Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Magen David Adom in East Jerusalem

My daughter has been volunteering as a medic on the ambulances of Magen David for six or seven years, which means throughout the 2nd Intifada. This morning she had a shift, and this evening she mentioned, in passing, an important fact that is known by thousands of people, but if you aren't one of them you'd never hear of it.

The ambulances serve whoever needs them, irrespective of identity obviously. However, whenever they are called to assist a patient in Arab East Jerusalem, they race to the outskirts of the Arab neighborhood.... and then wait. Only once they are joined by a police or border-police jeep, with armed policemen, are they allowed into the Arab neighborhood, even if the wait may endanger the patient. The reason for this peculiar behavior is that the ambulance teams are mostly Jews, and in the past there were cases where they were attacked as Jews in an Arab neighborhood, even though their attackers had to have known that the reason for their presence could only have been to offer succor to an Arab resident.

Back at the height of the Intifada, Nechama told of cases where even though they were accompanied by armed policemen, the hostility was palpable and threatening.

You might want to think through the implications of this story. And then ask yourself why you've never heard it before.

Comparing the IRA with Hamas

David Trimble warns that glib comparisons of the successful peace process in Northern Ireland to the Israel-Palestine conflict may do more damage than good. (His article was posted last week, but I found it only today). Reading history, it turns out, requires more than facile unthinking comparisons (and, I'd add: knowing facts can help). This one appeared in the Guardian, making this the second surprising link today.

Is Islam Inherently Aggressive?

A nuanced and thoughtful discussion of Islam and it's relations with the modern world, rather surprisingly at The New York Review of Books. The opening sentences of the article:

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush visited the Islamic Center in Washington, where he told his audience, "These acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith.... The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That's not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace." In Britain his sentiments were echoed by Prime Minister Tony Blair, who told the Arabic newspaper al-Hayat: "There is nothing in Islam which excuses such an all-encompassing massacre of innocent people, nor is there anything in the teachings of Islam that allows the killing of civilians, of women and children, of those who are not engaged in war or fighting."

However reflective such views may be of the "moderate" Muslim majority, they are not uncontested.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Still Learning from Human Rights Watch?

Yesterday I clenched my teeth and linked to an op-ed in Haaretz where Kenneth Roth, head of HRW, castigated the Israeli authorities for not being willing to listen to his organization's findings on Israeli crimes in last year's Lebanon War.

Gerald Steinberg, Executive Director of NGO Monitor, also responded, sharply criticising Roth. So I've linked to him, too. But I don't retract my statement of yesterday. Unfortunately, the suggestion that Israel was careless with the lives of Lebanese citizens last year is based on fact. Would that it were otherwise, but it isn't.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Nonesense about the ITS

You know how whenever your really know about something that's being reported in the media, you notice how sloppy and inaccurate the reports are, and you wonder if it's just as sloppy when telling about things you know less about? So the front page of Haaretz this morning has a big article about the International Tracing Service (ITS), which is in the process of opening to the public. Much of the article is misleading, verging on nonsense: The ITS is in no way the world's largest archive about Nazism - that title probably belongs to the German Federal Archives, though you'd be surprised to know how substantially important the American National Archive (NARA) is, and there are all sort of other such bloopers in the article.

The Hebrew version of the article is longer than the English one, and contains the assertion that while much of the ITS documentation has been accessible in copy at Yad Vashem since the 1950s (a fact which slightly contradicts the drama of the story), at the ITS itself the systems are far more efficient. Given that teams of professionals from five countries have been laboring for the past 18 months on an attempt to crack the system of the ITS archives, so far not successfully, this assertion is, how to put it, curios.

Learning from Human Rights Watch

I am no particular fan of Human Rights Watch, nor its executive director, Kenneth Roth, about whom it can be demonstrated and documented that their reports are not always accurate, and rather often are slanted. Still, when in Haaretz this morning he explains that it would have been better had the IDF tried to learn from his organization's report on the war in Lebanon last year rather than try to explain away all the evidence collected about Israeli wrong-doing, he is, unfortunately, right, and the IDF people are wrong. Not something I'm proud about.

Dawn In Jerusalem

I started my walk at about 5:45, near Mea Shearim, the bastion of the Haredi (ultra-orthodox) community. Most hours of the day and evening this neighborhood is as crowded as Times Square, but this early in the morning the streets are mostly empty. Mostly, but not empty; quite a number of men were hurrying to their synagogues (I toyed with the idea of joining, but didn't. Some other time).

The walls are plastered with pashkavils, large-font announcements about all matters of importance. My eye was caught by a pashkavil with gigantic letters: DANGER! BACTERIA!! A horrendous epidemic is rampaging through the ranks of the youth of this most insular of communities, transforming fine young children, eager to learn, into zombie-like teenagers who have lost their Torah and are rotting away, while the wail of their parents and teachers rise to the heavens. However, the parents are warned, the bacteria infest well-identified places: the Internet, MP-4 players, non-kosher mobile phones (yes, there are kosher ones), newspapers, Keep your children safe from these dangers!!!!

Over the crest of the hill, in downtown Jerusalem at about 6AM, the streets are almost empty, with the exception of the usual suspects: a few sanitation workers, a police jeep, two young men, probably Arabs, loading racks with trays of pastry from the kitchen of the Cafe that now occupies the Sbarro pizzeria bombed in August 2001. (If you look carefully at the picture of the bombed cafe, you'll see on the lower left corner that there's an opening from the street level to the kitchen basement. The guys were taking trays out of that opening). I was a bit surprised to see that while all the shops were closed (6AM), the pastry shops seemed all open - I counted four of them on my route, and didn't even walk by the more obvious places. Walking south I saw an elderly, white-haired woman jogging, and an older woman wearing a gray dressing gown walking her dog. Two young tourists waiting for a bus, a Franciscan monk, and one haredi man in the wrong part of town.

The armed guard on the corner near the prime minister's residence was red-eyed; his two colleagues across from the entrance were discussing investments on the stock market, and at the far corner a guard was inspecting the papers of a fidgeting young man. As I passed them the young man was asking if there's any way they could do without these repeated inspections every time he walks by, and the guard seemed to be answering that no, there isn't. Which I found rather surprising, because in all the hundreds of times I've walked by there I've never been stopped, nor have I ever seen anyone else being stopped until this morning, and the only obvious thing that distinguished this guy was his rather outlandish haircut - which was only moderately outlandish.

A few minutes later, deep into a bourgeoisie residential neighborhood, two couples were playing tennis (6:30AM). One 50-something man called out to his partner as I passed the court "Haimon, if you win today, the coffee and cake are on me!". If they go downtown, there are lots of cafes to choose from.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

A Constitution for Israel

My former influential teacher and long-term acquaintance, Prof. Menachem Ben-Sasson, MK from Kadima and Chair of the Knesset committee for constitutional and law-making matters, is pushing hard to finally enact a constitution, after 60 years without.

The accepted version of the story is that back in the early years of the state, when it was obvious that Israel should have a constitution like everybody else does, the religious parties blocked the move because the Jews already had a constitution - the Torah - and didn't need another one. The compromise reached was that over the years the Knesset has passed a series of Basic Laws (such as the Basic Law: Knesset, or Basic Law: Government, or Basic Law: IDF), and the assumption is that some day they'll string them all together and Hey Presto! There will be a Constitution!

