Sunday, February 28, 2010

Another Complicated Jew

Here's a story about an Orthodox Jew who used to be a neo-Nazi: actually two of them, if you can believe it. (It's in the newspaper, so it's got to be true, right?)

Beyond the individual oddity is a story about Poland, which my own anecdotal experience indicates is about right: the antisemitism is down, the support for Israel is palpable, and history takes strange twists and turns sometimes, doesn't it.

A Complicated Jew on Complicated Jews

Imagine a Catholic orphaned from murdered Jewish parents who thought they were Catholic, who narrowly survives and becomes a priest, spends a long career on the fault-line where Christians and Jews gingerly investigate the historical basis of their differences of opinions, then becomes a Jew and writes about it all in a calm, intelligent and balanced manner. Ah, and his subject matter is the single most important archeological finding of the 20th century, which itself shed some light, but not enough, on one of the strangest groups of Jews ever, if Jews they were; perhaps they were proto-Christians, or outcasts who served as an inspiration for someone, or perhaps they weren't at all. You might be likely to read his book, wouldn't you?

Geza Vermes, The Story of the Scrolls. The Miraculous Discovery and True Significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Not on sale in America, it seems, but you can buy it on If you need more prodding, here's a review that should do the job.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Guardian of the Falklands

The British and Argentinians are bickering about the Falklands, again. While no one expects them to start shooting, they are serious, not because of 2,500 Englishmen who live on the islands, nor because the islands are closer to Argentina than to the UK, but because there's oil nearby.

The historical claims of both sides stem from colonial pasts. The British have been coming and going since the late 16th century, perhaps, and the Spanish were in the picture since sometime in the late 18th century. The Argentinian claim flows from the Spanish one, apparently; no-one says they've been there from time immemorial or anything. If you're into damning colonialism - as some are - you're best bet is to wish for a pox on both their houses.

The Guardian is vehemently into damning colonialism. It's one of their favorite themes. On this one, however, they're a bit choosy: The British claim, they say, is a colonial vestige, so it should be dropped. (In favor of the Spanish colonial claim). Heh.

Ethan Bronner on Jerusalem

Remember the recent spat about how Ethan Bronner, the top NYT fellow in Israel and Palestine, must or must not be removed since his son has joined the IDF?

Today he's got an article about the development plans our mayor, Nir Barket, is trying to implement in a corner of East Jerusalem you've never heard of, al-Bustan. So far as I can see, Bronner's report is what's called balanced. He talked to the mayor, he talked to some Palestinian residents who will be affected if the plan goes through, he doesn't state an opinion of his own and so far as I can see, he doesn't imply one, either. Here's an issue; here's what one side says, here's what the other side says. I report, you decide.

Professional journalism.

There's only one problem: since you've never heard of al-Bustan before, you come away from this report with exactly no more understanding than before you read it. If you don't believe me, here's an intellectual exercise: Pretend you can be beamed over to this al-Bustan place, along with a group of intelligent folks who know nothing about the matter, and while standing in the middle of it you've got to explain to them what's going on, and answer their follow-up questions. You won't be able to, will you. Of course not.

That's professional journalism for you.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Jewish Review of Books

Hardly had Queen Victoria been laid to rest, some Englishmen started publishing a review of books at The Times. This was 1902. A few years later the publication became independent, as the Times Literary Supplement (TLS), though these days its Web presence is back at the Times. Along the way (1979, perhaps?) there was a fracas which gave birth to the London Review of Books. I don't dabble in all this enough to know which is the more important of the two.

Meanwhile, across the pond in New York, a group of rebels took advantage of a fracas of their own, and while the New York Times was temporarily shut down for strikers or some such, they launched a new review of their own: the New York Review of Books. This was in the early 1960s, and if you're into gossip about such matters it might tickle you to hear that the early editions of the LondonRB came out as a supplement to the NewYorkRB (I don't know how they justified calling it London, but perhaps literary types needn't be over-much bothered by earthly details.)

I sometimes read the NYRB and even cite articles here on Ruminations; I very rarely look at the London ones. I expect most all of them don't much like Israel and Zionism, but I'm not certain how much they like America, either, so I don't take much offense.

The Jews ("the Jews"?) have now decided they, too, need a Review of Books. I always thought the NYRB was a Jewish publication of course, but now there's an explicitly Jewish one; it's even called the Jewish Review of Books.

The first issue is just out, and online (I don't know how the publisher expects to make money), and has some interesting items. Yair Rosenberg, a student at Harvard who obviously gets all the insider jokes reviews Srugim, the popular Israeli non-response to Sex in the City. It's a different Harvard than it used to be. Shlomo Avineri, who could easily be the first reviewer's grandfather, reports on Dennis Ross and David Makovski's Myths, Illusions, and Peace: Finding a New Direction for America in the Middle East. Avineri liked the book, but my synopsis of his synopsis is: There isn't much America can do about the Middle East, though it could make matters worse.

And then there's a review by one Azzan Yadin about a new English translation of the Bible, or rather, of the Mikraot Gedolot version of the Pentateuch. Yadin isn't gentle. He says the translation tries to make the texts simple and accessible to modern English readers, but they aren't: not simple, and not easily accessible. They need to be worked at to be appreciated. I recommend his review for the information it gives, but if you'd like to deal with the texts themselves, I'm sorry to report you'll have to read them in Hebrew, and you'll have to work at them.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Tikkun Olam, Zionism, History, and the Jewish Problem

A reader ("nycerbarb") sent me to this fine article by one Rabbi Jill Jacobs. Jacobs tells the history of the Tikkun Olam idea from its earliest appearance in Second Temple times - i.e, post-Biblical - and shows how it has meant different things at different times. She is unabashed in saying the present term stands for an American ideal, first used in the 1950s. She likes this usage, and shows that the four main earlier meanings can, if you wish, be understood as contributing to the present one.

Her history is fine, so far as I can judge. Her reasoning is, well, reasonable. A bit contrived at times, for my taste, but most peoples' reasoning is a bit contrived from time to time. Having Googled a bit I get the feeling Rabbi Jacobs and I might not agree on some things, including some rather important things, but I have real respect for her ability to make her case from a position of serious learning and knowing.

Then there's the matter of universality. American Jews - like European Jews a century earlier - are into it. They'd like to do things that may make the world fixed. Some of the prophets looked forward to the world one day being all fixed, and their formulations count as the most rousing ever, though their avenue to perfection ran along a religious path quite different from their modern disciples'. Since then, however, Jews have mostly concentrated on the same things other people focused on: doing their best in the world they lived in. Sometime in the 18th century some Jews began setting aside the communal and national frameworks (the prophets had never done that) so as to focus mainly on the universal. Moses Mendelsohn was an early proponent, Rosa Luxemburg was an extreme one, and Leon (Bronstein) Trotsky was an extreme example of how wishing to force the matter leads to mass death.

Still, for all the examples we'd prefer to forget, American Jewry can be said, by in large, to be informed by a version of this impetus, this wish to fix the world; nor is there anything intrinsically wrong with it. Israel is informed by a different vision, the one that recognized in the late 19th century that new world orders were all well and fine but the Jews wouldn't be allowed to fit into them, or in the case of the early socialist Zionists, the Jews might be allowed, but only if they came to the table as a viable nation, like everybody else.

As a committed Zionist myself, I can see that both visions of society have roots in Jewish history and thought; it seems to me that the one that aims at the Jews being actors in history is more compelling than the one that would have history become something else. This seems to me closer to the essence of Judaism, but also to the reality of the human condition. Jill Jacobs might think otherwise, and we could have a good argument about it - nothing is more Jewish than that, after all.

Damned if You Do, Damned if You Do Otherwise

It's easy to get the impression that Israel's critics will castigate it no matter what it does (short of disbanding: there would be muted satisfaction if that happened. For at least two days).

Remember how not long ago Richard Goldstone explained that although everything Israel had done in Gaza was awful, commando units taking out individual Hamas commanders would have been alright. Well, perhaps that's what recently happened to that fellow with the false identity in Dubai.

If Goldstone did any applauding, I didn't hear of it.

Mitchell Cohen has some thoughts on the matter here. Cohen, I'm told, has impeccable credentials on the (sane) American Left. I've decided to tag this as yet another indication that reasonable people often do see the fundamental structures of reality. (h/t Michael)
Let's assume for the sake of argument that the Israelis did it. But let's also bracket howls by those who would find a way to blame the "Zionist entity" if Mars swerved off orbit and crashed into Jupiter. Hamas and Israel are at war. Both say so. Al-Mabhouh was a founder of the military wing of Hamas, was responsible for the deaths of Israelis, wanted deaths of many more of them, and was a key intermediary between Hamas and Iran. Tehran supplies Gaza's fundamentalist rulers with weapons like longer range missiles; its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, inveighs regularly that the Jewish state should vanish from the earth (like the Holocaust, which never happened anyway, should disappear from memory). Exactly why is a holy warrior like al-Mahbouh not a legitimate target?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Subtlety at CiF

Much of the antisemtism at the Guardian isn't very subtle. Yesterday, however, one of the CiFWatch team called my attention to this example: all the moderator did was to remove the link to MEMRI (which, by the way, is, and an important website it is). One little snip, one reduced chance that anyone will stumble across a resource the Guardian doesn't want people looking at. Visit them often. Visit them less.

