Thursday, October 28, 2010

Shutting Down

I'll be offline until Tuesday. German readers from Hessen may want to come by and say hello here, Sunday afternoon. Everyone else should take the time to read a book. If you then don't come back to the blogosphere, and decide to stay with the books, even better.

Books and Ideas

Yehuda Mirsky reviews two rather different books. First, Michael Brenner's  Prophets of the Past: Interpreters of Jewish History. If you're perturbed by Shlomo Sand's book about the invention of the Jews, this book may set you at ease. According to the review, Brenner read all the same historians Sand did, only with greater seriousness, and came away with different insights. If, on the other hand, you're not losing any sleep over Sand's silliness, and you're not concerned which the ways different generations of historians see things, then you may find the review will suffice and you don't need to read the book. I leave that to you.

The second review is of Gal Beckerman's new (first?) book, When They Come for Us, We'll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry. For Jews of a certain age, much of this will be like wandering down memory lane; if you're younger than that, however, it may well be receding history with vague outlines. I'll bet none of my children know much about all this, in spite of their many friends who moved to Israel because of it. Come to think of it, the friends may not know much about the matter, either. So without having read it myself, this is a story I recommend.

Then there's the idea I promised in the caption, above. It's by Eamonn McDonagh, and it's about the idea that nations have been where they are since time immemorial. Further I won't say: go, all, and pump up his viewer's stats.

A Thesis about Peace

Amira Hass has an article up about how if only Israel would be nice to the Gazans, Hamas would disappear. I wouldn't even know how to begin arguing with her, but perhaps I don't even have to. Go back and read everything she has written in her career (25 years?) and you'll see that at any given moment she was always advocating that Israel should be nice and whatever problem was acute would go away. Some people find such thoughts comforting, which is why they persist.

Most Israelis, however, assume the conflict can't be ended, only managed. Yet managing is a delicate art, not easily given to evaluation let alone perfection. It's a never-ending on-going process of multi-level trial and error, in the hope the errors won't cause too much damage, and can be learned from as you go along.

Just in the past few days we've heard how Iran and Syria are moving missiles into Hezbullah's Lebanon (so much for United Nations Resolution 1701), and the Nigerians (!) have intercepted a shipment of Iranian armaments towards Gaza. Yossi Melman, meanwhile, Haaretz' expert on intelligence matters, explains how having the data and understanding it are two separate things, neither of which is easy to do. Martin Kramer, via Michael Totten, shows how this works also in the opposite direction: the more Israel contemplates the growing Iranian threat, the more of its strategic command centers and such it puts underneath Jerusalem, daring the Iranians to even think of attacking the holy city of al-Quds.

(I would tell you more about these excavation projects, but The Economist this week explained that blogging in the Middle East is becoming ever more hazardous, so I'll stay on the safe side and not tell).

The upshot of all this is not, as you might expect, an ever intensifying arming and bolstering of Fortress Israel. On the contrary. Long term conflict management means forever gauging what the precise correct balance is, including trying conflicting measures simultaneously. See, for example, the story from earlier this week about how the PA is beginning to ask the IDF to stop arresting terror suspects in the Palestinians cities since this limits Palestinian sovereignty; the IDF seems willing to acquiesce and is preparing for the day it happens. Another facet of the exact same story is that the IDF and the PA together are looking into ways to enable exports from Hamas-controlled Gaza in ways which will benefit the Gazans, the Israelis and the PA, but not Hamas. There will be folks out there - the Mondoweiss gang comes to mind - who will spin this into a story of Israeli perfidy and PA servility, but it seems me that if you've got an Amria-Hass frame of mind, anything that makes the lives of ordinary Palestinians more pleasant must be a key to peace and thus worthy of trying.

And so, in an unexpected turnaround, at the end of this post I'm going to suggest a Hass-ian thesis of my own.

A negotiated peace between Israel and the Palestinians is not achievable at the moment. On the other hand, in the past few years, and especially since the IDF operation in Gaza succeeded in mostly putting an end to rocket fire from there, a calm has settled upon Israel and the Palestinian territories that is good for almost everyone. The longer it goes on, the more it can be reinforced, by opening roadblocks, collaborating in combating terrorists, growing economies in all three political units. So here's my suggestion: let's stop trying to negotiate what can't be negotiated, and let's strengthen the processes that are already happening. If we could prolong the present 20-month calm by ten years, we might all discover, to our great surprise, that renewed final-status negotiations actually could lead somewhere.

