Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Dealing with Hamas

Remember last year when Israel arrested some high Hamas officials in the West Bank? Everyone condemned that action, of course. Well, according to this article, Abbas is now warning that if Israel sets the men free, he'll disband the PA, no less.

Again: if Israel deals with this group of Palestinians, that group will do its utmost to block the effort. Keep this in mind the next time you read one of those calls for negotiations with Hamas.

IDF Violence in Context

As a general statement, critics of Israel can be divided into two groups: those who see the flaws and criticize so they'll be corrected, and those who see the flaws and deduce they're so serious Israel's sovereignty must be curtailed or worse. The very large second group can likewise be divided roughly into two groups: the ones who don't know what they're talking about, and the ones who willfully look away from what they know. That second group is made up mostly of Israelis themselves, because in order to know what's going on you need to know Hebrew, and you need to see the full context, and those two are hard to do from far away - so we're talking about the Amira Hasses and the Gideon Levys and a large chunk of the so-called "human rights" mafia. The first group is everybody else, and as we all know, it's a very large group.

Here's an example of what context means.

Yesterday a Palestinian child, 11-year-old Ahmen Moussa, was killed by a shot to the head. The IDF concedes that the shot came from our side, so this isn't one of those cases where responsibility for the death is contested. The full circumstances are not clear, and could range anywhere from the intentional and cold-blooded shooting of a child to a stray bullet accidentally shot from an IDF weapon as its bearer was ducking Palestinian projectiles (one of which took out the eye of one of the IDF troops at the same event yesterday).

So far so bad. Even once the immediate context is clarified, however, there's still the broader context. For example, the fact that this article appeared on the front page of Haaretz this morning: Amos Harel (a serious and knowledgeable reporter), "Israeli security forces losing control in the West Bank".
Recent protests around the village of Na'alin in opposition to the separation fence seem to show a loss of control... However, a series of events - the shooting of a bound Palestinian protester; two Military Police probes; and as of Tuesday the suspension of a battalion commander - show a worrying and dangerous downward spiral. The fact that these happenings are taking place under increased scrutiny by the international media encourages the opponents of the fence to ratchet up the conflict. Apparently, it also increases pressure on IDF officers, who are having difficulty keeping events in check.
No mincing words there. The situation is bad, and seems to be getting worse. And indeed, at the end of the article Harel calls for changes to be made:
The situation in Na'alin is the kind of problem that requires the personal attention of Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, as well as of GOC Central Command Gad Shamni. In an interview in 2004, Ashkenazi, then deputy chief of staff, said: "My greatest concern is that the IDF will lose its humanity because of the continued fighting." That has not happened to the extent Ashkenazi feared, but neither does the chief of staff's campaign to restore discipline to the IDF after the Second Lebanon War seem to have been a great success in view of the events in Na'alin.
So, the most important newspaper in the country is using its front page to demand of the head of the army that he get his act together. So far so reasonable. What I found particularly interesting, however, was this short passage:
According to IDF statistics, the boy who was shot Tuesday was the first Palestinian citizen to be killed in the West Bank this year, after the killing of 34 terrorists (the Palestinians count a number of civilians killed, but they, too, concede that the number is low). That figure reflects more care in this matter than in previous years, along with a lessening of friction with the Palestinian population. The control by PA security forces in the West Bank, as well as security coordination with the IDF, are improving.
34 dead fighters and one innocent civilian. That's one too many, of course, but it's also the sign of an army that's waging a low-level war with significant care not to harm anyone but the armed fighters facing it. During the same period 11 Israeli civilians have been murdered in Jerusalem, which ought to remind us that the IDF isn't waging a campaign against an imaginary foe; earlier this week they killed a terrorist who had dispatched a murderer into Israel some months ago and would have done so again if he'd been able to. The lessening of friction with the Palestinian populace: doesn't sound like a brutal and callous army to me, rather an army trying to figure out how to do things with as little damage as possible. The growing coordination with the PA indicates that there are another positive aspects to the story, too.

And did you see the comment about the small number of dead civilians the Palestinians claim dead at the IDF's hands, while the IDF refuses to take responsibility? Interesting, isn't it? Sometimes IDF troops kill innocent Palestinians and set up inquiries; other-times Palestinians try to blame Israel for deaths Israel didn't commit. How are you going to know who's right? If you automatically believe either side, you're potentially putting your preferences before truth. If you try to follow past experience you'll have to agree that the IDF officials don't generally lie, but that doesn't automatically mean they'll never screw up. Especially as in some cases the truth simply isn't knowable, as for example when the corpse is hurriedly buried and there's no possibility to do an autopsy to determine the type of bullet that did the killing.

Then of course you have the unquantifiables, such as how the general Israeli populace sees the whole story and its parts. If you want to damn Israel, surely you need to know that, too? Well, I can't tell you, because I don't really know - which in itself is an interesting finding.

Juan Cole on AIPAC

Here's a tidbit from Informed Content:
Russia just defeated the US in the race for Central Asian gas. The US bet on a gas pipeline through Taliban territory in Afghanistan and Pakistan to India while trying to sideline Russia and Iran! Putin is rivalling the emir of Kuwait as a fossil fuel master of the universe. The only question is when some big power will get hungry enough for natural gas to defy AIPAC's congressional boycott on developing Iran's oil and gas fields. It is likely that future historians will date the end of America's superpower status from that date.
I admit I'm not certain what his point is. The obvious statement is that AIPAC is hurting American interests, but the broader one seems to be saying that it's AIPAC that's shoring up America's superpower status, since when someday someone defies them, that will be the beginning of the end etc. But surely Cole can't be saying that, can he? I mean, AIPAC may be an effective lobby, but it doesn't have the power to determine world history; that's the kind of thing the more fervent antisemites believe in. Or is he assuming that AIPAC controls lots of countries, and the first of them to break its grasp and build oil fields in Iran will topple America?

Very curious. If any of you can explain it to me I'd be obliged.

PS. As I've been saying, global warming or not, someone needs to wean us of our dependency on fossil fuels. And, yes, better Americans or Israelis or both, than Russian Chinese or Arabs.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Jews Expelled from Arab Countires

The Guardian (!!!) has an article about the fact that the Jewish-Arab conflict created two groups of people forced out of their homes, without their property, into a new land. Though, of course, that's where the similarities end.

I especially like this sentence:
The Jewish state, which struggled to take in 600,000, many of them stateless, is both a response to Arab antisemitism, and the legitimate political expression of an indigenous Middle Eastern people. Half Israel's Jewish population is descended from refugees from Arab and Muslim lands.
Sort of puts a dent into the Zionism=Colonialism thesis, if half the Israeli Jews are local Mideasterners. (And most of the other half were refugees from Europe, or, more recently, escapees from the Soviet block).

Prison, Interrogations, Torture: Israel and Palestine

There are various ways to figure out how a society does things, and what it does about things that go wrong. One way is to look at the legislation and compare it with the reality. You can measure the reality through systematic monitoring efforts, or you can look for the exceptions and assume they tell the greater truth. You can see if funds are invested in the monitoring or if the monitors are endangered by their very activities. You might benefit from following the long-term trajectories: does the society try to do better, or is it indifferent? Of course, the very essence of what are regarded as infractions are illuminative. Are powerful men who build palaces from public funds the norm, or do capable elected leaders get booted out for delinquencies in the funding of their campaigns?

The system used by many of Israel's critics has none of this sophistication. Faux-Lawrence, to give one rather insignificant example, never aims at context, he merely collects tidbits that fit his template. Sometimes he uses Haaretz, while disregarding what any reasonable reader knows, namely that Haaretz - like any media outlet - reports the exceptions, not the norm. It's the "man bites dog" principle: a dog biting a man doesn't get into the paper, but a man biting a dog does (or, if you want to take that one further: when a bulldog mauls a child it does get into the paper, but the entire lives of thousands of bulldogs that never bite anyone will never be reported). Our own in-house skeptic, here on this blog, faux-Ibrahim, uses the same methods, which is perhaps forgivable given that he knows nothing about Israel beyond what he can find in English (or Spanish) on the web.

Israel has armies of critics, many of them homegrown, whose entire professional careers are dedicated to finding the exceptions and damning us for them. The finding is actually a reasonable occupation, one we should welcome, since by telling us where we're going wrong we know what needs to be corrected. The damning, mostly done in English for the benefit of foreigners, is a bit more problematic, but we live with it. Given the extent of the effort to show us how wrong we are, the findings, while regrettable in themselves, are not fundamentally awful.