In a way, this has succeeded, and for many matters, the Basic Laws indeed do behave like a constitution should. In other ways, it has allowed the central, partially declarative issues to remain unresolved, since the practicalities of living life and running a country obviously get along just fine without them. In the meantime, as you would expect, various - perhaps even contradictory - political groups have developed high expectations about how the constitution, when it finally happens, will resolve these festering matters or those.

Since Ben Sasson is churning up so much dust, Haaretz asked two prominent publicists to put their positions in writing. It's worth mentioning that both are professors (Kremnitzer: law, Avineri: political science), both are Ashkenazi, neither are religious, Arab, Russian, Ethiopian, women, settlers, or otherwise fanatics [:~)].

Kremnitzer is for, Avineri is against. It should come as no surprise to regular readers of Ruminations that I'm more on Avineri's side, though my reasoning is a bit different than his. I'm a great fan of root causes, though not in their usual meaning. If a society is healthily democratic, that's more important than any document, and if it isn't, no document will be of any use anyway, as the history of the 20th century demonstrated endlessly. Israel is deeply democratic, for deep-seated historical reasons; at the same time, as Avineri rightly shows, it is not in agreement with itself about much that would normally go into a constitution. These disagreements, however, do not seem to endanger the fundamentals.

Although, of course, you should never rest on your laurels nor take anything for granted - but no written constitution will change that sentence one way or the other.

i-Pod Generation

Remember how last week I disagreed with Jay Michaelsen for thinking that the i-Pod generation needs a new type of Judaism? Well, this heightened my awareness of i-Pods, with the following results:

One recent morning I took the elevator down with an elderly neighbor, who was born and reared in Slovakia, which means she's either a Holocaust survivor or she got here even earlier, and either way she must be closer to 80 than to 70. But she wasn't very talkative, because she was so engrossed in whatever her i-Pod was telling her that she hardly noticed my presence.

Yesterday I again shared the elevator with an i-Podist, this time a man of about 60, who was about to go jogging, or walking, or whatever. He at least did notice my presence, so I asked him what music he listens to, or if perhaps it's some rabbi. "I listen to the talks of the Rav Avraham Josef, Rabbi of Holon and son of the Rav Ovadia [the most important Sephardi rabbi of our generation]. I recently learned from him that if you put cold soup on a cold electric heater on the sabbath and then a pre-set timer turns on the heater, the warming of the soup is considered unintended, and it's kosher to eat it - and this goes for everyone, including Ashkenazim". A fine trick, if you're into such things.

When we got down to street level he turned right, and I turned left. Half a block down I passed a young woman cradling a live rooster on a piece of cardboard in her arms... but that's another story, with no i-Pods.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Discussions About Collective Punishment

Defense Minister Ehud Barak yesterday authorized the use of collective punishment by shutting down the electricity in the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahia for two-hour periods, should the shooting of Qassam rockets continue from there. It is not at all clear if the electricity really will be turned off or if the authorization is part of a psychological warfare effort - time will tell. The whole issue underlines the fact that Israel is supplying electricity to Gaza, not a surprise to anyone who knows the reality, but somehow never mentioned by the Guardian and the rest of the Gaza-is-an-Israeli-prison brigade. (Israel also supplies some of Gaza's water, and therein lies a tale, but not today).

Anyway, the group for whom this measure will or won't be taken, the civilians in Sderot, are not of one mind about it. Some think it's not enough, others think it's merely a sop to them but will bring no respite from the rockets, others think it's a bad idea. Listening to their responses is so interesting precisely because none of them are into ideology. They're not thinking about colonialism, or hegemonic power struggles, or fascism, or international law. They're getting shot at, they belong to a highly experienced society and at the moment they're bearing the brunt of the conflict, and their considerations are practical. This is what an educated discussion about warfare sounds like.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

How dynamic is the Traditional Hebrew Literature?

Meir Soloveichik shows how Rabbi Akiva fits into the deepest ideological discussion of the early 21st century, 2,000 years after his lifetime.

I've read better articles by the same author, but it's an interesting read, it relates to the previous post, and there is no doubt that Rabbi Akiva is still relevant in more way than one.

How Dynamic is Hebrew?

Yesterday evening we went to the launch of Haim Beer's new novel, Lifnei Hamakom. Like all Hebrew books, one of the title pages contains an English translation of the title, in this case "Upon a Certain Place", which of course is no good since although makom means "place", it also means God, and there's no way any reader of the English title would ever guess that. But then again, it's not clear that all, or even most of the contemporary Israeli readers will catch the allusion, either.

I expect I'll write and post here a review of the book by and by. In the meantime, it was interesting to hear some of the speakers yesterday relate to the subject of the Hebrew language - a subject that came up repeatedly since it's a novel about writing a book, and it's language is unusually rich.

Prof. Rachel Elior noted that books were written in Hebrew every single one of the past 25 centuries, and that at the very least all the educated Jewish men always knew the language and could get along in it, even when it wasn't their primary spoken language. Meir Shalev, on the other hand, remarked that our generation lives in the most exciting moment in the history of the language, when Hebrew is developing so swiftly that he sometime wishes it would slow down. A generation, he told, where "we cannot understand what our children are talking about, but together with them we can all understand most of what's written in books written 3,000 years ago." Haim Beer himself, wrapping up the evening, used less Yiddish than he often does.

Elior was of course technically right, but she wasn't fully convincing. Some of those Hebrew books of the middle ages are much harder to read than the ancient ones of the biblical or mishnaic ones. The reason, I think, is that in the earlier periods Hebrew was used in daily life, while in the middle ages it wasn't really, and thus lacked the vocabulary to deal with subjects not covered earlier. I remember once trying to decipher a philosophical text of the 13 century for some university seminar, and after weeks of labor, I gave up, still on the first page.

Meir Shalev also, however, took his case too far. He quoted three or four examples where Beer builds sentences in the book which allude to earlier layers of the language, and was proud that he (Shalev) had caught the sleights of hand... but then admitted ruefully that there must have been many other cases where he missed Beer's linguistic tricks. (It will be impossible to translate this book and do it full justice. Quite simply impossible). Shalev then postulated that in the generations of "the grandchildren of our great-grandchildren" (late 22nd century?) the speakers of Hebrew will no longer be able to understand the traditional texts that Beer weaves so masterfully into his book. He could be right, and I expect none of us will know, but I'm far from convinced. Ultimately, what will clinch the matter will be the degree to which Hebrew speakers remain tethered to the traditional literature. Western civilization has lost Greek and Latin these past 200 years. Hebrew retained the anchoring texts but lacked any form of living slang for a millennium. Now it has it all, but only time will tell if it retains its anchor, or takes off without them. I hope not.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

El-Baradei: Saddam had "Huge Nuclear Program"

I continue not to know what it was the IAF bombed in Syria on September 6th. In spite of my usual conceit of knowing better than all the rest of you, on this, I must sheepishly admit, I don't. If you want to know what it was, you'd be better advised to go to the Washington Post; for this reason, Ruminations has not been much focused on the story.

