Friday, August 29, 2014

Israeli Bullshit

Here's a true story about Israeli bullshit and why it's blogworthy. I've been hearing rumors of it for months, and not long ago its essential facts even appeared in a local newspaper (Hebrew, no online linkable version), at which point I enquired with a fellow I know who is closely enough involved to be able to confirm the news item and embellish on it.

Like all stories you've got to decide where, actually, is the beginning. One place to start might be in the Talmudic assertion that Israel, unlike Egypt, depends on the immediate good will of God since it has no reliable river, and all its water comes from the heavens, a fact which has been true since the Six Days of Creation - until a few years ago, 10 or 15 of them, when the Israelis decided they didn't like being dependant on the whims of the weather for their water. (This was a policy decision, and so far as I know it had nothing to do with theology). The policy-makers of the day may also have been dimly aware of the 1930s research of Walter Laudermilk, a British scientist who wrote about our environment, was deeply impressed by the early efforts of Zionist pioneers to drain marshes and create modern agriculture, but was also of the opinion the maximal population of Mandatory Palestine couldn't rise above 10 million, a number we passed a while ago. One way or the other, the decision was made to reach water independence through two strategic programs. One, to build as many desalination plants as needed, and the second, to purify as much of the potable water and to pot it again.

Both programs have already succeeded, and they're both still progressing. We're well on the way to the point where all of the urban-use water comes from desalination plants and not natural sources; and while I don't have the exact number, much of the sewage water goes through purification plants and is then re-used, tho often not as drinking water but for industry or types of agriculture where this is safe (cotton being an obvious example. You don't eat cotton, you wear it, so the quality of the water used to irrigate it is less important than with watermelons. In both fields - desalination and re-use of water - Israel is the world leader.

The past winter was unusually dry, and yet this summer there's no shortage of water. I cannot begin to tell you how momentous this is, but am reasonably certain that a century from now this summer will be remembered for that, not for the events in Gaza.

As usually happens with technological progress, once you arrive at a new place you see new needs and challenges. No-one understood why an iPad needed improvement until they'd used the iPad 1.

It turns out that water used in cattle farming can't be purified. The bullshit is too potent. So long as no-one was systematically purifying all their water, this may not have been known and certainly wasn't interesting. Once the water is all directed to purification, however, it did become important; once some government agency took it into their mind to regulate the quality of water before its purification, that little fact became a matter of economic life-and-death for the cattle industry.

Enter the Sidon family brothers, one with a PhD in chemistry, one with a background in the feverish world of the hi-tech Startup Nation, and one an engineer, who spotted the opportunity to make gold out of bullshit. Together they invented a contraption which separates reasonably clean water from the rest of the bullshit, so that farmers can meet the requirements of that regulator, and apparently also sell the hard-core part of the bullshit for other purposes.  They have just implemented the first industrial-size model of their contraption, and now expecct to sell it to cattle farmers all over Israel.

It has also crossed their mind that there are cattle farmers in other countries, too. Who said Israeli technological innovation can't be bullshit.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Israel has nothing to fear from a fair investigation

At some point our government will have to determine its positions towards various avenues of investigation into the events of the Gaza war. Fortunately I'm not in the government, and won't have to be part of that discussion. I have no doubt that the people who will be, will take into account all the relevant considerations.

I'm here today simply to re-iterate that on the level of simple evidence, Israel seems to have collected mounds of it. Assuming, as I do and explained here, that we prepared adequately, and then collected the evidence we've obviously collected, we have nothing to fear from a professional investigation of impartial investigators.

The IDF yesterday put online an example of this: it's a map of Gaza,created by the UN, depicting all the spots where damage was caused. To which the IDF responded with films of how the damage was caused. As I"ve explained in the past, this ability, while demonstrated in only 4-5 cases in this short film, is apparently pervasive. The IDF seems to have documentation of just about everything it did, from go-pro cameras on soldiers' helmets, through data from Iron Dome radar, to drone-based films of everything going on below.

To the extent any non-Israeli professionals investigate these events with open minds, the wealth of evidence the IDF has amassed seem to assure the investigators won't find any major problem with Israeli conduct. Since even Israel doesn't rule out that mistakes were made here or there, we seem to be fine.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The end of the Enlightenment?

A funny thing happened to me this week, but its implications are anything but funny.

