Friday, February 29, 2008

The Guardian Makes Hay in Gaza

Matan Vilnai, one of our less significant figures, has said in Hebrew, that the Palestinians may bring a shoah upon themselves if they continue shooting rockets from Gaza. Not a very fortunate choice of words, but it shows you the degree of exasperation among left-leaning, peace-seeking Israelis, the kind that fervently want to hand over additional occupied territories to a peaceful Palestinian government as they watch the Palestinians wash that dream down the drain.

The Guardian took the statement and put it in the biggest letters they have, across the entire top of their website. They also explained that:

Shoah is the Hebrew word normally reserved to refer to the Jewish Holocaust. It is rarely used in Israel outside discussions of the Nazi extermination of Jews during the second world war, and many Israelis are loath to countenance its use to describe other events.

Nice, how they try to give the impression their corespondent understands Hebrew, while in reality merely proving he doesn't. If he did, they'd know that actually the word is often used, whenever someone wants verbally to shock. There is not the slightest, remotest, most far-flung possibility that Vilnai meant what the Guardian says he did, as any Israeli could have told them had they only asked.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Living With War

The violence in and around Gaza has been escalating for quite a while. Israel probably should have reacted with severe force on the day the first Qassam rocket hit after the withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. Instead, we told ourselves that these were the actions of a small minority and all those fairy tales, and ever since the Palestinians have been ratcheting up the violence, the world tut-tuts but warns Israel to be proportional in its responses, never to harm non combatants in any way, not at all, and to recognize that eventually there will have to be negotiations with Hamas. (Not clear what about).

You can read diverse ways of reporting today's violence here (Y-net reports on the Israeli civilians being targeted), here (NYT, in a reasonable depiction of what's going on), and here (The Guardian: Israel is evil). The BBC, of all places, actually offered a reasonable analysis.

Earlier this evening we went down to the ceremony where Achikam and his friends completed their tank-crewmen training. A few hundred of them, 18- and 19-year-olds; two have died in training so far, hopefully no more will.

Many years ago young Israeli parents told their children they wouldn't have to fight in wars. The children told their children they hoped they wouldn't have to fight wars. When my children were born I didn't know what to say, but when they were in grade school and the Oslo process seemed promising I dared to hope that, while they most certainly would need to serve in the army, perhaps it wouldn't be a fighting army. Someday, I expect my grandchildren will fight in their wars, but I can at least dream that they won't.

This evening, as the violence in the south gets worse, Achikam is off on the town celebrating the completion of a tough course of training; the only reason he's not going to Gaza next week is that he has been sent on to a course for higher training.

Juan Cole, Crypto-Zionist?

Juan Cole yesterday put up a rather touching post. He addresses himself to hay some people are trying to make of Barack Obama's middle name Hussein - indeed, not a very admirable line of reasoning. Cole talks about the meaning of various names American presidents have owned that have semitic origins: Benjamin, Abraham, John, Thomas and so on. He explains how both Barak and Hussein are also of semitic origin.

It's actually a rather eloquent post. There is the minor problem of not distinguishing between names of semitic origin that entered the English through the Judaism-Christianity route, and Senator Obama's name which came into English from the Arabic - that, after all, is the reason the Hussein moniler is at all an issue. But John McCain has already positioned himself on the same side of this argument as Cole, so hopefully the whole topic will now fade away.

The ironic part of the post is that since Cole conflates Hebrew with Arabic as semitic languages (correctly), he unwittingly strengthens the Zionist narrative about how the Jews belong here exactly as much as the Arabs. What happened to all the arguments about Zionism being Colonialism?

William F. Buckley

Has passed away at age 82. He never directly impacted on my life in any way I was conscious of, but he clearly did for lots of other people. What's interesting about his story, to my mind, is the way it shows how an individual can make a difference on a rather large scale.

The Next Genocide....

May be right next to the current one, down the road from where the previous (and not quite finished one) was, next door to the really bloody one, and it will actually be a continuation of the one before that.

If I wished to be sardonic I'd say: "But hey, they're all in Africa, Israel can't possibly be blamed for any of them, America can only be blamed obliquely and mostly for crimes of omission as the imperial power, and while you could blame colonialism it wouldn't be very convincing because it's two generations already since the colonialists left and the mass murders are happening now".

If I were Johann Hari I'd say: "Let's figure out which natural resource or other commodity exists in the area, and then blame the West for encouraging the local murders so as to acquire that commodity."

If I preferred to be a realist I'd say: If you can, choose the Danes or the Canadians as your neighbors. If that doesn't work, aim to align your interests with the interests of the powerful. And if that's not enough, be certain you yourself are powerful. In any case, never ever ever rely on the innate goodness of man, or even on the sense of justice of the family of man.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Permutations of Memory

Back in the early 1990s one of the projects I invested considerable effort in was working with German (and Austrian) educators, journalists, clergy and even a few politicians on facing our diverse perspectives on Nazism and the Shoah. It was a dramatically intense effort, quite draining. I remember, however, one discussion that was the result of a meeting I had with a group of teenagers, whose perspective was in a way much more natural than that of their teachers. At the time I wondered if this was because they were young, and with time they would acquire the complexes of their elders, or because they lived later in history, and would permanently be different than their elders.

Today I'd guess it's more of the second than of the first. And the NYT has an interesting story that sort of demonstrates this. It tells of a new school book about the Holocaust which is apparently generating lots of interest, and more significantly, is quite successful - and it's in comic book form.

Of course, journalists, even at the NYT, are generally not particularly knowledgeable about whatever it is they're telling us, and this one is no exception. He manages to tell the entire story with nary a mention of the fact that this is not a novel idea at all, dealing with the Shoah in comic book form; it was first invented - very successfully - by Art Spiegelman, in his important Maus series. The creators of the new book clearly knew about their predecessor, indeed, probably knew they had nothing to fear from a public backlash precisely because they weren't breaking new ground in using the comic book form.

What is interesting, however, is the identity of the creators of the book: a team from the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam. Here you have a serious new attempt to educate young Germans about Nazism and the Holocaust, and it's coming not from Germans, nor from Israelis or American Jews, but from the Netherlands. In a way, it's an illustration of the extent to which memory of the murder of the Jews is and remains an important element in the creation of a new European identity.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Good for the Jews? Bad for the Jews?

Jews, being just like everybody else, tend to see the world through their own prism. Thus, no matter what happens in the world around them, they tend to ask themselves if it's good for the Jews or bad. Bird flu in Mongolia? Is this good for the Jews or bad? The election of a new figure to the town council of Big Littleplace in Mozambique: good for the Jews or bad? A new type of one-cell organism discovered by scientists in a puddle in Tasmania: good for the Jews or bad? Gotta keep priorities here, you know.