Anyway, here is a link to an official government document, researched and written by employees of the state, submitted to the relevant officials and then put on the web so that anyone can see, right next to the reports from previous years so that readers can compare. The document is a report on how our prisons are run, and it's uncomfortable reading. Even if your position is that prisoners aren't supposed to have a good life - a reasonable position - the gap between what should be and what is, is greater than we should be allowing, no matter what the objective reasons for it might be.

Now, compare this to two reports about our neighbors the Palestinians. With them, it transpires, torture is the routine, not an exception. Pretty much as you'd expect from a society that regards the murder of innocents as a legitimate way of war. And it's not being monitored by the PA, either, and certainly not by the Hamas officials in Gaza.

Palestinian Students at Israeli Universities

The Committee of Heads of Universities in Israel has sent a sharp letter to Minister of Defense Barak disputing a document put out by his ministry specifying the conditions in which Palestinian students may study in Israel. (The article is in Hebrew. Here is a PDF of the letter itself). The need for the limitations arose after the court struck down a more general decree forbidding Palestinians to study at Israeli universities; the court put academic freedom above security considerations. (Can Iranian and North Korean students freely study at American universities? I have no idea).

The heads of the universities are supported by the Minister of Education, so the argument is between two government ministries; actually, given the hierarchy of government ministries, the argument is between minister number 1 from Labor vs. minister number 2 from Labor.

The issues a society argues over can tell you a lot about the larger picture. In this case, for example, note that the Palestinian students under discussion are not Israeli citizens who happen to be Arabs: those can study whatever they want, obviously, if their grades are good enough. The question is if Israeli universities must offer training to Palestinians who are effectively at war with us, in fields that will give them improved tools to damage us; and the second question, irrespective of the field of study, is if Palestinians who otherwise would not be allowed into Israel, must be let in merely because they've managed to be accepted to a university.

I'm not certain which side of this argument I'm on. Somewhere in the middle, probably: there certainly need to be categories and limitations: studying at an Israeli university isn't a fundamental human right (Someone very close to me was recently rejected); on the other hand, ensuring that our security fellows don't go overboard is a reasonable demand.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Ultimate Pole (or...?)

The Economist has an obituary for Bronislaw Geremek, "Polish historian and politician", one of the handful of people who formulated Polish history in the second half of the 20th century, and thereby also European history.

He was also a Holocaust survivor.

Capitalists to the Rescue

It's no coincidence that the high priests of the Church of Global Warming tend to come from the political Left: these are the people who simultaneously want to revolutionize the world, while controlling the masses, meaning the people who live in it.

Meanwhile, some top-tier capitalists have taken it into their heads to rid us of the curse of fossil fuels by appealing to our selfish interests: our spare cash. Thomas Friedman tells the story of two of the more prominent of them, but there are growing numbers of their lesser colleagues in greed, all of whom wish to vastly enrich themselves by having the rest of us save a bit here and there. Even worse, look at their identities: an Israeli and a Texan. Hard to think of less likely places to look for world-savers if you're a progressive Nation reader or a Guardianista. Oy.

The Descent of Man (or, some Jewish men)

Most of you will be familiar with this, but it's cute:

Moses: Law is everything (head)
Jesus: Love is everything (heart)
Marx: Money is everything (stomach)
Freud: Sex is everything (lower)

Einstein: Everything is relative

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Guardian on Obama on Israel

The Guardian, like many other organs of the Far Left/Progressives, has sorrowfully accepted that a President Obama won't pursue all the policies they'd like him to. No one who tried to do that could ever be elected president of the United States (or prime minister of the UK, for that matter, but that's another story. Hint: After hounding Tony Blair out of office and installing a "better man", here's what they have to say about the new one. But I digress).

So, Obama, even if elected, probably won't try to impose an international boycott on Israel, even the Guardian understands that. But they haven't quite lost hope that perhaps he'll do something, anything, that they might be able to cheer, even as they admit that the auspices aren't so good. Just in case someone on his staff reads their leaders, however, they spelled out for him what's needed:
To deliver a two-state solution, Mr Obama will have to persuade Israel to halt all settlement construction, before handing back a viable West Bank - not one fragmented by settlements, exclusive roads for cars with Israeli number plates, nature reserves, military restricted areas and over 600 checkpoints, barriers and other closures.
What makes this statement so truly and authentically idiotic is that had the Palestinians agreed to the dictated terms of President Bill Clinton from December 24th 2000, which Israel agreed to, they would have been in the seventh year of their independence already, the settlements would have been gone, there would have been no exclusive roads for Israelis or any of the other things on that list... not to mention that as recently as September 2000 there weren't any roadblocks and barriers, because they are measures implemented by Israel after the Palestinians chose violence over statehood.

No one expects the Guardianistas to remember things that happened 2000 years ago: that's a trick of the Jews. But 2000 days ago? Is that really so hard?

Presedent Obama, President McCain, President Chomsky - whoever. The Israeli electorate has repeatedly said, most recently in the elections of 2006, that it's ready for the two-state solution, including the disbanding of most of the settlements etc etc.

So what does the Guardian say the Palestinians must do?
A genuine negotiator has to say unpalatable things to them as well, especially about the need to control militant groups. Israel is never going to accept a Palestinian state unless it can guarantee the security of the Israeli state first.
Yes, this is true. But it's hardly enough. There are those two sticky issues of Jerusalem, and the Palestinian demand for an Israeli acceptance of their Right of Return. Small things, not worthy of being mentioned in a Guardian leader, but still relevant to the matter, don't you think? And since there will be no peace until they are resolved, and there's nothing an American president can do to make them go away no matter what his name is or hers, it's hard to see why anyone expects his identity will change much around here.

Good vs. Evil in the Middle East

A Kuwaiti newspaper comments on how it's better to have Israel as your enemy than it was to have Saddam's Iraq. The murderer Samir Kuntar went home fat and with a university degree, while the (mostly innocent) Kuwaitis arrested by the Iraqis went home in little plastic bags of bones.

Meanwhile, the NYT has yet another story in its lengthening series of stories about how the right side is slowly winning in the long struggle to move Iraq from one of the world's most malign dictatorships to a functioning democracy; this time the story is from Sadr city: yes, even in Sadr city, where Moktada al-Sadr reigned supreme only last year.

It is a remarkable change from years past, when the militia, led by the anti-American cleric Moktada al-Sadr, controlled a broad swath of Baghdad, including local governments and police forces. But its use of extortion and violence began alienating much of the Shiite population to the point that many quietly supported American military sweeps against the group. (My italics).
It appears that when given a real choice between a rule of brutal thugs and a rule of civilized government, many people prefer the latter. Since in spite of everything said to the contrary, the Americans in Iraq represent the rule of law while their enemies are bloody thugs, over time the American vision of how life could be will prevail.

Someday this will happen in other parts of the Arab world as well. Perhaps even with the Palestinians, one hopes.

On Being Grownups

Anyone who looks forward to a day when Israelis and Palestinians will live alongside one another with civility - and any reasonable person should be looking forward to such a time - will be disheartened by the new round of internal Palestinian bloodletting in Gaza.

The Hamas people hate the Fatah people, the Fatah people hate the Hamas ones, and they all hate the Israelis. Fine. Hatred is an emotion, and it's not always easy to determine which emotions one harbors. It's a sign of adulthood, however, that you're able to subordinate your emotions to your coldly calculated interests. Wouldn't it be nice if for once the Palestinians would shelve their hatreds for long enough to begin building a better future for themselves? I even have a sneaking suspicion that if they were to do so, the Israelis might take notice and try to help, given that our lives would be easier and more pleasant if the Palestinians behaved as adults. But even if there were no Israeli recognition of the fact: wouldn't it be worth the Palestinians' effort simply to improve things in their society to the limited extent they can do so on their own?

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Echoes of distant horrors

The final Mishna of the 6th chapter of the Bava Batra tractate deals with the construction of burial graves in Judea and the Galilee, which is where the Mishna was created. The following Gemarah is somewhat unreal, since so far as I know there weren't any comparable burial graves where it was created, in Babylon, which is today's Iraq - a flat and muddy place, with no rocky hills into which to dig burial caves. Yet these pre-Iraqi rabbis deliberated the elaborate details of the caves as if they were a part of their everyday experience. In a way, they were: Erez Yisrael always appears in Jewish literature with an immediacy not accorded to the actual environment of the scholars.

The whole section is rather morbid, yet a page or so into it it take on some even darker hues, when the rabbis discuss what happens when an orderly burial cave is found to have a disorderly pile of hastily buried bodies in its anteroom. The rabbis deliberate this matter for a page or so, and then move on to other matters.... But wait, what is it they're talking about? Why would a society with a clear burial tradition suddenly deviate from it into chaotic behavior? Unless, perhaps, the chaos is far more extensive than mere burial customs? Perhaps these dry discussions are skirting around an historical period of widespread violence, mass death, and hurried burials of mounds of corpses in old cemeteries?

