Thursday, March 31, 2011

The UNSC, the International Community, and the Media are Worse than Useless

The Washington Post yesterday carried a story about how Israel claims the Hizballah has built hundreds of military targets in Lebanese towns and villages all across Southern Lebanon.

Note that the paper didn't lift a finger to attempt to validate or disprove the story. Validation is apparently no longer part of the journalist ethos. Israel says yes, Hizballah says - well, it doesn't really say - and us journalists, what are we supposed to do? Send someone to poke around and try to report from the area? Inconceivable.

Note further that there's no mention in the news item of Security Council Decision 1701, which specifically proscribed the re-armament of Hizballah in this area. There's likewise no mention of the legality or illegality of storing rockets in folks' basements and garages. The Washington Post doesn't do "illegal according to international law".

Finally, note that Israel received a solemn and official promise from the International Community as expressed by its highest authority, the UNSC, in August 2006, and the promise was promptly broken and almost immediately forgotten. Keep this all in mind next time you hear some fool or prime minister or president or whomever chattering on about the risks Israel absolutely MUST take for the sake of peace.

The Power and Denial of Biblical Stories

At one point this afternoon we were standing on the top of the hill where Sokoh once stood. Sokoh was a village in the bronze and iron ages, meaning before the arrival of the tribes of Israel, and then into the period of the First Temple. It's main claim to fame is that according to chapter 17 of the First Book of Samuel, in the section of the valley of Ela between Sokoh and Azeka there was once the most famous duel in history, between young David and very large Goliath.

No, not that Valley of Ela. The real one. The thing is, while Sokoh has been identified with certainty, Azekah hasn't; part of the story we heard today was about new archeological findings, some of them very significant, which may indicate that Azekah was on a hill about a mile to the east of where it was thought to have been until recently. So we peered at the various hills, speculated about lines of vision and ancient borders, heard about new evidence which probably bolsters the Biblical tale of King David's reign, and then clambered down to the bus in the parking lot at the bottom of the hill.

A few minutes later I noticed a fellow reading the sports section of today's paper. The title of the story, splashed over half the width of the page, was "The Battle Between David and Goliath!!!".

This immediacy of the Biblical stories, their automatic presence at the heart of Western culture, ensures that the Palestinian efforts to criminalize Israeli archeology won't succeed. Or could they? As Alex Joffe asks in Jewish Ideas Daily,
How long will it be before Israeli archeologists are unable to get off a plane in London lest they be served with a subpoena initiated by a Palestinian NGO?

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

America's Jews are Tops!

I've been getting locks of flack recently for being so mean to American Jewry. Apparently some readers think I blamed them all for being J Street supporters (most aren't), for not caring about their Judaism (many certainly do), or for being generally flaky-headed (I don't think I said that). Victor, Ishai and RK have been leading the charge, but it's become a bit of a fad, piling onto me and reproaching me for being so cantankerous. So by way of proving I appreciate American Jews, and even think they're making some neat innovations on the Jewish side of things, here's some music that could only come out of the American part of the Jewish world.

Neshama Carelbach, daughter of, has paired up with the Green Pastures Baptist Church Choir, my daughter tells me (my daughter is in charge of my musical education). Here, the Rabbi's daughter and the Choir:

Try and imagine that in England. Or Israel.

Sadly, I must admit that of all Neshama's songs, the one I appreciate the most isn't with the church people, it's Yehi Shalom - May there be peace in your hosts, calm in your palaces

However, if it's Jewish-Goyishe innovation which makes everyone richer you seek, here's Matisyahu, doing melting pot at its best:

Ah, America!

Feel free to add suggestions.

Checked Again: Still anti-J Street

A number of people, some quite thoughtful, disagreed with my position against J Street yesterday. Since I spent part of the day doing Pessach cleaning, I was able to listen to some of the sessions of the recent J Street conference. I heard Rabbi Saperstein, Jeremy Ben Ami, Peter Beinart, Bernard Avishai, Daniel Levy and Roger Cohen, and was also able to hear when the audience applauded for which statements.

Daniel Levy at one point made a statement about how if it were to be proven that the Arab world really isn't willing to live in peace alongside Israel "then Israel wasn't such a good idea, was it?" but then he went on to say that of course, the Arabs are willing. You'll pardon me if I don't feel compelled to regard Levy as a fellow Zionist in any form or way, even if he was once an aide to Yossie Beilin.

Apart from Levy, however, here's what I found.

These J Street speakers and guest speakers are more or less aligned with the positions of Meretz, perhaps a shade to its left. Meretz, of course, is a legitimate Zionist party, even though it has lost almost all its Israeli voters and hovers near extinction. Yet J Street isn't Meretz, it's something much more troubling, and worthy of our disdain.

First, Meretz positions sound different and more acceptable from Israelis. The reason the party has lost most of its voters is that we've empirically tested its proposals, and lots of people have died as a result - not once, but repeatedly, in 1993-6, in 2000 (twice, once in Lebanon and once with the Palestinians), in 2002, in 2005, and in 2006; arguably also in 2008. Having its basic assumptions serially disproved has discredited Meretz, but if after all that some Israelis still wish to hang on, that's their right; the rest of us don't take them seriously, and that's our right. It's actually surprising how very little animosity Meretz generates these days, especially when compared to their heyday. They're an oddity, and one doesn't get aggravated about oddities; one pities them, or suffers them for the color they add.

The J Street people seem not to have noticed any of this, which is either very peculiar or very disturbing. If they've simply not been watching, what gives them the right to have an opinion about life and death matters they can't make the effort to understand? If they've been watching and refuse to accept what is there to be seen, how exactly do they portray themselves as being on our side?

Second, there's a consistent tone of disdain of Israeli society coming from these people which I find arrogant and very distasteful. Americans left and right have lost their civility in political discourse; Israelis, admittedly, never had it. Yet there are codes in language, deeper than mere words, and the subtext of these J Street spokesmen when discussing Jews from Russia, religious Jews and centrist Jews, is ugly. I find no other word for it. Just as their compassion for Israel's Arabs (the citizens) is odd. There's a level of identification with them which is totally lacking when they talk about the majority of the Israeli Jews. I say this as someone who wishes only the best for Israel's Arabs.

Another widespread sentiment they've got about Israelis is moral superiority. We American Jews, we understand human rights, democracy, dignity and so on, not like our benighted Israeli cousins who need to learn from us because they've turned into an embarrassment. I"m not going to respond in detail to this, but it needs to be rejected vehemently. It's the opposite which is true. Israeli Jews, unlike American ones, live in a hard reality which beats down on those admirable human values and could easily smother them. Yet it doesn't. Israelis know more about raising children to be moral human beings at time of adversity, more about respecting one's enemy's dignity, more about respect for law under extreme duress, than most American Jews can even begin to imagine. How could they? When are they ever faced with true moral quandaries, or required to pay a price for preserving their values? Do Israelis sometimes fail? Of course. Are American Jews ever put in situations where they're ever even tried? Perhaps, but they don't spring to mind.

Then there's the matter of having enemies. Nothing I heard in all those speeches gave any cause to believe the speakers understand what an enemy is; they certainly can't imagine the Palestinians are such. To the best of my recollection, the word Hamas was never mentioned. The Palestinians, when they were talked about, are noble and suffering people who must be reached out to, must be embraced, must be comforted. I have Palestinian friends, and am seeking more of them; through them I try to understand how they see us and how they see themselves. Yet I never forget that so far, we're at war. I'm convinced the ones I know personally are all right, but there are many in their society who would gladly kill me, my family, and my society. There's a war on, it's not over, and it's not something that can be talked away with nice sentiments. War mean enemies: a concept - I repeat myself but it's a crucial distinction - the J-Street people seem quite oblivious of. So far as I can tell, they can't imagine an enemy, astonishing as that may sound.

All of this, serious as it is, perhaps still doesn't justify the distaste I have for these people. So they disagree with me and with most Israelis on many matters: so what? You know how many things there are I disagree on with various factions of Israelis? Heaps and heaps.

The difference between those disagreements and J Street is in the reason J Street exists: to put pressure on the American government. I'd add, to put pressure on the American government to harm Israel, but my Meretz friends will tell me it won't harm Israel. J Street isn't a talk club, it's a lobby, which intends to have an impact on policy.There's an extreme irony in this, since what J Street is essentially saying - quite openly and explicitly - is that the sovereign political decisions of the Jewish State need to be upended. True, the Jews didn't have the ability to make sovereign decisions until Zionism created Israel, but now that the Jews have Israel they're making the wrong decisions and need the outsiders to correct their mistakes for them. If this isn't anti-Zionism by Jews, I don't know what it would look like.