Today the Washington Post indeed has another bit of information: apparently they've found some experts of such things who are sort of the opinion that perhaps there are aerial photographs of a place in Syria, roughly in the right area, that could perhaps be a nuclear reaction under construction, but then again who knows. So far, so unsatisfying.

What I found tickling was the last paragraph in the report. El Baradei, he of the International Atomic Energy Agency (and, you might want to be reminded, another Nobel Peace Prize laureate), asked for his opinion on the new slant, deplored the whole event obviously ( 'If any of you has the slightest information showing that there was anything linked to nuclear, we would of course be happy to investigate it,'). Then he went on to tell how Israel's attack on the Iraqi reactor in 1981 was the reason Saddam moved his "huge nuclear program" underground:

"When the Israelis destroyed Saddam Hussein's research nuclear reactor in 1981, the consequence was that Saddam Hussein pursued his program secretly. He began to establish a huge military nuclear program underground," he said. "The use of force can set things back, but it does not deal with the roots of the problem."

Huh? Care to run that by me again?


A few days ago I cited one of Juan Cole's gems. At the time, I noticed his use of the word "Zionofacism, but beyond raising an eyebrow, I didn't do much about it. It seemed to me merely a demonstration of the connection between shabby thinking and shabby use of language, and their shoddy result. Noah Pollack, however, took note and went digging, and uncovered a more sinister finding.

It turns out that Zionofascism is a term invented by anti-Semites, for anti-Semites, that so far has seen regular use only by anti-Semites. Cole, who uses words and makes distinctions for a living, presumably knows this.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Religion and Belief in God

I see that I wasn't careful in formulating a thought, and where I intended to say one thing, it came out meaning something else.

Clearly, belief in God is important in Judaism. But not in a completely obvious way. For which I offer the following (extremely abridged) brief history of Jewish religious thought and beliefs.

When you look at the story of the patriarchs, monotheistic belief is obviously central. It's still pretty central in Exodus, too, although layers of legal and moral thought are moving forward onto the stage. By the prophets, religious belief is beginning to move to a new position: that of the lighting by which what is happening on the stage is visible: it's essential, without it you can't see anything, but it's not at center stage. After the cessation of prophecy and the advent of the oral law and its ever-evolving system, center stage hardly deals directly with faith at all. There is a quick discussion in the Talmud of dogmas, but it's extremely perfunctory, in an ocean of verbosity. In the middle ages when a number of sages tried, sort of half-heartedly, to construct a theology with dogmas implied heresies and all that, you get the impression that even they knew they were addressing Catholicism, not the needs of their own culture. The theater, in the meanwhile, had branched out to music, and operas.

Then, quite recently in history, say a century or two ago, the lighting became less crucial. Nowadays you don't need lighting to see the stage, because in a movie theater the film supplies the light; but you don't need the theater anymore either, because you can download the film to your hand-held device. If it's simply music you're interested in, you can download it to your iPod. With nary a need for lighting of any sort.

And so also in Judaism. Where for millenia it would have been impossible to separate the faith from the practice of Judaism, because (almost) no-one could have dreamed of the concept, by now it's an obvious alternative. And this is where the anomaly of Judaism and faith become clear. Since the content of Judaism is so rich, while the belief part was obvious but not center stage, it's actually not particularly problematic to be a practicing Jew, even of the most strict orthodox form, without worrying about the belief.

I'm told that when a protestant loses their belief, it's not clear there's anything left of their religion. When a worried young orthodox Jews goes to the rabbi to talk about his diminishing faith, the rabbi is as likely as not to tell him (or her) to keep practicing, to get married quickly with a good Jewish spouse, to have lots of kids and be very very busy with them, and to worry about the belief thing after 40, by which time habits will have solved the issue.

Are the Jewish communities full of religious scholars who are also atheists? Probably not - but such people certainly exist, and we can all name a few, either the prominent and famous ones, or the local ones we know personally. Ironically, when Jay Michaelsen claims in his Forward article that started this string that there's a need to develop a Jewish culture for atheists, he's deep inside traditional Jewish practice, probably far more than he'd like to think. What's new and unserious about his article is the idea that the way to do so is to abandon the old-fashion things and start out in new directions.

These are Our Enemies

Last week Hezbullah handed over to the Israelis a letter written by downed pilot Ron Arad to his wife, shortly after his plane was shot down in 1986. Sometime thereafter he got lost in the chaos that is Lebanon, or the hell that is Iran, or somewhere, and I suppose he's been dead for many years, though we'll never know. His mother died of cancer many years later, still hoping against hope for some news of him; his daughter is now almost as old as his wife was when he wrote the letter.

And all those years someone had the letter, along with the last photo of him, and never told. This is not carelessness, nor momentary fury, or an act of despair, nor any of the idiotic excuses the apologists such as Juan Cole routinely trot out. This is cold, calculating, vicious sadism, sustained over decades.

On Truth, Violence, and Non-Truth

There's a very troubling report in The Observer of yesterday. The Observer is the sister newspaper of The Guardian, and its articles are to be found at the Guardian website, but my impression is that the Observer itself is a bit less vicious. Anyway, the report talks about brutality of Israeli soldiers in the 1990s (early? late?), based on interviews with 21 of them.

The acts themselves sound despicable. Do they reflect a norm? I think not, but we need to know far more about the facts, or additional investigations, and so on. One reason I rather doubt how normative these cases were is that back in the early 1990s there were a number of high profile court martials against high officers whose soldiers had committed such acts, and the officers (colonels) were punished - an indication that there were such cases but also that the military was acting against them.

Juan Cole gives the story a far more sinister spin, one not warranted by the facts, not even remotely:
The idea that these sorts of actions derive from 'lack of training' is absurd. They derive from hatred and from being able to act with impunity. They are a burden of the strong who have the opportunity to abuse the weak.

The US political elite and media that conceals the brutality of the Israeli occupation for sectional political gains are accomplices to this sadism, and their silence endangers the security of the United States. When we cannot understand why Arab audiences, who are perfectly aware of what the Israeli army has been doing to Palestinians for decades, are outraged, it leads us into policy mistakes in dealing with the Middle East. No one in the US media ever talks about Zionofascism, and the campus groups who yoke the word 'fascism' to other religions and peoples are most often trying to divert attention from their own authoritarianism and approval of brutality.
And the moral of the story? The moral of the first story is that preserving one's morality and that of one's society requires constant diligence. The moral of reading Cole's blog is that people who are informed by hatred can get along quite well even on a meager fare.

PS. At the bottom of Cole's rant there are a few comments. You might want to read the comment of Peter Attwood (who even has a blog, but I won't link to it), to see how perverse self hatred really can get. If you're interested in the extremes of human perversity, this is worth a glance.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

How (Not?) to Rejuvenate Judaism

Jay Michaelsen at The Forward agrees that many efforts to rejuvenate Jewish culture in America aren't working, and makes some suggestions. The straw man for his thesis is major philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, who is worried that his many millions aren't changing the world. The essentials:
Steinhardt’s well-intentioned millions were lavished on the same tried-and-true institutions that caused young Jews to become unaffiliated in the first place.