Here's an article in which Akiva Eldar ponders which American presidential candidate is good for the Jews. I don't always swear by Eldar, and even in this article he gets a bit convoluted and nit-picking down near the bottom, but his general thesis is correct: Which Jews? What's good for them?

Monday, February 25, 2008

The Scourge of Poverty

A man had vowed not to marry a woman because she was ugly. She was taken to the house of Rabbi Yishmael and made to look beautiful. Rabbi Yishmael asked the man if she was the woman he had vowed not to marry and he said no, and the vow was annulled. At that hour Rabbi Yishmael wept and said "the daughters of Israel are beautiful but poverty makes them ugly". And when Rabbi Yishmael died the daughters of Israel mourned him and recited the verse "O daughters of Israel, weep for Saul, who clothed you in scarlet and finery, who adorned your garments with ornaments of gold" (2 Samuel 1:24). Nedarim 66b.

This thread began here.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Someone Has to Lose

I found this NYT article rather moving. Well, perhaps that's too big a word. The thesis of the article is that even Hillary Clinton realizes she's not going to make it. Now, given that something like 99.999999999% of us will never get to be President of the United States, it's kind of rich to shed tears for yet another one of us who won't. And I know that some of you really don't like her. Actually, given my track record, I don't see how I would ever have voted for her. Still, she would have made a capable president, according to everything I know.

Enlightened Despots

Wasn't that the type of ruler preferred by the Greek philosophers way back when? I haven't been reading any Plato or Aristotle for quite some time, but that's what I seem to remember.

Well, if so, Plato would be mighty proud of Wikipedia. Turns out that magnificent proof of the benefits of democratic cooperation is, how to put it, not what it appears to be. Or to use the words of a rather more modern philosopher: It ain't necessarily so.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Religion is not the Opposite of Secularism

Alan Wolfe, one of America's more interesting scholars, has an article in The Atlantic about religions and how they're not disappearing.

He starts by quoting form a recent study in The Economist, but his own article is more interesting. He then brings a very interesting chart which shows that more affluent societies are less religious than poor ones. Israel is slightly on the edge, a bit untypical, while the United States is off the map: very affluent, quite religious, and different from everybody else. (I would argue that the similarities between Israel and the US - their levels of religiosity are very similar - are one of the many fundamental, structural affinities that make the relationship between them so unusually strong).

Eventually he presents the thesis that religions in secular societies adapt to the basic tenets of secularism, and thus need not threaten anyone.

Mostly convincing except where he tells that this universal trend is operative even in the Muslim world. It would be nice if he was right, and there actually are indications that it could be that way, but I don't see much justification to be sanguine, not just yet.

Friday, February 22, 2008

So, How Are Things Going in Iraq?

The Washington Post presents two differing opinions from two of its regular columnists.

Krauthammer: There are demonstrable successes on the ground, America must continue making the effort because of the size of the potential prize.

Kinsley: Sure, there are successes, but things aren't going the way they promised, they're not bringing the troops home yet, so it's time to bring them home.

Me, back when the invasion began in 2003, I wrote that it wold take 10 years to know if the gamble was successful or not. Sometime in the coming few weeks I intend to write a half-time report.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Katyn, the Movie

A journalist who takes history seriously writes about a movie made by a director who takes history seriously, for a public that takes history seriously.

In Poland.

"Don't know much about history..."

The Guardian gleefully announces a scoop. Back in 2002, during the deliberations about WMD in Iraq and all that, someone in the British Foreign Office sent around a memo. All sorts of chaps in the office wrote comments on the margins of it. One of the comments was the usual drivel about how Israel also flaunts international law with its nuclear program. (This is factually not true, but some canards never die, irrespective of their factual basis). Someone else then filed the memo away, and never told the press that Israel had been castigated. So the Guardian is now agog - both because Israel was castigated by an unidentified FO chap, and because someone tried to hide it.

So far, not worthy of a post on this blog. What is worthy, however, is the list of other comments added to the original memo by various chaps in the FO, regarding other countries. If you read them all it becomes clear that there are officials in the British Foreign Office, high up enough to be able to scribble their reveries on important internal documents, whose grasp of the history of the 20th century is tenuous at best.

Or maybe this isn't blogsworthy either. My apologies.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

King David Out of Context

Someday someone should write a biography of Stefan Heym - or perhaps, better still, a novel based on his life, since no-one would believe it to be true. You can see its outline here, and ponder on the many zigs and zags until the final irony of dying in Israel at a Heine conference. And note, as you go, that he wrote novels in English when he lived in Germany, but in German when he was forced to publish them elsewhere.

Anyway, you've got this German-born American who was thrown out of the American army for his pro-communist leanings who went back to Germany in order to live in the Communist paradise, who in the 1970s is writing novels tearing apart the Communist regime of East Germany, and he's writing them in English from which they're getting translated into German. In one of the most famous - The King David Report - he mocked the Communists by telling a satirical version of King David's life and court: no communist censor could object to that, now could they? Former East Germans have told me this was one of his most effective satires, precisely because everyone who read it knew precisely who he was talking about, and it wasn't King David.

The book has now been translated to Hebrew. According to the advertisements I've seen, the Israeli publisher thinks it really is a satire of King David. After all, most Israelis are familiar with that story, but who around here remembers Hoennecker?

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Norman Geras on Judt on Holocaust Memory

A few weeks ago I recommended an article by Tony Judt on problems with the way the Shoah is remembered. I had my reservations about the article, but mostly felt it to be a worthwhile read.

Well, yesterday Norman Geras posted his reflections upon reading the same Judt article, and they're withering. But also very well reasoned and formulated. I stand rebuked, and also am green with envy for the way he thought through the implications and carefully refutes them.

Kosovo and the Irrelevance of International Law (2)

Lest you think it's only cynical me who's noticing the irrelevance of international law for the story of Kosovo this week, here's a blast from the other side of the aisle. One Ilana Bat-El bemoans the fact that Putin's Russia is the only remaining stalwart of international law; everybody else has forgotten the law in their rush to embrace the Kosovars.

(By her name, this Bat-El person whom I've never heard of has to be Israeli, tho her bio alludes to the fact only very obliquely. She lives, most appropriately, in Brussels).

Kosovo: Politics, not International Law

The Kosovar declaration of independence earlier this week offers a rare moment of clarity regarding the workings of international affairs. If you want to be generous you can say there are conflicting principles in the story, most notably the need to respect both sovereignty (of Serbia) versus self determination (by Kosovo). If you feel less generous you can simply say that each country relates to Kosovo's declaration through the prism of its own interests, while cynically choosing the terminology that casts its choice in the light of some high principle; were the interests other, a different principle would have been chosen. Interestingly, each side in the discussion manages also to cite international law for the way it proves them right, and therefore the other side must be transgressors.

Here's a list of some of the players and their self interests.

