Wednesday, April 30, 2008

No Peace with Hamas

Yesterday I responded to Ibrahim's post of last week; now I've posted my first challenge to him.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Dead Children in Gaza

Yesterday morning a young Palestinian mother and four of her children were killed in the northern Gaza strip during an Israeli incursion. That's undisputed, and tragic.

From there on, truth is captive to ideology.

The NYT offers the best of the descriptions in this quick roundup. The tone is set in the very first sentence:
A Palestinian mother and her four young children were killed in northern Gaza on Monday during an Israeli operation against militants there, and a dispute quickly arose over exactly how they had died.
Faced with five dead innocents, does it really matter? Well, yes, it does. Which is why many news outlets are more sparing with the attempt to tell the truth, and more eager to let you know which side you're expected to side with.

If you read far enough into the report offered by the BBC you'll eventually find parts of the Israeli version in the 16th paragraph. The first section offers the Palestinian version as fact:

At least seven Palestinians, including a mother and her four young children, have been killed during an Israeli raid in northern Gaza, medics say.

The family members were killed when a missile hit their home in Beit Hanoun. In separate incidents, a militant and a farmer were killed.

And it also offers one sentence from an Israeli source, but as corroboration of the Palestinian version:

The Israeli military said its aircraft had attacked a group of gunmen who had fired at an army patrol in the area.

The Independent initially simply used Reuters:

Israeli fire hit a house in the Gaza Strip today while a family was eating breakfast, killing six Palestinians, including four children and their mother, residents and medical officials said.

Later, the paper had their own man write a report, and he was a bit more balanced, slightly contradicting the report that was still up on their own website, and still is. In this report the Palestinian version comes first, but the Israeli one does appear in the second paragraph:

A mother and four of her young children under seven were killed in their home yesterday by what Palestinian sources said were Israeli missiles which landed at their door during an armoured incursion into northern Gaza.

The Israeli military said it had been targeting nearby gunmen and suggested the deaths had been caused when explosives it said were being carried by two militants blew up. The children were about to eat breakfast when they were killed.

The Guardian, ever reliable if you like anti-Israeli reportage, waited a day before posting a report, so they had time to gather information and think it through. Their report has 10 paragraphs; the Israeli version appears in paragraph 9.

The United Nations posted a response of the Secretary General on its website. It's better than the Guardian, if that's comforting. The title and first two paragraphs call directly upon Israel to mend its way, but the third does address Palestinian misdemeanors.
Condemning today’s loss of civilian life in the Gaza Strip – including the “tragic” deaths of a mother and four of her children – Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appealed to Israel to exercise maximum care and restraint.

In a statement issued by his spokesperson, Mr. Ban reminded the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) “of its responsibility to protect civilians under international humanitarian law during its military operations.”

The Secretary-General spoke out against the continuing attacks and rockets fired by Hamas today against Israel, calling on it and other militant groups to end such acts of terrorism. He also noted that they should not use Gaza as a base of operations.

Most blatant of all, however, was the response of some Arab members of Israel's Knesset. They compared the IDF to Nazis.
On the day an elected Jewish member of an Arab parliament can criticize the crimes of his state, you'll know the Messiah is just around the corner. But to be more realistic: in the day any freely elected Arab member of an Arab parliament harshly criticizes the crimes of his state, you'll be able to start dreaming of peace.

Judeo-Arab Conspiracy

My response to Ibrahim on caricatures and antisemitism is up.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Bill Gates Needs a Top Manager

[My apologies to those readers who will inevitably miss the heart of this joke, but the truth at its heart is too basic for me to pass]:

Bill Gate announces he needs a new manager for Microsoft Europe, and 5,000 applicants convene at a large hall. Bill thanks them all for coming, and asks for a show of hands of those who can't program in Java. 2,000 hands are raised, and he requests that all of their owners leave the hall, thank you for coming. Morris Cohen, a Tunisian Jew living in Paris says to himself "I don't know anything about this Java language, but what do I stand to gain by leaving? I'll remain seated".

Gates then asks for all those who have never managed a staff of 100 or more to identify themselves and leave, thank you for coming; 2,000 leave. Morris hasn't ever managed such a staff, but asks himself what he might possibly endanger by staying put, decides there's no real danger, and stays.

Bill's next question seeks to know who didn't graduate from a top university with excellent grades. 500 folks head for the exit. Morris left school at 15, "but what could I lose by staying here? Nothing. So I'll stay".

Bill now wants to know who doesn't speak Serbo-Croatian. 498 of the remaining 500 don't, and they leave to join the other 4,500. Morris hasn't left yet; why leave now?

Gates walks over to the two remaining chaps. "Well, fellows, you seem to be the only qualified candidates who also speak Serbo-Croatian. If you don't mind, I'd like to hear the two of you conversing a bit in Serbo-Croatian, alright?"

Without batting an eylash, Morris Cohen turns to the other guy and says "Ma nishtana ha-laeila haze mikol halaeilot?". The second fellow responds: "Shebechol halailot any ochlm hametz umaza, halaila haze kulo matza".

Sunday, April 27, 2008

On Tony Judt

Niall Ferguson reviews a book of book reviews that Tony Judt has written. It's a mildly favorable review, until near the end, when he presents us with a fascinating insight:

The discrepancy between these and the many straight alpha essays is easily explained. When Judt writes about generals, politicians and statesmen, he is playing away from home, far from his familiar bohemian haunts. Try as he may, he simply cannot empathise with the men of action who actually make history.

It is only as a reviewer of those who themselves review – the denizens of the caf├ęs, not the situation rooms – that the intellectuals’ intellectual excels.

This can go a very long way in explaining Judt's total inability to understand what Israel is all about: The fundamental essence of Zionism is the Jewish resolve to be players in the world of power, or as Yehuda Bauer once titled one of his books on the topic, the Jewish emergence from powerlessness. If you will, the Zionist insistence on making history, rather than merely trying to survive it while kvetching about it, alienates them from Judt and his ilk more than anything specific Israel does or refrains from doing.

People in Jerusalem

Three old codgers playing cards just off Mahane Yehuda, earlier this afternoon. If I had to decide, I'd say two of them are North African, while the taller one facing the camera is Iraqi: something about their accents and body language. But I could easily be wrong.

IAEA and the Ketchup Question

Quite some time ago, when I was a wee lad, there was a gag line in our family that some meat dishes we were served weren't good enough because you couldn't taste the ketchup.

International Atomic Energy Agency Head, Dr. Muhamad elBaradei, had he been invited to our house, might well not have understood the joke. Else how to explain that while he's peeved at the Syrians for perhaps not being fully honest with his staff over the past few years, he's equally agitated by the Israelis, and even the Americans:
The IAEA head chided Israel for attacking the installation because it "destroyed evidence" and would hamper his group's efforts to gather information on the facility.

The IAEA head lamented the decision by Israel and the U.S. not to convey information about the facility to his organization before the strike.

He said that in that event the IAEA could have initiated a proper investigation into the allegations.

The IAEA communique said the Israeli decision undermined "the due process of verification that is at the heart of the non-proliferation regime."

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Checking What "Everyone Knows"

An interesting item in the New York Times tells that the method our teachers used to teach us arithmetic may not have been as useful as everyone thought:

One train leaves Station A at 6 p.m. traveling at 40 miles per hour toward Station B. A second train leaves Station B at 7 p.m. traveling on parallel tracks at 50 m.p.h. toward Station A. The stations are 400 miles apart. When do the trains pass each other?

