Monday, March 31, 2008

Distinctions About Killing

In her response to this post from last week, Lydia McGrew makes an important distinction. I had talked about the need to be willing to die for some (few and exceptionally important) things, and she pointed out that actually, you don't seek death, quite the contrary, but you're willing to risk it if needed.

I'm reminded of the story of Mike Strank, told with great empathy in James Bradley's Flags of Our Fathers, which I read a while ago and ought to review here if I find the time. Frank was a Marine squad leader, who trained his men to kill and prepared them to be willing to be killed if necessary, but who's main and constant refrain was that if they did as he was training them and leading them, he'd do his best to get as many of them back to their mothers as possible. He himself - and some of them - died on Iwo Jima.

I'm not certain the Marines in WWII are the best possible example of what I'm trying to say, following Lydia's comment, but the idea is simultaneously quite simple and endlessly complex: in a sane and just society, we don't want anyone to have to give their lives for anyone or anything, because what is there that is more precious than life. Yet at the same time there are values, or people, or things in life, that are more precious than life itself. In order to align those two concepts, we sometimes risk our lives - in the hope that we won't have to pay with them; indeed, we go to great efforts to ensure that our lives won't be lost... while simultaneously consciously endangering them because we must.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Hannah Safrai, 1946-2008

The paper edition of the Hebrew version of Haaretz this morning carried an obituary for Prof. Hannah Safrai. I can't find any web versions to link to, not even in Hebrew.

Safrai was a member of the illustrious Safrai family of scholars. Her late father prof. Shmuel Safrai was an important historian of the 2nd Temple period, as is her brother Zeev Safrai, a professor at Bar Ilan. The three of them worked together on a series which is only now coming out, called the Mishna of Eretz Israel. More on that, perhaps, some other time.

Hannah was a professor of Jewish thought. I remember the glint in her eye as she told us, many years ago, of the time she spent studying at the Divinity school of Harvard, reading Christian theology, I suppose; she must have been a riot. We were participating in her seminar on the Jewish sources of the teachings of Jesus. The seminar consisted of a careful reading of some of the more famous teachings of Jesus, such as the Sermon on the Mount. We would try to figure out what his original words must have been in Aramaic and Hebrew, and then we'd scan the vast Talmudic literature for similar turns of speech so as to hear him in his context. The idea was to understand his teachings as he intended and his audience understood. I expect she was following the model of her teacher, Professor David Flusser, the ground breaker among learned orthodox Jews who chose to be professors of early Christianity.

It was a fascinating seminar also for its participants. I don't think there were more than 10-12 of us, at least three of whom were young German theology students (whose Hebrew must have been quite good). Sitting next to them was Ari Kovner, son of Abba Kovner, perhaps Israel's most famous Holocaust survivor but also a commander of a partisan unit in Lithuania. So you had the son of the partisan sharing a bench with the children of Germans (who may not have known who Ari was, but everyone else in the room did), discussing what Jesus really thought he was saying in Hebrew based upon Aramaic texts, and all this in Jerusalem. Delicious.

My debt to her was quite specific, and dated back to two classes she gave near the beginning of my first year at the university. The first was a week after she had assigned us a very complicated article by some important historian, and a group of my fellow students were kvetching loudly that they didn't know remotely enough about the topic to be able to make head or tail of what he was saying. Safrai was unimpressed, and told us that if we didn't know enough, there was only one solution: to learn a lot. She wasn't going to spoon feed us just because we were new to the field. You have to start somewhere, and work (hard) from there - so this was the somewhere.

A week or two later she had given us some short writing assignment, and she "wasted" almost the entire session offending us. "Not a single one of you knows how to write", she thundered. "I'm not talking about poetic prose or literature of beauty", she continued, "I'm talking about stringing two sentences together, or crafting a coherent paragraph!" We were thunderstruck, and deeply offended. What was she talking about? We had all graduated from high school and matriculated, we'd gone through the army and had been big-shots there; what was this depiction of us as inarticulate nitwits? We responded with outrage, but she didn't give an inch, and to make matters worse she even read some of our choice formulations out loud (anonymously, I suppose).

It was a formative moment for me. I remember asking myself if perhaps she knew what she was talking about. What if she was right? What if writing really did require more than simply stringing words together? Might it just be possible that this was something I should consciously be trying to learn? It was one of the most important educative experiences of my life.

I never thanked her for it, and now it's too late, so this is my tribute to her. May she rest in peace.

Is there a Moderate Islam that can Win the War?

What does it mean when one of the most important Muslim liberal and enlightened voices loses hope in the possibility of an enlightened Islam, and converts to Christianity?

And in a delicious historical irony, what does it mean when this Muslim tells that one of the most important motivations for his becoming a Catholic had to do with his support for the Jewish State? Run that by me again?

Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Dwindling Settlements

Akiva Eldar reports from a settlement in the northern West Bank that would fold if only the government would let it. A so-called "non-ideological settlement", i.e. one that mostly attracted settlers who were looking for cheap housing, not to ensure Israeli control over the West Bank. And now the settlers want out, and MKs from the left are doing their best to get a law passed that will make this easier.

Someday, once it's all over, someone should write an honest description of the settler's movement and its relationship with the rest of Israeli society. no one has ever tried to do that, which is too bad becasue the true story is far more interesting than the stereotypes.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Barack Obama on Race

It took awhile, but yesterday I found the 45 minutes to watch his Philadelphia speech on race, given last week. You can find it on Youtube, but it seems there's an uninterrupted online version here. (Thanx, Rattling).

It's a fine speech, and will rightfully be referred to over and over for many years.

Not particularly important but nonetheless surprising to me, someone who often does public speaking, is Barack Obama's ability to talk well and at length with very little recourse to text. It's there, beneath the view of the camera, but observe how little time his eyes stray down to it, and how much time they spend making eye-contact with his audience. Not many people can do that.

