Sunday, November 30, 2008

Post Colonial Hypocrisy

I don't know if the locals prefer to call their town Bombay or Mumbai. I'm willing to assume they prefer the latter. For a few centuries, however, the English name was Bombay, until sometime in the 1970s or 1980s, when someone (who?) decided this was a Colonial name, and disrespectful of the natives, so we all traipsed over to Mumbai. Or Beijing, or what have you.

But notice, this consideration is offered only to some natives, not to others. It would never occur to anyone that we must say Warszawa rather than Warsaw, Praha rather than Prague, and interestingly, not al-Halil rather than Hebron. Not to mention Jerusalem, which was called Yerushalayim while the distant forbears of the English speakers were still camping in forest clearings, nor el-Quds, the name given to the same town about the time the English language was still half a millenium away.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Which Murderous Bastards?

Due disclosure: I've been at scenes of terrorist attacks, and I've been to war. So I'm personally empathetic to the sentiment of the American GIs in WWII who invented the term Snafu (Situation Normal All Fucked Up).

I doubt the same can be said of Ms. Christine Fair, senior political scientist and a South Asia expert at the RAND corporation, cited in today's New York Times, in an article that tries to understand who those murderous bastards in Mumbai are:

[S]he insisted the style of the attacks and the targets in Mumbai suggested the militants were likely to be Indian Muslims and not linked to Al Qaeda or Lashkar-e-Taiba, another violent South Asian terrorist group.

“There’s absolutely nothing Al Qaeda-like about it,” she said of the attack. “Did you see any suicide bombers? And there are no fingerprints of Lashkar. They don’t do hostage-taking and they don’t do grenades.”...

“There are a lot of very, very angry Muslims in India,” Ms. Fair said. “The economic disparities are startling and India has been very slow to publicly embrace its rising Muslim problem. You cannot put lipstick on this pig. This is a major domestic political challenge for India.

“The public political face of India says, ‘Our Muslims have not been radicalized.’ But the Indian intelligence apparatus knows that’s not true. India’s Muslim communities are being sucked into the global landscape of Islamist jihad,” she said. “Indians will have a strong incentive to link this to Al Qaeda. ‘Al Qaeda’s in your toilet!’ But this is a domestic issue. This is not India’s 9/11.”

(Predictably, this article was cited approvingly over at Daily Kos).

How do you even start? The shooting in Mumbai isn't even over, no-one knows the number of the dead yet, nor the number of attackers or even if any of them have been arrested and if so who they are, and from the other side of the world Ms. Fair knows who they're not and what their agenda is. For all I know, she may even prove to be right, eventually - a week from now, or a month, or a year. Equally likely, she'll prove to be totally wrong.

Then you've got her "context" explanation: the Indians are nasty to their own Muslims, so of course, the Muslim extremists are murdering tourists, normal folks in Mumbai some of whom must themselves be Muslims, and Jews. Two hotels, a train station, a hospital and a Chabad house: that's pretty much what you'd expect from irate Muslim Indians, isn't it?

Where do they grow these "experts"?

Innocent Until Proven Guilty

According to Mohamed el-Baradei, talking about Syria and whether it was or wasn't engaged in a nuclear program
"There is one thing called investigation, another called clear-cut proof of innocence or guilt ... and all of you, even if you are not lawyers, know that people and countries are innocent until proven guilty," he said.
Nonsense. Pure and unadulterated nonsense. There is no doctrine of innocent countries until they're proven guilty, nor has there ever been one, nor should there ever be. It is a sad reflection of the level of public discussion that the man was able to get away with such a statement and no-one called him for it.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Obama has Learnt from the Romans (Good!)

Charlotte Higgens tells that Obama's magnificent oratorical skills are built on the principles of Roman oratorical methods. I recommend highly.

Cultural creations are generally forgotten by the next day. The ones that last millenia generally have a reason for surviving. Jewish tradition is based upon reading and re-reading ours; Western civilization had its canon. The fact that the 2oth century lost almost all of its cultural baggage, and the early 21st century has forgotten they were ever there, is not to our credit.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

On the Audacity of Being Human

Someone e-mailed me this as a gag. But I don't think it's merely funny. To me, the showdown between a large snake and a curious and fearless child epitomizes a fundamental characteristic of mankind.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Academic Freedom and its Limits

Stanley Fish at the NYT approvingly reviews an upcoming book that looks at the constitutional and legal aspects of academic freedom. Each of us has their own pet case of this academic or that who was removed or should have been removed for the outlandish positions they were taking - nay, the outright stupid and dangerous positions. Matthew W. Finken and Robert C. Post suggest that academic freedom requires protection for viewpoints no matter how disturbing, as long as their academic methodology is solid - but not when the methodology is specious.

For us historians this would mean, I suppose, that you can't invent sources out of whole cloth. But what about a historian who plows through thick files of documents, and cherry-picks the few pages that fit their thesis while quite overlooking all of the rest? (I'm thinking of a specific historian, whose books are widely acclaimed and sold, but there must be quite a few of them). I'm not so certain the authors' solution is all that easy to implement. Once you get into the airy disciplines such as literary criticism, things will have to spin out of control.

But it's a nice thesis.

The Guardian Waltzes with Bashir

Waltz with Bashir, an Israeli film about the events and memory of the First Lebanon War of 1982, has apparently just opened in London - and the Guardian is fascinated. The film is listed here, and reviewed here here and here: wildly favorably in all cases. This isn't surprising, given that it's an anti-war film, but the Guardian reviewers seem mostly to be getting the complexity. This is especially stark in Phillip French's review, which contains a mixture of the outlandish alongside the fair:
What we have here are atrocities comparable with many on the Eastern Front in the Second World War that form part of the Holocaust...