True, no-one wold get any Nobel Peace Prizes for the time being - but ordinary people might lead better lives.

Will Amnesty International Apologize?

On May 12th AI published a strong condemnation of Israel for arresting Ameer Makhoul. The condemnation included a written communique and some oral statements by one Philip Luther, Deputy Director of Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa Programme.

Yesterday Makhoul admitted in court to spying for Hezbullah; he faces 7-10 years in jail.

I have sent an e-mail to AI, and tweeted them, too. Feel free to join, if you wish. They're not likely to apologize, but maybe they'll be a teeny bit more careful next time round.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Innocents Abroad

Fouad Ajami describes the war in Afghanistan in very bleak terms. Karzai is even more of a scoundrel than many unseemly past American clients; and he's faced by an American administration particularly unsuited to deal with him.

Many years ago, when I was young and impressionable, there was this idea about how if America let the Communists overrun South Vietnam, there would be a domino effect and the whole region would fall, probably to be followed by worse. Then Kissinger let South Vietnam fall (Kissinger was not anybody's pansy), and lo and behold: there was no domino effect. (But there was a genocide in Cambodia, which was stopped eventually... by the Communist Vietnamese. The world is a complicated place).

Can the world afford America to retreat, effectively vanquished, from Afghanistan? No-one talks anymore about domino effects, but might there be one anyway? I don't know.

BDS Stories

The efforts of the BDS gang in Quebec seem not to be succeeding. They managed to convene 100 people in Montreal, some of whom must have been the non-local instigators.

Remember the disaster in Haiti? It's still there, getting worse again. The Israelis are also still there, doing their best.

A while back I wrote here about a team of researchers at Haifa University who are making some impressive advances in the war on cancer. Well, apparently they've got some local competition; this story seems to be about a totally different research team. Technion, not Haifa University. Same city, different school. Same war on cancer, though.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

No-One Listens to Scholars

Yesterday I kvetched about how journalists who often know very little about their subject matter natter on as if they do, and the rest of us take it is as if they do, too. Today I came across the opposite phenomenon. Haaretz carried a story about how a new, 900-page report commissioned by ex-German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer has documented that during the Nazi era the ministry contributed to the Holocaust: "German foreign ministry more involved in Holocaust than previously thought".

Previously thought by whom, pray tell? The reason I'm asking is that there's an excellent book by Christopher Browning about this precise subject, Final Solution and the German Foreign Office: A Study of Referat D III of Abteilung Deutschland 1940-1943. The book is widely quoted by anyone who has published anything on the matter since its publication, it was as influential as such a book can be, and it launched Browning's illustrious career; if you ask me he's the most important scholar of the Holocaust in America.

Ah, and it was published... in 1978. I sent Chris a congratulatory e-mail this morning, about how someone has now uncovered the story he told 32 years ago; he says that a German publisher quickly had it translated just recently, to coincide with the publishing of the report that Haaretz refers to.

Sadly, I don't think this is an unusual case. Last week the Economist had a glowing review of a troubling book by Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. Now I haven't read it yet, mind you, though I hope I will, but the excitement of the reviewer seems odd to me. The thesis of the book, about how Stalin and Hitler both engaged in mass murder on enormous scales in Eastern Europe, surely that can't be news to anyone, can it?

Did I ever mention that lots of people died in the Black Death? Just saying.

Don't Let Any Palestinians In!

Elder of Ziyon yesterday ran a story according to which Arabs can immigrate without impediment between Arab states... unless they're Palestinians. Palestinians are not allowed to be naturalized in other Arab states, according to a policy agreed upon by the Arab League “to avoid dissolution of their identity and protect their right to return to their homeland.” (says this fellow).

Elder speculates that large numbers of Palestinians would move if only they could; I'm more interested in the hypocrisy. Think of all the people in the West and in the Arab world who castigate Israel for impeding Palestinian immigration (mostly since 2003), while somehow overlooking the fact that they're not allowed into most of the Arab world, either.

If anyone has additional information about the matter, feel free to enlighten us in the comments.

Who, He, She?

I know this is supposed to be a serious blog with a mostly clear focus, so I apologize for not being able to resist a quick skip elsewhere. If you read yourself this article out loud, it's title will be "She who must be obeyed". Parts of it, especially the 4th paragraph, sound like they were lifted directly from this old chestnut

Monday, October 25, 2010

Too Many Russians and Brazilians

There are too many tourists in Israel this month.

Isn't that a nice problem to have?