Entranced, perhaps, by those infamous hypothetical trains, many educators in recent years have incorporated more and more examples from the real world to teach abstract concepts. The idea is that making math more relevant makes it easier to learn.

That idea may be wrong.

I liked this one for various reasons.
1. The idea that when "everyone knows" something it's also true, was never very convincing to me. My reading of the story of humanity is that when "everyone knows", it may be true, and it may not - no more than that.
2. Kudos for the researchers who decided that accepted wisdom ought be questioned.
3. The honorable researchers seem to have discovered something I could have told them more than 40 years ago: That when faced by questions about trains in the night, at least some students are distracted from the maths into more important questions: Who was on the trains? Where were they going? What was the hurry? Why didn't they fly? Were they tense? Relaxed? Could they even have noticed the other train, or were they too involved in their own thoughts?

Deciphering a War

One of the characteristics of wars, or at least many of them, is that they are won by the side that reaches breaking point a day or two after the other side has already broken. This is one of the many reasons it's so hard to really know what's going on in a war, until after it's over. Often, it takes years to piece together the evidence and figure out what really happened.

I can reel off a rather good concise description of the stages of WW2 (tho not WW1, which for all my attempts I've never managed to understand). I can do the same for the first Israeli-Arab war, in 1947-49, though of course the magnitude is totally different in that case. But there were four stages, each with its own characteristics, and so on. Since much of the drivel presented these days about the Israeli-Arab conflict could benefit from a dose of simple facts, this ability of mine comes in useful from time to time.

It wouldn't occur to me to claim to understand the war in Iraq. It was more or less simple for a few weeks in Spring 2003, but never again since. To be honest, I don't even try too hard to follow the various warring parties, political parties, partial and impartial pundits, and all the rest. Don't get me wrong. It's not that I'm a total ignoramus. I'm a reasonably intelligent consumer of media reports, blogs, and so on, and I'll bet I could hold my own in discussion with most people. But I don't read Arabic, I don't know how to evaluate the various reports, and I do know that most of the reporters, of all groups, don't know much either... war being what war is.

Still, there are patterns. In 2006 the violence was horrendous by any reasonable criteria; sometime in 2007 the surge, or something totally different that happened at the same time, or perhaps it was the lineup of Jupiter with Pluto behind Mars or some such - whatever it was, the violence partially subsided. It's still horrendous, but there's apparently less of it. In recent weeks, I've been seeing more and more reports like this one: the Economist telling about political progress.

Is there a pattern? Will future historians include it in their two-minute synapses of the 2nd American War in Iraq?

Friday, April 25, 2008

Juan Cole is a Fool

I'm sorry to have to put it in such a direct and unambiguous way, but his response to the story that the American Administration has put out that what the Israelis bombed in Syria last year was a nascent nuclear reactor, is an embarrassment for academia. Cole isn't just any old young fellow with a blog, who can say whatever he feels like with nary any responsibility for his words other than that they sound right to him. Cole really is a professor, he has spent years studying relevant things, unlike more than 90% of the pundits, he even knows some of the relevant languages (though not Hebrew); he writes with the aura of an expert. When it comes to Pakistan or Iraq, he may even be one: I don't have the expertize to say otherwise.

Whenever he gets to Israel, however, he consistently talks such nonsense, including often on the level of elementary fact checking, that it casts quite a doubt over everything else he says.

His response to the present story is typical.
We would have to know exactly what kind of reactor it was to know if it was suitable to help in a weapons program. [...] Even the high confidence that the building was a reactor cannot be just accepted without question. They had high confidence that Saddam had a nuclear weapons program in the early zeros, which was not true. We should be skeptical about these sorts of stories until we see the proof.
Unlike Prof. Cole, I admit that I'm unable to recognize convincing or unconvincing facts about nuclear reactors even when they're thrust in front of my face, and I have no choice but to listen to intermediaries. I estimate that more than 99% of people are more like me than like him in this matter. Even the fact that experts were once wrong is not a reliable indication that they'll always be wrong.
I have been disappointed that more nuclear engineers in the US do not express themselves publicly on what is likely and unlikely.
Neat, isn't it? The fact that apparently this time many experts are concurring, or at least remaining silent, proves nothing; it is merely a matter for chiding: why aren't they saying what the professor would like them to be saying?
This story seems to me fishy. Syria is a poor state. Where would it have gotten the money for a reactor? Why exactly are there doubts that North Korea was involved? How much of the intelligence is from US sources and how much from Israeli? The latter are highly politicized. The head of Mossad in 2002 expressed confidence that Saddam was close to getting nukes.
Now he's down to whining. How could this be? Syria is poor! It doesn't fit my pet theories!? It's interesting, isn't it, that while Cole is up to his acrobatics to defend the Syrians, the Syrians themselves don't seem to be doing much denying, do they. Maybe because they know the facts.

Read the whole thing, if you want, or don't. I've linked to it mostly for future use.

Update: I was wrong about the Syrians not denying, of course. But it appears that the IAEA feel Syria does have a need to explain.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Jerusalem German Colony: A Story

Cemeteries are temporary matters in Germany. Or rather, the graves in them are; the cemeteries themselves are businesses. Since it’s poor business to store items forever, the administrators of German cemeteries sell plots for limited periods – 10 years, or 25 if the family wishes to pay for the extra years. Then the graves are dug up, the remains are dumped somewhere, and the plots return to the market. My impression is that there can also be a period of grace, in which the cemetery administration leaves messages on the gravestones requesting the families to make contact to renegotiate, should they wish to pay again. This assumes the families come to visit.

There are exceptions: Bishops, dukes and other nobility are allowed to stay, as are important statesman. Soldiers who fell fighting for the Fatherland are buried in permanent graves. And Jews. Since Jewish law forbids disturbing graves, even thousands of years later, and contemporary Germans are very leery of aggravating Jews since in the past they weren’t at all (leery), Jewish cemeteries remain inviolate. But most places that used to have Jewish communities no longer do; military cemeteries also no-longer do much growing in Germany, nor are there any nobles left. Anyone wandering around Germany with a perceptive eye could be forgiven for thinking that the only people who used to live and die in Germany were bishops, dukes, soldiers, and Jews.

The venerable old churchyard with its concise history of the community 400 years back can be found in England, New England, Norway, or in a Harry Potter tale, but not in Germany. Yet what happens when the Germans were buried far from Germany?

* * *

In the mid 1850s a German theologian by the name of Christian Hoffmann began developing a radical set of ideas about the Protestant churches in his day. He eventually quarreled with the local authorities in the Stuttgart area and in 1859 set up his own church; eventually the group registered themselves as Templers (no connection with the mediaeval order of the same name). Some years later they began moving to the Holy Land, mostly for religious reasons, though their efforts did dovetail nicely with the German imperial aspirations of the time. A few thousands of his followers came with him, settling in what a generation or two later would become Tel Aviv and Haifa; Hoffmann himself and hundreds of his flock came to Jerusalem.

