Monday, June 30, 2008

Till the End of the Land

Who'd have thunk? The airport at Bangkok has free Wifi access! Just like Ben Gurion, and just not like Warsaw, Frankfurt, Zurich, JFK, Reagan, Hong Kong, Melbourne and Sydney, to name merely those I've been at this year. So I'm popping up over here for a moment, before disappearing for another day or three.

Here's my review of David Grossman's brand new and extraordinarily highly acclaimed novel, Till the End of the Land.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Palestinians Unworthy of Sovereignty

Hamas has announced it will not "protect Israel from attacks by other factions". There is nothing new about this idiotic line of reasoning, of course, and it has been one of the standard canards ever since Israel began disbanding its occupation and transferring power to the Palestinians in 1993.

The question is not if the PLO, or PA, or Hamas, or anyone else, will protect Israel from the more extreme Palestinian forces that will always continue with their anti-Israeli violence no matter what agreements are reached. The question is if whatever Palestinian government it may be will take upon itself one of the most basic of all tasks of government, the monopoly of waging violence. As long as they don't understand that this is a fundamental need of their own, irrespective of Israel, no peace agreement with them will ever hold. On the contrary, the longer they insist on behaving like little children, the more obvious and irrevocable it will be not to allow them a government. Governing is a matter for adults.

[Which doesn't mean Israel should continue to control them. More and more I am beginning to think there will ultimately be not choice but to hand over some sort of control of the Palestinians to the Jordanians and the Egyptians.]

Daf Yomi, Melbourne

As indicated here, it was my intention to continue with Daf Yomi as if I'd never left Jerusalem, simply moving from one shul to the next. Which is more or less what happened: this past week I've been going to the Daf Yomi shiur at the Chabad Yeshiva, 6am, and just as you'd have thought, they're on the same page the folks back in Jerusalem are on. Or rather, they keep on changing it every day, but that's alright. The single most significant difference in style is that while the shiur in Jerusalem tends to be in two languages, Hebrew and Aramaic, the one down here is in four: Hebrew, Aramaic, English, and Yiddish.

At the end of the shiur, say, 6:40, you can choose which service you want to go to. I've been going to the "Budapest Express" minyan, so named because it was set up some decades ago by some survivors from Hungary, and they race through the service faster than I'd have believed possible. By seven they're out of there, including everything, including a section specially added by the Chabadniks.

Limmud Oz 2008

I've been up to various mischief so far down here in the antipodes. One of the things I did was to participate in Limmud Oz 2008, Melbourne. I gave four lectures there, as you can see by following that link and wandering around a bit. I initially thought I might write them, and post each of them as I gave them, but since I never write the lectures I give, it seemed rather late to start now. As a compromise, I wrote outlines, which I more or less adhered to sort of to a certain extent, at least some of the time, and I've now posted them, over here.

The four theses were:
1. Jews have the oldest living culture in the world, so they have a longer communal memory than anyone else; however, having a long memory is not the result of being so old, rather the insistence on not forgetting has enhanced the longevity.

2. The attempt to create a rich database with biographical information on as many of the murdered six million Jews as possible is an unprecedented undertaking (connected to memory, by the way), undertaken at least initially in adverse circumstances, and now slowly advancing towards completion. How, Why, What.

3. Was the creation of the State of Israel enabled by the guilty conscience of the world after the Holocaust? Answer,not at all, and actually, almost on the contrary. In 1947 the international community set up the Jews in Mandatory Palestine for a second genocide of the Jews in less than a decade. (And all of the hot air about the Palestinians paying the price for the crimes of the Europeans is hogwash).

4. Training soldiers to be moral while waging war is a daunting task, but Israel does it better than anyone else. Here's how.

Tomorrow I'm off to other arenas to do other mischief. Not certain I'll have access to cyberspace, so if you want a laugh you can spend some time here.

So He Killed them. Anybody Would have.

An Iraqi councilman opened fire at some American troops who were at a meeting with him. Juan Cole explains:
A city council member in Mada'in (Salman Pak) abruptly opened fire on Americans who had been in a meeting with him. He killed 2 US troops and wounded 4 other Americans. He had been in India recently because Sunni-Shiite tensions made it too difficult for him in Mada'in. He had only been back one week as councilman. Although there is speculation that he was unstable, my own suspicion is that the continued US military occupation was just too hard for him to take. India has an anti-colonial atmosphere, after all. [my italics]
Sure convinces me. Any other explanation would be anti-progressive, perhaps even neo-con.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

An All Male Seder Evening

Apparently a growing number of non-Orthodox Jewish communities in the US are noticing a draining way of their menfolk. Whether this is a lot of coincidence or the beginning of a trend no-one can yet say, but someone has already written a whole book about it. And someone else has "published a men's Passover Haggadah intended for use at all-male Seders" (I kid you not). And they've got other ideas, too, such as
improving athletics programs at its camps and is encouraging synagogues and camps to explore programming for men, including father-son events
Given that the single most central Jewish activity of Jewish men, these past 2,000 years or so, often done with their sons, has been to learn Jewish books, it's interesting that this possibility is never mentioned in the article.

What can I say. Even at the risk of aggravating some of those of you whom I usually don't try to aggravate, I must reluctantly admit that so far as I can see, the best one can say about the long-term survival chances of non-Orthodox Jews as Jews, outside of Israel of course, is that the jury is still out. If it's still out, and I'm not convinced even of that. You want to assure the Jewishness of your descendants? Either be Orthodox, or in Israel, and preferably both.