The other day an acquaintance of mine who lives in Haifa and gives day-tours to passengers of docking cruise ships kvetched that he's so busy he hasn't slept one normal night for six weeks. "The Indians", he was complaining, "insist on being shown everything, but refuse to walk quickly. A nightmare".

Although the article doesn't mention the matter, this is good also for the Palestinians (in Jerusalem and on the West Bank, not in Gaza). It's a very small place, and when "problems" like this happen, we're impacted together. Many of the service providers are Palestinians, and the salesmen of those olive-wood camels, and bus drivers, and cab drivers....

Millyon Sinim

A typical discussion in Israel about efficiency and getting projects done on time will sooner or later contain a comment about millyon Sinim, which translates, literally, as a million China-men. (I use China-men advisedly, not "Chinese"). The concept being that if we could apply millyon Sinim to the problem it would go away, or since we can't, it won't. You get the idea.

Well, it turns out that the concept is grounded in reality!
In May 2007, employees of the Chinese company CCECC arrived in Israel and unloaded their equipment at Haifa Port. The firm had been chosen to dig the Carmel Tunnels - one in each direction - which open next month. The director of the project, Haim Barak, and the main architect, Walter Wittke from Germany, were shocked. "Prof. Wittke said he couldn't believe his eyes; this was equipment they used in Europe 40 years ago," says Barak.
The Chinese equipment was mostly intended for manual labor - manual drills, small cement mixers and hand cement sprayers for covering walls - the exact opposite of the Europeans' computerized systems operated remotely. "Prof. Wittke didn't think they would be able to complete the job on time," says Barak. The Chinese finished the work on Israel's longest tunnel five months ahead of the deadline. 
Who knew?

How Bad is the Media, Summary

I thank all the participants who chipped in to the discussion about how bad the media really is or isn't. Here's my response.

First, I accept that my frustrations show through, and that this isn't helpful. I don't promise I'll be able to restrain myself forever, but I'll try for a while.

Second, Dukas Horunt unwittingly demonstrated a fundamental problem, when he demanded that I cite online newspaper articles to prove my theses about Israel (he then went off onto a series of theses of his own, many of which I've dealt with over the years on this blog, and will undoubtedly return to).

The fundamental problem is the assumption that complex reality can be known by reading online newspapers. It can't, of course. If you wish to understand a society and gauge its potential policies, following the media is perhaps better than nothing but that doesn't say much. You need to know the language, and the codes in the language, and the body language (which can't be reproduced in the media at all, not even on television, unless you already know how to read it). You need to read the literature (as in novels, not professional literature), stand in line at the bank, interact with officials and medical personnel, and go to some weddings and funerals. In other words, you need to live there, as part of the society you're trying to understand; and you need to keep in mind that other people around you who are doing the same may well understand the same society in different ways, depending on who they are and where they're coming from.

Or, if you can't do that, perhaps because you've got your own life to live where you are, or perhaps because the society you're trying to understand is dead and gone, then you'll have to work long and hard, and accept that your success will be limited.

Once upon a time I really wished to understand why the Germans did what they did to the Jews. It took me 15 years to learn enough to be satisfied, during which I learned the language, lived there for a while, read perhaps hundreds of thousands of pages of books and documents, interacted in German with hundreds of people on many levels of discussion - the large majority of whom were born after Nazism, and were themselves not Nazis in any way...

Did I really have the answer, after all the effort? Not in any final way. But eventually I did feel the working hypotheses I was using were reasonable. No more than that.

Is it reasonable to expect that the media have that level of understanding about the material it presents? Perhaps not, when it tells us the dramatic tales such as rescuing Chilean miners. But for the basic stuff: why not, actually? Is it too much to expect that a journalist who explains the economic stories have a good grasp of economics? That the military correspondents be well grounded in the practice of war? That the diplomatic correspondents have a reasonable grasp of how diplomacy works, and how so? Is it too much to demand, that the reporters who tell us about matters we don't have the time to delve deeply in ourselves, themselves be experts?

Though of course, even if the reporters were experts, newspaper articles won't tell the full story, nor can they be expected to. Most of life isn't reflected in newspaper stories. My original thesis, however, by which I still stand, is that most of the reportage about Israel not only doesn't reflect the full story, but it doesn't even offer a proximate abridged version. Individual pieces may be better or worse, but the cumulative effect is a profound distortion.