Can ALS be Stopped?

ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, is a horrible way to die, as Tony Judt has been describing with harrowing detail in the New York Review of Books. Were someone to find a way to stop it, or possibly even to cure it, the world would be a better place.

Some Israeli scientists, entrepreneurs and doctors are trying. Here's hoping.

A Dynasty that Still Lives

The Davidian dynasty can be traced, generation by generation, for about 1,500 years, from Boaz and Ruth in the 11 century BCE all the way to the leaders of the Jewish community in Babylon in the fourth century CE.

How much of it can be scientifically demonstrated, I do not know. The existence of King David himself was proven by an archeological finding at Tel Dan just a few years ago. Here's a new story, in which Eilat Mazar, an archeologist digging in Jerusalem, says she has found a wall of the city that was constructed by Solomon.

The item notes that not all archeologists will welcome this interpretation of the finding, since some of them regard the Biblical stories of the Davidian kingdom as unreliable. It's an argument which has been raging in the academic journals for the past 20 years, perhaps more. My impression is that the conservatives, the ones who credit the Bible with greater reliability, are slowly gaining ground (no pun intended), but then again, that's also where my preferences would naturally lie, and I'm not reading all the academic stuff, so who knows.

Disagreeing about the House of David is not a new pastime. Just this morning I passed a section in the Sanhedrin tractate in which rabbis from the second and fourth centuries CE tired to agree on how it could have been that David wedded both Meirav and Michal, two daughters of Saul: wedding sisters is forbidden. (Yes, I've heard of Leah and Rachel, but that's a different story). One possibility is that Meirav died before Michal was wedded, another possibility is that there was a legal screw up in which Meirav ended up never wedding David, and the Gemarah hacks away at it for about a page. The axiom of the discussion is that these ancient Biblical figures were organizing their lives according to the very detailed rules being formulated in the Mishnaic era - an improbable assumption. Yet the attempt to look back 1,400 years and fit old events into a contemporary legal framework is ultimately no more silly than peering back 3,000 years so as to fit them into a contemporary political one, is it?

(Sanhedrin 19b)

Monday, February 22, 2010

Good News, Too

My English is reasonable, I travel to the US once a year if not more often, some of my best friends are Americans and I often spend time with Americans who visit Israel. I also spend time almost daily reading American websites. Having said all that, it's almost impossible for me to gauge what the proverbial "man on the street" thinks about most matters, including what people really think about Israel. Are the loonies on Mondoweis gaining traction, as they continuously crow? Was the war in Gaza a crucial and negative turning point, as Andrew says? Are thugs who shout down Israeli public figures at universities marginal, or is the silent majority willing to let them do their thing out of a lazy agreement with their sentiments? These things are not easy to know from afar, just as well-meaning American Jews can't easily know that criticism of the NIF has nothing to do with McCarthyism, and everything to do with Israeli society turning on its home-grown enemies.

In this spirit of uncertainly, here are a couple of indicators of the nice kind.

Americans rather like Israel.

The Jewish community of San Fransisco (San Francisco!) is more clear-minded about Israel than some of the locals might have you believe (h/t David B).

Sloppy Logic at the NIF

Here's an addendum to the NIF story we wasted too much time on a couple weeks ago.

Eventually the NIF got around to publishing a rebuttal to the Im Tirzu report. You can download the full report here, but it's in Hebrew only - which is odd, since these organizations publish almost all their documents in English.

It's important that the NIF responded, because their initial reaction was to use legal measures to shut down the Im Tirzu campaign, hardly an honorable response that, and then to concentrate their ire on the form of the criticism against them, not its substance. Yet their responses now are hardly satisfying.

I haven't read the entire 112-page ImTirzu report. My understanding of their thesis, however, was never "absent NIF there'd have been no Goldstone Report", which would have been a silly idea. What they were claiming was that the NIF-NGOs, unlike the other Israeli entities cited by the Goldstone Report, set themselves firmly in the critical-of-Israel camp. This claim is so obviously true it's hard to see why anyone would even try to refute it; may I remind us all that back in June 2009, as the Goldstone team was just beginning to operate, a coalition of these Israeli NGOs essentially said this themselves in a document they submitted to Goldstone and put on their websites (here's the ACRI version, and here's my reading of that document, from August).

The English version of the NIF response is here, and a synopsis of the 29-page rebuttal report is here. It just so happens that I responded to the synopsis on February 10th, the very day it was posted, and my response is still there, so I don't need to repeat it here. As for the NIF response, it seems to me mostly irrelevant. No-one is claiming the NIF does nothing of any value in Israel, rather that they do good and bad simultaneously; enumerating the good is therefore besides the point. Except here:
We challenge Im Tirtzu, NGO Monitor and other NIF critics to demonstrate the value of their contributions to Sderot.
Why are the actions of their critics relevant? It's the NIF that needs to respond, not their critics.

Since the NIF response enumerates fine things they've done in and around Sderot, however, they do open themselves to an additional line of questioning: Have any of their NGOs ever, at any point since 2001 when the attacks on Sderot began, demanded of the Israeli government that it protect the Sderotians from the infractions of their human rights? The NGOs under attack produce an endless stream of reports, court petitions, demonstrations and so on demanding that Israel treat the Palestinians better; have they ever taken similar action so that the Israeli government protect Israeli citizens?

Journalism: Inventing a Story from Whole Cloth

Amira Hass has a story about how the Israeli authorities are building roads and roadblocks that will sever East Jerusalem from the West Bank. Set aside the matter that the evidence she offers doesn't lead to the conclusion, even if it were all true, she offers no demonstration of its truth. On the contrary. The entire article is based upon conjecture by Palestinians about Israeli actions. Only at the end of the item does Hass quickly tell that the few Israeli officials she has asked all deny the allegations; her answer to that is to wink and snicker: after all, we wouldn't want to believe Israeli officials, would we.

That's Amira Hass, and her audience will lap it up, as is their wont. What about the paper's editors, you ask? After all, if a government ministry (transportation or defense) or the municipality (Jerusalem) are engaged in spending public money on highly visible construction projects, you'd think a reporter for the country's (purportedly) best newspaper might be able to find some official record about what's going on; perhaps even insist upon it before publishing a story.

You'd be wrong.

Lots of Kids

Yitta Schwartz, Holocaust survivor, has passed away in New York leaving some 2,000 (two thousand) living descendants.

The vagueness about the precise number is, I expect, the result of a superstition some Jews have about not counting one's grandchildren (or in this case, great grandchildren and great great grandchildren). Still, if you do the maths, in a society with an average of 9 children per family, a woman who has 15 who live into adulthood wouldn't have much problem of reaching 200 grandchildren, and from there on, adding another 1,800 is easy.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

To Refute, not to Silence

The Andrew Sullivan-Leon Wieseltier spat is not particularly important, for all its going on for an entire week. However, Wieseltier's second installment contains some valuable linguistic distinctions that need to be understood and employed when Israel's enemies do their "offended, threatened and martyred act":
To the best of my recollection, I have never characterized Mearsheimer and Walt, or anybody else, as “the modern equivalent of Der Sturmer.” And of course AIPAC “has massive influence in Congress”--but that is hardly all that Mearsheimer and Walt claim! Anyway, they, and Sullivan, have the right to say any damn thing they want about AIPAC, and Israel, and Jews. And I have the right to respond as strictly and as definitively as I can. I do not wish to silence them, I wish to refute them. I also do not wish to allow them to enjoy the sanctuary of the piously skinless. People who give offense will get offense. I appreciate the delicacy, or rather the indelicacy, of my allegation about Sullivan. I did not propose that he is an anti-Semite. I did propose that the scorn and the fury that characterizes his discussion of Israel and some of its Jewish supporters is wholly unwarranted by the requirements of a critical analysis of the settlements or the Gaza war, and that it may therefore be mistaken for bigotry. (There are conservative opponents of what they virulently call “the gay agenda” who should not be surprised if they have to defend themselves against the charge of homophobia, even if they are not homophobic.) If I should be more careful about the question of anti-Semitism, so should Sullivan. He complacently says that on this score “I did my best.” No, he did not. There is a lot of this prejudice in the world right now, and this is really no time to be sloppy, or South Parky, about it. Sullivan is correct that there is not much difference between our views about the settlements and Israeli brutality in Gaza and the ideological orientation of the Likud--but there is all the difference in the world, because I have labored to provide an example of what Michael Walzer has described as “connected criticism,” of criticism that cannot be mistaken for enmity. (This does not mean that enmity is not allowed. It does mean that enmity cannot pose as friendship.)

