Sunday, May 31, 2009

High-Quality Political Cynicism Galore

The Ministerial Legislation Committee stopped the draft of the Loyalty Law in its tracks.

A bit of context may be called for, as this matter, like most, is barely understood by most observers while being widely cited. In order for a law to be legislated in Israel, it must pass three readings, three seperate votes, in the Knesset. If it's initiatied by the government, it must first pass a ministerial committee even before the first reading. After the first reading it goes to a parliamentary committee (or three), which can eviscerate it, change it to mean something else, block it indefinately, or forget it forever - or, occasionally, pass it back to the full Knesset for legislation. If legislation is not supported by the government, it can nonetheless be submitted by an individual MK or 30 of them, but in that case it must pass four readings: a preliminary one, a committee, and then the mandatory three readings.

And all this is merely the outline. Bismarck famously quiped that there are two things one can enjoy upon completion but should never observe in the making: sausage and legislation; this is as true for Israel as anywhere. It just so happens that some of my best friends are lobbyists, and damn good ones, too, and I've watched many of the shticks from close up. Getting a law passed in Israel requires either the bulldozer of the Finance Ministry on your side, or lots of talent and experience.

So whenever some populistic politician moots some idiotic idea for an outlandish law, the fact that it passes the first of four readings is almost meaningless. It's an act of futile grandstanding. 100% of the legislators involved know the chance of the law ever being enacted are slim to non-existent, depending on how idiotic it is. But no matter.The point is to appear to be trying, to score brownie points for intentions. Since the system won't ever let it happen, there's nothing to lose but lots to gain: if you're behind the law, you'll be interviewed by lots of media outlets and your constituents will see you. If you're scandalized by the law, you'll be interviewed by lots of media outlets and your constituents will see you. If you're a media type, you'll have lots of fun footage of passionate politcians talking through their hats, you'll be able to report breathlessly on the dramatic events, and your ratings will rise. If you're an NGO who lives off donations from foreign folks, you'll be able earnestly to tell them of your heroic efforts to fight the good fight; some NGOs work harder at putting out English-language press-releases than at Hebrew ones, since the Hebrew ones are pointless but the English ones go into dramatic files for donors.

Sooner or later the law will reach some adults who bear real responsibility, and they'll shoot it down. The Loyalty Law, for example, was apparently voted down in something like 30 seconds, with no discussion: Yaacov Neeman, Minister of Justice, going through the meeting's agenda, reached this line and curtly noted that there'd be no discussion, merely a vote, who's for who's against, the majority's against, the law's rejected next item.

And note who did the voting: government ministers, not the Association of Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI). Cabinet members from Likud, Shas, haBayit haYehudi, and of course Labor - the first three solidly on the Right. These people aren't idiots. They recognize a destructive and imbecillic law when they see one, and dispose of it with no qualms.

All of which leaves the question, why try in the first place if everyone knows it won't happen? Why give the Guardian and the Juan Coles of this world unnesseccary grist for their mills? A fine subject for a different post, someday. Though I will note that no matter how childish the politicians-media-NGO activists are, the foreign reporters who eagerly take only part of the story and use it to damn Israel shouldn't be exonerated. They could tell the same story I've just told you, but scrupulously won't, ever.

Yona Baumel, RIP

Yona Baumel died on Friday. He was 81, a father, grandfather and great-grandfather; he'd had a successful career; until some weeks ago he came daily to the early minyan at our synagogue, and then stuck around for the 6:30 Talmud session in the Shabbat tractate. Yet for all this, his identity was as the father of Zachariya Baumel, a tank crewman missing in action since June 1982.

Zachariya went missing during the Sultan Yaakob battle on June 10th 1982, a night-long battle in which a Syrian division ambushed a battalion-plus IDF tank unit. The Syrians were on the hilltops surrounding the Lebanese village of Sultan Yaakob, which lies in a valley; it ended only the next morning, when backup IDF units took over the hills. Two IDF tank crews were missing, including Baumel's. The Syrians claimed to know nothing about this, but a year or so later they suddenly admitted they'd been holding Arik Lieberman, one of the missing, all along, and exchanged him for some Syrian PoWs; this gave credence to the possibility they were still holding additional Israelis.

Yona Baumel spearheaded decades of efforts to force his government (Israel) to insist on the Syrian's divulging everything they knew. The Syrians never obliged, but Baumel felt the Israelis hadn't been trying hard enough, and the story was never laid to rest.

Israel's enemies being the callous and inhumane bastards they are, it's hard to know what the truth really was, and Israel's various leaders have certainly proven repeatedly less competent than one would like. The very ambush at Sultan Yaakob was probably the result of horribly mistaken IDF decisions in the first place - not to mention that the whole war was largely stupid. Personally, I have thought for a long time that Zachariya and his friends were killed that night, not captured. None of which was of any help to his parents. Yona has now taken his unresloved pain with him to his grave. The story is part of our national fabric, to the extent that his death is noted in the media, and we all know who he is.

On the Superiority of Snottiness

Nicholas D. Kristoff theorizes about differences between Liberals (he likes) and Conservatives (he doesn't). He starts out with an observation that Liberals are more likely to slap their fathers than Conservatives. My father died many years ago, at a time in my life when I certainly would have fit Kristoff's definition of Liberal, but I can't concieve of a scenario in which I would have slapped him. Not even in order to be politically correct.

Could you?

Thursday, May 28, 2009

UN: No, We Won't Investigate War Crimes

In Sri Lanka.

The idea that there's anything impartial about the UN, in any direction, takes yet another blow. It's a club of interested parties which make proclamations according to their interests. Just as you'd expect... and totally in contradiction to the sanctimonious ideologues of some international community as a source of justice and moral legitimacy.

Who is Israel Killing?

Fascinating (and not exactly new) article by Simona Wienglass at TNR about who the dead Palestinians in Gaza were. According to the Palestinian official responsible for the list, Khalil Shaheen, if you weren't armed at the moment of death, you're a civilian, even if you were the top Hamas ideologue of death, say, like Nizar Rayan. Meanwhile, one Jonathan Halevi, a private citizen who lives in Toronto, takes the Palestinian lists as his starting point, and using top secret methods such as Google, punches holes in the Palestinian lists.
As of last month, Halevi has a list of 171 people the PCHR defines as
civilians that he claims he can prove are actually combatants affiliated
with Hamas or other terrorist groups. His contention is based on a simple
principle: When fighters die, they don't just leave behind a body, a family,
and eyewitnesses--they leave a paper trail. Martyrdom posters, photographs
of funerals, articles celebrating heroes' exploits, lists of payments to
families--these sources help Halevi disprove that a particular fatality was
a civilian as opposed to a fighter. Intelligence analysts around the world
are following this paper trail, and they don't just work for the Shin Bet or
CIA. In fact, in the era of the Internet, vast amounts of intelligence are
available to anyone with fluent Arabic, a little training, and a lot of time
and patience...

But even facts can be subjective. For example, Halevi accuses Shaheen's
organization of mislabeling Hamas cleric Nizar Rayan as a civilian. Shaheen
explains that Rayan was killed in an Israeli airstrike on his home. There are
jihadist posters of Rayan all over Gaza, and yet, "I cannot count him as a
militant or fighter," Shaheen says. Rayan was unarmed with his wives and
children when he was killed, Shaheen explains. "I cannot count this case as a
fighter because he didn't participate as a fighter in the offensive. He was a
civilian the whole time--going to the mosque, praying, coming back to his

None of this is petty. The case against Israel, broadcast the world over at high intensity, is that in its callousness it kills large numbers of innocent civilians. Looking closer at the facts, it appears that in order to say this you have to disregard what many of the casualties or their families themselves say: we're proud soldiers in the war against Israel.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Dennis Ross: My Job is Futile

Such a nuisance, these democratic transfers of power. A fellow can work for the government for years, then someone loses an election and he's exiled to a think tank. While at the think tank he ponders and deliberates, and eventually puts his thoughts in writing, perhaps even in book form. (Books are hard to delete). Then suddenly another election rolls by, and hey presto, our fellow's folks are back in power, and they call him back to serve, perhaps even a notch higher up on the governmental ladder, since by now he's done all that thinking.

