Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Satisfied Israelis

Never-ending wars, economic gloom, terrible drivers, consistently idiotic politicians, hordes of nasty antisemites, Iranian bombs, hot summers and drought in winter, taxes... and the Israelis keep on smiling. Or rather, endlessly kvetching but fundamentally smiling. I challenge you to find any society anywhere with levels of satisfaction with life to equal those of the Israelis, as detailed here. Even the Israeli Arabs mostly agree, though with less exuberance.

The numbers have been mostly consistent for years and years. Partly they reflect Israelis' conviction that things really are pretty good. Second, they reflect the typical Israeli conviction that life is fundamentally what we make of it, so why complain? Most profoundly, however, the consistently stratospheric levels of satisfaction stem from the recognition that compared to the previous 2,000 years or so, we're living in a miracle.

The Most Typically Israeli Picture

The other day I linked to the short-list of pictures competing at Y-net for the slot of "Most typically Israeli picture, 2009", a competition between snapshots sent in by regular Israelis, and chosen by the regular folks at Y-net. Here's the picture that was chosen:Should we talk about it a bit?

First, this was a popular choice, vox populi - not the choice of a small group of self anointed pompous cultural experts or celebrities or what have you.

Second, if you don't know what it's about, it's hardly self explanatory - which is probably the reason it was chosen. The voters in this competition were looking for a typically Israeli picture, and they chose one they felt to be specifically Israeli, unique to us. Fundamentally unfathomable to outsiders, actually, as Roni Shaked commented in his column, which was not translated. (Y-net isn't Haaretz - all the more regrettable).

Where's the picture from? It was taken by 21-year-old Yonnie Kot, a recently demobilized tank commander. He snapped the shot from his position in the turret of his tank, in one of two scenarios. Either he'd just parked the tank after a run of maneuvers, as his unit reached a resting point, or they were preparing to continue and the van appeared. I've been in that picture hundreds of times, as have most of us; Achikam, home for Independence Day, glanced at it and said "Classic! And I've been in that field!"

What's it a picture of? Of a gazlan, of course. What's a gazlan? Well, the etymology is pretty clear. GazLAN is the Hebrew word for a thief who steals in bright daylight. GAZlan is the fellow, mostly uneducated and with imperfect syntax, who does a roaring business selling hot dogs and ice cream to military units on maneuvers. Each maneuvering area has one or two of them, and they always know in advance exactly which unit will be where when and how to get there. The commanders of the unit may have spent the entire night navigating the desert so as to assault a specific dusty hill at dawn, peering at their maps (or GPS screens). Once they've shot their payloads and churned up the dust, they lead their unit over the crest of the hill to regroup before moving on... and there's the gazlan fellow, with no specially-fangled military maps and satellite navigating equipment, waiting with his over-priced merchandise to fleece the troops. And boy, are the troops glad to see him.

Yossie Beilin once told in an interview of a life-changing insight he had many years ago while on the field of battle with casualties not yet evacuated, standing in line at the window of the gazlan. Even accepting it really happened that way, he was presenting his all-Israeli credentials while suggesting his hardly-all-Israeli perspectives.

If Yossie Beilin so, certainly all the rest of us less enlightened proles.

Yet this isn't the full story. Roni Shaked notes that thousands of snapshots were sent in, so it must have been a far larger number who did the choosing. They could have chosen all sorts of pictures to celebrate their communal identity - heroic ones, aesthetic ones, national ones, even simply more interesting ones. The aggregate voice that chose this particular picture was saying something. That this is a situation we all recognize, and recognize as being uniquely us. That the army is an essential part of our communal and personal lives, but the civilian gazlan is a central part of it. That the military planners pore over their preparations, but the uneducated gazlan will always see through them. That we'd never pay gazlan-prices for a hotdog at home, but in the army we'll gladly fork out the money rather than survive off the fare supplied for free by the system.

On a profound level, the gazlan is an expression of cynical humor in a crazy situation that isn't humorous; his elevation to national icon reflects the combination of grim determination and irreverence about it, all rolled together. He's precisely not Brecht's Mutter Courage, trudging after the marauding armies, making a living off the destruction they wreak while losing everything to its maws. The gazlan as a metaphor isn't separate from the troops, a parasite off them: he's the better side of them, the reminder that soon they'll be on his side of the equation, the civilians making the best of a wacky situation - but then again, they won't, because soon enough they'll be back in uniform as reservists, paying outrageous prices for his wares.

PS. I've noticed my exhortations to know Hebrew if you want to understand Israel have become regular fare on this blog. It's not a mandatory requirement, of course, but if I can convince you, here's a rather painless venue - no travel required, so you're even saving the planet!

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Another Minute, To Say Goodbye

The other day I had a meeting with Dr. Gila Flam, the head of the music department at our National Library, and a musicologist herself. In anticipation of today's day of memory I asked Gila, and she confirmed, that the role played by popular music in Israel is essentially unprecedented anywhere: it is one of the fundamental components of the national identity. Maybe someday I'll write about this.

Here's a popular song called "A Million Stars". It was written on the spur of the moment in July 2006 by Amit Farkasz, upon hearing of the death in battle of her older brother, Tom, a 23-year-old helicopter pilot shot down over Lebanon. She sang it at his funeral; I remember hearing it on the radio no more than a day later. The words reproach him for flying too far and too fast: she wanted one last minute to say goodbye (which she does at the end of the recording).

Monday, April 27, 2009

Yom HaZikaron 2009

Earlier this evening we began commemorating Yom HaZikaron, the day of commemoration for more than 24,000 Israelis killed in our wars. It's truly a day of national mourning. Tomorrow evening we'll spring from mourning to celebration in the span of an hour, with the beginning of Independence Day.

Last year on this day I posted this short essay.

Israel is a small place, and we all know people who have lost family members, or we've crossed paths with people who were later killed. Quite a number of them. But we've also all lost friends, people who were close enough that their absence impacted on our lives, people we still think of with regret; people we wish were still part of our lives.

Avi Greenwald, 1957-1982
Shlomo Aumann, 1957-1982
Ram Mizrachi, 1961-1982

Such a Sloppy Apartheid

The Central Bureau of Statistics published some numbers about Israel's population, as every year the day before Independence Day. Almost 7.5 million Israelis, 75.5% Jews, 20.2% Arabs, and 4.8% neither (these are mostly Russians who arrived here since 1990 and are culturally Jewish but not halachically so - an issue I've written about in the past). You can find additional factoids here, if you read Hebrew.

The numbers were presented at a press conference by the head of the Demography Department of the Bureau, a fellow by the name of Ahmed Halichal. Heh.

Not News

Mahmud Abbas - Abu Mazen - regularly described as the Moderate Palestinian President today gave a speech in which he rejected recognizing Israel as a Jewish State:

"A Jewish state, what is that supposed to mean?" Abbas asked in a speech in the West Bank's political capital of Ramallah. "You can call yourselves as you like, but I don't accept it and I say so publicly."...

Such a move [of recognition] would amount to an effective renunciation of the right of return of refugees from the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, when Israel was created, one of the most cherished and visceral principles to the Palestinians.

The peculiar thing about this is that it's not news. It has been the official Palestinian position ever since they began recognizing Israel's existence, somewhere between the late 1980s and early 1990s, and it effectively negates the recognition because it assumes large numbers of Palestinians will move into Israel, thus turning it into a bi-national state at best. No official Palestinian spokesman ever said otherwise, no matter how moderate he purports to be. This is the main reason why even Olmert and Livni never got close to a peace agreement with Abbas during the 18 months or so of their talks: the positions of the two sides are too far apart.

What is additionally peculiar is that while this is common knowledge in Israel - raising the question why Y-Net even gave it a headline today - it is effectivle never published in the Western media. So it's not news in Israel (everyone knows it), and it's likewise not news in Europe and America (no-one knows it).

A Kosher Malady

Yakov Litzman, Deputy Minister of Health and effectively Acting Minister of Health, convened a press conference this morning to reassure us about the Swine Flu which apparently has made its way here from Mexico in at least one case. Litzman, a representative of a Haredi party, suggests we should call it the Mexico Flu, so as to keep our distance from pigs.

Actually, I expect Litzman said this in order to get media notice. There is, after all, no halachic prohibition on mentioning pigs; also, Litzman is one of the cannier politicians we have, and a highly capable man who knows his way through the intricacies of our budgets and bureaucracies as few do. This shows he's also a master of spin; it's a perfect soundbite.

Purveyors of Fine Antisemitism

Blogposts and newspaper editorials are ephemeral: here today, gone today. They may have a cumulative effect, but only in the aggregate. Not so with works of art, which can stick around for a while; some of them even for a very long while.

We don't know how long Caryl Churchill's insidious little play Seven Jewish Children will be around to spread its poison. So far, it hasn't gone away; on the contrary, it's doing quite well at outliving the blogposts and newspaper critics' opinions explaining why it's antisemitc. Just to make sure, however, the Guardian has just posted a video of it, here. After all, a short pamphlet or PDF file will eventually lose its power to hurt the Jews, unless someone does something to enhance it; even word of mouth buzz must repeatedly be recharged somehow if it's not to die out. A video, however, if done well (this one is), has more power than mere words; if posted prominently on a popular website it may easily enjoy a second lease on life far more potent than the first round, where people read about it but didn't see it.