But we must note that a similar inquiry could not have taken place in any Arab country, nor a film like Ari Folman's be made there.
I haven't seen the film, by the way. But I saw the war.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Hillary Outdoing Bill?

Jeffrey Goldberg wants Hillary to be Secretary of State, because he thinks she has a real chance of succeeding with the Israelis&Palestinians. (In spite of her husband not succeeding. Or perhaps because she watched from close up). He also links to an earlier interview with her that focused on Israel-Palestine.

Well, it's nice to hope, anyway.

Historians Can't Lie

I've noticed that "Bush Legacy" articles are quite in vogue these days, as columnists try to get in one last dig at the outgoing presidency. Of course, there's a wee problem in the exercise, in that by definition, the legacy will get written, or written and re-written, by folks who aren't writing right now. I mean, that's sort of the point, isn't it? The assumption that a future generation, firmly embedded in a reality that's different from ours, will look back at this moment with its own perspectives, not with ours.

But we of the chattering class, we've got to chatter. So here's an interesting example of the genre: Kevin Libin suggests various things about the Bush presidency that might look different in the future, but ultimately expects they won't make much difference because (today's) academics really really don't like him, and it's academics who write the history books. (My italics added).

I rest my case.

Polls Can't Lie

The other day Haaretz published the results of a public opinion poll (not online, can't link to it). As usual in such cases, one of the many questions is "who did you vote for last time?" which the pollsters then use to seek trends. In this poll, however, the response was probably the most interesting item in the whole poll. According to how people say they voted last time, Likud won 25 seats in the Knesset, rather than the 12 who were really elected (and even that 12th was only by a margin of 160 votes).

Talk about re-writing history.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Merely Following Orders

You'll remember, of course (if not from personal experience) that the Nazi defendants at Nuremberg and later war-crime trials claimed they were merely following orders. In all the many thousands of such trials this line of defense was never accepted, but it did catch broad public attention.

Eichmann tried it, too, at his trial in Jerusalem. Quite strenuously, as a matter of fact.

A number of years prior to his trial (which took place in 1961) the Israeli courts had dealt with the matter with Israeli war criminals, most importantly the ones from the Kfar Kassem murders. The Supreme Court made the distinction between illegal orders and categorically illegal orders, the first being ones that soldiers must follow, the second being one that soldiers are forbidden to follow, and will be court-martialed if they do; the court also gave the helpful definition that what marks the categorically illegal orders is that a black flag flies above them. (I wrote more about this in Right to Exist).

Of course, as you'd expect, none of this happened in a vacuum, and actually the discussion began some 2,000 years earlier.

We're in Kiddushin these days, I remind you. The Gemara discusses various aspects of messengers fulfilling precepts. This started with the question if a man is allowed to betroth a woman via a messenger, who will bring her the contract or money required for the betrothal. Quite rapidly, however, the discussion broadens out to include the question if a man can tell someone else to transgress, and if so, who bears responsibility. The answer given on page 42 of Kiddushin is that this can't happen: ein shaliach le'dvar aveira: a man cannot be a courier for a transgression, but bears responsibility for whatever he does.

On the next page, 43a, the discussion becomes even more explicit, when a Braita (a Mishniac text, i.e. before the 3rd century) states that if a man sends another to kill someone, the responsibility is on the killer alone, not the initiator. Shamai the Elder, however (about 2,100 years ago) disagrees,and brings the story of the prophet Nathan who admonishes King David for having engineered the death in battle of Uriya, so as to marry her widow, Batsheva: Nathan sees this as murder, in spite of the fact that there were actually two other agents between King David and Uriya's death, Yoav the general, and the Amonites who actually did the killing, on the field of battle.

The Gemara then goes into a discussion about whether murder is the same as lesser transgressions, in a fascinating precedent for the 20th century distinction between illegal and categorically illegal. Except, of course, that the Sages see it from the opposite direction: the killers are clearly criminally responsible, the question is to what extent criminal responsibility can be ascribed to the initiators.

(By the way, if you've never read that book, Right to Exist, you ought to. Since I had to work with an editor, and it was published through a real publishing house, it's much more serious than a blog. Many people, including the reviewer of the New York Times, felt it to be a good book.

(Und wenn Sie es auf Deutsch lesen wollen, das geht auch.)

As I always mention, this thread began here.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

PLO Advertisement in Israeli Papers

The "Negotiations Department" of the PLO today published a full-page advertisement in the four largest Israeli newspapers. Haaretz writes about the story, though its English language version garbles the tale, and if you want the full story you need to go to the Hebrew side.

(I don't know why Haaretz is so unprofessional with its website. It's not so hard to run a newspaper website: a few hundred pages each day, at very most. Unless it's a conspiracy to trip up all those folks who avidly search through Haaretz-English for dirt on Israel, by having them use unreliable sources. But I don't think Haaretz is that sophisticated. More likely, they're simply inept. But it is a bit surprising how inept).

So I carefully read the announcement, which tells us uninformed Israelis about the decision of the Arab League and of the Organization of Islamic Conference to live with us in peace and harmony if only we'll do a few things, and the list is helpfully provided. The original resolution, by the way, was discussed in Beirut the day before the mass murder in Netanya that sparked Operation Defensive Shield, in Spring 2002. A week later all these peace-seeking Arab states were braying for our blood because of that massacre in Jenin which never happened.