Or actually, they came near Jerusalem. At the time the empty fields they purchased were out of town and even out of sight, since there was (and is) a low crest of a hill between them and the Old City; even the first Jewish neighborhoods outside the walls were visible only if one walked a few minutes from the northern edge of the new colony. It was 1873, and they called their settlement Kolonie Rephaim, because it was situated in a shallow valley which has been called Emek Refaim since the days of Joshua, who used it to demarcate the border between Judea and Benjamin.

The story of the German Colony in Jerusalem is fascinating, with lots of twists and turns, and I’m not going to tell it here. The basic outline is that it existed for more than 60 years; three generations of settlers lived there; in the 1930s many of them were proud, even flagrant Nazis; at the beginning of the Second World War those still here were rounded up by the British; some were eventually exchanged during the war for Jews and non-Jews with British Palestinian passports who had been caught in wartime Europe. The last Templers left the country in 1948.

In Haifa and in Jerusalem (I don’t know about Tel Aviv) they left their cemeteries behind. The neighborhood of Jerusalem where they had once lived changed its population a number of times, and these days it’s one of the more expensive, high-brow areas of town. Emek Refaim street has over the past decade or two become the single most important eatery thoroughfare in town. The corner of Emek Refaim and Rachel Immenu is its center.

To the east of the intersection is a long high stone wall, with two metal gates. One is sometimes open, and behind it lies a Christian cemetery for people of all sorts who didn’t fit easily in during their lives, and needed an unusual place to be buried. Jews who converted to Christianity, American or British eccentrics, and so on. A fascinating place, and a tale for another day. Because this tale is about the mysterious place beyond the green gate on the right, the one that has a bronze plaque that announces in German that this is the Templerfriedhof, the Templar cemetery, and offers a cell phone number one can call if there’s a need to get in. I don’t know of anyone who ever has, and until yesterday morning, I’d never seen it open.

I was on an errand, and needed to be somewhere, but errands are commonplace, while this gate – I have most likely walked by it thousands of times since I was a child, and I’ve never seen it opened. So I went in.

One of the first grave stones on the right was that of Dr. med. Samuel Hoffmann, born in Ludwigsburg, which today is a suburb of Stuttgart; since he was born in 1849, I’ve chosen to assume he was a son or grandson of the theologian Christian Hoffmann, both for the name they share as for the fact that most people didn’t have university degrees in those days, and if the Hoffmanns did they were probably related.

Deeper into the cemetery, partially hidden under a very large bush, nestles the headstone of Christian Rohrer, who was the Head of the Community, probably in the period of its second generation.
Maria Dyck, previously Kraiss, was born in America in 1889. Mina and Else, family name not specified, were born in 1890 and 1891; along with Maria Frick, who was 16 years old, they all perishedwhen disembarking in Jaffa. The sea never gave back the body of the mother (no name? Whose mother?). What were the relationships between these 4 children with the various surnames?
Marie Fast nee Frank is pretty straightforward. Born near Stuttgart she must have been the daughter of followers of Christian Hoffmann, and as a young woman she was of the first wave of settlers to arrive. We know this because already in 1872, when she got married (aged 23) she was in Jaffa. But how are we to understand the story of her husband, Abraham Fast, who was born in Liebenau? If you can’t find Liebenau in Google Earth (and you can’t, not this one), it’s because the place no longer exists. It used to be a village or town of Ethnic Germans in southern Russia, which means that before Abraham came to the Holy Land and married his German sweetheart, he was a descendant of Germans who had moved east in the middle ages to colonize the Slavs. They were married for 52 years, here in Jerusalem, until her death at age 72. He lived on to be 85, and he died a subject of the English King. Or did he?
About a third of the way in there’s this large memorial, the largest in the cemetery. It tells of the sons who fell in the Great War.

The column on the left (not in this picture) enumerates the names of those who left the land of their birth and traveled to the land of their fathers, there to be killed. The column on the right (pictured) lists hose who managed to fight for the faraway homeland in their personal homeland: Hugo Wieland, for example, was born in Jerusalem in 1890 and died in 1918 in Baalbek (now Lebanon). I assume he was fighting the British. Daniel Groezinger was born in Hohenhasslach, but we assume he moved to the Holy Land, else why is his name on this plaque? He was killed, almost certainly in battle with the British, at Nazareth, in 1918. The list indicates that these men, some of whom may never have set foot in Germany before the war, regarded the distant land as the homeland, and the place they had been raised in as a home in a land. When after the Great War they found themselves under British control, this only reinforced their national pride. This memorial plaque was set up under British dominion. (There is a British military cemetery about five miles to the North, also from WWI).

As I was wandering around, two middle-aged American women, orthodox Jews from New York by their accents, wandered into the cemetery plopped themselves down on a shaded bench (it was a very hot day), and in very animated tones compared notes about some third woman. After a few minutes they got up and walked on, the long-dead Germans having offered them a sheltered spot for their chat. At no point did they seem to notice that they were anywhere but on a bench in a park.

Had they looked behind them, to the point of convergence of the paths at the head of the grounds, they might have been startled. I certainly was:

A memorial crafted as a cross: nothing wrong with that, certainly in a Christian cemetery. Until you look closer, and see that it commemorates “more than 450 Dead of the three villages who died in the two wars”.

Keep in mind that once that second war was over, there were no Germans left in the German Colony – hundreds of the young men had returned in 1939 to fight for the Fatherland, and the rest were removed by the British. Which means that this memorial, unlike the other one, was not put up by a living local community. As a matter of fact, there’s an explanatory plaque at its foot that tells that is was put here in 1970, when the area was Jewish, and I personally can name quite a number of Holocaust survivors who lived within a radius of a mile. You begin to understand why that green door is locked all the time.

All the while I’d been wandering around, I had noticed the five or six middle age Germans caring for the headstones, clearing weeds, fiddling with the sprinklers. The ones who had opened that gate, obviously. So I asked them who they are.

- We’re Templers.

And how does one become a Templer, I asked? The first answer was typically German:

- One registers.

Seeing the skepticism on my face, the elderly man told the woman who had answered that he didn’t think that was what I had meant, so they both explained that being a Templer meant living according to a specific set of beliefs.
- How many Templers are there?
- We’re about 150 in Germany, and there are about 600 in Australia.
- Australia?!
- Australia. But we’re from Germany.

Given that the British deported many of those Templers to Australia, I decided not to pursue the subject with these ones. They weren’t telling, so I wouldn’t ask.

- And you see it as a duty to come and maintain this cemetery, as part of being Templers?
- Yes. We come one a year, or once in two years.
- Is this a religious thing, or are you perhaps descendants?
Silence. But then, after a moment:
- Well, it just so happens that that’s my great grandmother, the one over there.
- And that one, over there, he was my ancestor:

- So it’s actually more than a religious community. It’s a clan you’re born into?
- Well, yes, I suppose you could say that.
- Fascinating. Do you mind if I take your picture?
- Um, well, no of course not!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Judeo-Arab Conspiracy

For a number of years now I have been looking for a Palestinian partner with whom to co-author a book about Jerusalem. I've put out all sorts of feelers, using various well-placed connections I have. Some of them told me to forget it, no Palestinian would ever agree to the plan; others told me there would be no problem in finding such Palestinians, and then they sheepishly never got back to me with any names. Some were quite clear about the whole idea: No Palestinian will dare co-author a book with an Israeli whose basic premise is not that the Israelis bear full responsibility for whatever has gone wrong here; a book that would try to share two contradictory narratives, respecting one another within the same two book covers, would mean a death sentence for the Palestinian author.

