Friday, April 30, 2010

International Matters

Two items which have been lying around on my desk for a while.

First: what constitutes a sovereign state? How many countries are there in the world? The answer, it turns out, is not at all simple. More than 200, fewer than 300, depending on whom you ask (and when).

Second: Can international law morph into something less seemly? Read this description, about how the ICC is being manipulated by various Kenyan parties, and tell me if there's any discernible difference between this and standard politics, any faint resemblance between the process and, say, justice. Except the hi-falutin grandstanding, of course.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Colonial Camping

Jeffrey Goldberg has been beamed back to 1771, and is having problems blogging from the 18th century. Most people would - although David Ben Gurion, who has been dead for almost 40 years, does seem to manage to blog from the middle of the 20th century.

The reason I mention poor Jeffrey's predicament however, is to point out an interesting tidbit about language. Most Americans remember the colonial era sort of fondly: burning witches in Salem, having tea parties when it was still permissible, building your occasional sturdy farmhouse in New England which still stands till this day, and of course revving up to have that revolution against the English. That's how Jeffrey uses the term, in the context of an educative program with his kid.

Across the pond, meanwhile, Colonialism reminds the Brits of all their horrific crimes against the Asians Indians and Kenyans. There is no word worse for a proper Guardian reader than Colonial (unless it be Zionist - partly because they've decided the Zionists are colonialists). No proper self-hating Brit would ever send her kid to any program with even a whiff of colonialism about it.

As Churchill may have said: We are separated by our common language.

Settler Violence at Yitzhar

If you've been reading this blog for at least the past day you'll be aware of my skepticism about the radical-left thesis that Israeli democracy is disintegrating, all because a majority of Israelis dislikes the radical left.

In this context, here's an item Alex Stein sent me yesterday, with the added comment that he was personally there. It's from the rather popular Nana website which is affiliated with Channel Ten, and it contains a Channel Ten news report about a recent incident near the settlement of Yitzhar. A joint group of Palestinians and Israelis set out to demonstrate near the settlement. At one point some of them got too close to some structure (Alex can tell us more about it, I expect), and IDF troops shot warning rounds in the air, at which point the demonstrators moved back. At this point armed settlers started shooting at the demonstrators, or anyway, near them. No one was hurt, but the troops stood by and didn't intervene.

Should they have? Probably not: IDF troops don't have the authority to arrest people, and given the range (watch the film) what is the expectation? That they shoot the settlers?

On the other and, the film eventually made it to Betselem, and from there to the army, and also - yesterday - to the media. Last night at 4am police raided Yitzhar and arrested seven settlers, though they seem meanwhile to have been released. As I was not in the interrogation cells, I cannot say what the arrests were meant to achieve.

So what does all this tell us?

1. The media seems to be dong what it should be, and no-one is shutting it down. Nor are there any complaints about its "disloyalty" or any such nonsense.

2. Betselem has a positive role to play in Israeli democracy, when it tries to fix things in Hebrew rather than run to tell the tale in English.

3. Yitzhar is and remains a serious blemish on our name, not to mention being a scandal. Someday there will be a showdown there and they'll be disarmed and disbanded; this day should have been many years ago.

4. Also someday there will be a joint demonstration of Jews and Palestinians in which both sides will recognize the wrong they've committed during this very long war, and both will commit to building a better future based on this mutual recognition. That day, however, is very far away; indeed, it's quite inconceivable. So in the meantime all joint demonstrations will have to get along with agreement that the Israelis have been bad.

Update: Alex e-mails to ask that I add that the demonstration was organized by his outfit, Combatants for Peace. So I have.

Deceased Tunnelers

Four Palestinians died yesterday in a tunnel under the Egyptian-Gaza border.

Hamas says the Egyptians did it on purpose, and their spokesmen are livid. The Guardian doesn't say anything: no story here, move on. The BBC says the men died but can't figure out how. On the other hand, the item does note that Israel killed a Palestinian yesterday.

Rabbi Tony!

Some of you will recollect a small discussion we had here last year, about a fibber calling himself Rabbi Tony Jutner. Jutner is a spoof, who leaves outlandish comments on the Forward website so as to churn things up.

Well, he has now made an appearance here, at this small-time blog. Victor spotted him immediately.

One of the folks from the Forward later told me they try to delete Tony's comments, since he's obviously an unruly. I don't think I'll delete him unless he becomes a major pain - why, I don't even delete Fake-Ibrahim's comments, so how could I delete comments by a fake rabbi? However, I do recommend that no-one get upset by him.

(Also, Tony, if you'd like to post some info about who you really are, I promise I won't tell anyone).

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Don't Divide Jerusalem: Abu Tor Preview

I've been walking a lot along the suggested border through Jerusalem, making short videos of what it looks like. This evening I'm putting up a quick preview of Abu Tor:
This snapshot was taken from Mount Zion, near the cemetery where Oscar Schindler is buried, looking south. The neighborhood on the next hill is AbuTor, and the red line runs between Jewish residences on the right (Israel, according to the Clinton Diktat) and Arab ones on the left (Palestine, according to the same principle). The reality in Abu Tor is actually quite a bit worse than this snapshot makes it seem, but this is rather bad. Keep in mind: dividing the city might bring peace - but if not, that red line will be a hostile border.

In this post here I walking in Abu Tor and looked at how dividing it will look like from it's alleys.

Human Rights Watch Watch, next Installment

Jeffrey Goldberg from center left, and Noah Pollak from sort of right, both warmly recommend Benjamin Birnbaum's long piece in The New Republic about Human Rights Watch and Israel.

Someday perhaps a historian will set out to unravel the sorry tale of Human Rights Watch and Israel. He or she will gain access to the organization's archive and will peruse all the reports, but also the story behind them. Who was put on which stories and with which intentions. What was said at which meeting. Which funds were solicited, and with which strings attached (there are always strings attached, make no mistake). She'll figure out what external players were important, why, and she'll track their paper trail (well, digital paper trail). Her study will probably be mildly devastating, and thereafter it will be cited in the footnotes of three separate books on the history of antisemitism in the early 21st century. Then the matter will sink into the oblivion it probably deserves. Israeli high-school students of the mid-22nd century will not have heard of HRW.

Birnbaum's report isn't that research. He's a journalist, not a researcher. His effort, however, is available now, not in that distant then, and it's important reading if you're of the opinion that HRW is a significant actor in the war of words against the Jewish state.

A short synopsis, if you lack the time or inclination to read the report:
1. The HRW folks who focus on Israel really really don't like us.
2. They scrupulously refuse to deal with the context of Israel's actions. This means, they are structurally dishonest.
3. The HRW folks have extremely thin skins - they can't stand criticism - which they guard by doing their best to shut out anyone who might offer any criticism.

You'd think that last point would be odd coming from people who's entire undertaking is the dishing out of criticism - but only if you've not been paying attention to any of them. If you have been paying attention, it's a banal observation. Of course they've got thin skins. They are holier than the rest of us, and aspersions on holy people are heretic.

No Orthodox Women Rabbis. Yet.

An important council of Modern Orthodox Rabbis in America has decreed that women may not be ordained as rabbis.

Well, given that 25 years ago it would never have occurred to them to even think of such an option, it's hard to deny that change is in the air. As a codicil to the intense discussion we had last week about American Jewish denominations in Israel, allow me to observe that to the best of my knowledge, this change will eventually happen in Israel before America, because the Jewish world's top-notch Jewish learning is happening here. And Jewish learning is far more important in forming Jewish identity than synagogue practices. Jewish learning is the entire story, the means and the ends, the wherewith-all, the context, the platform and the form itself. In what is definitely the major religious breakthrough of the age, Orthodox women are now learning the Jewish books with an intensity to rival the men. Not that many of them, yet, but ever more, and from early age.

An important halachic authority - a Gadol, in the parlance - takes about 50 (fifty) years of intensive study to acquire the stature, and has to have studied under previous Gedolim. This means that no woman will achieve the stature anytime soon. Conversely, however, it also means that 30 or 40 years from now the Jewish world will see the first women approaching it, and ever more thereafter. This is an unstoppable revolution, and of course, it will strengthen Judaism.

