Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Vindication for (mostly) desisting from blogging

As I wrote last summer, I stopped blogging when I was appointed Israel's State Archivist. Being a high civil servant is not compatible with running a political blog, and I had decided the potential value of confronting the challenges of documenting the activities of Israel's government was the more important of the two.

Eight months into the new job, this decision is being vindicated. Two weeks ago the government decided to adopt our proposal for a basic reform in the way the administration manages its digital documentation, which is to say, all its documentation. In essence, this will mean re-inventing the State Archives, with significant implications further afield.

When I came to the job I found that for various reasons, the Finance Ministry had taken upon itself to set up a large and very professional storage center for paper documentation, near the northern Negev town of Arad. Alas, the project was going to cost more than the original plan had foreseen. This give me an opening, in which my staff and I indicated that there were parts of the project which could be reduced (and thus made cheaper) if in return funds would be freed to deal with digital aspects which had not been addressed; dealing with the digital aspects would allow us to make the trade offs in the Negev storage installation. It may come as a surprise, but apparently when one makes sensible suggestions within the government, reasonable people will listen and perhaps be convinced.

The proposal adopted by the government calls for a number of major changes.
1. We're going to join other government agencies in creating document-management systems in the government agencies so that their documentation will be tagged before creation according to the span of time until it can be deleted - or sent to the archives for permanent storage.
2. We're going to scan very large quantities of existing paper documentation, so as to make it digitally accessible.
3. We're going to figure out how to salvage what can be salvaged from the servers of the government agencies;
4. We're going to have to figure out how to fundamentally accelerate the de-classification of the country's documentation, most of which is still classified;
5. And we're expected to develop a range of tools to make the documentation easily accessible and useful to anyone with an interest in the story of the State of Israel, not just professional researchers.

And we're going to build that storage installation in Arad and move the paper documentation down there. And a few other things, along the way: once we're busy, why not add another few tasks?

So now I'm going offline again, and the blogging will mostly stop, with a rare exception here or there. I remind you that in the upper left corner I"ve made three pages with collections of stuff I recommend reading, about Jerusalem, war and peace in the Mideast, and Jewish life and life in Israel.

Mondoweiss: A Vipers' Nest of Antisemites

While not blogging anymore, I still do dabble in some of the old observation of the online pro-and-con Israel scene. Mondoweiss has been of particular interest. Set up about 8 years ago by two American Jews, Philip Wiess and Adam Horowitz, to object to the policies of the Bush Administration, it has transformed over time to one of the main homes of the stridently anti-Israel camp.

By my lights, the Jews have the right (like everyone else) to define themselves and their needs, and they've defined themselves as a nation with the need for a nation-state in Israel. Not all Jews, of course, but a very large majority, and that's enough. Ergo, anyone who rejects the Jews' rights to define themselves and to insist on having a nation-state, is antisemitic (though I'm willing to quibble about the possibility of the Palestinians rejecting Israel without being antisemitic - but only they). Seen that way, Mondoweiss is clearly antisemitic, since its tone and over-arching theme is rejection of Zionism and Israel. The more one looks, however, the worse the picture becomes. Someday, a century or two from now, when someone sits down to write the history of Jew-hatred in the early 21st century, Mondoweiss will be a fine case study, worthy of a full section.

The site offers six or ten posts a day. Weiss writes often, Horowitz rarely (he apparently runs their Twitter account which I don't follow). There's a clutch of other regular writers, and a larger group of people who will appear there occasionally; some of them run their own sites or publish elsewhere and are cross-posted at Mondoweiss. The total number of people who have ever posted there is probably a few hundred. There are many dozens of active commenters. Interestingly, many of those who've offered any information about themselves are retirees; the number of students seems much smaller than you'd expect. There are some Canadians Germans and Aussies, but most commenters seem to be Americans. Ah, and then there are the Israelis: some anarchists and extreme far-left ones, and some mainstream Israelis who try to argue with the locals. The latter tend not to stay too long, since their mission is wholly futile: no-one is in the Mondoweiss community to discuss. Their goal is quite different.