What can I say? I wouldn't reserve any hotel rooms in Washington for the day of the festive signing. Not yet. True, the statements are a far cry from the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and perhaps even 1980s when the Arab policy was to get rid of Israel. (Remember how Egypt was banned from the Arab world and boycotted, at the end of the 1970s, for daring to make peace with Israel)? On that level, we've moved forward and things are better now. But there still are various nagging questions:

1. Israel must officially announce that she wants peace. Huh?
2. Israel must return to the lines of June 4th 1967, including on the Golan, and retreat from conquered Lebanese territories. There are tricks built into this sentence on three different points. See if you can find them. (As long-term readers of mine will know, I'm actually in favor of our moving out of most of the so-called occupied territories, so don't jump down my throat on that one). Any reasonably informed Israeli will spot the tricks immediately.
3. There must be a reasonable solution to the refugee problem, based upon GA resolution 194. Uh huh.
4. No Arab states will be required to enfranchise Palestinian refugees (paragraph 4. The formulation is opaque and confusing, but that's what it seems to be saying). A fine foundation for peace, isn't it?

All the rest I can live with, and most Israelis can too. Partitioning the land between two sovereign states: that's something Israeli voters have already accepted and essentially authorized, no matter whether Netanyahu wins the upcoming elections or not. Offhand, I'd say we're about 60% of the way towards peace. So if after 90 years of conflict we've come 60% of the way, we can reasonably expect to make it in another 50 years or so. Given that my personal estimation expects at least another 150 years of conflict, I'd sign on the 50-year version immediately.

Ben Gurion's Party

According to the various polls published today in a number of papers (Haaretz has a preview of its poll here), Netanyahu will be our next prime minister. Actually, this has been the picture for a while now, but the numbers are growing more solid.

I'll talk about that some other time. What I'd like to point out here is that Labor, according to the latest polls, is losing support even faster than those Somali folks are hijacking ships. As Haaretz correctly notes, this may be the last elections in which the party runs. Lest you think this is something to shrug off, I remind you that Labor is the party that created the State of Israel, and dominated its politics from the inception of elections in Mandatory Palestine, in the 1920s, uninterrupted until 1977, and remained a major force until 2001. On a political level, one can say "No Labor Party (or Mapai, or Maarach, or whatever other name it went by), no State of Israel". Ben Gurion, Moshe Sharett, Levy Eshkol, Golda Meir, Yizchak Rabin, Shimon Peres, and, yes, Ehud Barak - these are merely the Mapai figures who reached the top; Moshe Dayan, Yigal Allon, Pinchas Sapir, Abba Eban and many other famous figures were also Laborites.

The English Liberal Party disappeared at the beginning of the 20th century, but I can't think of any other examples of such a thing happening.

Equally interesting, Labor is dying so that Kadima may live. This, frankly, is wierd. Kadima was invented by Arik Sharon (along with Haim Ramon, Tzipi Livni and some others) in 2005 as the new political center. When Sharon disappeared many expected Kadima likewise to disappear, and that it didn't was a sign of the thirst for the center. Still, there has always been the assumption that Kadima is a provisional party, a one-timer, one that could simply evaporate. In the present campaign, if we're honest with ourselves, Kadima is edging leftwards, and is more center-left than purely center. This leaves no room for labor - but it contradicts what everyone thought would happen, or said they thought, or thought they said, or whatever.

I'm not explaining, merely observing.

Why a Blog?

Aaron Swartz cites the reasoning of C.Wright Mills (who lived in the pre-blog part of world history).

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Banality of "Teams of Rivals"

There's this excellent book by Dorris Kearns Goodwin, called Team of Rivals; The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. It really is a fun book, and I warmly recommend. Barack Obama recommends it too, apparently, to the extent that much of the buzz these days, when the pundits know nothing and can merely speculate, is that it's going to serve as the template for the next administration.

It's a beguiling idea, and it's easy to see why everyone's so agog. The thesis is that Lincoln, one of America's two or three most important presidents ever, built his winning administration by collecting all of his major political rivals, the fellows who thought they were more worthy than him; this wasn't only an act of generosity, it was great politics, since his adversaries really were highly capable men, and so his administration was best structured to serve the needs of the country. Lincoln was so great, so intelligent, so wonderful, that he was able to pull it off.

You see where folks are going with this. Gotta keep that Obama-is-the-successor-of-Lincoln-and-also-the-best-ever thing going, even though the election has already been won, and the hard part hasn't started yet. (No, the politics of setting up an administration are not the hard part. That comes after the inauguration).

As I've said already, we all hope Obama really will prove to be all that great, or even only half that great. Irrespective of what any professor once wrote.

In the meantime, however, since we can't yet kvetch about the Obama administration, we can go back and look at the Team of Rivals thesis. Oops! Seems it isn't quite as immaculate as they told us!

By the way, seen from afar - and I'm quite afar - the entire discussion seems odd. Only an American public could see a stable of political rivals as an act of genius. Anyone who has ever lived in a parliamentary democracy, as most of the democratic world does, will tell you that something like approximately 100% of all coalitions ever created were made of teams of rivals. It's a lucky political leader who enjoys such stature that he (or she) can control the rivals. Most of the time, he can't.

Ancient Remains, Contemporary Politics

The New York Times has an article about how archeologists are unearthing findings that strengthen some people's claims to their land, while others dispute this. You'd think that the whole issue is rather farcical: why would ancient findings be relevant to the politics of the modern world, after all, aren't we rational pragmatists who can't be bothered by primordial myths and legends? But you'd be wrong. Apparently it does matter.