Fixing the World

I'm largely offline for a spot. However, you might want to have a glance at this item at the Forward. It's a list of 10 rising Jewish-American politicians to watch in the November elections. A majority of them say their motivation is Tikkun Olam. Now as I've said repeatedly in the past, Tikkun Olam in Jewish tradition didn't mostly mean what these folks think it means; theirs is largely am American sentiment dressed up to look like a traditional Jewish tradition.

I'm not saying it isn't a fine sentiment, the wish to fix the world, and it does, of course, have Jewish roots; still, it's interesting, this direction American Jewry seems to be taking.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Ungovernable. Perhaps.

After WW2 France seemed ungovernable. After fiddling with various things, the French re-tooled their form of government (and some other things, too), and things got vastly better.

In the 1980s Israel seemed ungovernable. We fiddled with various things, re-tooled our electoral system, the result was even worse than before, we went back to the original system - and things got better. Or rather, they got lots worse on other fronts (the 2nd Intifada started, for example) but it turned out the old-new system was working fine.

Sometimes changing the system fixes things. Sometimes not. It depends what the original problem had been.

The Economist discusses the political system in America, and wonders if it needs fixing or perhaps not.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Broad Understanding of War

One Melanie Ried, whom I've never heard of before, thinks well of the Israelis for serving their own interests.
It is an unfashionable thing to say, but I have a considerable admiration for the Israeli way of doing things. They want something, they get it. They perceive someone as their deadly enemy, they kill them. They get hit, they hit back. They don’t waste time explaining or justifying or agonising; nor do they allow their detractors to enter their country and then afford them generous welfare payments. They just act. No messing. No scruples. Not even a shrug and a denial, just a rather magnificent refusal to debate anything.

This absolutism, based on their history, carries its own moral weight; one that is rather electrifying in a Western world grown flabby with niceties. Clearly, the Israelis could defend their policies if they wanted to, but they quite simply can’t be bothered. It’s a waste of breath. One admires them for that, too.

She goes a bit overboard, alas, but it's nice when a Scottish lady from another world gushes about us: unusual, too. Equally interesting are the comments. Quite a number of them are by the kind of reasonable folks who recognize that war is an unsavory phenomenon that calls for actions you otherwise wouldn't do, but if you're forced to be at war, there's no choice. From my perch here in Jerusalem it's hard to know how common such sentiments are or aren't.

Then there's this description (from the Guardian!), about the enemies of the West in Afghanistan, and how they're not nice and don't play fair. As I've said, the more such descriptions become common in Western media, the more reasonable people will begin to make the connection to Israel's enemies and challenges. Good.

More About Sheikh Jarrah

As I mentioned yesterday, I'm trying to figure out what's really going on in Sheikh Jarrah. Some of the people I turned to refused to cooperate. Perhaps they have no interest in the simple facts, shorn of slogans. Others, however, were quite helpful.

Here are two resources of interest: Ir Amin has a description of the case here, seen from the Left, and the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs has a survey here, seen from the Right. (h/t Dror and Joseph).

The more I look into the matter, the more complicated it becomes; this is not only because there's ever more to learn, but also because the story is still happening. Indeed, since there's very little argument left about the West Bank, which everyone knows will eventually become part of Palestine if the Palestinians ever decide they really want sovereignty, Jerusalem is coming into focus as a major issue. However, here's a quick list of things I've learned:

1. Yes, there is legal discrimination. It was never legislated consciously, rather it's a loophole that evolved, but it hasn't been closed, either. Jews who once owned property that was taken over by the Jordanians in Jerusalem have some chance of recovering their property, while Arabs who once owned property that was taken over by the Israelis don't have a track to recover it. I was unaware of this, and am not proud of it now that I know it.

2. Yes there is political discrimination. Jews who purchase property on the market in East Jerusalem will face objections all the way to the President of the United States if they move into their property. Arabs who purchase property on the market in West Jerusalem can move in as soon as the movers are ready, and no-one will object. (Yes, I know such people personally).

3. The people organizations and governments who dislike the intricate legal process in Sheikh Jarrah are not interested in legalities. The Ir Amim report say this explicitly, as do many of their accomplices in effort. They'll use the law if it serves their purposes, or condemn it if it doesn't.

4. There's so much history it makes your head reel. The 4th-century BCE top Jewish leader who chatted with Alexander the Great (he actually probably didn't) lived on the same block as the charismatic Palestinian leader who may have chatted with Adolf Hitler about the need to add the Jews of Mandatory Palestine to the Final Solution (but he probably didn't. He did chat with Himmler, though).

I expect I'll have more on this as we go on. The story is quite alive.

On Human Imperfection

A few weeks ago the Economist reported on some research which had peered into the mechanisms of powerful men who feel themselves above the law.

Everyone expects this of American senators or junior British ministers. In Israel it used to be career officers, though it seems the army may be well into getting its act together; Haim Ramon was convicted of sexual harassment a few years ago... and of course, we've got a former President on trial for serial rape.

None of which prepared anyone for the case of Rabbi Mordechai Elon, who abruptly disappeared a few years ago amid vague rumors of ill health, and who suddenly this week was unveiled as having harassed at least one or two of his students. Moreover, the unveiling was not done by a police investigation (for whatever reason, there have been no complaints with which to involve the police). Rather, the story was broken by a group of highly respected volunteers who have taken the job of protecting youth from abuses by educators; they call themselves Takana, Correction.

I cannot overemphasize the impact of this story on the Modern Orthodox community in Israel. Everyone I know is reeling. (Here's a story from a former student of Elon that will give you a vague inkling, no more than a shadow). You can't even use the normal platitudes of "maybe it will turn out to be wrong", since then the accusers will have destroyed themselves, which would be an even greater shock.

I know many of the figures in this story, some of them since childhood. There is nothing important that I could say about the case itself, but there are social implications in various directions. I'm posting on this out of a feeling of integrity: I can't lambaste all sorts of worthy targets all the time, but remain silent when the problem is next door (almost literally next door). Once I've had time to work through the social implications, maybe I'll revisit the story.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Israel: Flourishing or Suicidal?

There's a fellow in Israel who sits more or less at the center of the so-called human-rights corner of Israeli society, the far-left folks who can find almost nothing good to say about Israel while talking endlessly about all the things it does wrong. As I've often estimated, there aren't more than 2-3,000 of these people, from close to 6 million Jews. Anyway, the fellow has an e-mail list, and he offers daily updates about the good and the bad. While I've never investigated, it's reasonable most of the activists in this radical corner of Israeli society are on his list. Today he announced that he'd just added readers 1000, 1001 and 1002.

Apparently my estimate isn't that far off.

Yet that tiny corner of our society has an enormous impact. How so? Well, look at a post by Andrew Sullivan yesterday, talking about his respect for Jeffrey Goldberg who has been uncomfortably critical of him (Andrew) recently.
I understand what Jeffrey endures on a regular basis and admire his courage in tackling difficult subjects nonetheless. Because he loves Israel; and Israel is committing a slow suicide. It is tough to watch. (my italics).
Israel is actually thriving. Economically, of course, but also demographically, culturally, and its politics is informed by a deep consensus of purpose the Americans (or Europeans) can only dream of. The list of things to kvetch about is longer than any imaginable arm, of course, but this shouldn't hide the fact that compared to any given moment over the past 2,000 years, what we've got right now is about as good as it gets.

Suicide? I think not. But if you're on that e-mail list or listen regularly to the people who are on it, it's not hard to see why you might think otherwise.

What is Going on in Sheikh Jarrah?

On the 11th of February the Hebrew edition of Haaretz carried an op-ed by Talia Sasson, a prominent former prosecutor. She seemed to be saying there's a legal loophole that is giving an advantage to Israelis trying to re-acquire pre-1948 property in East Jerusalem over non-Israeli citizens trying to re-acquire pre-1948 property in West Jerusalem, even if they live in Jerusalem. I'm not certain that's what she was saying, in the meantime the article is locked in the Haaretz archive so I can't link to it, and I'm not finding it in English. (If anyone finds it, feel free to post it).

This morning Karni Eldad writes the opposite: that the Jewish owners of pre-1948 property must purchase it a second time in order to claim ownership.

Confused? So am I. I've written to some folks I know who ought to be able to explain the intricacies. If they give me satisfactory answers I'll post them, whether their answers are what I'd prefer or not.

Mossad? Well, I Certainly Hope So.

Here's a story I heard long ago, as a graduate student. A famous historian approaches the archivist at the Public Record Office (that's what they used to call the British National Archives) and asks to see some files about MI5 (or was it MI6?). The scandalized archivist glares at him, and says that MI5 is a fictitious agency, it doesn't really exist and certainly has no documents in the PRO. Ah, says the professor, That's interesting. You see, I've got this document from the American National Archives in Washington, in which the OSS (the predecessor of the CIA) is corresponding with MI5 (or was it MI6?), and I thought I'd like to see the full context from the British perspective, too.

In the meantime the Brits have fessed up that there actually is an MI5 (and also an MI6). If you think we now know all about their escapades, well, I certainly hope not.