Self Perpetuating Sanctimony

Haaretz tells of a recent poll to be presented tomorrow at a conference about the public's support for democracy. At first glance, it's findings are troubling.
They found that 57.6 percent of the respondents agreed that human rights organizations that expose immoral conduct by Israel should not be allowed to operate freely. Slightly more than half agreed that "there is too much freedom of expression" in Israel. The poll also found that most of the respondents favor punishing Israeli citizens who support sanctioning or boycotting the country, and support punishing journalists who report news that reflects badly on the actions of the defense establishment. Another 82 percent of respondents said they back stiff penalties for people who leak illegally obtained information exposing immoral conduct by the defense establishment.
Lest we not appreciate how dire our situation is, the report offers the platform to some professors to clarify:
"Israelis have a distorted perception of democracy," said Daniel Bar-Tal, a professor at the university's school of education, and one of the conference's organizers. "The public recognizes the importance of democratic values, but when they need to be applied, it turns out most people are almost anti-democratic." Another conference participant, Ben-Gurion University's David Newman, called the polling results "very worrying," adding that there has been an assault on freedom of expression in recent years. "We say Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, but in Europe they are beginning to think of us otherwise," he said.
Note Prof. Newman's point of reference, because it may inform us about his broader worldview: though not asked in this poll, it's unlikely most Israelis are in awe of European political opinions - which is fine, it's a free world.

Here's a suggestion not remotely hinted at in the news item, and probably in the poll itself. When Israelis express support for the principles of freedom of speech, along with simultaneous displeasure with some expressions of it, might this somehow be connected to the fact that much of the expression has been dishonest, fraudulent, and inadvertently played directly into the eager hands of our enemies at a time of war? Take the most recent concrete case, which had to be at the top of peoples' minds as they responded to this poll: Haaretz published a story based on stolen documents which proved that the IDF had been adhering to the laws of the land and the strictures of the High Court, yet Haaretz cast the story as proof of the opposite, with no factual base for this allegation beyond an ideological conviction that "it must be so". Or the steady stream of allegations last year that the IDF had engaged in massive and intentional war crimes or worse, for which no conclusive evidence was ever produced. Might it be that the run of the mill Israeli democrat dislikes being lied about by his compatriots to the court of international public opinion?

Admittedly, they are free to say whatever they wish, our homegrown critics - though stealing thousands of secret military documents may cross a reasonable line. Yet notice that no-one is advocating any real measures against these people. There's lots of kvetching, a bit of cynical political grandstanding, and that's it. The critics are as free to act today as they ever were, which is as it should be. That they are disliked for it is merely something they've honestly earned.

If one were truly to be interested in Israelis' support for practical applications of freedom of speech, it would be better to test it where it matters. I dare anyone to bring evidence that many Israelis would advocate shutting down of informants, internal or other, who informed us of unpleasant realities. Criminal activities by figures of power, say, or life-endangering idiocy in the armed forces, or massive corruption in the government, civil service and banks.... Wot, those are all reported on? Huh?

(My apologies that the sources are all in Hebrew, but that's the language we have our free speech in, not English)

Bad Taste at Auschwitz

A group of Knesset members participated in the two-day March of the Living program at Auschwitz a few weeks ago, and complained bitterly about the food. According to the Hebrew-language original of the article, they also complained about having to fly tourist class.


Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Don't Divide Jerusalem: Context

Jerusalem cannot be divided without havoc and bloodletting. I hope to offer a series of posts to demonstrate why. Today's post looks at the geography and at borders.

I'm assuming anyone who knows how to read a blog also knows how to use Google Earth, so the images I've downloaded should be merely a guide to your own viewing. Let's start with a screen-shot of central Israel, an area smaller than Los Angeles.
You can see (sort of) that Jerusalem sits on the top of a north-south ridge of hills. Directly to its north is the town of Ramallah, directly to its south the town of Bethlehem. Directly to its east is the Judean Desert. Since Google has helpfully added the Green Line of 1949-1967 (in red), to the west of the city you can see the Jerusalem Corridor, a finger of territory that connects the city to the rest of Israel, while jutting into the West Bank. Before 1967 Jerusalem was not only divided, it was surrounded on three sides by hostile enemy territory. From its vantage points on the high peaks of Nabi Samuel to the north, and Beit Jallah to the south, the Jordanian army could see just about the entire city below.

Let's get closer to the city itself.
I've marked two significant points. To the north is the Atarot airstrip (circled in light blue), and down to the right, the Holy Basin. Each plays a different role in the story. First, the airstrip.

Between 1949 and 1967 West Jerusalem was the capital of Israel, and it grew significantly. East Jerusalem wasn't the capital of anything, and didn't grow. In June 1967 when Israel took over the entire town, the Jordanian "half" of it was a small area, almost completely inside the yellow frame. To the north, well outside town, was a small airstrip, near where there had been a Jewish village of Atarot until it was conquered by the Jordanians in 1948. In June 1967 a team of three Israeli generals - Uzi Narkis, Shlomo Lahat, and retired general Moshe Dayan - were told to draw a new municipal line. They felt the airstrip had to be inside it, and so they invented a new definition of the city which had no history and not very much logic.(Source for the map) This artificial town had a population of about 250,000, 70,000 of them Palestinians from the Jordanian side, many of whom did not know they were in Jerusalem until the Israelis told them. Had you asked them they'd have said they lived in Um Tuba, or Kfar Akeb, and so on. Israel then proceeded to annex the area inside the line, to offer citizenship to it's populace (they mostly didn't take it), and to "force" upon them the benefits of permanent residents such social security and later universal health care, when we all got it. (Those they did take).

Since 1967 the city has roughly trebled in size, to about 800,000, of them some 250,000 Palestinians. The Palestinians spread out from their villages, some of which connected to each other and to the center. The Jews spread out in the west, and added 10 new neighborhoods in the new areas beyond the old border. Nine of them appear on the above map, and one (Ramat Shlomo), the most recent, doesn't. They are, north to south: Neve Yaakov, Pisgat Zeev, Ramot, Ramat Shlomo, Ramat Eshkol (including Sanhedria), French Hill, the Jewish Qurter of the Old City, East Talpiot, Gilo, and Har Homa. There's also an industrial area of mostly Jewish-owned companies way to the north, next to the airstrip, but no-one lives there. The airstrip, by the way, is defunct. So much for that miscalculation.

The historical heart of Jerusalem is called the Holy Basin. It's a new name, which first entered the political discussion in the Camp David discussions of summer 2000: Ehud Barak was willing to consider handing over the outer Palestinian neighborhoods, the Um Tubas and the Kfar Akebs which probably should never have been defined as Jerusalem in the first place, but was loth to divide the truly historical heart of Jerusalem. There is no official definition of what precisely fits into the Holy Basin, but it's more or less the area between Mount Scopus to the north and the Hill of Evil Council to the south, or perhaps less, depending upon whom you ask. (The Hill of Evil Council, by the way, is a New Testament name, upon which the British built their government house, and the UN sits until this very day. I spoof you not).The center of the Holy Basin is the Old City, which actually isn't the oldest part of town. To it's north I've marked the Sheikh Jarrah area, and to its south I've marked the City of David-Silwan area - which is the oldest part of the city, predating the wrongly named Old City by about 2,000 years.
I've marked five sections of the Old City. Green for the Muslim Quarter, red for the Christian Quarter, blue for the Armenian Quarter, fuchsia for the Jewish Quarter, and yellow for the Temple Mount, called Haram el-Shariff by the Muslims. Jerusalem not being New York, the resolution offered by Google Earth becomes less helpful when you get closer than this altitude above the city, but maybe in a future post, when I try to show the silliness of dividing the city, I'll try none-the-less.

Proposed borders: Jerusalem hasn't been divided, nor has anyone ever officially agreed on how to divide it. Yet since 2000 there has been much discussion of such a division, and of course a total international consensus that it must happen (except for those who disagree). For the purpose of my future posts on the matter, in which I shall try to show why the city cannot feasibly be divided, I'm following the contours of this international consensus. Its principles were formulated by President Bill Clinton on Dec. 24th 2000, and they're very simple: areas where Jews live in will be in Israel, areas where Palestinians live in will be in Palestine. The Temple Mount-Haram elSharif will be in Palestine because the Palestinians really really want it and there are mosques on it. Where possible - open areas, for example - the border will be the Green line of 1949-67.

The folks who agreed on the Geneva Initiative have gone to a lot of effort to make detailed maps of the various sections of town and who they'll belong to; compare their polished output to my slap-dash ones and you'll be impressed, I assure you. The whole 10-piece series is here. Their lines are pretty much what Clinton had in mind, and I expect his wife and her boss agree. So my task in the coming posts will be to show what the reality will look like, and why you wouldn't want anyone you know to have to live in it.

Next chapter: The nine logical outcomes of dividing Jerusalem

The Jews ARE to Blame for the Volcano, After All

Don't say you didn't see this coming. Judeosphere has the story.