Me, I tend towards the cynical interpretation, leaving none of you surprised. My low opinion of international law as over-riding politics is well known. Though I do admit to a special dose of Schadenfreude at the sight of different members of the EU taking opposite sides on the matter. As Henry Kissinger is famously supposed to have said: "When I want to talk to Europe, whom do I call?"

Monday, February 18, 2008

Vote for Jerusalem

Incredibly, the BBC of all possible sources alerts us to the fact that the manufacturers of Monopoly (the game) are preparing an international version, and that web surfers can influence which cities will be represented. I can only assume that the BBC folks are aghast at the fact that one "Jerusalem, Israel" is currently rather high in the running, and they hope their readers will all vote for, I dunno, Gaza perhaps, or Leeds, but on their way to that goal they've told us how to strengthen Jerusalem's standing. There is detailed assistance here. (It's a rather elaborate procedure, and you need not to miss any of its stages). And note: you can vote once a day till the end of February.

Go for it. And don't vote for any other towns, lest you dilute Jerusalem's score.

An End to War. Sort Of.

Akiva Eldar tells that Tzipi Livni and Ehud Barak have snubbed The United Nations Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Sir John Holmes, by shunting him off to meet underlings during his present visit to Israel and the PA and Gaza. I doubt this will have any adverse effect on their political careers.

Holmes used his visit to make the usual pronouncements, which were probably written for him in advance before he ever came to (not) see for himself. Israel's response to the Qassam attacks must be proportional. (Meaning Israel should shoot back Qassam rockets?). He patted the British on their back for not having bombed Northern Ireland, back in the bad old days. Being British himself, this means he was being smug, at best, or ridiculous. He trotted out the usual boilerplate about condemning also the shooting of the Qassams.

What does he advocate? We all know the answer to that:
"The only thing that will make a lasting difference is a peace settlement," he said. "You can't stop these problems militarily. They have to be solved through negotiations."

But let's be serious for a moment, because there is a truly fundamental issue at stake here. Holmes, the United Nations, the European Union, parts of the American political community and others have convinced themselves in recent decades that human history never happened, or, second version, that human nature has very recently revolutionized itself.

Look at that statement, whereby "these problems" can't be solved militarily, only through negotiations. For the first 10,000 years of the history of human societies interacting with one another (or more? I don't know when it all started) such a statement would have had no meaning. Violence has always been a primary means of resolving differences of opinion; the advance of civilization has sometimes tamed the violence between individuals, and sometimes channeled the violence between groups, but the idea that negotiations are the only way to resolve conflicts of interest is sheer nonsense, not as a political statement but as an objective factual one.

For a complex and not fully understood series of reasons, mankind has indeed been growing ever more aware of the inadvisability of resolving conflicts with violence, and this a fine thing - although I suspect that one of the drives towards this is not a growing gentleness among the human species but rather an awareness the the destructive potential of violence is growing too great to be affordable. Given that the definition of what is or isn't affordable is subjective, this is a weakness built into the very fabric of this new historical trend. (But that's grist for a future rumination). For this reason and many others, at this moment in history the best you can say is that diplomacy and the art of negotiations, coupled with the opprobrium of waging war, have reached a stage of development that could suggest to some differing parties that violence is not their best bet. The Serbs seem hugely aggravated by the Kossovar declaration of independence yesterday, for example, but seem not about to go to war. Is this because they're in Europe, however, or because the Americans have already demonstrated their willingness to use violence against them in this particular discussion?

Anyway: this blog post is meandering more than I originally intended - a drawback of not working with a strict editor. My original intention was merely to point out that Sir John et. al. are engaged in a fundamental attempt to discredit war in any form. All the recent talk about how Israel may not adversely effect the civilian population of Gaza, for example, is a new train of thought. Just War theory never made such a claim, preferring to try to limit the pain inflicted on non-combatants, but not to shield them totally, which unfortunately cannot be done.

A final thought for today: If conflicts of interest mean that people on different sides of the divide will gain or lose according to how the conflict is resolved, this has to mean that no matter how the conflict is is resolved, some people will lose something. Which means, someone will inflict some degree of discomfort on them. Something to bear in mind next time someone tells you that poverty is as bad as death, for example.

PS. Of course, some critics of those who are not yet ready to forgo the use of force are simply hypocrites. I refer to the many useful idiots who decry the use of force by non-Westerners but don't really mean it, and are eternally furious at Americans, British, and of course Israelis for not being pacifists.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Stunde Null: The Beginning of History

Many observers used to talk about a (West) German ethos in the postwar decades whereby German history was re-started after WWII, so that May 1945 was Zero Hour, (Stunde Null); nothing that came earlier had any relevance. As regular readers know, I actually think the Germans have done a reasonable job at confronting their past, but that's not the theme of this post. I mention the concept because upon reflection, there's nothing particularly German about it - the the folks I'm thinking of use the opposite dynamic for the same concept.

Eliyahu M'tzion recently left a comment on this post:
The condition that Cole describes as being that of the palestinian Arabs --prolonged statelessness-- was in fact that of the Jews since the Arabs conquered the Land of Israel in the 7th century, then part of the Byzantine Empire where the Jews did have certain rights, although less to be sure than they had before the rise of Christianity when the Emperor Caracalla made Jews and others citizens of the Empire. In the West, after Christianization and after the fall of the Empire, Jews were very subjects deprived of rights although their situation fluctuated by time and place. In the Islamic domain, after the Arab conquest, Jews were very much exploited, oppressed, and humiliated subjects. Indeed, Christians too were dhimmis, like Jews, in the Muslim domain [dar al-Islam] but I believe that the Jews' status was even lower, even worse than that of the Christians. So, if statelessness is akin to slavery, as Cole says, then his poor Arabs were enslaving Jews for more than a thousand years.
Elijahu is basically right, of course, though I'm not convinced how useful his observation is. To my mind, however, it points to a significant phenomenon, in which many pundits, politicians, and even historians assign a meta-historical significance to a rather recent moment in history at which the evil westerners first intervene in events, and from then on they are responsible for everything bad that happens. For Juan Cole, for example, the thousands of years of history in Egypt are all subordinate to the French invasion under Napoleon. Until then things had been OK, but now suddenly the bad Europeans had arrived to derail the locals' history. Or think of the assumption that borders drawn as recently as 80 years ago are inviolate and etched in marble.

A very common phenomenon.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Sarkozy Remembers the Holocaust

From the New York Times, no less:
President Nicolas Sarkozy dropped an intellectual bombshell this week, surprising the nation and touching off waves of protest with his revision of the school curriculum: beginning next fall, he said, every fifth grader will have to learn the life story of one of the 11,000 French children killed by the Nazis in the Holocaust.
The NYT has collected a range of responses from various French figures, to demonstrate the extent of the furor.

I especially liked the response whereby "requiring students to identify with a specific victim would traumatize them". Recounting the facts of history can do that, you know, which is a fine reason to protect children into total ignorance of any unpleasant parts of it and thus to ensure that their future will be full of its own horrors.