On being pro-Israel or telling the Palestinians' side. Of course I'm pro-Israel. I never suggested otherwise. That's the whole point of the effort. As to telling the Palestinian side: how could I? Honestly? I don't speak Arabic, I don't do those things described above, I don't know much about the Palestinians. Sometimes I respond to specific moves made by their leaders, or spokesmen, or their armed men, but I never claimed to be able to represent their side of the story. The media feeds me it's opinions on the matter all the time, but since most of the journalists who do so know even less about the matter than I do, well, I do allow myself to dispute their tales.

Actually, I've been working on a way to rectify this ignorance of mine, but I'm not yet able to tell about it. By and by, I hope.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

How Bad is Media Reporting about Israel?

The other day a reader named Josef chided me:
I don't think adding lines like " it's not the story you'd expect if you're the kind of person who believes the NYT" really adds anything to your arguments. It's somewhat condescending and pointless.
I try, as a general rule, to listen to criticism and learn from it when it's correct. (If the start-up company I'm setting up these days ever hits the big time it will be almost entirely because we were able to learn from criticism and adapt as we go). So I asked myself if perhaps Josef has a point.

On one level, he's responding with unease to a profound weariness that affects many of us as we face never-ending distortion, slander, and outright lies about our country. (Too much of the distortions, lies and slander originate here, in Israel, and are disseminated by Israelis). I admit that the need to dedicate a chunk of my life to defend my country and society from such malice wears me down and at times this may express itself in rough-edged formulations.

On a more basic level, however, not a personal one, the question is if the general reportage from Israel in mainstream American media is mostly fair and balanced, or perhaps hopelessly wrong. (The question can't even be posed about the European media, which is hopeless).

Israel is permanently scrutinized by the Western media to an unprecedented degree. Most people don't know much about the going-ons of such faraway places such as Australia, Korea, Ukraine, Poland, Spain, Argentina or South Africa, to name a handful of places each of which is much larger than Israel. Who knows anything about Chile except that they're good at getting miners out from under mountains? Not so Israel: since there are more foreign reporters here than in almost any place in the world except Washington, London and perhaps Paris or Berlin, the number of stories filed here is beyond any reasonable proportion. There's no other country in which mutterings of bored politicians routinely get into the New York Times, or where minor events will be reported on television screens across the world with predictable regularity.

That's the way it is, and I'm not even complaining anymore. However, since there's so much attention on us, it seems logical to expect that the overall story should be at least vaguely reliable. If it were, Josef's complaint would be justified. But is it? Here's a test for you.

For the long-term reportage of Israel to be reasonably reliable and unbiased, it would necessarily have to include, alongside the specifics of our mistakes and weaknesses, also a long-term presentation of most of the following:

1. Hundreds of thousands of Israeli Arabs identify themselves as Israelis, wouldn't wish to live anywhere else, and strive to be more integrated into the Jewish majority, not less so, even as they preserve their own cultural and religious identity.

2. A total majority of the large numbers of West Bank and Gaza Palestinians who used to work in Israel had at least some Israeli employers or colleagues with whom they had excellent personal relations.

3. Some 100,000 Palestinians have moved into Israel since 1967, and are now Israeli citizens.

4. A sizable number of Palestinians in East Jerusalem will chose to be Israelis, not Palestinians, should they be given the choice.

5. Hundreds of refugees enter Israel every day (500 refugees a day is the equivalent of 20,000 a day into the US, or about 5,000 into Germany). They cross over from Egypt, and as soon as they cross the border road they sit quietly alongside it and wait for the army to come and pick them up and bus them into Beer Sheva or Tel Aviv. Many, perhaps even a majority of them, are Muslims. None are Jews.

6. A large majority of Israelis - probably well above 70% - yearn for peace with an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza. They don't believe it will happen in their lifetimes, but they yearn for it none-the-less.

7. The IDF, from generals to grunts, gives thought, plans, and trains so as to minimize the harm it does while at war, and respects the sanctity of human life, all human life.

I could go on and on, but my point is simple: are these fundamental outlines of Israel's story clear and obvious to the non-Israelis who learn about us from the American media, and does the media make clear that it's daily fare of stories about all the things wrong with Israeli society are a distortion, as news often are? If so, then Josef's criticism is justified.

If not, I rest my case.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Flying Intellectuals

I"ve already mentioned Paul Berman's The Flight of the Intellectuals, a book which claims that too many Western intellectuals are unwilling to confront the realities of the Islamists' ideology. Recently, the New York Review of Books published a rebuttal of Berman which seems to me to demonstrate his thesis - but perhaps that's just me. The author, Malise Ruthven, bolsters the case by citing confused, inaccurate and not-obviously relevant anecdotes about things Israel does wrong. The article begins with a description of Yad Vashem which is demonstrably false. Sol Stern now offers a detailed rebuttal of the rebuttal.