Fred Halliday, 1946-2010

Fred Halliday died yesterday, and I first heard of his existence, via Normblog, today. The Guardian has an obituary, which as you'd expect casts Halliday as one of them, in the negative meaning of the term. Yet Norm is more serious than the Guardian, and if he's mourning the passing of an important scholar, I decided to look a bit further. It took only a few minutes to find this list of articles he's written in recent years. David Hartman taught me many years ago that the best way to show respect for the passing of a scholar is to read something he or she has written (this was on the death of Gershom Scholem), so I picked two of Halliday's articles from the list. This one, about Palestine Tibet and other entities that did or didn't attain statehood, and this one in which he reported his thoughts on a visit to Auschwitz.

The articles demonstrate a breadth and depth of knowledge which are mostly lacking in public discourse. More important, they express an ideological commitment tempered by rational investigation. I get the feeling that he and I might have disagreed on some rather important matters in the areas where our expertize overlapped (he knew about lots of things I don't, and I know about some things he didn't). Yet we would have been able to disagree on rational grounds; indeed, we'd have been able to explain to each other in calm tones where our differences came from, and we'd each have come away from the discussion at least with an intellectual acceptance of the sources of the other fellow's positions. We could have had a rational discussion, in short.

Not something to take for granted, unfortunately. So may he rest in peace, but his intellectual example continue to reverberate.

Monday, April 26, 2010

More on American Judaism in Israel and Why Not

There's an interesting conversation going on (if I say so myself) about Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel, and why it isn't much to write home about, in the comments thread of my previous post on the topic. So rather than cut and paste, I'm informing you: if the theme interests you, you can go back here, and read the comments...

Sunday, April 25, 2010

James Traub Reads the Goldstone Report

James Traub at Current Affairs has read the Goldstone report. He deals mostly with the questions of how a democracy defends itself against an enemy accepts no rules, and is even willing - fleetingly - to consider if the rules as they currently stand may not be unreasonable. My reading was far more critical than his, but if his were the accepted wisdom, I could live with it.

Oops! Fixed the link, I hope, and thank you to Silke for noticing.

Guardians of the iPad

Last week the Guardian reported that Israel was banning imports of the iPad and confiscating them at the airport.

Was this news worthy of publication in the Guardian? Well, mit-a-kvetch, at best. One way of testing the editorial sincerity was always going to be if they also noted the revoking of the ban.

It has now been revoked, about a week later (and remember that Monday of the week was half a workday, and Tuesday not at all). The Washington Post knows that the tests were positive and the ban was lifted. The Guardian doesn't yet know. Perhaps it got blocked in the post-volcanic turmoil, and tomorrow or next year they'll fix their earlier report. Or not. It depends.

Religious Freedom in Israel

A reader who calls herself Laura SF left this comment on an earlier post
My husband & I talk about it from time to time, usually in the context of "If the U.S. starts turning seriously antisemitic..." Until there is real freedom of religion for Jews in Israel, I can't see any sizable number of American Jews moving there for any reason. It's not "easier to be a Jew" there unless by that you mean haredi or identified-but-secular. And don't get me started about the "who is a Jew" madness... (my italics)
Let's see if we can unravel this a bit.

Laura is referring to the limitations on Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel, of course. Yet what are they, in reality, why are they there, and what might be done about it?

There are no limitations on religious behavior, of course. It's a free country and people can believe in whatever they wish. Moreover, they can organize to believe in the public sphere, too. Within short walking distance of where I sit right now there is a Reform synagogue, two or three Conservative ones, and a handful of experimental ones which play on the edges of Conservative and Modern Orthodox, if you're using American terminology. There are also a couple of Haredi yeshivas, three churches, and if you're willing to walk twenty minutes there are lots of mosques, of course. There are dozens of orthodox synagogues of all hues and colors, a convent - and of course, lots of secular folks who never visit any of these institutions. There's an Arab family who recently moved into our building, but that's a different subject.

As I write I can hear the bells of a church: it's Sunday morning, mind.

All in all, it's as free and open a place as any.

The issues Laura is referring to exist, of course, but they're limited to the legal status of rabbis. For reasons I'm not going to get into this morning, marriages in Israel must be religious (Jewish Muslim Druze or Christian), though civil marriages performed elsewhere are recognized, and civil unions have legal standing as marriages for just about all purposes. The implications are that only orthodox rabbis may officiate at weddings, and people with no Jewish grandparents who wish to move to Israel under the Law of Return must have been converted by an orthodox rabbi. (Or use a loophole, of which there are a number). (Or come in on the refuge track, or as cheap labor and then have children and stay...)

So to be clear the real question isn't who's a Jew, but who's a rabbi. On that one the honest answer is that Orthodox rabbis of all hues are recognized, and the others: not. Or mostly not. I recently celebrated at a wedding officiated at by an American-trained Conservative rabbi. I didn't ask which loophole he used.

Why is this so? Because of democracy. There used to be a very large majority of Israeli Jews who instinctively defined a rabbi by the orthodox terms, even though many of them were secular. Secular Israeli Jews accepted the orthodox definitions; as the joke went: the synagogue they didn't go to was always orthodox. Back in the days when the rules were legislated, there was next to no constituency in Israel for Reform or Conservative Judaism.

Over time this has been slowly changing. There's a chain of schools - Tali, it's called - which is pretty recognizably Conservative. Rabbi Ehud Bender, the top Conservative rabbi, is a public figure whom the media, at least, treats as a rabbi. Non-orthodox representatives sit on the municipal panels that deal with matters such as Kashrut. Yet it's slow going, for the simple reason that the orthodox rabbis are entrenched in the institutions, and dislodging them or even simply adding others alongside them takes political action. In a democracy, political action succeeds when enough people want it to. If the orthodox don't want change, and the secular are fine with the orthodox rabbis so long as they don't interfere in their own lives, who's going to force through change? It will have to be newcomers.

The Russians wish to change some things, which is an important motivation to vote for Lieberman's Yisrael Beitainu party - but he's got only 12% of the vote, which is far from a majority. Meretz used to be in favor of such changes, but their insistence on disconnecting from reality on more important matters has eroded their representation down to almost nothing.

The bottom line, Laura, is that you've got it backwards. Were 500,000 Reform or Conservative Jews to move to Israel, learn the ropes, and set out to change the way Israel does these things, they'd be joined by a reasonable number of people who are already here, and they'd have their change or at least a compromise that everyone could live with- and Israel would be a stronger place for their being here. Sitting far away and kvetching about things from the sidelines isn't going to help.

The neighborhood I live in is proof: it has an unusually high concentration of former Americans - and look at all the options on offer.

A final comment: I have gone to services at the nearby Reform synagogue three or four times in recent years. Each time I go I'm struck anew by the degree to which they aren't that different from the other synagogues all around them, but they are different from Reform or Conservative places I've gone to in the US. The difference is because of Hebrew. The moment the service is in Hebrew, and therefore it's point of departure is the traditional service and prayerbook, it fits onto the continuum of what Orthodox synagogues do. Perhaps it's just off the edge of the continuum, but recognizably so. This, compared to services I've seen in some American places which I was hard put to recognize.

PS. The wrong rabbis are taking control of the Western Wall. This is a real problem - but it's the result of the fact that all the rest of us let it happen.

Update: Barry corrects me. The Conservative rabbi is Ehud Bendel, not Bender, but he has moved elsewhere. I expect the most obvious person who now occupies the same social-political position is Uri Regev, a Reform rabbi.

Temporary Permanence

Are Israel and the Palestinians inching towards some sort of renewed negotiations? I have no idea. George Mitchel is going back and forth, so on that level you could say they're deep into negotiations and have been for a while. On the other hand, no officials from either side have met officials from the other side, so far as we know, since Abbas forgot to reply to Ehud Olmer's offer of September 16 2008. So who knows.

In any case, in the present flurry of whatever they are it seems Netanyahu has floated some sort of idea, whereby the Palestinians get a state without its final border being defined. Abbas rejected that idea out of hand yesterday, and Avi Issacharof takes a closer look. In the Hebrew edition of Haaretz his article is titled "Ein al ma ledaber", Nothing to talk about, but the English version toned that down to a non-committal Chilly reply. The English version also left out a crucial explanation for the Palestinian rejection: the fear the temporary borders might eventually become permanent (this sentence, along with another few, were dropped in translation).