In China, by the way. Nothing to do with what you thought I was insinuating.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Evil Justice, Benign Evil

As the Kedushin tractate finishes its first chapter (which at 40 pages was itself longer than some full tractates), it wanders off into theological discussions of good and bad, why the just sometime suffer and the evil succeed, and so on. One of the passages deals with two verses in Isaiah chapter 3, verses 10-11. Now I've just gone through a variety of online translations, from King James onwards, and none of them seem to translate the original Hebrew in the way the Talmud understands it (and the Talmud's understanding seems quite plausible to me). This happens more often than you'd think, by the way, that Hebrew readers of the original Tanach find themselves reading a version that somehow doesn't make it into the translations. Anyway, the Talmud's reading of these two verses has them talking about just people who are good, and evil people who are bad, prompting the Gemarah to ask the obvious question: is it possible for a just person not to be good, or an evil person not to be bad?

Well, yes, is the answer. A just person who concentrates only on the religious precepts (i.e. the precepts that serve God) can be bad, while an evil person who concentrates on transgressing the religious precepts alone, may still be good. The issue is how a person relates to the social precepts.

Kidushin 40a

As you know, this thread started here.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Lewis on Wall Street

Embarrassed that you don't understand what this gigantic crises is about? Don't be. Till this very day, 79 years after it began, no-one has satisfactorily explained what the previous gigantic one was about, either. This one isn't as bad as that one was, but if it helps, the folks who made it happen - even they - don't understand what happened. Or perhaps more accurately, they didn't manage to see what they were doing wrong as they were doing it.

Over here, however, Michael Lewis writes a hilarious but sobering account. He's found a couple of fellows who not only claim in retrospect to have seen it coming. Apparently, they bet lots of money in advance on the inevitability of the crash.

The weirdest part of the story is that apparently thousands of those whiz-kids and their elders who populate Wall Street and look down on the rest of us for being plodding yokels, didn't have any idea what they were doing. When confronted by the few who understood what was going on, they continued not to understand.

Another thought, one that some won't like, is that while the crises had a number of tiers of stupidity and recklessness, the original foolishness was in allowing large numbers of people with practically no money to purchase real estate is if they did. Shades of 1928, with housewives and janitors investing in Wall Street. Perhaps it really isn't such a good idea to democratize the financial markets beyond a certain degree. Most people should live with the limited money they have, and need not engage in matters they really don't understand. I know, this sounds elitist, but in this case, since I'm of the majority that doesn't need to be there, maybe you can forgive me for being elitist.

Blackberry as Reality

Back in 1992, as many of you won't remember, when George Bush Papa was campaigning to be re-elected, he once stumbled into a supermarket and was astonished to see the cashier using some modern contraption that wasn't invented the previous time he'd been in a supermarket,many years earlier. The (Bill) Clinton campaign and much of the media had a field day at his expense, of course, talking about how he was out of touch with normal people. He then went onto lose the election for other reasons, and the whole story was rightfully relegated to a footnote; the only reason I remember it is that I'm very old, and also being a trained historian often use footnotes.

(Think what would have happened had he not failed, and had served until 1996: Bill wouldn't have replaced him - and George Bush Sonny wouldn't have been elected to avenge him in 2000, and on 9/11 someone else, perhaps a Democrat, would have been there... But I digress).

Eight years ago (some of you at least must remember that) George Sonny was elected, and we were told at the time that he sent off a final e-mail to his contacts regretting that he'd have to stop mailing. As president, there's some act against e-mails written in the Constitution, and there was the problem of spam floating around in the Oval Office, and so on. He'll be back, writing to his pals, on January 21, if he still has their old addresses...

So today the NYT tells us, unsurprisingly for those of us who are old enough to remember, that by January 20th Barack O is going to have to stop writing e-mails. Except that in his case, it's far worse, given the advent of the Blackberry. And given that he's such a wired chap, in touch with the generation that only reads things only on the internet, and all the other things that you've read about him in this regard. Come January 20th, the man will be relegated back into the Middle Ages. Why, it's just conceivable that in his campaign in 2012 he'll be confronted with some new gizmo we all can't live without, which he'll never have heard of. ("President Obama looks befuddled as a potential first-time voter communicates with his tooth-mail in Middle-Bend, Arkansas, earlier today. Can you imagine? How out of touch can a fellow be?")

Beyond the weak humor, there's also a real issue here. Presidents are supposed to make Big Decisions, and then explain them to the rest of us. That's what they're there for, and we cut out all the distractions that plague the rest of us, so that they'll make the Right Big Decisions. We also cut them off from human beings for security reasons, and this one will be cut off even more given the (reasonable) fear that there will be no lack of kooks raring to hit him. At some point, however, you've got to ask yourself how deep the guy's seclusion can be, and still expect him to make the right decisions for the rest of us, out here in the world living real lives.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Groupthink 2

OK, here's the story. There's this issue that sharply divides public opinion, with strong feelings on all sides. So the people had a serious discussion about it, and then they voted. Of course, one side didn't get they result they'd hoped for (perhaps even, the result they'd been convinced they should have gotten), but that's the way these things go. One of the cool things about democracy is that it offers a way to resolve such differences without violence.

The best thing to happen after such an exercise is that all sides involved, including the side that lost the argument, puts it behind them and gets along with life. Sometimes, however, the losing side can't do that, because it's too important for them, so they respect the result but keep the discussion going, in the hope that at some future date their position will prevail. Democracy allows that option, too. Society can change its mind.