Finally, to sum it all up, there's the content of the pressure that needs to be put on Israel. All of the speakers I heard, and most of what I had previously heard and read about J Street, agree that the reason there's no peace between Israel and Palestinians is that Israel isn't interested, or isn't serious. At the moment they blame "Netanyahu and Lieberman", but Netanyahu and Lieberman were democratically elected (not by me - but they do represent a real majority). Should it be a different Israeli government, however, the J Streeters will say the same about them (since that government won't make any more peace than this one). So let me return to my paragraph yesterday about the Big Lie: I've marked the parts which the J Streeters clearly seem to accept, in bold; the parts in italics some of the J Streeters seem to accept.
The Big Lie of our day has a number or versions. The Jews are not a nation and deserve no state. The Jews have no historical rights to the land they call Israel, and even if they do, they're anachronistic and cannot justify harming the Palestinians. The Palestinians have been in their homeland for time immemorial, and were pushed out by the Jews. The Jews continue to aspire to ever more control of the land, and to ever more oppression of the Palestinians. The Jews' way in war is uniquely evil and cruel. The Palestinians yearn for peace, but the Israelis refuse to allow it, because they haven't finished taking Palestinian land, or because they don't recognize the Palestinians as equally human. The Jews protect their nefarious projects through sinister control of power-brokers, most importantly the United States.
I have no doubt many of the supporters of J Street mean well. Really and truly. But context is important, and when Jews say loudly that the Israelis are to blame for the lack of peace, or that they're immoral or becoming so, and that foreign powers must restrain them: well, that's anti Israel, and it plays into the lie of our day.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Conquests of Jerusalem and Israel's Control

After reading Simon Sebag Montefiore's very good Jerusalem: The Biography, I skimmed back over the whole thing to see how many times Jerusalem was conquered, in his telling. Of course, one can haggle about the word "conquer", but I'm using it in a broad and straightforward meaning: when the people with the power over the town changed as the result of some sort of military event. This can mean a full-fledged siege followed by mass murder, as in the cases of Titus or the Crusaders, it can be mostly peaceful as when the British arrived in 1917 (though there was quite a bit of fighting elsewhere in the vicinity before and after the conquest of Jerusalem), and it can mean hordes of marauders arriving, rampaging and leaving, as with Zenobia, a woman leading Palmyrian troops in the year 260, or Barkha Kahn in 1244.

It must also be said that there's an element of uncertainty about some of these conquests, either because Sebag Montefiore merely alluded to them, or because no-one really knows and therefore he wrote so briefly. There is also almost no way of knowing about the first 2,000 years of the town before the arrival of David: there's next to no data.

The number I reached was 61. I encourage everyone to read his book, so I'm not going to give any descriptions, but here are the dates and names of the conquerors:

1458BCE Egypt
1350BCE Marauders
1250BCE Jebusites
1200BCE Tribes of Israel
1100BCE Judges
1000BCE David
697BCE Nebuchadnezzar
586 BCE Nebuchadnezzar
323-301 BCE Macedonians, 6 times
170BCE Menelaus
170 BCE Antiochus
167 BCE Antiochus
164 BCE Judah Macabee
163 BCE Nicanor
155? BCE Jonathan Hasmonai
143 BCE  Antiochus VII
64 BCE Pompei
44 BCE Pacorus& Antigonos
40 BCE Herod
66  Gessius Florus
66  Sicarii
67  Idumeans
70  Titus
130  Bar Kochva
134  Hadrian
260  Zenobia
272  Diocletan
602  Greens (Byzantine rebels)
602  Byzantines
614  Shahrbaraz
630  Heraclius
636  Omar
969  Jawahr al-Siqilli
1073  Atsiz
1099  Crusaders
1187  Saladin
1229  Frederick II
1244  Barkha Khan
1250-1260 10 years of chaos and alternating temporary rulers
1263  Baibars
1299  Hethoum II
1317  Nassir Mohammed
1480  Beduins
1517  Selim the Grim
1590  a local rebel
1625  Farrukh
1702  Husseini
1705  Ottoman forces
1831  Mehmet Ali
1834  local fellahin
1834  Mehmet Ali
1840  Ottoman forces
1917  Britain
1948  Jordan&Israel
1967  Israel
 Has anywhere in the world been conquered more times?  I don't know. If so, it would probably have to be somewhere in the vicinity, along the Fertile Crescent, since no-where else is there enough recorded human history. Perhaps Damascus? Not Baghdad Constantinople or Cairo, which are all younger towns.

The notion, accepted as an article of faith the world over these days, that the 60th conquest of the city, in 1948, was the one that sets the bar for legal occupation, so that the Israeli conquest in 1967 is illegal, is profoundly silly when you look at this list. Not to say idiotic, and not to mention that the occupier in 1947 was Jordan, not the Palestinians. One might say allowing Palestinian rule over half the city would create peace, but that's a different argument: pragmatism, not international law; it is compelling only if there's reason to believe it's true and division will bring peace.

Monday, March 28, 2011

How Many Times has Jerusalem been Conquered?

I've been counting, and the number isn't what I expected. If anyone wishes to hazard a guess, feel free to use the comments section.

Contra Jeffrey Goldberg: Lozowick is an Anti-J Street Blog

Jeffrey Goldberg is angry that Israelis are fuming about J-Street, and has proclaimed on his blog that "Goldblog is a pro-J Street blog". I'm not going to cut and paste any segment of his; you should read it in its entirety. It's a good post, written with the passion of his anger.

I like Jeffrey, personally, and although I don't always agree with everything he writes, I like his blog - actually it's the first one I read every day. Yet in the Jewish spirit of a squabble among friends, I've got to say that Lozowick is an anti-J Street blog.

Since Jeffrey starts with his personal credentials, here are some of mine: I have gone to war for this country. Both of my sons have, too, as we raised them to. I have been in favor of a Palestinian state alongside Israel since the late 1970s. Just for context: back in those days Jeffrey may have been too young to have an informed opinion on the matter; Barak Obama almost certainly was, and for all I can tell, so was Jeremy Ben Ami, the boss of J Street. Also, the late 1970s were more than a decade before the PLO grudgingly began talking about the two-state solution; as late as 1989 their official and practical position was that Israel must be destroyed, preferably by the force of arms.

Also, I have been against the settlements for all those years, and am against them till this very day - though I know the large settlements that straddle the Green line will never be removed, and I'm strongly against the division of Jerusalem which will cause war, not peace. So far as I can tell, these are the positions of a large chunk, and probably a significant majority, of the Israeli electorate; contrary to what Jeffrey seems to think, no-one is shutting my mouth, banning me from saying what I think, or branding me a traitor for saying it. Nor do I need faraway outsiders such as J Street (or President Obama) to inform me what's good for Israel.

I am also a historian of Nazism, and a student of history. I know that words are dangerous things, since they are the tools with which we formulate ideas, and ideas are what motivate people to do things, and justify their actions for them. Persecution of Jews over many centuries was because of anti-Jewish words and the ideas expressed and disseminated in them. Call them a series of Big Lies about Jews. The freedom and equality enjoyed by America's (and these days, by Europe's) Jews are the result of words and ideas. Call them Rational Enlightenment.  The war against Israel is also first and foremost because of words. Because of a new set of a Big Lie.

The Big Lie of our day has a number or versions. The Jews are not a nation and deserve no state. The Jews have no historical rights to the land they call Israel, and even if they do, they're anachronistic and cannot justify harming the Palestinians. The Palestinians have been in their homeland for time immemorial, and were pushed out by the Jews. The Jews continue to aspire to ever more control of the land, and to ever more oppression of the Palestinians. The Jews' way in war is uniquely evil and cruel. The Palestinians yearn for peace, but the Israelis refuse to allow it, because they haven't finished taking Palestinian land, or because they don't recognize the Palestinians as equally human. The Jews protect their nefarious projects through sinister control of power-brokers, most importantly the United States.

One of the odder parts of the story is of course that the most important propagators of this Big Lie are not only Jews, they're Israelis. No one persecutes them for their malice: we're not Islamists, not Arab dictators, not Argentinian generals or Bolshevik commissars or Gestapo or anything of the sort.

Do Jeremy Ben Ami and his J Streeters believe in the full set of lies? No. But remember, the Knesset member who lead the hearing against him last week, Otniel Shneller, is from Kadima, not Likud; moreover, he's a settler who openly espouses the dismantling of settlements - probably including his own - if that's the price for peace. What distinguishes him from Ben Ami, therefore, isn't the idea of partition and dismantling settlements; what distinguishes them is the idea that Israel is the reason there's no peace; that pressure must be brought to bear on Israel to force it out of Palestinian territories; and also, alas, Israeli willingness to use force to protect its interests.

In other words, what distinguishes Otniel Shneller from Jeremy Ben Ami is that Ben Ami and his organization agree with parts of the Big Lie about Israel, and promote it. If in response a significant segment of Israeli society wishes to ostracise him and his organization, this seems to me a moderate and measured response.