So the book waits.

In the meantime an Arab reader of this blog, Ibrahim ibn Yusuf of Argentina, has agreed to a second-best scheme. This scheme is that we share a blog. It has rather elaborate rules of engagement, but I hope it will be interesting. You're invited to go visit, here.

Ruminations will continue to broadcast as usual, so you're welcome to stay here, also.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Hamas Less Sophisticated than Assad First

Bill Clinton spent most of the year 2000 in a frantic attempt to get into the history books for something more admirable than That Woman. Since he'd already spent 7 years doing nothing on the domestic front that was particularly history-book worthy, he put his money on the Mideast, and tried to make peace. His first attempt was to make peace between Syria and Israel, and if memory serves, he had two meetings with Assad. At one of them he tried to put on a brave face, and told the media that Assad was willing to make peace with Israel. Assad was standing about three feet away, and you could have expected him to confirm that yes, what the President of the United States just said in my name is true - but alas, Assad didn't. He merely stood there silently.

Now compare that with Jimmy Carter, who already has a Nobel Prize and probably will be a bit higher than Clinton on the "Remembered by History" charts, though neither of them will be remembered by school children in the 22 century. Carter went to talk to some Hamas leaders, and after doing so
Former President Jimmy Carter said Monday that Hamas — the Islamic militant group that has called for the destruction of Israel — is prepared to accept the right of the Jewish state to "live as a neighbor next door in peace."
Now if true, that would be pretty dramatic news. Assad 1 in a mildly similar scenario was clever enough to keep his mouth shut, allowing people to infer that maybe he'd changed his positions. Not so with Hamas, who don't even have the sense to shut up when it would be advisable:

Carter said Hamas promised it wouldn't undermine Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' efforts to reach a peace deal with Israel, as long as the Palestinian people approved it in a referendum. In such a scenario, he said Hamas would not oppose a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri in Gaza said Hamas' readiness to put a peace deal to a referendum "does not mean that Hamas is going to accept the result of the referendum."

Friday, April 18, 2008

To Tell or Not To Tell?

Rather like in the case of The Washington Post of yesterday (previous post), deliberating whether to publicize the thought of that Hamas leader or not, so also the case of the discussion in the Gemarah which I came across the other day, in which a long and detailed list of ways of cheating in commerce is being presented and forbidden. Eventually Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai, one of the more illustrious among the scholars of that age wonders:
Bad if I enumerate, bad if I don't. If I do, the crooks will learn. If I don't, the crooks will believe we aren't aware of their schemes.
Human nature never changes.

Bava Batra, 89b
This thread began here.

Note: It's the weekend of Pessach, and this blog is shutting down for a few days. See you next week.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Hamas, Carter, Washington Post and Others

The Washington Post has published an op-ed signed by Mahmoud al-Zahar. Next to it they've published an editorial of their own.

They certainly don't need me to send them readers; I expect this will reverberate quite loudly over the next day or two (you can't ask for more in today's news cycles). One reason I'm linking is simply as a bookmark. Sooner or later I'll have occasion to parse the al-Zahar article, for its clarity of intent alongside its deft use of propagandistic tools.

A "peace process" with Palestinians cannot take even its first tiny step until Israel first withdraws to the borders of 1967; dismantles all settlements; removes all soldiers from Gaza and the West Bank; repudiates its illegal annexation of Jerusalem; releases all prisoners; and ends its blockade of our international borders, our coastline and our airspace permanently. This would provide the starting point for just negotiations and would lay the groundwork for the return of millions of refugees. Given what we have lost, it is the only basis by which we can start to be whole again.

The editorial is interesting for its clear-eyed and and no-nonsense assessment of al-Zahar's words and positions. It's also interesting for the very sharp tone it uses to castigate President Carter for his insistence on meeting with a clutch of high Hamas figures as he wanders around the Mideast, meddling.

Most interesting for the purposes of this post, however, is to note that the editors of the WaPo asked themselves if they should publish the incendiary thoughts of al-Zahar:
We believe Mr. Zahar's words are worth publishing because they provide some clarity about the group he helps to lead, a group that Mr. Carter contends is worthy of being included in the Middle East peace process.
They then leave no room for any subtlety or ambiguity as to how they read the text and Carter's actions.

Then you go and read the comments to the two articles. There are dozens of them, out of what must be at least tens of thousands of readers, and as always you need to wonder what significance to attach to them - never an easy question - but it is striking that most of the responders came to the opposite conclusion from what the editors of the paper intended.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Self Fulfilling Reality

If you read this BBC article from the end to the beginning, what it says is that Khaled Mashaal, top leader of Hamas, is threatening a major explosion if the Israelis and Egyptians don't lift the siege from Gaza, and this on the same day that a unit of his (Hamas) fighters initiated a battle at the fuel terminal at Nahal Oz. I remind you, tho you probably don't need the reminding, that the Nahal Oz border crossing serves the Palestinians, not the Israelis, and that it has been closed since the previous Palestinian attack, last week. You really couldn't make this stuff up, it's so blatantly idiotic.

Then again, maybe it's not idiotic at all, if you're willing to suspend normal rational belief systems, and switch over to one like this. To hark back to my Karl Popper post a few weeks ago, when the facts fit a thesis it doesn't prove more than that you've got to keep looking for other facts that will disprove it; still, when you have two alternate explanations of reality, and the facts contradict one and don't contradict the other, you can reasonably abandon the one contradicted by the facts, even if you can't yet prove the veracity of the other one.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Intellectuals and Conflict

There's an interesting new publication on the Web called World Affairs Journal. It's actually a venerable publication, but it came online only recently, as a quarterly. I already cited George Packer's Iraq the Place vs. Iraq the abstraction article from this website; here are another two.

Peter Collier tells about an altercation between Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash, on the one hand, and Paul Berman on the other, regarding the essence of the Islamist threat in Europe. The former are too sanguine, says Berman, and Collier agrees. Yet ultimately, you can ask what Collier added to Berman's ideas. Or put otherwise, if you've read Berman, why read Collier, and if you haven't why not?

Jacob Heilbrunn describes how most intellectuals who are on the ideological barricades these days are more like celebrities than intellectuals: they write op-eds and such, not carefully reasoned books, and their discussions deal with unimportant matters, not with ideas. His exception is Paul Berman.

As a blogger myself, I'm growing ever more convinced he's right. We run around so much, and need to say things all the time and every day, that we're losing the ability to think slowly, seriously, and in depth. It's a real problem.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Art of Being Rich

Something I overheard recently from a simple, not particularly educated woman of very limited financial means, who never-the-less has it all figured out: "I buy whatever I want. If there's anything I can't afford, I don't want it".

Truly a wise woman.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Getting History Wrong

Shimon Shamir is a very important scholar on the Arab world, who also served as an Israeli ambassador to Egypt and our first ambassador to Jordan. Here he reviews a new biography of King Hussein, by Avi Shlaim, a self-professed anti-Zionist Israeli historian who lives and teaches in London. It appears this newest book of his may be less dreadful than some of his previous work - or perhaps simply Shamir's diplomatic training inhibits him from being direct (which means he'd be a poor blogger). One redeeming feature of the review is that Shamir brings a lot of what he himself knows, so that's interesting.