He respects his audience by speaking to them in an intelligent manner. He's not unique in this, as some pundits seem to think, but it's good. He made this speech at an uncomfortable moment in his campaign, and it's impressive that rather than escape into platitudes he chose to confront the issues head on, in a thoughtful and well informed manner; he is, quite simply, interesting to listen to.

His thesis about the imperfection of the Constitution and even more, of the reality it tried and still tries to inform, is convincing. Yes, the framers of the Constitution decided to live with the glaring hypocrisy of slavery, and eventually hundreds of thousands pf people paid for this decision with their lives - but the Union survived its infancy, and is still around to be further perfected; as Obama says near the end, while it will never be perfect it must be perfected. His descriptions of the essence of religious services and religious behavior in Black churches rings very true and convincing, even if not totally novel, and he's right to create that context for the statements of Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

Other strands of his speech left me less convinced. There has to be more to explain the obstinate longevity of the black underclass in America than the story of persecution, segregation and racism, not that any of that story is fictional. I come from a nation that spent far longer than the American blacks as a persecuted minority, indeed one which at times was persecuted for its relationship to the most fundamental essence of its surrounding society (Christianity), and which nonetheless never allowed itself to wallow in self pity nor to achieve less than its full potential because of the persecution. Nor can I subscribe to Obama's ideas about "lobbies and corporattions" that bear responsibility for much of what is wrong about America, nor for his suggestion that somehow dealing with them will heal anything. I suppose there must be corporate excesses in America, but I doubt they're the source of most evil. Corporations are made up, often, of hard-working men and women who are doing their best to get on with life. Finally, I am not convinced that the number of fearful Americans - of any race - is anywhere near what Obama makes it out to be. He was right, and very impressive, to tell about the apprehensions of some whites (he at one point calls them "immigrants") who are challenged just as blacks are; I ask myself, however, if Americans in general are really as insecure and apprehensive about their future as he makes them out to be. (And if so, I ask myself, why? For all it's vast imperfections, America is probably the richest, and most benign large society in the history of mankind).

Having said that, however, I disagree with those of Obama's critics who split hairs about the degree to which he repudiated or didn't repudiate the defamations of his reverend, or that he shouldn't have compared the reverend's public words with his grandmother's private ones. All true, and all not very important. The same goes for his managerial abilities and experience - not very great, apparently.

One of the most important jobs of the top leader of any country, certainly one as important as the United States, is to lead and explain where he (or she) is trying to lead to. Even the greatest of world leaders in the 20th century, Winston Churchill, was a pretty awful manager, as he repeatedly demonstrated throughout his long career. His greatness lay in recognizing the evils of Communism and Nazism long before everyone agreed with him; in refusing to make any compromises with Hitler even in 1940 when Hitler wanted an arrangement, and even at the cost of war; and in his eagerness to support even Stalin if that's what was necessary to beat Hitler.

Barack Obama shows signs of that kind of leadership, at least in the most crucial of internal American issues. If I have yet to make my mind about him, it's not for those internal issues, on which I'd support him. My hesitations stem from the fact that the president of the United States is not only the leader of his (or her) country, he is also the closest one can get to being the leader of the world. And the world is a troubled place these days.

Thursday, March 27, 2008


It's been a while since I've posted any Daf Yomi reports. (This thread began, and is explained, here).

Over the weekend we finished the Nedarim tractate, which deals with vows, and moved on to the Nazir tractate, that deals with... a specific type of vows. The vow to be a Nazirite. We even asked ourselves how to say Nazir in English, and it turns out there is no such word. Apparently, all translations since King James simply spell the Hebrew word Nazir in English letters, thus Nazirite. The idea is laid out in the 6th chapter of Numbers; if you don't have a bible near you (alas, I expect many people don't), you can look over here, or do some googling to find a better source if you wish. In a nutshell, the Nazirite is a person (man?) who has vowed to stay off anything that comes from grapes, alcoholic or otherwise, and to refrain from cutting his hair.

The first few pages of the tractate establish that the basic unit of time to be a nazir is a month. There's s quible what that means: 30 days? 29 and a hour of the 30th? 31 days? Eventually the decision is for 30 days. At which point today's page, in typical talmudic form, took the quibble further. What happens when a man takes upon himself to be a nazir plus an hour? (Answer: two months, because being a nazir means a month, and he added to it so it's another full unit). However, if he said "I'll be a nazir for 30 days and an hour", he's obligated only for 31 days, because he specified that it's all one period.

Gotta be precise.

Nazir 7a.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Dying for Something

Another soldier in Achikam's training course has died, the third so far.

Some would say they're only children, these young men. 18, 19, 20 years old. Certainly, there is no lack of 22-year-old children on many a university campus in many countries. These young men, however, are not children. In the loads they bear, the responsibilities they shoulder, the challenges they must overcome, they are fully adults, indeed, more so than many of their peers in other countries will ever be.

A few weeks ago I posted a rumination about killing people and the need to be willing to be killed, in extreme cases:
Sometimes, says a grieving mother, you have to be willing to lay down your life. Protecting your fellow citizens from death, for example, is such a case.

An extraordinarily strong statement, don't you think? Makes one wonder if the preachers of total non-killing would be willing to lay down their lives for anything, or perhaps more important, for anyone.
In response, one German reader named Hans scoffed:
Who is this talking ? Darth Vader? You seem to have more respect for those wanting to die for what you would consider the wrong thing than for those who are on your side but refuse to die for whatever ( And quite frankly I think refusing to die AT ALL is a sign of being mentally healthy ).
I have been thinking about his comment, because obviously, no-one wants to die for any reason except perhaps extreme old age. Having said that, however, in an extreme case that hopefully will never happen to anyone, I expect that quite a number of us actually could conceive of dying for some very special people in our lives, such as our children.

This afternoon, while hurting for the parents of Achikam's fellow soldier, it occurred to me to wonder if there might be a connection between the sentiments Hans expressed, and in which he is undoubtedly not alone, and the fact that the society he lives in seems not to be having children anymore. Maybe he really does come from a place where they can't conceive of dying for anyone, not even their children, and therefore they don't conceive the children.