There's a deep irony in this Palestinian fear, of course. Back in 1949 it was the Arab states (Egypt, Jordan and Syria) who refused to recognize Israel's borders, in the hope or expectation or intention of changing them in the future to Israel's detriment. (The Palestinians were not part of those discussions at all, since the Egyptians and Jordanians had no interest in a Palestinian state). Moreover, as Michael Oren has documented in his excellent Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East, in the 1950s the Americans and the British both floated plans to reduce Israel's size for this or that purpose. The line of 1949-1967 became an official border sanctioned by international consensus only after the Israelis overran it in 1967.

Near the end of his item, Issacharoff mentions that there is one camp in the Palestinian polity which still sees the world in the terms of 1949, i.e Palestinian borders with Israel should be temporary:
Among the Palestinians, only Hamas does not reject the idea of something temporary. In the past, but also recently, the Islamist group suggested the creation of an interim Palestinian state. But Hamas' interim borders are very clear: June 4, 1967.

Nathaniel Popper Goes to a Wedding

Departing Forward reporter Nathaniel Popper tells of how he found significance in his Jewish identity. Sort of.

It's nice. Yet as I've said here repeatedly, being Jewish demands staying power; without it Jews cease being Jewish, or their grandchildren do. There's nothing I can discern in this story that tells of staying power, merely a moderate measure of good feelings.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Goldstone Goes to a Bar Mitzva

Not that this is a particularly important story, but it now appears Richard Goldstone will be able to participate in his grandson's bar mitzva after all - which is certainly the outcome the grandson probably wished for.
The South African Jewish Board of Deputies, which represents most of the country’s synagogues, issued a statement that outlined something like a quid pro quo: a promise of no protests on the bar mitzvah boy’s big day, in exchange for a meeting between the judge and leaders of the South African Zionist Federation and other Jewish organizations.
I'm not privy to any more information about this than anyone else, but it sounds to me that the leaders of South African Jewry took upon themselves to recommend to their community members not to demonstrate against the judge, if in return he'd meet them and listen to their displeasure of him.

Which would seem to indicate that prior to the kerfuffle, he wasn't willing to meet them. Sounds like a jolly fellow and a stalwart of his community.

Friday, April 23, 2010

An Odd Rumor About America's Jews

A fellow I know who is normally a reasonable chap, well respected in his profession, good sense of humor but serious when called for, politics a bit to the left of what intelligent folks ought to think but generally an upright citizen, recently told me a very outlandish tale. He insists it's true, and claims to have seen part of the documentation.

Apparently someone did a large survey not long ago and found that about one third of American Jews, i.e. more than one and a half million people, might consider moving to Israel; of that third, a third (so, a number above 500,000) would be actively willing to discuss how such a move might be realized. The Jewish Agency knows about this survey, but is keeping mum rather than running with it, out of fear their donors will be peeved, since many of the donors wish to strengthen American Jewry, not see Jews move to Israel.

How plausible is any of this? Not very, to my mind. Over the past 62 years there probably haven't been 100,000 American Jews who moved to Israel and stayed. It's a free country (both), so if they wanted to, no one would stop them; even Icelandic volcanoes don't get in the way since it's possible to fly further south. I rather doubt there are 500,000 American Jews who give much thought to Israel in their daily lives; 1,500,000 willing to consider moving here sounds outlandish; even more so as at least 75% of American Jews have never visited Israel, ever.

It doesn't make sense - even though we do have cheap universal health care that keeps Israelis alive (statistically) longer than Americans. The part about the Jewish Agency suppressing the survey, though, for fear of causing a rumpus: that part is of course easily believable. The Jewish Agency is not the force it once was, when David Ben Gurion was its boss.

So that's the story. If any of you can add anything to substantiate or disprove this new urban legend, feel free. Even if not, perhaps the mere spreading of the legend will make people think about it.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Spy Update

Has anyone heard of the return of Uri Blau? Way back two weeks ago when everyone was all agog about how Israel was blocking the media and persecuting journalists as part of a campaign to put an end to democracy, he was said to be holed up in London to protect his sources. Eventually Anat Kamm's lawyers announced that since she was his source, and she was interested in the documents she stole being returned to their owners, she was relinquishing her claim to his protection.

A day or two later that volcano exploded and it was hard to travel from London (this probably proves that the Zionists were not to blame for the event since it got in their way), but that excuse is growing a bit stale. So if anyone has heard that Blau came back and returned the stolen documents, please contact me, because it apparently happened while I was out walking the dog.

Readers' Blogs

I'm tickled to see the variety of bloggers who seem to come by this blog from time to time. I don't need to tell you about the big ones, but I thought it might be nice to plug the less well known ones, as a public service.

Morey Altman and Jon Dyson are recent-ish immigrants to Israel; Alex Stein (yes, that Alex Stein) also sort of fits into the category. At first glance Alex has a cool picture of Tel Aviv on his banner, until at second glance you see that it's a few years old and omits a whole clutch of high-rise buildings. You might want to update your skyline, Alex.

Bataween has been here quite a while: the last Jews of Iraq managed to get out, at great danger, many years ago, and I don't think she was of the last. Where most of us chatter away endlessly about the frothy daily news, Point of no return is an original blog that offers an unusual perspective. I don't know how often Bataween comes by here, but her occasional forays have brought her to my attention.

Under the category of "improbables" we've got Sparrow chatter, a woman who lives on the southern island of New Zealand, which is about as far from the Middle East as you can go, and I'm not talking geography. Perhaps she visits this blog to save the hassle of traveling to outer space. But if you think she's from faraway, imagine PJ, a fellow from Bali, Indonesia. I literally fell off my chair when he announced himself one day not that long ago, and that was the moment I decided to do this post by and by.

Another One Bites the Dust

Remember how last August Robert Malley and Hussain Agha, the world's two most effective apologists for the Palestinians, came out and said explicitly that peace between Israel and Palestinians was not realistic? At the time I noted that while they still weren't exactly Zionists, they were essentially admitting the truth of what most Israelis have been saying for a decade.

Now it's the turn of Aaron Miller, a professional peace-processor rather high in all American administrations since the 1980s, and not famous for his warmth towards Israel. Well, he now admits not only that peace can't be had, but also that the dogmas that motivated him, his bosses and colleagues, and the current president, were only that: dogmas. Articles of faith. And false ones, to boot.

He never manages to come out and say: peace is impossible because the Palestinians won't accept it in any form any rational Israelis can offer. He's not that far gone yet. Short of that, however, he basically says what a majority of Israelis have been saying for a decade (and a minority, myself not included, said even earlier). Which of course begs the question: OK, so you've been wrong all along and only now admit it. What would have happened if we'd listened to you and your bosses, various presidents of the United States, only later to learn that you'd been wrong? Why should we take the current one any more seriously?

Read the whole article
. It's a humdinger.

h/t Powerline

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Fanatics, Left and Right

Well, that was certainly fun, wasn't it.

I've been giving rather a lot of attention to the Israelis at the far left fringe who, intentionally or merely irresponsibly, aid and abet Israel's enemies in their campaign to bring it to its knees through lawfare, diplomacy, boycotts and other methods of delegitimization. This morning I thought I'd engage in a spot of even-handed balancing, so I criticized the fanatics of our political right. Had I given it much thought I'd have said I was (temporarily) siding with my lefty readers, of whom there are a number, including two who identify themselves.

It didn't work out that way. I was offline all day, but when I got back I found some 25 comments dissecting what I'd said from all directions.

First, my thanks to all the participants for the civil discussion. Blog discussions often don't remain civilized very long, and I'm honored that the ones on this blog mostly do.

The fact that our resident representatives of the hard left took umbrage at a post that was mostly critical of the far right is instructive. It rather reinforces my observation that the extremes are not only similar, they even feed off one another - which of course is not a new observation nor original, there are many historical examples. Fanatics will be fanatics; what makes them far from the mainstream is common to them all. So for those of you who questioned my use of the term "loonies", I was applying it as it usually is meant: folks who have severed themselves from the diverse perspectives to which a very large majority of their society adheres. When you've got a free and democratic society, with the diversity of opinion that such societies have, and then you've got small splinter groups of odd folks way off at the edge, I don't see the harm in calling them loonies.

Alex and Didi engaged in a spot of sleight of hand. They claimed I had said that the extremes of left and right have in common their eagerness or willingness to be violent; then they got all worked up about this accusation, though I hadn't actually said it.

So first, to be clear: yes, there are elements in Israel's looniest left who engage in violence against Israeli security forces. Not in murder, nor in terror as in random attacks of civilians, but low-level violence against officials of the state going about their legal and reasonable actions? Yes. Some of it has been reported in the media, some of it I take from the stories of my son Achikam who has been at the brunt of it as a soldier doing his job near Bil'in last year.