Down near the bottom, Shamir brings some examples where Shlaim relies more than is reasonable on the testimony of people he interviewed. The examples are interesting on their own, but the reason I'm bringing them is that they show how players can be convinced they know what's going on and why things are happened, and still the documents will show that they've got it all wrong. A cautionary tale.
Discussing the crisis that erupted between Jordan and Israel due to the expropriations of lands in East Jerusalem, Shlaim bases his position on an interview with Jordanian diplomat and minister Marwan Muasher, and asserts that what brought Rabin to cancel the expropriations was a letter from King Hussein. Muasher's version does indeed reflect the way in which the Jordanians like to see the end of that story - but the truth is different: Rabin rejected all the pleas, from home and from abroad, to change his mind. I myself came especially from Amman to inform Rabin about the severe damage the affair had caused to relations, but he did not budge. The real end, which is reliably documented, came from a completely different source: the right-wing opposition in the Knesset hastily joined a no-confidence motion by the Arab factions and Rabin was forced to cancel the expropriations in order to save his government.

Shlaim's discussion of the secret meeting, at a Mossad installation, between Hussein and Golda Meir, at which he ostensibly warned Israel 11 days before the outbreak of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, is largely based on his interviews with three of the four main participants in that meeting: King Hussein; his prime minister, Zeid Rifai; and the director general of the Prime Minister's Office, Mordechai Gazit (Meir, of course, was no longer alive). Hussein told Shlaim that he was not privy to the war plan and had no knowledge about its timing; Rifai asserted strongly that Hussein could not have warned about the war, because he would not have betrayed the Arabs for Israel's sake; and Gazit said the king had not come at all to warn Meir of an approaching war but for a different purpose.

The catch is that each of Shlaim's three informants had a transparent agenda: Hussein and Rifai wanted to cleanse themselves of the suspicion that they had acted as "collaborators" with Israeli intelligence, and Gazit did not want Golda Meir to be blamed for another blunder. Shlaim would have done better had he noted that meticulous studies of the subject came up with different results: It has been found, for example, that Hussein had warned of a war even prior to that meeting, and even though there were Israelis who were skeptical about Hussein's alert, most of them understood his message as warning of a war, and that this, incidentally, is also how Hussein described his meeting to agents of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

All of this should have led Shlaim to make a distinction between two things: Though Hussein did not tell the Israelis the details of the war plan, because he was not informed about them, he did know very well that a war was imminent, and at the meeting that he initiated in haste, he definitely did warn Israel of it. Naturally, Hussein's motive was not to serve Israeli intelligence but rather to prevent the eruption of a war that was liable to endanger his kingdom.

Vigilance from On High

While mothers torturing their children (previous post) is so outlandish one can almost be forgiven for not seeing it coming, soldiers abusing their power, especially in conditions of severe tension, are almost banal. Which means whoever is in charge needs to deal with the danger in advance, and never let up. Achikam has been telling me stories about how his officers have been doing precisely this, and I've even written about it, though perhaps not as much as I ought. Israeli citizens who worry about such things have set up a plethora of NGOs whose mission is to be vigilant and demand of us that we remain moral. I wrote about one of them, here. (The problem with most of these Israeli NGOs is that in their eagerness to justify their activity, they don't always adhere to the strict truth, or they wander into political discussions beyond their putative goals and thereby loose their credibility with the rest of us, which is really too bad because their core business is important).

Sometimes, the call for vigilance comes all the way from the top, as when Ehud Olmert last week called on the commanders of the IDF to keep in mind that Palestinians suffer under Israeli rule, and while there may not be any alternative, we must always do our best to cause as little harm as possible.

If anyone knows of any Western head of government who ever gave such a talk, I'd like to know (I expect there have been such, but none come to mind). I'm not even going to suggest anyone go looking for examples from the Arab world.

An Aberration from the Core

Here's a link you may not want to follow. It tells the story of Elior Chen and his circle of disciples, who crashed into our attention recently when one of the disciples, a mother of eight, was brought to trial for torturing her children. The leader, Chen, has escaped the country. It is a weird story, bizarre, but mostly it's horrendous.

There's a gag order on the case since children are involved, so it's not clear if it's one case, or two. Because there's another mother, this one with 12 children, who is also on trial for cruelty to her children. Although unnamed, she has been in the public eye for a number of months already, because she dresses just like the Taliban likes its women, totally covered, and apparently she has a following of perhaps a few dozen women who regard her as a saint. I think there's no connenction between the cases, in spite of the similarities, but some of the news reports I've seen seem to tie them together.

It's all nauseating. But it's worthy of our notice because unlike some aberrations - say, the non-Jewish Russian thugs arrested last year in Netanya for their neo-Nazi practices - these two cases started well within the Jewish tradition. They have long since lost any mooring they might have had in Judaism, indeed, they totally contradict what Judaism is about, but the trail head of their twisted journey was from within. Moreover, their surrounding environment was not able to put a stop to them; for that an intervention of the state was necessary. They are a demonstration why society always needs vigilance, and belief in the good of Man isn't enough.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Jews: Guilty for the Violence in Iraq

Says Juan Cole. I saw him recently on Youtube, and he's a soft spoken, gentle-seeming man, but his understanding of the world is, to phrase it carefully, problematic:
Despite the curfew, hundreds came out Wednesday to protest in Fallujah, a city that Bush destroyed in a fit of pique. The Fallujans had held a city-wide strike on March 23, 2004, to protest the Israeli assassination of Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, a quadraplegic and spiritual leader of Hamas in Palestine. A few days later, the Brigades of Sheikh Yassin, an Iraqi guerrilla group founded to protest his murder, killed 4 Blackwater security men, one of them a South African, and desecrated their bodies, as "a gift to the Palestinian people," claiming that they were CIA or Mossad (Israeli intelligence). (You would have thought the Israelis could have put off garish assassinations by helicopter gunship of Muslim leaders in wheelchairs for a while, since the US was in a delicate position in Iraq at the time; Ariel Sharon made things infinitely worse than they had to be). Bush is said by Newsweek to have been royally teed off (I gloss the anger as that brown guys did that to white guys), and instructed "Heads must roll!" Bush ultimately made Fallujah his own little Carthage, in November of 2004. The Sunni Arabs were so angered that they boycotted the 2005 election. They had little representation in parliament. The Kurds and the Shiites crafted a constitution the Sunni Arabs rejected. And the country went to civil war, just as I predicted in December of 2004. In many ways it all started with the killing in broad daylight of Sheikh Yassin in Gaza as he was leaving a mosque. Couldn't he have been arrested if he was wanted? It was not as if he could run away. And, you will note, that Hamas is still there in control of Gaza, and Ariel Sharon is now in oblivion.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Murdering People You Know

Two Palestinians have been arrested for conspiring to poison people at the restaurant where they worked, in Ramat Gan.

Misguided observers often plead for programs that will bring together Palestinians and Israelis, in the hope that if people know one another they'll recognize their common humanity and desist from warring.