Lots of media outlets are all in a tizzy this week about the killing of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh recently in a hotel room in Dubai (Times, Guardian, BBC, NYT). Haaretz is in the same tizzy, with two opposing op-eds this morning. Amir Oren effectively says he know the Mossad did it, and calls for the resignation of Mossad chief Meir Dagan for screwing up the aftermath of the otherwise successful operation. Yossi Melman keeps his cool, and expects no governments will do anything about it that might effect Israel; it's not as if Hamas is real popular.

If you expect to learn anything new about the case here, you're way off. I know nothing more than the rest of you, which means, almost nothing. There seems no way to spin the dead man into a saintly character who gave candy to street urchins in Bombay, and the world is probably a teeny bit better for his departure, no matter who made it happen. If the Mossad doesn't do this sort of thing from time to time, their chief really ought to resign. We're at war, and an enemy has been killed; no civilians were even scratched. Good. If someone else did it, but the Mossad's reputation for lethality has been enhanced because of past cases, even better. In that case, the BBC and Guardian are doing Israel's work for it. Heh.

Zeitgeist, or Being Lemmings

We're in the process of exchanging cars this week. We're getting rid of a Toyota, and acquiring a Ford. Let no one accuse us of not following trends.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Victor's New Blog

Regular readers will be familiar with Victor, who often comments on this blog from his rather unusual perspective (Soviet born, lives in the American Midwest, has connections with Chabad and may even be one, works at a place I can't figure out, sometime chides me for not being right-wing enough, and so on.)

Well, he recently started his own blog: so go yee, and enjoy...

Learning About War

The more stories such as this one appear in the media, the more likely it is that reasonable regular sort of folks, the ones who aren't animated by this ideology or that, will begin to understand how war is waged these days. The more mainstream people understand this, the less audience there will be for the Goldtone reporters of the world. People will glance at their narrative, recognize how detached it is from reality, and move on. Remember how back in 2001, every Israeli targeted assassination of an enemy was automatically tagged as a breach of international law? Hard to image these days, isn't it, when targeted assassinations are the most commonly used tool of the Americans and their allies.

Close to the road and relative safety, soldiers saw a man in black walking. He was unarmed. They watched him in their scopes but did not shoot. Western forces in Afghanistan are operating under rules of engagement, or ROE, that restrict them from acting against people unless they commit a hostile act or show hostile intent. American troops say the Taliban can fire on them, then set aside their weapon and walk freely out of a compound, possibly toward a weapons cache in another location. "The inability to stop people who don't have weapons is the main hindrance right now," McMahon said after the firefight. "They know how to use our ROE against us." (h/t Silke)

Surviving Adversity

Many of Israel's enemies, including some home-grown ones, seem to feel that if enough pressure is brought to bear on the Jews, they'll give up on their national project and move "back" to where-ever, so long as it's far away. This is an odd preposition, with no evidence to back it up, but it seems to keep the Palestinians and many other Arabs hoping, and they undoubtedly garner satisfaction from Westerners and Jews who tell them eventually it'll work.

In week or two the Daf Yomi folks will pass this story, about obstinate perseverance in the face of the military might of the most powerful empire of the day, Rome. Many Jews grew up on the story, but in these days of limited Jewish education, perhaps many others haven't. I'm reasonably certain many of Israel's enemies don't know the story or the tradition it fits into, which is regrettable since they clearly underestimate how obstinate we can be. The story took place in the decade of 135-145 CE, most likely.

The Gemarah is discussing how judges are appointed, and they're examining the rule that only judges who have been accredited by three previously accredited judges may set fines.

-Really? So how to explain the story told by Rav Yehuda in the name of Rav? [Here's the story]
Blessed is the memory of Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava, for if not him, the laws of fines would have been forgotten.
- How forgotten? They could have been re-learned?
- Rather, the authority to apply them would have been abolished. Once the Roman rulers decreed that anyone who accredited judges [the word is smicha] would be killed, and anyone who received smicha would be killed, and any town where smicha was done would be destroyed, and any county were smicha happened would be razed. What did Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava do? He went to an empty spot between two mountains, between two towns between two counties in the area between Usha and Shfar'am, and there he did smicha for five scholars: Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Yossi and Rabbi ELiezer ben Shamua. Rav Avaya adds Rabbi Nechemia to the list. When they realized they'd been seen by the enemy, he said to them, Run, my sons! What will happen to you, they cried. He told them, I'm here like an unturned stone [perhaps this means I won't run, and they'll kill me but I won't feel it, as a stone feels no pain]. The Roman soldiers didn't let up until they had stabbed him with 300 spears.

The Gemarah isn't convinced: there were two additional judges there, but the story doesn't mention them because they were less important than Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava [so the story doesn't prove that a single judge can give smicha]

Another problem with the story:
Was Rabbi Meir accredited by Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava? Didn't Raba bar bar Hana teach us in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: Anyone who says Rabbi Meir wasn't given smicha by Rabbi Akiva, has it all wrong!
The Gemarah explains: Rabbi Akiva did give Rabbi Meir smicha, but he was too young at the time and it wasn't recognized, so he had to be given smicha again, this time by Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava.

The spot where this took place is still empty; you cross it when you take Route 6 north of the Barkai junction. Shfaram is an Arab-Druze town by the same name; Usha is a Jewish village.

[The daf Yomi thread starts and is explained here]

History Never Stops

And since it never stops, stories are rarely "over". For an extreme example, think of the poor Romans who thought they'd finally finished the story of those pesky Jews, back in the days of Hadrian. Guess they were wrong, huh?

On a vastly smaller scale, here's a fascinating story that Stephen Farrell of the NYT dug up in his newspaper's archive: Apparently the town the Americans and others are battling in this week, Marja, was invented a mere 50-some years ago. By well-meaning Americans. Also Nad-i-Ali, where an American missile accidentally killed 12 civilians two days ago. Wesley Morgan, a young man moonlighting for the NYT in the battle zone, follows up on Farrell's story with real-life evidence.


Farrell's story is then commented on by lots of readers, who go through the usual gamut of navel-gazing we're-the-center-of-the-world introspection: history happens because Americans are nice, or because they're not nice, and so on. So predictable, so uninformed, so uninterested in history... and so boring.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Arrest Me if You Dare

The London Times speculates that Tzipi Livni is mulling a trip to the UK to provoke her arrest on war crimes charges.

How long would she sit in the clinker - a day? 6 hours? Her popularity would go stratospheric (due disclosure: I voted for her), the UK leaders presiding over the war in Aghanistan in which civilians are tragically being killed would be shamed to change their silly rules, Netanyahu would be forced to praise her (hee hee), and she'd still be home before Shabbat.

Sounds like a fine publicity stunt to me.

A Lethal Obsession

Robert Wistrich is the archetype of the scholar. He speaks English with an Oxford accent, Hebrew like a Sabra, German like a yekke, and his French and Russian sound to me fully convincing. He probably speaks some additional languages, too. He has read any book or article relevant to his field, and the field is rather broad. He has written something like 20 books.

His newest book,A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad just came out last month. It's more than a thousand pages long. The other day I saw a copy, and you wouldn't wish it to fall on your toe.

In spite of the title, it apparently focuses not on the longevity of Jew hatred, but on its post-Holocaust vitality. Anyone who wishes to speak with authority on this topic, must read the book, even though it will take a bit of effort. That's how one acquires authority: by working at it.

If you'd like to know about the thesis without the major effort, here's a fine review by Jeffrey Herf. (h/t Silke)
When Hitler made his famous threat to exterminate Europe’s Jews in 1939, many Western political observers did not believe he meant what he said. It was too incredible and without precedent. No political leader before had so bluntly and publicly announced his intention to engage in mass murder. And so the disgust that greeted Hitler was mixed with disbelief. But the leaders of our own time do not have the excuse of incredulity. As much as any historian can, Robert Wistrich has documented the fact that radical anti-Semitism is in earnest, that its geographic and cultural center of gravity has shifted, and that it has again become a factor in world politics. The advocates of this disgusting doctrine have the power from which to make good on their threats.

Sunday, February 14, 2010


The IDF is working with Human Rights Watch to figure out what really happened in Gaza last year. There are apparently a number of cases where HRW made allegations about cases the IDF wasn't aware of, or had different versions, so the IDF is working with HRW to gain access to their sources, including Palestinians.

This is a win-win situation. If the detailed investigations exonerate the IDF, HRW will have participated in the effort and won't be able to complain. If cases of wrong-doing are identified, the IDF will learn from them, as it learns from everything it does. If anyone needs to be brought to justice, that will happen, too.

I like it.

Years, if Needed

The American-led assault on the Taliban in Marjah, Afghanistan, is expected to take weeks to be completed. We hope it will be successful, of course, that's the only possible position to have.

Yet another difference between how Israel wages its wars and others do so. Can anyone conceive of the UN Security Council convening anytime soon to demand a cease fire in Afghanistan? Of American generals planning and executing their wars with the certainly that they've got days, or a few weeks at the most, in which to achieves their goals, before the international community shut them down?