The point of Mondoweiss is to get rid of Israel. The site is of course an avid supporter of BDS. While occasional lip-service is given to the two-state solution as a way to resolve the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, any regular reader will understand this is not something to strive for, as it won't resolve the basic injustice of Israel's existence. Moreover, the conceit of the blog is that it is actively promoting its goal, by spreading the truth about Israel, and slowly chipping away at the stranglehold the Zionists have on the media and public discourse. Weiss writes regularly with considerable excitement about how the public discourse is changing; he's always on the outlook for new converts to his positions or anything near them, and to read him you'd think there's a sea-change underway so that soon Israel will lose its support in America, and soon thereafter, shorn of its only ally, it will crumble away. The Israelis, aware of the precariousness of their enterprise, are eternally bolstering their control of the discourse, because without it they're lost; but they're losing it anyway because the only decent way to understand the Middle East is to hate Israel and this decency is already proving itself more powerful than the Zionist tricks to keep it at bay.

You recognize the old-fashioned antisemitic trope about the Jews who pull the strings behind the facade which hides reality. Even as I write this Weiss has posted about the 35-year friendship between Mitt Romney and Binyamin Netanyahu; I don't see how his piece can be read except as part of a conspiracy theory. Truly frightening, those Zionists, surrounding a future potential American president with their agents when he was only in his 20s.

Being against the existence of Israel isn't particularly exceptional. One of the interesting things about Mondoweiss is the tremendous amount of work they invest in their animosity. I happen to think the Saudi regime is ghastly, but I'd never spend hours every day digging up dirt on it. The Mondoweiss people do that, first by avidly seeking any remotely negative story about Israel, then by seeking the ones which aren't true, then by damning anyone who casts doubt with terms such as hasbarists, Ziobots (I assume these are part Zionists and part robots), and of course genocidists. In order to collect all that dirt they've got to pass by the occasional positive story too, but these never get linked to or even alluded to unless to demonstrate how yet another journalist has succumbed to the threat of Zionist censorship. The result is a depiction of reality which has at best a glancing relationship with the real world, but these folks aren't interested in the real world. In their world, Zionists are easily the worst group of humans, they purportedly hate all Palestinians, they enforce the most cruel policies possibly on them, they steal from-, degrade and kill Palestinians, on a daily basis. You read Mondoweiss regularly and the force of hatred towards Zionists becomes overpowering: no normal decent person could have anything but the deepest contempt for such a gang of deceitful violent criminals. As a commentor named "American" recently wrote:
The thing about the zionist is they attack even those who help them. They turned on England, calling it “worse than Hitler’ because England tried to uphold the immigration quotas agreed to. They demonize the UN that created their state for them.
Everyone, without exception, who has ever had anything to do them has regretted it….the US will too in the end. They are vipers who need to be decapitated.
Comments at Mondoweiss are moderated, so that one could have been deleted - but wasn't. And why would it be? It merely states what is obvious to the locals. Any attempt to argue with them will either be blocked by the same moderators, or derisively laughed off the screen. If a sane commenter has made a reasonable point which gets past the moderators, the locals will dig up a dozen spurious links to disprove it: the value of links being not their veracity, or the trustworthiness of their sources, but their usefulness to the party line. Links which are not useful - you guessed it: they're written off as hasbara lies.

Interestingly, the Mondoweiss community not only has no interest in the lives of real Israelis, it also has no interest in the lives of real Palestinians. Their point is to hate Israel and damn it, no matter what; the possibility that there are Palestinians who live alongside Israelis, interact with them, and even could imagine living with them in peace, is a thought never contemplated. I have Palestinian staff members, colleagues and friends; none of them could remotely fit into the Mondoweiss world. The methodology also has the odd result that according to Mondoweiss, Israelis and Palestinians are all boring cardboard figures, with none of the complexities, complications, shades of grey, frustrations and successes of real people. The very parts of the human story which make it worth following are all dropped, to be replaced by detestation (towards Israelis) and patronizing pity (towards Palestinians).