Simone Veil's response, on the other hand, seems to me misguided from the opposite direction:“You cannot inflict this on little ones of 10 years old! You cannot ask a child to identify with a dead child. The weight of this memory is much too heavy to bear.” I have met Ms. Veil on a number of occasions, and can tell that she's a very impressive person. She's also a Holocaust survivor, and it seems to me she's afraid the impressionable French children will be damaged by having her memories foisted upon them. This, however, won't happen. The closest they'll come - in the unlikely case Sarozy's plan happens - is that they'll encounter the faintest echo of her memories, no more. Which will not stunt their emotional growth, though it might contribute a tad to their appreciation of what history is about and why it matters.

The idea that the plan will cause resentment among the Arabs in France goes both ways. On the one hand, they will have a legitimate grievance if the only part of real and ugly history that is handed down to French children is the Holocaust. That would be wrong by any measure. On the other hand, if someone is trying to protect the poor Arabs from things they don't want to know - well, that's part of the problem, isn't it.

The idea, suggested further down, that Sarkozy's unacceptable audacity is in saying that there is value in religion, and furthermore that he's doing so as part of a neocon conspiracy - well, there really aren't any limits to silliness, are there.

Bottom line: if this is an intellectual bombshell in the country of Voltaire, we're in trouble.

Yehoshua Seems Fed Up with the Palestinians

A.B. Yehoshua is one of Israel's top novelists. He's in his early 70s. His mother is from Morocco, his father is from an old Sephardi family that has been in Jerusalem for a long time. For decades he has been a stalwart of the so-called peace camp. As recently as the early years of this decade, at the height of the wave of Palestinian suicide murder attacks, he was still blaming Israel for the tviolence, saying that our domination of the Palestinians was literally driving them crazy.

Well, he seems to be having second thoughts. Perhaps it's approaching dotage, or the end of juvenile naivety, or whatever, but he's beginning to sound like most Israelis.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Kenya: A Tale of Two Alternate Realities

The NYT has a long and depressing story about how Kenya is segregating itself along ethnic lines, undoing 50 years of history.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Steele tells that Kenya is proof of how Kofi Anan's diplomacy is superior to anything the Americans can offer. At the Guardian, naturally.

Imad Mughniya Assassination and History

The other day Marten Kramer sent his readers over here, to Ruminations. Today I'm sending them back.

Kramer treats the Mughniya assassination as historians ought to do, by trying to remember farther back than yesterday's news and last week's headlines. It turns out that over the years Hizbullah obfuscated all sorts of things about Mughniya, his connection to them, their activities beyond southern Lebanon and so on. I even personally remember that the Economist, a respectable paper by most accounts, refused to admit that Hezbullah was a terrorist organization back in the years I used to read it regularly (i.e. before 2001), claiming this was an American and Israeli idea not accepted by others. So Kramer mentions a few of the useful idiots who fell for this nonsense then, and compares it to the Hezbullah fury now.

For future reference, and future useful idiots, Zvi Bar'el comments that Hassan Nassrallah this week quite clearly announced his intention to engage in international terrorism irrespective of any political situation between Israel and Lebanon.

Maybe I should write more about American politics. They're less depressing.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Meanwhile, Where Readers Pay Attention...

The assassination of Mughniya (who's name, by the way, is pronounced sort of like Murniya), is local news around here, and it's part of a long and ongoing story. Which is a partial explanation why Haaretz - roughly parallel to the NYT or Guardian in their home towns - has so much more to say than the others. But note that what the paper has to say is not merely chat and gossip; much of it is far more informative than what they others have to tell, far more complex, and far more aware of what is at stake for the various players. Israel's detractors at home and abroad love to tell that the Israeli public is misinformed, not to say mind washed, by its parochial and biased media. In general, the opposite is true. Any degree of parochial bias needs to be compared to the superficial ignorance of the vaunted external observers.

Here's the basic report a-la-Haaretz. It is roughly the counterpart of the only reports that appeared in the other papers.

Shmuel Rosner looks at the event from various Americano-centric perspectives, for he sits in Washington and follows American stories.

Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff discuss Israeli motivations, if Israel did it, including who in the region can be expected to pick up which message. Amir Oren looks at the man, Mughniya, and also tries to understand what the decision says about the Israeli decision makers.

Zvi Bar'el looks at the implications for various Arab players. Yossie Melman tells about the preparations required for such an operation, and then discusses the pros and cons, since there will most likely be a bloody revenge somewhere down the road. Israelis have been debating this question for years, with no clear answer, since some assassinations prove successful in retrospect while others don't.

Finally, Omer Barak gives us a glimpse into the daily drudgery that goes into preparing such an operation.

You begin to see why I consistently state that the Israeli public is vastly better informed than most in the West (or elsewhere) when it comes to sovereign citizens discussing and deciding on matters of war and peace. They aren't more intelligent, nor even necessarily right (and anyway, they often don't agree amongst themselves), but they have a reasonable good grasp of the issues, in a way most other publics don't. Why, in Israel you can even trust the media to give a reasonably educated description of what's happening - a novel idea if there ever was one.

Dead Jews aren't Really so Important

So we saw the funny NYT headline announcing the demise of Mughniya, now look at the headline in the Guardian: Car bomb ends life of Hizbullah chief wanted for string of kidnappings and mass murders. (And note that the NYT capitalizes words in titles, as we learned in school, and the Guardian doesn't).

It's a strange title. The car bomb ended the life? Why not simply say killed? And why make the car bomb an independent agent? Why not something like "Terrorist assassinated in Damascus"? But the more ominous note is in the description of the dead man's crimes - if crimes they were, because he was wanted for them, but we don't really know that he did them, right? We suspect, however, that he was involved in a string of kidnappings, and also, by the way, mass murders. Sort of like Al Capone, who was wanted for all sort of beastly things but we know he was a tax evader.

Am I being petty? Perhaps. And perhaps not. These people are professional writers. Words are their tools. Bloggers dash things off without much thought and with no editing, but newspapers, especially those aimed at high-brow readerships, can still be expected to think about the words they choose.

Anyway, the article then spends hundreds of words spelling out the priorities of its author, Ian Black, and his editor. This is most spectacularly obvious when he lists the crimes and victims of the dead man:
1. He took (my italics) western hostages, including two named British ones. I would add that after being taken they were held against their will for a few years, not 2-3 days, and then eventually they were set free, and went back to free lives.
2. He masterminded the bombing of the American embassy in Beirut in 1983, which killed 242 people. Actually, the truth was that he masterminded a number of such attacks, and the numbers of the casualties in all the attacks were considerably higher than 242 - and the 242 number was never true anyway, because while indeed 242 Americans died in the most famous attack, the total number of casualties in that attack alone was well above 300. But why count all those non-Americans?
3. And he was behind the kidnapping (again) of Israeli soldiers and thereby triggered the war of 2006.