What isn't supposed to happen is that the losing side goes witch-hunting. Say, by forcing a public figure to resign from his post in disgrace, because he took a position in the discussion. That's not supposed to happen. Nor suggesting that if he publicly recants and beg forgiveness he might, just might, be reinstated, after abjectly appologizing and changing his ways of course. It's not supposed to work that way.

Weirdest of all, in this very weird tale, is the justification given for punishing the man: that his position was hurtful. Even he has accepted the premise, and is already tearfully begging forgiveness that his convictions were hurtful to anyone.

Looks to me like someone ought to start teaching the fundamentals of democracy in American schools. I apologize if this hurts anyone's feeling, my saying so, but no, I won't retract it. Not.

Groupthink 1

A while ago I sort of approvingly linked to an article by Camille Paglia. Well, two months or so have passed, and she's not taking back her earlier positive impressions of Sarah Palin, even though in the meantime media disapproval of her has grown so all-prevailing that TV anchors I've seen don't even explain their disdain, they take it as a starting point. Paglia thinks they're being hypocrites.

Personally, I don't have much of an opinion on Palin, but I do think the way people went after her was unserious. As Paglia notes, she wasn't ready to be president - but then, nor was John Edwards. (Or Barack Obama?). Anyway, I recommend her present column. I also like her metaphor of Obama the surfer; and you really should follow her link to the Laird Hamilton film, and then stick around You-Tube to watch other examples. A world-class artist.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Old Family Traditions and Even Older Ones

We were at a wedding last night. The grandfather of the bride - Menachem - read a blessing written by his great grandmother's great grandmother to her daughter, when she married; it has been read to all of the generations since. That's ten generations from the original author to yesterday's bride.

The author lived in Emden, Germany, in the 18th century. The sixth generation was the last married there: Menachem's parents, both murdered by the Germans; Menachem and a brother were the only survivors. I don't know how the document survived, but of course, Menachem's mother didn't read it to him when he got married.

The young couple has four sets of grandparents. One set from Germany, two sets from Yemen (one on each side), and one set from Iraq. If one assumes four generations per century, that's something like 60-100 generations since the Iraqis and the Germans were last likely to have intermarried. The rules of the ceremony we saw yesterday were hammered out in Erez Yisrael and Iraq about 60-70 generations ago. The Yemenites could easily have been separated from the rest as long ago as 120 generations.

These are miraculous times we live in.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Oh, and by the way...

Nir Won.

Since there are all sorts of personal affiliations involved, I'm pleased even beyond the general satisfaction that perhaps, finally, maybe, please? we'll have a mayor who'll start patching up this ancient battered town.

And maybe, if he's already at it, he'll fix the economy, create social justice for all, bring world peace to the Middle East and elsewhere, heal the planet... oh. Sorry about that...

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Secret Door

We went early this morning to the polls. If you go late the get-out-the-vote folks call you every hour and offer to drive you - and who needs the hassle? Especially as the shortest way from here to there is along a pedestrian path.

Long before we arrived there were worrying signs: police fences, police forces, security-types with microphones hidden in full sight in their mustaches and ears... We'd forgotten that Olmert is a neighbor. Getting in to the voting station (a school) required more security levels than going thru an airport with explosives in your shoes. Once inside, we were still surrounded by more security types, beeping contraptions, the press and their gear.

And there, in the eye of the storm, one of the doors in the school hallway was locked. The security fellows had apparently demanded that it be opened so they could inspect the brooms behind it, but alas, no-one in living memory had ever seen it opened nor knew where the key might be. So they brought in the janitor, who had also never seen that door open, and he brought a box with about 340 different keys in it, and a top-notch security goon trained to shoot a wing off a fly in the middle of the night from a range of 400 meters with one hand tied behind his back, stood there and tried key after key after key after key... I expect he'll have that door open well before the next municipal elections, in 2013.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Jerusalem Elections for Dummies - 2

Meretz, our seriously-left party, isn't running a candidate for mayor, only for the council. All day long today they had these nice young kids stationed at the major intersection near where I live, handing out propaganda. Which is fine. Less fine however were the T-shirts they were wearing; red with a picture of Che Guevara with Peppo Alalou's beard superimposed on it. Peppo is their candidate. But Che, as his fans manage never to figure out, was a bloodthirsty mass murderer, and a lieutenant in the army of the Communists, easily the bloodiest movement in the 20th century (yes: far more than the Nazis, awful as they were).

Why do they do that?

Anyway. In the Washington Post article I cited in the previous post, there's a snippet of an interview with Anat Hoffman, one of the Meretz leaders. She said something that fit neatly into what the Post person wanted to hear:
"Jerusalem is in a pivotal place right now," said Anat Hoffman, who recently resigned after 14 years on Jerusalem's city council. "Economically and culturally it's sinking, and it's become a place that Israelis from outside the city don't even visit."
Really? Funny, I hadn't noticed.

What can one say about a group of politicians who revere a dead mass murderer, while not noticing half a million tourists?

Jerusalem Elections for Dummies - 1

So here's the story. From 1965 all the way until 1993, Teddy Kollek got re-elected every time the law said he had to run, and no-one even remembers who the other fellows were. (Nor did anyone recognize them at the time). This in spite of Kollek's being from Labor, while Jerusalem regularly voted Likud in the national elections. Kollek was a great fundraiser and a good mayor, and no-one cared which party he came from.

