Palestinians, and they may well have been backed in some form or another by the government of Turkey. Although the IDF was seriously wrong-footed, at the end of the day no major action had happened at all, not a war, not an invasion, nothing. Yet the pernicious combination of thuggish NGOs, abysmally ignorant media, and malicious or cynical governments made it appear as if Israel was slaughtering innocent children by the thousands.

Not for the first time nor the last, the world is going crazy. History is mostly constant on that point. Fortunately, this time the Jews can take care of themselves.

What the DNA Tells

Two new pieces of research looked at DNA evidence to try figure out who the Jews are. This has been done before, and the results consistently say what the Jews have been saying all along, though these two new projects seem to be based on broader evidence and techniques. The story, in a nutshell, goes like this:

The Jews came from the Levant (i.e: around here), and they share lots of DNA with local Arabs. The Ethiopian and Indian communities seem furthest out. There was a significant division around 2,500 years, when the Jews of Iran and Iraq seem to have largely broken off from those to their West. (Nebuchadnezzar, anyone?). The Ashkenazim, who lived in Europe from about a thousand years ago, and the Sepharadim, who lived in Southern Europe, North Africa and the Middle East (another name for here), seem to have intermarried more than you might have thought.

There was some intermarriage with the surrounding people all along, but not as much as it would have been reasonable to expect (whatever that means).

The NYT article mentions Shlomo Sand as being wrong, though I don't think he had convinced many Jews anyway, except of course the Mondoweiss camp who were convinced before he ever set pencil to paper, and will remain convinced no matter what contrary evidence is produced.

Israel, The Jew Among the Nations

Much of the international discussion in the wake of the Mavi Marmara incident has been a perfect demonstration of the singular position of the Jewish state in the world community, which bears uncomfortable resemblance to the position of the Jews among their neighbors in the days there was no Jewish state. This has nothing to do with the specific merits or faults of the matter. It's about the way people understand the reality of a Jewish state, and their relationship to it - in itself already a telling point, since most people in the world have no relationship whatsoever to most countries beyond their own, an important neighbor, and perhaps the United States for its unique dominance. And Israel.

I'm way too busy these days to have time to blog thoughtfully about the issue. Happily, Norman Geras does have the time, and yesterday he put up three posts, all of which should be read: here, here, and here (this one apparently written by Eve Garrard at Normblog).

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Lee Smith Interviews Michael Oren

Oren, of course, being our best communicator in years.
“Our critics don’t get it,” Oren said. “In Jenin, we went house-to-house and sent 23 soldiers to their death. But if we’re going to be called war criminals no matter what we do, then maybe that changes our thinking.”

The Road to Hell and its Pavement

I'm too busy today to be blogging, but Walter Russel Mead's post about the do-gooders and fake peace activists who enable the world's worst monsters is a must read. He may perhaps overstate his case - but only by a bit.

(h/t Silke)

Adolescent World Religions

There's an interesting discussion going on in the comments section about hard-line Islam and the extent to which it influences Islam in general. Which reminds me of a tongue-in-cheek column written about 15 years ago by B. Michael, who used to be a left-wing satirist around here, unusual in that he was also an orthodox Jew.

His thesis was that adolescence of world religions look quite a bit like adolescence in individuals, only it's measured in centuries rather than years. Look at how crazy the Jews were at 1,400 years, he said, with brutal internecine strife and repeated revolts against the Romans, who always won. Look at medieval Europe: clearly, Christian adolescence was pretty awful. Now, look at adolescent Islam. Frightening, huh?

The good news: everyone grows out of adolescence eventually.

The bad news: it takes centuries.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The NIF Supports Israel's Enemies

A few months ago we had a big kerfuffle about the New Israel Fund (NIF). At the time I wrote extensively about it, and was honored to host a couple of NIF spokespeople who tried to defend their organization: it does lots of fine things, they said (and no-one disagreed), and the allegations that they also supported enemies of Israel were unjust, unfounded, and were a McCarthy-like threat to Israeli democracy (none of which was true).

The other day I was surprised to see banners castigating the NIF on various websites, including Haaretz. I clicked, and learned that NGO Monitor was behind the campaign. So I asked its head, Prof. Gerald Steinberg, why his team was running the campaign, and why now. He told me the NIF had been attacking him and his organization in less than civil tones, so a supporter had felt there needed to be a response. Here it is, and also here. Judge for yourself, or ask your local NIF people if they'd like to respond. If Naomi Pass or her staff would like to explain their position on this blog, I would again be honored.