Useful Idiots

From time to time I have used the term useful idiots to describe some folks. This is not a term I invented, though it's not clear who did.

Juan Cole this week behaved like a perfect useful idiot. This fellow could easily qualify.

I first really understood the term, however, when I read The Passing of an Illusion: The Idea of Communism in the Twentieth Century, by Francois Furet. Fortunately, Norman Geras has recently posted a fine review by Jeffrey Herf. He has me convinced that someday I should go read the book a second time because I seem to have missed all sorts of interesting things the first time.

Factoid about Israel

According to the dead-tree Hebrew version of yesterday's The Marker (unfortunately I can't find the link today), there are in Israel 8.3 million registered cell-phone users, for a population of about 7 million, including infants, senile centenarians, politicians and chimney sweeps. (Come to think of it, I don't recollect ever having encountered an Israeli chimney sweep).

Then I reflected upon the fact that for the 5 adults in my section of the Lozowick family, there are 8 registered cell phone users (Nechama and I have only one line each). Having pondered further, however, it occurred to me that only 5 of the lines are active; one has been dead at least 3 years, and two others have been dormant for many months at the very least. Makes you wonder about the reliability of facts from newspapers: Lies, damn lies, and statistics.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

"America is not the fulcrum of the universe"

Paul Berman at his usual excellent, ponders the state of Islamist extremism. While Bush has committed his share of mistakes, the problem wasn't of his making nor will it disappear anytime soon. Actually, he implies, if any Westerners want to blame themselves, it should be the Fascists (almost half of Europe at one time) and the Communists (the other half). Tho I wouldn't be too harsh on them. Much of the awfulness is home-grown.

Extremist movements have been growing bigger and wilder for more than three decades now, during that period, America has tried pretty much everything from a policy point of view. Our presidents have been satanic (Richard Nixon), angelic (Jimmy Carter), a sleepy idiot savant (Ronald Reagan), a cagey realist (George H. W. Bush), wonderfully charming (Bill Clinton) and famously otherwise (George W. Bush). And each president’s Middle Eastern policy has conformed to his character.

Read the whole thing, as Glenn says.

LeverEdge Ltd.

Blogging is a reasonable way to spend one's time, but it doesn't seem to put any food on the table. For that one must have a day job. As some of you will have heard, a few months back I changed day jobs. After puttering around for a while I've decided (with the help of some wise advice from others) to focus my efforts where they're most needed - which means, at this stage, not in the LeverEdge website. So we recently brought said website to it's minimal acceptable level, and will not get back to it for many months. It will remain statically stable at its current very basic level, and if you really have the urge, you can go visit. Or not. No offense taken.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Building Israeli Settlements

Two weeks ago I discussed the Muqawama doctrine and the way it plays out on a tactical level. In response, one Ibrahim ibn Yusuf told me how wrong I was, how the construction of Israeli settlements is far worse violence than anything the Palestinians do, and finally:
When you grab someone else's land, that's violence even if you don't kill the owner. I will believe the only violence comes from Hamas the day Israel stops its forcible appropiation of Palestinian property.
Of course, this statements begs the response that there are no longer any Israeli settlements in Gaza, and that the only impact this has had upon the Palestinian violence has been to exacerbate it, but I wasn't certain Mr. ibn Yusuf would be the type to respond to rational discussion. So I visited his blog, which turns out to be specifically tailored to argue against Zionism. Alas, however, it is in Spanish, which means I'll be able to argue with him only when he visits me and comments in English.

Given the foibles of history, it's a delightful irony to have an Arab publishing his anti-Jewish-State ideas in Spanish.

Anyway, after noting that Mr. ibn Yusuf hadn't responded to the essence of my post, and perhaps hadn't even noticed it in his haste to condemn Israeli settlements as the source of all evil, I probably should have ended the discussion. Instead, here I am plugging his blog. This is because while he's wrong not only in the essence of his statement as well as in is misreading of mine, he has stumbled upon a more general misunderstanding concerning the settlements - so here goes.

1. According to all versions of the events, Israel agreed to dismantle many of the settlements in the Camp David negotiations in Summer of 2000, again in accepting (Bill) Clinton's dictated final terms on December 24th 2000, and again at the negotiations at Taba in January 2001. Had the Palestinians been truly interested, they would long ago have had their independent judenrein state, with Jerusalem as its capital.

2. According to the defunct Geneva Accord of 2004, heralded as the solution of the conflict if only both sides would accept it, most of the settlements were to be disbanded but some, the ones closest to the Green Line of 1967, were to remain in place in return for equally valuable territories from inside the Green Line which were to be transferred to Palestine. This is significant because it demonstrates that even some Palestinian negotiators have already accepted the principle of territorial exchanges. This is a reflection of the fact that most of the settlers - some 80% of them - live in easily designated enclaves, mostly near Jerusalem or Kfar Saba. There are settlements scattered throughout much of the West Bank, true, but not very many Israelis live in them.

3. In 2006 Ehud Olmert campaigned on an explicit platform of disbanding the many small settlements and ending the Israeli control over most of the West Bank. The parties that agreed with him won the election, with more than 50% of the seats in the Knesset. Many of the voters who voted for the losing side also agree with the principle, tho they disagree on the tactics. One way or the other, had the settlements been the deal-breaker they are often described to be, the Palestinians could have had the territory already. That this hasn't happened has nothing to do with the settlements, and everything to do with Hamas, and with the Right of Return, and perhaps with a waning Palestinian interest in the 2-state solution (and perhaps in their lack of real interest in having a state at all, unless it be on irrational terms).