In 1992 Kollek was in his 80s and the voters felt it was enough. He had this habit of dozing off in meetings and public events, and we felt he should call it a day (well: call it a century). We were wrong, of course, and he could easily have functioned for at least one additional term, but there you have it.

Olmert got elected that time, by combining the Likud voters with the ultra-orthodox, the Haredis. Tho he wasn't a very good mayor, he got elected again in 1998 with the same coalition. Then, sometime before the end of his 2nd term he left and went to join the government, a move that brought him first to the top, then probably all the way to the bottom. That's the way it is in life, we often don't know when to stop grabbing for more. On his way out he vacated his seat to Uri Lupolianski, otherwise known as Lupo.

Lupo is an interesting fellow. A haredi by choice, not by birth, he invented, set up, and ran the Yad Sarah organization, a truly magnificent place that gives a wide range of para-medical assistance to anybody who needs it, free of cost, and is itself staffed by thousands of volunteers. In the ramp-up to the municipal elections of 2003 the haredi apparently said to themselves that if they were destined to have a secular mayor, why not have one of their own. He was already seated at the right table in City Hall, thanks to Olmert's political ambitions, so all that remained was to elect him. Not hard to do since the haredi community votes early and often, all 105% of them, the Arabs hardly vote at all, and the rest of the populace loves to kvetch and move elsewhere, but can't be bothered to vote if Kollek isn't running (in 2003 he was above 90, I think, and no longer a viable candidate even in his own eyes).

Nir Barkat, the hi-tech multimillionaire, ran in 2003, but no-one knew where he came from nor why he wanted the job, so his potential voters lifted their noses and didn't vote.

This time, as I've already written, we've got three candidates. The poll stations open in 10 hours, and no-one I know has the faintest idea who's going to win. But it has been interesting to see that all three candidates have broken the old molds. Porush, the haredi fellow, is apparently far too independent-minded for some of the rabbis (they're the ones who decide who their people vote for), so some of them may not allow their people to vote for him. On the other hand, he has been campaigning vigorously outside the haredi neighborhoods, trying to garner non-haredi votes; apparently he has partially succeeded. Barkat, the secular candidate, has scrupulously refrained from saying anything even remotely negative about the haredi community, and though he's unlikely to pick up any of their votes, it's conceivable some of them may decide not to vote at all, which is tantamount to voting for him. Gaydamek, the enigmatic Russian billionaire from France is the only one who has been using haredi terminology on some of his campaign posters, and he's the first Jewish candidate ever to appeal, perhaps even successfully, to the third or so of voters who are Palestinians; apparently they've decided that since he doesn't know Hebrew he isn't Jewish so they can vote for him.

The national religious who make up a sizable chink of the electorate are split, and their representatives and rabbis have sent out calls in the past weeks to vote for this one, no that one, no this one and forget we said that one, no we never said that, why aren't you listening more carefully? Since unlike the haredi most of them make up their own minds, no-one knows what they're going to do tomorrow. Cheers!

PS. The Washington Post has a reasonable summary of all this here. Well, sort of reasonable.

How Do We Know What We Know? (2)

Anecdotal evidence from last week's elections indicated that there was a huge turnout. A number of e-mails I received told of unprecedented lines at the ballots. Andrew Sullivan posted a long series of reports from his readers about the unprecedented lines they'd all stood in before voting. All in all this created the ambiance of a national catharsis.

Well, it certainly was an important event, historic too, but the total of voters was apparently unaffected. That mass turn-out? It didn't happen. Not when you look at the overall numbers.

I expect it did happen at some places, or at some hours of the day. This, conflated with the fervent wish of the observers to be seeing it, created that strong impression. But impressions, even when they go on to become accepted wisdom, aren't always true.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Open Archives - and Sealed Ones

Our comic commentator from Rosario, Faux-Ibrahim, has outdone himself today. As regular readers know, I never interfere with Faux-Ibrahim's right to be silly on this blog, but I mostly don't respond to him (nor, for that matter, do I generally respond to the other regular anti-Zionist contributor, the so-called Andrew R. Back in the Middle Ages, when I was taught manners, it was regarded as cowardly and low to express oneself anonymously, and in spite of all the generally beneficial changes wrought by the Internet, I still feel the same way). Sometimes, however, Ibrahim or Andrew unintentionally serve as a useful foil, convenient vehicles on which to make significant points. When that happens, I don't hold back merely because they're fakers.

Down in the comments to my recent post about the unaccessable Vatican archives, Faux-Ibrahim has posted the following:
Here's a suggestion for the Israeli democracy: open the archives of the Israel Defense Forces where the photographs of Deir Yassin on the day of the massacre are stored.

In fact you should be campaigning for them to be opened, because (a) you believe in open democracies, (b) you're a former archivist, and (c) you believe Israel is morally right.
He has additional thoughts, and you're all invited to go read them and judge their seriousness for yourselves. I'd like to concentrate on the archives issue.

1. Contrary to what Faux-Ibrahim seems to think he knows, the archives of the IDF, while not fully open for obvious reasons, generally do try to give access to researchers. All he needs to do is pick up any serious book of research on the relevant subjects and see how many footnotes can be found from the IDF archives - including, of course, in books whose authors are known to be critical of Israel. The degree of openness compares reasonably to other democratic countries.

2. I don't know if the IDF archives has secret pictures of Deir Yassin, nor if they're hidden there, but if so it would be rather surprising, given that the massacre at Deir Yassin happened before the State of Israel existed; it was committed by Irgun units; and even the Haganah forces nearby have their documents stored in the Haganah archives, not the IDF archives. Contrary to what Faux-Ibrahim seems to think, the leaders of the Yishuv didn't try to hide the massacre at Deir Yassin; they actually saw an advantage to besmirching the reputation of the Irgun and therefore played up the story.