Aharon Karov, Father

Like all Israelis, I've been following the story of Aharon Karov since the second or third morning after his wedding. It was January 2009, he was a paratrooper second lieutenant who had been sent home from his unit even as it prepared to join the battles in Gaza so he could marry, then he was called back the next morning. We first heard of the story when his brand new wife was interviewed sending him her love.

Three or four days later he was mortally wounded in Gaza, and his family was called to his hospital bedside to say their farewells. He was not expected to live.

Then he did. My first post about him was from early February 2009, as he was sent from the hospital to a convalescence unit. He looked pretty bad, but he was on the mend, against all expectations. In March 2009 I reported again: he was getting better.

In December 2009 I had more to tell. Aharon and his wife Zvia described their first year of marriage, and an unusual story it was. At the time they were about to go to Arizona, to a hospital Zvia had found to have the world's top surgeon for rebuilding noses (At the time Aharon didn't have one and wasn't bothered, but she was). The final sentence of the interview was by Aharon: "There were always three of us in this story. Zvia, me, and God. The three of us did it together".

This morning Zvia gave birth to their first daughter. Now there are four of them in the story.

Investigate. Yes.

There's ever more information, misinformation, disinformation, lies, and bad faith in the spinning of the Mavi Marmara story. Start from Elder of Ziyon and follow the links. This will keep you busy for an hour, easily. There are photos, cropped photos, recordings, edited recordings, insinuations, allegations, you name it.

Everything I can see reinforces my conviction that while the raid was planned wrong, the culprits are mostly not the IDF. But that's just me. Anyone who wishes to be convinced otherwise, will. This is inevitable and unalterable. Yet since the case seems to me ever more black and white, Israel should be demanding an investigation of the sort that reaches the truth. We should be clamoring for it, not trying to prevent it. Our efforts should be directed at having a commission of inquiry staffed by professionals clean of any obvious bias, so no law professors from London who have already publicly announced their opinion before the investigation, or board members of Human Rights Watch. Real professionals, not anti-Israeli activists chosen for their incidental professional credentials. And we should be clamouring for a full investigation. Who prepared the flotilla. Who chose the "activists", and is it possible there really were two separate groups of them. What roles wre played by all the relevant governments - Israel, Turkey, Cyprus (two), Hamas, PA, Egypt. What information was available as the United Nations began its various deliberations.

And so on. The full shebang. There's a war going on between people who believe truth, morality, and moral behavior are knowable, can be identified, acted upon and evaluated, and people who couldn't care less so long as their agenda progresses. The ones who think truth morality and moral behavior are recognizable, tend to behave accordingly, even if inevitably imperfectly. The ones who couldn't care less, don't, unless cynically when the appearance of morality happens to serve their purpose. Neither side will convince the other, but there's a large group in the middle who can, perhaps, be swayed. We need to use the tools of rational investigation to clarify for them what's going on, and which side they prefer.

Myers on Chabon

Alex Stein, who does literary stuff, sends me a link to a blog about literary matters where the author has a lower opinion of Michael Chabon than I implied the other day here. Myers thinks Chabon is full if it, though he uses more polite language than that.

As with gushing oil wells, this also is a matter above my pay grade.

It Is What it Isn't

It's not my job to comment on oil spills in faraway gulfs. I was however intrigued to see this obvious comment, inserted in a series of statements effectively disagreeing with it:

Asked about the flow rate at a news conference at the White House on Monday, Adm. Thad W. Allen, the Coast Guard commander in charge of the federal response to the spill, said that as BP captured more of the oil, the government should be able to offer better estimates of the flow from the wellhead by tracking how much reaches the surface. “That is the big unknown that we’re trying to hone in and get the exact numbers on,” Admiral Allen said. “And we’ll make those numbers known as we get them. We’re not trying to low-ball it or high-ball it. It is what it is."

What an interesting idea: there's an objective truth to the matter, which is hard to know, but eventually it will come to the surface (sorry for the pun).

Now ask yourself if such a concept might be applicable to the matters I do deal with. Say, the Palestinians don't have a state because they're not willing to accept the right of the Jews to have one alongside them. Or, there are powerful groups in the Muslim world who are sworn enemies of the West and of the Jews, irrespective of how accommodating the West or the Jews may try to be. Or, the present Turkish government is informed by a deep animosity to the Jewish state, for fundamental reasons which are not easily influenced by fleeting events.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Hamas Blockades Gaza

You can't make this up, and it's so outlandish no-one will report on it. Remember that ship last week that tried to break the blockade to Gaza so as to bring respite so the poor Gazans? Well, a week later, the stuff still isn't in Gaza... because Hamas is refusing to accept it.