In his final sentence Jeffrey seems to be saying that there are many American Jews attracted to J Street's message. This may be true - I'm too far away to judge. If so, it's a serious problem - first and foremost, of those American Jews who prefer the Big Lie to the Jewish State.

The Frightening Power of Nature

By now we've all seen the footage of the incoming Tsunami rolling across fields and destroying everything in its wake. This film, however, is by someone standing above the wave, watching as it sweeps away the surrounding town. Part of what makes it so frightening is that the destruction rises - it doesn't happen all at once, and landmarks you see high and dry in the first minutes, are gone by its end.

Daf Yomi in South Korea

I don't know what to make of this story, except to say that the world is a curious place.

Democracy in Action

If anyone can explain this procedure, please feel free to explain in the comments section.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Crimes Against Humanity

Norman Geras, probably the most intelligent blogger out there, has just written a book titled Crimes against Humanity: Birth of a Concept. The American edition, according to Amazon, will only be out in June, but I suspect that if you're in the UK, or use Amazon UK, or live in the parts of the world where Brits are allowed to sell books, you can probably buy it already. I intend to wait for Amazon US, but that's just me.

Ideologically Conditioned not to See Jews

Reuters reporting on last week's terrorist attack on civilians in Jerusalem:
Police said it was a "terrorist attack" -- Israel's term for a Palestinian strike. It was the first time Jerusalem had been hit by such a bomb since 2004.
Jeffrey Goldberg responded with exasperated incredulity: Dear Reuters, you must be kidding. David Harsanyi thought it was a bit more serious.
Most reputable news organizations, for instance, tend to downplay or completely ignore the religious affiliation of man-caused disaster makers. It's unseemly to bring stuff like that up. It only divides us.
So why did Reuters -- and other news outlets -- identify the bombing as taking place not in an Israeli neighborhood, but in a "Jewish" one? And why is it a "Palestinian" strike and not a Muslim one? Religious affiliation, it seems, is selectively vital information. Jews, you see, are a religious group occupying Jerusalem, and Palestinians are nationalists striving for autonomy in their homeland.
I don't think it was a simple mistake, though it may have been Freudian. Mostly, it seems to me a result of ideologically induced inability to relate to the world through the prism of factual reality. This is not a new phenomenon, but some people spent the 200 years between the mid 18th century and the mid 20th combating it. Then they gave up, or worse, they replaced rational inquiry with a new religion, one branch of which is called Political Correctness, or whatever it is.

The Economist recently had a weird example of the malaise. Last week they had a review of two new books about Jerusalem. Simon Sebag-Montetiore's Jerusalem: The Biography, which is not out yet in America, and James Carroll's Jerusalem, Jerusalem: How the Ancient City Ignited Our Modern World which came out two weeks ago. I have already read Sebag-Montefiore's book, and will be reviewing it elsewhere; the Carrol one should be in an Amazon box on its way over. The Economist reviewer liked the former, and was a bit put off by the latter, but the reason I'm linking is that the reviewer noted that Sebag-Montefiore ended his tale in 1967, "when Jerusalem was divided between a Palestinian and an Israeli half".

That's right. 1967 is when Jerusalem was divided. I assume the reviewer was knowledgeable on the topic of Jerusalem, and I insist on hoping the Economist uses editors, and that sentence slipped into the paper. Apparently there was then a minor uproar and they corrected their mistake, mentioning the correction at the bottom of the review. Yet it's the Freudian, or ideologically induced, mistake that is so interesting. For the first time in 2000 years the Jews control the city of Jerusalem, yet for some educated reviewers, they don't, or they mustn't, or if they do it's a tear in the fabric of existence, or something.

PS. Since I wont be reviewing Jerusalem A Biography here, (though I'll try to link to my review when it's published), I will say it's a great read, and I hope lots of people read it. Not without its flaws, of course, but worth the time and effort. And also, since there was a discussion about this a few weeks ago here on the blog: According to Sebag-Montefiore, Jews never enjoyed full equality in Jerusalem between the 1st Century CE and the 19th; they came close in the 19th century because European powers forcing their way into town insisted on the equality of their citizens, some of whom happened to be Jews. Arguably, however, they didn't enjoy full equality until after 1948, as the British carefully rigged the municipal electoral system in their years of control so that the Jewish majority of townspeople would never control the municipality, and the mayor was always an Arab. But that part isn't in Sebag-Montefiore's book.

Could the Islamists Take Over?

An item on the front page of Haaretz on Friday (Hebrew only, apparently, and already behind their paywall) told about 25 families of Tunisian Jews who are moving to Israel. Since the revolution, the anti-Jewish hatred has reached such a pitch that the tiny Jewish community can no longer stay.

Tunisia. Reputed to be moderate, liberal, open to the West. So much so that it still had a (very small) Jewish presence, unlike the rest of the Arab world. (There are Jews also in Morocco). Also, the only part of the Arab revolution so far where even skeptical observers felt things were going well.

Here's a thought for the morning: what happens if a year from now it is clear the Arab Spring caused an Islamist takeover of the entire region? I'm not saying I know it will happen. But what if?

Friday, March 25, 2011

Democratic Spring in Egypt: Oh.

The story of the Egyptian revolution is still being written, but this doesn't sound good. Not what the breathless media promised us, so far.

Triangle Shirtwaist Catastrophe

100 years ago today 146 people, mostly women, mostly new immigrants, many of them Jews, perished in a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York. The world has changed dramatically since then, and the horrible deaths contributed their bit to some of the beneficial changes.

The article behind the link ends with allusions to present-day political disagreements, while admitting the comparisons aren't very useful. Non-unionized immigrant women cooped up in a fire trap by rapacious factory owners a century ago don't tell us much about well-payed teachers employed by the public today. Yet this shouldn't hide the fact that a century ago the unions were on the right side of the story, and many important parts of the story still remained to be told, and people suffered - and sometimes died - because they hadn't yet been told.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Sadly, Palestinian Condemnations won't Help

The leaders of the Palestinian Authority firmly condemned the terrorist attack in Jerusalem yesterday. I suggest we believe them. They've got practical reasons for being against such attacks, and who knows, perhaps they've even got glimmers of moral repugnance. Reports in our media have been telling for quite a while now that the cooperation between the PA security forces and ours is reasonably good; when it comes to hitting Hamas cells, it's probably very good.

But it doesn't help. Since immediately after the attack there has been a total gag order on the police investigation, but the hints seeping out - and past experience - suggest the Israeli police, and the General Security Service, and the relevant parts of the IDF, are all intensely focused on trying to figure out who planned the attack, who prepared it, who carried it out, and what else are they planning. This activity is happening wherever it needs to be happening, and past experience indicates that it's likely to be successful, hopefully before the next attack.

Now assume for a moment that Jerusalem has been divided in a peace treaty, and there's a Palestinian government which is truly against terrorist attacks in the Israeli parts of Jerusalem, but they aren't effective enough to stop all attacks. This means there will be attacks, and in their aftermath the Israeli forces will be able to respond only up to the line, not on its other side - even knowing full well that on the other side, that's where the planners are: two blocks over the line, or perhaps in the window overlooking the line, how can anyone know.

Would you be willing to live in such a town? Raise your children there, perhaps?

The fairy tale about a divided but open city is, at best, a fairy tale. More likely it will be a nightmare.

So there will have to be a wall. Right through one of the world's most sensitive and important cities. Even then some attacks will be inevitable, but the police will be forbidden to investigate beyond the wall - which is, I remind you, in the middle of the city.

For the life of me I can't say why people think this will be a good idea.

It's Nice to be Safe and Powerful

The New York Times has a report by a group of its journalists who were arrested by Gaddafi forces a few weeks ago and treated badly before they were released. It's well worth reading, for what's in it - and what isn't. Mohammed, the driver, isn't. Or rather, he is, briefly, until at the first encounter with Libyan troops he get's killed, mourned for two sentences by his American charges, and forgotten. Of course he isn't mentioned in the title. "Four Times Journalists Held".

The journalists suffered during their days of captivity, they were roughed up, sometimes seriously roughed up, and the woman among them was repeatedly groped. The worst part, in their telling, was that they didn't know what lay ahead of them, though they apparently knew rather early on that their captors were taking their American citizenship seriously. It's an easy bet that 99%-plus of their readership has never been treated as badly and never will. Sadly, it's also the case that 100% of the locals, had they been in the same predicament, would have ended much worse - as Mohammed did.

I've been watching the frenzied discussions in the US and Europe about military interventions, when are they allowed, when advisable, what may legitimately trigger them, what about them is all wrong. The more I watch, the more I grow envious. It must be a wonderful thing to be able to deliberate when you'll use force and when you'll lean back, shrug your shoulders, perhaps utter a few words of deepest regret, and then get on with your daily life secure in the knowledge that your daily life won't be much impacted by the whole deliberation one way or the other. It must truly be wonderful to live your life that way.