3. As a general statement, Israel's archives are open. Don't take my word for it. Let's listen to Benny Morris:
There is a built-in imbalance in scholarly treatments of the conflict; this study is no exception. The Zionist side tends to be illuminated more thoroughly and with greater precision than the Arab side, and this applies to both political and military aspects. In part this stems from the fact that Zionist and Israeli archives, civil and military, local and national, are relatively well organized and have been open to researchers for many years. By in large, the documents contained in them were written by Zionists, in a Zionist context and from a Zionist perspective. This has almost inevitably affected the historiography based on these documents.

There has been no such access on the Arab side. There are no comparable Palestinian archives, and whatever exists in the archives of the Arab states has been and remains closed to researchers, save for the occasional and usually inconsequential document. Hence "the Arab side", more often than not, has also to be illuminated on the basis of Zionist-Israel and Western documentation.

Second, historiography, in the modern sense, has been far more developed on the Jewish-Zionist side than among the Arabs. Indeed, only in recent years have Arab historians - usually living in the West -begun to publish serious historical work connected with the conflict. Unfortunately most Arab historians still labor under the yoke of severe political-ideological restrictions that are characteristic of non-democratic societies. The same types of censorship and self-censorship have affected the writings of Arab memoirists. Though Jewish officials, generals, and politicians have often also been self-serving and subjective in their published recollections, and past generations of Zionist-Israeli historians have been less than objective, they have been substantially more accurate and informative than their Arab counterparts.

Lastly, there has been a marked quantitative gap between the two sides. The Arabs have simply produced far less historiography and related published materials (autobiographies, collections of documents, and the like) than the Jews.
Righteous Victims, New York 1999, p. XIV

The Decade of Ethnic Cleansing

I've just completed Mark Mazower's Hitler's Empire, How the Nazis Ruled Europe. Mostly, it's a good piece of historical analysis, although near the end he goes well beyond what his scholarship justifies, and rambles into meta-historical ramblings that move from interesting speculation to frustrating silliness. But lot's of people don't read books all the way to their ends anyway, so perhaps there's no real damage.

I'm not going to review the book here, as I've been requested to review it elsewhere; should it ever get posted there, I'll link to it.

A comment, however, demonstrated by an interesting anecdote. The 1940's were the modern heyday of what we now call ethnic cleansing, a term invented in the 1990s for the events in the disintegrating Yugoslavia, perhaps by journalists who weren't aware of how common the phenomenon had been and thought they were seeing something new. Between the 1930s and the 1950s the practice was implemented on many millions of people, perhaps even tens of millions, in various parts of the world. Mazower, however, tells of a case I admit I hadn't been aware of in more than a general way:
By April 1943, UPA (the Ukrainian Insurgent Army) had 10-20,000 members, and, prompted by news of Stalingrad, they embarked on a campaign of ethnic cleansing to make room for a future Ukrainian state before the Russians arrived. First they attacked Himmler's ethnic German settlements and burned many of them down. Next they turned on the Poles, killing an estimated 50,000; many more fled westwards. Thanks to well-planned massacres and expulsions they had virtually succeeded by December in bringing Vohlynia under Ukrainian control, helped by thousands of peasants who coveted land controlled by Poles. "Liquidate all Polish traces", ran an OUN order from early 1944. "Destroy all walls in the Catholic church and other Polish prayer houses. Destroy orchards and trees in the courtyards so that there will be no trace that someone lived there... Pay attention to the fact that when something remains that is Polish, then the Poles will have pretensions to our land". (p.507)
The astonishing part of this story is that it happened while the Germans still controlled the area. The numbers of the murdered Polish civilians are also high, though the numbers of them forced to leave, eventually reaching hundreds of thousands in that area alone, were not particularly unusual for those times. Of course, the Ukrainians succeeded: there are essentially no Poles left in what is now Western Ukraine, nor anyone except the descendants and a handful of scholars who still remember that the area had been settled by Poles and sometimes controlled by them for centuries - and hadn't been controlled by the Ukrainians, ever.

Thus, when the Palestinians set out to ethnically cleanse the Jews in 1947, it was in a context where such actions were so common, that the murder of 50,000 Poles and the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of them wasn't even noticed.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Rashid Khalidi, Holocaust Victim

As regular readers will be aware, I hold a rather low opinion of Ms. Dianne Mason, author of the Lawrence of Cyberia blog. A while ago I spent some time reading her and posted my findings here, but since then I don't think I've gone by her blog even once. Life is too short.

Yesterday I wandered by again, accidentally, and found this. It's worth commenting on because of its neat sleight-of-hand.

Mason starts off by telling about how when she was a kid she enjoyed the documentary series "World at War" (So did I, as a teenager. It was magnificent. The BBC at its best, if I remember correctly). She goes on to tell of a Dutch factory foreman:

He recalled how the first test he faced came when he was presented with a form to fill in, requiring him to list how many of his colleagues were Jewish.

As the foreman looked at the paper and wondered what to do with it, it dawned on him that actually – as far as he knew – none of his colleagues were Jewish. You could tell what a relief that realization had been for him, and how glad he had been to be able to write “zero” in the “how many Jews” column and return the form without having gotten anybody into trouble. But at that point in the interview, the foreman suddenly stopped. He said “of course, I shouldn’t have done it…”. He was overcome with emotion, and struggled to get out the next words, “I shouldn’t have filled out the form at all”.