Innovation does not come from the mainstream — Seems obvious, but in funding large, religiously minded organizations staffed by rabbis, Steinhardt poured more money down the same drain that led to Jewish alienation to begin with.

Believe in cultureSteinhardt, an atheist, has spent a decade funding synagogues and religious institutions — and now he complains that they aren’t reaching atheists like him. Why is this a surprise? What’s needed is a belief in culture: artists, arts organizations, magazines, independent publishing, cultural education. These are projects that will, over time, create a Jewishness worth affiliating with even if you don’t believe that God wrote the Torah.

It’s the product, not the marketing — Finally, let’s please quit packaging Judaism like the latest boy band. The trouble isn’t that Judaism isn’t branded well enough; it’s that the product — often, old-time religion with a healthy dose of tribalism and guilt — needs work.

No think-tank of white, straight men over 50 is going to create a Jewishness for smart, diverse, often multi-faith young people who shape their lives in the age of the iPod.

I see. Or rather, actually I don't. Judaism held together rather well for its first 2,700 years or so, in spite of some adversity here and there. Then, about 250-300 years ago, as the modern world began issuing new challenges, it adapted again, as always, and still it held together. As a matter of fact, quite a number of strands of Judaism are thriving even today, in a world of iPods (which can be used, I assure you, to listen to rabbis saying interesting things when you're taking a bus, for example - a fine innovation). Some of the thriving strands are in Israel, which was invented partly as a response to some of the new challenges, but others are thriving elsewhere.

The assumption that it is a weakness of Judaism that its important figures are white, straight, and over 50 seems to me more part of the problem than part of the solution.

Rather than look for ways of making Judaism "hip" - which will never work, because it isn't, nor should it be, nor can it compete with authentic "hipness" - it might be better to look for ways of demonstrating what it is: one of the richest, most varied, and wise cultures ever created.

Atheism, by the way, is neither here nor there. The idea that belief is essential to religion is a Protestant idea, I think. The Jewish variant is far more complex, and while belief in God helps, you'd be astonished how non-central it can be.

A Budding Young Writer

Who happens to be someone I've known since his birth. He's recently back from Burma.

Friday, October 19, 2007

7th of Heshvan - NOW it can Rain

The prayer for rain is two brief sentences inserted into the Amida prayer, said three times daily. It's not actually a prayer for rain in terms of demanding of God what he's not about to give. On the contrary, it is recited only during the rainy season, so it's more a request that the rainy season will be successful: gishmei b'racha, rains that bring blessings, i.e not to hard nor too weak; neither draught nor floods.

The rainy season falls between October and April, and that's when the prayer for rain is said. Jews living in Bangkok, where - so I'm told - it rains 365 days a year, pray for rain between October and April. The Jews who spent some 2,000 years lving in Egypt, where it more or less never rains, prayed for rain every year between October and April, until they were ethnically cleansed out after the creation Israel. The reason for all this is quite simple: Jews pray for rain in their homeland, here, and this is the way they've always done it. No matter where they lived, nor for how long, they prayed for rain at home.

With a complication. The rainy season is expected to begin right after Sukkot, one of the three holidays when hundreds of thousands of Jews used to come up to Jerusalem, and it end at the beginning of Pessach (Passover), another one of the pilgrimage holidays. And back in the era when the rules were being drawn up, the Pilgrims traveled by foot and donkey. So the prayer is divided. The first sentence - praise for "He Who causes wind and rain" is recited from Sukkot until Pessach. But the second, more explicit "Give dew and rain as a blessing", is recited starting three weeks after Sukkot, and stopped three weeks before Pessach - so that the rain not harm the Pilgrims.

Today, the 7th of Heshvan, the three weeks are up, and from now on we're serious about wanting rain, until three weeks before Pessach.

The first rain of the season, by the way, was the day before yesterday.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Human Rights at the UN

People who swear by International Law tend also to admire the United Nations. Anne Bayefsky at Contentions has helpfully put up a list of countries you wouldn't want to live in and the various prestigious positions they hold at the UN. The list speaks for itself.

Refugees and Immigrants in Israel

A new Israeli blog (in Hebrew) has just gone up, dedicated to the issues of refugees and non-Jewish (and non-Arab) denizens of Israel - mostly the third-world workers who have replaced the Palestinians since the so-called peace process severed their relationship with Israel.

Think what you will about the phenomenon itself, the number of people involved is at least tens of thousands, perhaps more, and merely pretending they're here temporarily and presently will be gone, won't help. Nor can we plausibly assume, alas, that they're being treated fairly while here.

So this is to wish the best to Oded Feller and Jonathan Berman, the two attorneys running the blog.

International Law and the Right of Return

Peter H has left a comment worth more than merely a counter-comment.

Sorry, but the right to a nation-state does not mean denying the right of return (a right guaranteed by international law) so that Israel can preserve its Jewish demographic majority.

Not surprisingly, I disagree - on various levels.

First, the factual one. International law doesn't say what Peter H says it does, and if he's convinced it does, I suggest he show us chapter and verse.

Second, even should he come up with some legal paragraph, that's only the beginning of the story. In any legal system, lawyers exist to find loopholes in laws, judges exist to accept or reject the lawyer's interpretation, and most importantly, lawmakers exist to adapt the laws, which is a nice way of saying to change them.

Third, one of the most serious flaws, and it's very serious, with international law is that it lacks natural mechanisms for the lawyers and judges to do their thing. True, there are international courts and so on, but they and their activities are very thin. A living legal system tinkers with its laws all the time, within the parameters of the constitution. Also, one might add, the lawyers, judges, and lawmakers, and even the constitution, are all subordinate to the sovereign - the electorate. Which brings us to the fourth flaw in international law.

International law has no sovereign. Yes, I know, its adherents would like to regard the Community of States as sovereign, but for that you must postulate that there is a community, and that it operates from some common base. For example, that the governments of all the states are themselves controlled by a sovereign electorate. Or that there is a constitution which the people were directly asked about, and could change if they put their minds to it, according to some legal mechanism that had been written into the constitution itself.

Say you live in a democracy and there's this law which really infuriates you. Since it's a democracy, the way is open for you to mobilize lots of other citizens, and sooner or later, if your cause is plausible and becomes popular enough, you'll succeed in changing the law. This is true on small matters, and large. Say there was a legal situation which required a nation to watch as its nation state was taken from it. In a democracy, the voters could do something about it, as the voters of many European states will tell you; however, if it's international law you're up against, there's no way out.

Which brings us, of course, to the ultimate reason that international law is not relevant to the Right of Return: If indeed it were to be proven that international law requires the Jewish State to cease to exist, then international law would have no right to exist.

PS. The use of pseudo legal terminology and reasoning to deal with political matters, as in this case, shows how weak the entire construct is. Laws are fine things to have, but there are parts of the human condition they can't deal with. They can't cure sicknesses, they can't cure broken hearts, they can't make political issues go away, either, unless it be when the politics are about legal matters.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Things You Can Say when it's Not Your Skin

The New York Review of Books, never the most clear-eyed of publications regarding the real world, offers us an open letter written by 8 prominent people to president Bush, with advice about the upcoming Annapolis conference. (Does Bush ever read these things? Should he?). Some of the prominents are relevant to the discussion (Thomas Pickering was, I think, the American ambassador to Israel), others less obviously so (Paul Volcker, for example, was the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, and Theodore Sorenson was special advisor to president John F. Kennedy, which for all its glamor was rather a while ago. Zbigniew Brzezinski, I'f I'm not mistaken, wrote a very important book about totalitarianism, back in the early 1950s).