This isn't new, of course. I remember the evening we first arrived in Israel, in the summer of 1967. My parents, both of whom had lived as high-school students through World War II, and then had lived a number of years in post-war Germany where my father was an American officer, were as well educated as anyone, and were probably more aware than many Americans of what the world was like. And yet, in the cab up from the airport one of them asked the cab driver "if he knew anyone who had been in the recent Six Day War. "I was in it" he responded. Gasp. Half an hour later we reached Jerusalem and the cabbie needed directions. So he pulled over by a group of people dancing around a fire on an empty lot. A young teenager came over exuberantly and chanted "we won! we won!"

Apparently it had been a very immediate experience, not the "Middle East Crises" the media had been blabbering about for two months.

I'm not being facetious, or even particularly cynical or bitter. I'm simply pointing out a basic dynamic: the citizens of rich and powerful nations (or, in the case of most of Europe, rich and purposefully not so powerful) don't really have anything existential to worry about on the national level. True, there are rare cases of terrorism, but how many of those citizens knows anyone to the third degree of separation who was present at a terror event? And anyway, terror events don't threaten the national existence or anything like it. Unless hassles at airports can be tagged as a threat.

The rest of us live in a different world. Here's Sylvia, a regular reader and sometime commenter on this blog, in a comment she posted here about half an hour ago:

A rocket just hit I would guess maybe 20 meters or less from my house in Sderot a few minutes ago (I don't have a shelter yet).
This afternoon Grad rockets hit Ashdod the impact was heard in Kiryat Gat. This in addition to Beer Sheva and Ashkelon in the past 24 hours.
Although the area has been regularly hit by rockets from the Gaza strip in the past year, little attention has being paid to those Palestinian crimes, as if it's not worth our time, or as if those people don't count since it is neither Jerusalem nor Shenkin.
Instead we all engage in endless mental masturbation over which radical yoyo said what and how. Of that I plead guilty myself.

Yet, we should look at the lessons from the past. The world was shocked by Cast Lead because it was unaware of its context: eight-years of brutal, daily rocket assaults inflicted on unarmed civilians by the Palestinians of Gaza. And it was unaware because it didn't look sexy enough to the media including the blogging community.

Today, we are repeating that history and engaging ourselves in the same process of banalization of Israeli suffering. These things should be often, thoroughly and specifically discussed, not just mentioned in passing at best or else ignored. Context.

Ben Gurion University: Conflict, Boycott, Science

Prof. Neve Gordon is living proof of the strength of Israel's democracy. He is stridently anti-Israeli, but also a professor at Ben Gurion University in Ber Sheva, he supports the boycott of his own university, but keeps drawing his salary from it - and the university pays it, and gives him a platform to spread his bile from, and an academic address to draw respectability from.

Yesterday he was in class teaching about human rights, when the sirens went off and everyone dashed down to a shelter for protection from an incoming rocket, fired from Gaza at Israeli civilians. My informant (thanks, AL) tells me Gordon has not yet commented on whose human rights were infringed yesterday. If this article of his is any indication, he's probably capable of saying it wasn't Palestinian violence at all; no, the poor Palestinians have been hoodwinked into misbehaving by devious Israelis who are provoking them so as to justify more repression.

(Mondoweiss is full of speculation these days: will Israel succeed in its evil ploy to brutally attack Gaza once more? They're doing everything in their power to sucker the Palestinians into provoking them. Here's one example, but there are lots of them at the site).

The Beer Sheva story gets better, however. On the same day two Palestinian Grad rockets hit the city, the University of Johannesburg became the first university in the world to boycott an Israeli university. I admit that my first reaction was to ask which of the two institutions would be harmed by the decision, but according to South African sources - indeed, according to a top UJ official - the answer is very clear: The South Africans will be harmed.
Ben-Gurion University however had been working with UJ on finding a method to clean algae that has infested South Africa's drinking water. The severing of ties meant the project was likely to come an end, leaving UJ without access to BGU's extensive water expertise. “There has been quite a lot of scare mongering that if the partnership breaks, South Africa will be confined to bad water quality,” Habib said. “The quality of our water is suffering because we are not spending the type of money on cleaning water that we need to, and not employing skill sets required.“We can deal with acid rain water in the region if we are prepared to spend money.”
Habib said individual professors from UJ would be allowed to keep up existing partnerships with BGU. "That is something for individual academics to determine, but it depends on whether BGU allows this or not.”
UJ's severing of ties with BGU came amidst talk of steep water tariff increases and a warning South Africa could run out of water within the next ten years if nothing was done to supplement water resources. The Environment and Conservation Association has said that by 2015, 80 percent of South Africa's fresh water would be so badly polluted that no purification process in the country would make it fit for consumption.The impending disaster that would be created by acid mine drainage, as well as by sewerage and industrial pollution, had on many occasions been brought to the government's attention, with no positive results, the association said.
The UJ Petition Committee said in a statement the university's senate had found “significant” evidence that BGU had research and other engagements supporting Israel's military, in particular in its occupation of Gaza.
Translation: the South Africans face an epic drinking water catastrophe. The Israelis could help, but since they occupy Gaza, they must be ostracized, no matter what the cost.

 AL, a reader I've been talking to this morning, points out that this decision demonstrates the falsity of the fundamental assumption of economics and other academic models of human behaviour that people rationally prefer their own self interest. To which I'd add that it's not even a matter of self interest, it's the simple ability to recognize facts. If Israel occupies Gaza, who's shooting those missiles and why doesn't Israel arrest them?

(Ah, I forget: Israel wants the rockets so as to justify re-occupying Gaza which it already occupies).

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

David Amoyal's Kiosk

Languages sometimes do strange things. In English, for example, they drive down the parkways and park in the driveways. In Hebrew we've got the word "pitsuts", which originally means explosion. From there to the description of a terrorist attack is a short and obvious step (the terrorist attack itself is called a "pigua", while the explosion is the "pitsuts"). Oddly, however, the word also means a really impressive event: How was the party? Pitsuts! You really missed it! Moving deeper into slang, we've got "pitsusia", which is a kiosk, often a 24-hour kiosk, where one finds things at 3am that are needed for a good time, or simply someone to talk to.

Playing on all these meanings, there's a kiosk near the central bus station which is owned by a man who was injured when in the 1990s his kiosk was damaged by a terrorist attack. Predictably - well, predictably if you understand Israeli humor and resilience - he re-named his kiosk after the attack, and it's now called "A Pitsus of a Kiosk" (Pitsuts shel kiosk).

At four minutes to three this afternoon David Amoyal, the owner's brother in law who was manning the kiosk, called our equivalent of 911 to tell that there was a suspicious bag right next to him, and would the bomb squad please come and investigate. Another man was already shooing pedestrians away. The phone call was recorded, and broadcast on the evening news: about 30 seconds into the conversation the bomb went off, and Amoyal screamed.

This evening he's in Hadassah hospital, apparently seriously wounded. May he recuperate soon and completely. His brother in law, on TV earlier this evening, said he'd probably re-name the kiosk yet again, perhaps to Pitsuts shel kiosk 2.

Update: it has occurred to me he should rename his kiosk "Od putsus shel kiosk" (another pitsuts of a kiosk). Maybe I'll go by there later and suggest this formulation to him; it works better than the version he was considering.

Newsflash 2: Life is Still Messy

Leon Wieseltier, who's got a way with words one can only weep about it's so good, explains at some length exactly how life's messiness plays out. Here's a snippet:
The president is exactly right. His decision to use force to prevent all those horrors is justified. The situation was even worse, and more urgent, than he allowed: left unchecked, Qaddafi already had committed atrocities against his people. But why do some atrocities have a claim on our conscience and our resources, and others do not? No sooner had Obama explained his decision to use force to rescue the Libyan rebels than the progressive bloggers went to work. This was Ezra Klein’s gloss on Obama’s sentences: “Every year, one million people die from malaria. About three million children die, either directly or indirectly, due to hunger. There is much we could do to help the world if we were willing. The question that needs to be asked is: Why this?” And Andrew Sullivan cleverly objected, about Obama’s view that “the U.S. cannot stand idly by while atrocities take place,” that “we have done nothing in Burma or the Congo and are actively supporting governments in Yemen and Bahrain that are doing almost exactly—if less noisily—what Qaddafi is doing.”
These are debater’s points made by people who have no reason to fear that they will ever need to be rescued. It is important that this “logic” be exposed for what it really is, because it sounds so plausible. Is it hypocritical of the United States to act against Qaddafi and not against Al Khalifa? It is. But there are worse things in this suffering world than hypocrisy. Are we inconsistent? We are. But should we abandon people to slaughter, should we consign freedom fighters to their doom, for the satisfaction of consistency? Simone Weil once remarked that as long as France retained its colonial possessions it was morally disqualified from the struggle against Hitler. It was a breathtakingly consistent and stupid remark. We should be candid. All outrage is selective. Nobody cares about everything equally. Nobody can save everybody, and everybody will not be saved. If everybody who deserves rescue will not be rescued, should nobody who deserves rescue be rescued? If we cannot do everything, must we do nothing? The history of help and rescue is a history of triage. There are also philosophical and moral and political preferences that determine the selectivity of our actions, and those preferences must be provided with valid reasons. Maybe we should be intervening in Burma or Bahrain: let the arguments be made, the principles and the interests adduced. But of course it is not the expansion of American action that interests these writers. What they seek is its contraction. Klein’s point is especially lousy. Did our inaction in Rwanda reduce the frequency of malaria in Africa? Blogging is a notoriously time-consuming vocation. Surely there is a kitchen for the homeless where Klein lives. If he were to tear himself away from his laptop, he would not solve the hunger problem, but it would help.
Jonathan Foreman has done some useful fact-finding, and has learned that the French are not pacifists, not idealists, not internationalists: they're in favor of France. Which mean's they're pretty regular.