But there's a snag. Over in the ivory tower they've got this strange propensity of saying what they think may be true (sometimes), rather than what the President wants them to say.
Dennis Ross, the U.S. Secretary of State's special adviser on Iran, says in
a new book that the United States will not make progress toward peace in the
Middle East with the Obama administration's new plan...
Because of Ross' position, his superiors at the State Department do not
allow him to promote the book or be interviewed about it. In the second chapter,
entitled "Linkage: The Mother of All Myths," Ross writes: "Of all the policy
myths that have kept us from making real progress in the Middle East, one stands
out for its impact and longevity: the idea that if only the Palestinian conflict
were solved, all other Middle East conflicts would melt away. This is the
argument of 'linkage.'"

Oy. What can I say? That I feel for Obama?

Pilot Project With Real Matches

Us high-tech project folks always prefer to launch large-scale multi-year painfully expensive projects with small, limited, contained and inexpensive pilot projects. The idea is that it's hard to sell anyone a project that will bleed their recources, waste their time, consume their attention and exhaust their patience for a decade; a small and painless pilot project, however, three months of inexpensive fun: what could possibly be wrong with that? True, the pilot comes with built in glue that will mean the only way to extricate oneself is by doing that ten-year monstrosity, but hey, high-tech folks have to make a living also, no?

Anyway, the Master of History, or the Divine Screenwriter, or whoever you choose to believe runs the show, clearly has a weakspot for high-tech marketing methods. How else to explain the small pilot project of North Korean nuclear childishness conveniently being set up just before the decisions need to be made on the big project in Iran. Yes Mr. President, we're all watching.

It's not even funny, though laughter is a fine way to deal with bad news.

German History is Wrong

Yep. A big chunk of postwar German history didn't happen, or if it did, what happened wasn't what everybody thought was happening, but rather the opposite, but it doesn't matter because the outcome was exactly not what anyone had in mind, and anyways, it's all a long time ago and why is everyone in such an uproar?

Dialectics meets Sherlock Holmes for history at its funniest. Or saddest. Or confusedest. Or whatever.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

But Isn't He an Extremist?

Avigdor Lieberman, our Foreign Minister, has confirmed an item in Maariv this morning: Yes, he has told Netanyahu the government should officially adopt the Roadmap, the document from 2004 that has underpinned whatever negotiations have taken place between Israel and the Palestinians in recent years. The Roadmap to Peace, I remind you, started with George Bush's speech of June 24th 2002 calling for two sovereign states, Israel and Palestine, was drawn up by the Quartet (America, Russia, the EU and the UN), and it specifes practical steps towards achieving the goal. By accepting it, the entire side show of "Is Israel under Netanyahu serious about peace" would be shut down, and it might be possible to go back to the more significant issues of whether there are any Palestinians to talk to.

Yes, Lieberman. But isn't he supposed to be a fanatic Rightwinger, facist, extremist, evil settler, racist, and all those things, I hear you asking? After all, that's what the entire world media has been telling us for months already? Also Israel's Left, they've been saying it also?

Quite. The same Lieberman. Go figure.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Sixth Generation and the Defeat of Demography

The Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv has just had a great-great-great-grandson. That means, his grandson is now a great grandfather. Or if you prefer, his great-grandson is now a grandfather.

The Rav is either 99 or 100 years old (there seem to be no witnesses left to confirm which), so if you do the maths you'll see that such a thing is possible, so long as each generation gives birth at 20, or even if one generation misses but the next recompenses by starting at 18.

Elyashiv, the most important Rabbi in the Misnaged (non-Hassidic) part of the Ashkenzi Haredi world, and as the patron of some of the Haredi MKs also an influential political figure, is by all accounts lucid, active and thus aware of his new status, though I'd be surprised if he can keep track of all his descendants. He and his wife had 12 children; one was killed in the War of Independence and another died in infancy, but all the others so far as I know had children. But then, his contemporary, Benzion Netanyahu, also closing in on 100 and lucid, doesn't have any great grandchildren at all, so far as I know, and by the time they get born and become grandparents the present generation of Elyashivs will easily be ahead by another six generations.

The story of the Haredi fecundity is truly an oddity. Those of you who have studied demography know that the demographers have their models, and along with the sociologists and others they have all sorts of neat explanations for why birthrates rise and fall; I remember when I took some courses about this it all sounded plausible. Nothing I learned then explained how an entire section of society, living in a country with modern medical facilities and low rates of child deaths, could have a birthrate that rises from generation to generation over generations. And no, it's not Israel's willingness to subsidize their children, because that willingness flows and ebbs according to the Haredi MK's ability to coerce the government while the birthrate rises steadily; anyway, the Haredi birthrate in America is also consistently high. It's not economics, because extraordinarily wealthy Haredi billionaires have lots of children, and impoverished ones with five kids in one room also do. And no, having Haredi women enter the marketplace doesn't seem to make much difference, either. There's a whole brigade of 30-something Haredi women trained as system analyst-types in the high-tech world (my experience has consistently been that they outsmart everyone in sight), and each of them has six or eight children alongside her career.

If I had to name one single reason for all this, my guess would be the Holocaust. The Haredis are trying to refill. There's ample anecdotal evidence for this, of course, but I doubt anyone has proven it.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

What Does he Mean "No Common Ground"?

Jeffrey Goldberg reviews Benny Morris' new book One State Two States.

Apparently the thesis of Morris' new book, surprise surprise, is that peace can't be made with the Palestinians, because there's no common ground on which to place such an agreement. You'll remember that 20 years ago Morris was one of the most interesting and creative people in Israel's Left camp, the founder of the "New Historians" club which he also named, and the person who more than any single other individual, forced Israelis to accept that they indeed had forced hundreds of thousands of Palestinians out of their homes in 1948 (though without a preconcieved plan, and probably half of the refugees left of their own accord earlier in the war, thereby showing the Israelis the feasability of the idea).

Then, in the second half of 2000, the Palestinians forced a dismayed Morris to re-evaluate his understanding of their current positions, and ever since he has been implacable in saying what he learned.

Lots of us went through the same process; what makes Morris unusual is that he's far better informed than most of us, on the one hand, and he apparently has the propensity to be something of an extremist, on the other, irrespctive of the political camp he's in. I know some others like him, people who until 2000 were far to my left, and since 2001 or so have moved significantly to my right; all the while as hundreds of thousands of us moved from left-of-center to right-of-center and then back to center. Extremists will be extremists; centrists will be centrists.

Goldberg is American, not Israeli, though he's unusually well informed, and he aprreciates Morris' scholarship but can't accept his conclusions. Yet not because he can refute them: he simply can't accept them. Apparently, he and Morris don't share enough common ground.