4. The apartments being built now - if they're being built - are in the area around Jerusalem, i.e they are part of the settlements that aren't going to be disbanded anyway. Presidents Clinton and Bush have both already explicitly accepted this distinction, as have the Palestinian negotiators of the Geneva Accord. Does Mr. ibn Yusuf know this? I cannot say, but if he doesn't he ought to inform himself, and if he does he's being disingenuous at best when refraining to mention it. Do the official Palestinian spokesmen, including their president, when they pretend otherwise? You bet they do.

5. And so do we, the Israeli public. Which is the most serious of all. Ultimately, the Palestinians will have to make peace (or not) with the Israelis, not with Juan Cole, or the editors of the Guardian, or with Spanish speaking fellow Arabs. With us. And we are perfectly aware of the fact that they are misrepresenting the facts when they condemn the construction of apartments in Jerusalem as if they were the same things as the construction of settlements on the hilltops about Nablus or Hebron. They do themselves no service by strengthening our mistrust of them, since ultimately, the only way they can have independence and peace is by convincing us that the war really could be over, and that they prefer to build their state rather than damage ours.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Fooling God into Showing Himself

The Economist, as well as others, have been spending quite a bit of their attention recently on religion (I last wrote about this, with links, here). They now tell of a EU research budget dedicated to research projects designed to find God. Actually, most of them seemed focused on finding why people believe in him. Some of the researchers are looking at flashes of lights on maps of human brains, others are trying to find economic justification for religious behavior, or social justification, and what have you.

This is all well and fine, and personally I'm all in favor of science, at least if it's good science (as against quackery). Still, it seems to me there's a glaring lack of logic common to all the projects described, and I mean all of them - and it's a problem of neutral logic, not of lack of religious belief or fervor.

Let's say, for the sake of argument, that when the various scientists talk about religion, they mean sets of beliefs that start from the assumption that somewhere "out there" there's an infinitely wise and boundlessly powerful entity, that also just so happened to have created us, even while leaving us the freedom to think as we will, including to believe in him or not. By definition, this entity (God) would be a bit ahead of us humans in knowing what flashes will appear when in which segments of the brain, or what statistical chances which sets of behavior would yield in which results. Wouldn't this then logically mean that there is no way in which God could be "tricked" into being pinned down by whatever empiric experiments?

Put otherwise, doesn't this mean that only non-believers can expect to set out on a track of empiric experiments designed to lead them to the divine entity they don't believe in?

"Iran is Not a threat to Any Country"

Juan Cole has a long post up about Iran. As we all know, Cole is actually too easy a target, and I feel bad for spending so much time on him, but each time I resolve not to cite him again, along he comes with something ever more outrageous. This time he parades his control of Farsi to position himself as the scholar who knows things the rest of us can't, and then cherry picks some quotations from here there and the other to bolster his position. You can read the whole thing, if you want, or you can skip it, if you're in a good mood this Easter Sunday morning if that's the day it is for you. Here in Jerusalem it's the tail end of Purim, a holiday on which the Jews celebrate the collapse of a plan to slaughter all the Jews in the Persian Empire some 2600 years ago.

Mostly, I'm linking to his article so as to preserve it as a footnote for future reference.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Is Germany Sinking?

In Warsaw I had no particular problem connecting to the online world. No sooner had I arrived in Germany, however, a curtain of disconnectedness settled around me. Had I put my mind to it it would have been possible to find Internet cafes or other such solutions, there's no doubt about that, but the point is that my mind was elsewhere, doing the things I had come to Germany to do, and I didn't have the time or even inclination to run around looking for Wifi connections. The point of being connected is that it's easy, and you don't need to think about it.

So I lived without for a few days, and nothing serious happened to me. At the airport yesterday I picked up a newspaper to see what the world had been up to in my absence - what a quaint experience.

There may well be a deeper level to this. I travel often to Germany, and speak the natives' language so I don't look like a tourist, and it seems to me that Germany is on its way down. Not in a dramatic way, but rather in a Spenglerian way - it will take time, perhaps it's even reversible, but for the time being one of the world's powerhouses of the 2nd half of the 20th century (and the first half, too...) is slipping and sinking, losing it.

Here's a short piece I wrote after a previous trip, not long ago. If I hadn't already written it then, I could have written it this week:

The German train system is unusually easy to use. Every train station in the country prominently displays its tailored double set of schedules of arriving trains (white) and departing ones (deep yellow). These schedules not only give times of arrival and departure, but also the entire route so far or onwards, with the time of arrival at each station, the type of train, the track on which it will pass through, and other technical data that is useful to tidy minds. Once one reaches the appropriate platform one finds color-coded diagrams of all trains on that track, listed by time of departure, informing where on the platform one should stand for the first-class cars, or the on-board restaurant, or, say, car number 6 from which your visiting aunt can be expected to alight because she reserved seat number 36 a week earlier. A series of signs hanging above the platform reassure you that the charts can be trusted, since the next train is indeed whatever they said it would be. All this information is relevant 364 days a year, with some lines cut on Christmas.

The one thing the charts cannot deal with is delays. This used to be no problem since until recently you could set your watch by the trains, but alas, those days have passed. On a recent cold afternoon on platform number 5 in the Hamburg central station the tinny voice coming from the speaker above our heads told of 5 incoming trains that were all late; most of them had also been redirected to other platforms. Having lugged our baggage up to the concourse and down to platform 12, we were subjected to a different announcement, tailored to the delays of the trains that had originally been scheduled for this platform.

Harsh a thought as it may be, there is a faint whiff of Italy about the German train system these days. And it’s not only the trains that exude a hint of decline. Traveling with a Wifi-enabled laptop in the hope of being constantly in touch with the office repeatedly leads to disappointment, as this technology is far from pervasive. Otherwise intelligent people still allow themselves to bemoan the loss of jobs to automation, rather than the gain in jobs in automation – perhaps if there were more installers of Wifi routers this would be less of a thorn.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Winnie the Pooh in Warsaw

Remember how last time I was in Warsaw I poked fun at Stalin's monstrosity in the middle of town? Well, it turns out that even Stalin had his uses. As I was walking by the structure today, it suddenly started pouring. Along with some other pedestrians, I dashed into one of the colonnades at the entrance to the building, and was thus saved. Apparently it wasn't a coincidence that Stalin was referred to at the Sun of the Nations.