Even Informed, There's Perspective

Unlike Andrew Sullivan, Jeffrey Goldberg is informed about the Middle East. Far more than most observers, what with his full control of Hebrew and Arabic and his constant following of the story. Yet for all that, living in Washington DC eventually gives him a perspective of someone who lives in Washington, not Jerusalem. This isn't necessarily good or bad, but after a while it shows. His take on the NIF story last week looks at the American side of the NIF, less the Israeli NIF NGOs and their malice... which after all was what the story was all about.

Even more pronounced was his post citing one Blake Hounshell in the aftermath of last week's events (Sullivan and NIF, all). Titled How the Likud's Agenda Alienates Americans, Jeffrey approvingly cites an item by Hounshell.

Here's Hounshell:
Sullivan's criticism of Israel ought to worry defenders of the Jewish state, then, because he is a bellwether for a broader shift in American media and society that has happened over the last few years. Israel is using up a lot of the goodwill it had built up in the 1990s, when eminent statesmen like Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres made good-faith efforts toward peace with the Palestinians. Since then, the country has been governed by a series of unimaginative right-wing leaders who have pandered constantly to their settler base and chosen to solve political problems through the use of force. Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud Party may have their fingers on the pulse of their public right now, but their agenda is not one that appeals to most Americans, who strongly support Israel's right to exist but have little interest in underwriting the permanent occupation of the West Bank.
And here's Jeffrey filling out the thought:
What Israel needs is a leader who will step forward and say, "Here is the way things should look," and then present an outline for the creation of a viable Palestine. The settlers will go nuts, but that's what they do. Hamas will go nuts, because that's what it does. But Hounshell is right: What is needed is a Rabin. I tend to think that Netanyahu has the potential to be this leader. Maybe it's more a hope than a reality at this point, but only someone from the right can bring the majority of Israelis to the painful compromises that are obviously necessary. And, to make the obvious point, one of the reasons this compromise is necessary is because American public opinion is one of Israel's most important battlegrounds.
Well, no.

Since Rabin in the 90s, Israel has had the following prime ministers, who had the following take on how the conflict with the Palestinians might be either resolved, or at least managed if resolution is impossible, as most Israelis are convinced, even though this means it's they (and the Palestinians) who aren't going to have peace:

Shimon Peres, 1995-96. Considerably more dovish than Rabin, and elected out of office because he was refusing to recognize that the Palestinians weren't using the same rulebook.

Binyamin Netanyahu, 1996-1999, elected only after changing the Likud's platform to acquiesce in partition as the way to resolve the conflict (i.e repudiating Greater Israel).

Ehud Barak, 1999-2000, elected on the clear platform of negotiating a partition with the Palestinians, he offered to dismantle some 80% of the settlements in the summer of 2000, and was praised for this by Bill Clinton.

Ariel Sharon, 2001-(Dec) 2005, initially elected to defeat the 2nd Intifada, not negotiate with Arafat, in 2005 Sharon unilaterally pulled out of Gaza while dismantling 23 settlements, then split the Likud and set up Kadima so as to continue the partition on the West Bank.

Ehud Olmert, 2006-2009, Olmert was elected in 2006 on an explicit promise to disband settlements and evacuate Israel from most of the West Bank, even if the Palestinians wouldn't give peace in return. This intention was derailed by the 2nd Lebanon war, yet by September 2008 Olmert was offering the Palestinians more than they had ever been offered, including an effective 100% of the West Bank or adjacent areas and partition of Jerusalem.

2009-- Binyamin Netanyahu indeed doesn't look like your run-of-the-mill NIF activist, yet he has openly accepted partition as the way to reach a two-state solution.

The way I see it, Mr. Hounshell, you've got the Israeli electorate exactly wrong; meanwhile, Jeffrey is suggesting an Israeli leader do what almost all of their elected leaders of the past decade-plus have already done. Moreover, they've been repeatedly endorsed in doing so by the electorate.

Things look different from Jerusalem, you see.

On a resigned note: if Hounshell and Goldberg are right that the differing perspectives are eroding American support for Israel, it looks like Israel will have to figure out ways of replacing the eroding support. Given that we're already doing what they say we must do, and it's not being seen.

Being Informed: not Neccessary

Thanks to all the readers who ran the interesting discussions while I was gone. We'll practice this another few times in the coming weeks or months, after which I'll be able to retire from blogging and y'all can carry on without me. I look forward to it.

Also while I was away, Jeffrey Goldberg ruminated a few times on the Wieseltier-Sullivan spat. If you read carefully I think you may pick up hints that Jeffrey has less patience for Andrew than he used to, but I may be over-reacting.

Jeffrey's single most interesting comment, to my mind, is this one:
6) One other thing: Andrew Sullivan doesn't know that much about the Middle East. I know that sounds odd, given that he is a former editor of The New Republic, but there you have it. One of the many reasons I don't engage his blog more frequently on matters relating to the Middle East is that he's not very knowledgeable about the intricacies of the American-led peace process, or of internal Israeli politics, or internal Palestinian politics. This might be because these issues don't interest him. The politics, contradictions and motivations of Netanyahu's approach to Obama do not interest Andrew. Netanyahu's apparently self-evident evilness is what interests Andrew. Extremists on both sides of the issue want the Middle East to be simple, but it's not. The Middle East is a tragedy precisely because the Israelis have an excellent case, and the Arabs also have an excellent case. This essential fact has often escaped Andrew's attention.
The point ought to be broadened, of course: Most people don't know very much about the Middle East, foremost among them most of the folks who talk about it incessantly.

Grandmothers can be Antisemites, Too

This one's name is Jenny Tonge, she's a British politician from the Lib-Dem party, a Baroness in the House of Lords, she's got a history of animosity towards Israel, but this time she's gone overboard even by the sordid standards of British Lefties:

The latest row followed accusations in the online Palestine Telegraph – of which she is a patron – that members of the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) had been harvesting body parts in Haiti. She subsequently told the Jewish Chronicle: "To prevent allegations such as these – which have already been posted on YouTube – going any further, the IDF and the Israeli Medical Association should establish an independent inquiry immediately to clear the names of the team in Haiti."

It's an interesting provenance: a Palestinian website invents an outlandish anti-Jewish calumny out of thin air. A British Baroness who's one of their ardent supporters picks it up and runs with it, while professing earnest concern for the objects of the calumny by recommending they must clear their name (since it's already being besmirched on YouTube). How touching.

In Hebrew there's a saying "Prove you don't have a sister", which was invented for this type of logic. Note that she doesn't suggest the Palestinians bring evidence that the Israelis might refute. That's not how calumnies work.

In this case, the allegations are so blatant her political boss has been forced to distance himself. Even her own group can't stomach her fanaticism. For all that, she's such a nice-looking grandmotherly type, the kind of nice lady you'd be eager to have over for tea. Antisemites - as I never tire of saying - don't generally have horns nor do they froth at the mouth. They can often be found deep in respectable society; what could be more respectable than the UK House of Lords after all.

Thursday, February 11, 2010


That's where I'll be for the next few days. Feel free to visit Coteret in my absence.

More on Goldstone

The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA) has had a second look at the Irish member of the Goldstone team, Colonel Desmond Travers. Not surprisingly, it's not pretty. The British government is controlled by the Jews, Hamas wasn't shooting at Israelis, Palestinians have no connection to Hamas, and the IDF chose which Gazan homes to bomb only after using secret weapons which identify civilians, and always preferring the ones where there were lots of them.

Haaretz has the story here, and JCPA has it here.

More on Complexity

Earlier this week much ink was spilled documenting how the NIF organizations are simultaneously forces for good and evil. Avi Issacharoff says the same about the Palestinian Authority, the PA: They're doing great work these past couple years; and also some very problematic things that undermine the likelihood of peace. The same people and the same organizations, all at the same time.

More on the NIF

Israel Harel - the Right-wing fig leaf at Haareta, as Naomi Hazan was the Left-wing fig leaf at the Jerusalem Post - doesn't like the NIF. He backs this up with some interesting data, none of it related to the Goldstone Report.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Chaim K. RIP

Chaim K. passed away late Saturday afternoon. He was 87 - not that you'd know it by watching the callers making condolence calls at his Shiva this week, some of whom are quite some years younger than his older grandchildren. "You don't know us", they tell his children, "but we were friends of your father. Such a luminous man!"

Chaim was born in a small Polish town no-one has ever heard of. He was 17 when the Nazis invaded, and his entire immediate family fled East, eventually washing up in what is today Kazakhstan. They spent the war years in what were combination refugee-and-labor camps. His father starved to death, but the rest of them survived. In later years his sister (who died a few years ago at 91) reminisced that Chaim would combat his hunger by reading whatever he could get his hands on until he fell asleep from exhaustion, thereby managing to do without a meal.

Also in the camps he met his future wife, "she didn't even own a pair of shoes". Chaim was good at cobbling things together, and managed to help her survive the hardships.

After the war they went back to Poland. None of her family had survived; there was no point in trying to rebuild lives in Poland, and by 1948 they were in Israel.