My occasional pen-pal Phil Weiss, he of the Mondoweiss website, that lair of American-hating Antisemites, wrote to tell me he was troubled by a short message I posted a few weeks ago on Twitter. This may be the time to admit that contrary to what you might think given our rather different public personas, Phil and I are cautiously civil with one another in private. We're not close buddies, and many months can go by with nary any contact between us, but when we are in contact it's usually civil, and sometimes even almost friendly. If it weren't for his absolutely totally inexcusably repulsive website. i.e. in another life, he and I might even be friends. Anyway, as I say, he was troubled by that message and wished me to explain. So I did. Next thing I knew he had posted our exchange on his website (perhaps he thought I knew he was going to do this though in the past he hadn't and he didn't say he would).

As of this writing, 24 hours later, 136 of his readers have commented on the post. I used to follow his commenters regularly, so I can say that the comments were rather subdued compared to standard viciousness at Mondoweiss. They mostly agreed that I'm a Nazi, and Israel's being a Nazi state is a given at that website, but not a single one of them made any intellectually interesting challenge to my note.

(The reason I used to follow them by the way, was to learn about contemporary anti-Semitism. When I was researching my doctorate many years ago the Nazis I was following were mostly dead and I learned about them from documents. The Mondoweiss hordes are alive and active, and I can provoke them and learn how they respond).

A few hours later, Elder of Ziyon copied the entire exchange onto his fine website, perhaps as a public service so people might read it without giving Mondoweiss the traffic. And here's the point I'm meandering towards: that the precise same set of arguments, actually, a cut-and-paste copy, is comfortable at two diametrically opposing websites. Phil put my mail online to demonstrate to his gang how far gone those Israelis are; Elder put it online to demonstrate how defensible Israel's actions at war are. Both readerships came away with the conviction they're right. Let it be clear: there's no moral equivalence between the two groups. Phil himself isn't quite an antisemite, but the crowd he travels with and hosts are indistinguishable from the swamp of European Jew-haters at the turn of the 20th century, plus Twitter. Elder's readers are the profoundly despised Jews themselves (and many comrades in spirit). Yet most of the people in both groups live in the US, and just about all of them, I suppose, live in Western countries which were formed by the Enlightened philosophers of the 18th century.

Those Enlightenment philosohers were complex fellows who had many thoughts (some of them hated Jews, for example). Yet one of the most fundamental thoughts they had was about the power of reason. They were convinced that humans could use words to understand reality in universal ways, which is to say, in compelling explanations and concepts which would make sense to any thinking person irrespective of their ethnicity, gender or social status (none of those terms existed in the 18th century).

They were wrong, it appears. Words don’t have the power to create anything resembling universal mutual comprehension. Since the Enlightenment is the fundament of the democratic West, this is a problem.

Anyway, here's the Mondoweiss link; here's the Elder of Ziyon one, and here's the entire text, up now also at my own place.
The original tweet:

Phil's mail to me:
This strikes me as a somewhat crude slogan– given that you’re an intellectual at the highest level.

And secondly, you omit me in your declaration of what “The Jews” do. I’m a Jew and I don’t want to be part of a collective that makes these types of determinations. And I feel great concern about having anyone — even the distinguished state archivist of a “warring nation” — announce to my non Jewish neighbors how many children I need to kill to keep my nation going. It’s actually a kind of blood libel– again from a distinguished state archivist.

Also: what does it mean to be a “warring nation”? Really, is that a category that any citizen would embrace? The history of “warring nations” doesn’t offer a lot of hope. It seems to me you are making Israel a Sparta [cribbing Hannah Arendt]. Or as my friend Golda once said to me in Rehavia, We’re going to have one war after another after another, till they accept us. It’s not a vision for a future. Yet 95 percent of Israeli Jews have embraced the Gaza onslaught out of this understanding. Which only increases the responsibility of American Jews to say, Not in my name!

And my response:
1. The Jews: It is an objective and implacable fact that Zionism is the largest and most significant Jewish project in at least 2,000 years, probably more. There are non-Jews who are Israeli citizens, there are Jews who intensely dislike Zionism, there are even a handful of anti-Zionist Jews in Israel. None of these facts can change the fundamental truth: in Zionism the Jews set out to re-create a national existence on the political playing field, in their ancestral homeland, and Israel is its expression, or outcome, or whatever you wish to call it. The fact that about 50% of the world’s Jews live in Israel strengthens this, (the proportion will soon tip over to more than 50%), and the fact that a majority of self-identifying Jews among the non-Israelis are Zionists, bolsters its strength, but doesn’t change it. You can’t have Jews pining for Israel over millennia and then going there, and not have it be the most important development in all those millennia.