You get the impression (well, I get the impression) that these well-meaning folks are not particularly well versed in the reality of this part of the world. When they say, for example, that there should be special arrangements for the Old City, providing each side control of its respective holy places and unimpeded access by each community to them - has anyone mentioned to them that the holiest place to both sides is the same place? When they advocate that there should be a resolution to the refugee issue that is consistent with the two-state solution, [and] addresses the Palestinian refugees' deep sense of injustice, isn't this actually one of the major problems that needs yet to be resolved, that the "refugees' sense of justice" and the "two-state solution" contradict each other, at least at this stage of the negotiations, if you believe Mahmoud Abbas means what he says? (Also, is there a Jewish sense of injustice anywhere here that might be relevant?).

They also suggest that Arab states that currently do not enjoy diplomatic relations with Israel should attend the conference, because, you see, the only reason they may not be coming is that George Bush has neglected to invite them. Hamas apparently cannot be invited at this stage, even according to these eminent people, but they do suggest that genuine dialogue with the organization is far preferable to its isolation; it could be conducted, for example, by the UN and Quartet Middle East envoys. Promoting a cease-fire between Israel and Gaza would be a good starting point. What can I say? How is it we never thought of starting with a cease-fire?

Further on they call for various practical things to happen, among them the removal of unjustified checkpoints. I'm also in favour of that. Indeed, let's remove them and leave in place only the justified checkpoints, the ones that save lives of ordinary Israeli citizens. The decision as to which is which, you'll pardon my insisting, should be made by the professionals in protecting those lives... Ah. I see a problem. Can you spot it, too?

It is of utmost importance, if the conference is to have any credibility, that it coincide with a freeze in Israeli settlement expansion. I really and truly agree about the freeze. I can easily give five separate reasons, or eight, as to why this should happen... and none of them are about this conference, or even about the prospects for peace. Freezing the settlements, or even dismantling them all, will have no bearing on peace. Remember Gaza? Is there anything remotely like peace there? But cynicism aside, I happen to know that there is no connection between settlements and peace, because just this week some PA officials told Avi Issacharoff what they've been saying all along and never hinted otherwise: That control of the Temple Mount (holy to both sides, remember) is a deal breaker. As one of the officials told Issacharoff: "The Israeli public still doesn't understand how important the issue of Al-Aqsa is".

Actually, I think much of the Israeli public does understand: It understands that when one side can see only its own perspective while totally denying the perspective of the other side or the legitimacy of the other side having a perspective, peace may not be just around the corner.

I rather hope the President of the United States - this one, the next one, all of them - doesn't waste his (her) time on such foolish documents.

Syrians Admit Attacked Target was Nuclear

According to Y-net, so far quoted by no-one else, Syrian officials at the UN recently admitted, perhaps accidentally, that the target hit by Israel on Sept. 6 was nuclear.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Yehuda Bauer and China

Yehuda Bauer has an op-ed about Burma and the futility of most ways of bringing down tyrants. I think his use of the name Burma is a reverse of the colonial-studies-theology: since Myanmar is the name insisted on by the native thugs, he prefers the good old colonial name of Burma, and he's right.

Bauer himself is quite something. He's in his early 80s, but has the intellectual curiosity of any intelligent 20-year-old, and the same vitality he had when I first studied under him, 25 years ago, all of which has him still at the cutting age of his field almost 50 years since he first got there - tho the field is of course vastly broader since then, since he's been working at it all those years.

The reality behind his op-ed is that China is probably the major malign power of our day. He's probably right. Well: Left. He's a good social-democrat, after all, who probably still defines himself as left. But no self respecting Left theologian of our day would talk as he does. By way of testing this, I just spent more than half an hour on the website of Johann Hari, one of the best journalists the Left has. His archive contains a catagory called "China", which sounds promising, until you notice the titles: How We Shop until Chinese Workers Drop, for example. (Hari has helpfully linked his other China articles to the bottom of that one). The synopsis of his thesis: That the Chinese regime is made up of brutal, murderous thugs, and it's all our fault - meaning we of the West, obviously.

Hari is an ideological foe of worthy stature, and I expect I'll argue with him from time to time. The point here, however, is that in his Weltanschauung, the Chinese (or Congolese, or whatever miserable country he visits) cannot really be as bad as they appear, they must be the lackeys of the real bastards, the Rich of the West in general, and if it's possible to be more specific, (the Americans, for example, or the Israelis), all the better.

More Juan Cole

From now on perhaps I'll put his name into the title of every post which relates to him, so that those of you who are bored of him can just skip them. My reason for risking your boredom is that someday, perhaps, maybe, who knows, I'd like to write a book called "How to Recognize an Antisemite". Rather than just another litany of all the Jew haters, it would start with an attempt to define what an antisemite is in the beginning of the 21st century, what indicators can be defined to recognize them, followed by an attempt to apply the indicators to various candidates. Cole seems to me a reasonable candidate, but not a closed case, so I'm using this blog partially as a tool to line up the evidence for future reference.

Anyway, today he published a post speculating what that Israeli attack in Syria was all about. For lack of information it's mostly innuendo, but some of the innuendo is revealing. For example: There are reasons to question the accuracy of the Israeli story, which at some points has included allegations that there was evidence of enriched nuclear material at the site; such material could only be produced at the end of a long research and construction project, not at the beginning. Yet so far as I can recollect, and it's only a month, after all, we haven't all gone senile yet, there was no Israeli story. That's part of what has everybody so frustrated. I suppose there was an Israeli story presented to the American administration, but they aren't telling either, are they?

Then he goes on to state that The Israelis are trigger-happy and their intelligence on the Arab world is most often sloppy. Well, yes, not really. Apparently the Israeli intelligence on Iraq was as bad as everyone else's, but their intelligence on the Palestinians is demonstrably awesome, their intelligence on the Iranians was accurate many years before anyone else was noticing, their intelligence about long range missiles in Hezbollah's Lebanon was superb, and their intelligence about low-tech Hezbollah tunnels two miles north of the Israeli border was abysmal.

Cole then hosts a retired CIA analyst, who doesn't know any more than the rest of us, but does tell how Israeli planes kept the Saudis out of a previous war, and thus saved lives on both sides, by being arrogant.

Finally, the comments (remember, Cole censors his comments section, and if he doesn't like your tone or content you don't get published) contain a number of allegations about how Israel acted against international law. Since Israel and Syria are legally at war, I'm not certain how this might be true.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Undermining Stereotypes

Traveling by bus has advantages over driving your own air-conditioned sedan. For one, someone else gets to dodge all those maniac drivers, and then to worry about parking. Better yet, you encounter all sorts of interesting characters. Here are three couples who were all on the same bus I was on coming up from Tel Aviv this afternoon. (Tel Aviv, btw, is booming; this afternoon someone had inserted a new 40-storey-and-still-rising tower right across from the Arlozorov train station. I swear it wasn't there last time I was there, a few months ago).