Lincoln: Mental Illness and Greatness

The article behind this link is not new; it's been online for almost four years. I came across it only recently, however. Joshua Wolf Shenk writes about Abraham Lincoln's life-long confrontation with clinical depression, a malady he overcame not by ending it, but by channelling it towards acts of great significance.
Many popular philosophies propose that suffering can be beaten simply, quickly,
and clearly. Popular biographies often express the same view. Many writers,
faced with the unhappiness of a heroic figure, make sure to find some crucible
in which that bad feeling is melted into something new. "Biographies tend
conventionally to be structured as crisis-and-recovery narratives," the critic
Louis Menand writes, "in which the subject undergoes a period of disillusionment
or adversity, and then has a 'breakthrough' or arrives at a 'turning point'
before going on to achieve whatever sort of greatness obtains." Lincoln's
melancholy doesn't lend itself to such a narrative. No point exists after which
the melancholy dissolved—not in January of 1841; not during his middle age; and
not at his political resurgence, beginning in 1854. Whatever greatness Lincoln
achieved cannot be explained as a triumph over personal suffering. Rather, it
must be accounted an outgrowth of the same system that produced that suffering.
This is a story not of transformation but of integration. Lincoln didn't do
great work because he solved the problem of his melancholy; the problem of his
melancholy was all the more fuel for the fire of his great work.

Regular readers will of course recognize why I especially appreciated this vigniette:
Elizabeth Keckley, Mary Lincoln's dressmaker, once told of watching the
president drag himself into the room where she was fitting the First Lady. "His
step was slow and heavy, and his face sad," Keckley recalled. "Like a tired
child he threw himself upon a sofa, and shaded his eyes with his hands. He was a
complete picture of dejection." He had just returned from the War Department, he
said, where the news was "dark, dark everywhere." Lincoln then took a small
Bible from a stand near the sofa and began to read. "A quarter of an hour
passed," Keckley remembered, "and on glancing at the sofa the face of the
president seemed more cheerful. The dejected look was gone; in fact, the
countenance was lighted up with new resolution and hope." Wanting to see what he
was reading, Keckley pretended she had dropped something and went behind where
Lincoln was sitting so that she could look over his shoulder. It was the Book of

Friday, May 22, 2009

Principled People: A Neccessary Danger or a Dangerous Neccessity

Centrists like myself can't help but enjoy the Obama Administration's travails on civil liberties. Contrary to what millions of folks, most of the punditry, and Candidate Obama always said, it appears the Bush-Era policies on detaining terrorists and treating them were not simply evil. Moreover, keeping in mind what the Bushites knew on 9/12 or even two years later, and the vast amount of things they didn't yet know at the time about the threats facing America and the rest of the world, at least some of their decisions were probably as good as could have been reasonably expected. And yet, as much of the criticism was couched in irrelevant terms, such as Bush-hatred, partisan Republican-bashing or simply knee-jerk hatred of America, the Bush administration probably excused itself from listening, even though some of its critics some of the time had valid arguments to make; any policy should always be permanently questioned and scrutinized, and many in the Bush Administration apparently didn't like that and weren't going to listen.

Glenn Greenwald is a fine example of crtics who may well have been right some of the time while being profoundly wrong in a complex way. I've been following him dailly for a number of months now, and am intrigued. First, from my perspective, he doesn't much like Israel. But it's not an obsession, more a minor blemish. As a reader commented when I recently linked to him, he's very educated on his major themes, and embarrassingly ignorant on Israel.

He really really doesn't like Republicans. Intellectually this is a drawback because he sees Republican positions as automatically wrong, stupid, and a-priori requiring condemnation. Such insistence on a black-and-white view of the world can hardly be helpful (no matter which party you automatically condemn).

The most interesting part of Greenwald's position, however, is his relationship to Democrats in power. I'd call it the danger of being principled. Greenwald has a clearly formulated set of principles regarding civil liberties, government, democracy - and waging of war. He's well-educated about his principles. His dedication to them is stronger than to his political party, and that's admirable because when his own side misbehaves he castigates them clearly (if perhaps less shrilly). America needs people like him, loud and intelligent voices to insist on the fundamental ideas the country was founded on. Given America's dominance of the world, the rest of us also need America to have people like him.

Yet his determination to defend principle above reality is, at the end of the day, wrong. His insistence, I'd say, even carries a whiff of danger. First, because it prevents him from noting conflicting principles. Surely, the need to protect large numbers of innocent lives from future attacks, as seen from October 2001, say, stemmed from principle? Second,and more profound, because he misunderstands the function of principle.

Principles are ideas, models, and aspirations; they strive for perfection. Life happens in the world, which is marred, imperfect, and by definition limited: it ends. So far as I know, no-one has ever managed to formulate a set of principles that will relate to the totallity of life and also be fully consistent, though many of history's worst monsters claimed they had. People like Greenwald recognize this, but rather than striving for a muddling through mostly compatible with most principles, they choose a few principles and would adhere to them totally while disregarding others; this sort of compromise is better than striving for the pristine Weltanschauung, but it's not a good way to rule. As Obama and his people are finding out.

The Greenwalds of America would benefit from re-reading the story of their hallowed Founding Fathers and their French cousins. The Enlightened American Founding Fathers formulated noble principles but were hypocrites, so the republic they founded was a flawed republic in the real world. Their French counterparts didn't find a balance between principle and reality, and caused endless suffering. Not to mention their 20th century disciples.

But Are They Food...?

Britain’s Court of Appeal ruled that, contrary to the argument of their maker,
Procter & Gamble, Pringles contain enough potato to be defined as crisps
(chips), and are therefore not exempt from value-added tax.
Did you follow that? The manufacturer, not some group of bearded daisy-haired organic nature-minded parents, went to court to claim that Pringles potato chips contain no potatoes. Oh yes they do, said the court, and you've gotta pay your potato-taxes.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Maybe, Perhaps, Possibly

The BBC reports on the arrest of four antisemitic Muslims in New York, who felt the best way to express their anger at American actions in Afghanistan would be to murder Jews in the Bronx.

Note the formulations and parenthesis:
Arrests in New York 'attack plot'
So maybe it was an attack plot and maybe it wasn't.
The men were seized after allegedly planting what they thought were bombs
near two synagogues in the Bronx area.

It is not the BBC's task to tell us what happened and thereby prejudice our ability to serve on a jury, so it leaves us to make up pur own minds about whether the men actually planted anything near synagogues or perhaps not and it's simply an FBI plot.

Presumption of innocence running wild. The word antisemites, meanwhile, isn't printed anywhere, though the official in the video does use it.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Pot of Gold

Many years ago, when LBJ was still a popular president and I was a wee lad, a miracle happened. One of the kids on the block discovered a large pile of coins on the sidewalk, just around the corner. Immediately every single urchin in sight converged on the spot, and we all stuffed our pockets, first, and then our socks. That evening all the parents forced us to hand over all the coins from all the pockets, but if memory serves, they didn't think to look in the socks. The coins, by the way, were all foreign, so it's not clear what anyone was going to do with them, short of stashing them away towards an eventual trip to Argentina or Greece. I also didn't understand then, and don't know still, how all those parents thought they were going to give the coins back to their owner. Anyway, this is a true story. Honest.

Ages earlier, precisely 18 centuries give or take a few, the rabbis of the Mishna and then the ones of the Gemara had spent page after page of the Bava Metzia tractate deliberating what to do with lost and founds.The principle is that if the lost items can be identified and were lost in a place where finders are likely to make the effort to find the owners, that's what has to be done. If they can't be identified, or if the circumstances mean making the effort is unlikely, the loser is understood to have lost hope and the finder is richer for it. An example could be a pile of coins in a public place - though true to form, once the Gemara has fully thought through all the arcane sub-possibilities of that scenario (page 21), it invents a new angle that enables the discussion to be revisited all over again (page 25).