End of list, unless you go all the way through - and it's a long and winding report; near the very end of it you'll then find the following paragraph:

"Mughniyeh was one of the most dangerous terrorists ever," said Danny Yatom, who was head of the Mossad when Hizbullah was blamed for killing 120 people in attacks on the Israel embassy and a Jewish community centre in Argentina in the early 90s. Those, in turn, were seen as retaliation for Israel's helicopter assassination of Hizbullah leader Abbas al-Musawi.

It doesn't quite say that there was any clear connection between Mughniya and those attacks in Argentina, but the attacks were only retaliation anyway, for an assassination of a Hizbullah leader.

Reality check: the victims in Argentina were Jews and non-Jews, civilians all, leading their lives two continents away from whatever acts of war Israel and the Hizbbullah were committing on each other. That Mughniya saw a connection between them that was so strong they could be killed for it is obvious. This is the way murderous antisemites see the world. But the Guardian?

Terroristical Militant Bad Guys

The New York Times has a reasonably well researched article on the life and death of top Hezbollah figure Imad Mugniya, abruptly deceased yesterday in Damascus. What is notable about the article, however, is the way the poor NYT folks twist their tongues (or their keyboards) around the dead man's profession. Was he a Militant, which is of course the only polite word? Or a Terrorist, because he killed lots of people including hundreds of Americans?

The problem with the terminology starts at the very top: the article bears the hardly helpful title Bomb in Syria Kills Militant Sought as Terrorist.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Three Centrists Campaigning for President

Obama may or may not be on the verge of breaking the deadlock. In the meantime, it has occurred to me that in significant ways, all three leading candidates are rather similar, and I'm not talking about the fundamental things such as being enlightened democrats (small d) and American patriots. I am referring to the fact that - seen from afar, at any rate - all three seem to be centrists, tho each in a different way.

McCain is easy. Look at all the trouble he's having with the right wing of the Republican party, his own party. He has a history of collaborating with Democrats on things that anger some conservatives, so far as I know, and he speaks his mind irrespective of the party line.

Clinton is also a centrist, partly for her ability to stay away from lost causes (didn't she support Alito's nomination?) as well as for her preference for joining large majorities (authorizing the war in Iraq is an obvious example). Charles Krauthammer wrote a while ago that while he'd never vote for her, he could live with her presidency because she lacks principles and will do what seems expedient. The New Republic some months ago ran a profile about her claiming the opposite: that she, unlike the others, thinks not like a candidate but like a president. (Sorry I haven't looked for the links to these articles. Lack of time this evening).

And Obama? All this talk about change and everything? Sounds kind of radical, or progressive, and not boring centrist at all, which is why the folks at Daily Kos are so fired up about him. But my reading of him says otherwise. True, the very possibility of a black president is revolutionary, but his talk, the tone of his sentences, is inclusive and all-American, and therefore fundamentally centrist.

Lies, Damn Lies, Statistics and Demographics

How many Palestinians are there, and where? Yesterday we saw Juan Cole's fantasies; here's an article that purports to show that the official Palestinian census figures, published earlier this week, are not all that accurate either. The thesis presented here is that not only is the number declining, but there is a parallel rise in the birthrate of the Jews, and the end result is that demography is strengthening Jewish Israel at the moment, quite contrary to common wisdom.

I admit that I have no way of knowing who's right in this discussion, who's mistaken, and who's lying through their teeth.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Juan Cole: Anti-Israel Trumps Anti-America

Juan Cole spends most of his time telling about all the bad things America has caused, while badmouthing Israel only from time to time. He must have his reasons. Yesterday however he felt compelled to argue that horrendous as the (American generated) problem of Iraqi refugees certainly is, it takes second place to the suffering of the Palestinians:
Actually, I would say that the Palestinian refugee crisis is still worse, since most Palestinians except those in Israel and Jordan are still stateless, and their total number is roughly 10.5 million (i.e. about 7 million are stateless, and even some of those with Jordanian citizenship still live in refugee camps. I would argue that long-term statelessness is akin to a condition of slavery insofar as many basic rights, including work permits, expectations of permanent residence in a country, etc., come only with citizenship). All of this is to take nothing away from the seriousness and tragedy of the Iraqi refugee crisis.
I don't know why I give Cole so much attention. Perhaps it has to do with his penchant for inventing things from whole cloth while presenting them as the erudition of a scholar, and the eagerness of many people to go along with the charade. In this instance, his numbers regarding Palestinians are an evil and malicious fairy tale. Over at the website of UNRWA - no friends of Israel, they - on 31 March 2005 they knew of 112,882 Palestinian refugees in camps in Syria, and another 311,768 not in camps, for a total of 424,650; in Lebanon they knew of 210,952 refugees in camps, and 189,630 outside. The total number of refugees they identify everywhere is 4,225,120, most of them in Jordan, where they're regular citizens, or in Gaza and the West Bank, where they're citizens in and of Palestine, which admittedly is not a full-fledged state but that's a different issue, and if it were up to Israel it would have been since 2000 at the very latest.

N0t to mention the deeper question of 4th generation refugees, and the canard about the refugee camps which in many case don't really exist. (An issue I wrote about extensively in Right to Exist).

Monday, February 11, 2008

Human Nature and Change

One of the most important fault lines between Conservatives (in the general, non-Jewish meaning) and Progressives in America or between Left and Right in Europe, is the issue of the permanence of human nature. Conservatives think it doesn't change, or if so, only at glacial rates, and thus schemes for the betterment of the human condition are a waste of time or worse. Progressives think that human nature can be changed, indeed must, and therefore programs for the betterment of the human condition are the only moral option.

My reading of history shows that neither side is always right. On the one hand, human nature can be shown not to have significantly changed in the past few millenia; on the other hand, there are quite a number of cases where radical change happened.

One of them is the disappearance of militarism from Europe. Seen from our present vantage point, it's hard to shrug off the rather glaringly obvious fact that a few hundred million people in Europe regard political violence in a very different way than their predecessors did in the previous 2,500 years, as far back as historical memory goes on that continent.

The New York Times book section has a review on a new book that promises to be a fine read on this topic: James J. Sheehan, Where Have all the Soldiers Gone?

Of course, the significance of the European development, while vast for Europe, is far from clear for the rest of us, since the change in the nature of the European humans seems not to have happened anywhere else. It's nice to know that such a change is humanly possible, but that doesn't mean all of humanity will follow suit, now or ever.

Women in (Orthodox) Synagogues

Here's another attempt to move toward egalitarianism in Orthodox synagogues. And note the dynamics. Reform congregations by definition would never have any problem, since for them the needs of the age take precedent over the traditions of the ages. Conservative congregations - and note that they are conservative in relation to the Reform, not in relation to the Orthodox, who see than as merely another form of Reform - Conservative congregations would notice the problem, and would try to stay close to the Halacha, but only if they could also do what they intend to do anyway.