Finally in a related matter, Robert Bernstein, founder of Human Rights Watch, is setting up a new organization, Advancing Human Rights. Since the previous attempt to address human rights degraded into an anti-Israeli propaganda machine, he would like to refocus on regimes which violate human rights with impunity, i.e not the messy life of a democracy, but the tidy cruelty of dictatorships. Ben Cohen has the story.

How the Israeli Left Cheats the Arabs

A professor friend of mine recently told me a fascinating anecdote. He was recruited to a group of American, Arab and Israeli professors who convene once a year and talk about various aspect of how bad Israel is. (There may be other subjects on the agenda too, but he showed me enough of the material to demonstrate this is no Zionist meeting). Once there it so happened he found himself in an intense and prolonged intellectual exchange with the most prominent of the Arabs, a man who has and may again hold cabinet-level positions in his country.

Afterwords the Arab complained to the head of the Israeli delegation: How is it that I've been meeting you people for 15 years, and until now no-one has ever been able to explain to me why it's so important to the Jews to have their own country?

The answer of course is that my friend is the first centrist Israeli he has ever met. The Israelis who have been participating in the meetings all those years are all bleeding heart Lefties, whose purpose is to agree that Israel does mostly bad things, in the hope they, the Lefties, will be accepted as different. Along the way, they confirm for their Arab interlocutors that the Israelis are beyond the pale and must be confronted.

I often blog about the more obvious of those Israelis. So here's one you've never heard of - indeed, most Israelis have never heard of her, either. Her name is Neri Livneh, her qualifications are that she writes a regular column about fluffy things, about which she is quite opinionated. If you argue that those aren't qualifications, they're a job description, and that qualifications are the reasons she's got the job, not the other way around, all I'll be able to do is shrug my shoulders. Sorry. The thing is, her column is in Haaretz, who translates it into English and puts it online, a service they'd never offer to my friend with the real qualifications but the "wrong" ideas.

Over the weekend Ms. Livneh pontificated on the murder of the Fogel family at Itamar (they got about one sentence of her column). Feel free to read the whole thing and argue with me if you disagree: what I think she's saying is that Israelis are much worse than Palestinians, much bloodier, more wantonly violent, far less moral. She seems to think that cutting down olive trees (undoubtedly a despicable act) is far worse than cutting down children if they're settler children, and that anything the Palestinians do that appears immoral is only a response to Israel's far greater crimes. She adds the interesting slant that the Israeli legal system is complicit in this dynamic, in that it knows "Palestinians have no souls", and by way of proof she tells of a recent case where some Jewish teenagers were indicted for manslaughter, even though she - Neri Livneh - knows that they slaughtered an innocent young Arab in cold blood and with no provocation. If the court says otherwise, that's proof the court is evil, as Israelis always are when facing Palestinians.

Hava Nagila

Someone sent me a link to this cute YouTube video about Hava Nagila.

The thing is, although everyone in the film is convinced Hava Nagila is a defining Jewish cultural icon, what it actually is is a popular American Jewish icon. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it's probably not recognized at all in most European Jewish communities, I can't say about the South American ones, and of course in Israel no-one would be caught dead singing it. Any Aussie or Kiwi Jewish readers who care to enlighten us about the Hava Nagiliut of their communities?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Futility of the Historian

Benny Morris has written a very detailed, almost brutal take-down of Ilan Pappe, at The New Republic. Remember, back in the 1980s Morris and Pappe were close colleagues in launching the "New [Israeli] Historians. Now there's a chasm between them, and it's depressing to see.

The first reason it's depressing is that it's so necessary. Pappe, as Morris writes, is a quack. He doesn't know history, he's overtly dishonest, he's a low-life propagandist garnering attention and importance by pretending to be a scholar, and he's also a hypocrite. Yet he's listened to by many people, he has an influential voice, his teachings of hate are lapped up by people who have the inclination to listen, but who need him to ground their animosities in a cloak of respectability and historical fact.

The second reason it's depressing is that it's so nit-picking. Morris spends page after page disputing minutiae that Pappe has published. Here's he's got a date wrong. There he's spelled a name wrong. Over here he confused two men with similar names. Over there he has dropped two crucial words from a sentence, and also maliciously slightly mistranslated a Hebrew term. Who would know all these things except Morris and a small handful of specialists? No normal reader of Pappe's books would ever see any of this.

The third reason it's so depressing is that it's so rarefied. If he got the dates wrong, the chronology of the story can't be true. If he spelled the name wrong, it proves he never saw the document, only read about it in a known tendentious rendering of it. By mistranslating, even ever so slightly, he creates an intention which never existed. If he cites oral evidence for a case that probably didn't happen, while overlooking the documentary evidence that supports the skepticism, he maligns a group of soldiers and through them the entire IDF without indicating there isn't much of a case against them. My point being that the art and profession of historical research aren't mere mumbo jumbo and copious citing of arcane footnotes. Historical research is the professional attempt to peer backwards in time, to collate as much information as possible from as many varied sources as possible, and to evaluate the findings in a plausible way. Pappe doesn't do that, on the contrary, by pretending he does he acquires the gravitas without having the substance; but the only way to refute him is to do the job correctly, and that takes time, and discipline, professionalism. And lots of patience, first from the researcher, then from the reader. It would be so easy, and acceptable in our age of tweets, to brush aside the objections as tiresome pedantry.

Defending the truth from intentional liars is hard work; even then, it will succeed only when people are willing to take the time to listen to the defense.

New Middle East

Dry Bones has a picture that pretty much sums it all up. The thing is, he drew it 20 years ago, as Operation Desert Storm was drawing to its [successful?] close.
Click here to see the full picture.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Israeli Field Hospital in Japan

According to the Jerusalem Post, Israel is the first country to be setting up a field hospital in Japan.
“I don’t know how or why it is that our field hospital is the first,” the [Israeli] ambassador said. “Maybe we moved faster. Maybe it’s because of our experience.”

Newsflash: Life is Messy

Just like everyone, I don't pretend to know what's the story with Libya. First the relevant nations spent a month dillying and dallying, then they suddenly passed the international decisions, and the next thing we knew they were bombing Libyan tanks and camps, well beyond a no-fly zone which they'd just spent weeks explaining they couldn't implement because it would be too complicated. Along the way they seem to have thrown out 15 years of chatter about war, intervention, exit strategies and much else.

I have every expectation that whoever comes out on top - whenever - will be an enemy of Israel. Even so, however, I haven't been hiding my position that someone ought to do something to stop Gaddafi from massacring his people. Libya in 2011 is an unusual case of black and white: the dictator has had almost half a century to demonstrate his evil, and the people facing him want liberation from him; it seemed to me (and still does) that it needn't require a bloody land-campaign gamble to protect the Libyan populace in the areas that have already liberated themselves.

Interestingly, everyone with access to a keyboard has an opinion,and many of them are topsy-turvy with frustration. Years from now, when someone with perspective and access to archival documentation tries to piece together what really happened, they'll also need to figure out who was decrying what and why. In the meantime, however, there are a number of immediate responses of interest. Take Phil Wiess, the Jewish antisemite of Mondoweiss: he admits he's confused like we all are, but he's in favor of the attempt. Of course, he intends to use the precedent to call for the UN to bomb Israel next time around, and doesn't even hide his excitement, but at least he's willing to save some Libyans on the road to deliver the Palestinians.