The whole thing is depressing. Is it important?That depends upon whether you think intellectuals play much of a role in things.

By and by, the discussion mentions another important book, Elhanan Yakira's Post-Zionism, Post-Holocaust: Three Essays on Denial, Forgetting, and the Delegitimation of Israel. So if you'd like to read fewer blogs and more books (a fine idea), here are two you might be interested in.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Iraqi Refugees in Israel

Here's an item (in Hebrew, though the embedded video is a video) about an Iraqi family who escaped to Israel a few years back and isn't finding its place in society. But it's not the story you'd expect if you're the kind of person who believes the NYT.

They entered Israel by walking across the Egyptian border four years ago, along with 6 children. The authorities would usually have incarcerated refugees from an enemy country (Iraq is, legally), butt they couldn't imagine incarcerating the children so the whole family was sent to a hostel (see the video). They sat there for more than three years, as guests of the state, while being offered various routes to normality which they preferred not to accept. In the meantime another two children were born, and a third (=a ninth) is on the way. Some months back the hostel was shut down, and they wandered around, living off the good will of ordinary folks. A month or so ago they ended up living on the sidewalk, at which point the authorities took the 8 children and put them into foster homes (one? 8? no idea). Since then the parents have been camping in a bus stop on the road to Tel Hashomer hospital near Tel Aviv. The structure, you might be interested to hear, was put there by the organization which supplies perks to soldiers such as TVs for their units, sports equipment, shelter from the elements at bus stops, that sort of thing. The couple more or less speaks Hebrew. The few officials interviewed in the video sound very weary of their antics; one woman says they've been offered everything, but the father refuses to work and his family suffers accordingly.

A nice, stereotypical story, don't you think?

Interesting Stuff from the Wide Wide Web

Yehuda Mirsky - and his readers - discuss the idea that perhaps American Jewry might get along better without organizational denominations. Not all agree. Eventually the discussion veers off to Chabad. Someday I should tell one of my favorite Chabad jokes... but then again, perhaps I oughtn't.

Arye Tepper reviews Sir Martin Gilber's brand new book In Ishmael's House: A History of Jews in Muslim Lands. Tepper tells that the book manages to cover lots of ground by being very focused on the single question of the level of persecution or lack of it suffered by the Jews throughout the centuries. Says Tepper:
By proceeding in this fashion, Gilbert succeeds in exploding the myth, manufactured by Islamic ideologues and peddled by left-wing apologists, to the effect that pre-modern Jews always lived harmoniously with their Muslim hosts. Sometimes this was the case; often it was not.

If it's books I'm recommending, a few weeks ago The Economist had a glowing review of  John Calvert's new biography Sayyid Qutb and the Origins of Radical Islamism (Columbia/Hurst). Since Qutb is an extremely central figure for Islamists, any good book about him should be widely read. Slightly alarmingly, however, Benny Morris has read the book, liked it, but notices that 
Calvert never says, simply, that Qutb was an anti-Semite; perhaps it is politically incorrect to forthrightly accuse a major Muslim thinker of such a predilection. But “the Jews” appear to have been important, if not central, to Qutb’s worldview, at least after the Arab disaster in Palestine in 1948. From that year onward Qutb was wont, like most contemporary Islamists, to refer to the Muslims’ “Crusader [i.e., Christian] and Zionist” enemies.
But Qutb’s anti-Semitism was religious and deep-rooted, originating in the Koran and its descriptions of Muhammad’s antagonistic relations with the Jewish tribes of Arabia (who simply rejected the Prophet and his message and were consequently slaughtered, enslaved or exiled by him), not in the contemporary struggle with Zionism. (Though the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict, no doubt, exacerbated his anti-Jewish prejudices. He often compared what he saw as Jewish misdeeds in seventh-century Hejaz—the Jews turning their backs on divine revelation, trying to poison the Prophet and fighting the believers—and twentieth-century Palestine.)
In or around 1951 Qutb published an essay entitled “Our Struggle with the Jews” (reprinted as a book by the Saudi government in 1970). Calvert devotes a paragraph to this screed—but would have done well to elaborate further. In the essay, Qutb vilified the Jews, in line with the Koran, as Islam’s (and Muhammad’s) “worst” enemies, as “slayers of the prophets,” and as essentially perfidious, double-dealing and evil. 
Odd. On the other hand, Culvert makes no secret of the irrational extent to which Qutb was fascinated and repelled by the (emerging) equality of women in America and sexual mores there; according to Culvert, Qutb himself apparently never had sex with a woman. Freudian, I suppose - except that Freud was an example of Jewish insidiousness.