The daf yomi folks are traversing this territory this week. Over the years I've wandered by this section a number of times already. Each time I do so, and my fellow students mutter about how unlikely the whole thing is, since how exactly would a pile of coins be found on the sidewalk, I sagely tell them that such things can happen. It's not just logical hair-splitting and theoritical constructs of bored legal-types.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


I was at the dentist the other day, and he told me I have a large mouth.

So now it's official.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Bibi Goes to Washington

In a few hours Netanyahu will meet Obama in the White House. Since not a single living person knows what will happen at the meeting, don't expect me to tell you. Nor should you believe anyone else. The two men will meet, they'll talk, and they'll see what happens, even though both come prepared with plans, plan Bs, counter plan Bs, and backup plan Cs.

Helene Cooper, in yesterday's NYT, wrote a commonly-held expectation; let's call it The Silly Expectation. The thesis of this narrative is that Obama will finally put pressure on Israel, real pressure, and this will bring peace. What pressure? First, accept the Two State Solution; second, stop building on the West Bank; third, remember that the Palestinians are people too; fourth, sit back and enjoy Peace and Tranquility for the Rest of History; fifth, applaud the Iranians for dismantling their nulear program. True, Ms. Cooper doesn't quite sat it in such a simplistic way, but that's the thrust. She's representative of pundits and fools the world over.

The problem, of course, is that the previous three Israeli prime minsters all did stages one-two-three, and in response the best they got was bobkes; some of them, such as Ehud Barak, Arik Sharon and Ehud Olmert, got much worse. The fallacy of the Silly Expectation being, of course, that for peace to arrive Israel does indeed need to dismantle lots of settlements, and enable the creation of a Palestinian State in Gaza and the West Bank, but the Palestinians also have to do a thing or two, such as work together; give up on the Right or Return; and officially declare the end of the conflict. Among other requirements: none of which is about to happen, alas.

I didn't vote for Netanyahu, and my feeling is that he won't do at the meeting what he should, namely proclaim, loud and clear: "Two States, Mr. President? But of course! One for the Jews called Israel, with an Arab minority, and one for the Palestinians. Of course, Mr. President! We agree on this fully. Now, if you can figure out a way to get there, we'll award you with a special medal, and enrol you in the Order of Impressive Magicians! But in the meantime, lets talk about Iran; at least that's a subject where something may still possibly be done".

I fear Netanyahu won't do that, unfortunately, but one way or the other I don't see how it will make a difference. According to all reports, both men are intelligent, perhaps even highly intelligent, as well as being surrounded by lots of intelligent and well-informed people; the likelihood either of them thinks peace can be had for the asking seems low.

And Iran? I don't know about that, either, except I think Jeffrey Goldberg's fine op-ed in yesterday's NYT is right in that Netanyahu may really be serious; he may really believe the most important thing he'll do in life is stop the Iranians from acquiring nuclear weapons. Which means Obama, intelligent fellow he is, will have to find a way to stop the Iranians without war, because otherwise Netanyahu will do it with war. You really should read Goldberg's article; it's far more serious than most journalism usually is.

Israel Thru the Eyes of Teenage Tourists

Apparently, it can simply be a fun place. Who'd ever have thought?

Beating Terrorists by Violence

The Sri Lanken army has defeated the LTTE, the Tamil terrorist/rebel army. It took 25 years, and the final stage was characterized by rather indiscriminate violence against whoever was in the theatre of operation, citizens and fighters all.

All the while, the Rajapaksa administration managed to amass better weapons,
corral political support to quash the Tamil Tigers, crush dissent, and dismiss
any international criticism of human rights as pro-rebel propaganda.

So much for the accepted wisdom that popular freedom movements can't be defeated, that terrorism can be defeated only by addressing its underlying root causes, and that wars and strife will end only when grievances are redressed. Nonesense. Admittedly, this set of beliefs is extraordinarily compelling, has long since acquired the status of meta-dogma, and residual skeptics are treated as unenlightened barbarians who must be banished from polite society and certainly removed from all levers of power. The High Priests of politically correct discourse and thought, however, are exactly as fallible and wrongheaded as most of their predecessors these past 5,000 years or so; sooner or later reality intrudes to the extent that new dogmas are elevated.

I don't know enough about Sri Lanka to evaluate the moral aspects of this development. All I’m saying is that sometimes power works, and violence can achieve its goals.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Flawed but Real History

The Gemara on Bava Batra 131a has a convoluted legal discussion I'm not going to try to unravel here - something about the legal status of wills, which are problematic tools since once you're dead you're dead and it's not clear how your opinion matters anymore - or rather, once you're dead, you can't have an opinion anymore, so how can it be binding on anyone?

At one point in the discussion Rabbi Natan sardonically rebukes Rebbi for not being consistent; his formulation is "shanitem bemishnatchem", "you wrote in that Mishna of yours". Given that the codification of the Mishna in the 2nd century CE is easily near the top of any shortlist of crucial turnpoints in Jewish history, and Rebbi was the editor in chief while also being the political leader of the diminished Jewish community in post-Hadrianic Israel, this is a startling formulation. If you know that Rabbi Natan was one of the most important Jewish leaders of his day in the large and flourishing Babylonian community, the statement gets even more interesting. Clearly, this is an expression of a growing determination of the Babylonian Jews to flex their religious, cultural and even political muscle towards parity or beyond in their relationship with the sinking, war-ravaged and at times persecuted community in the ancestral homeland.

The teacher of our study group, however, then went off to look at a different discussion on page 13b of the Horayot tractate, a minor tractate often overlooked. Horayot offers a juicy and detailled description of a fracas between Raban Shimon ben Gamliel (Rashbag) on the one side and Rabbi Natan and Rabbi Meir on the other. The fracas was purely a matter of honor and powerjockying, and at the end of it Rashbag was firmly on top; part of the punishment of the two rebels was that henceforth their positions wouldn't be attributed to them anymore; rather, they'd be attributed to "Others say" in the case of Rabbi Meir, and "Some say" in the case of Rabbi Natan. Rashbag was Rebbi's father, so Rabbi Natan's harsh criticism is not only inter-communal politics, it's also part of an intergenerational feud.

Years after the altercation in Bava Batra, however, Rebbi publicly regretted his swift response to Rabbi Natan's attack on him. "I was young and unthinking and shouldn't have responded as I did", he said. Rabbi Meir, in the meantime, seems to have had the final laugh, since as a result of the decree not to name his attributes, all cases throught the Mishna which don't specify an author are now attributed to him, surely not what Rashbag intended.

Confused? Sorry. I tried to make it accessible, and cut out most of the details. Anyways, my point lies elsewhere. The whole description is a bit sordid; telling of the human weaknesses of some of the most illustrious rabbinical figures ever. Yet that's a very Jewish trait, to dwell on the flaws in our most illustrious figures; even to write it all up where anyone can see it.

This insistence on presenting warts and all is ultimately a source of strength, aggravating as it is at the time.

Seven Other Children

Carol Churchill's antisemitc little skit continues to make the rounds. I've already commented that a play is better than an op-ed or blogpost for disseminating ideas, right or wrong, because it's shelf-life can be longer, especially if it's got a constituency. Which is why it's neat that there are now two plays out there. Churchill's antisemitic one, and a counter-one by Richard Stirling, called "Seven Other Children". Stirling, like Churchill, is not Jewish.

Since there are two plays, and they're both short, one can now demand that both be played together. After all, Churchill's piece purports to want to "encourage discussion", and what better a way to do so than by having two 11-minutes pieces which deal with similar materials from differing perspectives?