You can rail against this for every remaining day of your life (until 120, as we Jews say), and it still won’t make the slightest difference, not even if you gather around you thousands or tens of thousands of like-minded American Jews. I think it was Abe Lincoln who once said in court something about the strength of a fart in a blizzard or some such. Live with it, Phil, because there’s nothing you can do to change it. Nothing.

(Apropos numbers: there were more Jews at the funeral of Max Steinberg last month, which I blogged a bit about, than all the committed Mondoweiss Jews together, and it was just one funeral).

2. Will defend themselves: Look, I know you’re convinced Israel is the once and always, perpetual aggressor. Of course this doesn’t explain how if we’re such aggressors the Palestinians keep multiplying and acquiring new assets such as the PA, parts of WB, all of Gaza, international standing etc etc. We must be really really bad at getting our job done. But as we both know, you and I can’t agree on the basic facts of this point, so let’s leave it as I said: A majority of the Jews worldwide and a total majority in Israel know we’re defending ourselves from enemies who would eagerly destroy us if they had the power, just as happened in the past. (Lots of non-Jews agree with us, by the way, either because we’ve got them under our thumb as you see it, or because it’s a simple fact, as I see it).

3. Even if it means killing: My PhD was about Nazis, and I know more about them than most people, so Godwin’s Law doesn’t apply to me. I can speak about Nazis as a scholar, not a demagogue. So here’s a thought experiment. Say that in order to end Nazism you had to kill 70,000 (not a few hundred) innocent, non-German civilians, Frenchmen, say. Would that be defensible? 70,000 dead French civilians, all innocent, many children, to end Nazism and as a by-product also end the Holocaust? Would that be moral? Permissible? Defensible in some later discussion? I ask because it’s not a thought experiment, it’s what the USA and UK did in 1944 as they went through France so as to destroy Nazism in Germany. Some goals, my friend, justify even horrible side effects, or collateral damage, or whatever you wish to call it. The reason being that the alternative, of allowing Nazism to stay in place, would have been far worse.

So If Israel has to chose between its own safety or refusing to kill any innocent bystanders whatsoever, we’ll choose to defend ourselves. You bet. Of course, we can seek shades of gray, alternatives of greater or lesser destruction, and we can argue about those and indeed, we must seek them and argue about them. But the basic framework remains solid. Our safety is to be assured even if there’s a price to it, even if some innocents die. As few as possible, hopefully, but the inevitably some, yes.

4. Just like every warring nation in history: Simple. Every single nation in human history, including in the 21st century, which finds itself at war, has one of two options regarding the moral dilemma in the preceding paragraph. Either it accepts that it will kill some innocents in order to protect ts goals, or it doesn’t care. The Syrian don’t care. ISIS certainly doesn’t care. The North Vietnamese probably didn’t care, so far as I can tell. I don’t think the North in your Civil War much cared. The US in WWII didn’t care at all when it came to German civilians in bombable towns. Hamas certainly doesn’t care – well, actually it does. It regrets it doesn’t manage to kill more Jews and Arabs who live among them.

Americans nowadays do care, as do the British, and a small handful of other mostly enlightened nations, Israel among them. Yet whenever they chose to go to war, they also accept they’ll be killing at least some innocent bystanders – and they then do. In Serbia in the 1990s, in Kuwait in the 1990s, in Afghanistan and Iraq in the 2000s, and yes, I’m sad to tell you, against ISIS in 2014 (and 2015? 2016? 2025?). No-one has existentially threatened the US since the 19th century, or maybe even ever. Which isn’t to say the US hasn’t fought just wars. But they were never about its very existence. And in every one of them they have killed civilians. Tragic, but true. And as long as the US continues to be at war, for whatever reasons, it will continue to kill civilians. As few as possible, one hopes, and one assumes they’ll take great efforts to limit the numbers, but to pretend you can go to war and not kill civilians is being willfully blind.

Israel, unlike the US, faces enemies who proudly broadcast their intention to destroy it, in the most basic meaning of the word “destroy”. So Israel must choose: will it defend itself even if thereby some number of innocent civilians die, or will it not defend itself, and thereby large numbers of its own civilians will die.

The answer is clear. Any other answer would be immoral.