These folks are working within the Halacha, they accept its primacy, but they wish to find the ways to be innovative within its limits.

One of the main reasons that most Orthodox Jews reject many of the steps toward egalitarianism is not that they have no possible base in Halacha, but rather for their resemblance, perceived or not, to the Reform and Conservative movements.

Military Operation in Gaza

Ron ben Yishai, a prominent pundit on military matters, claims that the decision has already been made, and that the delay now is because the plans are very elaborate and careful, and Barak (Ehud, not Obama) and the heads of the army are not yet confident they've closed all the loopholes. But this, according to ben Yishai, is an indication of seriousness, not of faltering. Quite unlike the war in Lebanon in 2006: this one is being prepared carefully in advance, and fully thought thru.

He claims the goals will be to de-fang the Palestinian ability to wage terror from Gaza; to get rid of the Hamas government; to create a situation similar to the West Bank where Israeli tactical intelligence gathering is smooth, uninterrupted, local, and highly efficient; and to change the status of the Egyptian-Gaza border so that someone reliable really controls it.

If I were at the Guardian or the UN, I'd be preparing my screeches and squacks even now. Then again, what need is there for preparation? We can write their texts for them in advance.

(The link goes to an article I was unable to find in English. Sorry).

Does ben Yishai know what he's talking about? Time will tell, won't it.

Partisan Media and its Price

Back in the 1980s there was a magnificent British TV show called "Yes Minister", about the interface between a politician - the minister - and the civil service - Sir Henry. It was so good that eventually the politician rose to become Prime Minister and the program changed to "Yes Prime Minister". The theme of the show was that Sir Henry never had the slightest intention of doing what his political overlord wanted him to do, because what could an elected politician possibly know about running anything? But appearances did have to be kept (they were British, after all), so Sir Henry always ran things while pretending otherwise.

One episode the minister explained to Sir Henry about the kind of things that politicians really do know better: the media. I quote from memory, 25 years later:

[Newspaper 1] is read by the people who run the country.
[Newspaper 2] is read by the people who think they run the country.
[Newspaper 3] is read by people who think they ought to run the country.
The Financial Times is read by people who own the country.
The Morning Star (Communists) is read by people who think another country should run the country.
The Sun is read by people who don't care who runs the country as long as the paper is full of pictures of bimbos.

So why am I mentioning this? Because the serious part of the story is that British papers, like many European papers, are overtly partisan, they tow a clear party line, and the readers choose the paper that tells them what they want to hear. It's a strange way to run a democracy, if you ask me, but the British have been running one for quite a while now, and can even claim to have invented the idea sort of, so what can I say.

(Yes, I know that the Americans also have papers with party lines, but they aren't generally the important dally papers. Not overtly).

The problem with spending your life in an echo chamber, of course, is that by and by the reality sometimes doesn't do what the editor said it was going to do, and then one way of coping is to go for conspiracy theories. The readers of the Guardian, for example, or those that respond online at least, have long since crossed this line into irrational rants, especially when it comes to the Islamist's war against humanity.

Today, however, I've taken a somewhat less loaded topic to demonstrate how it works.

Have I mentioned that the Guardian is totally enamored with Barack Obama? The Saviour of America. So yesterday Obama won some primaries or caucuses in three states. The New York Times reported about this, but also explained why the basic tie between Obama and Clinton had not thereby been broken, not yet. Delegates are awarded proportionally so both sides collected some of them, for example. Super delegates. Texas and Ohio. All sorts of complications. None of which makes its way into the report in the Guardian. There the tone is all about "the staggering defeats Obama inflicted on Clinton", Obama's victories tip the balance in his favor.." and so on.

PS. in the same issue of the Guardian there's a narrated slide show about Gaza. No mention whatsoever of about 70% of the relevant parts of the story, it mostly tells about the evil Israelis who are brutalizing the Palestinians and making them suffer. But given the basic structure of how the paper works, you have to ask yourself if this is malice, or simply a habit, so deeply ingrained, and reinforced by spending a lifetime listening only to reports that tell you what you want to hear, that these people are constitutionally incapable of thinking?

Thursday, February 7, 2008

German Memory

In a recent post I mumbled something to the credit of the Germans who have confronted their horrendous past admirably. Susan Neiman, writing from Berlin, suggests that while this is true, it's not fully true, and the choice the Germans have made of their few heroes of the Nazi era to be celebrated in the communal memory are the wrong ones: they've chosen the ones who died, thereby effectively saying that heroism was heroic, but also futile. Instead, they should have concentrated on the (very few) heroes who successfully stood up to the Nazi regime and didn't die.

It's an interesting point.

(I got here thru Normblg).

Things you can Hear on Busses

As I've mentioned in the past, you meet all sorts of interesting people when you take buses. This afternoon I was on a bus down to Tel Aviv. One row behind me a uniformed soldier was taking on his cellphone to another soldier. From the sound of it, the second one was sitting in an office on their base filling out a report on some event they had recently been in, and wanted to be sure that they both remembered more or less the same. From what I could make out they had been in a jeep, and the jeep had been attacked, and someone had been wounded in his hand, and they reconstructed how many rounds of what sort of ammunition which of them had shot. At one point the guy doing the writing wasn't sure about some detail, if it needed to be put into the report or not, and my guy told him that it had happened, and needed to be in the report, and not to leave it out nor to worry. They had nothing to be ashamed of.

Taking the bus, as I've said, can be quite instructive.

Things that belong to the Entire Nation

I haven't been posting much on the Daf Yomi thread recently. My Bad. Anyway, yesterday's page contained a discussion about how potent a vow can be in forbidding the use of property. The Mishna makes a distinction between municipal property, which can be affected by a vow - the central square, synagogue, the public bath - and things that were declared as belonging to the nation at the time of the return from Babylonia (that would mean about 400 years before the Mishna). These things are so public that vows cannot put them out of bounds.

And what are these super-public-national things? Three are mentioned in the Mishna. The Temple Mount, the courtyards on the Temple Mount, and the water cisterns on the roads up to Jerusalem that serve the needs of pilgrims.

Our rabbi wondered, as we passed this section, if this ruling might have any implications for negotiations about Jerusalem, and a possible obligation to include the Jews of the world as a party to the negotiations.
Nedarim 48a

This thread began here.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Poetry and Politics

I realize that many of you think I'm on an unnecessary, unwarranted, and unjustified "Lefty roll". Well, as I wrote about Tony Judt, us Jewish intellectual types are not always fully reliable. I expect I'll come off it by and by, in the fullness of time. Until then, however:

I've continued spending more time than I probably should wandering about the Internet imbibing American politics. And the Obama story continues to fascinate me.