So this is an example of the Guardian actively seeking ways to promulgate antisemitism, beyond merely slanting its reportage and punditry of the daily events.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Snapshots of Israel

Y-Net, probably Israel's most popular website, has been running a competition for Best Snapshot of the Year, to be chosen for Independence Day (Tuesday evening). The ten finalists are up, here. They're fascinating, mostly for the way they're generally lacking in ideology and pathos (but not completely), none of them are esthetically pleasing, none are memorable, and taken together they indeed do give a pedestrian feeling of where we're at right now.

Quick annotations, from top left clockwise, for the Hebraically-challenged of you:

5 guys in their mid-50s who have been chums since they were in the paratroopers together, 35 years ago, arguing over a map while hiking in the desert.

Soldiers on a tour of Poland, dancing in an abandoned warehouse that used to be the synagogue in a small Polish town, and still has Hebrew on the walls. (OK, some pathos in this one).

A pier that no longer reaches the Sea of Galilee, which is drying up for lack of rain.

"We're all stuck in the mud" (in this case, at the Dead Sea).

A torn flag with the orange ribbon of the opponents of the disengagement from Gaza (2005). (OK, some political ideology in this one).

A fellow dressed (only?) in the flag shouting at the camera. The shouting is about as typically Israeli a gesture as any.

A group of folks standing under a "Save Gilad Shalit" poster, probably in Tel Aviv.

A play on the national colors (light blue and white): "No parking (in white); ... in the whole fucking city" (scrawled graffiti).

Two chaps, walking for their health, boiling their brains. Israelis are joined to their mobile phones at birth, never to be separated again.

The ice cream vendors always know which units will be having maneuvers when and where. I expect the central IDF planners ask them for plans each quarter. The pizza delivery folks, too.

Copycatting The Economist

According to Matt Pressman at Vanity Fair, Time and Newsweek wish to be like The Economist - and Pressmen explains convincingly why they won't. Never ever, not even after Hell freezes over, if you ask me.

I've been reading The Economist, off and on, since my father started bringing it home in, oh I suppose it was 1969. It's by far the most intelligent weekly magazine anywhere, and trumps the dailies and monthlies, too. It is broadminded, arrogant, well informed, snotty, cynical and irreverent of power, preachy, a joy to read and aggravating no end. It's a newspaper that spent its first century reporting on the world from its capital, London; since the sun never set on its beat, it never tired of watching it all. Reading The Economist is the best way I've ever found of keeping abreast of the human story - not all of it, of course, but more than anywhere else.

Yet I'd add some points Pressman misses. The paper's economic ideology: It's fiercely free-market, of course. The Economist really believes that free markets are the best for people; its editors are constantly on the lookout for what will be advantageous for as many people as possible. Whether you agree or not, reading them is a fine antidote to the silliness of capitalism being a conspiracy of the rich to exploit the poor, or the powerful to keep down the weak.

They're rationalist to a fault. They always try to uncover the facts and relate to them. They're as ideological as anyone, but do their best to keep their ideology tied to reality - a trick few others manage.

They have no bylines. We know the name of the editor in chief; if someone dies on the job they'll tell us about her, but of course she's off the staff by then. So there are no egos involved. Can you imagine?

Finally, their style is simply wonderful. Years ago when I was just beginning to write for consumption in English (my first written language as an adult was Hebrew), I purchased their style guide. Their basic admonition to their writers was to pitch their writing as if they were talking to an intelligent audience. Talking, mind you. Which means do without the hi-falutin words when there are simple ones, don't shy away from colloquialisms when they work best, but never forget your audience is intelligent. With one fell swoop they absolved me of the style used by, oh, 89% of academics.

Their positions on Israel can sometimes be outrageous; in 2002 I canceled my subscription they were so unacceptable.

But eventually I went back.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Why Israel?

Yesterday evening I went to a book launch of Daniel Gordis' new book, Saving Israel: How the Jewish People Can Win a War That May Never End.The book is brand new, and as regular readers will know, I'm a wee bit behind on my reading, so I haven't read it yet. Danny's lecture, however, was interesting. He started by saying we should talk about why Israel needs to be here and what the Jews are supposed to do with it; then he said that most of the things we need to achieve don't need to wait for peace, so we really should stop waiting and do them. Apparently the book is his list of goals.

Had he intended this to be an internal Israeli discussion, he'd have written the book in Hebrew, and I'll bet he'd have written a different book. In writing in English, it seems to me, his real discussion is what Israel can and should be for the Jewish people. Though he didn't come out and say this last night, I got the impression he's addressing what he percieves as a widening gap between Israelis - who have zillions of fervently-held opinions about those questions - and American Jews, who are feeling estranged by us rambunctious cousins.

Which might mean the book isn't really about Israel at all, but rather about the Jews outside and how they look in, or don't look in, or should be looking in. Unless the book is very different from how its author presented it - the only way to know is to read it.

Post Mortem for Durban II

Claudia Rosett explains why the fiasco of the United Nations "Durban II" conference was inevitable given the way the UN understands the world:
The debacle this week was, above all, a natural product of the U.N. system. The real basis for fighting racism is neatly summed up in five words from the U.S. Declaration of Independence: "All men are created equal." But in the U.N. calculus, it is not the equality of individual men or women that matters most. Instead, the U.N. tends to exalt the "equality" of sovereign states--as if there were no difference, say, between North and South Korea; Iran and the U.S.
As an aside: The person who almost single-handedly convinced the Useful Idiots that Ahmedinijad never said Israel should be destroyed - my old friend Juan Cole - seems to have managed to get through this whole week with nary any mention of the event. A blogger's prerogative, of course, to talk about what one wishes and be silent on other matters.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Waging Just War: The Discussion Goes On

Amos Harel, who's a serious journalist who knows his stuff, listened carefully to the IDF officers reporting yesterday, and came away only partially convinced:
The five detailed Israel Defense Forces investigations into Operation Cast Lead reflect a meticulous focus on the trees, and a stubborn refusal to discuss the forest. The probes lasted three months, and were thorough and extensive, but they failed to give convincing answers to some substantive issues regarding the Gaza offensive.
For more than two hours, a group of senior officers presented the findings to the media. The IDF has many good responses for the accusations, some of which came from Hamas and the UN and were proven wrong. In other instances, mistakes caused civilian deaths, but even in the case of 21 family members killed due to faulty intelligence, it is commonly accepted that these kinds of mistakes occur during fighting in difficult environments...

True, measures were taken: millions of leaflets were dropped, and some 165,000 calls were made to Gaza homes, but this does not ensure that the civilians will run, or that they will be protected when they enter open terrain. The army stressed that it fired phosphorus munitions only in "open areas," but did not define this term. Conversations with artillery and infantry troops who participated in the operation suggest that the definitions were fairly loose, and that the required distance from civilian homes became shorter as fighting continued.
I can see his line of reasoning. Making 165,000 (!) phone calls may not be enough, if the recipients move to open areas which will later be bombed because they're open. Harel isn't some pacifist fool spouting nonsense, nor an antisemite out to castigate Israel no matter what. He's part of the internal Israeli discussion about means methods morality and results, and he's saying that the ultimate balance chosen wasn't good enough. Since there will be more wars, we need to get that balance right, as I never tire of saying.

But it's an internal Israeli discussion. Back at the time I wrote about the computer systems that enabled the IDF to make those 165,000 phone calls. Outsiders from countries that aren't threatened by armed enemies and haven't had such discussions ought not butt in on this one; even the folks from countries at war might ask themselves if their countries wold go to such lengths, before damning us for not fully succeeding.

In which context you might want to read Ari Shavit's column from this morning. Shavit is a left-of-center columnist with a propensity for pompousness, but sometimes he's worth reading.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not about the occupation. If it were about the occupation, it would have erupted in 1967 and not in 1920. If it were a conflict over the occupation, it would have ended in 2000 and not continued to this day. If it were about the occupation, it would be easy to terminate it by means of a full Israeli withdrawal and full Palestinian recognition of Israel after the withdrawal. However, withdrawal is not being implemented and recognition is not being given because the conflict is not about the occupation...

The best illustration of the Palestinian refusal was provided last year. In the summer of 2008, Israel's prime minister, Ehud Olmert, made Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) an unprecedented peace proposal: Israel would retain only 6.5 percent of the West Bank (the settlement blocs) and in return the Palestinians would receive full territorial compensation in the Mount Hebron area, in the Beit She'an Valley and in the Judean Hills. Jerusalem would be divided on a demographic basis, with the holy basin to be entrusted to a special international regime. However, Abu Mazen did not accept Olmert's end-of-occupation offer. He rejected out of hand the principle of dividing the country into two nation-states.

Can There Be Any Benefits to Torture?