Such as the Judean wars against the Romans, at the time of the Great Revolt in the 1st Century, and even more so the Bar Kochva revolt of 135 when the Romans committed an effective genocide of the Jews in Judea, killing perhaps 900,000 of them. Events of that magnitude can't be swept out of the communal consciousness, and tend to pop up in all sorts of unexpected spots.

And there they remain for as long as the communal memory keeps going. In the case of the Jews, almost two millenia and going strong.

Bava Babtra tractate, pages 101-102.

As always, I note for the benefit of readers who don't understand what I'm talking about, that this thread began here.

Randy Pausch, RIP

Prof. Randy Pausch has died. He was a brave man.

Friday, July 25, 2008

More on the Church of Global Warming

Last year the British Channel Four broadcast a film (which I haven't seen) called The Great Global Warming Swindle. Apparently it touched an extraordinarily sensitive nerve, because the other day the Guardian's Bishop of Global Warming, George Monbiot, wrote yet another column against the program, titled Global Warming is a Brutal Truth. It's worth reading, as it gives a good perspective into the sanctimonious mindset of the high priesthood of the Church of Global Warming.
It is not just because The Great Global Warming Swindle is at odds with the entire body of scientific knowledge on this subject that I have bothered to contest it. It is also because it is consonant with the entire body of human self-deception. We want to be misled, we crave it; and we will bend our minds into whatever shape they need to take in order not to face our brutal truths.
Speak for yourself, George.

You can also go to the Wikipedia article about Monbiot, and read the sorts of things he advocates:
Monbiot asserts that climate change is the "moral question of the 21st century" and that there is little time for debate or objections to a raft of emergency action he believes will stop climate change, including: setting targets on greenhouse emissions using the latest science; issuing every citizen with a 'personal carbon ration'; new building regulations with houses built to German passivhaus standard; banning incandescent lightbulbs, patio heaters, garden floodlights and other inefficient technologies; constructing large offshore wind farms, replacing the national gas grid with a hydrogen pipe network; a new national coach network to make journeys using public transport faster than using a car; all petrol stations to supply leasable electric car batteries with stations equipped with a crane service to replace depleted batteries; scrap road-building and road-widening programmes, redirecting their budgets to tackle climate change; reduce UK airport capacity by 90%; closing down all out-of-town superstores and replace them with warehouses and a delivery system.
Reduce UK airport capacity by 90%: that'll do the trick. Though, truth be told, there are elected governments out there who are already diligently beavering away in their attempt to have us all live by the precepts of the Church. Those of you who have been in Norway know that it's one of the most beautiful places on earth. As recently as 80 years ago the entire area was blighted by deep poverty and everything that went with it, but now it's inhabited by wealthy healthy people, thanks to oil offshore and the tourists who stream through in their cars. The locals also drive a lot, because, sort of like Los Angeles only far more so, you can't go anywhere unless you have a car. Well, the local politicians have decreed that driving is a luxury that people shouldn't indulge in.
"At a time when climate change is beginning to seriously impact the planet, and when Norway's carbon dioxide emissions are increasing, we politicians must take steps to meet these challenges," Finance Minister Kristin Halvorsen said
Those of you who are old enough to remember the 1990s may be able dimly to recollect an era when none of this had ever been dreamed up yet. Moreover, it's beginning to seem possible that the unborn children of today - say, the ones who will reach school in the 2030s - will also not be familiar with any of this, because by then we'll have forgotten it because it will have been proven wrong. Here, for example, is an article by an Australian scientist that's been making the internet rounds this week. He says that the globe was getting warmer last decade, it isn't now, and fossil fuels probably aren't relevant one way or the other.

PS. I've said before and I'll say it again: in my opinion, pumping millions of tons of gook into the air is probably a poor idea. Since the Saudis and their ilk, supported by the Russians and Chaves, control most of the reserves of the stuff, there is a terrific incentive to wean us of it. However, the way to go is to invent better alternatives, not to wreck the rather comfortable world we live in.

Play with human nature, not against it.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Why Do They Kill Jews?

Khaled Abu Toameh has been talking to various Palestinians, and has heard that all three Palestinian men who committed attacks in Jerusalem so far this year had a similar motivation: they had been in trouble for something, they had become a source of embarrassment, and they had to redeem their honor and that of their families. What better a way to do so than to murder Jews, and if they died in the process (as they all did) they'd have the further honor of being Shahids.

I've said this before and I'll continue to say it until it changes: Palestinian society is severely sick. Not every Palestinian, of course, and it doesn't have to be permanent, but right now, that's the situation.

(Hat tip: Kai).

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Freedom of Speech, Academic Freedom, and Nadia Abu el-Haj

A friend sent me a cutting from The New Yorker with the story of the attempt to block Nadia Abu el Haj from getting tenure at Barnard. The story isn't online, but the detailed abstract is here. My friend wanted my opinion, which I dutifully wrote down - and here it is:

I especially enjoyed – if that’s the word – the long article on Ms. Prof. Nadia Abu el-Haj. I haven’t read her book, I must say, so my ability to have an informed opinion on the matter is a bit cramped – though it doesn’t seem that most of the people in the story felt impaired by such considerations. Still, the story as told in the article raises interesting questions.

Generally speaking, I’m in favor of freedom of speech – one reason I tend to dislike the whole concept of political correctness is my heartfelt conviction that freedom of speech includes the freedom to be nasty, offensive, and to lie with a gusto. Has Ms el-Haj done any or all of these? I don’t know, but she may well have. More serious, to my mind, is that her basic assumptions – Zionism as a colonial project – seem silly to me, so that I could imagine that her entire argument is flawed from its start. But that’s clearly not a reason to shut her up. If we locked up all our fools, who would run our governments for us?

So trying to block her for talking nonsense sounds wrong to me.

On the other hand, there was a position clearly expressed by some of her allies in the controversy, whereby the public – taxpayers and philanthropists – must pay for the upkeep of the university, but dare not have any opinion about what’s taught there. This I find strange. Freedom of speech doesn’t necessarily have to mean freedom to live off the public purse. You want to talk nonsense and make a living from it too? Find a publisher, sell your books, go on the lecture tour, sell tickets, get employed by a think tank that’s expressly there for fools of your ilk and funded by the folks who like you. The distance between getting locked up for your opinion and having to make a living on your own steam so that you can express your opinions, seems to me rather significant.

Finally, a word about content – not the content of this book, which I haven’t read, but the content of some of what goes on at some universities, and much of which being influenced by the malign shadow of Edward Said, some of whose stuff I have read. There is, these days, a pernicious set of ideas being propagated by some people at some universities and in some media outlets, which is deeply offensive and threatening to liberal and rational humanism; and since liberal rational humanism is the least worst system man has so far devised for organizing society, undermining it is a bad idea. The propagators of these ideas need to be branded for what they are. They shouldn’t be locked up, they shouldn’t be shut up, but there is no harm and probably much good in setting them up for public shame and ridicule. Especially as they so love to mete out the same to whomever they don’t like.

A Place of Very Little Hope

Barack Obama was at Yad Vashem earlier today. At the end of his visit he commented that "ultimately, this is a place of hope".

Which of course it isn't, or shouldn't be.

Israel is ultimately a place of hope. The ability of the survivors of the Shoah to forge positive lives for themselves, many hundreds of thousands of them, is not only a place of hope, it's a deafening rebuke for all the fools who like to excuse victims or perceived victims for their consequent weaknesses. And yes, the designers of Yad Vashem's museum and grounds succumbed to the temptation and allowed their story to be caught up in the inspirational power of Israel, and at times they are carried away by the justified triumphalism of some survivors; by doing so, they diminish the story they're supposed to be telling.

But Obama, we're told, is extraordinarily intelligent, and sees farther and clearer than most of us. He should have been able to see through the distractions that were set in his path, and he should have been able to set aside the innate optimism of a liberal politician and of the black man who is poised to break the ultimate glass ceiling, and he should have recognized that Yad Vashem is anything but a place of hope. If there is hope for humanity it is in spite of that story, not as a result of it.

Teaching Hatred

Anne Applebaum has an interesting story about how the Saudi education authorities are inculcating hatred in children, and disseminating it as far and as wide as they can.

Now remember: there are no Israeli occupiers in Saudi Arabia. For that matter, there was never much of a European colonial domination of the area, either. You can hardly regard the Saudis as being part of an impoverished "South", can you. All in all, none of the standard templates for explaining away unpleasant non-Western behavior are much use when dealing with the Saudis. What you're left with is that they may simply believe in what they say, from choice, not necessity.