A young ultra-Orthodox (=Haredi) couple with their 2-year-old. Well, Haredi-light. She was dressed correctly, but he had only parts of the uniform: black kippa (yarmulke), white shirt, black pants. So they're either North African Haredi, or perhaps Bnei-Brack Litvaks from the outer ring of the community. Except they were speaking Russian, which fits no known template.

Two grizzled infantry sergeants (meaning they're about 21 years old). One was rather dark, but nothing remarkable about him; his friend however had the trappings of the Hassidically-influenced semi Haredi: a large white woollen kippa, such as worn by the Bratzlavers and the Hamas (sorry, but it's true) and very long, flowing earlocks. They were deep into an earnest discussion of economics: supply-side, progressive taxation, that sort of stuff.

Finally, and perhaps most interesting of all: two very new soldiers, their uniforms still shiny, no insignia or ranks of any kind, lugging their large dufflebags. They effectively had the words "basic trainees" written on their foreheads. They spent the whole trip talking animatedly, until near Jerusalem we passed a bus that had broken down and took on some of its passengers, among them some elderly women. The two young soldiers sprang up from their places and offered their seats. Ah, and before I forget: the language they were so busy chattering in was Arabic.

Yigal Amir's Life in Prison

Yigal Amir's wife is supposed to be giving birth any day now, and the yellower parts of our press is all agog about the possibility of his being let out of jail for an afternoon to participate in the Bris (he won't, says Y-Net).

Riding in a cab this morning, the cabbie and I listened to an interview with Calman Geier, Yitzchak Rabin's personal pollster. (Radio, so I can't link to it). Geier was telling us that the number of Israelis who weren't quite fully aghast at Rabin's assassination has always been larger than we thought, and as the years go by ever more of them are willing to tell pollsters (such as Geier himself) that they think someday Yigal Amir should be paroled. Both Geier and the interviewer were deeply perturbed by what this has to tell about Israeli democracy, and the rise of the barbarians, I suppose.

The cabbie and I, who had never met one another before, agreed immediately that this was bunk. In the USA it seems that sometimes life sentences really are for life, even if that means spending 50 years in jail, perhaps more, and eventually dying in one's 80's, still in prison. But in Israel, life sentences generally turn out to be 20 years, or 25; even Palestinian murderers eventually receive parole, if they're not set free long before then as part of some political negotiations. I don't think anyone ever spends 35 years in an Israeli jail. In this context, the idea that Yigal Amir will be punished in a way no-one else is, is eventually slightly distasteful. The cabbie and I both agreed he should spend 30 years in jail, rather than 20 or 25, but someday he should go the way of every Palestinian murderer and be set free. This is not because we don't condemn Rabin's assassination, and it reflects no political position of ours, merely fair play.

I voted for Rabin, just for the record. If I'm one of Geier's right-wing boogies, there must indeed be many of us.

Links'n Stuff

Rattling the Kettle has a plan to make you all rich. So if you'd like to do that (be rich), go visit him.

Michael Wex, he of Born to Kvetch (which I should review here someday), has a new column at the Forward.

And if you're into DNA-based genealogy, you might like this.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Hamas - II

The single most important institution in the Nazi murder policy was the Reichsicherheitshauptamt, or RSHA. This acronym, read in Hebrew which mostly doesn't use vowels, sounds as Resha, which means quite simply: Evil. Eerie, isn't it? Yet as far as I know, no single Nazi official ever noticed what the name of their main office meant in the language of the Jews they were so industrially murdering.

But what abut the Hamas activists? Is it possible that any of them knew, at the time of the choice of their name, how ominous the word is in Hebrew?

Actually, I think it's quite plausible that at least some of them did know. Remember, incredible as it may sound today, between 1967 and 1994 - that's 27 years, more than a generation - there was effectively no border between Palestinians and Israelis. For the first 20 years, large numbers of Palestinian men worked in Israel, many as menial laborers, but also as bus drivers, mechanics, hotel receptionists, waiters and so on. They worked alongside normal Israelis, knew them personally, and spoke some Hebrew; some spoke very good Hebrew. During the years of the 1st Intifada, 1987-1993, the many Palestinian strikes and occasional violence launched the slow process in which Israelis replaced Palestinians with Africans or Asians, but this development really got underway in 1994-95, when the Oslo process was accompanied by a sharp increase in terrorism, on the one hand, and on the other hand growing Palestinian sovereignty limited the counter-terrorism efforts of the Israeli security forces. As the Oslo process progressed there was ever less contact between ordinary Israelis and ordinary Palestinians. (Ironic, isn't it?).

Hamas, however, was founded on the second day of the 1st Intifada, in December 1987, at a time when hundreds of thousands of Israelis and Palestinians were in daily contact. The name is an acronym for Harakat al-Mukawama al-Islamiyya, The Islamic Resistance Movement, and the acronym is also a word that means fire, ardor, zeal or fanaticism. It is not a benign word even in Arabic. Frankly, I refuse to believe that none of the founders or their early members or supporters ever made the connection to the Hebrew. Vatimale haaretz hamas, after all, is the reason the world was almost destroyed. It's a sentence any grade-schooler has read.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Scandal at the Frankfurt Book Fair

Once upon a time there was (and still is) a Catalonian artist named Joan Fontcuberta. Among other techniques, he has discovered a software that allows one to collect images through Google searches, and use them to create mosaic-style pictures. And so he began to create pictures using other relevant pictures as mosaic stones: say, a picture of the Sagrade Familia cathedral in Barcelona (he's Catalonian, remember), pasted together from 10,000 images of families. Except that would be too banal, and he's a politically engaged bloke who wants us to observe his art (assuming it's art, a subject I cannot comment on) and come away with some message. So he used the software to create a picture of an Arab man, recognizable by his keffiya, which most Palestinian men don't wear, in the shadow of the bad Israeli wall. The mosaic stones? Tens of thousands of images culled by Google using a long series of Nazi concentration camp names. You get the idea. The picture's size, by the way, is apparently 1X1.5 meters.

OK, so the man has extreme bad taste. But that's only the beginning of the story. Back in 2005, some committee at the Frankfurt Book Fair (by far the world's most important book fair) was looking for a country to honor in 2007, and they chose Catalonia (which isn't a country, but perhaps that doesn't matter). Here you can peruse a brochure they printed explaining their decision:
On 24th February, 2005, the Executive Committee of the Frankfurt Book Fair decided that the guest of honour for 2007 should be Catalan culture. In the letter of notification regarding this decision and dated 1st March 2005, the Fair states that all aspects of Catalan culture and literature will be received with huge national and international interest. Almost immediately, work began on a profile for the presence of Catalan culture at one of the main cultural events of the year.
The objectives of the programme Catalan culture, guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2007 are:
• To bring the pioneering force and leading role of the publishing industry in Catalonia into the limelight.
• To increase universal recognition of Catalan literature and promote its translation into other languages
• To promote the process of internationalisation of the Catalan culture in all its forms.
So far so reasonable, no? They want to sell books, so this year they're pumping Catalonian books. Money makes the world go round, as Liza Minelli taught us. One of the organizations given space was the FFI, which stands for Fotografie Forum Internationale, who put together an exhibit and brochure titled »NOU-NOW. Contemporary Catalan Photography« .