If it's the war against Islamic extremism we're talking of (keep in mind that I'm not bound by the White House Talking Points), the NYT has an interesting article about how the surge in Afghanistan may actually be working. (My friend Juan Cole has yet to relate to the item).

Meanwhile, for a longer and less tractable war than the mere 9-year one in Afghanistan, Khaleb Abu Toameh reminds us that someday someone is going to have to explain to millions of Palestinians that they're not going back to Haifa or Jaffa, nor to Bir'em or Julis. So far, their leaders and the leaders of the Arab world are telling them they will, and this prevents peace. Hussein Ibish and Abu Toameh ought to get together and figure out what the facts of this matter are.

Finally, on a related topic, Eamonn Mc Donagh has a problem with the Spanish, Roman Catholic Democratic Kingdom of Spain. I spoof you not, and it is related.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

If it was Reported, it Must be True (or not?)

Everyone who follows news from Israel knows about the new loyalty law which requires prospective new citizens to swear loyalty to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. There have been howls of protest from across the globe, including from people who live in countries with similar laws. Israel's leftie NGOs have been in overdrive. Those of us who think the idea is silly, since it makes no difference in real life to anything while casting us in a chauvinist light, have been hiding under rocks waiting for something more dramatic to divert attention elsewhere.

And all the while, the story isn't even true.

Or rather, it's true, but not as reported. What happened was that a government committee took one additional step on the long road from inception of an idea to making it law. It hasn't been legislated into law yet - and believe it or not, it may well never be legislated. That's right. The democratic process being what it is, there's a reasonable chance that the proposal will never pass muster,and never become law.

Back in August I wrote an article about this, but then never did anything with it. So this seems as good a moment as any to post it:

Decrying the erosion of Israel's democracy is all the rage these days. Respectable newspapers from the London Economist to the New York Times have solemnly deliberated if perhaps a wave of chauvinistic legislation washing through the Knesset may portent a weakening of democratic freedoms. The discussion has been propelled by a steady stream of alarming announcements by various Israeli organizations, most recently a list of "The top 14 anti-democratic Knesset bills" published by the Association of Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI). The list includes mooted attempts to force Israelis to explicitly proclaim their loyalty to the "Jewish and democratic" nature of their country, limits to the power of the Supreme Court, combating boycotts against Israel, dealing with illegal immigration and foreign funding of political activity in Israel.

It so happens that the American law on foreign funding of political activities is more stringent than the proposed Israeli version. There is no American consensus on illegal immigration, nor on abetting anti-American activity in the context of war. One can have impeccably democratic credentials and still support some of the legislation which horrifies ACRI. Yet debating each line of the list is to miss the larger point, which is that proposing outlandish laws is an essential part of Israeli democracy, in a way that differs from American politics.

Members of Israel's Knesset are elected on a party list, and have no direct constituents.  There is no way an individual politician can bring home kosher pork (though some parties exist solely for this purpose). Re-election, the reason d'être of all politicians, is achieved by building an internal party machine, and by acquiring notoriety.  Most Israeli politicians spend all their waking hours courting the party stalwarts, and desperately seeking the spotlight. Proposing oddball legislation, the odder the better, is a tried and proven highway to notoriety.

Proposing hardly equals enacting. Israel's legislative process, as any democracy's, is designed to slow things down. Laws are serious, long-lived things, and mustn't be created in the heat of an argument or the passion of a temporary context. Existing laws must be checked and potential contradictions ironed out; conflicting interests must be taken into account. So draft laws move through many stages, and the result always differs from the first draft. Skilled parliamentarians husband their laws through hundreds of hurdles, knowing it may take years until enactment.  Unskilled parliamentarians, or those for whom legislation is not a passion, mostly never see their proposals enacted. A solid majority of mooted laws wither. But then, many proposals were never intended to be enacted in the first place. Their short existence was only ever intended to generate media attention.

The most likely moment for a law to attract public attention is at its inception, and many proposals are carefully crafted to arouse excitement. If it angers someone, all the better: strife creates news. Goading parliamentarians from opposite parties into wrathful opposition means everyone wins, as each side gets the opportunity to grandstand before its own electorate. It may be a bit silly, but it doesn't generate bridges to nowhere.