Not far from him on some issues, Andrew Sullivan is furious, furious furious. And also unhappy, and angry. In all his endless verbiage on the topic, he has this revealing nugget:
I watched the president stand idly by as countless young Iranians were slaughtered, imprisoned, tortured and bludgeoned by government thugs by day and night. I believed that this was born of a strategy that understood that, however horrifying it was to watch the Iranian bloodbath, it was too imprudent to launch military action to protect a defenseless people against snipers, murderers and torturers.
Morality, you see, is foremost about prudence. This, then, is the answer to Phil Weiss: the UN won't bomb Israel, not because it will accept it's right to defend itself, but simply because Israel would bomb back. (Which brings me back to my position that the only real defense in this world is to be armed, trained, and dangerous).

Silliest of all in this little roundup, we've got Juan Cole, issuing marching orders. He really is a gag.

Jeremy Ben Ami Can't Count

Jeremy Ben Ami, boss of J-Street, is in Israel. He asked to meet Netanyahu, but Netanyahu wasn't available.
Ben-Ami added that although he has asked to meet with Netanyahu during his stay in Israel "to introduce ourselves and explain how we can work together as allies," he was rejected. "Yet, as you may have read, while the Prime Minister doesn’t have time to meet a movement that now represents over 170,000 pro-Israel, pro-peace supporters, he has time to host Sarah Palin for dinner Monday night," Ben-Ami wrote.
I don't know in what way J-Street represents 170,000 people, and he doesn't explain; nor am I convinced they're all pro-Israel in any recognizable way. So far as I can tell, however, there are tens of millions of pro-Israel people who listen approvingly to much of what Sarah Palin says, and will be eager to hear her tell about her trip, including the meeting she had with Netanyahu.

So who's the numerically-challenged one in the story?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Shooting at Israeli Civilians

Hamas is having problems with the Palestinian Authority and probably with the Palestinian electorate, so it shoots at Israelis. Makes sense. Israel has lodged a formal complaint at the UN. That'll help.

Haaretz Obfuscates Matters

A primary task of a high-level newspaper is to clarify complicated ongoing issues. Or at least, that's what you'd think. With newspapers such as the Guardian and Haaretz, however, the main priority is to bolster an ideological agenda, and facts are a mere handmaiden.

Today's report about taxation in East Jerusalem is a fine example. The headline, "East Jerusalem residents exempted from municipal taxes" says almost nothing except to attract our interest (who is doing the exempting? why? who is being exempted? what for? in return for what?), but that's legitimate for a newspaper. The article itself then fuses two very different subjects, and two very different sources, without telling us that's what it's doing, and thereby implies a conclusion which a fuller account would never warrant.

The beginning of the article cites a Palestinian agency claiming the 55,000 Palestinians in the section of East Jerusalem which is beyond the fence are no longer being required to pay municipal taxes; this exemption, we are told, is a bad thing, as it means Israel intends to "get rid" of those 55,000 people.

The editor at Haaretz makes no attempt to verify the story, by making some inquiries at the municipality, say. On the contrary, having quoted a Palestinian source reporting on an Israeli action, Haaretz then tells a separate story as if it corroborates the Palestinian one: that the Israeli municipality isn't building enough schools in the eastern part of town, and that the Israeli High Court of Justice has reprimanded it on the matter.

Let's see if I can unravel this, and you'll tell me if the story I end up with resembles the one Haaretz would have us believe.

Since the beginning of the construction of the fence in 2003, the geographical area annexed by Israel in 1967 commonly known as East Jerusalem (in reality it's north west, north, east, south, and southwest) has been divided into two unequal segments. Most of the area is inside the fence, including its Arab neighborhoods, and they're slowly merging into the Jewish sections. (This is a very large subject which I'm collecting material to write a book about, but for this blogpost I'll simply let it stand as is). Then there are some parts of town that are outside the fence, and the Israeli policy seems to be to allow them to revert to West Bank status: Kfar Akeb, which is actually part of Ramallah, and Shuafat, are the two largest such areas. The number of people living in these neighborhoods may be 55,000 - that's what everyone says, but the reality is that no-one knows, and anyway the fact that the number has been stable for five years at least means it's a figment of political discourse, not fact.

The first part of the Haaretz report deals with those 55,000 people. Since they live outside of the fence, and it has often been mortally dangerous for municipal technicians to enter their neighborhoods, they have been receiving ever fewer services. They can visit the fine Israeli hospitals of Jerusalem by driving to them, but the water company can't send technicians to fix water mains, for example. So this newest development is a recognition of reality. The municipality isn't able to offer them its services, so it's not going to tax them anymore. (It would be helpful to know from an official Israeli source that this is really happening, and not a figment of someone's imagination).

Meanwhile, inside the fence, the level of infrastructures including schools is mostly lower in the Arab neighborhoods than in the Jewish ones, except in the cases where it isn't. Beit Hanina (Arab) has better infrastructures than Zichron Moshe, for example. This is indeed a problem, which is why the High Court has ruled on it, yet the reasons for it, while complex in their details, are rather simple in their principles. Since 1967 Israel has not been certain it will remain in control there, since there's an international consensus it won't, and thus has been hesitant to invest large sums there. On the other hand, when it does, the result is a growing reluctance from the local Arab side to consider being sent back to live outside Israel.

If we look at the story from a political perspective, therefore, what the Palestinian source and Haaretz are complaining about is that the Israelis are creating facts on the ground in Kfar Akeb and Shuafat that will make it easier to transfer those areas to Palestinian control. In the second half of the report, Haaretz castigates Israel for not investing enough in creating facts on the ground where the Palestinians of East Jerusalem prefer to stay in Israel. Or to be even more pointed: if one assumes some day Jerusalem will be divided, the more Israel has invested in the Palestinians of East Jerusalem the greater their pain will be once they're cut off from Israel, the greater their anger, and the greater the chance that some of them will respond to being cast into Palestine by destroying the peace in Jerusalem.

If none of this fits the pat schemes we're fed year in year out by "everyone", I apologize. But that won't change the facts.

The Real Heroes of March

The few hundred Japanese engineers and technicians trying to head off nuclear catastrophe at Fukishima. Undoubtedly the world's top heroes this March.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Intervention in Lybia

Is the world about to do something to stop the Butcher? Here's hoping.

Besieging the Temple

The Talmud isn't a history book. If you know how to read history from whatever you've got, however, there is much to be learned from the Talmud about Jewish life in the 500 years of its creation. Sometimes it's little snippets, that come and go even before you have time to notice them.

Yesterday's daf dealt with the question how many components of a meal-offering, if any, can be dropped and still the offering will be acceptable (and what does "acceptable" mean). Then, at the very bottom of the page, there was a sudden question: "How do we know that if heathens have surrounded the Temple Mount, the priests are allowed to eat the offering even inside the Temple itself [take shelter there]?" The Gemara then finds a verse, which clearly didn't have that scenario in mind, and the discussion wanders off to other matters.

Heartbreaking, if you think about it.

Menachot 8b. This thread began and is explained here.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Other Oldest Profession

There's no concrete evidence that the world's oldest profession really is the oldest. There are ancient examples of it, or course, but the assumption it's the oldest is simply because it's human nature.

So here's another profession that has been around forever: dictators. Or anyway, men who use force and brutality to dominate their fellow men. This is also human nature, and has also been around forever. Both professions will also always be here, never to disappear. Human nature ensures that.

As the international community talks its way out of assisting the brave Libyans fighting for freedom from a brutal dictator and his cruel henchmen, it's worth keeping in mind that even if they did want to do anything, the only people who can are the armed and the trained. Over the past few weeks I have repeatedly noted how the international ineptitude must remind us the importance of never being weak. The flip side is that the price of pacifism and disarmament means accepting brutal dictators.

Something to keep in mind next time someone claims the moral high ground for their pacifism.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Intense Navel-Gazing at the New Yorker

Apropos uninformed outsiders interfering in serious matters they know nothing about (see my previous post) the New Yorker's David Remnick is on a roll, with the second silly column on Israel-Palestine in two weeks. This time he lambastes Netanyahu, which is a popular pastime among journalists. There's nothing particularly new or insightful in his column, but the degree of his self-absorption is a wee bit overblown. Musing on Obama, he notes that "When it comes to domestic politics in Israel, he is in a complicated spot. For some Israelis on the right, his race and, more, his middle name make him a source of everlasting suspicion."

Uh huh. Let's see. Back in the day, when Anwar Sadaat came to Jerusalem and told the Knesset, in Arabic, that peace would require that Israel return the entire Sinai, it didn't seem to matter much that he had an Arabic name, did it. I seem to recollect that masses of Israelis were swooning all over the fellow. The "No more war, no more bloodshed" part seemed more important than his religion, unless perhaps the two fused into an overpowering climax. It may be true, perhaps, that some Americans are troubled by their president's name or skin color, though not enough to prevent his election, but what does that have to do with Israelis? The Americans have their historical neuroses, and Israelis have different ones, and if Remnick insists on understanding Israelis through the prism of his own society, he should probably stick to writing about things he knows.