The New York Times nails the matter: It depends. If the torture of a few terrorists saves the lives of thousands of innocents (and you know they're terrorists when they divulge valuable information about terrorist activity), the case is stronger than if no actionable information is acquired. Scott Shane doesn't know if this is what happened, one way or the other, in spite of trying to find out; the public evidence is inconclusive.

The distinction is important, since it indicates that statements such as "torture is the end of democracy", being bandied about these days, are not necessarily true.

Israel calls this scenario "the ticking bomb", when you know you've got a terrorist who knows the whereabouts of a ticking bomb in a civilian area, or the identity of a suicide bomber who's already on his way. It doesn't refer to a band of terrorists with murder in their eyes but no bomb yet constructed, the assumption being that if you've got one of them, intelligent interrogation methods will extract his knowledge in time to thwart his colleagues' plans even without torture; with the ticking bomb, however, you may need to beat him up now in order to acquire the crucial information now. Which of course then begs the question when a gang of Islamists intent on destroying more tall buildings in the US become ticking bombs: when they're on their way to the airport? Earlier in the plan? When?

Since Israel has been facing these questions without respite for generations, it has had the time for the discussion now being had in the US; over time its answers have changed; there has been a steady distancing from the use of torture in favor of tricky tactics that are even more efficient. But then, if you follow that NYT article all the way to the final sentence, you'll see the advantage - if advantage it is - that Israel has over the US:

Mr. Obama paid his first visit to the agency this week, and his reference to the interrogation issue made for an awkward moment in which he sounded like a teacher gently correcting his pupils.

“Don’t be discouraged that we have to acknowledge potentially we’ve made some mistakes,” he said. “That’s how we learn.”

The process of learning is the hallmark of democracy, far more than the measures taken during the process are the demise of it.

Can Google Predict the Future?

The Economist is skeptical, but welcomes anyone who can tell us when this mess will be over.

Autism and Genius

The Economist in its science section tells about new research into the connection between autism and genius. One possible connection posited is that people with autism, as they don't know how to manage human relations, have more time and patience for what would appear to be routine actions such as watching a spinning coin or dripping water. Since apparently all it takes to achieve very unusual levels of performance are a mere 10,000 hours of learning, that's four and a half years of doing little else with ones' time, some people with autism may practice "their thing" enough to become geniuses at it.

Perhaps. And, to be fair, the article says more than that.

A few pages on, whether by design of coincidence, there's a review of a book about a painter of genius who certainly sounds as if he was autistic: Ian Fairweather.

Patrick White, an Australian writer who once visited him, drew on him for the painter in his novel “The Vivisector”, but in his dogged modesty and solitariness Fairweather more closely resembled White’s desert explorer in “Voss”. Whenever he saw anyone approach, he rushed into the bush and hid. “Hell for Fairweather was other people,” writes Mr Bail.

A perfectionist who painted at night by the light of a hurricane lamp, Fairweather destroyed much of his art. The 500 or so paintings and drawings that remain are intensely felt, unsettling and resonate with “a searching necessity”. The act of painting was the thing: “It gives me the same kind of satisfaction that religion, I imagine, gives to some people.” He didn’t much care what happened to his work afterwards, to the extent of sometimes disowning it, or even not recognising it.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Findings From Gaza

The IDF today presented the findings from its investigations of the Gaza operation. I've looked for the reports themselves, but if they've been put online I can't find them - and it's not likely they'd have been put online in the first place, if you think about it. And if you don't, I'll come to it in a moment. Until then, however, bear in mind that none of the people who will be making utterances about this subject will have read the reports themselves (which are anyway in Hebrew). Like myself, they'll all be responding to other reports in the media. As an historian who is required to relate to documents not hearsay, I recognize the problem.

The investigations themselves seem to have been serious and unhurried. The allegation in the Guardian, say, that Israel wasn't even investigating, seems to have been disproved.

The findings themselves seem about as acceptable as such things can be. The investigators didn't find a single case where IDF troops consciously shot civilians with the intent to kill. So much for that allegation, published in Haaretz and quoted the world over. Which is important, because the entire case for war crimes is severely undermined if there was no intent. Of course, the myriads of hypocrites who care about the laws of war only if they can be used against Israel will be unmoved by the fact that there's no legal case to answer - the folks in Norway who are trying to indict Olmert, Livni, Barak and others, for example.

The findings didn't dispute that Palestinian civilians were killed by the hundreds - an unknowable number between 295 and 457, out of 1,157. In the single worst incident, 21 members of the al-Dahiyeh family in Zeitun were killed when their house was rocketed instead of the intended target nearby. That's what war is about, and if there was no intention to hit civilians, and measures were made not to hit them - successful in thousands of cases and unsuccessful in dozens - it's hard to see where the criminality lies.

The White Phosphorous allegations seem to have been refuted: what use was made of such ordinance was in accordance with international law, say the investigators, and on the 7th of January an order was sent to the units to desist completely from using such shells as the PR damage was felt to be greater than the value of using them.

So much for the facts. Now to the discussion about them.

Israeli Left-wing organizations who haven't read the reports any more than I have are loudly rejecting the findings. If they were serious they would at least have waited a day or to to give appearance they'd read the reports, assuming the army will grant such access, but their actions demonstrate they're not serious. Which is regrettable, because the army - like any organization in the democratic world - is more likely to be careful with what it says if knowledgeable skeptics will be reading its reports and responding to them. That's why democracy is ultimately such a fine system. If, sometime down the line, people with access to the findings begin to tell us what faults they've found in them, I'll be listening, and so will our media, which never misses an opportunity to bash the powers that be and especially the politicians (remember the aftermath of the war in Lebanon in 2006?). But that will be next week, or next month. Not 3 minutes after the findings are first cited.

Some of the critics, in Israel and of course everywhere else, reject the findings automatically because they're the findings of the IDF. Case closed. To which there are a number of responses. One, if the IDF is automatically regarded as lying, there isn't much to discuss, is there. That's an ideological position, not a rational statement. Second, if it's facts you're interested in, there isn't much choice but to listen to the IDF. The people doing the shooting, after all, were Israeli soldiers and Hamas; if it's the Israelis you're trying to convict, there isn't much choice but to ask them what they were doing, what they thought they were doing, what their orders where, what information they had, what conditions they were in when they acted, and myriads of additional very specific questions.

Which brings us to the matter of IDF investigators versus international ones. The assumption of international impartiality in matters of Israel is, of course, so vacuous as to be comic. Yet even if, against decades of experience, it were possible to appoint a commission of Martians to investigate the matter impartially, what sovereign country would allow foreigners free run of its military to carry out the investigation? In order to reach meaningful results, you'd have to know almost everything about the inner workings of the IDF - a condition no army would allow, and certainly not one still at war. The demand that Israel enable foreigners to investigate the minutiae of its army's combat behavior is a demand that it weaken itself dramatically; an Israeli politician who would allow such a thing would rightfully be drummed out of town.

Which brings me to the comparison with any other army. I don't claim to know everything, and am willing to be corrected - as you all know, I don't block comments. So far as I know, however, most armies never have investigations of the sort the IDF just had, in which each and every incident of a war is investigated; painstaking efforts are made to name every single person killed; and at the end of the process, the results are partially made public, while being fully open to parliamentary oversight which includes representatives of the opposition. I'll retract this statement if anyone shows me this is actually standard practice; until then: Israel is more meticulous in investigating its failures than any other army in the world.

The Guardian editorial said Israel has a case to answer? Here's the answer. Now let's see the Guardian admit it, or even acknowledge its existence.

The Stuff of Communal Identity

Earlier today, as I was walking by the school for children with severe learning impediments that's around the corner, a child was chatting with the school guard. During the brief moment I was within earshot I picked up the stuttering child's story. "... he was the principle of an orphanage, and when they came they told him could go home now but he said No I want to die with them..."

Is there a Jew in Israel above the age of ten who wouldn't immediately recognize the story of Janusz Korczak? Is there one tenth of one percent of the college-educated adults in the rest of the world, Jews aside, who would recognize the story even if told in its entirety?

If you want to understand the communal identity of a society, talking to 12-year-old children with disabilities would probably be as good a place to start as any.

Nazi Germany Without Hindsight

Barry Rubin has a new blog, The Rubin Report. May he be as popular as Juan Cole, without being as silly. At the moment, his top post contains four interesting letters written in the mid-1930s by a young German woman to a pen-pal in New Zealand (pen pals were a stone-age precursor to Facebook friends, for those who don't recognize the term). The letters have the advantage of lacking any hindsight, and of telling a story of how a young German woman saw the Hitler regime from the inside without realizing where they were going with it. This is the way 100% of human experience actually works. We never know with certainty what the results of our actions will be; then again, we bear full responsibility for them. Complicated.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Were the Americans Worse than the Nazis?

Andrew Sullivan seems to be saying that when it comes to torture, the Americans have been worse than the Nazis. This is so blatantly crap (I don't even apologize for the term) that I can't believe he's saying it. Perhaps he isn't, and I'm reading him wrong. But I don't think I am.
Notice how the Nazis ensured that doctors were present at all times so that they could monitor the captives' response to torture and make sure they didn't die or suffer visible permanent injuries that could embarrass the regime in public (see the Bradbury and Bybee memos for the Bush equivalent). Notice the careful measurement of how many times someone can be beaten (another Cheney innovation). And notice that we are not talking about waterboarding - something even the Nazis excluded from their "enhanced interrogation" methods.