This story indicates how the discussion might play out. One side won't allow stirlings' play to be shown because it's new:
In explaining the rejection of Stirling's play, the festival's development
coordinator Madeline Heneghan said: "The program is planned months in
advance." The request was "unrealistic at this point", she added.
Churchill's play about events in Gaza four months ago, you understand, managed to get onto the program. The other side, however, now has a tool, and in this case the careful politicians are cutting funding for the event because only one side of the "discussion" is being granted a platform. An interesting dynamic, based upon the fact that although antisemitism is widespread, at least in the West it's also something one ought to be a bit embarrassed by.

I haven't read Stirling's piece yet.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Lefty Colonialists

Max Julius in Haaretz puts the Guardianistas in a context I hadn't thought of: the snotty Englishmen who can't really be cajoled to take the natives seriously when they act out:
These modern-day British imperialists, the vast majority of whom are on the
left, by the way, see Palestinian terror as a sort of ineffectual
temper-tantrum; much as their forebears in African and the subcontinent saw
their subjects' occasional acts of hostility toward them as childlike bouts of
rage. The fact that Hamas' plots are so regularly thwarted by Israel, which
often responds with far greater force, only goes to further the sense these
Britons have of the group as something that only seems malignant to those
without a true understanding of the Arab: Their poor American cousins and, of
course, the hysterical, persecution-obsessed Eastern European Jews who now call
themselves Israelis.
The fun of his explanation lies, of course, in that there's no crime greater for a Guardianista than being colonial. Delicious.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Education With Vodka

A while ago I told of a new book, King of Vodka. The author has called my attention to a list of venues where she'll be presenting it, and at least some of the places will also offer Vodka, not only talk about it; sounds proper to me. So for the Californians among you, and also the Illinoians, here's the list. I know some of you are New Zealanders: no hope, sorry.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A Pope at Yad Vashem

On March 23rd 2000 Pope John Paul II visited Yad Vashem. At the time I was the head of archives there, and thus managed to be at the ceremony.

From what I've heard, the visit of the present Pope this week was not particulalary memorable. John Paul's, was. It was also historic, of course.

Just this evening, totally by coincidence, I stumbled across something I wrote the evening after that first visit. So here it is:

John Paul II at Yad Vashem

The security measures were severe even by the paranoid standards of our goons. The roads leading to Yad Vashem had been cleared of all parked vehicles the evening before. The entire mountain had been ringed off, and for the first time anyone could remember, Yad Vashem was closed to the public on a workday. Not that it was empty, mind you, what with the throngs of press, VIPs, and multitudes of security types. Visits of Heads of State are routine at Yad Vashem, and often call forth no more than a mildly curious glance, but the Pope, contrary to Stalin's derisory scepticism, is no mere Head of State.

The few hundred of us who were allowed into the Hall of Memory, Ohel Yizkor, had to be inside 45 minutes before the ceremony started. There were a handful of government ministers, a gaggle of ambassadors, a pride of high-ranking officers and civil servants, the inevitable donors, not to mention the journalists, technicians, participants, and sycophants. The cardinals, 15 of them or so, were allowed to come late, merely ten minutes before the Pope himself.

So it was an unusual situation, with so much power - perceived, imagined or real - cooped up in a closed, dark and cold hall, waiting. At one point, one of our chief religious figures, so high-ranking that he was positioned down on the floor of the Ohel itself, sauntered across to exchange some pleasantries with a lesser luminary sitting in the front row of the gallery.
To my great astonishment, his path took him over the names of three concentration camps, engraved into the floor, his indifference to them total. Pleasantries completed, he sauntered back, this time trodding on two other camps. Looking closer, it became clear that others were disregarding the essence of the venue just as blithely.

John Paul II, when he arrived, did not allow himself to be led over the names.

Frail, bent, concentrating on each step and move, he eclipsed everyone present. Wearing plain white robes, his hair and skullcap white and his complexion pale, he seemed almost to glow in the dark surroundings. The structure of the ceremony had been outlined with representatives of the Vatican over months of discussions, so the fact that he was to walk back and forth from his chair to the eternal flame, to the laying of the wreath, to the survivors, to the podium, back to the survivors of his hometown of Wadovice, so unlike papal audiences where he sits and everyone else comes to him, must have been his own decision. And all in painful, mincing steps, bowed over his cane, deferential to the site, to the survivors, to the memory - and never stepping on the names of the camps, even when it would have been easier. It was that humble sign of respect, of acknowledgement of holiness, that made the greatest impression on me. A holiness not defined by canon, nor by halacha, but by the truest essence of holiness itself, of deference towards something that is greater than the mundane and ephemeral.

His words, of sorrow, of the need for silence (so different from the silence of that predecessor), bore the tone of a deep sincerity, strengthened by the situation, enhanced by his body language. The Head of the Roman Catholic Church, the single most important living figure in Christendom, bowed, sorrowful and deferential at the central Jewish site of memory to the Shoah.

The single figure in the hall whose aura was not totally eclipsed by that of the Pope was Ehud Barak. Attentive to the frailty of his guest, courteous and appreciative, he nevertheless stood ramrod straight. Courteous, but not deferential, he also was careful not to step on the words; he seemed also to be aware of the holiness, and by talking of his murdered grandparents, to be claiming it.

It was a fascinating twist: John Paul II, evoking with his age and aura of power and charisma the ancient lineage of his institution and its ongoing vitality, stooping - nay, rising - to an act of human weakness: to sorrow, to regret, to mourning; Ehud Barak, in the name of the even older Jews, appearing as the young host, gravely accepting the sentiments of his guest.

After the ceremony, Edith Zirer summed up the occasion poignantly. As a 14-year-old survivor at liberation, she had been assisted back towards Cracow by a young Polish clergyman. When he became Pope, she had visited him, to thank him. Now, he was her guest, and, as she told a reporter, "there is also sadness. I don't expect us ever to meet again". A 55-year circle had been closed.

Lots of Wars, Many Standards, Endless Hypocrisy

Warfare is a permanent part of the human story, unfortunately, and while it ebbs and flows in specific places and even continents, it's not about to disappear. A quick glance through the New York Times, which is only plausibly efficient at registering such things, tells today of wars in Iraq (worsening); Afghanistan (worsening); Sri Lanka (horrendous, in this bout, for about two years already); and of course Pakistan, where a mega-horror is developing, with well more than a million refugees so far. You won't find any speculation of the numbers of Pakistani civilians being killed by the Pakistani government in its war on (mostly) Pakistani terrorists, but if you read between the lines, they've got to be large. Neither fighting side is being even remotely scrupulous in its use of force.

As a matter of fact, none of the fighting sides in any of these wars - none - even dream of using their weapons with the care Israel routinely uses; I'd hazard to say none of them, not even the Americans, are even trying to learn as they go how best to be effective while limiting harm to non-combatants. And why should any of them? Beyond a feeble groan here and there, no-one's demanding it of them, and they obviously don't have the need to do so for their own sake.

Anti-Missile Defenses

Lesslie Susser at The Jerusalem Report has a lengthly and rather technical article about the multi-layered systems Israel is buying (from the US) or developing (with the Americans and partially alone) to protect the country from all sorts of malicious projectiles from morter shells to ballistic missiles:

Barak advocates what he calls a "multi-layered" missile defense, with a
combination of complementary systems affording protection against attacks from
just a few kilometers to over 1,000 miles. Ideally, the Phalanx would cover
threats up to around 12 kilometers; the Iron Dome, being developed by Israel
Defense Industries' Rafael and scheduled for operational deployment early next
year, would deal with Qassams and Katyushas fired from between 4 and 40
kilometers; the American-made Patriot Advanced Capabilities or PAC-2 already in
operation, and David's Sling (a.k.a. Magic Wand), being developed jointly by
Rafael and Raytheon and scheduled for deployment in 2012-13, would meet
medium-range threats like the Iranian-made Fadjr 3 and 5, Zelzal 2 or the Syrian
Scud-C from 40 to several hundred kilometers; and the Arrow, which could also
provide cover against the Zelzal or the Scuds, would take it from there for
longer-distance missiles, like the Shihab.