The reason Alex and Didi tried that rhetoric trick is that while political life-endangering violence in Israel has always been extremely rare, there has been a bit of it from right on left, and almost none from left on right. This gives the left a feeling of moral superiority. Yet the whole phenomenon is so limited and rare, that this is more sanctimony than plausible political reasoning. I can think of two political assassinations in 60 years, and a handful of attempts that may or may not have been intentionally unsuccessful. Tarnishing an entire camp with that thin a brush isn't reasonable, and exonerating the other camp for being the victim is feeble reasoning.

Anyway, it's a red herring, as Gavin calmly explained. Our loony left and frenzied right don't engage in the exact same activities: that's obvious. The right attacks innocent Palestinians, while the left undermines Israel's legitimacy as a democracy; the fanatics to the right are thugs, while their counterparts to the left are well-heeled academics, legal types and journalists; the ones to the right look outlandish in almost any setting while the ones on the left could easily melt into the background at a posh European conference - but that's the point, not an exoneration.

One of the most peculiar things about our loony left is how extraordinarily thin their skin is. They dish out barrels of filth, much of it either dishonest, downright false or at best tendentious, and they do so ever more often in foreign languages for the gleeful consumption of our enemies; yet whenever anyone calls them out for doing so, they shriek to the high heavens that democracy is being tortured to extinction. Jest yesterday we had yet another example.

Amir Benayoun is an orthodox singer who uses Arab forms of music. It was my intention to slow down the shirim ivri'im thread now, but sooner or later I'll obviously need to discuss the Sephardi music and its great contribution to Israeli music. I presented Benyoun briefly the other day.

This week Benayoun recorded a sing called Ani Achicha, I am Your Brother. The Hebrew lyrics are already up at, here; there's no English translation up, nor am I convinced there will be. Im Tirzu posted the recording on You Tube.

What the song is about depends, apparently, on the beholder. The lyrics themselves express anguish. They are sung from the perspective of a young reservist, calling on his lefty brother to desist from hating him since they're brothers. I defend you, you spit on me; the enemy doesn't manage to kill me but you're trying to; as I charge forward my back is to you, but you're sharpening your knife; I'm your brother you're the enemy; I love you hate.

It's not a nice song. Nor is it fair, since there are soldiers of both political camps in the same combat units, and both camps have their share of shirkers. The most potent line in my opinion is Ata mosser oti le-Zar, you're turning me over to foreigners - except that the term mosser has centuries of baggage to it, and is a devastating accusation. (Jews who have betrayed their brothers to persecution are, alas, not as rare as we'd like).

Having read the lyrics over and over, and watched the video repeatedly, it seems to me a song of anguish, not hatred. In no scenario is it a threat to democracy.

Unless you read Haaretz. They put their story about it on the front page of the Hebrew paper edition (alas, not on their English-language website). The item uses all the tricks of the trade, telling of "enormous anger" but without any quantification and citing two excitable sources as if they're vox populi in classic Guardian agitprop style. Since these are quotations you can't quite attribute them to Haaretz itself, which is merely reporting. Of course, no quotations of supporters are forthcoming.

The final paragraph offers the observation of one Igor (no last name): "Benayoun stole his lyrics from the songs of Hoerst Wesel".

I don't think there were songs (plural) of Hoerst Wesel, only one - but that one was the Nazi battle song. So Haaretz has cast Amir Benayoun as a Nazi. Because he doesn't like the NIF.

Religion or Nation

The Jews are so old as a group, they may be the only ones left still embodying the ancient combination of religious group and nation. Spending centuries dispersed among other nations played up the religious aspect. The ability to live on equal terms (well, sort of) as members of European host nations (though never in the Muslim world) encouraged some Jews to reaffirm their nationhood, and create the political movement of Zionism. Having a national state adds further complexity to the story.

The non-Jewish Israelis, be they Russian speakers who arrived as descendants of Jews, or African, Asian or South-American laborers who came to replace Palestinians too busy with intifadas to be reliable workers, there's a largish number of young people who have grown up in Israel, speak Hebrew as their natural language, and regard themselves as Israelis. Unlike the fanatics at either end of the political spectrum, they join the large majority of their peers as proud Zionists, eager to serve in the military and then live their lives here.

It's my opinion - not shared by all - that people such as they, obviously members of the Jewish nation, should be accepted fully, and we'll have to find a reasonable solution to the entry on the religious track.

A Plague on Both Their Houses

I've been giving rather a lot of attention to the tiny group of Israelis, a few thousand at most, who systematically spew out lies about their country for consumption by millions worldwide who lap it eagerly up.

There is of course another group of fanatic extremists at the opposite end of the political spectrum, violent chauvinists who attack Palestinian villagers or IDF troops sent to preserve order with equal moral obtuseness. Yesterday they celebrated Yom Haatzmaut, for example, by rampaging.

As so often in these matters, the longer you observe them the more these groups begin to resemble each other, the more they feed off one another and encourage each other, and the more they need each other to justify their own actions.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Naomi Shemer: the First Prophetic Song

Noami Shemer (1930-2004) was the single most important writer of shirim ivri'im ever (lyrics and music). Her earliest ones were recorded in the late 1950s, and she kept on writing until shortly before her death. Many are at the center of the canon. Yet the uncanny thing about her was her ability to write shirim that defined pivotal historical events, and always in advance. There was something truly prophetic about her.

Her first prophetic moment was this very night, the night after Independence Day, in 1967.

In those days the final act of the holiday was a nationally live broadcast song festival, in which 12 new songs competed. They didn't have computers, iPhones, text messaging and all the other things we can't imagine life without, so the 12 songs would be preformed, then the audience in Binyanaei Haumah, Jerusalem's largest theater, would vote with old-fashioned slips of paper in envelopes, and it would take an hour to count the results. During that hour there'd be time filler of some sort. As the festival of 1967 was being prepared, the new mayor of Jerusalem, the extremely well connected Teddy Kollek, convinced the organizers that the time filler should relate to Jerusalem. So after the audience listened to the 12 contestants, voted, and went to the bathroom, they settled down to bide the time. Soon a young woman no-one had ever heard of climbed onto the stage with her guitar and sang. It was the first new song about Jerusalem written in the 19 years since independence and the partition of the city; it was a cry of pain that the city was divided.

The audience went wild. Never had a song caused so much excitement. By the next morning the entire county was singing Yerushalayim Shel Zahav, Jerusalem of Gold. It had struck some deep and unsuspected chord of regret: yes, we've got a state, but no, we're not back in Jerusalem. Not all is right.

What made the moment prophetic was that at the exact, precise moment that Shuly Natan was performing the song for the first time, Gamal Nasser, Egypt's president, was smashing the international agreements of 1956 by sending his divisions into the Sinai, in a move that within three weeks had precipitated the Six Day War. The song, which had mourned the fact that access to most of the holy sites of Jerusalem was banned by the Jordanians, was seen as the harbinger of the reunification of the city, and the ability of Jews to revisit their city. When the paratroopers reached the Kotel, the Western Wall, three weeks later, they sang Yerushalayim Shel Zahav with the full force of a prayer literally come true. Shemer quickly added a stanza about how we're back, and the song became the anthem of reunification.

Till this day Yerushalayim Shel Zahav stands above the canon of shirim ivri'im; it's the closest thing secular Israel has ever produced to a holy text.

Hebrew words
English translation

The mountain air is clear as wine
And the scent of pines
Is carried on the breeze of twilight
With the sound of bells.

And in the slumber of tree and stone
Captured in her dream
The city that sits solitary
And in its midst is a wall.

Jerusalem of gold
And of bronze, and of light
Behold I am a violin for all your songs.

How the cisterns have dried
The market-place is empty
And no one frequents the Temple Mount
In the Old City.

And in the caves in the mountain
Winds are howling
And no one descends to the Dead Sea
By way of Jericho.


But as I come to sing to you today,
And to adorn crowns to you (i.e. to tell your praise)
I am the smallest of the youngest of your children (i.e. the least worthy of doing so)
And of the last poet (i.e. of all the poets born).

For your name scorches the lips
Like the kiss of a seraph
If I forget thee, Jerusalem,
Which is all gold...


We have returned to the cisterns
To the market and to the market-place
A ram's horn calls out on the Temple Mount
In the Old City.

And in the caves in the mountain
Thousands of suns shine -
We will once again descend to the Dead Sea
By way of Jericho!