Arabs want to be Israelis

Anyone with any familiarity at all with the reality in Israel knows that an enormous majority of Arabs living in Israel would never dream of living in Palestine were there ever to be such a country, and it's not hard to fathom their line of reasoning: Israel is a free democracy with an ever-rising standard of living (and at the moment one of the strongest currencies in the world, but that's a different matter), while the Palestinians can be relied upon to screw up whatever chances they're offered with perfect consistency. That's why there was such an outcry among Israel's Arabs when in 2004 Arik Sharon proposed redrawing Israel's border so that the towns alongside the north-western flank of the West Bank be re-mapped into the West Bank. That's why Avigdor Lieberman is perhaps the most hated and feared of all Israeli politicians in the eyes of Israel's Arabs: he advocates a similar move. (And note: not a single Arab would have to leave his home. The border would simply be moved a few miles west, leaving the homes in putative Palestinian territory... shudder...).

Life for Israel's Arabs is far from perfect and leaves much to be desired, but it's a lot better than life in any other Arab country, unless you're a millionaire Saudi sheik or a fully subsidized citizen of a Gulf State living off oil and the sweat of disenfranchised Pakistanis.

It's also a well-known but never mentioned secret that the Arabs in East Jerusalem, who aren't even full Israeli citizens, dread the day the city will be divided and they'll end up on the Palestinian side; when Israel began putting up that evil wall a few years ago, tens of thousands of Palestinians scrambled to make sure they were inside it, on the Israeli side, and not outside it, on the Palestinian side. It doesn't take much imagination to understand them: would any of you make a different choice in their situation? Of course not.

Still, having said all that, it's still a bit surprising to read that 77% of the Palestinians who have Israeli citizenship, wouldn't want to live in any other country in the world. Not in America, not in Norway, not in Australia, not even in the UK, home of the Guardian. Nope. They want to stay in Israel. Moreover, if you follow the link, you'll find lots of other interesting statistics, almost all of them positive. I recommend.

Now, if you were a person who cares about people and their well-being, a mantle often claimed by the so called Progressives, or the political Left, or Liberals, depending on the country you live in, you would be celebrating all this, and perhaps even commending Israel for having proven that Arabs actually can be productive and functioning citizens in a modern democracy even in the Mideast, and not only when they move to New Jersey, and if so they can certainly be encouraged to do so in France, Algeria, Saudi Arabia or Lebanon. But I wouldn't recommend holding your breath until the praise starts coming in, not from those people anyway.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Getting Warfare Right

Interesting long article in the NYT about the interrogation of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, otherwise known as KSM, the operational commander of 9/11, and a mass murderer who wanted to murder even more.

I remember wondering at the time where he'd disappeared to. So now we know: it was Poland, because the Poles were eager to help, but also because in Poland there wasn't much chance of anyone on the outside being an al-Qaeda supporter who might try to spring him.

The important part of the article, to my mind, is its descriptions of the deliberations in the CIA on procedure, and specifically on the use of torture. They were suddenly faced with a brand new but exceedingly dangerous new challenge; they didn't have the faintest idea how to deal with it and weren't set up to do so; failure to do the job meant lots of additional innocents would be murdered. So they improvised. As we know in retrospect, some of the improvisations were seriously wrong, and they seem to have been aware of this even at the time, but not aware enough, or not confident enough in their ability to succeed without the torture.

Seen from the perspective of a historian rather than an ideologue, that seems pretty much right to me. Warfare is a nasty business even when you're on the right side of it. The stakes are high, the dangers are acute, and no matter what you do, at least some things will inevitably go wrong. Life and death decisions must be made NOW, not later, because if they're made later people will die first. So it's a combination of trial and error, measuring success vs. failure on the fly, while always trying to adhere to an overarching moral code that directs some sides and is totally irrelevant to others.

The advocates of the moral code are right when they demand that their side get it right sooner, not later, and their watchdog role really is important, because the warriors must by definition focus on the goal of saving the lives of their people and don't always take full account of the moral implications. The role of the warriors, however, is at least as crucial as that of the watchdogs, since if they don't do their job innocents will die. A healthy democratic society manages to balance these things, at least most of the time, or with reasonable success. That's what makes them so different from their enemies, who are often bothered by being foiled, but lack moral qualms. The watchdogs in the democracies must always remember that, too, else their moral equivalence blind them to the utter necessity of waging the war.

Finally, unlike what the political ideologues like to shout all the time, the story being told here isn't about the Bush administration in any immediate way. It's conceivable that had the top been more aware of the moral issues things might have been done somewhat differently, but the discussions for or against torture described here weren't taking place at the White House, they were unfolding at a much lower level, where the war against the Islamsts was being waged.

Educating the NYT Readers

Ethan Bronner of the NYT seems to be stationed in Israel again. I don't always follow these things, but I remember that he was here* some years ago and then he wasn't, but it looks like he's back. Anyway, he's got this piece on how Israelis don't think that the present calm with Hamas will lead to Peace in Our Time. The part that caught my eye was this one:

Sasson Sara, a 57-year-old grocery store owner in Sderot, the town in southern Israel that should be happiest that the Hamas rockets have been stopped, seemed to confirm this contempt for the leadership when the truce with Hamas was announced. “To me, this is an agreement of surrender, like Chamberlain,” he said, referring to British appeasement of Hitler in the 1930s.