Barak sees the creation of an anti-projectile shield around Israel as a "strategic goal." Not only would it protect civilians and strategic installations, but the knowledge that their missiles might be intercepted could deter potential aggressors from using them.
An effective missile shield could also give Israeli policy-makers added
options: For example, they might feel more confident about withdrawing from the
West Bank if they believed strategic installations like Ben-Gurion Airport were
adequately protected against rocket attack.

Waging war is a complicated matter, including technologically. But it looks like within a few years Israel will be better protected from these sort of nasties than anywhere else in the world.

Because it's more threatened, one might add.

Christians Emigrating

What with the Pope wandering around the Holy Land, the New York Times offers a recap on the story of the Christian Arabs in the Middle East: There are hardly any left. All across the Arab world, Christian Arabs were often more modern, better educated and more affluent than their Muslim neighbors, all of which made it easier to emigrate. Once they began to do so, there were also communities of them outside the Arab world to which it was then easier to immigrate. Also, being Christians, it was often comparatively easy to put down new roots.

It might also be useful to mention that the Muslim world has less and less patience for minorities, even if they're Arabic-speaking, ethnically Arab and have been there for thousands of years, in many cases longer than some Muslims who arrived in various waves starting in the 7th century. So there's a push and pull dynamic.

None of this is new, of course; it's an old and worn story. Still, it's worth repeating, if only because quite often people note the diminishing Christian-Palestinian population and chalk it up as yet another crime of Zionism.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

An Important Addition to Man's Creation

Some bloggers use their blogs, I've noticed, to promote their books. Juan Cole is an extreme, almost nauseating example, but cooler heads do so too. Which is fine. I don't do it because where I'm at in life, I either blog or I write books, but not both; it takes too much time from other things. By any measure I can think of I ought to write books, but blogging is lazier, so I do it.

Anyway, just the other day an article of mine was put online. I won't make any money from your buying it because it's there for free, but hey, it's there, so I ought to plug it, no? So, go yee all, and read.

Though there is a twist, I must warn you.

Guardian: No Smear Tactics or Misrepresentations Allowed

Georgina Henry is the editor in chief of Comment is Free (CiF), the part of the Guardian website where articles are posted 24/7 and the readers have their say. No analysis of the state of today's Left nor of the evolvement of contemporary antisemitism can afford to overlook this extremely important trove of data.

Earier this week Ms. Henry announced new rules of behavior, and then wrote a column about them. I especially liked this part:

I hope you'll agree that the talk policy is clearer and more direct. It boils down to what we've always tried to say: help make Cif a welcoming, intelligent place for discussion; take some responsibility for the quality of this community; don't be abusive; don't be offensive; don't be unpleasant; keep on topic.

One new bit is to clarify our approach to comments about us, ie the Guardian and its writers/bloggers – basically, criticism is fine (we're used to it by now), persistent misrepresentation and smear tactics are not.

I do believe the lady is sincere. Not rational, mind you, but sincere.

Fighting With Your Hands Tied Behind Your Back

The Americans and their minor Nato allies are killing civilians in Afghanistan. There's no doubt about that. How many, what the circumstances are, what precautions are being made, these are not subjects one discusses in polite society, apparently. The custom of calling in aircraft - planes, not helicopters - is a bit puzzling to me, but I don't profess to have enough data, given as it isn't being offered.

Don't get me wrong. As a general statement I'm in favor of military action against the enemies of mankind and especially womankind; I'm no pacifist nor do I harbor any doubts about the utterly evil intentions of the enemies currently being fought. But I am befuddled, a wee bit, by the dimensions of the double standards in force here; and also by the ability to wage war without the public thinking intelligently.

And then there is this, in a Guardian article about the events. I don't suggest you take the Guardian article too seriously; it contains too many of the usual unthinking tropes that serve as a shield from thinking. My point is the quotation from the American general:
Last week Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, called for all air strikes in
villages to be stopped, a view privately backed by many in the UN. Yesterday
Barack Obama's national security adviser, Gen James Jones, ruled out such a
change in policy, saying "we can't fight with one hand tied behind our back".
They can't be expected to fight with their hands tied behind their backs, says Obama's man.


The Pope is in our region for a while, visiting holy sites, praying, and apparently stepping on diverse political landmines. I'm not certain I have much to say about the matter, though if I decide I do, I'll inform you all, rest assured. Us bloggers, we don't keep our opinions to ourselves...

It is however a fine opportunity to poke fun at that most august of all media outlets worldwide, the BBC. They put up an item about the visit, and laid bare the idiocy journalists are willing to engage in.
Analysts say his words are likely to be heavily scrutinised during this week's trip.
Yes, well, analysts are a fine thing, aren't they? We're never told who they are, if they're reputable, knowledable, worthy of our attention, or even if they really exist. In this case, do you really belive the BBC chap took a cab all the way to the dusty book-case lined cubicle of an "analyst", to confer with her about whether people would pay attention to the utterances of some Catholic fellow who keeps on obstructing traffic? And how do you think the analyst (actually, the form used was plural, so there must have been a convacation of them) reached their learned conclusion whereby people would listen to the utterances of the Pope?

Then, there's this:
Pope Benedict, as a child growing up in Nazi Germany, joined the Hitler Youth, as was required of young Germans of the time, but he was not an enthusiastic member.
Now it just so happens there are methods of knowing such things, if young Ratzinger's lack of enthusiasim was pronounced enough at the time to have left a documentary trail and the BBC fellow had the tools to follow it. But that's unlikely on all counts. More likely, the BBC chap is spouting some hearsay he once came across, in which case he is - at best - no more trustworthy than some bloke writing on Twitter. More troubling is the question why he feels it important to foist his unfounded impressions on us in the form of news, unless perhaps he and his editors feel their task is to have us believe the correct version of reality as determined by them.

Monday, May 11, 2009


I'm back. Living offline has some distinct advantages. You should try it some day.

While I was immersed in the real world, I came up against some colorful characters. Here's a brief description of some easily recognizable "Israeli" types among them.

The Government Minister and His Fawning Voters: At the undisclosed location where I spent the past few days there was a newly appointed government minister. We've got dozens of them, and it's a tiny country, so the likelihood of running into one of them isn't very small; since they're not allowed to go anywhere without their security detachment (and I mean literally, not allowed to walk accross a large room without the goon behind them), and their security detachment is clothed so as to stick out like a sore thumb from a mile, with badly fitting suits, bulges behind their shoulders, and squigly-things protruding from their ears, well, it's hard not to notice the minister even if you're lookng the other way.

This minister, predictably, didn't wish not to be noticed. Actually, it was very important to him that everyone notice him, which is why he positioned himself in the room the way he did, and looked around to make certain everyone was duly impressed by the honor of sharing a room with him. Since I didn't vote for any of the twelve parties that make up our ruling coalition, I wasn't blown away, but lots of the other folks there had; most of them had probably even voted for this guy's particular party, so he was their minister. So they proceded to fawn: but in a very Israeli way. No servility, decorum, or awe. Quite on the contrary. One by one they ambled over to him and held a whispered conversation, leaning towards his ear while he held their shoulder, or vice versa, depending on whose ear. All the while broadcasting to the rest of us mortals that "Me and the minister? We go w-a-a-a-y-y-y back; each time we see each other he always asks my personal opinion about Important Things, and I'm always willing to help him out with my sage advice".