If you can live with that concept, the next thing will be to ask if there might be any connection between what the Saudis say and do, and what others in the Arab world say and do. Especially do.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The BBC on "Terror"

A few blocks away from here another Palestinian has decided to kill Jews at random in the name of his people's rights, or some such idiocy. I walked across that intersection about two hours earlier; my wife drives that route every day. George Bush stayed at the hotel one block away twice this year; Barack Obama will be there tonight.

The attacker was shot within seconds, which shows that while Palestinians learn from one another how to kill Jews, the Jews learn from one another how to kill killers, in this case even before he managed to kill. (Update: the 2nd shooter, an officer, is not Jewish. He's probably Druze, or an Arab Israeli).

And the BBC? They never learn anything. As you see when you follow that link, according to them it was an "attack", not an attack, and also:
Israeli police called it a "terror attack", although there was no immediate claim of responsibility by any Palestinian militant organisation.
Maybe the poor driver's foot got stuck on the gas pedal, and if only someone had been nice to him he would have found a way to lift it and we would have been able to commiserate with him how hard it is to live under Israeli occupation and also be racially profiled.

Is Google Making Us Stupid?

Here's an interesting experiment. Nicholas Carr, writing in The Atlantic, wonders if the Internet isn't damaging our brains. His thesis: as we read ever less and skim ever more, the circuitry of our brains is changing, making the damage real and irreversible.

Well, here's the challenge: The article, at 4,200 words, isn't particularly long, but it's far longer than your standard Internet item. So, set aside some time - 10-15 minutes should suffice - and see if you can read it from beginning to end without stopping, and without doing anything else at the same time. Just sit and read (and hopefully, think about what you're reading). You might want to click on the "printer format" link first, so that your screen will be clean of distractions. Or maybe you'll want to really print it out, and read from some dead trees.

I managed to do it, but it wasn't easy. This is one of the reasons I'm seriously considering shutting down this blog sometime soon: to win back some time to read books. (The fact that I've been reading books at the rate of approximately one every three weeks this year is only because I've taken too many airplane flights, where my wifi doesn't work).

IDF Excessive Violence - 2

The story of the soldier who shot a rubber bullet near the foot of an arrested Palestinian continues to be near the top of our media's agenda for the third day straight. You can see items about it, mostly op-ed pieces, here, here, here, here, and here. I have no doubt that had I looked longer I would have found more, and I haven't even tried to link to the talk radio programs where the case is being flogged.

Remember: serious as the case was - and I think it's quite serious - we're talking about excessive violence which caused no damage beyond - perhaps - a blue toe. That's the extent of the damage. And that's what Israel is agonizing over. Rightfully so, because by our standards such things are unacceptable, but the fundamental situation can't be very bad if, in this violent world we live in, a story like this manages to survive news cycle after news cycle. If ever the rest of the world reaches a similar level of moral deliberation, you'll know we're on the verge of the messianic era.

PS. some of those links lead to Hebrew language items. No apologies, rather the opposite: if you really want to understand the Israelis, you've got no choice but to listen to them in their language.

Monday, July 21, 2008

IDF Excessive Violence

I'm on the record, most famously in Right to Exist, as stating that the IDF is the most moral army anywhere. I stand by this statement. Indeed, at the moment there are only two other candidates for the title, and stories like this, about multiple accidental deaths at the hands of NATO forces, indicate that the Americans and the British aren't up to Israel's results, though all of them share the same standards. Having said that, however, Israel doesn't always reach its own standards, either. In the 2nd Lebanon war, in 2006, there was a lowering of standards, as I talked about at the time, and this story about an incident a few days ago is an indication that some troops aren't adhering to the standards. Indeed, the claims in the article that such cases are not so unusual, and this one merely happened to be caught on tape, is unfortunately probably true. Not that such incidents happen all the time and everywhere, but that this isn't an isolated incident.

The morality of a fighting army needs to be evaluated on various levels. The single most important, obviously, are the results. However, given the complexity of warfare and its extreme nature on the scale of human behavior, other things need also to be evaluated, such as the training given to troops and the extent of inculcation of moral standards, the alternatives weighed on the field, how widespread infractions are in comparison to the extent of operations, what efforts are made to limit damage to bystanders, what dangers are accepted to one's own forces in order to limit danger to bystanders, how does the society treat culprits, and so on.

The Economist on Al-Qaeda

Anton La Guardia has written a long report for The Economist titled "Al-Qaeda: Winning or Losing?" (The link is to the first section; note that each successive section is linked to from the bottom of the page). La Guardia has been around the Middle East for quite some time, and his report is interesting and informative. It's not profound - the fellow is a journalist, not a wise scholar - but given the way most people see the matter through the prism of what they want to believe, it's a worthwhile read.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Arrogance of the Ignoramusi and their Followers

Judaism is based upon books. It's a highly intellectual culture. As a general statement, the most important Jews have mostly been scholars. The most important of all Jewish political figures, King David, is mostly remembered for his literary output, not for his military escapades. For millenia, Jews were more literate than their surrounding society.

Of course, not all Jews were scholars, that wouldn't have been possible. Until about 250 years ago, the non-scholars,however, fit into the second aspect of Jewish culture, namely its communal form. In a tiny nutshell, the Jews were the people who remembered the Jewish story; moreover, they remembered it in a Jewish way, encapsulated in the sentence "In every generation everyone must regard themselves as if they themselves had left Egypt".

This statement appears in the Hagadah of Pessach, the text used to commemorate Exodus every Spring. Most likely it was an early version of the Hagadah that served Jesus and his Disciples at the Last Supper, which was the Seder evening; the present form of the Hagada is probably at least 1700 years old, although the oldest full version I'm aware of comes from Rav Saadia Gaon in the 10th century - so, a mere thousand years ago. The same text also enumerates four "types" of Jewish men: the scholar, the simpleton, the one who doesn't know to ask.. and the wicked one. The wicked one is clearly educated, but he distances himself from his community with the arrogant question "What are these customs you people use?"

And why am I mentioning all this, you ask? Mostly to point out that the concept of what makes a wicked Jew is at least a thousand years old, and it's quite clear: Not being analytic and posing hard questions, which is after all the main occupation of the scholars, and not being ignorant. A wicked Jew is scornful, derisive, and mocking.

Having set him up, unfortunately I can't give you Benny Ziper's mockery in English because this time, for whatever reason, the folks at Haaretz didn't translate it. It's over here in Hebrew, if that's any help. So I'll give you some of the highlights:
The thing this people like most are corpses. Give them corpses and they'll dance around them, singing and crying, like a tribe of Indians.

To say that the dead sons of someone else are also my sons, is a form of fascism, because to think that a nation is a group of people with blood connections is a fascist concept.

This is a people who are so insane that their obsession with death has enslaved them.

We're back in the frame of mind of the victims of the pogroms, which is rather strange since unlike them we're pretty powerful, but we refuse to give up the status of victims and to cry Oy Vey and Gewald all the time.

Just like with the Orientals. They love mass spectacles of death....
And so on and so on. You get the general idea. In this particular piece, Ziper went all the way overboard, which may be why his editors thought it better not to translate him, but anyone who follows Haaretz and other platforms of the Israeli far left will recognize the sentiments immediately. The themes are quite banal. No one who knows anything about what Judaism is would take them seriously, but then, most critics of the Jewish State really don't have the faintest idea about Judaism, and for them, the Zipers of this world must be the real thing, and since they're saying what the critics want to hear, they're held up as shining examples of the "good Israelis" who give us such valuable insights into the dark recesses of the Israeli mind and psyche.

A dynamic which was recognized for what it is before Islam was invented, in the days when the Roman empire had not yet succumbed to the (European) Barbarians.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Survivors

Here's a paragraph from the introduction to Right to Exist:

From 1975 I spent three years in the armored corps. The army I was in was still reeling from the ferocity of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, in which people I knew had been killed; we spent most of our time in the Sinai desert, training to stop and rout another Egyptian attack, should it come. To listen to Israel’s critics today, we were already a decade into the brutal occupation of the Palestinians, but neither I nor anyone I knew had any military encounters with occupied Palestinians. We served on the borders, and faced Arab armies, or Palestinian forces in Lebanon; the Palestinians under our occupation went to work in Israel, and while undoubtedly intensely disliking us, they did very little that called for brutal oppression. On vacations we would roam freely wherever we wished, at times taking Palestinian buses between Palestinian towns. One image stands out: eight or nine of us standing in a Palestinian town, and Avi Greenwald cracking jokes in Yiddish, to the tremendous amusement of the young Palestinians grouped around us. Avi was killed a few years later, fighting the Syrians; I have no doubt that some of those young Palestinians were later killed fighting us. That simple scene is hard to conceive of today.