Interesting, huh? Sasson Sara, a 57-year-old grocery store owner in Sderot is probably not an intellectual, I'll bet he doesn't have a Masters degree from anywhere not even Cambridge, and I'm reasonably certain he doesn't spend his spare time reading the NYT or the Guardian or even Haaretz on the Web. But he's got his Chamberlain down pat. Bronner's not certain the readers of the NYT do, however, so he helpfully explains the allusion.

* "here" on this blog generally relates to Israel, where Bronner now is. Me, I'm not "here" at the moment, I'm there, in faraway Australia. Tho in reality, it's not far away at all, it's right here. I can see it out of the window.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Shock and Awe at the Guardian

It appears that a significant majority of the British electorate doesn't quite believe the sacred tenets of the Church of Global Warming.This is very bad if the government is to severely hamper the lifestyle of its subjects, especially since the subjects are voters. True, the educated people generally know the truth and support the rituals, but there aren't enough of them to swing elections.

Me, I've been against pouring gook into the atmosphere since the late 1960s, long before the creation of the Church of Global Warming. But alas, I'm a believer in doing so in ways that play on people's greed, not against it. Find a way to have clean energy cheaper than dirty energy, then sit back and watch the Saudis and other OPEC folks shrivel back to their natural size.

Who Runs the Country?

Tami Arad, widow of Ron Arad if you assume he's long dead, has joined the Shalit family in petitioning the High Court of Justice (Bagatz) to stop the government from allowing supplies into Gaza until Gilad Shalit is returned to Israel.

The claim itself seems reasonable, especially when you remember that Israel will pay for Shalit with hundreds of terrorists. You can't in any way argue with the plea of the Shalit family, not in the remotest, nor even wtih the logic of Tami Arad. Since none of us are quite privy to the agreements made thru the Egyptians with Hamas, there's no way for us to judge if the government is behaving recklessly or not (the court doesn't know this either).

And yet, having said all this, this is yet another demonstration of what many of us have long noticed, namely that the High Court has - purposefully or inadvertently - taken upon itself a role it should never have had, of second guessing the government, indeed, of being a sort of super-government, that vetoes actions of the government when it sees fit.

This is unacceptable in a democracy. The government is elected (indirectly, since we're a parliamentary democracy). The court isn't. The government's job is to run the country. The court's isn't.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Self portrait of an Antisemite

Here's a fine example of why freedom of speech is so important. The parents of Rachel Corrie, ISM activist killed by an Israeli bulldozer in Gaza in 2003, have published her letters. Roberta P. Seid has read them carefully, and tells of her findings. They are depressing but also illuminating, detailing the cynicism with which the Palestinians and their useful fools manipulated impressionable young men and women, innocent of any knowledge, into the Palestinian war against Israel. These young people came fervently to believe the worst about Israel, even when the facts staring them in their faces proved them wrong, not to mention all the other facts they willfully looked away from. And of course, at one point in the story there's an Israeli professor in America who encourages Corrie onward on her path of hatred.

Did Rachel Corrie regard herself as an antisemite? I expect not, though I doubt she really worked through her convictions on this issue. But she clearly was one. Her animosity towards Israel was anything but "criticism of Israeli policies". It was overt rejection of Israel's right to defend itself, indeed, even of it's right to define its own interests, formulated with systematic lying. That's conclusive enough evidence for antisemitism. Does it make any difference if she realized the import of her positions? Not in particular. Most antisemites throughout the ages were not articulate nor conscious about it, they simply were.

American Support of Israel

Here's an article about deep seated characteristics of America that explain why it's so supportive of Zionism. It's pretty obvious to me that the author, one Walter Russell Mead, is himself not so enamored of Israel; perhaps this led him to investigate what it is that makes so many Americans so supportive.

Interestingly, I found this article in a bookstore at the airport in Hong Kong. Just the kind of things you'd expect to find at an airport, huh?

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Daf Yomi Down Under

In an hour or two I'll be off for a spot of travel down to Australia. The other day I asked a friend in Melbourne (my first and longest stop) if there might, perchance, be any Daf Yomi shiurs in the area. In response he sent me a link to this website, which tells of no fewer than 18 Daf Yomi groups, in Melbourne alone - a town with something like 40,000 Jews of all stripes and flavours. Pretty impressive, if you ask me. So I'll go by and have a peek, perhaps.

This thread, I remind you, began here.

Oh, and by the way: Australia is a rather long walk from here, and it includes some water I'm going to have to figure out how to cross, so blogging may be a bit light for a while.

Fighting Terrorism Without Torture

Arye Roter, the top legal adviser of the Shin Bet, talks about how the organization gets along without torture. It didn't always, of course, and for a while in the 1970s and 1980s it had precious little to be proud of in that respect, but the organization that stands at the center of Israel's ability to thwart something like 95-99% of the Palestinian attempts to murder Jews manages to do so without torture, except in the extreme and rare cases of "ticking bombs". The Americans and British could learn a bit from them.

Read this one carefully, as it's a rare event when you get this close a view of what goes on in the Shin Bet (which is really called the Shabak).

PS - Those awesome success figures don't relate to shooting out of Gaza.

A Look at the Protocols of the Elders of Zion

Michael Fox has had a peek at the Protocols and comes back to tell that they're visibly rubbish on all levels.