Palestinians Condemning Murder

Yesterday I linked to a Guardian story which encouraged us to believe that Palestinians and Israelis were equally shocked by the murder of the Fogel family. The reporter, Harriet Sherwood, didn't supply any facts to bolster her claim, not even one, so it's hard to know what she thought she was referring to, or if - as I understand it - she was simply inventing things from thin air.

A number of readers discussed the matter, and one, Mich, offered a fascinating report by Shlomi Eldar (not to be confused with Akiva Eldar of Haaretz: Shlomi is a reporter who's primary interest is in facts). You need Hebrew to follow Eldar's report, which of course Sherwood doesn't have, and since she gives no inkling she's aware of Eldar's report, I stand by my characterization of her as an ideologically-motivated hack. Having said that, Eldar's report deserves an English summary:
I've been reporting in the Palestinian territories for many years, and the responses I recorded today in Shchem (Nablus) really surprised me. They seem to show a substantial distance between the PA leadership and regular people. The leadership (he cites Abbas and others) are muttering a condemnation of the murder, mostly not in Arabic and not in front of their public, and then they're condemning Israeli settlements. Nothing new here. On the other hand, I went to Shchem today, and was very surprised. People on the street were willing to condemn the murder unequivocally, in Arabic and in Hebrew, with no embarrassment, in front of the camera, and even identify themselves. [He shows some examples]. I've been covering the Palestinian territories for years, but this I've never seen before. In the middle of town, publicly, people had no compunctions openly to condemn the murder of children.
At this point one of the two anchormen asks if this is real, or perhaps a one-off encounter with unusual townsmen. Eldar insists: the interviews I've just shown were representative, and I made lots of them, not only the snippets I just screened. Moreover, I didn't find anyone saying the usual things about how it's settlers and Israelis and IDF violence and all that. The atmosphere in Shchem today is that the murder of the Fogel family was a terrible crime.
OK. So what does all this mean? Shlomi Eldar says he doesn't know, so I certainly know even less. Still, being a blogger means you've got to have theories about everything all the time, right? So here are some conjectures.

1. Netanyahu's economic peace is working. Look at the store fronts of Shchem: the economy is obviously booming, people are beginning to live normal lives, and this allows them to think normal thoughts. The fact that the IDF has largely moved out of the West Bank and has dismantled most of the roadblocks, even as the settlements aren't growing, no matter what the international media reports, is creating a new breathing space for the Palestinians, and they're beginning to breathe normally.

2. Exhaustion. The economic peace of 2009-2011 is succeeding where the boom of the late 1990s didn't, because the Palestinians have lost their illusions. In their suicide-bomber war of 2001-2003 they tried to break Israeli society, but the attempt backfired disastrously. Now they're eager to pick up where they could have been in 1999, this time wiser and more realistic about what can and can't be achieved.

3. The Arab Spring of 2011 really does mean something. Over the past few months we've seen masses of Arabs all over the region wishing for the same kind of world the rest of us live in, and bravely trying to get there. It's not even remotely clear they're going to end up with liberal open societies, but then again, it's not certain they won't - and even if they don't, some of them really do seem to be striving for it.

4. Settlements aren't as aggravating as we've endlessly been told. If there really is a sea change underway in the West Bank, it has started even though the Jewish settlements are still there. This doesn't necessarily mean the Palestinian populace is willing to have them stay there, but it may mean they're open to a process where reconciliation happens in the minds before the reality is foolishly and irrevocably changed.

5. Most important of all, were it to be true: After a full century of miscalculating, the Palestinians are beginning to understand that the only way they'll get peace with Israel is by mutual recognition of our common humanity. The first man interviewed says, repeatedly: "Tell the Israelis Muslims aren't allowed to murder", and the teenager, brandishing the picture of Ehud Fogel says "Why should he have died? Isn't it a waste?"

This is all speculative, and possibly wishful thinking. Yet I'm not certain. Over the past few months, perhaps a year, I've been wandering a lot through East Jerusalem, and occasionally through parts of the West Bank, and the calm and normality have been striking. I've also had more simply normal human interactions with Palestinians than in many years. Something may be happening - unreported in the media, in a dynamic which contradicts the endless chatter of the diplomats - but potentially very important.

If so, it needs to be carefully and warily nurtured. Carefully, warily, and nurtured. And patiently. Not words that are easily compatible with the instincts of the people who've got it wrong so far, who need to see their pet solutions applied NOW, and are intoxicated with their certainties.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Guardian's Alternate Universe

The Guardian's Harriet Sherwood, never a reporter to allow facts to interfere with her agenda, charts new terrain of cynicism, backed to the hilt by her editors. Having visited Itamar, she sums up the story of the murder of the Fogel family by informing us that "Israelis and Palestinians [are] in shock" about the massacre.

[h/t CifWatch]

Libya, America, and the Ability to Take Care of Yourself

Gaddafi is going to win. By now, that's pretty clear. Sad as it is to say, it's not even clear if the rebels are the kind of people who need to be supported, or at least not all of them, including perhaps the ones who might come out on top. Leon Wiesltier, using moral arguments, thinks Obama's response is  a scandal. Larry Diamond, trying to be a realist, thinks it's counterproductive. Michael Totten, as usual taking an unusual perspective, asks why Arabs think the Americans owe them assistance.

I continue to look at this from the perspective of a country universally and incessantly exhorted to take risks for peace and justice, and am convinced, yet again, that the only way to ensure one's existence at time of danger is by being well armed and well trained, and very dangerous to anyone who might harm you. If anyone assures you they'll be there for you, they're lying. If you rely on them, you'll deserve their betrayal.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Long Long War

The other day a group of readers got into a heated debate about Israeli control of the West Bank and settlements. I actually thought of responding with a post of my own which would try to pull together the various strands of the discussion and present a coherent position. Then, while I was engaged in other things, there was the murderous attack in Itamar, and it seemed the wrong time to be explaining (not for the first time) why Itamar shouldn't be there, even though peace is not in the offings.  So some other day.

In the meantime, Melanie Phillips has pulled together lots of examples of what she calls "armchair barbarism", in which respectable western media blames Jews for getting murdered.

Also, Itamar Markus and Nan Jacques Zilberdik, who spend their days consuming official Palestinian media and futilely try to tell people what they're hearing, note that the leaders of the PA have condemned the recent murder, but they bear considerable responsibility for it because of their incessant incitement against Israel and glorification of murderers.

The Last Surviving Member of the First Knesset

... Was Tawfik Toubi, who began his political life as a member of the Palestinian Communist Party, and served for four decades as a communist Knesset member. He passed away over the weekend, the last of his generation.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Celebrations in the Family

News junkies (and most blog readers are a subset of them) can easily lose perspective, compelled as we are to endlessly respond to immediate events. So here's a spot of perspective.

Yesterday I was talking to Moshe Z, a member of our congregation. Moshe looks like a robust 70-year-old, but since he's got an Auschwitz number on his forearm he's got to be in his early 80s. Last week his first great-grandchild, a girl, was born to one of his granddaughters. Moshe was telling me how emotional it was for him to have a fourth-generation descendant. He then went on to tell that this is being a good month for him. First, the great-granddaughter. Then a few days later, his second-youngest grandson (of eight) joined the IDF. Next week another granddaughter is marrying.

I congratulated him on the birth and the wedding, but was a bit hesitant to classify the grandson's enlistment in the same category of joyous events. "No, Yaacov, you're wrong about that. For those of us who came from Europe and know how important this country is, the privilege of seeing our sons serve in our army is something to celebrate".

"May he return in peace", I said, and we shook hands on that.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Guardian Readers: Enjoy, Don't Think

Just Journalism has waded all the way through a long, sloppy and meandering item at the Guardian, which basically says that the paper gives its readers what they want, and doesn't challenge their pet likes and dislikes. This means British royals, the church, Israel and (American) Republicans are bashed, but folks on the Guardian's nice list never are (the top example being the ever-worsening regime in Turkey). Read the synopsis at Just Journalism; the original is too long.

Humanitarian (Non) Intervention in Libya

Michael Walzer philosophizes about Western intervention in Libya. Walzer is a serious thinker on the laws of war, and generally puts his understanding above politics, meaning he supports military actions or disproves of them based on his understanding of the principles, not on the identity of whomever is sitting in the White House.

The problem is that all his formidable intellectual tools don't much help him in making up his mind about Libya today. He leans heavily on John Stuart Mill's ideas, in which democracy needs to be created by the demos, the people, not by intervening foreigners, and if the locals can't get there on their own they aren't ready yet. He also doesn't think things in Libya are serious enough yet, though he isn't sure they won't be. So he looks for the appropriate entity to intervene, if and when and perhaps: Italy? Nah. NATO. It won't. Finally he decides the Egyptians and Tunisians should intervene, and by this time he's no longer pondering a no-fly-zone, but rather a real invasion on the ground.