Here's the original recording from May 1967, followed by a 2002 one of the full song. Both are sung by Shuly Natan. In the latter recording she is introduced by Ehud manor, whom I've already introduced.

Things People Talk About

Over Yom Haatzmaut, Independence Day, I spent time talking to people in a number of social events. Here are some of the things I heard:

A friend who runs a company that produces high-class tools for the creation of other tools ("our equipment is the Rolls-Royce of the field: expensive but the best") told me they've been selling to unfriendly countries such as Indonesia, and in recent weeks they've been approached by a potential client in Pakistan. A second friend who was standing with us told of other Israeli companies who sell to the Arab world, mostly via Jordan and often in Jordanian packaging to hide the Israeli provenance. Someone ought to tell the boycott folks.

A North-American journalist who has been reporting on the MidEast for a generation tells me the lack of a peace process enables all sides to live in practical peace; once negotiations start again they'll have to re-start the violence.

A Canadian who lives in Israel these past 30 years remarks, apropos Obama's plans to regulate American banks: Canada has strict bank regulations and sailed through the recent turmoil mostly unharmed. Israel has strict bank regulations, and sailed through likewise unscathed. America has light bank regulations, and look where they are.

The cutting edge in military technology is robots: drones, jeeps, and science fiction spy tools all operated from afar by highly trained soldiers who can't be harmed by the battlefield conditions. Israel is in the forefront of this technology, alongside the US.

Three if not four people separately remarked on the 20th of April as Hitler's birthday. Two of them are children of Holocaust survivors, so that's where that complex comes from; one came from Russia, and one was a thirty-something from North Africa. Jews are a screwed up bunch.

Volcanoes make humans look very small. Everyone agreed on that one.

Mother of all Shirim

Naftali Herz Imber, a Romanian Jew, wrote Hatikva, The Hope, following a visit to Eretz Israel in 1878. It was popular among the early settlers of what eventually was called the first aliya, 1882-1904. Seen in historical perspective, it was an expression of the sea-change in Jewish history that was beginning at the time: the sentiments of Jewish aspirations to rebuild a national center in the historical homeland was not new - on the contrary, it was banal. Yet articulating it in a secular poem, putting it to music and singing it by people who took the concept as a practical guideline to be enacted by secular Jews, that was novel, and soon proved to be profoundly revolutionary.

Interestingly, Hatikva first took on the status of a quasi-anthem at the sixth Zionist Conference in 1903. Herzl had tabled a suggestion that the movement consider a British proposal to move European Jews to eastern Africa (the Uganda Plan), and the majority of delegates, who unlike him understood what Judaism was about, were horrified; they resoundingly sang Hatikva to make clear their point that their aspirations were about the national homeland, not some African backwater. Thereafter the song became the de-facto anthem of the Zionist movement, being officially adopted in 1933.

The melody derives from the same Romanian folksong which inspired Smetana when he composed Moldau.

Interestingly, while the song was always the national anthem of Israel, this was explicitly enacted only in 2004. The song in its present form is a slightly modified and shortened version of the original.

A German colleague who once happened to be visiting Israel during the week of Yom Hashoah-Yom Hazikaron-Independence Day pointed told me the Israeli national anthem is the only national anthem he's aware of which is a sad song: mostly they tend to be triumphant or martial or both.

כָּל עוֹד בַּלֵּבָב פְּנִימָה
נֶפֶשׁ יְהוּדִי הוֹמִיָּה
וּלְפַאֲתֵי מִזְרָח, קָדִימָה
עַיִן לְצִיּוֹן צוֹפִיָּה -

עוֹד לֹא אָבְדָה תִּקְוָתֵנוּ
הַתִּקְוָה בַּת שְׁנוֹת אַלְפַּיִם
לִהְיוֹת עַם חָפְשִׁי בְּאַרְצֵנוּ
אֶרֶץ צִיּוֹן וִירוּשָׁלַיִם

As long as deep within the heart
A Jewish soul stirs,
And forward, to the ends of the East
An eye looks out, towards Zion.

Our hope is not yet lost,
The hope of two thousand years,
To be a free people in our land
The land of Zion and Jerusalem
Here's a recording without words, and a recording sung by Rivka Zohar.

Monday, April 19, 2010

How Shall I Bless

Eldad Krock was a young reservist in a parachute brigade who was killed in Jerusalem on Givat Hatachmoshet, Ammunition Hill, in the Six Day War; the next morning the brigade was of the forces who took the Old City and the Western Wall. The battle itself was one of the fiercest in Israel's long history of wars.

Rachel Shapira had been in his class at school, at Kibbutz Shfayim, where they both grew up. She wrote a poem commemorating him and inserted it in the kibbutz internal news sheet.

Yair Rosenblum was staying at the Shefayim guesthouse, and came across the poem. He set it to music, and gave it to the Navy Band with which he was working at the time (1969).

The recording was the first major exposure of the soloist, Rivka Zohar.

Ma Avarech, How Shall I Bless Him, is one of the most important shirim ever, and will undoubtedly remain so until some future generation of Israelis forgets we were once at war.

I'm offering a 1969 version with the Navy Band, and a recent recording by Amir Benayun, who turns it into a sepharidi prayer.

Hebrew words
English translation
What blessings can I give this child, what can he be blessed with?
Asked the angel
What blessings can I give this child, what can he be blessed with?
Asked the angel

And he blessed him with a smile, bright as light
And he blessed him with big observing eyes
With them to catch every flower, every living creature or bird
And with a heart to feel what he sees.

What blessings can I give this adolesence , what can he be blessed with?
Asked the angel
What blessings can I give this adolesence, what can he be blessed with?
Asked the angel

And he blessed him with legs to dance for ever
And a soul to remeber all tunes
And a hand to collect shells on the beach
And a ear attentive to old and young

What blessings can I give this man , what can he be blessed with?
Asked the angel
What blessings can I give this man, what can he be blessed with?
Asked the angel

And he blessed that his hands which are used to flowers
Will succed in learning the might of the steel
And his legs to dance the roads journey
And lips to sing the command pace

What blessings can I give him , what can he be blessed with?
This child this young adult
What blessings can I give him, what can he be blessed with?
This child this young adult

I gave him all I could give
A song a smile and legs to dance
And a delicate hand and a trembling heart
What else can I bless you with?

This boy is now an angel
No one will bless him, he will never be blessed
God God God
If only you blessed him with life.

The Lost Jews of the West

Just completed the reading of a small book with a large thesis. It's the joint project of two local scholars, Arye Edrei (Law, Tel Aviv University) and Doron Mendels (History, Hebrew University). Because of the vagaries of academe, they both live in Hebrew, their research is based on sources in Hebrew Aramaic Greek and Latin, they published their findings in two articles in English, but the book which contains the fullest presentation of their findings exists only in German, Zweierlei Diaspora, Zur Spaltung der antiken juedischen Volk. The two earlier articles appeared in the Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha, 2007 and 2008.

The reason I'm getting into all the bibliographic stuff is because of my frustration that such a ground-breaking and fascinating study is hidden in such remote nooks and crannies as to ensure that no-one ever finds them, except for some dusty old eggheads.

The thesis: About 2,200 years ago the Jews split into two language groups. The Western half forgot Hebrew, and in spite of its size was eventually lost to Jewish history.

The Jewish world from the 3rd century BCE onwards was split between the western communities which spoke Greek, and the eastern ones which spoke Aramaic. The Aramaic-speaking ones knew Hebrew, read the Bible in it, created the Mishna in it, and then developed the Talmud and its auxiliary creations in Aramaic interspersed with Hebrew. In the west, meanwhile, the Bible was translated into Greek (the Septuagint), so the Greek-speakers no longer needed Hebrew and forgot it.

In the Land of Israel itself there were Jews of both camps. Moreover, until the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70CE the division was not necessarily troubling because everyone accepted the utter centrality of Jerusalem, and Jewish practice focused on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The destruction of the Temple and of Jerusalem removed the center of Judaism. The pharisees, who had already begun developing an oral law, managed to forge a new form of Judaism, rabbinic Judaism; the Jews of the west, not having any of the languages, were simply not part of it. They did not contribute to it, and there are only rare indications that they even knew it existed. Nor, as time went on, is it clear that the Jews of the east remembered that the Jews of the west were still there.

There was also the matter of Christianity: the Septuagint enabled anyone to read the Bible, and now ever growing numbers of non-Jews were claiming themselves to be Israel; this caused the rabbis to insist that their Talmudic tradition never be written: an oral tradition of immense complexity in languages most Christians didn't know would be impossible to translate and expropriate. In practice this meant dropping the Jews who couldn't participate.