Avi was killed in June 1982. His widowed wife was pregnant at the time, and when his son was born she named him Avichai - "my father lives". Over the next few years eight children were named after Avi, a sign of how much he was missed.

In 2002 many of us convened to mark the 20th anniversary of his death. Dudi, the organizer of the evening, brought his daughter Avia to hear about the man she was named after. I can't say if this was the moment Avia and Avichai found each other, as the legends say, or if they'd already noticed each other earlier, but not long afterwards they married.

This morning at synagogue Eliezer, Avi's father, a Holocaust survivor and lone member of his family still alive in 1945, celebrated the birth of Avichai's third child, Eliezer's third great-grandchild. Avi, were he alive, would have been celebrating the birth of his third grandson.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Utopians vs. Realists

Here's a thought.

At this moment in time, people of Left persuasions are more likely to bear animosities towards Zionism and Israel than others.

It can also be said, as a general, over-arching and thus not precise statement, that Left-persuasion people are more likely to think the world can be perfected, while Right-persuasion people are dubious.

Zionism is inherently messy. It has set itself the totally legitimate and defensible goal of creating - and now, maintaining - a Jewish state; yet this inevitably has an impact on the local Arabs; the best one can hope for is a rather messy compromise. Starry-eyed Utopians don't like messiness, so they either detest the Zionists for the past crime of having messed up the area, or for being messy with the way they do their thing, or for ensuring by their very existence that the future reality will continue to be messy.

Of course, this tells us nothing about why some Left-persuasion people single out Israel for their ire. The Chinese also make the world rather messy, after all.

An over simplification, I know, but worth mentioning.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Reflections at the End of a Day

We had two national funerals today, of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev. They were sad and dignified, and we all participated, to a degree. These are the days that remind us how strong our communal bonds are. The family members gave moving, memorable eulogies. A nation that raises men to be eulogized so powerfully, so simply, so authentically - we must be doing something right.

This afternoon I had another meeting, one in a growing series I've been having since I set out in this new career of mine, with another member of Israel's growing class of high-tech entrepreneurs. Hugely talented and highly successful people who look at the world around them, set themselves world-class audacious goals, and then reach them and start all over again.

They're the same people in both stories, and they're the reason none of the chatter about how we're weakening or deserve to weaken has any real significance.

Torture at Guantanamo

It's now official and even up on You-Tube: being a prisoner at Guantanamo isn't fun. I'm not in the position to say anything new about its legality, but this week someone gave us a peek into the interrogations there, when lawyers of a Canadian-Afghan teenager received and broadcasted a tape from one of the interrogation cells. Suzanne Goldenberg and friends from the human rights' brigade will interpret the tape for you:

"The tapes do not show a dangerous terrorist, but instead a frightened, wounded Canadian boy pleading for help form Canadian officials," Whitling told reporters.

The video was condemned by human rights organizations and detainee lawyers. "Rather than seeking to ensure that a Canadian citizen - and a child into the bargain - is offered the opportunity to put forward his case in a proper way, Canadian officials are shown interrogating a boy who says he has been tortured," Amnesty International said.

Another prisoner told of the humiliating methods of interrogation he was subjected:

Salim Ahmed Hamdan, accused of being a driver for Osama bin Laden, told a military court that he was held in long and repeated periods of solitary confinement and subjected to humiliation, with a woman interrogator brushing up against his thigh.

Oh, the horror of it all.

Torture is when someone's body is torn and mangled. Torture is when someone refrains for years from allowing a mother or a wife to know what he knows, that their beloved is dead. It's keeping a son captive for years with never any contact with anyone from his world. Such things are standard in the Arab world, and the perpetrators or often celebrated and feted.

Torture is a horrendous thing, and should be used, if at all, only in those cases where using it will immediately save the lives of innocent people - and even then, if there are alternatives they should always be preferred. Our abhorrence of torture, however, must not blind us to the fact that there are people out there who need to be interrogated so that our way of life can survive, and also so that justice can be done.

Mazel Tov!

At the pool this morning I bumped into an elderly man I vaguely know, who is much closer to 90 than to 80, but swims regularly.

Good morning Rabbi Peretz! How are you?
I'm fine, thank you, and you?
I'm also fine. I saw your son last week, and he told me you've just gotten married?
Yes I have.
Well, that's great! Mazel Tov!

The Evil Culture of Hezbollah

[I accidentally posted this elsewhere yesterday. Now it's where it was meant to be]

It has been a hard day in Israel, one of those days where we all unite in mourning. For better or worse, Israelis are good at that.

The swap this morning of five live Lebanese prisoners, one of them a cold blooded murderer, for the dead bodies of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, tells you all sorts of fundamental things about Israel, but I'm not going to repeat what has been said endlessly all day long. If you didn't follow the Israeli media, there are two good summaries in the New York Times, here and here.

In the early afternoon of July 12th 2006, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah knew that all he was holding were two dead bodies. I don't know what international law has to say about such things, nor am I much a fan of international law in any case. I do know that international custom dictates rules of behaviour regarding POWs, and no-where is there even the slightest possibility of justifying Nassrallah's two-year refusal to give any indication about the conditions of his "prisoners". Even when everyone knew the two men were no longer alive, even when the agreement on the exchange had been signed, even then he and his spokesmen still did their utmost to torture the family members with hints that perhaps, just maybe, who knows...

Despicable. As are the celebrations in Lebanon this evening of the return of the hero, Samir Kuntar, whose heroism consisted of murdering a young man in front of his daughter, and then smashing her head on a rock. Worse than despicable, he and everyone who celebrated this "liberation".

But it has occurred to me this afternoon that Nassrallah's actions should have been despicable even by the weird moral standards or lack of them in his own society. As the IDF began pounding the Dahiya, the Hezbollah section of Beirut that evening of July 12th, and it was becoming clear that those crazy Israelis were going to inflict lots of pain, why didn't he call in a representative of some third party - the Turks, say, or the Norwegians - and tell them that since all he had were two dead bodies, the Israelis should call off their fury and their attempts to retrieve the two kidnapped men. He would have saved the lives of lots of Lebanese, including many hundreds of his own loyal men.

As if that was ever a consideration for him.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

... But Which 1000 Words?

An Op-Ed at the NYT ruminates about photos and falsification of them for political purposes.

I used to be the director of an archive that contained a photo archive, and we gave thought to matters of authentication, verification, and uses of photographs. I always claimed that while indeed one picture can be worth one thousand words, it's never clear which thousand words, since pictures, contrary to common wisdom, as a general rule tell us very little about anything, unless we know their context.

This is a serious issue when dealing with people seeking to discredit Israel. Take, for example, this recent item at Lawrence of Cyberia.
The caption given by faux-Lawrence is "An Israeli settler boy prevents a Palestinian woman from passing in the street as Israeli troops stand and watch."

Well, no, not really.

Remember, this is a snapshot, which means a specific instant, frozen. Had the picture been made 10, or 5, or even one single second earlier, or later, the scene would have been different. So while we don't have the full series, only this single instant, let's look at it carefully and see if we can imagine.

Both the woman and the boy are in motion. They are approaching one another. A second earlier they were further apart, and perhaps three seconds earlier they may not even have been on colliding trajectories. By this instant the Arab woman is clearly already aware of the boy, as her eyes, focussed on him, indicate; however, the positioning of her legs indicates she's still in full stride, and if the boy intends to block her, she doesn't seem aware of it. In any case, she hasn't stopped yet.

What about a second later, and three? Perhaps she simply continued walking, and the boy moved aside, or he didn't but she brushed him aside, or perhaps he did manage to stop her even though this isn't yet visible, and at that point one of the soldiers intervened and told him to desist, or arrested the women, or opened fire at the cameraman... all sorts of things could have happened, and the one described in the caption is no more plausible than any of the others. What is somewhat implausible is that the soldiers merely looked on. In this particular snapshot, the entire incident - if it's an incident at all - is about 1-2 seconds old, and the soldiers have not yet taken it in nor done anything. But that says exactly nothing about what they did once the incident did register - if it developed into an incident at all.

Here's another part of the story that faux-Lawrence doesn't tell us, and most likely doesn't know, and certainly doesn't care. Those very soldiers got up early that morning, and patrolled all day long until late in the evening, dealing throughout the day with many incidents, real ones, not like this hypothetical one. Hebron in 2004 was an extraordinarily tense place, with armed men on both sides, and people getting killed on both sides. After long, tense and exhausting days, the soldiers got back to base, but rather than showering and going to sleep because the following day would require their full attention again, they trooped into a big room and talked with their captain. Every evening, for about an hour around midnight, they'd go over everything that had happened during the day; they'd recount what they had faced, how they had responded, and they'd evaluate their actions. Had they been too harsh? Not firm enough? Had they endangered themselves, or perhaps inflicted unnecessary damage? One evening, for example, they decided, following an analysis of the specific events of that day, that while being stoned was not dangerous enough to justify their shooting, when someone had tried to throw a metal bed frame onto them from a roof in a narrow alley, that was life threatening, and it was justified that they used live fire to make him stop.