Egypt and Tunisia, huh? If that's the best he can come up with, maybe he's too much of a philosopher and not enough of a consumer of the daily news. Egypt and Tunisia happen both to be busy these days trying to sort out if they're ready for democracy, in Mill's terms, and probably couldn't cobble together the ability to intervene in Libya even if they desperately needed to: who would be the governments giving the marching orders, pray tell?

By way of jolting us out of our philosophical reveries, it could be bracing to read this description of how people are being tortured in Gaddafi's Libya, right now. (In an aside, I don't know how the Palestinian fellow can be called a "refugee", but that's not important in this context). The story underlines a truth which is often not mentioned in this sort of discussion: that it's not Gaddafi who's doing the torturing, nor is anyone following his direct orders. His regime is based on large numbers of evil and cruel men, who need no special orders to destroy human beings. All the agonizing in the West and at the UN and in the International Community is taking place while in Libyan prisons and camps people are agonizing in the real meaning of the word, meaning they're in terrible agony.

Part of the discussion is the extreme reluctance of Western powers to intervene is a way that could be construed as "colonial", or "post-colonial". This seems to me exceptionally cynical. The world has created a set of concepts and buzz-words in which rich and powerful countries may not intervene to save lives of suffering people today, because a century ago their forefathers may or may not have been nasty to the forefathers of today's culprits and victims. Of course, nothing the British ever did in places like Raj India was ever remotely as bad as what the Indians and emerging Pakistanis did to each otter after the English left, or what the West Pakistanis did to the East Pakistanis a generation later, or what the Sri-Lankens did to the Sri-Lankens another generation on, all in what had once been British India. No matter: colonialism trumps local crimes then, and does so in Libya now. But anyway, the issue ought to be moot, because the rebel half of the Libyans seem to want some sort of no-fly-zone, so the colonial part shouldn't be relevant, and the French have apparently even officially recognized them as the emerging government.

Seen from an Israeli perspective, both sides of the Libyan conflict are probably equally distasteful. But one side has heavy weapons and a system which tortures people, and the other side is resisting them. If morality plays a role in international relations, two weeks ago was the time to take action to protect the Libyan people who want a better life. If it doesn't - and perhaps maybe it doesn't - then no action should be taken, period, and the Libyans should be told they're on their own while the world gets on with other things, and drop the pretenses.

Meanwhile, in another faraway land, the Iranians are supplying the Taliban with weapons the better to kill Western forces and then terrorize Afghans. To the best of my understanding, they didn't seek international support or legitimation for this, they just did it.

Sacrifying to be Jewish

Veteran readers may have noted that it's been quite a while since I blogged in the Daf Yomi series. (Recent readers can find the introduction and explanation of this thread here). The main reason has been that about three months ago we finished the Nezikim order, which deals with commonplace things such as legal transactions, courts and contracts, which are as relevant today as they were 1,800 years ago, and started the Kodashim order, which concentrates (mostly) on holy ritual, some of which is rather outlandish from a modern perspective. The first tractate, which we finished today, was Zevachim, Sacrifices (120 pages).

How outlandish? Quite, to be honest. The Bible commands four types of sacrifices, which are then divided into sub-groups. Each sacrificial act is divided into a series of actions, which need to be done in very specific places, mostly but not always by priests (cohens) of varying degrees of purity, with specific tools, in specific order, and with specific intentions. The time of day (or night) is also important, as are lots of very detailed aspects of the alter (blood from sacrifice A has to be splattered above the red line on the left side of the alter, or below the line in a different context). Then the accidents have to be taken into account: what happens if something falls, onto what, and is then replaced. Or not. Also, was the priest wearing the correct uniform when it happened, and does it need to be laundered immediately, or later, or not at all? Quantities are important, sometimes. Or is it always, but in different ways? Did I mention the problem of scarifying an animal which is in the wrong section of the Temple Mount but it's throat was in the right place, or was it the other way around, the animal was in the right place but it's throat reached out over the line but then turned back just in time not to be too late, if it isn't already irrevocably too late because the intention to eat it by whomever changed in the meanwhile?

It's not the arcane details which make all this so strange. Observe any present day insurance company lawyer doing her best to prove her client actually doesn't owe you anything, and it will rapidly become just as arcane. What makes it so strange is the content. We can't imagine sacrifices, and only dimly can we appreciate matters of purity and impurity, or even religious tithes and all that goes with them.

The thing that's historically so interesting about the tractate is that the rabbis can't really imagine it, either. The Temple was destroyed in the early mishnaic era, which means only the earliest generations of the Mishnaic rabbis, the Tana'im, had any personal knowledge of the matter; the latter Tanaim and all the Amoraim, i.e the large majority of the Talmudic rabbis, had never seen any of this, nor had it been happening in living memory. Occasionally the tractate cites a Zkan Hacohanim, which seems to mean the last of the cohanim still alive to tell how things were, but even then their authority isn't clear. At one point the tractate spends many pages discussing the dimensions of the alter and Temple plaza; the entire section is scholasticism, meaning it's based upon interpreting the verses of the Bible, not reconstructing the physical place (which, having been razed, can't be done) or looking for someone who might have preserved or recorded real memory.

Actually, scholasticism plays an unusually large part in the tractate, even more than usual. Many of the detailed arguments aren't about how things were supposed to work, but rather how they can be learned from which words in which verses. Some of the discussions in Nezikin  move so far away from the original Biblical verses it's obvious the rabbis have enacted laws which relate to their social reality, not the one of Deuteronomy. (The laws of inheritance, for example, which are developed well beyond the rudimentary commandments in the Pentateuch). Not so in Zevachim, which goes on endlessly about who learns which arcane detail from which confluence of words in two separate verses, but has no reason - obviously - to adapt the practice to the real world of the rabbis.

At one point the tractate even says this explicitly. An Amora has pronounced on halacha: the law is that it's done this way, not that, and the tractate basically says "Huh? Who cares? No-one does any of this anyway? We're studying so as not to forget". Yet the deeper we got into it, the more it became clear to me that even that wasn't the case. Keep in mind that the Tamud is the central creation of the Pharisees, rabbinical Judaism, who were often at war - sometimes even violent war - with the Sadducees .The Saducees were the ones running the Temple, and they decidedly didn't use the rabbinical form of learning, which means that even if we could invent a time machine and go back to the Temple, we wouldn't see the practices described in great length in the Talmud. There must have been some resemblance, but it would have been limited.

The Talmudic scholars spent centuries discussing the most arcane minutiae of the practice of the Temple so as not to forget it, and never to loosen the Jewish ties to a physical place which had been gone for centuries, and they did so by describing a reality which never existed in the form they created for it.

Yet it worked. Judaism became a religion which could exist without its concrete, physical heart, because the imagination of that heart had become central to Jewish civilization.

Ironically, almost everyone I talked to about the tractate these past few months has agreed that it's very outlandish, and we're not particularly enjoying it; it's too foreign. But that's part of the greater irony of Zionism, which arose and succeeded in a historical era when the old forms of preservation were losing their potency. Either Zionism arrived at the last possible moment, as the civilizational binds that held the Jews together were about to slip off, or it arose because the old forms were weakening and there was no option but to go back to the basics of land, language and national political life. Choose whichever explanation you prefer.

Either way, the slowly widening gap between the Jews of Israel and America is very serious. For most of America's Jews, not only Zvachim is outlandish, the entire Talmud is also, as is the prayer book, the Jewish calender, and of course Jewish rituals of all kinds. It may not be urgent, but after a while one does need to ask what holds Jews together when the traditional ties are gone, and the more common national-political ones aren't compelling either. I come by this theme from time to time, it's not new. Shmuel Rosner has apparently just written a book about it (in Hebrew), and has an interesting chapter (in English) here. What happens, he asks, when the political agenda of the Israelis is different from the political agenda of American Jews, on American subjects, not on Israel's security or well-being. Say, if Israeli Jews admire an American president the American Jews despise. Well, when it was George Bush II, the resounding answer was that America's Jews split from Israel. Yet not because of any major argument. It was simply that the Israeli position didn't interest America's Jews, and this itself was a sign of the growing indifference large numbers of American Jews display towards Israel.

Which brings me back to Zvachim. You can find it outlandish, and look forward to the time when the Daf Yomi series will return to less far-fetched topics. That's qualitatively different than having a Judaism which is indifferent both to the cultural and also the geographical center. A Judaism which focuses mainly on its local agenda and not on the ones which unify all Jews, will someday have to explain to itself what makes it Jewish, and why the rest of the Jews should care.

Update: Yehuda Mirsky has thoughts on Jewish identity in America today, here. Some of it (not all: don't jump on me) doesn't much look like Judaism at all to me.