Here's his speech to his supporters the night he didn't win the New Hampshire primaries. He spoke for 13 minutes, with no script so far as I can tell. Eventually he climaxed with this:

For when we have faced down impossible odds, when we've been told we're not ready or that we shouldn't try or that we can't, generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes, we can. Yes, we can. Yes, we can.

It was a creed written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation: Yes, we can.

It was whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail towards freedom through the darkest of nights: Yes, we can.

It was sung by immigrants as they struck out from distant shores and pioneers who pushed westward against an unforgiving wilderness: Yes, we can.

It was the call of workers who organized, women who reached for the ballot, a president who chose the moon as our new frontier, and a king who took us to the mountaintop and pointed the way to the promised land: Yes, we can, to justice and equality.

Yes, we can, to opportunity and prosperity. Yes, we can heal this nation. Yes, we can repair this world. Yes, we can.

And so, tomorrow, as we take the campaign south and west, as we learn that the struggles of the textile workers in Spartanburg are not so different than the plight of the dishwasher in Las Vegas, that the hopes of the little girl who goes to the crumbling school in Dillon are the same as the dreams of the boy who learns on the streets of L.A., we will remember that there is something happening in America, that we are not as divided as our politics suggest, that we are one people, we are one nation.

And, together, we will begin the next great chapter in the American story, with three words that will ring from coast to coast, from sea to shining sea: Yes, we can.

Say what you will, this is as close to poetry as a politician can get.

It is only right that it has been put to music, and seems to be serving as a sort of anthem of the campaign.

PS. Before you pile onto me, I remind you that I don't know if Obama should be president. Even the voters of his party don't seem fully convinced. I don't know enough about him, and some of what I know doesn't impress me. But he does seem an unusually interesting candidate.

Tony Judt is Right about Memory of the Holocaust

Many of you will be aware of Tony Judt's torturous relationship with Israel, indeed, with his extreme unease with it as a Jew himself. A few years ago he went so far as to express the view that it is an anachronism with the implication that it should disappear, perhaps in order to relieve himself of association with it.

Well, in typical form for a Jewish intellectual, he turns out to be more complex and tortured than initial impressions had indicated. At some point I will write about the large book he wrote not long ago, Postwar. This evening, however, I'd like to point to an article he has just published in the New York Review of Books, with the intriguing title The 'Problem of Evil' in Postwar Europe.

He starts out badly, I felt, by more or less praising Hannah Arendt for her book Eichmann in Jerusalem - indeed a truly seminal book, but also a weak book, partly because of its systematic misrepresentation of the facts of the Holocaust, and mostly for the afterthought of its subtitle, where she introduced the important phrase 'The Banality of Evil'. But then at the end I noticed that he adapted the article from a speech he gave in Germany as the recipient of a Hannah Arendt Prize; anyway, the first paragraph actually isn't particularly essential to the rest of the article.

Somewhere further down he takes a swipe or two at Israeli policies, which he continues not to like, and a swipe at the Bush administration, which is mandatory for an article in the NYRB. OK. Other than that, however, I found myself agreeing with at least 80% of the article, and I recommend a careful reading of it. In the old days, when Shalmi Barmore was the head of the education department at Yad Vashem, (which means, before 1993), we would have printed out piles of copies of such an article and discussed it in our seminars; there is much truth in it. No longer being at Yad Vashem, I can only hope the present staff still remembers Shalmi's legacy of searching for valuable insights wherever they might be found.

My single serious argument is that Judt is still downplaying the antisemitism at the very heart of the Islamist's war against humanity, as evidenced for example by the writings of Said Qutb from the 1950s and 1960s, long before the Six Day War gave the Arabs the excuse of an Israeli occupation as the source of all ill. Here we really do differ.

But it's still a good article.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Egypt, Hamas, Negev Border and Terrorism

Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff try to put some sense into the developing situation. Bottom lines: Cooperation with the Egyptians is rather good (the Egyptians like Hamas only a tad more than we do). All sorts of Palestinian groups are ratcheting up their attempts to hit Israel, and yesterday's attack is an example of this: two separate organizations claimed the glory of it, apparently because each of them sent two-man squads into southern Israel, and so each assumes the squad that reached Dimona is theirs.

And note that the policy of taking PLO terrorists in the West Bank off the wanted lists in return for PA assurances they would do no harm, much acclaimed a few months ago, is looking ever more rickety. But also note that, contrary to what I wrote yesterday, it seems there is significant support for building a fence along the Egyptian border in the Negev. The subtext here is that the first line of defense, of keeping Palestinian terrorists in Gaza, is crumbling, and rather than try to bolster it, we should move to the second, more expensive, but also more reliable line of defense along our border.

Candidate Obama, the Article

Here it is.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Candidate Obama?

Uncharacteristically for this blog, I intend to put up a post about the presidential campaign later today, before the Super-Duper-Extravaganza-Tuesday resolves the issue and forever prevents me from saying something while the issue is still speculative.

The Guardian has a Bad Day

This morning the Guardian spun the story of the Egyptian sealing of their border with Gaza so as to blame Israel. The story starts out reasonably, but by its final paragraphs it has forgotten its original theme and is implying that Israel is the culprit, even though no facts are cited, merely claims of this UN chap and that one.

Future historians, should they ever attempt to unravel the sordid story of Gaza in the Era of Hamas will have quite a challenge with the reportage versus the facts on the ground - for example, how to square the natural tendency to blame Israel with the facts that many of the actions on the ground aren't being done by Israelis at all, but rather by Hamas, or the Egyptians, or Fatah, or Islamic Jihad... it's not easy to follow if you're a highly educated observer; for everyone else (I include myself) its not at all easy to follow, much less to understand.

By mid-morning there was a development everyone knew would happen - well, anyone consistently paying attention to the details. Which means there was absolutely no mention of the possibility anywhere I saw since the breaching of the Gaza-Egyptian border: not in the Guardian, not in the NYT, not on the BBC or CNN, not in the Economist, and not by Juan Cole - those are the media outlets I've been following. But readers of Haaretz knew it was coming, as did all the brainwashed Israeli public who don't base their knowledge on the fine foreign press.

Palestinian terrorists left Gaza into Egypt, headed south, and somewhere along the (relatively) long, empty, and peaceful border between Israel and Egypt they penetrated Israel and found their way to Dimona, where they committed a suicide attack. One innocent woman was murdered, and the second attacker was killed before he could kill anyone (he was already wounded, but since all it would have taken for him to kill was to push a button, he was correctly considered dangerous, and shot).

So why did I start by saying the Guardian had a bad day? Because the starkness of the story of this attack was so complete that there really wasn't any plausible way to spin it - so the Guardian told it as it happened.