Take Avigdor Lieberman's proposed Loyalty Law. He cynically invented it during the 2009 campaign. By calling for an undefined loyalty oath he positioned himself as the defender of Zionism facing Palestinian irredentism; the Arab MKs garnered attention in their quarters by standing up to him, so everyone was happy. After the election Lieberman carried on his charade, insisting the government discuss his proposed law – which it duly did. It discussed and discarded it. Netanyahu's right-wing coalition killed the law, not the opposition; not that Lieberman cared. The grandstanding having served its purpose he has long since moved on, and hasn't lifted a finger to salvage the law which was central to his campaign. [ed: This is not the present proposal, but rather an earlier one, that proposed that all citizens would be called to swear an oath; the current one talks only of new immigrants.]

Just as there are political brownie points for outlandish posturing, there aren't any for adult behavior. The right-wing coalition knows the law was ridiculous so they killed it, but unobtrusively for fear of appearing soft. The Arabs and the left ought to be celebrating its demise, but the last thing they want is to draw attention to good behavior of the government. So no-one talks. At birth the law garnered attention; its termination went unheralded. 

The Obama administration and Netanyahu's government are both roughly one-third through their present term of office. Obama's party has enacted an impressive series of laws. Netanyahu's critics, meanwhile, are still warning about mere intentions. It's easy to see why they gain attention for doing so, but perhaps it's time to notice that none of the problematic proposals are actually being legislated. Israel's democracy, contrary to rumor, is hale, healthy and functioning well.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Rising Young Hassan Nasrallah

MEMRI has dug up an undated old video of Hassan Nasrallah offering his views. Undated, but partially datable: he refers in present tense to Ayatollah Khomaini, who died in 1989, and since he himslef was born in 1960 and clearly is a figure of some authority at the time of his speech, and Hezbullah was founded only in 1982, it must be sometime in the late 1980s.

His topic wasn't Israel, but rather the overall political positioning of Hezbullah: as he says explicitly, they aren't interested in Lebanon and its sovereignty, but rather in promoting the goals of Iran.

I don't think there's any compelling evidence he has changed his mind at anytime since.

Muslims for Israel

There's been a spot of bother in the US recently about Islam and how bad it is. I haven't participated, but do find the whole idea distasteful. I've occasionally poked fun at the unwillingness of various Westerners, from President Obama down, to pretend there's nothing remotely wrong with Islam. Yet the opposite should also be obvious: a religion which has been around for 1400 years must have given countless multitudes a feeling of dignity in face of life's travails, a purpose, a succor, a harbor to retreat to in dire times and a feeling of belonging and of satisfaction in better times.

On a practical level, James Kirchick reminds us that there are entire Muslim nations who don't fit into the black-and-white template.

No Free Speech for Opposing Opinions

Queen's University Belfast has dis-invited Professor Geoffrey Alderman, at the last moment, from a panel he was previously invited to participate in on the topic of the conflict in the Middle East. There are hints in the story that critics of Israel who are on the panel refused to appear alongside him: they can't be sullied by having a supporter of Israel in their midst.

CiF Watch has the story, with various links; Jonathan Hoffman seems to be on site.

I regularly give voice to folks I intensely disagree with; frankly, it seems to me that listening to them bolsters my own positions. Apparently not everyone feels the same.

Monday, October 18, 2010

King in the Desert

I spent most of the day wandering around, on, and under the Herodion, a partially artificial mountain built about 2,040 years ago by King Herod, and the place he was buried. The day supplied all sorts of interesting insights.

Herodion seen from the south. There was always a hill there, somewhat higher than its surroundings; the cone part is artificial, and was built, in two separate stages, by Herod.

 The story of the mountain, in brief, begins when Herod was a young man and once had need to escape Jerusalem with his entourage. Guarding the rear of the escapees, he turned on their pursuers and forced them to fall back. This was near a hill in the desert, some 10 miles south-east of Jerusalem, and he marked the point as significant for him. Later, as king of Judea, he launched on one of the ancient world's largest construction binges, building fortresses, palaces, a port, the Temple Mount, Massada, and also the mountain of Herodion, named after himself. Since it was out in the desert in the middle of no-where (literally), he forced it into prominence by pouring money into it; by the time he was an old man it had a fortress, a palace, a small artificial lake (an early model of the Bellagio, perhaps), a theater, assorted Roman baths, some more palaces and so on. As death approached he undertook the final construction project there, raising the mountaintop so it would be visible from Jerusalem, indeed, impossible to overlook, sticking out as it does over the landscape, and prepared an imposing mausoleum in which to be buried.