He's right, of course, but it makes no difference. Back when I was at the university I remember learning that the Protocols were the third most popular book in the history of mankind, with only the Bible and Mao's Little Red Book topping it. This was before Harry Potter, and Mao has proven less than durable, so perhaps the top of the list looks a bit different these days, but not much. The moral of the story, of course, being that not only is there no connection between facts and antisemitism; there doesn't even need to be any connection between common sense, or even simply good writing. Along with all their other problems, The Protocols are simply extraordinarily BORING, yet even that never dents their (ongoing) sales figures.

Monday, June 16, 2008

A Climate for Antisemitism

Jeremy Kuper has written a fluffy sort of article for the Guardian about his reflections on the circumcision of his son. He states none of the really significant aspects of the tradition, but nor is his piece offensive. It's fluffy.

The interesting part is in the reader's responses. Almost without exception they're highly negative; many of them are crude secularism of the lowest form.

Given that circumcision is done by Jews,Muslims, many Christians and others, this is not necessarily antisemitism. Some of the comments definitely have the whiff, but what seems more significant to me is the general frame of mind. Beliefs often come in clusters, and it's well known that the Guardian and its readers can't stand Israel, and here's another strand, quite separate - or perhaps not so separate.

Workoholic DIBs

Meanwhile, many of the folks who would never be caught dead in any position remotely resembling domestic service, are quite willing to slave away at their jobs. Especially the men among them, meaning that their wives are doing the domestic jobs...

I've often worked more than 60-hour weeks, but perhaps not always, or systematically. 50-plus-hour weeks however, aren't even worth mentioning. Most people I know are somewhere around there.

DIBs vs. JAPs

Remember those two acronyms? Damn Israeli Bastards vs. Jewish American Princesses? Well, it seems the underlying cultural differences are still there. This fellow, Marco Greenberg, put it into his head to hire an Israeli au pair. He's far too generous in his assessment ("Well, it was only three out of three, and you can't tell about an entire nation based on three bad examples"); I could have told him that even had he tried 30 times,the chances for success wouldn't have been more than 1:10 at the very best. Partly this is because of the kind of young Israeli women who'd even ever consider taking such a job, but mostly it's a cultural thing. Israelis aren't good at giving service. Not all 7 million of them, of course, but lots of the 7 million of them. True, over time the help-desk sort of places have trained people to respond correctly by phone, but remember that most of those people manning those phones aren't there for a career. They're on their way up, and it's a temporary thing so they manage to control their nature. And even then, they're interacting in Hebrew with other Israelis (DIBs).

One of the insurance company has had a series of advertisements running for a few years already, in which they call other places, get a quote for a service, and then they say "WHAT??!! At [their place] it costs 643 NIS less!!!". and then they record the responses. Employees of the expensive agency caught on the phone saying things like "Really? I'd never buy from us with a gap like that". And all sorts of similar answers. My point being that by now you'd have thought the bosses of the other companies would have cottoned on to the possibility that their staff is being recorded in such cases, and if not lowering their prices, at least they'd have instructed them to shut up. But no. Israelis don't shut up. Can't happen. They're citizens in a democracy, they've got freedom of speech, and they'll use it, come hell or high water.

Come to think of it: what was that Marco fellow even thinking of? Had he found a successful Israeli au pair, would he have wanted her around his kids? Influencing them? Really?

Sunday, June 15, 2008


Birthright was a brainstorm of Yossie Beilin, back in the days when he was a fount of creative ideas, some harmful, others plain wrong, and some important. This was one of his best. The fact that apparently much of the establishment is now against is irrelevant. Anyone who sees the hundreds of bus loads of the Birthright students knows it's a fine thing.

Jewish State in Germany

Some airy-headed fellow has decided there needs to be a Jewish State in Thuringia. He feels the idea "is in the air", and also:
"I'm very serious about the process and what it does, which is make people ask questions [as well as] create a dialogue and conflict."
As if there aren't enough real things in the world to discuss. On the other hand, he's got me relating to him, even though he doesn't deserve it, so he does seem to have some ability.

Pious Fools will Destroy the World

You may recollect the case, a few years back, in which Saudi religious police stopped teenage girls from escaping their burning school because their hair wasn't covered. 15 of the girls died.

In the Mishna on Page 20a of the Sotah tractate, Rabbi Yehoshua gives a list of people who are so negative they "destroy the world". His first category are the pious fools. On page 21b (today's reading) the Gemarah asks what a pious fool is, and gives as an example a man who sees a woman drowning in the river and doesn't try to save her because she isn't clothed decently.

That's pretty clear, isn't it? It's about 1,800 years old, that ruling, many centuries before the Middle Ages and their bad press. (And, I feel compelled to add, the Sotah tractate is not the most feminist one we have. Even so).

This thread began here.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Thinking About Iraq

The Economist is guardedly optimistic about Iraq. This is interesting, since they started out supporting the invasion, and then, faced with the ensuing calamity, they admitted they'd been wrong. Now, given the multiplying indications that the tide may have turned, they are again optimistic. Yet they are still hedging their moral debts:
In highlighting the improved conditions in Iraq we do not mean to justify The Economist's support of the invasion of 2003 (see article). Too many lives have been shattered for that. History will still record that the invasion and occupation have been a debacle.
I'm not a great fan of knowing in advance what history will record. History has this practice of doing what it does, irrespective of what everybody said it would do. Just for the argument, if five years from now Iraq will be solidly on the road to free market democracy a-la-Turkey or Indonesia, to name some Muslim examples, then in 45 years history will remember the invasion as a strategic turning point. Not that very many of todays pundits will be around to know it.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Freedom of Speech vs. Harmonious Society

Adam Liptak at the NYT has an interesting article about freedom of speech and how it's defined differently in various democratic countries. His thesis: in the US the freedom is basic, it includes the right to lie, offend and even preach hatred though not to incite to violence; in other countries where history has had its ugly chapters freedom of speech is sometimes curtailed so as to protect those societies from the proven worst in themselves; and in Canada, where there is no such troublesome past, freedom of speech is unabashedly curtailed so as to promote societal harmony.