As if. Shall we parse this story? The two suspects had no work permits, which means they were employed by a Jew in Ramat Gan who was willing to look the other way - undoubtedly because he was paying them less, but in any case, it was an arrangement that everyone understood and accepted. They were going to put this poison into the food they were preparing, and the people who would have been hurt (killed?) would have been of three groups: anonymous patrons of the restaurant; regulars, with whom the suspects might have had a relationship; and fellow colleagues at the restaurant, with whom they most certainly had some sort of human relationship and familiarity.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

My Lai, Kfar Kassem, and How to Train Soldiers

Achikam was home from his unit over the weekend. At one point he asked me if I thought that young Americans know as much about the massacre at My Lai (40 years ago last month) as young Israelis do about the massacre at Kfar Kassem (51 years ago last Fall). He's right that the two cases can be roughly compared. The Americans at My Lai murdered a bit more than ten times as many civilians as the Israelis did at Kfar Kassem; but at My Lai there was at least one case where an American helicopter crew trained their guns on fellow Americans in order to save lives of Vietnamese; there was no corollary to that at Kfar Kassem. In both cases justice was never really achieved, and the few culprits put on trial were quickly pardoned.

I told Achikam that while I don't know, I assume that most young Americans don't know about My Lai, and many Americans of all ages no longer care. That war is long over, and its events have long since receded, even if they still instruct the political understanding of a segment of America's voters - but not the rest. (My American readers are welcome to contest this statement if they wish: I'm writing from anecdotal knowledge, not well founded knowledge).

Then I asked Achikam how many young Israelis does he think have ever heard of the massacre at Kfar Kassem? Perhaps he, Achikam, is unusual in knowing about it?

Impossible, he said. Anyone who has gone through basic training has heard about the massacre at Kfar Kassem, as part of the training to prevent anything like it ever happening again.

I was a mite surprised by this (not greatly so, but a little bit) and asked him who talked about this in his basic training, and if perhaps that individual might have been unusual.

Nonsense, he said. The topic was raised repeatedly by the lieutenant, not one of the NCOs, in official training contexts that were repeated throughout the training course specifically to sensitize the soldiers to issues of morality at war, and they weren't the idea of that specific officer because he was working from a syllabus that was handed down from the educational branch of the IDF; Achikam's friends in other branches were getting the same materials. "It's inconceivable that a soldier who goes through basic training (which means, all soldiers) would NOT have heard about the time Israeli soldiers massacred Arab civilians in cold blood during the Sinai Campaign (October 1956)".

Those of you who have read Right to Exist may recollect that I told about having this experience when I was in basic training. But that was quite a while ago, and the event we were being warned about had happened around the time of our birth, which means that the older officers and sergeants - not our staff, but the top brass at least - still remembered it. Achikam is telling that he and his comrades are being warned to remember an event that happened before their parents were born.

A Society of Many Colors

Some observers love to tell about all the ways Israel does things wrong, and what better than tell about social inequalities. Alexander Yakobson looks at the same facts with a positively-jaundiced eye (does such a formulation exist?), and tells an encouraging story which contains at least as much truth as the other versions, as anyone who has ever walked down a street here knows: Israelis are unusually color-blind when it comes to people.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

On Living Until Dying

If you spend time wandering around the Internet (which you probably do, otherwise how did you get here), chances are you've heard of the last lecture of Randy Pausch. Here's a NYT article about him, with some useful links.

James Bond and the Arab League

Y-net in English claims that the Iranian news agency (in Farsi) claims that Saudis, Jordanians, Palestinians and Syrians all ganged up with the Israelis to kill that fellow from Hizbullah, Imad Mugniya, a while back.

Is this possible? How would I know? I'm not a spook. It certainly wouldn't easily fit into the prevailing meta-narrative about good guys and bad guys in the world in general and the Mideast in particular, so on that level I rather hope it is true even if we now need the Iranians in order to know who's who. Also, the world of spooks is a strange and spooky place. Having said all that, I doubt we'll ever know, but I expect the story probably isn't true, unless of course it is.

Palestinian Fighters Strive for the Welfare of their Brethren

There has been an attack on the Nahal Oz border terminal between Israel and Gaza. Apparently a Palestinian source identified the attackers thus:
... the gunmen were affiliated with the Islamic Jihad's al-Quds Brigades, the Popular Resistance Committees' the Salah al-Din Brigades, and Fatah's Mujahideen fighters of the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades. The source further said the fight "will go on until the last bullet."
Which means, a broad coalition.

Two Israelis have been killed. Their names are not yet public, since their families have not yet been informed. But it should be clear: the border crossing is an installation that exists purely for the benefit of the Palestinians. Israelis don't use it. The merchandise that goes thru it is intended for the Palestinians, and includes the fuel Israel supplies them with (you all remember the international outcry a month or two ago when Israel reduced these supplies, since it's a given truth that Israel owes this service to her sworn enemies in Gaza). Which means that these brave Palestinian fighters could have had only one goal: to obstruct the flow of goods into Gaza. And the Israelis they killed were people whose job it was to assure these supplies to the Palestinians.

This news item also mentions an item from earlier this morning about an Israeli soldier who was killed in a battle with Palestinian fighters last night. He was Druze, which means he's an Arabic-speaking Israeli. So the toll for the day is one Arabic-speaking Israeli soldier killed in battle as an IDF soldier, and two Jewish civilians killed assisting the Palestinian populace.

It's an interesting world, isn't it. Maybe in a few hours I'll try to do a roundup of the usual suspects to see if this gets reported anywhere, and if so, if truthfully.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The Stanley Milgram Obedience Experiment

Virginia Hefferman at the New York Times watched segments of the famous experiments on Youtube, and wonders if perhaps they don't prove what popular wisdom says they do.

Now, imagine what would have happened had she carefully watched the whole film, or perhaps even read the book. She might have been forced to reject the accepted wisdom altogether. Rightfully so.


Peace Now is having a celebration in Tel Aviv this afternoon, marking their 30th anniversary of activity. Sort of makes you wonder precisely when during the 30 years was the "Now" intended for?

(By the way: some of my best friends are in Peace Now).

Monday, April 7, 2008

McDonalds or Not

A mere two blocks or so from the very quiet small street on which we live is the top eatery street in Jerusalem, the kind of place where bus loads of 20-something-tourists get dropped off for their "free evening on the town in Jerusalem". It has dozens of varied establishments. There's a venerable small workers humus-and-pita-with-olives place, a remnant of the days when this was the main street of a scruffy lower-middle class neighborhood. There's a high-brow place based on its unusually large collection of wines and its insistence on high-quality service, run by three young entrepreneurs. There's a kosher grill place, and a very non-kosher one a block down. Two ice cream parlors, two sushi bars, a clutch of veggie and diary salad places, cafes' of course, tho now that I think of it, there's only one pizzeria. Falafel stands, take-away places, Moroccan cuisine, South American, a glatt-kosher steak house, a sandwich place that calls itself New Deli. A bagel place. A place that specializes in expensive chocolate.

Lots of places to choose from.

The single largest establishment if you're measuring square meters is the McDonald's: an entire building of its own, two full floors and a patio. I've never been inside, but the thing is, apparently many people never have. It never looks crowded and often when I walk by it seems empty, irrespective of how crowded all the other places are.

Last week construction crews arrived and started banging walls and digging under the patio, and a couple days later someone put op a big banner announcing yet another cafe soon to open. The McDonald's seems still open, but perhaps they've leased part of the structure; or maybe they're moving out entirely, in stages.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Calatrava in Jerusalem - Getting Close

Regarding the Calatrava bridge going up in Jerusalem (see previous posts) : This time I don't have any pictures, because for whatever reason I haven't been around there with a camera for a while. But Prof. Ariel Hirschfeld, perhaps our most important culture critic (and the widower of Batya Gur, if that's important to you) has decided that now that it's approaching completion, and he can see what the architect intended, he likes it a lot.