Killing innocent demonstrators and bystanders

More than 400 unarmed demonstrators and even bystanders killed over ten years, and no police ever convicted for any of the deaths, not even on manslaughter charges.

In Britain.

Something to keep in mind the next time someone tells you about how Israel's court system is uniquely evil in protecting its security types from the wrath of the law. Though of course, the British coppers don't really face an enemy, so perhaps they need not be trained in restraint.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Hitler, Durban, Holocaust

Jewish holidays begin at sunset and end at sunset. This evening will see the beginning of Holocaust Commemoration Day in Israel (and in some Jewish communities beyond), called Yom HaShoah in Hebrew. The New York Times has a chilling article about the Nazi killing fields in the Soviet Union. A brief reminder of the dimensions of that horror.

Once every 19 years or so Yom HaShoah falls on April 20th, Hitler's birthday. During the Nazi era this was a very important day, with parades and ceremonies. Someone I know who went to an AUstrian highschool in the 1970s once told me that every year on April 20th many of the students appeared at school in brown shirts. In the 1970s.

Of course, we've got the Durban II United Nations anti-racism conference starting today, too. So far it's being boycotted by Australia, Canada, Germany, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, the United States and New Zealand, because it's got nothing to do with anti racism, and everything to do with antisemitism and shielding Islam from free speech. Iran's president is scheduled to give a speech there today, and the representatives of the UK, France, Austria, and other upright democracies will be there to celebrate with him, as will the Arab folks who recently feted Sudan's Omar Bashir, the indicted mass murderer and genocidaire.

The AP has a roundup on the event, which is mostly reasonable except for this wierd paragraph:
Still, after years of preparations there appears little evidence to validate these fears. The statement of 2001 that is so contentious now was cheered in Israel at the time, as it recognized the Jewish state's right to security.
Antisemitism has always flourished on lies, nothing new there. Anyway, the conflation of all these events on one day do rather serve to underline the state of the world. There have been worse moments of time, certainly, but the room for improvement keeps on getting bigger. Finally, the Palestinian contribution: a recent sermon by Ziad Abu Alhaj, broadcast on Hamas television on April 3rd, 2009. Here's some background. Notice that while the man doesn't like Israel, his hatred is directed at Jews, all of them always, his source is (his reading of) the Koran, and he's very clearly calling for world-wide genocide.

Before you get agitated about the wrong things, however: the content of his hate speech isn't new. People have been saying things like this with regularity for millennia, and some of their listeners have acted upon it will regularity of their own, even if the attempt to kill all Jews was a Nazi novelty. If there's anything new about that sermon, it's that now there's a large international constituency, a broad deep and important one, that fervently tells us the sermon doesn't mean what it says, it's not serious, or if it is it could easily be defused if only the Jews took note and changed, and what have you. That, perhaps, may be new. And perhaps not.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Jewish Demographics after the Shoah

There were about 18 million Jews worldwide in 1939, an all-time high. In 1945 there were 12 million. Sergio Della Pergolla, the top demographer for such matters, estimates however that because of the demographic structure of Eastern European Jewry, which was almost completely destroyed, the projected number of Jews had there been no Shoah would now be about 32 million. Instead, it's 13 million (if you're very optimistic: he's counting a lot of people, especially in the West, who are only notionally Jewish). So a loss of a third 65 years ago is now a loss of close to two thirds.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Breathless Report About... What, Exactly?

In Israel, the most important day of the week for newspapers is Friday. So yesterday (Friday) Haaretz had this headline, top of the front page, large letters:
Obama wants Israel to hold parallel talks with Palestinians and Syria
(The Hebrew was more dramatic). As a general rule, Haaretz isn't too good at separating news from comment, but then who is these days? So this news item, put together by a group of their reporters, starts with a breathless report by Akiva Eldar, an old-timer who really knows his beat, but can't separate what he knows from what he preaches.
The Obama administration is preparing a Middle East peace process that will include simultaneous bilateral talks between Israel and the Palestinians, and between Israel and Syria. The plan is based on the Arab peace initiative that offers establishing normal relations between Israel and Arab League states in exchange for withdrawing from the occupied territories and establishing a Palestinian state.

The United States will put together a "security package," including demilitarization of the territories from which Israel will withdraw and the option of stationing a multinational force in them for years.

The Obama administration believes that a breakthrough in the peace process between Israel and the Arab states would restrain Tehran's influence and contribute to the diplomatic effort to block Iran's nuclearization.
The questions are
1. Is this news?
2. Is it the full story?
3. Is it important?

First, is it news. Not really. American policy since the summer of 2000, or December that year at the very latest, has officially been something like this; unofficially it has been so for far longer. Israel needs to retreat from just about all the territories taken in 1967, those territories will be demilitarized, there will be an independent Palestinian state, and peace will reign forever after. There's a slight twist in Eldar's report in that someone thinks once this happens the Iranians will also join the swords-into-plowshares brigade, but he doesn't give a source for this so let's let it pass. Actually, this is more or less the position of most Israelis, too - assuming, of course, that moving out of those territories can bring all that bounty. It can't.

Which brings us to the second question, is it the full story? At this stage of the game I'm still giving the Obama administration the benefit of the doubt, and that includes the assumption their experts are serious people, not bloggers or journalists. In which case they recognize some of the pieces Eldar left out of the picture. Right of Return, for example, meaning what happens to lots of ethnic Palestinians who are never going to move back to what is now Israel, no matter that their grandparents left here, and the fact this presents a wee stumbling block (in the Saudi plan, too). Or the fact that the elected majority of Palestinian lawmakers come from a party that wants a world without Jews, and so far that group is unable to reach an agreement with the other large Palestinian party. There's the small question of Jerusalem, the one about Israel's defining itself a Jewish state (with legal equality for minorities), the issue of how Syria defines peace, and various other nit-picking matters. I'm not saying peace is a theoretical impossibility - that would be depressing - but I haven't yet seen an indication the Obama administration knows how to create it any more than anyone else.

Is any of this important? No, not really. Even if it really and truly were soon to be the official Obama policy, and included suggestions also about all those other matters, reality has this nasty propensity of not reading newspapers (or blogs, or official memorandums, or diplomatic non-papers and all that stuff). Reality is extremely complex and ultimately unpredictable, it certainly isn't anything that can be neatly planned by some new folks at Foggy Bottom or even at the White House. As (Bill) Clinton once learned, the most powerful man in the world can glower at an unshaven old revolutionary with shifty eyes, and the unshaven fellow can pretend to be looking out the window and hum, and there's nothing the President of the United States of American can do about it. And even if he could, and the unshaven fellow had decided to humor him, it wouldn't make much difference if enough young men back at home were to feel they'd been sold down the river - which is why the unshaven one didn't cave in in the first place.

My point being that some day, I hope, the Israelis and the Arabs will be willing to live in peace, but it won't happen because someone declares it to be a fine idea or a rational thing to do.

Everybody's Brother-in-Law

David Brooks, just back from a trip to Israel, describes Israelis in a reasonably accurate column:
Israel is a country held together by argument. Public culture is one long cacophony of criticism. The politicians go at each other with a fury we can’t even fathom in the U.S. At news conferences, Israeli journalists ridicule and abuse their national leaders. Subordinates in companies feel free to correct their superiors. People who move here from Britain or the States talk about going through a period of adjustment as they learn to toughen up and talk back.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Susan Boyle's Dream

I shall be shutting down soon for yet another installment of Pessach; after the holiday I expect to be very busy with a number of concurrent projects and probably will cut down blogging for a while (I know, I've said this in the past, too). So I'm leaving with a magnificent story, quite off topic, for which I got permission from the editorial board.

Last night we saw the 2006 German film Four Minutes (Vier Minuten). It's a powerful film about a deeply troubled young woman with a troubling story, a troubling old passive Nazi, and a troubled country. The young woman has the gift of magnificent music, though its true measure becomes clear only in the final four minutes of the film.

Still, it's a film. Fiction. Susan Boyle's story, which exploded onto the Internet this week, is true. A few elements must have been contrived, television being what it is, but the fundamentals can't have been. The woman was set up as a fool to be laughed at but didn't lose her dignity; once she blew us all away she didn't, either. So set aside 8 minutes and watch (the embedding has been disabled, so follow the link). And then watch again.

A Right War, Wrongly Waged

According to the NYT, an airstrike by NATO forces - that would mean Americans, since who else has air power - yesterday killed six Afghani civilians. NATO officials denied killing civilians, in the face of confirmation from the local governor - keep in mind that NATO and the local government are on the same side, or supposed to be.

The bottom of the item tells of an unrelated Taliban atrocity elsewhere. The Times wants us to remember who the Good Guys are, and which the Bad Ones.