While his pride at the American exceptionalism is probably justified, it might be worth adding that the very-non-free-speech ideology of political correctness is an American invention, also. PC isn't enshrined in the Constitution, thank God, nor will it ever be amended into it, one hopes, but it certainly reflects a powerful strand of American thought.

Personally, I'm all for more freedom, not less. I say this in spite of the fact that too much of the lying, offense and incitement to hate is directed against Jews, and always has been these past 2,000-some years. (And will continue to be). The Jew haters should be given the freedom to unveil themselves for what they are, so that we'll know to recognize them and protect ourselves, and also so that we'll be able to talk back so that their audiences also recognize them for what they are. Shutting them up won't make them go away, it will merely make them harder to find and combat.

My position, however, assumes a market place of freely expressed ideas, and the ability of people to think. The ability is there more often than not, I hope, but it shows itself only if there are competing ideas with which it can do its thing. When the spewing of hatred happens in sealed echo chambers where no other voices are allowed (i.e. where there is no freedom of speech), then the endless incitement surely is dangerous. Freedom of speech requires real freedom in order to work.

(This, by the way, was my motive for challenging that non-Arab who called himself Ibrahim, and then anyone else. I don't need them to shut up. I dare them to stand forward in a free and open market place, where their ideas can be cleansed by the sunlight of close inspection).

Palestinian Genocide

Although the words are never explicitly used, Seth Friedman's current article at the Guardian can't really be read in any other way:
The bloody violence in Nilin showed me that Israel's security wall could be the final blow in the destruction of Palestine.

Time is not on the Palestinians' side. Just as Nilin appears in its death throes today, so too will another village tomorrow, then another, then another. As the life of the Palestinian nation ebbs away, the best treatment on offer is merely palliative; and even that is proving too weak to soothe their never-ending anguish.

Let's assume, for the purpose of the argument, that the description of the events at Nilin is scrupulously factual and fair. Even were that so, there is no factual connection between it and the over-arching conclusion; while there are oceans of proof that the Palestinians are alive, very much kicking, and nowhere remotely near ebbing away; nor is there any evidence whatsoever that there is an Israeli policy to make it ebb away. In other words, Friedman's article is fanciful, dishonest, and malicious.

Is it antisemitic? There are a number of levels to a possible answer. One is that Friedman himself is not only Jewish, but he's had a rather tortured relationship with Israel, and his path to his present animosity was rather interesting. But this of course isn't relevant, since since there have always been Jewish Jew haters; having a Jewish mother doesn't create immunity.

Another is the fact of the prominence of the article on the Guardian's website: in a very unusual, though not unprecedented gesture, the editors have kept this post on the front page of the website since June 9th. Four days straight and counting. Tells you something about their frame of mind, doesn't it.

The antisemitism in many of the comments isn't even veiled.

Finally, am I advocating that such articles not get published? Of course not. It would be nice, but not realistic, to expect of the editors of the Guardian that they create a marketplace of ideas, so that the maliciousness of the anti-Zionist-sometimes-antisemitic ideas be clear to any reasonable observer, but even when they don't, the UK is a free society and the readers can find other ideas elsewhere. This is even more true about the rest of us, out here in cyberspace. The danger, As I've noted above, is when people live in a sealed echo chamber. What I am saying, however, is that in that marketplace of ideas, Friedman can spew antisemitism, and those of us who recognize it for what it is can say so. The freedom to speak goes in all directions. Why, in some cases (this isn't one of them) we should be free even to label people as antisemites even when they aren't.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Bribery Not Recognized for Tax Exemptions

Israel's Supreme Court has ruled that companies that pay bribery probably shouldn't be allowed to tote up the sums for tax exemption purposes. Nice of them, huh?

The company claimed that when dealing in the former Soviet Union, there's no other way of doing business, but the court still felt it was a bad idea.

Ambassador Reads Ruminations

Israel's ambassador to the UK, Ron Prosor, obviously reads Ruminations, else how to explain that he knows all this?

Update: and Israel's president obviously doesn't read Ruminations, else how to explain his ignorance of the fact that he himself has been in politics for the past 60-some years?

A Free, Independent, and Thinking Media

A young woman who makes her living from making documentary films took advantage of her connections and managed to make a film about life in Olmert's inner circle. Apparently some years ago she worked for him, so he trusted her to give a fair portrayal. And indeed, there is nothing in this article to suggest she didn't. However, she had the bad luck to complete the production just at a moment when no self respecting journalist or editor of any sort of media outlet could afford to say anything favorable about Olmert. So her film was deleted from the program.

It's so reassuring to know that our media places self regulation above giving us citizens raw information that might confuse us. That they keep track of the plot line, the good guys and the bad guys, and try not to let us mix them up.

Another group who are also protecting us from unnecessary confusion is the State Prosecution. According to the front page of Maariv this morning, Olmert cannot give interviews these days because the prosecution has warned him that this could be construed as obstruction of a criminal investigation, since inevitably any interviewer would ask him about all those bad things he has done, and by responding he would be cuing his fellow conspirators about his line of defense, assuming of course that his fellow conspirators follow the media.