On the Futility of Palestinian Violence: Bronner

Here's an article from the New York Times on how Palestinian violence will never achieve its goal.

The question remains, when will the Palestinians understand what will - namely, that they demonstrate that their goal is to build their state next to ours, rather than to destroy ours and then to wallow in their misery.

On the Futility of Palestinian Strategies: Zubeidi

Avi Issacharoff traveled up to Jenin to interview Zakariya Zubeidi (in Arabic, of course). Zubeidi is one of the few leaders of the Palestinian violence who has managed to survive the decade, along the way becoming a familiar figure to most Israelis. He was one of the commanders in Jenin, for a while the most violent of Palestinian towns, and back in 2002 the "capital of the suicide bombers".

A number of months ago the Israelis and the (West Bank) Palestinians agreed on a list of men who would be taken off Israel's active wanted list if they laid down their arms. Zubeidi is one of them. So while there are millions of Palestinians, and no single one of them is representative of them all, this one needs to be listened to, for his words (and silences) are instructive well beyond his private persona.
My aim was for us, by means of the 'resistance' [code for terror attacks], to get a message out to the world. Back in Abu Amar's day [the nom de guerre of Yasser Arafat], we had a plan, there was a strategy, and we would carry his orders."

In effect, are you saying what Amos Gilad and intelligence always said, that Arafat planned everything?

"Right. Everything that was done in the intifada was done according to Arafat's instructions, but he didn't need to tell us the things explicitly. We understood his message."
Need I contextualize? The 2nd Intifada started two months after the Palestinians rejected the Israeli offers made at Camp David in the Summer of 2000, at which according to all versions the Israeli Prime Minster Ehud Barak made some dramatic proposals. One was to disband all settlements in Gaza and many of those in the West Bank. This cut the ground out from under the chief Palestinian grievance during the Oslo Process, whereby the Israelis couldn't possibly intend to relinquish territories if they were still building on them. After Arafat rejected the proposals without making any counter proposals, the negotiations continued in mid-September, and the violence broke out at the end of September. Zubeidi now tells that the decision to turn to violence was calculated and taken clearly, and the direction came straight from Arafat. Nothing particularly new about this, except that it was the opposite of approximately 100% of the media reportage at the time.

The reason Arafat and his thousands of active followers felt they had to do this was "to get a message out to the world". This at a period where the number one time consumer on the schedule of the President of the United States was the Palestinians. After the Israelis retreated to what most of us regarded as too far in the face of Palestinian demands, in January 2001, and we threw out our government for doing so, the Palestinians escalated their violence dramatically, until eventually Israel violently put a stop to it in 2002-2004. As Zubeidi fully acknowledges:
We failed entirely in the intifada. We haven't seen any benefit or positive result from it. We achieved nothing. It's a crushing failure. We failed at the political level - we didn't succeed in translating the military actions into political achievements. The current leadership does not want armed actions, and since the death of Abu Amar, there's no one who is capable of using our actions to bring about such achievements. When Abu Amar died, the armed intifada died with him."
Context, again: They systematically waged violence against Israeli civilians, in order to achieve more than the Israelis were willing to offer. Since by then Israel had offered effectively 100% of the West Bank, full partition of Jerusalem, dismantling of most settlements and some sort of land swap for those that would remain, one must ask what additional goals they had in mind?

Finally, what Zubeidi dosn't say - or rather, what he doesn't do. He admits defeat. He acknowledges that Israel cannot be beaten militarily, thus the whole thing was futile. (Bloody, destructive, murderous - but futile). And so what does he do with all this? He Kvetches. He sleeps till noon. He sometimes goes to play at being an actor, or not, depending. He expects an internal war to tear apart the Palestinians, but the most he feels he must do is damn his own politicians.

The thought of taking his very significant destructive power and turning it into something constructive, seems never to cross his mind. He has a long proven track record of leading his men to death in Israeli towns, but he cannot conceive of harnessing his charisma towards building the best they can possibly achieve in the present situation; the thought that if they were to focus on building rather than destroying they might even find eager partners in the Israelis doesn't even exist in his universe.

Truly a depressing interview.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Yaacov Calling Ibrahim

One of our readers suggested this week that I offer space on this blog to Ibrahim ibn Yusuf, who himself has been commenting quite a bit, more than I can respond to. Well, Ibrahim, if you're still here, please contact me at the e-mail over on the right side of the screen. Maybe we can craft a deal.


Obstinately not Seeing Reality

A small item in the Hebrew, paper only version of Haaretz, tells of an interesting event yesterday in Nicosia (Cyprus). Apparently a 3-decade-old blockade in the center of town was taken down to general jubilation, as a mutual gesture of goodwill between Turk-Cypriots and Greek-Cypriots. And then a few hours later it was put up again, because of flaring animosities.

I know effectively nothing about Cyprus, for all it's being a mere hop away from here. Nor do I have any dog in that particular conflict, though like any reasonable person I'd prefer the Cypriots to figure out how to live together amicably, if possible. The point of this post is to poke fun at the Guardian on an issue that doesn't touch upon Israel.

The Guardian reports on the event with a 1,210-word gushing report. How wonderful! How exciting! How hopeful! And even better, the reason for all the euphoria is that both sides have Lefty leaders!

Only at the very end of the article is there one minor note of wariness:
But the day ended on a sour note last night when the checkpoint was closed on the Greek side amid claims Turkish Cypriots had violated an agreement.
You couldn't make this up. I wish I knew which planet these folks hail from.

Thinking on One's Own

Martin Kramer recommends an article casting doubt on Obama's Race Speech. I wasn't particularly impressed by the level of reasoning, rather by the way Gina Nahi describes her insistence on thinking for herself. Free choice 1, circumstances 0.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Cherry Picking in Iraq

George Packer writes a long and thoughtful piece about Iraq the Place vs. Iraq the Abstraction. His thesis: The Americans - on all sides - are furiously disagreeing about an abstraction, "the war in Iraq", which has little connection to the reality, because what they care about is the political discussion at home, not the reality over there.

Referring to two depictions in the American media of the situation in Iraq in summer 2007, one mildly negative, the other mildly positive:

Readers who believed the first story refused to believe the second. Readers who believed the second refused to believe the first. In a sense, they believed or refused to believe each story before it was published, even before it occurred. There wasn’t a moment’s pause to digest information, much less to weigh facts dispassionately; objectivity wasn’t even an aspiration. What mattered was whether the facts supported the theory or not. Throughout the opinion classes, the impulse to keep a little part of the brain open to inconvenient facts seemed to have been extinguished. In magazine offices, bloggers’ bedrooms, Hollywood studios, and the White House, a fantasy war was underway, a demonstration of American virtue or a series of crimes against humanity—both of them self-serving fictions.