They are right of course, but wrong. The Taliban are a blot on the face of humanity, and they and their ilk are the mortal enemies of any reasonable person, including many of their own people and just about all their own women. Yet being at war with monsters doesn't mean you needn't think about how you're waging it; the two are quite separate levels of morality and have been recognized as such for centuries. The distinction is being removed by Useful Idiots and pacifists who would condemn all wars, the just with the criminal, because of their inevitable human price; losing the will and ability to wage just wars means condemning far greater numbers of innocents to far worse. By blurring the discussion the NYT strengthens those who would appease, obstruct, apologize and look away.

It is a sign of the weakness of the American public discussion that we need Juan Cole to call our attention to an article on a Pakistani website tallying the figures from American air strikes in Pakistan (not Afghanistan), and they're not pretty: 14 dead al-Qaida to 687 innocent Pakistani civilians. 14 to 687.

I can think of a theoretical scenario in which killing 14 exceptionally potent mass murderers might justify killing 687 innocents, if by killing the 14 one were saving a million. Is that what the Americans are claiming? Then they should say so and the public should have the discussion. Personally I'd be skeptical: the Islamist murderers are part of a deeply sick culture, and I doubt any specific 14 of them are irreplaceable. So far as I can see, however, that's not what anyone is claiming; rather, no-one is having the discussion at all. I don't even know if the numbers are correct, but there again, you need an open, public discussion to reveal if someone is systematically disseminating bald lies about casualties (a not unheard of phenomenon).

Of course I'm holding this up as a demonstration of the fundamental hypocrisy with which Israel is consistently treated. Yet I'm also calling for a real discussion on the merits of the discussion itself, not only so as to level some rhetoric field. The war against the Islamists is the most important war of our day because of the dimensions of the threat; it's necessary and moral. It must be waged morally, too.

Finally, back to Israel: Israelis are often castigated by their detractors for claiming to be morally superior to anyone else in waging war. Some antisemites pretend this claim is the root of their hatred - an unconvincing pretense. Yet this is precisely what we mean. The Danny Zamirs of Israel are not the Juan Coles of America, and IDF spokesmen generally wait until their fellow officers really have investigated before denying false allegations - or trying to learn from authentic ones.

Thought Processes of a Hamas Apologist

Paul McGeough of the Sydney Morning Herald, a popular Australian Guardian-lite newspaper, has an op-ed up at the New York Times. I have the impression that since the NYT bureau chief in Israel is the reasonable Ethan Bronner, the editors back in New York are trying to balance him with ever more foolish commentators.

I don't normally fisk people, but this one cries out for it, starting with his title, "Hamas Comes Out of Hiding", where it has busily been killing Palestinians and doing its best to kill Israelis.
JUST a year and a half ago, visiting Khalid Mishal, the supreme leader of Hamas, was a cloak-and-dagger affair. In September 2007, I climbed into the back of a curtained Mercedes to make the dash from central Damascus to the southern suburbs, where the Palestinian group operated from a high-security enclave reserved for senior officials of the Syrian government...

So Mishal doesn't only reside in Damascus, he lives in the top security area where the apparatchiks are protected from their people. Nice regime, the Syrian one.

As I was subjected to a thorough physical search, one of Mr. Mishal’s aides told me that there was a battery of antiaircraft guns buried deep in a nearby hillside. All my possessions were confiscated, and I gained access to Mr. Mishal’s grand reception room through an airport-style security scanner.

Actually, I rather doubt the antiaircraft batter is deep underground, where it wouldn't do much good, would it. But Mishal obviously lives in style, with his grand reception room.

Today the mood has become much lighter in the Hamas hideout. Mr. Mishal’s calendar is so full that he might soon need a parking lot for the vehicles bringing foreign delegations to visit. My most recent appointment with him, on March 18, was pushed far into the night because Mr. Mishal was busy greeting a group of Greek lawmakers, who were then followed by an Italian delegation. In the preceding days, visitors had come from the British and European Parliaments.
Of course, none of those many European delegations is even remotely connected with any past present or future negotiations between Israel and Palestinians. They're not American officials, after all, or Egyptians. They're malicious fools, probably of the Left, who que up on pilgrimage to the top Jew-killer they can find, so as to express their adoration. So long as we're clear about they dynamics here.

In our discussion last month, Mr. Mishal spoke for the first time of the challenges confronting Hamas in the post-Bush era: Barack Obama’s presidential victory; Mr. Netanyahu’s return; the Gaza war; and Washington’s new drive for “dialogue” with Hamas’s regional sponsors — Syria and Iran.

Mr. Mishal rejected the notion that Hamas could get squeezed in any nascent power plays in the region. He interpreted Washington’s pitch to Syria and Iran as an admission of past errors, an acceptance that the United States had to deal with “parties that have proved themselves.”

Proved themselves as what, exactly? As brutal thugs eager to kill whoever's in their way, and to set up their own civilians to be killed when they manage to provoke Israel? Mr. McGeough, clearly enamored of Mishal, never does get around to mentioning any of this nor explaining.

“Hamas is not a card in anyone’s hand,” he insisted. But at the same time, he warned that Washington should not seek to “isolate certain parties at the expense of other parties."
So now he's threatening America, unchallenged by his fawning interviewer.
Pressed on policy changes that Hamas might make as a gesture to any new order, Mr. Mishal argued that the organization has already shifted on several key points: “Hamas has already changed — we accepted the national accords for a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, and we took part in the 2006 Palestinian elections.”
That's change, for sure: rather than sulk in the corner, Hamas is willing to participate in Palestinian elections. Whether they'll ever allow future elections to remove them from power is not a question this interviewer might ask. As for the matter of recognizing Israel, McGeough engages in some clumsy acrobatics:
On the crucial question of rewriting the Hamas charter, which calls for the destruction of Israel, he was unbending: “Not a chance.” Khalid Mishal is not Yasir Arafat — he is not looking for a Nobel Peace Prize. Among the Hamas articles of faith is a belief that in renouncing violence and in recognizing Israel’s right to exist in 1993, Mr. Arafat sinned against his people. (Nonetheless, others to whom he speaks have told me that Mr. Mishal has said that “when the time comes,” Hamas will make some of the moves demanded of it by the West.)
Let's see: the charter calls for the death of all Jews. Removing Israel is merely a sub-set of that. Still, the interviewer couldn't say Mishal will agree to Israel's existence since Mishal told him the opposite and he want's to maintain his access to the man; so he admits Mishal told him Hamas would never recognize Israel, but then turns around and reassures us that other people told him the opposite, or at any rate, the told him Mishal has allowed them to have the impression that he might perhaps do something demanded by the West, so long as it doesn't impinge upon his fundamental antisemitism and determination to destroy Israel. Which of course raises the question why travel from Syndey all the way to Damascus, if you're going to believe unidentified people anyway. Those, you can invent in the comfort of your kitchen.

Curiously, amid rising calls from politicians and policy makers around the world for Hamas to be given a seat at the Middle East negotiating table, Mr. Mishal made clear that he was willing to bide his time. His message is, “Watch what we do, not what we say.”

I suppose there's a connection between the beginning of the paragraph and its end, a full sentence later, but I can't see what it might be.

While it is impossible for many in the West to grasp the calculus in the Hamas strategy of war and terror, the movement has demonstrated that it is disciplined in holding its fire, as it did in the summer and fall of 2008. Likewise, it has proved itself capable of negotiating with Israel — albeit through third parties.

Yes, it's quite inscrutable, isn't it. Hamas can't possibly really mean they want a Judenrein world, yet they keep on saying they do, and insist on killing Jews - ah, but then, when it suits them they refrain... it's so complicated.

Over the long term, Hamas accepts the concept of two states in the Levant, which arguably puts Mr. Mishal’s terrorist movement closer to Washington than Netanyahu is — he now proposes only “economic peace” between Jews and Palestinians.
Did you see that? While there's literally no evidence whatsoever for the idea Hamas accepts Israel's existence, and if there were rest assured McGeough would be trumpeting it, at the end of the day it's enough to say they have (long term, mind you), and then turn on Netanyahu as the greater evil, the one whose positions are more war-like and conflicting with American policies than those of Hamas. Hey, I met the man, in Damascus, right after those Italian folks; trust me on this one, otherwise I wouldn't be a journalist.

As for finding himself at center stage with the man who ordered him killed, Mr. Mishal insisted that in the broad scheme of things, Mr. Netanyahu is just one more in a succession of prime ministers. “It’s fate, God’s destiny, but we can’t set policy on the basis of personal grudges,” he told me.

True. Were Israel to elect Gideon Levy its prime minister, with Amira Hass as minister of defense, Mishal still wouldn't change his mind about the need for an end to Israel and the Jews. It's nothing personal.

Perhaps. But not since the personal bitterness between Mr. Arafat and the former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon have Palestinians and Israelis faced such a leadership dynamic. Once again, personal enmity could swamp the more pressing complexities of the Middle East crisis.

Remember those two, Arafat and Sharon? They really really disliked each other, which is why they refused to make peace at Camp David that time in 2000 when (Bill) Clinton almost thought he might salvage his mediocre reputation and land a Nobel peace prize. Why do Israelis keep on electing folks for whom authentic Palestinian leaders have personal grudges, what with all the pressing complexities in that area?