One side of his structure is on Swietrzyskfyty st. although it's spelled differently in the original. Lots of consonants, most of them swzr. On the corner facing Stalin's place is a 40-story glass and steel office building owned by an Austrian bank (Creditanstalt). As you walk north (I think it's north) you see various imposing structures, one of the larger and more imposing one being the Ministry of Finance. Across fro the ministry and perpendicular to it is Winnie the Pooh st. In case you don't believe me, there is a stone plaque with a picture of Winnie holding hands with Piglet.

Someone must have a sense of humor. I asked my local colleague if that had been the name of the quite central street even under the Communists, but he was too young to remember. It's been that way for quite a while, was all he'd say.

Around the corner there's a plaza with a statue of Copernicus, who was Polish in case you've forgotten. And further down the street, the Warsaw University. I walked around campus, and just about all the buildings had obviously recently been renovated. Only the the school of medicine still looked vaguely as it would have under the Communists - grimy, old window panes, creaky window frames, that sort of thing.

Maybe the Poles don't appreciate their doctors.

Quite a number of the buildings had life-size (i.e. very large) black and white photos of the same buildings in March 1968, when the Warsaw students were at the vanguard of the rioting students of the world. The difference, of course, between them and their fellow rioters in West Germany, France, and the USA, was that the ones here in Warsaw were facing a real enemy, the kind that put rioting students away, in unpleasant places.

The same buildings that today are spanking clean looked like you'd expect, in the photos. Grimy, derelict, grim.


I'm in Europe this week, and may not be much online. I'll be back to blogging as soon as possible.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Syrian Capstone?

Ben Caspit, a rather well informed journalist at Maariv (no English links, I think) says that the top military brass is warmly suggesting to Olmert that he reach a deal with the Syrians. The thesis: The Palestinian track is a waste of time since no agreement can be reached and even if it could be, it could never be implemented by the Palestinians side (sides). On the other hand, an agreement with the Syrians is already almost fully formulated. The reason to go that way is that the Syrians are crucial to the Iranian efforts to cause mischief in Lebanon, Gaza, and even in Syria itself, much of the weaponry and support come from Iran. Remove the Syrians from the Iranian side of the equation and it collapses, or at any rate will be dealt a heavy blow.

I haven't the faintest idea if he's right or not.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Sa'adiya Rabinowitz

One of the focuses of my professional activity these past 15 years has been dealing with recording the names of Jews murdered in the Shoah, and other groups of individuals. I find that even now, having changed careers, to some extent I'm still dealing with archives of names. Throughout the years I regularly used a mythological figure whenever there was the need to discuss how records function and so on. The figure is a man named Sa'adia Rabinowitz, and the reason I never had any compunctions about holding him up as an example is that with such a name, surely he doesn't exist. Sa'adia is a not particularly common name among some Jews from Arab countries, while Rabinowitz is, of course, deepest Ashkenazi, straight out of Eastern Europe.

Think Ivan Wolstoncott or something like that.

This morning I noticed a death announcement for an obviously elderly woman whose name was - I mislead you not - Sa'ada Rosenblum.

After 15 years, I stand corrected.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Nicholson Baker Looks At WWII

If you followed some of my links in the previous post you won't be surprised to hear that Nicholson Baker is the kind of man who revels in details.

What you might not have noticed, because it was buried rather deeply in there, is that the man is a pacifist. OK, some of my best friends are pacifists ... well, actually, I can't think of any at the moment, but were I to come across one I suppose we could hit it off alright if we were careful. In this country, where our neighbors dance on the roofs or in the streets when compatriots of theirs murder our civilians in cold blood, and come election time a majority of them vote for parties that stridently say we have to disappear - well, pacifists are a bit hard to come by. But still.

Some times being a pacifist does require a bit of moral gymnastics. The article I'm about to link to opens with the story that Mahatma Gandhi, the top pacifist of all times, admitted he would be willing to sacrifice hundreds or even thousands of lives in order to reach his goals -a statement I find so oxymoronic as to demolish the entire system. I assume, however, that that hypothetical pacifist friend of mine would tell me that so long as the thousands are offering their lives willingly, and only their own lives without, say, in any way negatively impinging on the lives of their parents, siblings, children or loved ones, well, that's their right, and it's better they should die than that they should kill their killers. I suppose this would count as a moral discussion neither side could ever "win" because there's no way to determine what the objective higher morality is.

Actually, I don't agree with that statement, I think there is a way to determine the higher morality, but let's leave that for another day.

So far the discussion has been of morality. When we move into history, however, there are cases where the discussion simply falls apart. Just like there is no way one could construe that slavery is a subjective topic, which cases can be made for or against, so there are some - rather rare - cases when the need to fight in order to end a greater evil cannot really be talked away. The war against Nazism was certainly such a case.

To Baker's credit, he understands this, which is why he has written a book about WWII from the perspective of a pacifist, titled Human Smoke. The reviewer at the New York Times tears it apart. I have no intention of reading the book unless I'm granted an extra lifespan to read everything remotely interesting, because its thesis seems too much a waste of my time.

I am however interested in what the reviewer describes as Baker's method: stringing together a long list of details and vignettes. Here, Baker is on to something very fundamental - and my time for blogging today has run out. More on this some other time.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Nicholson Baker Looks at Wikipedia

A while ago I posted a link about Wikipedia. My interest in Wikipedia actually touches more on my professional life than on my blogger life, but given how important it has become in the general culture I indulged.

The current edition of the New York Review of Books has a very engaging article by Nicholson Baker on Wikipedia. Turns out someone wrote a 477 page book on how to write for Wikipedia, for sale at $29.99, or cheaper at Amazon. If the subject of how the Internet is changing some aspects of human society interests you - it is, tho since it won't change human nature you need to be careful not to get carried away- then Baker's review is definitely worth the time.