Arriving in war-torn Jerusalem in 1948 they found accommodations with a cousin who lived in Batei Ungarn, near Mea Shearim. The cousin had seven children in two rooms, but since it was crowded anyway, why not take in the newcomers? No long afterward Chaim found an abandoned two-room house on the wrong side of the barbed-wire fences which marked the new border that ran through the city. A block or two from Sheikh Jarrah, if you insist on details. The building was functionally in No-Man's Land between Israel and Jordan, but there was an IDF position on its roof; the troops reached the second floor through a trapdoor from one of the rooms. Still, it was better than the place in Batei Ungarn, so Chaim, his sister and their spouses moved in. No-one ever came to visit them at their house beyond the border, and the troops on the roof occasionally had fire-fights with Jordanian troops, but worse things can happen. Chaim and Gittl had three children there.

In 1960 they moved. Chaim was making a good living as an accountant, and they were able to afford a brand new 2-1/2 room apartment in the Katamon area. When they first moved in the 70-square meter place looked so impossibly spacious that they considered renting one room, or perhaps simply sealing it off for visitors. They remained for the rest of their lives (Gittl died two years ago this week). They had three children, 11 grandchildren, and right now there are 16 great grandchildren, with the 17th expected in two months. The youngest two grandsons, at 19, are hardly older than the oldest of the great grandchildren (17).

20-some years ago, as Chaim should have been about to retire, he was offered the challenge of setting up the financial department in one of the large settlements. He thought about it for a day or two, and took the job, which he held until he was in his late 70s. Even then he retained his position as one of the stalwarts of his synagogue, and as the accountant of a local charity; two days before he died he transferred all the details of the charity to his son. In recent weeks he has no longer been able to participate in his daf yomi study group (9:30 am, the "old codgers' group") so one of the others came to him each day to learn, all the way until the end.

Have I mentioned he was a nice man? Always smiling, often with a Yiddish joke, relating to people as equals. His son is the boss of one of our public utilities. A few weeks ago I met the two of them, the son supporting his father on the way to the synagogue; the father dressed, as usual, in his suit, tie and fedora even though he could walk only with the greatest effort. I pointed to the street we were standing on, where the son's company has been digging these past two months: "Chaim, can you please tell the boss of the company they really ought to fix this street already?!" He beamed and said he'd try.

Yesterday they paved the street and it looks spanking new. "He did it", I told his son. "He got it fixed".

Fifty years in a single neighborhood is quite a while, and alongside the unexpected mourners I told of above, the surviving old-timers are coming to pay their respects. The neighborhood was originally built by rich (mostly Christian) Arabs in the 1920s, when Chaim was a boy in that forgotten Polish town; it was sparsely populated, with large detached houses. In the 40s, as he fought his hunger, lots of important British officers and officials moved in. Once the Arabs and British were gone, it was filled with the Jews who had been deported from the Old City, two miles to the north, after the Jordanians took it over. Then in the 1950s, the mostly empty hillsides were built up with apartment buildings for the large numbers of refugees and immigrants pouring into Israel and living mostly in tents. Only in the 1990s did it begin to change again, so that today there's a large population of wealthy British and French Jews moving away from the rising antisemitism in their countries, and rich Americans not fleeing from anyone - and upper middle class Israelis, too.

Sit in the tiny apartment Chaim died in the other day, however, and you'll be reminded of the people who dominated the area for 40 years. The Lithuanian Holocaust survivor; the Polish one; the two Moroccans, the Iraqi; the man from the Old City whose father and brother-in-law fell in its battle; the 68-year-old Yekke (German Jew) who's father disagreed with Chaim about what sort of synagogue they needed, 50 years ago, so each built his own, and each sometime came to the other's.

You can see a lot of history in 87 years.

Antisemitism as a Matter of Time?

Leon Wieseltier is one of the finest wordsmiths in American public discourse. Yesterday he published a column about his former colleague at The New Republic, Andrew Sullivan. (h/t Silke). It's not his finest column, not even close, which is too bad. Perhaps the relationships between the two men interfered in one way or another; we can't know.

Very briefly, Wieseltier says that tropes Andrew uses these days about Israel are antisemitic. He doesn't come out and say Andrew is, mind you, but he circles around the idea.

Jonathan Chait, another TNR fellow, today responds to Wieseltier by stating emphatically that "Andrew is not an Anti-semite". Chait disagrees with him on Israel, but knows him not to be an antisemite.

Andrew himself relates to the matter from time to time, always to profess his innocence of antisemitism.

From what I can see, he really isn't one. Not yet. Which isn't to say he won't become one. That, after all, is what makes the history of antisemitism so lethal: that people can join (and also leave). If hatred of the Jews were stable, and individuals either were or were not for their entire lives, it would be easier to contain. It isn't. People can be free of the affliction and later die from it; they can be afflicted and cured; they can be latently antisemitic then actively so, then again latent. So long as they are free to think, people can change their minds in whatever direction they change them in.

Is Andrew on the way to becoming an antisemite? It's possible. He's already using antisemitic types of expression, as Wieseltier shows, and as any sustained reading of his popular blog will demonstrate.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Response to Naomi Paiss

Ben Murane of the NIF has been replaced on this blog by Naomi Paiss, who is probably his boss. I'm again moving the discussion to the front page of the blog (from here), since it remains too important for the comments section. (For those wearying of the topic, I don't expect this to continue dominating the blog for much longer, so hang in there).

Hi Naomi, thanks for coming by. I appreciate it.

At the heart of the discussion is a dichotomy, a profound ambivalence. On the one hand, you've got organizations committed to preserving or enhancing democratic freedoms in Israel, and warning and guarding against transgressions or even simple human weaknesses that might erode Israeli society. On the other hand, you've got organizations serving as crucial conveyor belts of twisted, warped and dishonest statements about Israel, from a complex society that lives in Hebrew (and some Arabic, Russian, and many other languages) into the hands of Israel's avowed enemies. The individuals and organizations engaged in the first, legitimate and valuable activities, are sometimes (too often) the exact same people and organizations serving as the conveyor belt in the second.

Let me qualify the observation, before strengthening it. Israel faces two sorts of enemies. The worst are the ones willing (sometimes eager) to destroy the Jews in their homeland. The shooting enemies, the ones who kill Jews, or not, depending on tactical or strategical considerations, not philosophical ones: if they feel they can get away with it, they kill; if they feel they can't, they'll do it later. The NIF and its grantees have nothing to do with these enemies, can in no way be connected to them, and if at any point in the high-strung vehement political discussion in Israel and among its friends anyone ever says something such as "you're aiding the worst of our enemies" (hagruim shebeoyveinu!), they don't mean it. There are lots of "worst of our enemies", but no-one in your world, Naomi, is remotely affiliated with them in any way.

Then there's the second rank of Israel's enemies. The ones who believe the Jews have no business having a political entity. These people come in many stripes and flavours, and are motivated by a large variety of sometimes mutually contradictory considerations, but the commonality to their positions and actions is the goal of ending Zionism, which is the political expression of the Jewish nation. Most of the United Nations belongs in this camp. Large chunks of European public opinion. Some in America at both ends of the political spectrum though more at the Left. Some of Israel's Arabs. And yes, there are Jews in this camp, including Jews in Israel. Not many, but a few. I estimate there are probably a few thousand Jewish anti-Zionist Israelis, from a Jewish population that is approaching six million- so, they're a tiny minority - but quite vocal.

The Jewish anti-Zionists know perfectly well they've got nothing to fear from the rest of us, no matter how much they express their derision for us. We're a strong and tolerant democracy, and we don't persecute people for belonging to the second rank of our enemies. (First rank enemies, yes, which is sometimes confusing when individuals play on the line - but that's a different topic). Our public sphere is characterized by a high level of verbal invective and a very low level of physical violence, so anti-Zionists have invective thrown at them, but no projectiles; the tiny number of exceptions prove the rarity. Their participation in the second rank of the war against us doesn't hinder their living normal lives amongst us.

The problem facing the NIF is that the anti-Zionist Israels tend to converge in some of the NIF-grantee NGOs. Worse, the same NGOs often serve the external second-rank enemies even when their members aren't anti-Zionist themselves. Take yesterday's case which I blogged about earlier today. HRW and the present internal Israeli discussion:

Following years in which a tiny minority of Israelis has informed the second rank enemies of Israel that Israeli democracy is crumbling, that Israeli troops routinely commit war crimes, and that the Israeli leadership commits crimes against humanity, a wonderfully democratic conversation has finally happened, in which the majority confronts the tiny minority with the significance of its actions. No one - NO ONE - is suggesting the minority be shut up, its organizations shut down, and certainly not that any legal action be taken against them. No law against them has been mooted, and of course none legislated - nor will such a law be passed. No one arrested, no one physically harassed. One person, Naomi Hazan, is being mocked, which is bad taste - but that's all. Bad taste is permitted in free societies.