How do I know all this, you ask? Because Meir, my son, was there at the time. No, he's not in this picture, and actually he didn't arrive in Hebron until somewhat later that year, but I remember discussing it with him at the time. The actions of that captain, cutting his soldier's sleep each night to train them in the reality of waging a moral war while not losing it, made a deep impression on me. On Meir too, so far as I could tell.

Now take those facts - for facts they are, not interpretations - and superimpose them on the photo, and see if you think faux-Lawrence knows what he's talking about, or if he cares.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Clear Thinkers

The British government has decided that someday, when the time comes, Lady Thatcher will be given the rare honor of a State funeral. So far so good.

The staff and readership of The Guardian never liked the Iron Lady, and even her eventual death won't change this. More significantly, hindsight won't change their minds, either, as you can see from the report on the government's decision ( Bold is mine):

The first since Sir Winston Churchill's in 1965, the funeral would acknowledge the exceptional impact of her 11-year premiership in reversing the decline in Britain's postwar fortunes.

As such, it would be certain to prove controversial among the many people who lost their jobs during the "Thatcher revolution" which reintroduced market forces into many fields of activity and for which she has not been forgiven by some.

Animosities are forever.

I once had the honor of meeting Lady Thatcher for an hour or so, when she visited Yad Vashem about ten years ago. In my capacity at Yad Vashem I had occasion to meet many world-famous people. Lady Thatcher was far and away the most striking of them. I've encountered charismatic people, but she had an aura of intelligence, nay: brilliance, such as I've never seen.

Update: the decision has been put to poll on the Guardian's website. As I write, 81.4% of the website's voters feel such an honor for the "Iron Lady" (their formulation) is wrong. Of course, the decision has already been made, and anyway, we wish Lady Thatcher many long years; perhaps if she dies at 120 even the Guardian gang of 2045 won't remember why their grandparents were so churlish.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Inventing Reality

Not long ago the man who hides behind the deceptive name Ibrahim ibn Yussuf stated in a comment that "according to the UN, Israel broke the truce seven times before the first Palestinian breach". This puzzled me a bit, because it was the first I'd heard of it. But then again, I was in Australia at the time, mostly not connected to cyberspace, so perhaps I'd missed something? I challenged Ibrahim in the comments to cite his source. He didn't, so I sent him an e-mail about this and other matters. He responded about the other matters but not this, so I asked again. He never responded. Eventually I informed him I'd write about his failure to substantiate his own serious allegation, but he was silent. So I went looking myself, and think I've identified his source: a person who hides behind the name Lawrence of Cyberia, here. I know that faux-Ibrahim regards faux-Lawrence as a reliable source because he's told me so in the past. I also admit that I'm becoming ever more baffled by what is apparently a widespread phenomenon of people who engage in intensive criticism of Israel while insisting on remaining anonymous. But that's a subject for another day.

Faux Lawrence offers no more substantiation for his statement than faux-Ibrahim does, which is interesting because his blog gives the appearance of being well footnoted. It's also a strange statement on its own: what does it mean, "according to the UN"? That's sort of like saying "according to the British government", except that the UN is far more diffuse than the British government. Who in the UN said? When? If there were precisely seven Israeli infractions, what were they? When? Where? Who did the counting? How do we know they're really infractions and not something else, such as, perhaps, Palestinian men approaching the border fence, being warned away and eventually being shot at when they refuse to stop their menacing maneuver?

So I went to the source: the UN website. Sure enough, there is a document there in which "the UN", or rather an official of the UN, tells what she thinks is going on:

But while calm had prevailed for several days, Palestinian militants fired one mortar and three rockets at southern Israel on 24 June, with the Islamic Jihad claiming responsibility for the rocket fire in response to the Israel Defense Forces killing of one of its members in the West Bank. A Palestinian farmer had been injured in Gaza by the Israel Defense Forces on 23 June, and in a separate incident another farmer had been reportedly injured by Israel Defense Forces fire on 25 June. Another rocket had been fired from Gaza into Israel on the same day, and today, two mortar shells were fired. In response, Israel closed the border crossings for the past three days.

Let's look at that paragraph (and you're welcome to follow the link and read the entire document. I don't think I engaged in any cherry picking).

First, note that she puts the Palestinian infractions first. Then she adds two Israeli actions, one the day before the Palestinian quadruple breach of the calm, and the other, "reportedly" happening the day after the Palestinian breach. The single Israeli breach is depicted quite sparsely: A Palestinian farmer had been injured in Gaza by IDF forces. How? In what context? We're not told. So perhaps it was an Israeli breach, and perhaps it wasn't. Something must have caused the UN person to put it after the Palestinian breaches in her report.

The other six Israeli breaches of the calm? Well, according to this UN report, which deals with an entire month, they didn't happen.

So what does this tell us about faux-Ibrahim and faux-Lawrence? That they're gullible? That they pass on hearsay they picked up somewhere without checking it, because if it's detrimental to Israeli it must be true and certainly is valuable?

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Reeling to Strength

I spent my three-year military service in the mid-1970s in an IDF that was still reeling from the failures of the Yom Kippur War. I remember how in my first year or so the failures permeated everything we did, from the form our training took to the less than minimal number of hours we slept under the command of a traumatized company commander to the ethos of our sergeants who had seen the war as fresh recruits in a dazed army. The entire structure around us was committed to getting over the trauma, learning from the mistakes, and returning to the confidence of an army that knew what it was doing.

(And no, we had nothing to do with the Palestinians. In those days the Palestinian men worked in Israel and the IDF wasn't called upon to dominate them in any active way. The first Intifada was more than a decade away, and the "brutal Israeli occupation" some people so love to speak about was not yet a figment of anyone's imagination. Seen through the perspective of the present decade, it was a time of peace, or at least, a time of calm).

The stories Achikam tells me about his service often remind me of that period. He went in a year after the debacle of the 2nd Lebanon War, and joined a reeling army - but one committed to getting over it. As this article demonstrates, the reeling is over, and the recuperation is in full swing.

The changes are, of course, much deeper than merely the number of days each unit now dedicates to training. The 1990s were the decade of complacency: peace was on its way, and the need for such an expensive army had passed, we foolishly told ourselves as we slashed the military budget year after year. The beginning of this decade was the Palestinian era of the IDF: faced with an entire nation committed to terror tactics, Israel had to forge a method of beating waves of terrorists eager to die killing Jews. The pundits all told us it couldn't be done, and the pundits were all wrong, but the price was that we forgot the other enemies, and the IDF forgot how to operate as an army and concentrated (brilliantly) on counter guerrilla warfare. The war against Hezbullah served as a waking call.


The Economist tells a story they've obviously been sitting on for years, about Ahmad Batebi, an Iranian student who was pictured on their front cover in July 1999 demonstrating against the brutality of his own regime. He's been in jail ever since, until he recently managed to escape to Iraq, and from there reached the United States.

It's a story with a happy ending (Iraq is a better place to be than Iran, but the US is vastly better than both of them), but before the ending it's a story of relentless horror, real horror. The torture Batabi underwent is probably standard fare for Iranian prisoners - after all, he hadn't done anything particularly bad - but it's vastly worse than what the Americans and Israelis are routinely condemned for.

Update: the New York Times has a longer version of the story here.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Palestinian Fibbers and their Disciples

Much of the criticism of Israel is based on anecdotal evidence divorced from context. This actually isn't particularly surprising, since a balanced and well informed narrative would require far more effort from the reporters, and in most cases it would be less useful for the purposes of proving how awful Israel is, because in most cases knowing the full context and story would show that Israeli isn't so bad, after all.

Another component of the anti Israel propaganda efforts, beyond simple ignorance and malicious ignorance, is the Palestinian willingness to - how to put this - embellish on reality. I'm not - NOT - saying that all Palestinians always lie, and that if a story comes from Palestinian sources it's automatically wrong or even only probably wrong. That would be far too broad a statement to make. What I am saying is that since the Palestinians have an obvious interest in portraying themselves as helpless victims of Israeli brutality, and in most reports the Israeli side isn't asked for it's version, it behooves any fair minded consumer of the reports to think about them a moment before accepting them at face value. Western publics (and their journalist representatives) often don't have the qualifications to judge the plausibility of Palestinian horror stories. I'm reminded of the young Palestinian in Jenin in April 2002 who was quoted the world over as having witnessed how an Israeli tank flattened rubble over a mass grave of gunned Palestinians: you'd have to have some acquaintance with tanks to know this story was always physically impossible, and who in the West has that experience?