Two of these films do have merits—In the Valley of Elah features an affecting performance by Tommy Lee Jones, and The Situation, written by Wendell Steavenson, a British writer who spent over a year in occupied Iraq, contains two more or less recognizable Iraqi characters. But the films also present the war as incomprehensible mayhem, and they depict American soldiers as psychopaths who may as well be wearing SS uniforms. The G.I.s rape, burn, and mutilate corpses, torture detainees, accelerate a vehicle to run over a boy playing soccer, wantonly kill civilians and journalists in firefights, humiliate one another, and coolly record their own atrocities for entertainment. Have these things happened in Iraq? Many have. But in the cinematic version of the war, these are the only things that happen in Iraq. At a screening of The Situation, I was asked to discuss the film with its director, Philip Haas. Why had he portrayed the soldiers in cartoon fashion, I wondered. Why had he missed their humor, their fear, their tenderness for one another and even, every now and then, for Iraqis? Because, Haas said, he wanted to concentrate on humanizing his Iraqi characters instead.

Except, of course, that in order to humanize the Iraqis, one would need to know something about them. Learn their language, perhaps. Live among them. Even merely listen to them intently - ah, for that you need language, don't you.

In the name of fairness, by the way, I should add that at least the American media offers two stereotypical versions of the events. Most of the rest of the world only gets one version. By now, this is largely true even for the Israeli media, which started out warily supporting the invasion, but has long since joined the ranks of the scoffers, in spite of being much closer to the events on almost all levels.

Anyway, this post should be read as a direct continuation of the previous one.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

On Being Plausibly Right

Over the past couple of weeks we've been joined by a new active response writer, Ibrahim ibn Yusuf, he of the Spanish anti-Zionist blog, though it turns out he's in Argentina, not Spain. I've already dedicated one post to him, so this is already the second: partly because so long as we remain civil, I'm in favor of such dialog, and partially because I'm simply using him as a foil with which to make general statements. If I do it on the Guardian, why not on Mr. ibn Yusuf?

Yesterday Mr. ibn Yusuf was defending Hamas, or perhaps, he was claiming that Israel is just as bad. His line of reasoning, so far as I understood it, was roughly thus: The Israelis are as anti-Palestinian as the Hamas is anti-Israeli, and Israeli Jewish children are inculcated with as much hatred as the Palestinian children, except that the Israelis, being more sophisticated, have learned to cloak their nastiness, while Hamas hasn't.

(Devious, aren't they, those Israelis? The honest but unsophisticated Palestinians will never be their match, but perhaps it's better so -- haven't we heard this line of reasoning before? Elsewhere, in other dark days?)

There are so many levels on which to reject this argumentation that's it's hard to choose. However, I'd like to do so on a methodological level, by addressing the question of how we know what we know in history.

I don't mean the question of documentation, which is comparatively straightforward: is there documentation to demonstrate that something happened, or isn't there? This is a juncture where historians have no choice but to diverge from their post modern friends over in the literature departments. No, what I'm addressing is the less precise but often more interesting question about how to understand and interpret the historical facts. Can a society inculcate its children with a Weltsanschauung while hiding it from everyone else, and is this the same as using the full force of the media and everything that goes with it, for example.

I'm a student of Karl Popper in this. My reading of him (many years ago) was that since in history we cannot create laboratory conditions so as to repeat an experiment someone else has said he's just done and thus verify it, we can only strive for second best. And second best, in history (or politics, I'd add) is to formulate your thesis, and then do your utmost to find facts that will disprove it; only when your repeated attempts to disprove your thesis fail, and you can find no facts that might weaken your position, only then can you begin to assume that perhaps you're right - and perhaps not, since there still may be facts out there that will disprove you, only you haven't found them yet.

Cherry picking for facts that will bolster your position is worthless, if not a type of deceit.

Do any of us consistently live up to this standard Popper formulated? Probably not well enough. But some are better at it than others. Another point I seem to remember Popper making was that in free societies with freedom to express yourself, people have no choice but to resort at least partially to his method, since if they don't someone else will for them; in the dictatorships, meanwhile, there is no one to guard the truth.

So, Mr. ibn Yusuf, next time you start collecting incriminating evidence about how bad we are, try pausing for a moment and asking yourself if there might not be even more compelling facts that might say the opposite.

Science, not Fiction

For all you science fiction buffs: here is an ostensibly serious article about a purportedly serious scientist, published in a demonstrably non-serious publication, which claims that much of the technology written off as fiction in that genre you like so much, could actually be realized sooner or later.

Women readers need not follow the link. I've never yet encountered a woman who thinks science fiction is worth the time, nor even heard of the existence of such a woman. As a matter of fact, even the guys among you might want to be circumspect while following the link, given that what we read is what we're worth.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

On Uncertainty

There's someone in my close circle who is undergoing chemotherapy. This week we are confronted with yet another of the many decisions that need to be made along the way. Actually, seen from the narrowest perspective of the chemicals and the illness and the interaction between them, there shouldn't be much of a deliberation; the situation is pretty clear. But then you factor in other imponderables, such as the physical condition of the person, and then their frame of mind. The physical condition can be mostly measured, sort of; the frame of mind, which is probably far more important, can't really be measured at all, not in any scientific way. And then there are other legitimate considerations: the time of year, the shifts at the hospital, this that and the other. Pretty soon, what started out as a simple equation is anything but.

Then there are the questions of who makes the decision, and by which criteria. At an earlier stage, many months ago, we learned that expert number one in North America would have had a clearcut opinion about the deliberation we were facing at that time, but that his position would have been the opposite of that of the entire relevant medical establishment in Germany; the person telling us is himself a world renowned expert, and he was telling as an explanation for his own uncertainty.

And that assumes it's the physicians who should be making the decision - a position which itself is hardly obvious.

At the heart of the matter lies our uncertainty. We don't know what will happen tomorrow, or next week, or next year. So we do our best with what we have.

This uncertainty is the foundation of the entire human condition, isn't it. It's what medicine is about, but also politics, and history. It's what economics are about, and all ideologies and Weltanschauungen. If it isn't what literature and poetry are about, I can't think what is. And religion, of course. Cynics will say that religion is what gives unknowing people the tools with which to lull themselves into the ability to make decisions by comforting them that they're correct. Respecters of religion will say that it gives people the dignity to live with their decisions, whatever they might be.

Poisoning Children's Minds

Steven Erlanger of the New York Times has a long report on the pervasive incitement in the Hamas controlled media. He makes no attempt to hide the fact that Hamas is inculcating the certainty that Israel must disappear completely. Much of the anti-Jewish rhetoric is based upon Koranic interpretations, which means they don't even pretend to be reactions to a specific current political configuration or Israeli actions in the here and now.

You could say that they are infused with antisemitism, except that antisemitism is a European invention, an attempt to justify hatred of the Jews even in a world that no longer cared about what the Jews did or didn't do to Jesus. This, however, harks back openly to a far older tradition. Erlanger, however, doesn't get into this discussion, he merely reports on the present.

There is nothing new nor surprising in the report, for those of us who care about such matters and follow them. For those who don't care, there isn't any significance to the report, either. Having read the Guardian daily for years by now I can say with confidence that if you look hard enough you actually can find echoes of this in their reportage, but the impact of the reportage is not in the echoes but rather in the main cacophony; the same goes, for example, for the New York Review of Books. Juan Cole would never link to such a report, but his is a private blog, so he can choose as he wishes.

I'm linking to this not because the NYT needs me to promote its content, but rather to record the fact that they published such a report, and perhaps, in the future, to wonder if they read their own newspaper.