In response, Human Rights Watch is warning that Israeli democracy - and thus, make no mistake, Israel's legitimacy - is eroding. This is, I have no better way to say it, a blatant, malicious and intentional lie. Sarah Lee Whitson of HRW, however, doesn't know Hebrew, and lacks even the flimsiest understanding of Israeli society. How she forms her opinions I do not know, but where she gets some of her false information with which to bolster them, that I do know. She gets them from anti-Zionist Israelis, and she gets them from useful idiots, to use the Soviet term. One conveyor belt for the transmission of these sort of lies, half-lies and twisted misrepresentations, are NIF grantee NGOs; moreover, this activity is at the heart of what they do. It's not a regrettable coincidence at the edge of their activity.

This, Naomi, is the case the NIF must respond to. So far, in 10 days of public furor, no-one at the NIF has made even the feeblest attempt to do so, preferring to use legal measures to shut up their critics (they failed, obviously: we're a democracy), and to complain loudly about how criticism of them is a failure of Israeli democracy. It isn't. It's an expression of the democracy.

In Yiddish, that magnificent language of sardonic irony, there's a term for the NIF's behaviour right now. Roughly translated: a Cossack complaining of being robbed.

HRW Attacks Israel (Gasp)

A commenter linked to Noah Pollak's post yesterday, wherein Human Rights Watch castigates Israel for being mean to the NIF. You should read Noah's post, which is short but entertaining; if you're in that sort of mood, you can also read the HRW press release.
"What we're seeing in Israel is a greater official intolerance of dissent," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "One of Israel's outstanding strengths has been its vibrant civil society and its flourishing public debate, so these developments are particularly worrying."
This is, how to put it, cattle secretion. Note how Whitson suddenly compliments us for having had such spirited public debate... now that it's slipping away. No indication that perhaps what's happening is precisely what she admits is positive about Israel: that we're engaging in a public debate. In Whitson's book, public debate means law professors and 20-something self described anarchists castigating Israeli policies and actions. Bus drivers, bank clerks or students kvetching about the law professors and anarchists: that's proof of Israel's disappearing democracy and freedom.

Why is it the business of HRW to have an opinion on the matter at all, I cannot tell you. Even more mystifying, they've gone to the effort of posting a Hebrew language version of their press release. Bets, anyone, on who did the translation for them?

Monday, February 8, 2010

Response to Ben Murane, New Israel Fund

Ben Murane signed up this week at blogger and began defending the NIF from its Im Tirzu critics. He has been active at this blog; I assume he's active elsewhere, also. I'm assuming someone at NIF US gave him the task of dealing with the blogger front. Nothing wrong with that, of course. He has stirred up quite a bit of discussion here; I've decided it's valuable enough to bring back to the front of the blog. I appreciate that all participants have been civil. Unfortunately this is not obvious in today's blogosphere.

Ben also suggested an interesting link, to an article by Ron Kampeas. I don't think I've read Kampeas before, and we probably disagree on some matters of substance, but Ben's right. It's an interesting article.

There's one major fallacy in Ben's argumentation which somehow hasn't been mentioned yet, but first, allow me a quick recap of matters we've already hashed.

1. The Im Tirzu campaign is in poor taste. Even taking aim at Naomi Hazan personally without the offensive caricature is poor taste; she has been in the public eye for decades, and we all know that she's basically harmless. There are mudslingers in all corners of the Israeli political arena, but Hazan has never been one of them. In addition, it has enabled the NIF to turn the debate from its substance to its form. The one thing still not resolved in my mind is the extent to which the furor was fed by the poor taste. Might a benign and polite campaign have disappeared after 15 seconds of fame, while this one is still here in its second week? If so, for all the regret, perhaps Im Tirzu got it right?

2. The NIF and many of its grantees have done much good in Israel. They cannot take as much credit as their recent publications and statements might have us believe, but there's no way to cast them as consistently negative. Having said this, there are parts of the story they're not trumpeting at the moment, such as low-profile but consistent discrimination against all settlers, as a group. Try posting a wanted ad on their classifieds board for something related to a settlement. How does this fit into human rights, you might ask? It doesn't of course. Regular readers will recollect how I documented another facet of this bias, here (and follow the internal links for more).

3. The fact of NIF grantees supplying false and derogatory information to the Goldstone report is well documented. I've written about this a number of times over the past six months or so, and no-one listened. Along came Im Tirzu and were nasty about it, and suddenly the whole relevant world is agog. I recognize that this blog is not very significant, but it also tries to be calm and measured. More elbow power to Im Tirzu: they know how to get their point across to a broad public. Sources? Read chapter XXV of the Goldstone report, for example, which is based almost entirely on NIF-NGOs, and is basically a lie in its entirety. That's for starters. Some of my thoughts on the matter are here and here. And of course, there was the trip to Hebron,which I wrote about here).

Now, to the major fallacy. Ben compares the NIF and its grantees to the ACLU and says that just as no-one tires to shut them down so it shoud be incomprehensible that anyone in Israel would touch the local human rights organizations, exasperating as they may be. Set aside the matter that no-one is suggesting they get shut down, merely have their funding looked into, the comparison is profoundly wrong.

American human rights organizations don't try to drag their country to foreign forums to be judged. The Israeli NGOs do. They make no secret of the matter; they're proud of it. To rephrase this, the American discussion takes place within the sovereignty of the United States. The Israeli one takes place in an international court of public opinion, politics, diplomacy and boycotts, where Israel's very existence is the heart of the discussion. I'm not going to get into the details, because we all know it to be true: Israel is at war over its right to exist. There are Israelis on the side of Israel's enemies. Some are there with full intent; others are there by default. The result is the same.

For the NIF to be comparable with the ACLU it wold have to publicize its findings in Hebrew, and Hebrew alone. The reality is the opposite.

Last year I once asked a CEO of one of these organizations why they publish so much in English. His answer was simple: our supporters don't know Hebrew. We must raise funds, and that can only be done if our supporters see what we're doing. (We need the international community, since Israeli democracy alone won't go where we want it to go).

You begin to see why the Im Tirzu attack on funding is so threatening to these folks.

Personally, I didn't believe the chap. True, they need to raise funds, and there aren't enough Israelis who might support them. My feeling, however, has always been that there's a second reason.They wish to appear in a better light before their non-Israeli friends, as in "Yes, our regime is ghastly, but we, tho a minority, we're your type of folks".

Haaretz Makes an Editorial Decision

It was Haaretz who spread the story of the Jerusalem Post firing Naomi Hazan. The part of the story that fit their agenda, that is: that she was fired, with the (unstated) implication that this was retaliation for... for what exactly? That she's a Lefty? It was an odd story.

Then the JP explained
, and suddenly the story was turned on its head.

This morning I looked through the entire paper edition of Haaretz, from front to back. There is no mention of the story, no explanation that the previous version was fundamentally flawed, nothing.

Are we to surmise that if it doesn't fit the political agenda, it isn't newsworthy? At the newspaper that prides itself on being serious, thoughtful, and intelligent? It's that blatant?

et tu, Coteret?

Alex Stein, a reader whose positions are significantly different than mine, sent me this morning to a blog post at Coteret. Alex felt they had made a convincing case against the Jerusalem Post for their firing of Naomi Hazan. Since I've linked to them, you can all go and see if their case is convincing.

Having read the post, I left a short comment. Within a few minutes it was deleted. So I'm reconstructing it from memory:
The NIF is using legal measures to attempt to block freedom of speech. The word hubris seems tailored to the actions of the NIF.

I'm now going to leave a link to this post over at Coteret. Either they'll leave it up - which is the decent thing to do - or they'll delete it again, but this time there's a record of my informing them the deletion won't work. It's a win-win situation: either they leave my dissent, which is good, or they demonstrate and document their inability to allow dissent, which is informative. In the present context, it's more than informative, it's central to the discussion.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Objective Journalism

The anti-Israel mob has been baying at the New York Times for some time already - many months, at least - that their bureau chief in Israel, Ethan Bronner, is too pro-Israel. They have now scored a body hit, because Bronner's 20-year-old son recently joined the IDF (as an American, not as an Israeli. There are such programs).

Clark Hoyt, the paper's Public Editor, today published a column in which he stated his full confidence in Bronner as a professional journalist, but said the appearance of partiality was too great and he must be moved elsewhere. His boss, the Executive Editor Bill Keller, explains why he's not willing to move Bronner.

The whole episode is odd. Has the Times ever had such agonizing over, say, American reporters reporting on American wars? That would go either way, of course: How dare you have an American reporter with family in the war; how dare you have a reporter with none? Are there UK papers agonizing over the Britishness of their reporters in Iraq or Afghanistan or Yemen or Pakistan? Are there any Arabs reporting from anywhere in the Arab world? An Indian reporting on tensions with Pakistan: unacceptable? If not, why not?

It's a well documented fact that during the Holocaust the (Jewish owned) Times downplayed the stories of persecution seeping out of Europe; they were afraid of being marked a "Jewish newspaper". Perhaps they've been publicly agonizing over such issues ever since, and the Bronner story is merely the most recent in a long tradition. If so, feel free to enlighten me.

If not, and if it's only Jews or Israel that get agonized about, what does that tell us?

NIF: In A Hole, Digging....