Noah Pollack gives us a recent example. Mohammad Omar, a Palestinian reporter famous for his horror stories traveled to Europe to receive a prize for being so courageous, and on his way back invented another horror story which, unfortunately for him, someone checked.

And note especially comment number 5. Charlie from Colorado points out that even without the investigation into the story, the initial version proclaims its falsity. In order to be dramatic, Omar has one of his Israeli tormentors engage in some gymnastics that can't be done.

Don't expect Omar's prize to be revoked any time soon, however. More likely, the next time one of his fairy tales is quoted at length, the journalist will add that he's the recipient of a prestigious prize and therefor must be telling the truth.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Making the World a Better Place

My natural inclination was always to empathize with the downtrodden and with all those who were less lucky than I in the hope that their conditions could be bettered. In the early 1990s I finally had enough spare time and spare income to allow me to subscribe to The Economist, a paper I'd grown up reading through my father's subscription. For the first 5-6 years I read it, I disagreed furiously with it's economic line. As time went on, however, I noticed, quite to my surprise, that the avowed Left media was giving an inordinate amount of attention to what Joan Baez had once famously called "All the scummy things that America does", while The Economist was seriously focussed on what needed to happen to make poor people's lives better. Like their economic line or not, you couldn't deny that they were consistent advocates of doing things that would reduce poverty, all over the world. (As you'd expect with highly educated Englishmen and women, they were also rather poor on understanding the Israel-Arab conflicts, but no-one's perfect).

Why am I mentioning this? Because Charles Krauthammer's column today demonstrates the same template in a different context. It is the political Right, or at any rate, parts of it, which cares about the mass persecutions of the world's uglier regimes; while the Left is still fixated on those same "scummy things America does". This isn't exactly what Krauthammer writes, but it's a reasonable proximation.

A few weeks ago at that conference in Melbourne I participated in, an elderly man posed a question to one of the lectureres, to nods of agreement from everybody else in the room: "Shouldn't we admit that the Left has lost its soul?"

Human Rights as Travesty - 1

Once upon a time I was a lefty, progressive, peace-mongering bleeding heart liberal groupie. I got over it eventually, partly through the experience of life, and partly through the efforts of our Palestinian neighbors, who did their utmost to disabuse me of the foolishness. As Barack Obama will say by and by, when the facts of life disprove your theories about them the right thing to do is to modify the theories. Or as John Maynard Keynes already said, "When the facts change, I change my mind. And what do you do sir?"

Why do I mention this? Because even though I've become an evil reactionary, I still have some friends deep in the mire of Israel's far-left scene, and they give me updates on the current lunacies. The other day one of them called my attention to an article titled The Holy City in Human Dimensions - The Partition of Jerusalem and the Right to Social Security, by Yehezkel Lein. The article appeared recently in The Netherlands Quarterly of Human Rights. Fortunately, this publication is not accessible online unless you pay, which you wouldn't want to do. However, subscribers of Ruminations can now download the full article, here.

It's awful. I mean, really bad. Hair-raising. However, at the moment I don't have the time to deal with it. So if you feel that you've been really bad and deserve to be punished for something, feel free to read it; by and by when I get around to ruminating about it, hopefully sometime soon, you'll be able to feel all smug for having prepared for class in advance.

For those who don't have need for atonement, here's Lein's own abstract:


In the failed final-status negotiations that Israel and the Palestinian Authority held in 2000, the sides reached agreement on the main parameters of a solution on the question of Jerusalem. However, both sides ignored the fact that according to these parameters, East Jerusalem Palestinians would be denied almost completely their social security entitlements under the Israeli social security system. This article argues that, regardless of what will be agreed in any future agreement, according to international human rights law, Israel would continue to bear at least some responsibility for ensuring the right to social security of Palestinian Jerusalemites, even though they live outside its territory. Moreover, a sweeping denial of social security benefits would also be deemed a violation of the right of property under Israeli constitutional law.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Alcohol and History

The Talmud shiur I participate in on Shabbat afternoons recently passed a Mishna and detailed Gemarah discussion about the buying and selling of wine (Bava Batra page 94b ff). The instructor explained that the wealth of intricate details were an expression of the importance of wine in daily life, since the denizens of pre-modern cities couldn't trust the water supply and generally drank alcohol as their primary liquid.

The same thesis is presented today in the Washington Post, by George F. Will, who most certainly has never studied Bava Batra.

There's also a paragraph exonerating the colonial Europeans for at least some of the responsibility for the drunkenness of native populations they came into contact with, but that's merely an added benefit of an otherwise interesting article.

The Daf Yomi thread, you'll remember, started here.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

An Israeli organization called Sikui, which has defined its mission as ensuring that Israel's Arabs have full social and economic equality, has published a report telling that the Arab lifespan in Israel is 4 years shorter than the life expectancy of the Jews.

So far, so bad. Another factoid proving that the Israelis are racists, and that Israel is an apartheid state etc. You know the mantra.

Except that like all narratives, and certainly statistical ones, the trick is all in how you frame the picture.

According to this fine website full of interesting comparative statistics, you could also frame the same statistics differently. Let's assume that life expectancy is the single most important objective indicator about the success of a society: if it enables its members to live longer, it gives them more time to do the right things in life and correct the wrong things. Well, out of 220 countries with data on life expectancy, Israel is number 21, with a life expectancy in 2007 of 79.59, for Jews and Arabs together. Since Sikui is comparing the Israeli Arabs to the Israeli Jews, i.e you need to take off the 20% of Arabs pulling down the statistic about Israel's Jews, let's say that the life expectancy of Israel's Jews is 80, which would put them at 15th place. The Israeli Arabs live four years less, which ranks them at 68th place in the world. Their life expectancy is a mere 4 months less than that of Argentina (ranked 62), and it's higher, among others, than Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Tunisia, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, Algeria, Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt, Syria, Iran, Iraq.... you see where I'm going with this. If you want to be an Arab, and you want to live long, you'd best be born in Jordan, but if that doesn't work, the next two candidates are Libya and.... Israel.

There are other ways you could frame the same statistics, tho that useful website won't help: rather than look at a frozen moment in time, lacking all context, you might perhaps wish to seek the trends: where are we coming from and in what direction are we going? I wrote about this briefly in Right to Exist, after I dug up some comparative statistics of Jews vs. Arabs in Mandatory Palestine in the 1940s, before the State of Israel was created. What I found there was that the difference between life expectancy of Jews and Arabs under the British was vast, but that ever since Israel took responsibility for its Arab citizens the gap has been closing. It's still not gone, but the trend is positive.

All of which raises the question as to the root causes of the lower life expectancy of Israel's Arabs compared to her Jews: is it because of racism apartheid and general nastiness, or is it perhaps a case of Israel's Jews doing their best to pull Israel's Arabs out of the Arab inability to make the most of the modern world, an attempt which is only partially successful?

Before finishing this post, you might want to notice that the weighted average for the entire world's population is 68.4 years. Israel, of course, is way above that, Jews and Arabs, but guess who else is above the all-humanity average: the West Bank (73.46 years), and, believe it or not, the Gaza Strip, where the life expectancy is 72.16, or more than 4 years longer than the average of all humanity. Do you think it's conceivable that perhaps the Gaza strip isn't the worst place on the globe? Just perhaps?

Wealth, Food, and Governmenal Priorites

The Economist has put up an interesting map of the world, which looks at poverty vs wealth through a rather unusual prism. Not that the results are any different from what you'd expect them to be. Societies that have wealth have it better than those that don't no matter what parameter you choose to measure it by, and no matter how much some people in the wealthy societies like to kvetch about how bad everything is for everyone except the privileged few.