So, that’s it. I know your methodology, and that of your fans. You’ll now turn to all sorts of other objections and whatabouttery. But I’ve responded to the questions as you posed them, and that’s enough. The whatabouttery is, by definition, about other matters.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

IDF and the Laws of Warfare

A couple of weeks ago I posted a short item about the data being collected by the IDF during the war and the implications this might have when the time comes to investigate it. Most of my comment was based simply upon observing the capabilities of the IDF spokesperson.

In the Friday edition of Yedioth Acharonont there was a much longer and more detailed description. It's not online, and it's only in Hebrew, so far as I can see, so as a public service here's a quick summary.

The IDF takes international law very seriously. Over the past decade it has considerably expanded the part of the military prosecution which deals with the laws of war, and there is now an entire team of officers, many at the colonel level, whose entire profession is to ensure the IDF functions within the law. I'll stray from the Yedioth article for a moment to add that I've come across these folks in recent years, in professional discussions, and they're knowledgeable, committed and professional. I expect that they know more about the laws of war than just about any media type or pundit who pontificates on the matter, except of course the other professionals. It seems safe to me to say that if anyone who doesn't have a full and updated education in the laws of war informs you about how what the IDF does is illegal etc, they are probably talking through their hat comfortable that you, too, don't know enough to call them out. The laws of war, like any branch of law, is a professional field, and it takes training and practice to be good at it.

 That's the first stage.

The second stage is that these officers spend a significant chunk of their time training other IDF troops in the basics. Clearly a corporal in the infantry won't go through a full course of training, but the higher the officer, the more exposure they will have had to the principles and concepts of the laws of war, and the more occasions on which they'll have been required to think about applying them. The training of an IDF soldier includes the understanding that the IDF respects the laws of war; the training of an officer includes applying these laws.

The third stage is that the legal types participate in the planning of all operations. I'm not going to detai the many levels of preparation an IDF operation goes through from conception to execution, but there are lots of them; the legal experts are part of the process. According to Yedioth, this results in some operations never being authorized in the first place, and others are adapted to stay within the law.

The fourth stage of preparation is that there's a legal expert in every division, and there are channels of communication down to at least the level of battalions; since companies and platoons don't generally execute their own operations, that more or less covers everyone.

Fifth stage: Ariel and artillery actions. Ariel and artillery actions are not necessarily susceptible to heat of battle situations. Both pilots and artillery officers are less likely than infantry, tank or engineering soldiers to need to respond immediately to fire from an unidentified source in the confusion of a battlefield. The article in Yedioth claimed that every single shell shot by those two branches was thought about in advance, and targets were vetted in advance, after they were visually identified by one or more of the layers of eyes the IDF had over Gaza - drones, other drones, radar and other stuff.

Sixth stage: heat of battle situations. Once the ground forces were engaged in close-hand battle, all of he above is nice to have, and the stream of digital data coming in to the grunts and their officers is impressive, but at the end of the day it's split-second decisions made under threat of immediate death which form the outcome. There are no legal advisers who can ponder the alternatives. You do your best in training, secure in the knowledge that training is different from battle. Always has been, always will be. Still, training does have a significant impact on the result of battle.

Seventh stage: post-battle investigation. The upshot of all this is that the IDF has the data to examine just about every single move or piece of action that happened in the Gaza war, and most of the time has the documentation to prove whatever results its investigators reach. The Goldstone Report was chock full of inferring, since its members had no access to the documentation. Whoever investigates this recent war without full access to all that documentation and evidence the IDF has amassed, will essentially be talking nonsense, no matter what their conclusions are. Sort of like trying to figure out how an American presidency functioned based only on contemporary newspaper reports from the Russian media.

Were mistakes made? I have no doubt. It's inevitable. Were crimes committed? On this point the legal officers being interviewed by Yedioth were admirably careful in answering: they wouldn't say no, they were only willing to say that every case would be investigated.

I recognize this entire story is completely, totally and irrevocably incompatible with roughly 100% of the international media reports over the past month. But you see, the thing about truth is that it isn't effected by media reports one way or the other. People's understanding of reality is; their ideologies and Weltanschaungen can be, but hard facts aren't.

It's also yet another example of how it happens that Israelis understand the world differently than everyone else. This is often used against them: if everyone says you are X, you must be X, and if you insist you aren't X you're not only wrong, you're fools. But of course, the entire surroundings has been telling itself falsities about Jews for millennia (literally). This didn't make it true then, and doesn't make it true now.

Ah,I forgot to add: feel free to show me one other military in the annals of war which can tell a similar story.