Do you think it might be because they know something we didn't, at least until now?
A Defense Ministry facility adjacent to the Tzrifin army base has been turned into a temporary warehouse over the past few days, containing beds, mattresses, couches, medical supplies, shoes, clothing, and medicine – some of which has reportedly expired. (my italics)
If anyone hears of this from a non-Israeli news source, I'd be interested in knowing.

Update: thanks to the readers who found mention of this story in various venues. The interesting thing is that the fact actually seems to be recognized, but it doesn't impact the narrative.

Projectiles fired towards Israel, 2002-2009

Interesting graph:

1. All projectiles were fired from Gaza; the Israeli blocking of traffic and movement between Gaza and the West Bank, and Israel's partial military control of the West Bank versus it's lack of direct control of Gaza have ensured that mortars and rockets don't get fired from the West Bank.

2. The inexorable rise from 2002-2004 reflects growing technical ability, not any change in ideology or political will. The steep drop in 2005 was the conscious decision of all Palestinian factions not to aggravate the Israelis as they prepared to disengage from Gaza. It would have been irrational to shoot at Israelis as they were about to leave,especially as some Israelis thought the leaving was a poor idea, and one didn't wish to strengthen their hand.

3. I do not know why 2006 is a bit lower than 2004, since by then the Israelis had left Gaza and there was no reason left for Palestinian restraint, but by 2007 they'd gotten over it and were back to the previous model: growing technical ability means more projectiles.

4. The total number of projectiles in 2009 mostly reflect the mass firing of everything Hamas had during the fighting in January. After that only very few projectiles were shot. (This mostly holds, so far, for 2010 also).

5. The Israeli operation in Gaza in January 2009 was demonstrably proportional: it achieved its goal, and then stopped.

Multi-Tasking Makes us Stupid

That's what it says in this report. Or at least, in the first part of the report. I didn't get all the way through it, because three tweets came in. I'd love to elaborate on the matter, but look at that e-mail that just arrived...

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Smart Jews, Stupid Jews

Rising young(ish) novelist Michael Chabon weighs in on last week's debacle and its long-term significance. He starts with a comment from Jeffrey Goldberg, about how Jews are supposed to have seichel, a sort of superior Yiddish ingenuity which was sorely lacking last week and has actually been lacking for a while in the way Israel goes about its international business. Chabon agrees with Goldberg that indeed Jews think that seichel in particular and high intelligence in general are what have been keeping us afloat these past few thousand years. However, he claims in his op-ed, it ain't necessarily so: there are stupid Jews too, and we'd do ourselves a service if we recognized that we're as prone to stupidities as everyone else.

As the mythical rabbi said, Jeffrey's right, Michael's also right, and the observer commenting on the contradiction is also right.

Allow me, however, to speculate that this is yet another of those cases where Israeli Jews have a different narrative than their American cousins, for the simple reason that you can't live in a country full of Jews and still think they're all smart, or even most of them.

You know how many Jewish idiots there are around here? First, our governments: ever since the mid 1970s we've consistently voted every government out that dared present itself to elections, with maybe two exceptions in 35 years. Obviously, we don't think our leaders are very intelligent. Second, our national pastime of kvetching is predicated on everything being all wrong. You can't kvetch about smart people doing things right all the time. We kvetch about our school system (stupid bureaucrats, stupid teachers and the resulting stupid school kids). We kvetch about the economy (other stupid bureaucrats, stupid business people, stupid customers). We kvetch about our military (stupid generals, stupid lieutenants, stupid suckers who do reserve duty). We kvetch about our airlines, the operators of the airport, the folks who take vacations in Turkey, the folks who don't take vacations in Turkey, the mayor, the plumber, the electric company, the Lefties, the settlers, the road planners, the doctors, the patients... you name them, we'll tell you why they're awful at whatever they do and ought to be replaced by someone more intelligent.

My point being that if you're a Jewish member of a small minority group, some of whom are outlandishly intelligent and others mostly intelligent, it's possible to pretend that's what Jews are and - as Chabon describes - overlook the intelligence-challenged cohort. If you live in a place where 80% of everybody is Jewish, it's sort of hard to pretend there's something inherently intelligent in being Jewish.

There is however another possibility, and that's the possibility that Jews almost always manage to produce enough intelligent folks, some of them extremely so, to deal with whatever threat needs to be headed off at any given moment, or to recuperate successfully if it couldn't have been headed off. In that department I think Jews as a group have mostly been pretty good.