As I've consistently said so far, I don't know if Olmert is or isn't a crook. What I do know is that the process is a travesty of justice.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Dimitre Dinev, Engelszungen

I've got this pile of books I've read in recent months which I haven't yet put away, expecting to write about them first. Well, it doesn't look like I'll find the time for many serious reviews anytime so, so here's an abbreviated one.

Dimitre Dinev is a youngish Bulgarian who's been living in Vienna since 1990. This excellent book is not his first, but it may be his first novel. And, no, so far as Amazon tells me, it hasn't been translated into English. Whether it was originally written in Bulgarian or German, I cannot tell, since the formulation on the dust cover is ambiguous. Which is interesting, because Germans (and Austrians) aren't big fans of ambiguity - but that's a a tale for some other day.

Engelszungen (Angel's Tongues) is the story of two Bulgarian families throughout most of the 20th Century, the Mladenovs and the Apostolovs. Both families are (mostly) from the town of Plovdiv, and while the various family members saunter by one another again and again, and their stories cover much the same ground, there are almost no moments of face-to-face encounters. Maybe two in the entire book.

If you're honest with yourself you'll admit that you know almost nothing about Bulgaria, nor are you particularly bothered by your ignorance. No problem: the author (and his protagonists) assume as much. Once you've read this book, however (in German, or if and when it eventually comes out in English) you'll have to admit that the Bulgarians seems to have been here throughout, living much the same sort of lives you'd have expected had you been paying attention. Dinev skillfully presents us with an entire gallery of characters, some more successful, some less, many sometime more and sometimes less unless it be the other way around, with a faint preference for the nebbichs. The single most positive figure, almost the top heroine of the story, for example, is a simple woman whose real life, it appears, begins after the deaths of two daughters and her husband, when she reforges a life for herself based upon visiting their graves and telling them all the crazy things that are going on. One of her sons, on the other hand, is one of the few figures who figures out who to use the system to reach as high as he wishes, becoming the top local communist... until everything he has built falls apart.

Dinev writes with a dry but hilarious tone. Ognjan, for example, taught medicine at the university until one day the Fascists searched his apartment and found Communist publications there, True, they were cut into narrow strips from which he rolled cigarettes, but you could still make out some sentences, so Ognjan was sentenced to an unpleasant period in a stinky cell; after he was released he was allowed to forget his academic career. So he stopped smoking and concentrated on his private practice until the Communists came to power, when he was reinstated with honors at the university and went back to his important research of lung diseases. One day his apartment was again searched. Of course the authorities trusted him, but as you know Comrade Lenin once said that checking was the highest form of trust. And indeed, they found some Fascist newspapers in his place. Admittedly, they were cut into strips and were hanging on a nail in the toilet serving as toilet paper, but if you looked closely you could still decipher some of the sentiments therein. So he was packed off again to a camp. The first time around he'd stopped smoking, but how can you stop shitting? Fortunately, the authorities in the camp supplied the prisoners with so little food that the problem seldom arose.... Years (and 300 pages) later Ognjan solved the problem by subscribing to a magazine that specialized in hunting, which was a political neutral topic.

Many of the comic sentences hardly veil the tragic reality beneath them. God created people, so he cares for them. People, on the other hand, created bureaucratic forms, so they care about them: this as an explanation of the tribulations prospective immigrants from Eastern Europe faced while trying to better their lives in the West.

On the Idiocy of the Separation Wall

The separation barrier between Israel and the West Bank which Israel began building in 2002 as a response to the seemingly unstoppable Palestinian strategy of breaking Israel's will by randomly murdering civilians, has proven itself. Along with the re-conquering of the West Bank in 2002, and the heavy controlling hand the IDF has held on the Palestinians ever since - roadblocks, arrests-interrogations-more arrests - Israel managed to do what 100% of the pundits claimed it couldn't do, namely break the Palestinian violence without caving in to the unacceptable Palestinian demands.

This was a historic achievement, the significance of which cannot be over-estimated. It wasn't fully successful, and as many of us knew in advance they would, the Palestinians innovated other ways of murdering civilians, which we've yet figured out how to block. Yet the most potent weapon they'd ever deployed, the suicide murderer, has largely been countered.

That's the context for this article in Haaretz, a long and somewhat one-sided description of how the construction of the barrier was done all wrong. I've decided to link to it for a number of reasons, in spite of it's being a rather uncomfortable read. First, because it's largely true and it's part of the important story. Second, because it demonstrates that things can be done all wrong and still be right, or better: in the real world, even things that need to be done are often done stupidly. Better stupid than not at all, of course. Third, because it's a fine demonstration of the difference between Haaretz and the Israel bashers. The people at Haaretz try to be well informed and to get things right; the Israel bashers couldn't care less about facts, so long as they can string together a story that shows how evil Israel is.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Jerusalem Not in the Koran

The other day some fellow at al-Jezeera interviewed an Israeli professor from Bar Ilan, Mordechai Kedar, live, about the Israeli crimes in Jerusalem. Or that's what the interviewer thought. Kedar, speaking fluent Arabic, turned the interview around.

The interviewer started by asking about Israeli intentions to build in (East) Jerusalem, to which Kedar responded sharply by saying that Jerusalem was Jewish long long before the Arabs had Islam. When the interviewer tried to quote the Koran, Kedar told him Jerusalem isn't mentioned in the Koran even once... and you can see the astonishment on the fellow's face.