My personal opinion, by the way, and here I'm far to the left of mainstream Israel, is that the appropriate Israeli response to the simple fact that Palestinian terrorists can and will penetrate our territory through Egypt is to build a fence there, too. It will cost money, lots of it, and it will permanently mar the beauty of the the dessert, but this seems preferable to me to forcing the Palestinians to stay in Gaza. We should fortify our defenses, and we should pressure the Egyptians, fellow Arabs and brothers and all that, to open their border with Gaza, and there should be an end to the chatter abot the prison of Gaza.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

What Can We Understand about Suicide Murderers?

A woman in Sri Lanka has killed herself while murdering 10 innocents at a train station in Colombo. I mention this because it is not true that suicide murderers are all Muslim. There are all sorts of people who engage in the practice: Sri Lankens on the Tamili side of that conflict, Muslims, Muslim Arabs, occasionally non-Muslim Arabs, other sorts of Muslims, other sorts of Arabs. Lots of types of people can be incited to be so angry - or at any rate, so evil - that they'll purposefully set out to kill themselves so long as they can take innocent strangers with them.

Of course, Not all Sri Lankens, and not all Muslims or Arabs, either, not by a very far call.

Still, having said that, whenever you hear about a suicide murder, you can be forgiven for assuming it's a Muslim or an Arab. What you can't assume, however, is that it's an angry young man, frustrated by the Israelis, which is what"everyone" knew back when the Shiites in Lebanon first started using the method in the 1980s, and the Palestinians a few years later. Now, another 15 years on, it has become the weapon of choice for a large range of angry Muslims, in many parts of the world, and a very large majority of the victims are other Muslims or Arabs or both, and it takes quite a stretch of the imagination to continue imagining that murdering Arab civilians in Iraq, or Yazdis, has much to do with Israel or even the United States.

Since I'm a historian, I find myself pondering if perhaps this stage of the story might somehow have anything to tell us about the earlier parts. If there are Arabs who are perfectly comfortable with sending their own people to be killed while committing mass murder of other sorts of their people, isn't there at least the possibility that what we have here is such a serious pathology that the earlier forms of it my have stemmed from some of the same roots? And shouldn't the roots we're seeking also be connected to the stems on which are growing young British-born citizens of some Muslim variations who are perfectly willing to kill whoever is on the tube next to them, Anglicans, Catholic, Muslims and Jews?

I admit that I lack the cultural tools to be able to answer these questions - such as a good knowledge of Arabic, for a starter. My fellow historian Juan Cole, however, does have the languages, and a lot of good it does him.

You might want to read this report on yesterday's mass murder in Baghdad, committed by two women, at least one of whom was a recognized local figure, a beggar. In other words, she wasn't even murdering strangers, she was murdering the people in her world, in the narrow meaning of the term. One of the explanations, suggested by "US and Iraqi officials", but confirmed, according to the report, by a local man named Ali Nassir, who knew one of them, is that the women had Down Syndrome, and probably didn't even know what she was doing, nor that she was about to die. Cole's response to this? "The story that the women had Downs syndrome seems unlikely to be true; you wouldn't trust a sensitive terror plot to someone without their full faculties."

Does he have a shred of evidence for any of this? No. Is there evidence contradicting his thesis? Yes, see above. Is the sending of a suicide murderer (or in this case, perhaps the sending of a victim) a sensitive terror plot? Not in any way I can think of - all it is is mass murder, nothing particularly intricate to that. Something we've become so used to that we no longer even see how radically unnatural it is, besides being despicable.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Cyberspace and the Real World

A ship off the coast of Egypt accidentally cut a cable in the middle of a storm, and a third of Asia is cut off of the Internet. Since many companies that offer online services in the United States actually aren't, they're in India, the outage seems to be causing problems there, also.

What was that story they told us about ARPA-Net, and the Internet being the accidental invention of a group of American security types who were trying to create an American military communications system that would be unaffected even by a Soviet nuclear attack? Does that ring a bell with any of you?

Friday, February 1, 2008

Hugely Significant Strides

Remember President Taft? Didn't think so. Most people have never heard of him, even tho he was the President of the United States less than a hundred years ago (slightly less). 90 years from now no-one will remember Bill Clinton, either, unless for the women in his life: he'll be remembered for that one lie he brazenly told us all about one woman, or, if he's lucky, he'll be remembered as the fellow whose presidency didn't hurt his wife towards becoming the first woman to be president. No one will remember Ehud Olmert at all.

What will be remembered and noticed is that we're living in one of the most dramatic moments in the story of the Jews, and one of the more dramatic threads of the story is the sea change in the position of women in Judaism.

Shmuel Rosner posts some links on this subject here, the more significant of them being this article, written by one Samantha M. Shapiro at Slate. The flurry of articles and responses surrounds a decision by the Hartman Institute to begin ordaining women as orthodox rabbis, or at least sort of rabbis. Now, the Hartman Institute people like to regard themselves as a religious vanguard, while many of their numerous detractors have long since written them off as a curiosity. It's about 50 years too early, at the moment, to say who's right. But in this case, the Hartman people are clearly on to something, namely the complete centrality of learning as the kingpin of the issue.

There is no single institution in Judaism more important than the house of learning. Synagogues are all well and fine; most synagogues in Israel (which means, I expect, most synagogues in the world) don't even have a salaried Rabbi in the American meaning of the term. But what the congregants do have, are rabbis they respect and learn from. And in the past 25 years or so, a growing number of orthodox women have begun putting ever greater effort into acquiring a high degree of proficiency in Jewish learning -or, put more simply, they're becoming scholars. Given the unalterable fact that even exceptionally brilliant men require 50-60 years of learning before they can become important talmidei chachamim - scholars in Jewish learning - this means that there are not yet any really important women scholars. But since women as a group are no less intelligent than men as a group (I'm being careful here), the statistics would indicate that within a generation or two there will be orthodox women scholars of such a stature that the old world will be washed away, at least at some significant points.

This tendency will be greatly re-enforced by the fact that in the surrounding world women are almost there. No orthodox man would hesitate to be cured by a woman physician because of her gender, and so on. Once the person with the best ability to reason halachically just happens to be a woman, the ancient self-evident structures will change.

On the Irrelevance of Elitist Gloom

Ari Shavit has read the Vinograd report and is deeply depressed. It's a requiem, he says, "a sad book about a nation that is currently flying into a storm with an empty cockpit".

Requiems are serious things, and they generally come after death. While too many people on both sides died in the stupid little war our leaders ineptly foisted upon us in the summer of 2006, it wasn't the end of the world, nor is it a harbinger of it. On the contrary. If you ask me, the long-term implication of the war is that inexperienced leaders can foolishly take us to war accompanied by arrogant and wrongheaded generals, and it doesn't make much difference. Partly this is because the leaders on the other side are even worse at their job, and mostly it's because the people - civilians, voters, all those folks that Shavit and his friends love to look down on - are strong enough, or perhaps simply too stubborn, to let it make that much of a difference.

Shavit likes to think in Spenglerian terms of the decline of whatever, but Spengler was mostly wrong, and so is Shavit.