Monday, April 13, 2009

Iron Dome: Folly or Brilliance?

The Iron Dome anti-missile system being developed by Refael, an Israeli military-systems organization, is chugging along. It passed an important milestone last month, is expected to be finally tested sometime soon, and if it passes, full-scale production and deployment will begin. By next summer it may be operative, protecting Sderot and Ashkelon from Hamas rockets, and later on protecting the Galilee from Hezbullah's tender attentions. Add this to the Arrow long-range anti-missile system which is already operative and being upgraded all the time, and Israel is on its way to being protected from what-ever its neighbors will be able to throw at it except mortars and artillery. Mortars either have a very short range (about a mile) or they're large and cumbersome enough, as is all artillery, that drones can identify and destroy them; it's hard to set them up in a school-yard, shoot them off and disappear so quickly the UN personnel can pretend they were never there.

All of which means that each day that passes without rocket attacks brings us closer to the end of that chapter of our relations with our neighbors. They will of course find other ways to attack us, and we'll have to figure out an adequate response etc etc etc. The Palestinians and Hezbullah are very resourceful in such matters; it's in participating in the modern world that they're so dismally inept.

The Arrow anti-ballistic system is a fine thing. If we assume that sometime soon Iran will have nuclear weapons - a reasonable assumption, it seems to me - it will still be useful that they won't know if they have the ability to deliver through our defense systems, while they themselves have no such systems and our nuclear punch is harder. Who knows, maybe five or ten years from now we'll offer our defensive capabilities to the Saudis or the Egyptians or the Germans, heh.

The Iron Dome thing, however, isn't obviously such a fine thing. According to that article, each missile will cost $50,000m, or perhaps less in some scenarios - say, $49,800. A Kassam rocket probably costs $500, and a Katyusha, I'd guess, $2,500. Do the math and you'll see it will be worth the Palestinian's effort simply to get us to shoot Dome missiles in large numbers, for the financial burden. I'm also leery about a defensive strategy that relies completely on technology (I know about technology) rather than deterrence or, even better, the ability to disarm ones' enemies. (The option of making peace doesn't exist).

On the other hand, at the moment it's not obvious what the alternative is. I was in Sderot yesterday, and they've got these concrete mini-shelters strewn all over town; that's clearly not acceptable. Moreover, the law of unexpected consequences could kick in here, too. The Palestinian's most potent weapon agains Israel is the occupation, which is why most Israelis have long since decided to end it. Yet it can't be ended if every time we relinquish control over some territory it immediately becomes a launching pad for missiles against our civilians. Should the Iron Dome system put an end to that tactic, we could go back to the strategy most of us had already agreed upon, of dismantling most settlements and moving back to the barrier. The Palestinians, the Guardian, and Haaretz will continue to squawk that the occupation goes on, but most sensible people will disregard them, and Israel's position will be strengthened in many ways.

Learning to Wage War?

You've got to feel for these fellows, the Juan Coles and Glen Greenwalds of the world. Back in 2001, when the Islamists finally managed to catch the attention of the Americans after years of unsuccessful attempts, it just so happened there was a Republican in the White House. How much difference this made to thousands of professionals in the various security and legal branches of the American government I have no way of knowing, but since the Cole-Greenwald brigade disliked many of their actions, they attributed them to the Bad Man at the top. (As did Andrew Sullivan, after a while). Their delirious expectations of Obama were fired partly by his different rhetoric on such matters as waging wars, and interrogating and jailing Islamists.

Alas, it appears the professionals had reasons for doing what they did, irrespective of whether an election had been stolen in 2000; now that Obama is at the top, they're still doing them. So you have Cole who can't understand why American forces are killing civilians in Pakistan, and Greenwald is getting ever more strident about the incarceration issues.

Personally, I can empathize with both of them. Killing innocents is awful, though in some contexts it is inevitable; jailing people without due process seems wrong to me, no matter who's in the White House. Yet they're refusing to see the threat to which those professionals are responding. The enemies of the West these days play by different rules than the enemies of previous generations; while the fundamental rules shouldn't change, applying them is a constant, never-ending deliberation. Israelis have known this for decades, as we've been facing the same enemies for that long; the derision that has been meted out to us for trying to find the correct balance looks ever more hypocritical.

Actually, it seems to me the Americans have not yet found the correct balance - a point on which I may say more later; but at least they're trying. Lots of others aren't, probably secure in the knowledge the Americans are.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Learning to Wage War

Haaretz has an interview with three Duvdevan soldiers recently awarded medals of bravery for... sparing civilians. It's quite a story.

The fundamental challenge is that Palestinian murderers and planners of mass murder aren't identified as soldiers, as international law requires, nor do they act from military installations. They act from within the civilian society all around them. Which means, either you kill them with some civilians near them, or you don't harm them for fear of doing so, or you figure out how to pinpoint them in their kitchen, say, and nab them while sparing the other family members in the same kitchen. This is the policy Israeli chose for the West Bank, though it's the hardest of the three. A special unit, Duvdevan, was set up to do just that. Since no other army in the world knows how to do this, there weren't any international manuals or training camps, so Duvdevan had to learn on its own, by trial and error; initially, back in the first Intifada, there were too many errors. But the determination to succeed (understandable, given the alternatives), combined with an ever-rising level of professionalism, has forged a unit unparalleled anywhere, that in most cases succeeds:
A.: "There was an alley in the marketplace - all the stores were open and you hurry through the passageway, in order to maintain surprise and not to be 'burned' [identified] along the way. We broke into the house. He didn't understand where we had come from. Mabruk was sitting on the floor. He immediately jumped on his wife, using her as a shield."

R.: "Half a meter away was an M-16 with a magazine of ammunition inside. Ostensibly we had full legitimization to shoot him, because he was endangering us. But his wife was near him and he wasn't holding the weapon in his hand, so we didn't fire. There was a room there of two to three square meters, with his wife and a lot of children inside. He's an older man, but nobody's fool. He only had to roll over to reach the weapon. All he had to do was turn around with the weapon on automatic and mow down three or four soldiers. A less experienced soldier, who has not been trained for this mission, would have opened fire and killed several children."

A.: "The guys remained calm. The weapon was on the floor. One of us took it from Mabruk. We attacked. He went wild, but we handcuffed him. In the end, the trick was to use selective firing. The fighters identified a woman and children and didn't shoot. It's a matter of a momentary decision. Now another complicated stage begins - leaving the refugee camp with him. It's already 10 A.M. Lots of people are outside. All the punks in the neighborhood had already heard that we came. He had collaborators and friends who would have fired on us as we were leaving. We got out of there very cautiously with the guy."
Sometimes the wanted men escape:
When they broke into the house, the man's wife was inside. "Although the house looked terrible afterward, the woman was not hurt," says A. "Her only injury was from being punched by the wanted man before he escaped. He apparently suspected her of informing on him."
Inevitably, sometimes people get killed - Israeli soldiers, for example:
In another operation, in February 2008, the same fighters arrested Majdi Mabruk, the head of the Popular Front in the Ein Beit Ilma refugee camp in Nablus. Among other things, Mabruk managed to smuggle an explosive belt into Tel Aviv, to be used to launch an attack on Yom Kippur in 2007; the device was confiscated by security forces. During the manhunt, another terrorist, his partner, killed Paratroops commando fighter Ben Zion Henman. In another incident, while trying to arrest Mabruk, an officer from the Givati commando unit was shot in the neck.
At the time, I wrote about Hanemann's death here.

Interestingly, according to the article, the IDF doesn't generally want to kill these murderers, preferring to arrest them and interrogate them for further information, even though this means that sometime in the future they'll probably be freed, either as part of that bogus peace project we keep hoping will lead somewhere (I certainly do), or in return for a kidnapped IDF soldier at the rate of 1:1000. I was also tickled to see that an important impetus for developing the methods of Duvdevan came from that well-know IDF consultant, Amira Hass:
About five years ago, Maj. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot was serving as the commander of the IDF forces in the West Bank. Eisenkot, now the head of Northern Command, then called the military approach in the West Bank "an M-16 instead of an F-16." The ability of the IDF to reach the operatives everywhere, to pull them out of their hiding places by the hair, he claimed, is a far greater deterrent to the terror organizations and the Palestinian population than mass shows of Israeli strength.

The West Bank commander based himself on a surprising source: articles by Amira Hass in Haaretz, in which senior Palestinian operatives said that they felt a certain "professional respect" for the enemy only when the soldiers engaged in face-to-face combat with them. The Palestinians considered the use of tanks and helicopters as a demonstration of cowardice on the part of an enemy that surpasses them in its military capability.

Friday, April 10, 2009

"This I (don't really) believe"

Judith Warner has a reflection up at her NYT blog, titled "This I believe", in which she describes her hodge-podge of varying religious or hardly-religious inspirations, which include some residual Jewish fragments.