Land for Peace (2)

A while back I linked to an article in Haaretz that cited a Palestinian source as admitting that in the current round of talks Israel has offered to transfer at least 90 of the West Bank plus an additional land swap.

Here's a link to a similar item, this time in the New York Times. I've linked for future use, when the Israel bashers talk about Israel's avarice for Palestinian land and that sort of stuff.

The main focus of the article is about the negotiations (or lack of them) regarding Jerusalem.
Mr. Qurei, responding to Mr. Regev’s remarks, made it clear in a telephone interview on Saturday that a mere framework would be unacceptable. “If there is no Jerusalem, there will be no agreement,” he said.
Now compare that, if you wish, to the long series of Zionist and then Israeli responses to real partition proposals since the mid-1930 until Clinton's attempted dictate in December 2000. The Zionists (prior to 1948) and the Israelis since have generally anguished over the extent of what they'd have to give up compared to the chance for peace with sovereignty, and preferred the compromise. Now compare that to Abu Alla (Qurei), who says that a sovereign Palestinian state is worthless without Jerusalem. And he's a moderate, remember.

Friday, June 6, 2008

June 6th

June 6th 1944: D-Day
June 6th, 1967: The 1st day of the Six Days War
June 6th, 1982: The beginning of the [first] Israel-Lebanon war.

Martin Luther King's Dream

Tom Toles in The Washington Post:

Eugene Robinson, himself black, puts it into words.
I'm old enough to remember when Americans with skin the color of mine and Obama's had to fight -- and die -- for the right to participate as equals in the life of the nation we helped build. Watching Obama give his speech Tuesday night marking the end of the primary season and the beginning of the general election campaign, I thought back to a time when brave men and women, both black and white, put their lives on the line to ensure that African Americans had the right to vote, let alone run for office.

President of the United States is No Dream

The Economist looks forward to the real campaign: Each party has chosen the best candidate, and now let's hope they'll have a real discussion of issues.

It's a frankly pro-American article, well warranted.
Both candidates have their flaws and their admirable points; the doughty but sometimes cranky old warrior makes a fine contrast with the inspirational but sometimes vaporous young visionary. Voters now have those five months to study them before making up their minds (and The Economist will be doing the same). But, on the face of it, this is the most impressive choice America has had for a very long time.
Democracy at its finest.

Stealing Jerusalem

What if, just for the sake of argument, animosity towards Israel sometimes could be a form of antisemitism? Might it perhaps look like this?

So there we were, thinking that the country had come of age at last, finally putting truth in the rumours about liberty and equality first spread by a group of slave-owners some ten-score and thirty years ago. Obama's securing of the nomination alone underscores how much the country has changed in the 20 years I have been here.

However, I am glad that I kept some reservations about the idea of Obama taking us to the New Jerusalem. Not least since he was busy giving away the old one to those who stole it.

Ian Williams, you understand, is deeply disappointed that Obama may not be of one mind with the Guardian community when it comes to Israel. Many commentors on his post agree, predictably.

Actually, there's a limit to how much significance one ought to attach to a speech given by a politician at an AIPAC conference, just as one ought to take any speech before a focussed interest group with a bit of salt. The part of the speech that I found interesting was Obama's story about first encountering the story of Zionism when he was 11, and how it fit into his own understanding of the world: his life had until then been rather rootless, and here was a story about the strength of roots. It is this deep and fundamental understanding of the essence of Zionism which differentiates so sharply between most Americans, and much of the rest of the world. And, yes, in my mind there is a connection between that and the fact that antisemitism has always been weaker in America than in Europe.

(A methodological comment: When I tag things with the "Antisemitism" tag, I'm not necessarily saying that's what it is. I'm collecting footnotes for a future bit of research I may some day find the time for, about who is and who isn't an antisemite, and how to tell. And here's another Guardian gem, titled Critical Thinking, no less).

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Our Interests make us Right

Remember Kosovo? That complicated sliver of the Balkans where nobody pretends to respect international law, international institutions, international norms or anything else, and everybody acts according to their interests, just like in the real world?

Well, the saga drags on. At the moment, if I've managed to follow this report, the EU is arraigned with the Americans against the UN, except for the parts of the EU which are against the EU and are siding with the Russians, who are strengthening the resolve of the UN not to cave in to the EU.

Or something like that.

No Truck with Gaza

A Hamas mortar shell shot from Gaza has killed an Israeli civilian and wounded some others this morning.

The past week or two has seen a number of local attempts by Israeli civilians to hurt the Palestinians in Gaza. Last week it was a demonstration to block supply trucks headed into Gaza. Now there's a consumer boycott being launched against the Dor fuel company, the main supplier of fuel into Gaza.

As regular readers will have noticed by now, I'm not a starry-eyed fan of international law in its contemporary form. These new developments, however, seem to pose a new challenge. As the prophets of international law often tell us, it relates to states, not to sub-state players, which is why they castigate Israel (a state) more than Hezbullah, Hamas, al-Qaida et al, which are less than states.

OK, very well. What then would happen if large numbers of Israeli citizens, acting as private citizens rather than as a national agent, were to begin inflicting pain on Gaza in response to the pain being inflicted from Gaza by non-state actors. Clearly this can't be illegal, can it.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The Brazilian Man's Burden

Last week we all briefly looked at those strange pictures of living stone-age tribe members deep in the Brazilian jungle.