I remember that at that point in the program, I didn’t have a clue what was going on. As a child, this all seemed really odd; first, because it was unusual to see a grownup crying, and second because it seemed to me that he hadn’t harmed anybody because he hadn’t ratted anybody out. I think I understood that he was saying something important – otherwise why would the memory of that interview have stayed with me all this time – but it must have been years before I really understood what that something was.

That Dutch foreman was saying that the only principled answer when the occupation authorities asked him “How many Jews work here?” was: “It’s none of your business how many Jews work here.” To provide a number in answer to the question – even when that number was zero – was to accept the premise upon which the question was based, i.e. that it was legitimate to differentiate between his workers on ethnic/religious grounds. For someone who claimed he rejected the Nazis’ racial categories, writing “zero” in the “How many Jews?” column was no less a moral failure than writing “One”, or “Ten”, or “One hundred”.

So far, so good. Any reasonable person would have to agree with Ms. Mason on this, which is what she expected, and the power of her argument is that when she gets around to flipping it in an anti-Israeli direction, we'll either have to backtrack and disagree with what we agreed with just now, or we'll have to admit she's making a fine point:

And when Obama was accused of consorting with terrorists because of his acquaintance with Rashid Khalidi, people defended him by saying that "McCain does it too" or complained that the accusation was "guilt by association". And that's the worst answer of all, because it reinforces rather than challenges the underlying premise that there is some guilt in being associated with an Arab or a Muslim or a Palestinian.

I’m not going to go into the whole “Obama has the wrong friends” issue. Politicians have multitudes of “friends”, and the better politicians have large multitudes of them; I’m more interested in what Obama will do than the people he has known. But Martin Kramer has demonstrated that Khalid Rashidi was recognized as a PLO spokesman in Beirut in the mid-1970s, at a time when the PLO violently rejected Israel’s right to exist, and in the meantime engaged in mass killings of Lebanese Arabs.

So Mason is making the following comparison. The Nazis unilaterally defined the Jews as worthy of persecution, irrespective of anything the Jews were doing, had ever done, or might ever do; the only truly decent thing to do was to object to this Nazi way of seeing the world by refusing to attribute anything of the sort to the Jews, or to go along with any type of singling them out. So also with Khalidi: the fact that he’s an Arab or a Palestinian should never be a reason for our reproach or even for our accepting the reproach from others.

The problem with Khalidi of course isn’t his ethnic identity. It’s his actions.

"The Vatican is Not a Democracy"

The Vatican has been making steps towards the canonization of WWII-era Pope Pius XII, and Jewish and Israeli spokesmen have been decrying this. This issue has been going on for well over a decade; in recent months it seemed to flare up and then die down again, but yesterday the flames were stoked again by none less than Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican Secretary of State:
Speaking at a ceremony marking 50 years since Pius' death, Bertone castigated those who say Pius did nothing to save Jews. He said historians who espouse such views "are infuriating and historically inaccurate." He called the allegations against Pius a "defaming legend."
Earlier this decade the Vatican and Jewish organizations set up a joint commission of historians to clarify the issue, but shortly thereafter the Jewish historians on the panel, who included world-class scholars, all resigned when the Vatican refused them free access to the documentation. Given that historians, unlike journalists or bloggers, try to base their contentions on documents and not merely hearsay, this was a bit of a problem.

As the news item thoughtlessly parrots:
It is believed the process of cataloging and releasing the Vatican's documents from the World War II era will take another six or seven years.
Who exactly is doing the "believing"? We're not told.

I'm reminded of an instance in December 1998, methinks, when the US State Department convened a gigantic conference of folks from dozens of countries who all came to Foggy Bottom to talk about "Holocaust Era Assets", which were all the rage in those days. There were many of hundreds of us there, in a mostly cynical attempt to demonstrate, I don't know, that everybody was great or something. Though we weren't more cynical than politicians diplomats and power brokers generally are, so perhaps there wasn't anything particular about this convention.

Anyway, one of the panels I participated in was made up of archivists, and we were talking about ensuring that all archives be open to research and so on. If memory serves, I was sitting right next to the Monsignore from the Vatican's archives. Given that by 1998 his archive was one of the very last ones anywhere in the relevant parts of the world that were still closed, you don't have to envy him, and indeed he read out a statement that was unusually cynical even by the standards of the general context. At the end of the discussion I remember that I said to him that in democracies, opening archives is a hallmark of the freedom of investigation, and that as a general rule one shouldn't fear the truth that careful investigation of archives will bring forth.

He look straight at me and said "The Vatican is not a Democracy, Dr. Lozowick". End of that discussion.

Thursday, November 6, 2008


Juan Cole and Sins of the Fathers

About a year ago Juan Cole made an unfair statement about Tzipi Livni, whereby since her father had been a terrorist in the Irgun, she had no moral standing to be requiring a cessation of Arab terror; since she's Israel's Foreign Minister, he effectively was rejecting her right to negotiate. Her father's identity was more important than her own actions, you see. At the time I responded, and he responded to me, and you can see my summary of the exchange here.

President-Elect Obama's first appointment is Rahm Emanuel. Emanuel, like Livni, has a father who was in the Irgun. While I have no doubt this will be used by the feverish antisemitic and anti American fringes whom you can see every day posting comments at the Guardian's Comment is Free section, Cole is more respectable than they. Can we expect him to relate to the issue, either to castigate Emanuel (and by implication, Obama), or by retroactively exonerating Livni?