The result isn't malign, you've got to grant that; in a human history chock-full of religions people were willing to kill for, that's no small achievement. Yet along the way, whatever it is she's describing, it's not something she'd be likely to lay down her life to preserve, either. Actually, the theme of her post is that she has no idea how to pass on a significant religious inheritance to her daughter.
About six months ago, I asked Julia and Emilie if they’d consider trying out a Unitarian service one day with me.

“No way,” Emilie, then eight, declared, before I could even finish the sentence.

“I think that enough harm has been done in the name of religion,” said Julia, who had not long before studied the conquest of the Incas and had moved on to the colonization of Africa. “I don’t want to be a part of it.”

8-year-olds don't have original ideas, they reflect the adults around them (as do too many 18, 28, and 78-year-olds). Apparently none of the adults in Emilie's world have ever thought to explain to her that in the fundamentally flawed world we live in, religion, when done right, can be the richest source of human dignity, consolation, hope, and belonging she'll ever have. Sad.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

"The other end of these traditions"

Still making my way through Paula Fredriksen's fine book, Augustine and the Jews. A while ago Paula commented to me that my work is at "the other end of these traditions", and here's an example. On page 81, she's discussing how internal Jewish discussions became fodder for something far more sinister:
The evangelists, in short, present a fairly typical portrait of Jewish interactions both in Jesus' day and in their own. All the noise, all the argument over scripture, all the fraternal name calling, is one of the most unmistakably things about the Jesus movement and about its earliest literature. Within a first-century intra-Jewish context, such arguments would and did sound like conflicting ideas about the right way to be Jewish. That way would be the way urged by the writer of the text. The gospels, when we regard them as sectarian Jewish literature, deny any legitimacy to "Israel" or as "the people of God" or of "those from above" at odds with their authors' own self understanding...

Do the sectarian texts of these earliest Christians promote negative stereotypes about fellow Jews? Unquestionably. But that is what Jewish sectarian texts do, and that is what polemical rhetoric does. Further, all Jewish texts, beginning with Genesis, include warts-and-all presentations of some of their Jewish characters. In this sense, the gospels are no more intrinsically "anti-Jewish" than is the Bible itself. But again like the Bible itself, the gospels, once they drifted out of their communities of origin into a wider gentile world, were read as a standing indictment and perpetual condemnation of Jews and Judaism as such, rather than as a narrative exhortation to change from the wrong kind of Judaism to the right kind of Judaism (that is, to the author's kind of Judaism). Jewish sectarian rhetoric, shorn of its native context, eventually becomes anti-Jewish rhetoric.
I think you can reasonably say that's a constant dynamic of Jew-hatred from the 2nd century until the Danny Zamir episode of last month, and it's not going to change anytime soon. Jews argue among themselves loudly and stridently, while their haters listen in, indifferent to any context, and choose the choicest quotations with which to damn the Jews.

Though I'd note this describes a dynamic, but doesn't explain the decision to use it. The determination to hate the Jews precedes listening in to their conversations. The reason Haaretz' website is world-famous while the Irish Times' isn't, has to do with the fodder for Jew-hatred one can cherry-pick from Haaretz.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Kosher CDOs

In a few hours it will be Pessach (Passover). We've been cleaning for weeks, hunting and destroying all vestiges of chametz (bread, yeast, etc), in the Jewish version of Spring Cleaning. Thank God that's behind us!

A thousand years ago or more, a sack of legumes in Europe was found to contain - horror of horrors! a few grains of wheat. Immediately, the local rabbis added legumes to the list of forbidden food for Pessach. The Sephardi rabbis, meanwhile, didn't loose their cool, and moved on to the next sack. Thus was born one of the more significant differences between Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews: that the Ashkenazi ones eat very little over Pessach, while the Sephardi ones do without bread but mostly get on with life.

A thousand years later, the divide has broadened far beyond what anyone could ever have imagined. The Sephardi Jews (about half of the Israelis), are busy using modern food technology to invent yeast-less alternatives for just about every food product you can think of except whole wheat bread, to the extent that Pessach for them is no more bothersome than a mild itch.

The Ashkenazi folks, meanwhile, have taken the opposite track. Legumes, you see, have derivatives. Vegetable oil, for example. So any food with vegetable oil must be prohibited, obviously. Vegetable oil has its derivatives: sardines, for example, which are canned in it. OUT! CHAMETZ! Modern food processing being what it is, the danger of legume derivatives is, however, far worse even than that. Many types of cheese, for example, are processed in factories within sight of roads on which drivers may travel with sardine sandwiches in their glove compartments: HA! NO CHEESE!

I spoof you not. The art of derivatives of derivatives of derivatives which recently brought down the world economy could easily have been foreseen, had anyone given it any thought, by observing the sheer idiocy with which we Ashkenazi folks root out any shades of memories of that unfortunately poorly packed sack of Humus somewhere along the Upper Rhine in the year 867 Anno Domini.

Chag Sameach - Have a fine holiday. Easter, too.

Is Europe Dying?

The Economist reviews a new book by Jonathan Bate, Soul of the Age; A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare. The central device of the book is the assumption that by knowing more about England in Shakespeare's day, we can better understand him.

Of course, with great writers it often goes the opposite way: their perception about their time is so clear it becomes prescience. The problem, of course, is figuring out in real time which of them has it right, and should be heeded, and which are merely bloviating; most of us resolve the matter by projecting prophetic significance on the artists who say what we think, while decrying the blindness or obtuseness of everybody who doesn't agree with us and our preferred artists.

So, in that spirit, you might want to go read Adam Kirsch, Life on Venus: Europe's Last Man, at World Affairs Journal. His article has a decidedly 2003-ish tone to it, with echoes of the Old-Europe-New-America argument: Europe is dying, America is vibrant. Yet it's an interesting read because while two of his exhibits were written in the 1990s, his central exhibit, Ian McEwan's Saturday, would probably be tagged as more American than European in the parameters of that argument. Kirsch's reading, however, is that McEwan is fundamentally European, and moreover, dying European, in the way he resolves the tension between the barbarians and the civilized with a poem, the beauty of which mesmerizes the barbarian. Bollocks, says Kirsch (well, not with that word).

Maybe it's not such a 2003-ish topic. Earlier this week I poked fun at the Guardian for deceiving itself about Obama's intentions for Afghanistan; since it was the Guardian-wing of America that propelled Obama forward in the initial Democratic primary race (though not all the way into the White House: they don't have that power), the issue may soon surface again; if Kirsch is right, it's the meta-narrative of our generation.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Obama's Rabbi

Last week Gavin asked me how Jews define themselves. Since I didn't see how I could reasonably clarify that one with less than a small book, I put it aside to wait for a plausible hook to hang it on. Sure enough, one came along, in the surprising story of Michelle Obama's rabbi cousin. Not, as you might think, the story of a Jew who married into her clan, which wouldn't have been all that surprising. No. This is the story of a tradition started late in the 19th century of American blacks identifying with Judaism to the extent they proclaimed themselves Jews; the cousin, Rabbi Capers Funnye, is part of an offshoot of the tradition which actually seems to be serious about their Judaism.

I admit I've never heard of the entire phenomenon. Just goes to show you how varied the Jewish world is, I suppose. Assuming they're Jews. Are they? And how do you know? More importantly, who decides?

One of the books I'm reading, Paula Fredriksen's Augustine and the Jews, tells about many non-Jews who attached themselves to Jewish communities in the pre-Christian period of the Roman Empire. Judaism was different in those days, but the book makes clear that the gentiles remained gentiles, even when supporting the Jewish communities with funds and participating in their communal activities.

And that was probably the last time Judaism was potentially appealing to large numbers of non-Jews for 18-19 centuries. In the interval, you were lucky if you got through a century with your community intact. There must have been movement on the edges, so there was a definition of being Jewish: anyone with a Jewish mother, or who had been converted halachically - which meant, by a rabbi.

In the second half of the 20th century this changed... twice, and in very different ways. It changed in the US, and it changed in Israel.

It changed in the US because, as touched upon in the previous post, for the first time ever it was possible to be an integral part of mainstream society and Jewish society simultaneously; yet Jewish society was taking on a plethora of new forms that would not have been recognizable as Jewish until recently. This meant a significant number of non-Jews were willing to consider joining the Jews, and intermarriage with non-jews while retaining Jewish identity meant the matriarchal definition appeared too narrow. The Jews lost their consensus on what they were, and then on who they were; today's American Jewry is characterized by a diversity and breadth of expression far greater than any previous Jewish community, including the fractured and disparate one of the final generations of the Second Temple Era. American Jews agree, in a general way, that they have a common history, the kingpin of which is the Holocaust; they sort of agree that being Jewish means having a communal or societal conscience, and they more or less sort of agree that Israel is important. The single most important space for Jewish expression is the liturgical area: American Jews tend to identify by belonging to a temple/synagogue/shul congregation.