Then I went to Wikipedia to find out who this Nicholson Baker is. Wikipedia being what it is, the article on him already contains reference to his NYRB article on Wikipedia. There I learned that Baker is the author of a New Yorker article of the mid 1990s about how librarians in their race to digitize their catalogs were destroying culture. (Unfortunately not online). I was an archivist at the time, proudly of the vanguard of the race to digitize, but I was so impressed by his article that I had copies made and disseminated to many of my colleagues; I can remember much of it to this day.

The one real blooper in this Wikipedia article, and it's a whale of a blooper, is that he seems quite unaware of the more than 100 non-English versions; since the English version comprises well below half of the entire project, this is something of a problem. The questions of who writes what, in which languages, and what different language versions tell about the same items, are fascinating. (I have at times used at least 5 different versions in attempts to figure out what I couldn't learn from single articles in one language).

Anyway, the man writes engagingly, I don't always agree with him, and I figured his article to be worth a link. Somehow I didn't get to it until this morning, when I read about a far greater argument that I have with him - but that will wait for the next post. Gotta go do some real work...

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Ze'ev Sternhell's Story

Sterhnell, an important historian and a prominent publicist, turns out to be a Holocaust survivor with a fascinating story, full of twists and turns. Here it is, as told to Ari Shavit, with the added benefits of insightful analysis of each of his own stages. Read the whole thing, as they say.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Muqawama, Rationalism, and the Cycle of Violence

Ehud Yaari, a scholar and journalist who has spent every day of his professional life these past 40 years listening and watching the Arab world, has for a while now been propagating the idea that what the West faces is a new theological-political development in the Muslim world, which he calls (or rather, they call) the Muqawama Doctrine. Here's a description of the concept, applied to Hezbullah shortly after the doctrine received a boost in the 2nd Lebanon War of summer 2006.

My understanding of the doctrine, in a nutshell, is that the Islamists will fight against the West until it breaks, even if it takes generations; since the greater staying power is on the side of the Islamists, they cannot be beaten as long as they are capable of inflicting pain, which means that no matter how great their losses, they win as long as someone remains to pick up the killing again. I have heard Yaari tell that this is deeply rooted in important scriptures, and is not merely some fad or PR ploy to make a military defeat look better.

Now go read Avi Issacharoff and Amos Har'el on the present lull in violence in and around Gaza. I don't know what they think about the Muqawama concept - I can't remember them having used the word. Their description, however, fits well.
1. There is no cycle of violence, but rather an ongoing process of Hamas decision-making, sometimes to be more violent, sometimes less.
2. Last week's round of violence was harsher than Hamas wants to continue at, so they stopped; since they stopped, so did Israel (this is the true cycle of violence: when the Palestinians start, the Israelis respond; when the Palestinians stop, so do the Israelis).
3. This process of ongoing decision-making clearly demonstrates the fallacy of the usual explanations about despair, anger at harsh Israeli measures, etc. etc. ad nauseum. It's rather the opposite. The intention is to hit Israel, especially Israeli citizens. However, Hamas understands full well that it could take things too far, and the ensuing suffering of the Palestinian populace could tip into anger against themselves, so they don't go that far. When the pain on their side gets too high, they lower it by lowering the pressure on Israel.
4. All of which shows that Hamas (or Hezbullah, and probably even their Iranian masters) are quite rational in their tactics, if not perhaps in strategy. When enough force is applied to them, they make tactical adaptations. After all, their goals are long-term goals, and they must find the long-term balance between causing pain to Israel (or the West in general) and loosing their own people's backing or at least acquiescence. (Which raises some interesting thoughts about Al-Qaida and it's war against other Muslims, but that's a topic for another day).
5. Of course, as Issacharoff and Har'el note, the present calm will most likely continue only for as long as Hamas decides it's convenient for them, and in the meantime all sides will prepare for the inevitable next rounds.
6. How many of you have ever heard of Ahmed Jabari? After all, if they're right, he's only the most important person in the story at the moment, so why tell about him?

Those Snotty Mac Types

I've been having all sorts of discussions with the fellow who's designing stuff for LeverEdge - you know: logo, templates, presentations, and of course the website. (There's no reason to go there at the moment. Nothing of any value or interest is up there yet, the discussions all being behind the scenes). part of the problem, of course, is that the poor deluded chap thinks that the fact that his Mac is intrinsically superior makes a difference in the real world.

Anyway, in this conext I stumbled upon this old article from more than a month ago. It's cute.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Death of Natural Causes

A friend recently told me that while three of his grandparents were murdered by the Nazis, one, his maternal grandfather, died a natural death. It was in the late 1920s, and he was bludgeoned to to death by Lithuanian thugs. The culprits were later apprehended and even executed by the Lithuanian authorities, who went so far as to return his watch to the widow. So you see, it was all regular and proper, and quite natural.

Sunday Times: Israel Underestimated Iranian Training

A Hamas officer tells the London Sunday Times about the training of his men in Iran - apparently the phenomenon is broader than even the Israelis suspected.

South Jerusalem Blog

Haim Watzman and Gershon Gorenberg have started a blog, titled South Jerusalem. I'm not certain what they're thinking when they introduce themselves as "Progressive": by some standards this can be a very serious moniker, by others it's merely a way to avoid the loaded term "Liberal" (in it's American meaning, which is almost the opposite of it's historical European connotation.)

Whatever. I fully expect their positions to be consistently to the left of those presented here at Ruminations, but the advantage these two have over their comrades in opinion outside of Israel is precisely that they're not (outside Israel). If you're here, and you hold your own society to implausible standards or castigate it for the wrong reasons, you'll be paying the price for being wrong in a way the outsiders never will; to me, that makes a world of difference. (Anyway, I used to hold their opinions, and never flinched when it came time to pay for them, so I can empathize).