I'll complete this very partial list of malicious methodology with two links from the Resources page of the website, the part where the editors have collected the basics about their topic. Obviously, they've got a paragraph about the so-called Dalet Plan, which in the mythology of Israel's enemies was the 1948 plan to expel the Palestinians, and which serious scholarship has long since demonstrated was a limited tactical military move formulated in March 1948 in response to developments in an ongoing war which the Arabs had launched:
Khalidi, Walid, "Plan Dalet: Master Plan for the Conquest of Palestine,” Journal of Palestine Studies p14.
Drafted by members of the Haganah under the guidance of David Ben-Gurion, and carried out by Israeli para-military groups during 1947-8, Plan Dalet is a military blueprint for the Palestinian Nakba. The document emphasizes the need to secure territory both inside and outside of the 1947 Partition Plan, and provides detailed instructions for the forcible transfer of the Palestinian population, establishing the conditions for a Jewish national state.
You'd expect a resource section explaining a basic Israeli document to link, you know, to an Israeli document, but if you follow the link behind that explanation you'll reach an Arab website with an English version; I searched in vain for anything at all about the Dalet Plan, dishonest or honest.

Then there's an item on their list of resources called "Creating 'unrecognized' villages and home demolitions":
Planning and Building Law 1965, 5725—1965." Knesset 14 July 1965.
The 1965 Planning and Building Law is a set of codes, including legal restrictions to Palestinians on building permits, and land use. The law allows for the Israeli government to transfer privately owned Palestinian land to the state, and requires any unpermitted building to be demolished at the owners’ expense.   All current home demolitions in both Israel and the occupied Palestinian Territories are carried out under the tenets of this law.
This paragraph actually does have a link to an (English version) of an Israeli law, so it looks convincing. Unless you actually look at the law, as I did. It's 67 pages long, and never remotely says what Mondoweiss says it does. As a matter of fact, the very word Palestinian never appears, nor does the word Arab, nor Minority (terms the sneaky Israeli legislators might have used to hide their true intentions). The word Palestine appears only in the footnotes, citing some British laws from before 1948.

Summary: There may be tens of thousands of loyal Mondoweiss readers - an unimportant demographic, but an interesting sociological and historical group. There is no possibility for discourse between them and us, only invective from their side, and head-shaking from ours. Yet they fit comfortably into ancient traditions of Jew-hatred, and thus their potential significance shouldn't be shrugged off. It's important to keep in mind that the free and pluralistic society of the West also harbors such ugly forms of thought.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

A Land of Brutal Beauty, Humanity and Brutality

The other day the Guardian published a long, wandering, and not particularly interesting article about what they call "non-monogamus marriage", or what used to be called "open marriage". You know the Guardian approves of something when it doesn't lace its paragraphs with spurious references to "observers say this is an awful thing", as they always do when writing about Israel - so clearly the editorial line is that non-monogamus-thingies are Good Things.

When writing about faraway places like Pakistan and Afghanistan, however, the Guardian generally prefers the noble savages to the soldiers from America (or Britain). Which is a bit odd, if you ever ask yourself what the noble savages might have to say about a culture which spawns open partnerships. If you're having trouble with your pondering, I warmly recommend a short and powerful new book, The Wandering Falcon, by Jamil Ahmad.

It's actually not such a new book. Mr. Ahmad, born in 1930, was a high-ish Pakistani civil servant who spent much of his time in the less tamed parts of Pakistan, before ending up at the Pakistani embassy in Kabul. At some point he wrote a series of short stories about the people among whom he was spending his life, and put them in his drawer. Only recently someone convinced him they were worthy of being published - and how very right they were.

Have you ever read Frank Herbert's  Dune books? Well, Ahmad's is a book about the real, original. A society which ekes out a subsistence existence in a harsh desert world. Its members live by a harsh code of honor, which for all I know may help them cope with the severity of life, though I rather doubt it. You read the codes of the Torah, writen thousands of years ago for a society which also had its harsh elements, and you understand that violence is something which needs to be tamed, not only channelled. Still, the power of Ahmad's book is that he describes his wandering tribespeople, without judging them, and he does so from their own persepctive or something close to it. Some parts of his book, the first chapter in particular, are very poignant, and they're all deeply human.

Read it, and see if you can find any connection to the world of the Guardian. I wasn't able to.