Barry Meislin points me to this announcement on the Jerusalem Post website (via Noah Pollak):
The Jerusalem Post has canceled Naomi Chazan’s biweekly column, after she and the New Israel Fund of which she is president threatened legal action against the paper over a recent advertisement.

The decision was taken by Jerusalem Post management after a legal threat was received at the paper from the NIF and Chazan’s lawyers.

Along with other publications, the Post last Sunday carried an advertisement criticizing Chazan and the New Israel Fund in the context of the Goldstone Report on Operation Cast Lead.

In Friday’s paper, the Post carried an advertisement defending the NIF and Chazan against their critics.
Hard to believe, isn't it. As in "Naaa, that's impossible". That kind of hard to believe.

We do need to watch how Haaretz reports this tomorrow.

Rumination on Higher Education

A truism of modern contemporary politics is that some strands of the polity think there's a connection between their comparatively elevated degree of education and the inherent correctness of their political positions. (The NIF dust-up we're having these days reeks of this). The corollary, mildly distasteful as it is, is that folks who have spent fewer years accumulating academic qualifications may be less likely to understand what's right, or good, or correct.

I'm all for education. Some of my best friends are university professors. I even spent some years of my life in university environments, and put significant efforts into acquiring various degrees. Yet sad to tell, the case for the intellectual superiority of the academically-trained has never seemed compelling to me. I know too may people without the training who are highly intelligent, and too many folks with fancy degrees whose ability to understand the world is, how to put it, unconvincing.

Recently I've been engaged in an unusual exercise: I'm reading lots of doctoral theses. There are business reasons for this: in a nutshell, I'd like to offer the academic world a tool that will make life a wee bit more efficient; for this purpose, however, I've got to understand what different types of academic research looks like. What do doctoral students do when they get up in the morning?

Unfortunately, the more I read, the more I'm wondering if perhaps the acquisition of an advanced degree in today's academic world might not actively hamper one's ability to relate to humans. I'm not seeing that it strengthens one's ability to express coherent thoughts, for one; nor that there' an overriding curiosity about people. Paradigms, yes. Constructs, certainly. Models, there are those. People, and how they relate to their lives: less.

Maybe I'm simply finding the wrong doctoral theses.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Gathering

Over the weekend I read Anne Enright's 2007 Booker Prize-winning The Gathering.

If you like very well written novels in which deeply troubled narrators slowly uncover the decision made 80 years ago which led to an ugly act 35 years ago which will negatively impact a dysfunctional family well into the second half of the 21st century, you'll enjoy this book greatly. It is very well written, and does do a fine job of unraveling the mystery while creating complex figures in a compelling story.

Me, I suppose I'm too philistine to be swept away by this sort of thing. This is either cause or effect of my not reading enough contemporary literature.

On the other hand, a few days ago I completed Tony Judt's magnificent Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. Judt is a strident enemy of Israel, but he has written a truly top-notch history of Europe, and I need to find the time to write my impressions; I even ought to do so soon, while they're still fresh. Alas (or not at all alas) I'm very pressed for time these days. Anyway, if anyone offers you to choose between these two books, now you know my recommendation.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Miep Gies, RIP

The Economist has a moving obituary for the woman who tired to save the family of Anne Frank.

NIF, Democracy, Decency and Other Problems

Earlier this week I wrote about the New Israel Fund (NIF) affair that just blew up (here and here). As it was easy to foretell, the usual suspects immediately swung into action to portray the attack on the NIF as a bold attack on Israel's democracy. That was a no-brainer. Haaretz takes it one step further, and is digging deep into the matter of who funds Im Tirzu, the organization which launched the attack. If memory serves, it was only a few months ago that questions were raised about the sources of funding that benefit left-wing organizations, at which time they branded such questions as.... A threat to democracy.

All of which seems to me a fine demonstration of democracy in action. We don't like you, you don't like us, we think you're stinkers, you think we're funded by Bad Guys, we're convinced your backers are Evil... that's what freedom of speech is all about. That the tones in Israel are harsh and strident is because Israelis have a culture of discourse which is not at all like what they teach in Oxford. The rancor of American political discourse these past 15 years (or is it 50?) can't hold a candle to the vitality (nice name) or vehemence (realistic name) of standard Israeli fare. Just as the Israeli ability to come together at times of crises is quite unimaginable in America or Europe. (Well, the Americans didn't do badly on 9/12). This is the Jewish way: the Talmud has many examples of scholars bad-mouthing one another while simultaneously engaging each other in complex discussions, and uniting in the face of external enemies.

The Arabic word which has been adopted (colonized) by modern Hebrew is dugri: when you tell your interlocutor what you really think about them. Israelis are extremely dugri; this also means they know where they stand with one another, and can get on with living together.

Which is not to say there's no substance to the present spat. There is.

The decision by Im Tirzu to attack Naomi Hazan personally is bad taste and enables the NIF to change the subject; it may or may not be a good tactic, however, since it's certainly generating a lot of attention, and attention is what Im Tirzu wanted. So if it was a good tactic or not, the PR people will have to say.

The decision of the NIF to respond as they're responding, however, is telling. They've got two official responses up, one in English, on the American NIF website, and the other in Hebrew on the Israeli NIF website. The English one is signed by an American, the Israeli one by an Israeli, and if you compare the two it's pretty clear they were both written by the same person.

How does the NIF defend itself? Poorly. First, they're the victims. Second, democracy in Israel has been their doing (you might even think: almost only their doing). Third, the attack on them is part of a purposeful undermining of democracy in Israel. Fourth... well, I'd like to tell you that fourth is some sort of response to the allegations against them, but alas, it isn't. Naomi Hazan (in the Haaretz link above) says there's nothing to respond to (she's a professor, so she knows); the rest of her colleagues don't even go that far.

The historical reality has been that NIF-funded organizations indeed have made valuable contributions to the Israeli political and social sphere. They have and hopefully will continue to play an important role. A democracy really does need as many voices as possible, and theirs is sometimes a valuable one. Sometimes, it isn't. That's the crux of the matter. Some of the same NGOs which participate positively in Israel's democracy, also take positions which are legal but morally and of course factually indefensible. Pretending this is not so is delusional. Claiming that they are above reproach is anti-democratic.

Finally, there's the comic aspect of how thin their skin is. Remember, the NGOs in question dish out criticism, harsh criticism and sometimes rancid animosity; they often intentionally supply Israel's enemies with rhetorical ammunition against it at time of war. They've got a serious case to answer, and preening that requiring them to do so is antidemocratic, is silly.

How very silly? This silly: one of their main demands is that Israel set up an independent investigation of the IDF actions in Gaza (I agree with them). One of the horrific things in the present attack on them (to be found only in their Hebrew-language complaint) is
וכעת התבשרנו כי הצעת חוק פרטית, המליצה על הקמת וועדת בדיקה פרלמנטארית (!), כדי לבדוק את פעולתם של הקרן החדשה לישראל וקבוצה של ארגוני זכויות אדם בכל הקשור לדוח גולדסטון.
Someone has suggested there be a parliamentary investigation into the actions of these NGOs in relation to the Goldstone Inquiry!

Old Vs. New Testament

In the previous post I mentioned a column Geoffrey Alderman published at CiF Watch. Here's his column, in which he rebuts a television program by one Peter Oborne about the pernicious influence of the Israel Lobby in the UK. An English version of Walt-Mearsheimer, if you will. Yet professors Walt and Mearsheimer were respected scholars, if not broadly well-known, when they decided to trade stolid academia for notoriety by turning to the worn canard about how the Jews control the levers of power.

Not so Oborne.

Peter Oborne is not one of the Guardian stable of Lefty antisemites. He's a Righty antisemite, which goes to show that hatred of Jews is an equal opportunity affliction. Moreover, his antisemitism, while it uses anti-Israel terminology, doesn't try very hard to pretend that Israel is the problem.

Alderman's column rang a bell, and I went rummaging. Sure enough, and soon enough, I had found evidence for the prosecution. It was written a week after 9/11. In September 2001, for those who have forgotten, the Palestinians were ratcheting up their suicide attacks against Israeli civilians. The year earlier Israel had made a series of proposals for resolution of the conflict, and when they weren't deemed good enough they made further offers. The Palestinians had responded with violence, and by September 2001 they were convinced they were winning. The UN carnival of antisemitism at Durban, South Africa, reinforced their feeling that the world was supporting them. (It was only the following Spring that Israel finally disabused them of these mistakes, eventually leading to the relative calm we've had on the West Bank these past five years or so).

That's the context. Now, Oborne's take on it at the time:
Anyone who thinks that Arab terrorism can be defeated until the Palestine situation is resolved is dreaming. The thought of the West taking reprisals against bin Laden without demanding major concessions from Israel makes the blood run cold...
This war, if it is a war, is a conflict between Old and New Testament. It is between those who value human life and those who do not. If the West goes down the way of revenge, as Bush especially seems ready to do, than it will lose. Both the President and the Prime Minister affect to be Christians. They might care to contemplate, before they order troops into action, how Christ would have reacted.
Well, that's pretty clear, isn't it?