So: go over and check them out. Maybe you'll like them.

Friday, March 7, 2008

"Understanding" Terrorists

Bradley Burston puts it well.

Eight Dead Students

My daughter carefully laid her plans for today. One of her closest friends gave birth the other day, and was scheduled to come home from the hospital today, and Nechama was involved in the celebrations. Before dawn, however, she received a call from another very close friend, telling that her brother was one of the eight murdered students at Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav (he was 15). So that changed her plans. Funerals take precedence over celebrations that can be delayed. Then, in the early morning, she was called by Magen David Adom. There will be gigantic funerals today, and we need all the volunteer medics to staff the full fleet of ambulances, to be present near the crowds in case anything happens. So she changed her plans again. Potentially saving lives - even if only being on duty for a case that won't happen - takes precedence over being at the funeral with her friend.

Any reasonable person can automatically make the distinction between civilians killed in a battle between armed men, some undoubtedly even by "friendly fire" of their own side, and the premeditated cold blood murder of students sitting in a library, including the seeking out of those hiding behind the stacks. If you can't see the distinction, there isn't really much to discuss, is there.

No matter what the media tells you, Israelis know from first-hand knowledge that they try not to hit civilians. Not always successfully, but the intention is the foundation of morality. And no matter what the apologists may claim, Palestinian society as a society, not only as individuals, does not recognize the distinction.

It's hard to see how peace can be achieved between two societies which are so fundamentally different.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

The Truth, Some of the Truth, and Nothing but what Can be Implied

A small but nasty addendum to the previous post: The Israeli soldier was killed on the Israeli side of the border with Gaza. According to the BBC, however:
the jeep was on a patrol in Gaza near the fence that marks the border between the Israel and the strip.
Nice, huh? You can assume this is merely sloppy reporting if you so chose, but I won't join you.

A Dead Arab Soldier

...who was killed while serving in the IDF. Yes. He was one of the Tracker's unit - soldiers who have the ability to read the terrain in a way no urban-raised person can do anymore, in the 21st century (or 20th, for that matter). The trackers are always non-Jews - either Druze or Beduins - since only they are raised from earliest childhood to observe the natural environment they live in.

So he was Beduin, but also an Israeli patriot. And also had two wives (this is illegal in Israel). Perhaps most poignant of all, his family has requested that his name not be made public, since as Arabs they fear reprisals against them. Not only have they lost a son, they also fear that other Arabs will now attack them for being so committed to their country. Lest you think this is an unusual case, it's not: a very similar event happened last year, and then also the family kept their identity secret out of fear.

A Moderate Palestinian

Here's an interview made last week with a moderate Palestinian. Yassr Aded Rabbo despises the Hamas, recognizes that the one-state solution currently becoming faddish will never work, and is probably as committed to a partitioning of this land into two peaceful states as anyone is, and he's in favour of reaching that goal through civil negotiations. The kind of Palestinian Israel should be able to make peace with in minutes, you'd think.

Or not. First, note that he just barely got elected the last time the Palestinians had an election, in 2006. This is not a man who commands a large following, and it's legitimate to wonder if the problem is the man or his moderate ideas.

Second, note that while he's obviously right in identifying the core issues, he doesn't do anything to reassure us that his positions on them can be accepted by anyone in Israel, and I mean Jerusalem and of course the Right of Return issues.

Third, and by far the most significant, as carefully as you may read the interview, I dare you to find any statement in which he says something along the lines of "We Palestinians need to get our act together and start behaving like a society that's about to be responsible for itself". At the end of the day, the most he can muster is that while Olmert may be sincere in seeking peace, Israel is to blame.

Finally, the never-ending theme about the window of opportunity that will soon close forever is, what can I say, worn out and should be dropped. Partly because we've been hearing this refrain for decades. And partly because it's anti-historical. At every juncture of history, the people who are at that juncture are free to make the best of the situation they face. That they rarely do is obvious, but the option is still there.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Walking Against the "Peace Process"

Just got home after running some errands downtown (Jerusalem, I remind you). All the main traffic arteries are blocked, with cars and buses standing with idle motors (bad) in multi-mile traffic jams. The side streets aren't much better, though I did manage to find a tiny alley in Rehavia that wasn't clogged. The reason for all this? Condoleeza Rice is in town, pretending there is going to be peace in 2008, and someone had the bright idea of sealing off her route from somewhere to somewhere else at least an hour before she took it.

Me, I'm a walker, so I managed to get from here to town and back as if there was no "peace process."

Global Warming is a Pile of S- -T

Rattling the Kettle, who didn't agree with my earlier post on the subject, alerts me to this.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

On Voting and Timing

In a few hours we may or may not know more about the Democratic race to the presidential candidacy. It has occurred to me, however, that this highly unusual and quite interesting primaries season has emphasized something we normally don't give much thought to: That when people know how others are voting, it effects their own votes.

Normally campaigns go on for as long as they go on, and the voters are inundated with messages well beyond what they may want to receive, but then late one night it all abruptly ends, and the next morning the voters get up and go to vote, all together. (In Chicago they vote early and often, but all on the same day). Whatever the communal choice was on that particular day, that's the result everyone will live with until the next elections.

Not so with the primaries this year (in 2004, if you've forgotten, the whole thing was over by New Hampshire). In 2008 each group of voters has had time to watch all its predecessors, to mull over their choices, and then to cast a vote not only on a candidate, but on what the other folks have already tried to say. And lo and behold: given the protracted period of decision making, it turns out that many people vote differently than they might have had the election been all on one day.

Someday some intelligent thinker should write a book about what all this means.

Monday, March 3, 2008

On Killing People

Roughly speaking, people have one of four positions regarding the activity of killing people in the name of some communal interest (as against personal vendettas and so on). There are those who regard killing as a fine thing (Nazis, early Communists in may countries where Communism took over whenever that was, Islamists). There are those who are indifferent: they don't see killing as an imperative, but nor do they see any problem. There are many of these. Then you have the people who think killing is bad, but sometimes it's a necessary evil. I'm of this camp, as are many of the people in the democracies, altho their numbers are being eroded in favour of the fourth group, those who regard killing as always wrong, period.