Contrarian that I am, I managed not even to look his way when at one point I had to pass right near him on the way out of the room. But he was too busy whispering into someone's ear to notice my lack of proper manners.

The Real Powerbroker. The day after the government minister and his goons had gotten into his fancy car and sailed off to a government meeting, I was sitting in a public dining room eating breakfast. At the next table sat two scruffy-lookng men. One, probably in his late 60s, was wearing neat jeans and a plaid shirt. The second one, maybe ten years his junior, had a large potbelly, simple dark blue shirt, and could easily have passed for a bus driver (no offense meant). As they discussed snatches of their conversation wafted over, especially when the busdriver's mobile phone rang and he shouted into it for a bit. The old chap, it appears, runs some mildly important public organization. The busdriver, it became clear, is considerably more powerful than that minister: he's an important member of Likud's central committee or however you translate Merkaz HaLikud. Think Mayor Daley the First, back in the 1950s and 1960s: the kind of fellow who can get a young unknown senator elected President against the incumbent Vice President. This fellow made it clear that if he needed, he'd instruct the Prime Minister, and Finance Minster, and Sheldon Edelson to appear at his shindig and spout the party line, or whatever line he needed them to spout. And if you don't know who Sheldon Edelson is, that merely proves how far from real power you are. Security goons are nice things to have; real power is nicer.

The Two Scholars: sitting in a cafe, two men talking earnestly. One, the younger, wearing the black kippa that identifies him as being American, Orthodox on the outside rim of the Haredi world, and well educated. The older one, quite bald, secular, and Sabra. They sat there for at least an hour, talking about the Book of Joshua.

Thursday, May 7, 2009


I'll be offline for a few days. But you can always read The Guardian if you're bored.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Khaled Meshaal to the New York Times

Khaled Meshaal has given an interview to the NYT.

I'm on the record saying Israel should talk to Hamas, if they can find anything to talk about. Moreover, if Hamas ceases to be Hamas and is willing to make peace with Israel on terms Israel can live with, great. I'm all for it. The positions in this interview don't sound like them, however:
He repeated that he would not recognize Israel, saying to fellow Arab
leaders, “There is only one enemy in the region, and that is Israel.”

But he urged outsiders to ignore the Hamas charter, which calls for the
obliteration of Israel through jihad and cites as fact the infamous anti-Semitic
forgery, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” Mr. Meshal did not offer to revoke the
charter, but said it was 20 years old, adding, “We are shaped by our
experiences.” On the two-state solution sought by the Americans, he said:
“We are with a state on the 1967 borders, based on a long-term truce. This
includes East Jerusalem, the dismantling of settlements and the right of return
of the Palestinian refugees.” Asked what “long-term” meant, he said 10

Regular readers will be able to read his codes without my help.

Monday, May 4, 2009


Glenn Greenwald seems not to like Israel much. It's not a major theme for him, at least not in the month or two since I started watching him, but it slips through from time to time. The other day he posted some comments which are useful for the insights they offer into his own Weltanschauung, even while not saying much about Israel or America's Jews. His title was The need of the most powerful to turn themselves into victims, and it was a critique of, in this order, Jeffery Goldberg, AIPAC, Israel, Republicans in general, and AIPAC.

His post purports to be about the dropping of criminal charges against two former AIPAC employees, but it's actually about a much more fundamental subject, which is why it's interesting. First, he sets up his argument by quoting Jeffry Goldberg's post on the matter:
The Justice Department is asking a federal judge to dismiss all charges against Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman in the AIPAC leak case. It's about time. It was an idiotic case to begin with; the men were being prosecuted (under an ancient, seldom-used law) for receiving classified information passed orally -- not even on paper -- from a government stooge, and then passing it on to a reporter and to an official from the Israeli embassy. I'll gather up some reaction later, but suffice it to say that this day was long overdue. Rosen and Weissman did what a thousand reporters in Washington do everyday, hear about information that's technically classified. The only difference is that these two worked for a demonized lobby.

It's a sad day for the Walts and Mearsheimers of the world, who believe that AIPAC is a treasonous organization, and it's a sad day for AIPAC too, because it abandoned the two men to the fates when it should have stood by them. More to come.
The italics are Greenwalds', and straightaway he launches into Goldberg (another one of his pet dislikes):
The idea that AIPAC is a "demonized lobby" that is treated unfairly in the United States generally -- or by the Bush administration specifically, which commenced the prosecutions -- has to be one of the biggest jokes ever to appear in anything having to do with The Atlantic. What other lobbying organization can boast of summoning to its Conference half of the U.S. Congress -- as bipartisan a cast as possible -- along with the Vice President, following the visit last year by Obama, who read faithfully from the organization's script? With rare exception, Congressional action that AIPAC demands -- even on as controversial matter as the Israeli attack on Gaza -- not only passes the Congress, but often with virtual unanimity. Is there anyone who disputes that AIPAC is one of the most influential and powerful lobbying groups in the U.S., if not the most influential and powerful?
It's easy to point out two problems with Greenwald's argumentation. First, the assumption that being powerful contradicts being demonized, which is of course tosh. Logically there is no necessary connection one way or the other; factually, the powerful are often also demonized. Someday Greenwald might wish to learn a European language - German, say, or French, or British - and travel incognito through a land where it's spoken, and experience the extent to which his extremely powerful country is demonized irrespective of who its president is. The second is that being demonized can be objectively measured. I don't have the time patience or motivation, but it would be easy to pick a definition of demonization, and then use it to test if AIPAC is or isn't, if Israel is or isn't. (The former is easy, the latter is a no-brainer). Meryl Yourish sometimes does little research projects like that: be my guest if you wish, Meryl.

Greenwald continues:
Just ponder the depths of irrationality and pathological persecution complex -- the desperate need to self-victimize -- necessary to claim that AIPAC, of all entities, is "demonized" and treated unfairly by the U.S. Government. AIPAC. But that's the self-pitying, self-absorbed syndrome that drives so much of our political discourse (an amazingly high percentage of right-wing political dialogue in particular adheres to this formula: "I am X and X is treated so very unfairly" -- where X is virtually always among the groups wielding the most power: American, white, Christian, Republican, male, etc. etc.). It's the same mentality that leads people to insist that the true victim in the Middle East is the same country that, by far, possesses the greatest military might and uses it most often. It's a bizarre process of inversion where those who are most powerful insist on claiming that they are the weakest, most vulnerable and most oppressed.
Again, two comments. The first is that he seems to have his causes and effects reversed and his chronology backwards. I can't say about his vaguely described Republicans, but the Jews, who eventually invented both Israel and later also AIPAC, did so only after millennia of well documented persecution and demonization, and as a response to them. The real question is why it took them so long, far longer than most nations have existed, to decide that a bulwark against persecution might be to have power. First came the demonization, then the persecution, and only much much later the power to combat them.

The real reason I'm writing this post, however, is to comment on his extremely illuminating formulation "Just ponder the depths of irrationality and pathological persecution complex -- the desperate need to self-victimize". This is one of the more powerful themes of our age: the weak are victimized, victimhood commands the moral high ground, so everyone competes to have it, while pushing aside everyone else in their mad charge for its throne.

The response to which is that victimhood is not a moral category. Morality is a function of the decisions we make, which is why being perpetrators of crimes is evil, and choosing to be inactive bystanders can also be, but being a victim doesn't automatically convey anything. The only way being a victim can carry moral weight is when the victims can choose how to respond - and the ones who choose wrong are... wrong. Not right.