And guess what? Fontcuberta's obscenity (which if you ask me isn't photography at all) is the centerpiece, and it's on the front of the brochure. And the technique and keywords used in its creation are explained quite clearly, lest anyone not catch the subtlety.

And that's still not the end of the story. When Thomas von der Osten-Sacken, a journalist, called up one Ms. Celina Lunsford, apparently the FFI person responsible for the decision, she wasn't inclined to talk, but did manage to tell him that there was no antisemitism involved, merely an attempt to encourage discussion, and the journalist's ire was unfathomable to her. After all, she assured him, the FFI does not engage in Holocaust denial.

The TAZ, a rather free-wheeling alternative newspaper in Berlin has picked up the story, but apparently not many other media outlets. The only mention of it I could find in English comes from the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles: they're insisting the picture be taken down, but as yet it hasn't been.

(hat tip: Leonard Zelig)

Friday, October 12, 2007

Nobel Peace Prize with an Agenda

The Norwegians have just awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to a UN panel and Al Gore, for their good work in warning about global warming. Me, I'm not a scientist, and am basically agnostic about the subject. It has been clear to me since I was in 6th grade that pumping millions of tons of gook into the air and water are probably not a good thing in the long run - and I was in 6th grade quite a while before anyone had thought of global warming. When I was in 7th grade I even considered studying the new-fangled subject called Ecology at the university (though by the time I hit campus, some years later, I had changed my focus). So getting mankind to be kinder to the environment is a sentiment I can share.

The Nobel folks, on the other hand, tend to leave me underwhelmed. This time also. Only yesterday I was reading in the Guardian (of all places!) about this British judge who had just revealed how Al Gore cheats in his film "An Inconvenient Truth". The Guardian, perhaps the judge, and even yours truly, were all of the opinion that calling people to better protect the environment, as Gore does, is an admirable vocation. Still, you would expect a wee bit more intellectual rigor to be an automatic requirement of Nobel candidates, wouldn't you?

Thursday, October 11, 2007


Hamas (actually, phonetically khamas) is a very harsh word in Hebrew. I think in English it comes out as avarice, but its impact is much more severe. This week's weekly Bible portion includes the story of Noah and the flood. In English, the reason the world was to be destroyed was because it "was full of violence" (Gen. chapter 6 verse 11, and the same words in verse 13).

In the Hebrew original, the world is to be destroyed because Vatimaleh haaretz hamas, the world is full of hamas.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Children and Parents - II

On my walk to work this morning I passed a harried mother loading three or four of her kids into a car, and picked up the following conversation:
Mother: "Matan, tomorrow you sit in the middle!"
Son: "No, I won't!"
M: "Yes you will!"
S: "No!"
M: "Yes!"
S: "No!"
M: "So you'll walk to school tomorrow!"
S: "So I won't get to school tomorrow!"

A block up the hill a 12-13-year-old whizzed by me on his bicycle. There has been a huge row here these past few weeks about a newly passed law that requires cyclists to wear helmets. Clearly, the argument has divided even some families, as demonstrated by the fact that this kid was riding with his helmet dangling from his wrist.

The moral of the story, if at all? I suppose, that if you live into your 8th or 9th decade, in the end you may reconcile all the old arguments. Hopefully, anyway.

Children and Parents - I

I apologize for focusing so much on Juan Cole (this is my 2nd posting in as many days), especially as this makes him seem more important than he is. However, Sarah Livni, Tzipi's mother, just died. At the funeral Tzipi talked, among other things, about her relationship with her mother these past few yeas as she, Tzipi, moved across the political map. If you read my exchange with Cole, you'll appreciate why this is so significant. In a nutshell, Cole reprimanded Livni the daughter for not dealing with her parent's past, and Cole didn't have a clue what he was talking about.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Nazi Germany from an Unusual Perspective

Starting to clear my desk before leaving Yad Vashem, I came across a lecture I once gave but then never published, telling about all sorts of interesting things you can find when you read boring, repetitive personal files from the ground level of Nazi persecution of the Jews. I don't expect I'll try to have it published academically anytime soon, what with my ever-widening distance from the world of academia, so I've posted it here.

Freedom of Speech

Juan Cole is peeved that Desmond Tutu has been disinvited from speaking at some Catholic university (University of St. Thomas) because of his anti-Israeli record. Today he posted on this subject for a second time. I happen to think the disinviting is a mistake, and articulated this as a comment to his blog that agreed with him while not fully agreeing with him. He seems to have decided not to give me the freedom of his pulpit for my partial agreement with him. So as usual, I post it here. And, yes, I'm enjoying this.

Here's my response to his post:

As an Israeli, a Jew, and a staunch Zionist, it just so happens that I agree with these professors, and, by extenuation, with Prof. Cole. Freedom of speech includes the freedom to speak nonsense, to tell lies, and certainly to be offensive to people. In some cases, it can even be beneficial to lovers of freedom and truth to hear for themselves how their enemies hold different values, and the Iranian president's recent comments about homosexuals in Iran serve as a fine example.

Archbishop Tutu's past comments on Israel have often been factually incorrect, uninformed, and, as I remember from his visit to Yad Vashem where I work, willfully malicious. But they never crossed the line to active incitement to hatred, and I can't see any reasonable ground to try to silence him. Indeed, there are prominent Israelis who's criticism of their own country is even more willfully wrong-headed, and it would never occur to us to shut them up.

The same, of course, goes also the other way. Speech which is hurtful to, say, Muslims, must likewise be given public platforms.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Gaza: Is it Day or Night?

For the past week or so I have been participating in a consultation regarding an upcoming medical procedure someone needs to undergo. The participants include a number of physicians, and some family members. Some of the positions being staked flatly contradict some of the others. Many of the basic facts are agreed on by all. The implications are weighed differently by different people. Everyone understands the logic of all the positions. Ah - and the discussion is literally about life and death.

Meanwhile, in the broader world, the inability to have a rational discussion goes on. Take these descriptions of what is happening in Gaza these days, the one posted by Daniel Levy, who would probably accept the definition "Peace Activist" of the Israeli Left, the other a report (two, actually, here and here) by Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff, at Haaretz. Harel and Issacharoff both are somewhere to the left of center in their politics, but they tend to put their job of reporting above their party affiliations or preferences.

Read the pieces, if you're interested, and then try to find any agreement on three basic points: 1. Who controls Gaza? 2. Is Hamas interested in participating in negotiations toward peace with Israel? 3. What does the Israeli leadership intend to do about the ongoing mortar and rocket shootings from Gaza? There are additional points that can be compared, of course.

My point is that these three writers are all rather of the same political camp in Israel, and yet they can't agree on the simplest basics. Think what if we tried to compare a reporter of the Guardian with a colleague at the Jerusalem Post.

Was universal rational discussion ever a historical reality, which has somehow been lost to us, or was the very idea never more than a figment of someones wistfully naive imagination?