There are gradations within each group, obviously. I'm using a very broad brush, so you don't need to quibble with me.

Any reasonable person would agree the world would be a better place if everyone belonged to the fourth group. The problem - and it's a very serious moral problem - is that until the first two groups empty out, adhering to the fourth group means being complicit in the killings. Try as they may, the fourth groupers have no answer to this; most of the time they merely bury their head in the slime while preaching that the first two groups don't exist, they are merely third groupers who have been so severely wronged that they can't be blamed, only the rest of us can be.

Sermons from people with their mouths full of slime are not pleasant.

None of this is new, nor particularly original. It did however occur to me, earlier today while reading this, that one might add a significant comment to the discussion. For those of you who are Hebraically-challenged, it's a short report from yesterday's funeral of Sergeant Eran Dan-Gur, killed the day before in Gaza. His mother, in her grief, said that his death had been in vain, since "If it could have stopped the rockets, she would have accepted it, but it didn't stop them".

Now look at the sentence again: Sometimes, says a grieving mother, you have to be willing to lay down your life. Protecting your fellow citizens from death, for example, is such a case.

An extraordinarily strong statement, don't you think? Makes one wonder if the preachers of total non-killing would be willing to lay down their lives for anything, or perhaps more important, for anyone.

Preventing Global Warming - Or Perhaps Not

The London Times has an article that shows quite clearly why using paper bags and Toyota Priuses may well be beneficial for all sorts of things, but they contribute absolutely nothing to saving the world from global warming. The argument is actually quite simple: the oil producers will produce the same amount no matter who buys from them and even, within a reasonable range, no matter what the price. So although being green is rapidly becoming an article of faith among many westerners, the most that their actions will achieve will be that the oil will be consumed elsewhere, which amounts to the same from the perspective of global warming.

The alternative? To develop real alternatives to oil.

I'm already on record for my opinion about global warming. I do however admit to being quite gleeful when it comes to disproving the sanctimonious, unthinking masses who subscribe to the new religions of our age. Religions, it seems to me, require half a millennium or three of deep thought and deliberation before they mature; the ones that have been invented since 1945 seem to me mostly silly.

Iran's Nuclear Project, the Idiocy of the NIE, and NYRB

Remember the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) from three months ago, which "proved" that Iran had ceased to seek nuclear weapons back in 2003, and which thereby severely crimped the ability of the rest of the world to pressure Iran to desist, since it had already desisted? Of course you do. Well, it ain't necessarily so, as the NYT is honest enough to explain in a longish report. Not only are the Iranians very likely still moving forward, it turns out that the story of the publication of that NIE was murkier than previously admitted.

(At the time my assessment was that the authors of the report simply didn't know what they were talking about).

Update: Of course, the folks at the NYRB, ever eager to assume the best about the worst, and the worst about the best, have just put up a call for embracing Iran by the US, since the NIE has proven that the Iranians aren't so bad, are they.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Health Treatment

The Observer (sister paper to the Guardian) tells how evil Israel is for sometimes hampering the entrance of Palestinians from Gaza into Israel in order to be treated in Israeli hospitals.

There is an assumption in this article that Israel owes this to the Palestinians. I don't know where the assumption comes from, and I severely doubt the British health system would offer a similar service. Actually, I seem to recollect that the awful service and especially waiting lines over in the UK are a perennial subject for election-time bashing of the other party. I don't even want to think about the US, where tens of millions don't have access to full-fledged medicine even without belonging to a society that is proudly at war with the US.

The weirdest thing about the story, however, is that in most cases, Israel does give medical services to Palestinians (even according to this story). Unfortunately I have been spending quite a bit of time in hospitals recently, accompanying a family member, and there is never a case where fewer than a quarter of the patients are Palestinians; often the ratio is much higher.

Understanding the Palestinians

There is a common refrain whereby Israelis are indifferent to the hardships of the Palestinians, that they're callous, and that if only they would listen with empathy to the Palestinians, if only they could perceive the Palestinians as equally human, they (they Israelis) wold seek peace rather than war.

Which is of course nonsense on may levels. The case can easily be made that Israeli disillusionment with the Palestinians is precisely the result of the fact that we're far better informed than most distant observers when it comes to what is going through the minds of the Palestinians: because we're nearby, because many Israelis understand Arabic and hear what the Palestinians talk about directly and unfiltered - and because our media tells us far more than the media anywhere else. On Israeli television, for example, we are regularly shown normal Palestinians telling our (Israeli-Arab) journalists what they think, in Arabic, on prime time news reports.

Here's an example you can examine without watching Israeli news broadcasts. On the front page of Haaretz today there is a column written by a Gazan journalist telling how hard life is in Gaza right now; Avi Issacharoff tells us what the Arab TV stations are broadcasting, and reports on his daily conversations with Palestinian colleagues; and Zvi Bar'el warns that if there's a war in Gaza, it will spill over into the West Bank because the national feeling of the Palestinians will over-ride their local ones. Bar'el, as regular readers will be aware, is an Arabist and spends all his time following the Arab media and Arab societies.

I defy anyone to find me any serious news outlet anywhere in the West with a remotely similar array of reportage, not only about the Palestinians, but about any corner of the Arab world.

Who Killed Mohammed al-Dura?

A French ballistics expert has submitted a report to a French courts claiming that the iconic death of the Palestinian child at the beginning of the 2nd Intifada couldn't have been caused by Israeli fire.

I published my opinion on the matter in Right to Exist, where I explained that no matter what the facts of the matter were, the universal interpretation given to the pictures at the time must have been false. It remains now to be seen if a French court can be convinced to say the same - tho the truth, of course, does not depend on what anyone says about it.