Still, I do have a few comments.
1. Israel is so small that it doesn't even appear on the map. So much for expansionist colonial land grabbing imperialists.
2. Were Israel to appear on the map, it's color would be the same as the rest of the wealthy.
3. Iran, Israel's arch-fiend of the moment, is in the camp of the poorest, in spite of having all that oil. Whatever they are meant for, Iran's massive armament efforts (including this overtly and unambiguously aggressive program) are not intended to improve the lives of the Iranian citizenry.
4. The same goes for Iraq, though in a different way, of course. While it does seem that the Iraqis are slowly but surely getting their act together, they spent a ghastly 5 years on all sorts of other things that seemed to have a higher priority than getting on with life. (I planted this little nugget to provoke the usual suspects. Heh.)
5. Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf folks. Remember them? The ones pulling in $136 per barrel of crude, down by $9 from last week poor fellows? This is what happens when you have a society with a small group of ultra rich at the top, and then everyone else below them including a large caste of disenfranchised laborers.
6. South America looks dreary. I don't know much about South America, but so far as I know they've been on the sidelines of most of the larger calamities of world history these past 150 years or so so you'd think they might have had the opportunity to fix things. Since we've got our own Argentinian here among the frequent commentors, I wonder if I can ask Ibrahim to explain to us why his country is in such bad shape. (And try, Ibrahim, not to put all the blame on the CIA or even the generals, who were last in charge some decades ago).
7. Why is Japan where it is? Beats me.
8. Perhaps the single most interesting country on the entire map is Uganda. Disconnected from its entire continent and most of the next continent, with a disastrous political past that exceeds even Argentina's for destructiveness, Uganda is right up there with the rich boys. Yoweri Musaveni or somebody, must be doing something right. Which just goes to show that if you put your mind to it, you actually can drag yourself up by your shoestrings.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Deciding According to Some Ancient Text - and a Reflection

Interesting item in the New York Times about some recent decision of the American Supreme Court that isn't really important to the rest of us. Something about the right to bear arms. Anyway, the learned author shows how everyone in the debate (the Justices, that is) need to show how their contemporary position fits into the intent of a group of white male gentlemen in the late 18th century.

I'm not poking fun, honestly. On the contrary, I understand that a society needs to have some basic texts to which it relates when making important decisions; no legal system could long function as a legal system without. Nor a religious system, either. Except that most religious systems relate to documents that are far more ancient than 200-some years.

PS - On another subject, or perhaps the same one from a different direction: I'm alway struck by how the internal American discussion of violence gets tied up with the number of guns lying around. In Switzerland and in Israel, both, there are probably significantly more guns in the hands of the citizens (or more accurately, the citizens who are also reserve soldiers) than there are in the US. Yet in neither country are these weapons the cause of a large number of crimes or murders. Sometimes they are, yes, but not often. Violence, you see, is a matter of culture, not of tools. Or - and I apologize for repeating myself endlessly - it's a matter of choice, not of conditions.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Iranians Offend Egyptians

An Iranian film that brands Anwar Sadat a traitor for making peace with Israel (31 years ago) has some Egyptians all agog.

Nice people, these Iranians. And consistent: They really say what they think. No pretenses, no obfuscations, no wishy-washy rationalizations. Israel is evil and must be done away with; anyone who makes peace with them must be damned, even if he's long dead, and his assassin praised.

Reminiscences from Australia - 2

Like as in Manhattan, the city fathers of Melbourne felt it important to have the library near the center of town. And indeed, the Victoria State Library was built within the central rectangle of downtown. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to be given a tour by the director herself.
Unfortunately, after I left and went on to other meetings, global warming struck, and the library sunk.
Honestly. I kid you not. Look, here's another photograph, totally untampered in photoshop or anything of the kind. What you see is what you get.
(Remember, Melbourne is a port city. Sea Level. Oy).

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Rational Palestinians Promoting their National Interests

The idea behind this so-called truce is that if there's no violence, life can become normal on both sides of the border. Not a hard concept to grasp, if you concentrate on it for a while.

Last week the Palestinians shot a few rockets, and the Israelis blocked the border crossings in retaliation. This morning Israel opened the crossings, and lo and behold: a few hours later the Palestinians were shooting again.

NYT Shows its Biases Again

Alissa Rubin in the NYT writes about the rising number of Iraqi women committing suicide attacks. The title of the article sums it all up nicely: Despair Drives Suicide Attacks by Iraqi Women.

Yes, well. For a while back in 2002 the fashion for murder-by-suicide was so popular amongst the Palestinians that they were doing so with glee, their mothers were blessing them as they set off, their fathers praised their actions before their surviving younger brothers, and all this against an essential backdrop of an unhinged society that was going mad. It took lots of Israeli violence to bring them to their senses. But with that exception, you don't need to be a rocket scientist, or even a brain scientist, to figure out that if people decide to commit suicide they may perhaps be depressed.

Actually, the most helpful comment in the article is a quotation from an Iraqi woman:
“Our Oriental society is not like your Western society. It seems in many of these cases the women have had their husband killed or sent to prison and she feels she has no choice, she is very depressed.”
Now that's a line that cries out for further investigation. How about:

Downtrodden women have been a staple of human history, unfortunately, ever since the cave dwellers and the tree dwellers compromised on huts and hovels. Recently, however, downtrodden women in Iraq have begun following the example of downtrodden Palestinian women in aping deluded Lebanese, Palestinian and Iraqi men who feel that murder by suicide is the way to go. Which makes us wonder if perhaps something has gone radically wrong in the culture common to all those suicides. Here's an investigation into this possibility...

But no. That's not how the mind of the folks at the NYT operates. Too few children are the result of too much material pressure on Western women, and too many murderous Iraqi women are the result of too many of their men dying in battle, and free will is reduced to material, external variants.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Jesus, a Jew of His Time

An article in the NYT tells about an inscription on a stone from 2000-some years ago that casts new light on the life of Jesus. The idea, as I understand it, is that Jesus fit into the Jewish society of his day even more than previously suspected.

Makes sense to me.

Peres: Peace with the Palestinians not Possible

Shimon Peres is as cynical a politician as Barack Obama, and being almost twice his age he's had far more opportunities for dirty tricks. One thing, however, can't be taken from him, and that's his decades-long commitment to negotiating a peaceful resolution to Israel's conflict with the Palestinians. In the 1980s he was willing to face massive public opprobrium, to face revilement unknown in American politics, and to lose election after election, but never to budge on this point. Later, he was one of the founding fathers of the Oslo Process, and the author of The New Middle East. That's the context you need to keep in mind when reading this item, that tells that even he has despaired of the possibility of making peace with the Palestinians.


Life Cycle of a Community

Here's the crop of life cycle events in our congregation while I was away:

An 83-year-old man passed away, after fading for a few years. (His son, a friend of mine for 40 years, has long since moved elsewhere).

The elderly mother of a 60-something man who sits two rows behind me passed away. He has been visibly tending her, pushing her wheelchair all around the neighborhood.

A grandson was born to one family, while another is waiting, mildly impatiently, given that their daughter is overdue.

Two women in the congregation gave birth this week, both to daughters.

One young man from the congregation got married this week.

There are fewer than 250 families in the congregation.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Reminiscences from Australia - 1

As you know, I recently returned from Australia. It's a nice place, no doubt about that, but it's also rather peculiar. First, the folks really do walk around upside down, as we were told when we were wee kids. Moreover, if you notice at the bottom (top?) of the picture, you'll see that in many places they've got a roof over the sidewalk, so that whenever someone falls off the world they get caught on the awning and don't float away.

To further complicate matters, they drive on the wrong side of the street:
Even when they build escalators, they put the up side on the left, not on the right, which means you've got to keep on your toes all the time.
Finally - have I mentioned this? - They've got their seasons all wrong. Here it was, the second half of June, the sun was rising only at 6:45am and was hurriedly setting before 6pm,and it was cold out. Not snowy cold, no, but you couldn't walk around in sandals, as is the custom in June.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

NYT vs. Guardian (& Juan Cole as a Freebie)

So in the previous post but one I compared the Economist to Juan Cole on Iran. Here's a comparison of the New York Times to the Guardian:

The other day the NYT ran an editorial praising Olmert for reaching out to diverse Arab regimes in attempts to negotiate. To be honest, the real theme of the article seemed to be a criticism of President Bush for being less flexible than Olmert, but still, in order to do that the paper had to enumerate the various things Israel is doing right. Two days later a Palestinian murdered Israelis in the middle of Jerusalem. The summary of the event at the Guardian had the weird title Israel terror: Three killed, 44 hurt as Palestinian runs amok with bulldozer in street. I can't say what the formulation Israel Terror means in English. Anyways, the stage was then given to Seth Friedman, who wrote all about how the attack was all Israel's fault, because Israel always does everything wrong. Juan Cole then piled on with, among other things, an imaginary description about how controversial the construction project is at which the bulldozer was being used. His source for this, I think, is Aljazeera.

Makes you sort of wish Cole and Freedman would read the New York Times.

To be honest, I don't know why I give these people so much attention. Their dislike for Israel trumps any residual ability they might have for dealing with facts or context (the fact that Freedman is an Israeli himself, apparently, is irrelevant. Israelis are not immune from being fools). So while they rant and rave, we get on with life. Contemporary Israel is a miracle, one of the most astonishing chapters in the 3,000 year story of the Jews, and nothing these folks says has any impact on that, so why waste so much attention on them? I really ought to learn simply to ignore them. But I probably won't.