Prior to the late 18th century rabbinic Judaism was the only sort there was (though within its limits it was of course extraordinarily rich and variegated). The Jews of Asia Minor, North Africa and Europe simply didn't know about it.

So how did they live? As what? Initially, they lived according to the Biblical precepts, meaning the basic laws of Kashrut and the Sabbath and holidays. Yet Edrei and Mendels speculate that many of them may have joined the early Christians, who were not obviously all that different from them initially. By and by they stopped sending money to the center, because it wasn't there anymore, and thus they lost another form of connection. And then?

In the 9th or 10th century rabbinic Judaism appears in Europe; by the 11th it is stronger there than in the east. How did this happen? The book offers no clear answer, and when I pressed Arye Edrei he said he doesn't know, because the sources are too weak. He seems to incline to the explanation that rabbinic Jews traveled to the west and settled there. Did they find remnants of the local Jews and teach them the rabbinic tradition? Was there anyone left to teach?

Which leads to the obvious question: in the long run (centuries), can Jews exist as Jews without Hebrew?

Sunday, April 18, 2010

A Forgotten War

It would be easy to go into overdrive on Memorial Day, and post 25 appropriate shirim, or 250. Instead, I'll post a lesser one this evening, and one major one tomorrow, and that's it. If there's no attempt at comprehensiveness, no one will be slighted at the ones I left out.

Between 1968-1970 there was a small and forgotten war along the Jordan River, which was now the border between the Kingdom of Jordan on the East Bank, and the Israeli-occupied West Bank. (In those days no-one considered the West Bank to belong to the Palestinians; rather it was contested by the Jordanians who had conquered it in 1948 and the Israelis who had conquered it in 1967).

Yasser Arafat's PLO was encamped on the East Bank, and was doing its best to send squads of terrorists across the river, up the gorges into the hills, and from there into Israeli towns where they were to kill civilians. Throughout their century-long war with the Jews the Palestinians have always aimed intentionally at civilians. The IDF tried two tactics to thwart this, one to stop the PLO squads on the newly constructed fence along the river, or at latest to track them down and kill them in the gorges leading up from the Jordan valley. The second tactic was to hit Jordanian targets, with the rationale that Jordan was responsible for attacks coming from its territory even though the attackers were not Jordanian troops.

Both tactics, involving armed men willing to kill, were dangerous; in any number of those hunts in the gorges IDF troops were killed, though almost no terrorist squads survived. The attacks on Jordanian territory eventually provoked King Hussein to notice that his PLO guests were severely compromising his sovereignty; in September 1970, after they hijacked three airliners into his territory he cracked down. His forces killed thousands of Palestinians; the Syrians invaded Jordan to get him to desist; the Americans asked the Israelis to prepare to stop the Syrians; the IDF amassed troops near the meeting point of the three borders; the Syrians withdrew; and the defeated PLO fled to Lebanon, where it later precipitated a civil war that lasted 15 years and killed many tens of thousands.

If you've never heard any of this, it's nonetheless true.

Our shir of the day is Mirdaf, Chase (or Pursuit), and it's about those chases in the canyons and their price. It's part of the canon of shirim in which Israelis told themselves that war was not going to cease anytime soon, though it still ends with the hope that eventually it will. It was written by Yaron London, then a rising young journalist star, and today a smug thickset elder journalist of secondary importance. The music is by Nachum Heiman, an important music-writer, and the singer is Chava Alberstein, whom we've met and will meet again.

Hebrew lyrics
English translation
A good land with honey running in her veins
While blood flows through her rivers like water.

A land with mountains of copper
But with nerves of steel.

A land marked by a history of pursuit
Two thousand pages plus one more,
Until soon
All the oxygen in her lungs is consumed
In the heat of the chase.

A land that will be pursued by her foes
And she in turn will give them pursuit.

Although she will catch her enemies, they
Shall not entrap her in the palm of their hands.

A person on the sidelines observing her life,
Suspended like a leaf quivering in the wind,

Shall be fearful.
But, as if not in the least unconcerned,
She'll wait for the end of the chase.

The end of the chase is hiding in a crevice
Secreting its face in a hideaway hole,

But in the end it will come, like the sun
That ascends in the East.

Then no more will mothers lament
Nor will fathers their sons mourn,
Yes it will come;
Our feet shall not tire until then
From pursuit of the paths of hope.

Three Differences

My friend Shlomo was killed in the first week of the 1982 war in Lebanon (nowadays we call it the First Lebanon War). We had known each other since age ten or eleven; during the war we were in the same regiment, though I was further to the south and only heard of his death a few days later. The following story happened during the shiva, the week of mourning: I distinctly remember that I somehow managed to get home for that, but the exchange was by then already the stuff of legend, and all these years later I'm no longer certain I've got it exactly as said.

The Rav Gustman lost his family in the Shoah, fought in the partisans, and then set up a yeshiva in Jerusalem; it was a haredi yeshiva in the secular neighborhood of Rechavia that didn't fit into any pigeonhole and attracted all sorts of people you wouldn't have expected. Shlomo's father, a famous professor, went to services at the Yeshiva. So it was natural that the Rav would come for a condolence visit, and here's what he told the bereaved parents.

Your son Shlomo and my son Meir are together now, and just as we're talking, so are they. Meir is telling Shlomo that he envies him three things. First, he envies him his death. I was shot like a sack of potatoes near Vilna; you, Shlomo, died in battle. Second, he envies him the reason of his death. I died for no reason, Shlomo, simply because they hate us, while you, you were fighting to defend the Jewish state. Finally, Shlomo, I envy you the life you led while you were alive. You lived in Jerusalem, in Israel.

I've said it before and I'll say it again. Israel's most important strength is the totally unwavering determination of its people. Memorial day, which started a few hours ago, is about the price of the determination, but it's also an expression of the determination itself.

Elie Wiesel on Jerusalem

CiFWatch recently alerted me to this story, about some British officials who banned an advertisement encouraging tourists to visit Israel because it carried a picture of the Western Wall, which is apparently not in Israel. (Funny: I was there earlier this morning, and no-one asked me for a passport.)

(Of course, these days no-one can travel from the UK, so perhaps it's a good thing the ad isn't running).

Someday I ought to write about where the contortions of the Lawfare folks and their supporters are taking them. A publication in what used to be a Christian society denying Jews the right to identify themselves with the single most important place in their world: this actually isn't really a new phenomenon, is it now?

I mention this in the context of the full-page ad Elie Wiesel just published in various important American newspapers, calling on everyone (or mostly: on a specific few, powerful ones) to keep in mind that Jerusalem isn't just any old place:
Its presence In Jewish history is overwhelming. There is no more moving prayer in Jewish history than the one expressing our yearning to return to Jerusalem. To many theologians, it IS Jewish history, to many poets, a source of inspiration. It belongs to the Jewish people and is much more than a city, it is what binds one Jew to another in a way that remains hard to explain. When a Jew visits Jerusalem for the first time, it is not the first time it is a homecoming. The first song I heard was my mother's lullaby about and for Jerusalem. Its sadness and its its joy are part of our collective memory.
Simply saying it as it is has become something that calls for expensive ads in important newspapers. Elie Wiesel is probably the most important moral voice in American Jewry; it remains to be seen if saying the obvious will enhance his stature or reduce it. That will be a moral test for America's Jews.

First Adsence, now Twitter

The other day I explained that because of my real job I need to experiment with stuff, and am using this blog as the laboratory. That was when I imported Adsense to this page. Now I've launched a twitter account. I'm not certain how to use it, and see no reason why any regular reader of this blog would be interested: you already know your way here, and seem to come by more or less regularly, so why would you need need twitter updates? Especially as I have absolutely no intention of twittering about what I eat for breakfast or each e-mail exchange I have with Rahm Emanuel. Still, if you believe the hype - or, in my case, trying to understand the reality behind the hype - the claim is made that twitter can enhance the readership of this blog by reaching new folks. Or not.

So I'm at twitter, at @yaacovlozowick (original, huh?).

Facebook? I'm leary of that one for the time being.

Even the Greatest of Them

There's been a flurry of condemnation of some South African Jews who disapprove of Richard Goldstone to the extent that he won't be joining the synagogue services of his grandson's bar mitzva. JTA says he has been barred; the Jerusalem Post offers a fudged version of the story, in which some of the protagonists seem to be backing away from the appearance of their decision without changing it. J.J. Goldberg at The Forward notes the story, and many of his readers think it's disgraceful.