Now Danny Rabinowitz is here to put the story right. The photographers in the helicopters are colonial intruders intent on destroying the way of life of the wise natives, and the natives, by shooting their arrows at the helicopters, are engaging in a piercing critique of modernity.
Thus their existence in the forest could be something else than an expression of passivity. It could well be an active survival strategy, a conscious choice to withdraw from a threatening reality of violence, disease, subjugation and humiliation. The arrows fired at the helicopter, which could have been seen as an instinctive, boorish response to an unfamiliar entity, should perhaps be read by us as a piercing critique of modernity.
Codswallop, as they say in Yiddish. While the argument about noble savages vs. benighted primitives has been going on for at least 500 years, Rabinowitz's statement is simply ridiculous. The tribesmen are ignorant of the modern world, and don't have the slightest way of evaluating it so as to make a choice that their way of life is superior. The Unabomber, leaving civilisation to go off and live in the forest while sending off the occasional bomb back to civilization - he had the tools to make his choices, and make them he did. But these poor people? Do you think if they were given the choice between living in dugouts and surviving on berries, or enjoying the comforts most modern city dwellers have, including a life expectancy unprecedented in human history, they'd choose the dugouts? And even if they did, being too old to adapt, what choice would they make for their grandchildren, if they could?

Antisemitic Palestinian Schoolbooks

According to this report, Abbas was willing to take the first steps toward cleaning the Palestinian schoolbooks of their standard staple of hatred, but Hamas has reversed the trend and is adding purely antisemitic themes to their schoolbooks.

Lest you think it's only Hamas, listen to Jamal Zakkaut, spokesman for PA Prime Minister Salam Fayad, perhaps the most moderate Palestinian leader around:
the main cause for Palestinian ill will toward Israel is not the textbooks, but Israel's many checkpoints in the West Bank, the separation barrier and military operations in Palestinian towns.
None of which were in place when the Palestinians rejected the partition offered them in 2000. No matter: Zakkout is aiming his comments at the majority of people who can't remember that far back, to the dawn of the century.

Ben Gurion Must Have Been Right

Amir Oren has an article in Haaretz today titled Olmert's sad legacy. OK, another one who doesn't like Olmert. Hardly a sign of fierce and independent thinking these days.

What I found interesting in the article was his use of a quote from Ben Gurion:
"If it were possible to make the arrangement we made with Abdullah, that he would receive something from us and we would receive the Old City of Jerusalem, its Jewish part up to the Western Wall, I would think that would be a great thing," David Ben-Gurion reported to the cabinet in January 1950 on his talks with the Jordanian king, the great-grandfather of the present king. "If we had conquered the Old City, we would not have left it, but to prevent Begin and others from blowing up the tomb of Jesus, I am not so enthusiastic about that." Ben-Gurion summed things up by saying: "Our position: U.N. supervision of the holy places; we don't have to ask for the whole matter of sovereignty and customs."
Oren sums up his thesis with a rueful wish for someone like Ben Gurion. Someone who would divide Jerusalem, I suppose.

Barak already offered to, but Oren doesn't mention him. Intriguingly, neither does he take note of BG's stipulation: "If we had conquered the Old City we would not leave it". Hardly a resounding endorsement of Oren's thesis that Israel must divide the city, it seems to me, though he's blithely unaware of what he himself has just written. He then goes on to quote BG's fear of the evil Beginites who will try to destroy the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. In which context it might perhaps be legitimate to note that Israel has controlled the church for 41 years now, with nary an attack by anyone, not even the Beginites.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Life Goes On

I was at the central cemetery of Jerusalem this afternoon for the first time in a while. Near the entrance a fellow named Dayan has set up a small kiosk with the optimistic name of Dayan's Refreshments. How do we know? Because as you drive in you can't miss the big white sign he's put up with the name of his establishment. Underneath he has helpfully added the services he offers to mourners:

Commemorative Candles, sandwiches, hot & cold drinks, icicles

Monday, June 2, 2008

Stacking the Deck

The prosecution's behavior in the Talansky case has been far worse than scandalous, and anything but a search for truth and justice. (Which doesn't mean that Olmert isn't a crook. For all I know, he may be. But it will be a long time before we know, if ever, and in the meantime he'll long since have been forced from power to be replaced by political turmoil).

Well, it now seems that someone in the prosecution has noticed how wrong they're doing things, and is busy preparing an alibi: the politicians and the public are to blame:
A law enforcement official has said over the past few days that he is concerned that public and political pressures over the Olmert-Talansky affair might cause investigators to seek an indictment against Prime Minister Olmert even if the evidence does not warrant it.

The End of Days

Ean McEwan has a long article about apocalyptic belief, the belief that the end of the world is near. The second half, by the way, is better than the first. It's not world-class thinking, but it is interesting, you'll learn bits of history you didn't previously know, and it seems to me a reasonable pean to rational skeptical thinking.

Jerusalem makes its appearance, inevitably, and the Jews appear repeatedly. McEwan doesn't ask himself why the Jews are so central to many of agents of ending the world, but then, that's not really a politically correct question, is it.

Libraries vs. Google

Robert Darnton in the New York Review of Books has a longish reflection on the importance of books, old books, and research libraries, while acknowledging that Goggle's attempt to scan them all is important even though it will never succeed.

His description of how news was created in Newark 50 years ago is hilarious. (All the news that's worth interrupting the journalist's poker game, seems to have been the motto). And yes, no doubt things haven't gotten any better since then. He also notes that
Google employs hundreds, perhaps thousands, of engineers but, as far as I know, not a single bibliographer.
Do you think he's right? Oy.