In Greenwald's Weltanschauung, however, choice isn't the issue; one's identity is; the group one belongs to; and the degree of blame that can be apportioned to it. Victims are right by virtue of belonging to the correct group. Moreover, since he sees the world this way, he assumes we all do. Since being victims is so positive, he's convinced we're all striving for the victim's mantle.

We're not. I can't speak for all Israelis nor all AIPACians, but I think most of them would agree with me that Israel is indeed powerful and will remain so, while facing diverse enemies some of whom are obscenely evil because of their decisions. We're not victims, we're at war, and what makes us right isn't our status on some non-existent scale of victimhood, but rather the decisions we make.

In Hebrew we've got a saying that al rosh haganav boer hakova, which can be roughly translated to mean that too much protesting indicates a bad conscience. When Greenwald and his ideological comrades protest loudly about our striving for victimhood, they tell nothing about us, but speak volumes about themselves and their understanding of morality.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Leaving Rajar

Haaretz tells that Netanyahu is preparing a "concession" for the Americans as he prepares for his first meeting with Obama later this month: Israel will evacuate the northern part of the town of Rajar (spelled Ghajar in the article):
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is likely to announce this week that Israel is interested in withdrawing from the northern part of the village of Ghajar on the border with Lebanon.

A senior political source in Jerusalem said on Saturday that Netanyahu wants to respond to the American request on the matter; the move would also be a goodwill gesture to the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora ahead of Lebanese parliamentary elections in early June.
So far, so good. Except there's an unexpected snag:
The withdrawal from the northern part of the village is not expected to take place before the Lebanese elections because of the high number of petitions village residents are expected to file with the High Court of Justice against the pullback.
Huh? Aren't Arabs supposed to be deeply offended and humiliated by cruel Israeli colonial Occupation? Aren't they persecuted, forced to live as second class citizens? Don't they all uniformly yearn to be free of the oppressive Israeli yoke? What kind of poor joke is it to claim some of them might go to the (Israeli) High Court of Justice to force the Israeli government to keep them inside Israel?

Many Palestinians undoubtedly feel this way, though probably not tens of thousands or more of the ones in East Jerusalem. And the townspeople of Rajar are an even stranger story.

Until 1967 Rajar was a village at the meeting point of Syria, Lebanon and Israel, on the Syrian side. Yet even then it was cut off from Syria by the shoulder of Mount Hermon, and its neighbors were the Lebanese villages of Marg Ayoun and its surroundings - and also the Israeli villages just across the line. During the last hours of the Six Day War the town elders sent a delegation to the Israelis calling their attention to the fact that they were notionally part of the Golan, and thus must now be under Israeli rule.

In 1981, when Israel effectively annexed the Golan, it's people were offered full Israeli citizenship. Most of the Druze on the Golan rejected the offer (some accepted); the townspeople of Rajar, however, mostly accepted. Many of them even joined Likud. Between 1982 and 2000 the Lebanese side of the border was also controlled by Israel. Rajar, sitting right on the line, grew northwards because that was topographically the easiest direction to build in. In 2000 when Israel asked the UN to draw the exact line to which it should draw back its forces when unilaterally leaving Lebanon, the UN surveyors drew the line right through the middle of Rajar. (I was there after the removal of Israel's troops from Lebanon, and we crossed the line without ever noticing it; only after we'd left the town and I looked at a map was it clear).

I wrote about this in Right to Exist, and summed it up by telling of the Syrian Likudnik Israelis who live in Lebanon.

I'm not certain what Netanyahu is proposing to do, beyond putting on a show. Israeli troops don't go into the northern part of Rajar since 2000, because it's in Lebanon. So what's the "concession"? That a wall be built through the middle of town, along the Lebanese-Golan border? Turn over the whole town to Lebanon including the Syrian parts of it? And what will happen to the Israeli citizens who live there? Complicated.

Memory of the Jews, in Berlin

Edward Rothstein visited some of the museums and memorials to the Jews one can find in Berlin (he missed the most poignant of all, at the train station in Gruenewald). His thesis, in a nutshell: bigger and bombastic is worse than small simple and focused.

He didn't find a case of big and focused, so that angle isn't tested, but for what he saw he's certainly right. Big and bombastic is bad. Which reminds me I have a review of Yad Vashem's new(ish) museum somewhere on my hard disk; maybe I should dust it off and post it someday.

On Genius

Last month I linked to an article in The Economist about autism and genius. The writer noted in passing that 10,000 hours of practice will give anyone a genius-like edge over the rest of us plodders. David Brooks at the NYT has read the books that Economist writer was alluding to, and reports that they've convinced him; indeed, 10,000 hours of practice will do the trick (along with a couple of other beneficial legs-up).

Coyle and Colvin describe dozens of experiments fleshing out this process. This research takes some of the magic out of great achievement. But it underlines a fact that is often neglected. Public discussion is smitten by genetics and what we’re “hard-wired” to do. And it’s true that genes place a leash on our capacities. But the brain is also phenomenally plastic. We construct ourselves through behavior. As Coyle observes, it’s not who you are, it’s what you do.

Well, I certainly prefer "what you do over what you are" as a general proposition which puts moral responsibility solidly where it belongs - on people - and not where it doesn't. Society, genes, race, nationality and all those "other" places we don't control and thus can't be held to account for. Still, while I like Brook's sentiments, and unlike him I haven't read the books, I find it hard to accept it's only a matter what we choose to do. Some people are smarter than others. Some are way smarter. I know quite a few people who are way smart, and I've noticed they tend to be way beyond the rest of us in all sorts of fields simultaneously, including fields they never practiced in at all. I've also met folks who are hard-working and focused on what they do, but still they aren't intelligent. Live with it.

So my adaption to Brook's comment would be , it's not who you are, it's what you make of who you are.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Michael Oren!

Michael Oren, author of Six Days of War, and Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Present, will tomorrow be officially confirmed as Israel's ambassador to the United States. I've known Michael, off and on, since he was a graduate student, and can tell of his engaging communications skills and wide knowledge.

It's not clear what ambassadors are for these days, but the Israeli ambassador in Washington plays an important role in explaining Israel's positions to the American political class, media, and public; I can't think of anyone better qualified to do this than Michael. Besides being an engaging speaker and a compelling writer, he knows more about Israel's history than about 99.9% of people, he knows more about American involvement in the Mideast than about 99.999% of people (he wrote the single most important book on the subject), and as an Arabic-speaking Mideast expert, he knows more about the Arab world than most Westerners (I'd say, easily 99.9% of them).

He was in the early stages of writting yet another an important book, which now will be suspended, alas, but if Netanyahu's government lasts a while and does anything of significance, Michael will have insights from the eye of the storm, so I expect we'll eventually get a fine book about that.

Good Luck Michael!

Friday, May 1, 2009

Quality or PR?

Back when I was a wee lad, quite some years ago, I was staunchly convinced quality beat public relations; I truly expected that if anyone was really good he (or she) would rise to the top based merely on the quality of their abilities. Since in the days of my wee-dom advertising executives enjoyed the status that Wall Street humbugs enjoyed in 2007, you can see that I was a contrarian even then.

Then life taught me otherwise. Quality is a fine thing, surely, but PR is better, and sharp elbows are bestest, especially when used to create fine PR to cover one's pushiness.

I have just finished reading the second book in a row that claims that quality is a necessary condition for success. The first, which I mentioned a while ago, was Guy Kawasaki's The Art of Start. The second is even more troubling, as it focuses entirely on how to get word out to the masses: Emanual Rosen's The Anatomy of Buzz Revisited; Real-life Lessons in Word-of-Mouth Marketing.

I must say this insistence on an idea I gave up on many years ago is disconcerting.