Meanwhile, in Israel, it all works differently. Jews are the mainstream society. They speak the ancestral language, Hebrew, as their native tongue, and the national calender is Jewish. The state of war we live in is intrinsically tied up with being Jewish, too. Which means being Jewish in Israel is essentially automatic unless you're an Arab or Druze, and need have nothing to do with liturgy, belonging to a congregation, or any of the fundamental aspects of being Jewish in America; on the other hand, since it's the kind of thing you need the willingness to lay your life down for, it's far more serious than it is for many American Jews. The non-Jews in Israel, and halachically there are hundreds of thousands of them, mostly from the former Soviet Union, are in many ways more actively Jewish than most American Jews, even if they have absolutely no connection with a synagogue.

Which leaves the halachically minded orthodox with two separate battles to lose. In America they've lost the argument about conversion, and are retreating into their own enclaves. In Israel, they're losing the argument, too, though it's a very different argument, and their ability to retreat into enclaves is limited; on the other hand, the demographic dynamic means that within a few generations the problem (if it is one) will largely disappear: The Jews in Israel will be Jews, even if some of their forbears were Slavic non-Jews. I won't hazard a guess as to what will happen in America. Perhaps most American Jews will be African Americans who decided they were Jewish.

50 Influential Rabbis

Newsweek has published its annual list of the 50 most influential American rabbis (and Jeffrey Goldberg nitpicks it here). I can't nitpick it, but I can make some comments, snide or otherwise.

1. What an American idea! You've got Fortune lists of rich folks, halls of fame of the best baseball players, so why not have a list of top rabbis?

2. Only in America, of all diasporas Jews have ever lived in, have they been so at home and part of the surrounding society that it's even vaguely conceivable that a top general publication would think to include them in its remit to such an extent. And even that, only since the 1960s. Where else? Australia, perhaps? Canada? Surely nowhere else, and never before. If you wish, we can argue about this, but don't expect to convince me.

3. As Israelis go, I'm rather well informed about America in general and its Jews, too. At a stretch, I've heard of ten of these 50. I have the ability to string together two sentences about, at most, four. In a Jewish world with two centers, American and Israeli Jews are slowly but inexorably drifting apart; the rest are slowly orbiting around the one or the other.

4. Tho, now that I think of it, I bet 75% of America's Jews don't recognize ten of these 5o, either.

5. The list was put together
by Sony Pictures Entertainment Chairman & CEO Michael Lynton, News Corporation Executive Vice President Gary Ginsberg and JTN Productions CEO Jay Sanderson

6. The criteria used were
  • Are they known nationally/internationally?
  • Do they have political/social influence?
  • Do they have a media presence?
  • Are they leaders within their communities?
  • Are they considered leaders in Judaism or their movements?
  • Size of their constituency
  • Have they made an impact on Judaism in their career?
  • Have they made a "greater" impact?
Which is a telling list of criteria. It seems to me there are only one and a half criteria for the significance of a rabbi.
1. Has he made a lasting contribution to the Jewish discussion that has been going on for millennia? (A sub-set of this would be, is he an important Posek, articulator of Halacha)
2. Is he important to his community (but often this, too, is a subset of the previous one).

We're talking about rabbis, after all. Arguably, David Ben Gurion was the most important Jew of the 20th century, which demonstrates that Jews can be important to the Jewish world, at least the modern Jewish world, without being a rabbi. But that would be a different list.

PS. Don't jump down my throat for using the masculine. I actually expect women to get there, by and by, but that's a different subject.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Talk to Hamas

Shlomo Avineri gets it right:
According to Hamas, the Jews are responsible for all the ills of modern society - the French Revolution; the Communist revolution; the establishment of secret associations (Freemasons, Rotary and Lions clubs, B'nai B'rith) designed to help them gain control of the world by secret means. They control the economy, press and television; they are responsible for the outbreak of World War I, which they initiated in order to destroy the Muslim caliphates (the Ottoman empire), to get the Balfour Declaration and set up the League of Nations with the aim of establishing their state. They also initiated World War II in order to make a fortune from selling war materials; they use both capitalism and communism as their agents...

But perhaps it is nevertheless worthwhile talking to Hamas - not about its contribution to peace but rather about what is stated in its covenant. Perhaps those who espouse the view that we must talk with Hamas will first talk with it about these subjects? Who knows, perhaps it will change its principles? I do not expect this to happen exactly, but I am certainly curious to know what those who think Hamas is the key to peace in the Middle East will say about these things.

And perhaps they are actually correct, perhaps Hamas is the key. If that's the case, it's difficult to expect that peace can be established in our region.

Genocide with Yoghurt

Here's a book review that shows how history has the ability to reach out of the past and rattle us, no matter how much we pretend to be forward-looking.

Last month, while I was visiting my father in Florida, we had dinner one night with my aunt. We were discussing the way Jim Jones had poisoned 900 of his followers with cyanide-laced Flavor Aid in 1978, and suddenly my aunt was explaining that another way to poison someone is with a yogurt smoothie. "That's how the Turks poisoned your grandmother's classmates in Constantinople in 1915," she said. "They poisoned the tahn."

This story was new to me, and I am 47. But as a second-generation Armenian American, I've found that it's not uncommon for one of these UFO horror stories to materialize out of nowhere over coffee.

Thus begins Chris Bohjalian's review of Armenian Golgotha, by Grigory Balakian. It hardly sounds like a pleasant read, but well may be a necessary one, especially if you're of the persuasion that knowing history and engaging with it is preferable to having it spring on you unawares.

Hitler, by the way, knew his history. He repeatedly told that what he learned from the Armenian genocide was that no-one cared at the time, and no-one remebered afterwards.

Using International Law in Vain

A law professor named George Bisharat yesterday published a pseudo-learned op-ed about how criminal Israel is. Since his terminology was legalese, and I'm not a legal expert, I decided not to comment on his screed. Fortunately, the folks over at Powerline are all attorneys, and John Hinderaker decided to have a look. His verdict:

There was once a time when it would have made sense to wonder why the New York Times would publish such drivel. Now, publishing left-wing drivel is the paper's business plan. Bankruptcy impends.

Racism, Apartheid, T-Shirts and General Confusion

Remember those horrendous IDF T-Shirts? And it's common knowledge that Israel treats its Arab citizens abominably. So here's a story from Haaretz this morning that demonstrates it all. An Arab professor at Haifa University was thrown out of a restaurant when he complained that a bartender was wearing a shirt encouraging the killing of Palestinian children. Ha! Gotcha.

Though if Israeli Jim Crow is that bad, how is he a professor at Haifa University? No matter.

Until you read beyond the headline, where all the damage is, into the article itself. The proprietor of the restaurant is himself an Arab, and he was the one arguing with the client. He insists he threw no-one out, rather the professor stalked out. The (Arab) restaurateur may have said to the (Arab) professor "IF you're a Palestinian, go to Palestine", implying that he, the (Arab) restaurateur prefers to remain an Israeli. And then there's this:
Hajaj said the bartender had never served in the army and was unaware of the message his shirt conveyed. As a result of the incident, the bartender is no longer working at the restaurant.
Now I'm really confused. If the bartender never served in the IDF, where did he get the T shirt? If he can't read its message, who is he? A Phillipino, perhaps? And if he's blameless, why has he been fired? Could it be that Hajaj, the restaurateur, didn't want the attention of the authorities to his practice of employing illegal residents?

I'm speculating, of course. But that's the issue. Something happened at Hajaj's restaurant over the weekend, but what it was we don't know. Haaretz has cherry-picked enough of the facts to make Israel look bad, put them in its headline, added a partial description in the item itself, and demonstrated that it cares not at all about its level of journalism.

Boycott Israel... At Any Price!

Even if it means not diagnosing skin cancer. After all, Israel itself is a cancer of sorts, and must be broken. Anyway, this particular discovery is not yet a certainty, so let's hurry up and divest from research projects with Israeli academics. That way the project will fail, and we'll never know if any good might have come from it, so won't need to have any pangs of regrets for our righteousness.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Iranians and Fools

Jefferey Goldberg has helpfully posted 19 (nineteen) quotes from Iran's president Ahmedinejad in less than four years in which he talks about Israel disappearing. His reason for doing so is that his fellow Atlantic blogger Andrew Sullivan is casting doubt.

Andrew has made an interesting personal journey over the past few years, from an unusual and interesting conservative blogger to boring and predictable left-wing one. Which is fine: many people don't have the intellectual courage to re-examine their fundamental positions anytime after age 22. I personally stopped reading Andrew's blog quite a while ago. Anyone who regards Juan Cole as an authoritative source for information can't be very serious himself. (On which topic, I recommend the comment left here by someone who took the time to listen to some Cole lectures. If Sullivan can't see the dynamic, it's only because he chooses not to). A. Jay Adler, however, has some more informed comments about Andrew, and the sad direction he is now conforming to. He tells that after Goldberg did his research and posted his findings, Andrew read them and pronounced that

Reading them all, it becomes quite clear to me that Ahmadinejad does indeed want Israel to cease to exist, but equally clear that he is not speaking of dropping a nuke on it.

Well, that's certainly comforting, isn't it? Andrew knows the Iranian fellow is merely talking through his hat, and we have nothing to worry about.

I hope no national leaders, in any country, glean their information from the blogosphere. I write this as a (part-time) blogger.