A Riddle

A block down the street from where I live, on a stone wall, a mourning announcement for Ziporah Grayevski, who was laid to rest yesterday. A good Ashkenazi name, Grayevski, but she was buried by a Sephardi burial society, in their part of the cemetery. OK, so she must have married a Pole, or Romanian, but she's being buried by and with her folks, and there must be a story there. Except that the announcement was signed by her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, so she must have married her Gallizianer, or Yeke, or whatever he was, many years before such cross-ethnic marriages became the complete banality they now are. So the story must be even more interesting.

And that's all we'll ever know, isn't it. Wouldn't it be boring if Israel was the monolithic cardboard society its detractors like to tell about?

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Uncovering the Holocaust in the Ukraine

Father Patrick Desbois spends his time wandering the Ukrainian countryside talking to old peasants about how their Jewish neighbors were murdered, and where they were buried. His story has now reached the New York Times, where it will get the publicity he so richly deserves.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Ruth Gavison on Right of Return and a Jewish State

Ruth Gavison is one of Israel's most prominent law professors (constitutional law, philosophy of law). She used to be closely identified with human rights, and in the late 1990s she was even the Chair of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. Since then, however, she has been branded a heretic by her previous allies, because she has become critical of the political agenda of the ideological Left. A few years ago Zipi Livni, at the time minister of justice, tried valiantly to have her appointed to the supreme court, but this was blocked by Chief Justice Barak who made no secret of his displeasure with her opinions regarding the scope of what the court should be dealing with. No-one, by the way, doubts her capabilities; it's her opinions which are the problem.

As can be seen in this article, where she takes on two accepted themes of parts of the so-called "peace camp" (so-called by itself, that is). First, she warns, Israel must be very careful not to give the Palestinians legal basis for future claims by agreeing to accept the principle of a Palestinian right of return in exchange for a willingness not to demand it in practice. The legal implications of the Israeli agreement would set the stage for future Palestinian claims, irrespective of what they might say at the moment of the agreement.

Her second point is that Israel has as much right to a nation state (for the Jewish nation) as anyone else has, such as the Palestinians. You'd think this would be self evident, but of course it's anything but.

Juan Cole's Alternative Universe

Juan Cole:

"Bishop Desmond Tutu has stood all his life for nonviolent peace-making and an end to racism. Obviously, he would be upset about the Israeli mistreatment of the Palestinians, and has said so."

I wonder, sometimes, if it wouldn't be nice to live a life of intellectual certainties, with nary a need to reconcile one's positions with reality. But then I get on with life in the real world.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Primo Levy Testimony at Yad Vashem

The main story on the front page of Haaretz is about a testimony given many years ago by Primo Levy, recounting his story in the Holocaust. This has now been "unearthed at Yad Vashem".

I know a thing or two about archives in general, and the one at Yad Vashem in particular (see my profile for further information), so here are a few quick comments:

1. Top of the front page? No better sign than that that the Jewish holidays have knocked out even Haaretz's ability to do their usual job. They must have had this one written weeks ago, waiting for one of these days when most of the staff is off for holiday.

2. Scholars unearthed the document? Sounds dramatic, huh? Sort of like the unearthing of Troy at the end of the 19th century, which proved that Homer had been talking about a real event. Actually, all that had to happen in this case was for someone to ask if there was a Primo Levy testimony at Yad Vashem, and hey presto: the answer was yes! Who'd have thunk.

3. The difference between archives and libraries (well, one of them) is that in libraries just about everything has been published in book form before it reaches the library, while in archives, nothing has been previously published. Oh well.

4. I haven't read this particular testimony. I have no doubt it's interesting. Archives often have lots of interesting things in them. You'd be surprised how much so.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

It's Good to be Rich and Powerful

Dori Klagsbald used to be one of the most important lawyers in Israel, head of a booming firm, with a client list longer than your arm and including at least two former prime ministers, and lots of speculation about his chances to be appointed to the supreme court (which would undoubtedly have meant a 6-figure pay cut). Then, about a year and a half ago, while driving recklessly, he killed Yevgenia Wexler, a young woman in her 20s, and her 6-year-old son Arthur. He was convicted, sent to jail for 15 months, and recently got out after 13 of them.

So far, so reasonable. Tragic, but reasonable. In today's The Marker there is a story (unfortunately only in Hebrew), about what happens next.

First, his seat on the supreme court has gone to his partner, Yoram Danziger, who will be seated next month. This leaves Dori alone in charge of what by Israeli standards is probably a largish-size law firm with some 40 lawyers, which he'll have to run all by himself - lots of administration. Rather than deal with all that, he apparently has decided to do what he was considering anyway before the accident, namely take a handful of the lawyers with him to a smaller firm where he'll be able to focus entirely on litigation, and the little administration that will be required, someone else will do. Ah, and of course, he'll take the entire list of clients, or at any rate all of the clients he wants to continue working with. Because, this you need to understand, apparently not one single client defected after that tragic mishap; they all stayed loyal to Dori.

All of this is of course entirely legal. The man has paid for that one horrendous mistake he made, and now really should be allowed to get on with life. Since it just so happens that he's an excellent lawyer, well, getting on with life means top-notch lawyering. Still, I'd be more comfortable if this society we live in would demand of him that he be decent, and spend his remaining decades differently. Maybe he could volunteer to run the department that supplies defense lawyers for poor criminals - that's a perennially understaffed and under budgeted department for you. Or he could teach law at the most remote college around, one of those places that serve the kids that can't afford to go anywhere better. Maybe he should found that new firm and live off the proceeds of his associates, while he does only pro-bono work. Something, anything.

Fat chance.

The Elders of AIPAC

Excellent review by Jeffry Goldberg (who is often excellent) of the Mearsheimer-Walt book, at The New Republic. Goldberg didn't much like the book, on any level. Actually, he really didn't like it at all, and does a fine job of demolishing it. He opens his attack by putting the book into the context of what he suggests we call 'Judeocentrism", essentially one type, or perhaps one characteristic, of good old antisemitism, but formulated in a compelling way. Basically, the idea that Jews move the world. (My teacher back at the university, Yehuda Bauer, used to end his description of these folks and their ideas with the regret that "alas, the Jews don't have the power thus attributed to them. Wouldn't it be nice if they did?").

I doubt I'll ever read the M&W book. Life is too short, my reading list is far too long, and too much nonsense is bad for one's blood pressure. But Goldberg's review is worth the few minutes. After enjoying the read, I especially enjoyed his parting paragraph:

One would think that the editors at Farrar, Straus and Giroux might have harpooned this leviathan of a contradiction before it reached print. Unless of course you believe, as I do, that Farrar, Straus and Giroux has all along been allowing Mearsheimer and Walt to undermine their own credibility by promoting their abysmal arguments about Jewish power. The publishing house, you see, is not known to be a part of the Jewish lobby, but its owner, the German company Holtzbrinck, has been emphatically friendly to Israel, in part out of guilt that its founder was a Nazi. Remember, everything is not what it seems. This book about a malevolent conspiracy may itself be the work of a benevolent conspiracy. I mean, cui bono? Who really benefits from making anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism seem so indefensible? Come to think of it, the name Mearsheimer does have a bit of a Jewish ring.