The story emphasizes an aspect of the story of the Goldstone report not often directly mentioned: that Jews are a community, and always have been; that the community has its own internal dynamics; and that Richard Goldstone dealt his community a grievous blow by adding his stature to a nasty defamation of it. (I'm not going into the issue of the report here, because I've already done so here, but having read the entire 575 pages of it I have no problem in calling it a nasty defamation).

The tool of nidui (roughly similar to the Greek practice of ostracism) has been one of the most powerful methods of sanction and censure in Jewish communal life. During the millennia in which the Jews had no state power to wield, it was perhaps the most powerful tool in their arsenal, but it predates even those times.

Perhaps the most famous nidui ever was the casting out of rabbi Eliezer in the 2nd century CE. Rabbi Eliezer was one of the greatest of the tanaim, the scholars who created the Mishna; indeed, he is one of fountainheads of the Mishna; he appears thousands of times in the Talmud and his impact was enormous. He also seems to have been a stubborn pedant, unwavering in his puristic interpretations, a fact that eventually led to his clash with the other scholars of his generation. In one of the most fascinating discussions in the history of religion (any religion), R. Eliezer took the side of God against the scholars but lost, and when he refused to accept this he was cast out.

As he lay on his deathbed a group of his disciples came to visit him, among them rabbis Akiva and Yehoshua. First they loitered outside his chamber, as R. Eliezer rebuked his son for putting care of him above preparations for the approaching Shabbat. The disciples then entered, while sitting across the room because of the nidui order.
- R. Eliezer: Why did you come?
- We came to learn.
- Where were you up till now?
- We were busy [they didn't want to pain him by saying they had been respecting the order]
- We'll see how you die
- R. Akiva: What will my death be like?
- Yours will be the worst of them all [R. Akiva was later tortured to death by the Romans, in an emblematic act of martyrdom]

R. Eliezer then crossed his arms across his chest: Oh, what will be lost when I go. I studied much Torah from my teachers, but what I took from them was like a dog lapping at the sea [so great was what I didn't have time to learn]; I taught much Torah to my students, but they didn't take more than a drop from a vessel. I have studied 300 rules about the affliction of leprosy that no-one ever asked me; I've studied 300 rules of the farming of squash that no-one ever asked me except R. Akiva once [These are arcane matters; his passing would mean the loss of such details that are not common knowledge].

The disciples and R. Eliezer got into a detailed discussion of holiness and impurity; to one of the questions he added that a leather item if treated in a particular manner is pure - and on the word Pure he died.
Rabbi Yehoshua stood up and said The nidui is over, the nidui is over [otherwise it could also have affected the burial arrangements].

Richard Goldstone is not an important Jew, not in any Jewish context; ostracizing him may make him feel sorry for himself, but it's no great matter in a Jewish context.

Sanhedrin 68a; the Daf Yomi thread is presented and explained here.

Not Even at Berkeley

The story of the divestment attempt at Berkeley has been confusing, but apparently the side that should have, lost. Divest this! has been on the story all along, and explains here that in spite of the obfuscations, the divestors really did lose. This would explain why the many reports at Mondoweiss have all been along the lines of "we won by being there". Tom Lehrer once quipped about the Spanish Civil War that "they won all the battles, but we had all the good songs".

Not that there's much about the present topic that resembles the Spanish Civil War, mind you. The naive folks who flocked to Spain to fight on the losing side at least had the decency to be willing to die for their convictions, even as they overlooked the fact that both sides were pretty awful. Compare that to, say, Cecilie Surasky at Mondoweiss: true, she's ecstatically convinced she's part of Something Big, but her gushing makes me think of a 14-year-old.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Little Brother

Ehud Manor passed away, aged 60, five years ago this week. Manor probably wrote lyrics for more Israeli songs than anyone else - more than 1,000 by some counts, between the early 1960s and the day of his death. Many are part of the canon, though it must be said that they were generally not high poetry. The Hebrew Songs website I've been using to give English translations of shirim has more than 150 by Manor, of a grand total of 4,600.

Since we're in the week we're in, here's perhaps his most memorable song of bereavement. Achi Hatzair Yehuda, My Younger Brother Yehuda is about life after the death of his younger brother Yehuda, who was killed in 1968, in the War of Attrition that spanned the years of 1968-1970. Manor wrote a number of songs about his brother, including Ben Yaffe Nolad, A Handsome Boy Was Born; this one however isn't about Yehuda, it's about life without him.

Hebrew lyrics
English translation
My young brother Yehudah,
do you hear?
do you know?
The sun still rises every morning
and its light is white,
and in the evening the wind scatters
the leaves of the garden.
The first rain
came down two days ago
on Tuesday evening,
and the sky is visible again,
in the puddle on the main road.

My young brother Yehudah,
do you hear?
do you know?
Your kids are in the garden,
they're learning a new song already,
and in high school the students
are again training on the field,
winds of sunset
howl on the balcony
the songs of autumn,
and Mom secretly waits
that maybe a letter will arrive.

My young brother Yehudah,
do you hear?
do you know?
All your good friends
carry your image with them,
and in all the tanks on the border lines
you are with them.
My good brother,
I remember your eyes,
and they solve riddles.
And my baby son is handsome like you,
I will name him in your name, Yehudah.

Manor's youngest son, by the way, really is named Yehuda (b.1974).

There have been many recordings of this song; I've chosen one sung by Manor himself, who recorded songs only rarely.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Winter of '73

The story of shirim ivri'im and Israeli society, were one to tell it in a coherent manner and not in the lazy all-over-the-place anecdotal form I'm using here, would grapple with the question When did Israeli society realize how permanent war was going to be.

Late 1973 was an important milestone. Between 1967 and 1973 Israel was in a weird cognitive hiatus. There was a war going on much of the time along the Suez Canal; there were terrorist attacks of growing severity; and there seemed no serious chance for peace anytime soon. Yet Israelis arrogantly told themselves that after the humiliating defeat they'd inflicted on Egypt Jordan and Syria, there wouldn't be full-fledged war, either.

And then there was. The trauma of late 1973 reverberated loudly for 20 years, informing almost every public discussion and action for a generation. Its first chapter was the simple shock at the number of casualties in the 1973 war, at the price paid to stop and then throw back the attacking Arab armies.

If you're following this thread you'll not be surprised that those dark months called forth some important and memorable shirim. Yet as we approach Memorial Day next week, here's perhaps the most bleak and uplifting of them, even though it was written twenty years later.

Shmuel Haspari was born in 1954: he was precisely of the generation that fought in 1973, and came home to mourn their friends and get on with life. He is one of our most important playwrights, screen writer, and occasional writer of lyrics. He's also one of the few but prominent public intellectuals of the Zionist Left who are still trying valiantly to make their political camp relevant by recognizing reality but also offering a left-wing way forward. (Not many people are following, and the radical left of course despises him).

This shir is about him, though it's written and sung from the perspective of his children. It says, in essence: war is permanent in our country, but we're strong.

I'm embedding two films. The first has two recordings of the song by the team of soldiers that sang it, the second of the two recorded in the heady early days of the Oslo process, when we thought maybe it would prove too pessimistic. The second film has the same recording, overlaid with slides that speak for themselves, most of them from the past decade: so they're also part of the story.

Hebrew lyrics
English translation
We are the children of winter 1973
You dreamt us first at dawn at the end of the battles
You were tired men that thanked their good luck
You were worried young women and you wanted so much to love
When you conceived us with love in winter 1973
You wanted to fill up with your bodies that what the war finished
And we were born the country was wounded and sad
You looked at us you hugged us you were trying to find comfort
When we were born the elders blessed with tears in their eyes
They said:" we wish those kids will not have to go to the army"
And your faces in the old picture prove
That you said it form the bottom of your hearts
When you promised to do every thing for us
To make an enemy into a loved one

You promised a dove,
an olive tree leaf,
you promised peace
You promised spring at home and blossoms
You promised to fulfill promises, you promised a dove

We are the children of winter 1973
We grew up and now in the army
with our weapon and helmet on our heads
We know how to make love to laugh and cry
We are men we are women
and we too dream about babies
This is why we will not pressure you we will demand of you
And we will not threaten you
When we were young you said promises need to be kept
We will give you strength if that is what you need
We will not hold back
We just wanted to whisper
We are the children of that winter in the year 1973

You promised a dove,
an olive tree leaf,
you promised peace
You promised spring at home and blossoms
You promised to fulfill promises,
you promised a dove