70 years later, as the Jews battled Roman legions during the first revolt against Rome, some of the insurgents holed up on the mountain, destroying Herod's mausoleum, smashing his coffin, and adapting his underground system of cisterns for defense during siege. This didn't help them much. Another seventy years on, during the Bar Kochva revolt, the insurgents added an intricate system of tunnels under the mountain, so as to be able to emerge unexpectedly, kill a Roman or three and disappear back underground. Yet again, this didn't much help them, as the Roman's were known to slaughter insurgents until they were all gone.

During the Byzantine era (that's the Roman Empire once it was Christian), the area became a monastic region, with individual and group monasteries way out in the desert a mere day's walk from civilization. The Byzantines, as Christians, had no love for Herod, and they may have constructed a church or two on his mountain as a sign of their victory over him.

Then the area emptied, and between 600 and 1900, more or less, no-one lived there except the occasional transient Beduin tribe: there's no water, not much rain, it's too dry for crops, and without the engineering prowess and funds of Herod, no way to pipe water from elsewhere.

Still, stand anywhere along the south-eastern rim of Jerusalem today and look out over the desert, and you can't miss Herod's mountain. Assuming his point was to gain immortality, he seems to have done so better than most.

So what insights did I bring back? The first is about archeology. Nowadays archeology has become yet another battlefield on which Jews Palestinians and antisemites clash. Yet archeology is an extremely imprecise tool for such purposes. How imprecise?
This picture is taken from near the top of the hill (it isn't really a mountain), looking down and west. In the center of the picture, beneath the small village, there's a large excavated square. That was the Bellagio-style pool. To its lower right is an excavation of a monumental building, one of the palaces, I suppose. The rest of the hillside has not been excavated so we've got no idea what's there. We do know however that ever since the late 19th century, and rather intensely since 1972, archeologist have been looking for Herod's grave. Englishmen, Frenchmen, a German (I think), and of course Israelis. The looked and they looked and they never found. Sooner or later, it was inevitable that someone would come along and say: well, if you look for a century and you don't find something, it must never have existed; yet another myth about the Jews in Palestine, huh?

Then, in 2007 (!), they found it.
Or rather, they found the pedestal on which it had been between 4BCE, when Herod was interred there, and about 68 or 70 CE, when the Jewish insurgents smashed it as systematically as they could. It had been there all along, near the top of the hillside, at a place no-one had ever dug. Had there been peace between Israel and Palestine in 2000, it's unlikely that Israeli archeologists would still have been allowed to be digging here in 2007, and it might never have been found. So flimsy can be truth and evidence when you're digging for things that were purposefully destroyed 2,000 years ago:they can be hard to find, and their absence is only as convincing as that.

(Peace, by the way, would have been preferable, but that's a different subject).

Evil Israeli roads: You've all heard about the nasty roads Israel builds in the West Bank, to connect their settlements, demonstrate their dominance, humiliate Palestinians, destroy the natural terrain and generally be obnoxious. Anybody who follows the media's discourse about the conflict has heard these themes repeatedly.
The upper road of the two that cross the picture from left to right is dubbed the Lieberman Road by those Israelis who know about it and dislike it (I was first introduced to it by Dror Etkes in 2004, when it was still under construction, and he told me solemnly that it was an Israeli effort to dominate this area). Most Israelis have never heard of it much less used it; on the other hand, the local Palestinians use it, and if Israel ever hands over this area to Palestine, as may well happen, the road will connect the area to El Quds and shorten the ride by about 80%.

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you've also heard the Palestinian contention, accepted by the Economist and other important Europeans, that the Israeli settlements are hideous, they destroy the view, while Palestinian villages are beautiful and natural. 
The cluster of homes in the foreground is a Palestinian hamlet; the one on the next hill is Tekoa, a settlement. Next time you're in the area, go out to Herodion and have a see for yourself: don't take my word that both places look equally right or wrong. But they do.

Which brings me to the next insight: It's a desert. Until modern water systems were invented in the 20th century, nobody lived out here in permanent residences, and hardly in tents, either. Which means, the Palestinian villages are as recent as the Jewish ones in this area.
I personally remember that Herodion was out in the desert; nowadays its north and west sides are lapped by Palestinian villages and olive groves. But note that they're young olive groves, trees which have been there a decade or two, mostly. They haven't been there from time immemorial. The Palestinian population on the West Bank is growing rapidly (though less rapidly than 20 years ago), they can pipe water out to the desert, so they're moving deeper into it. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with this, but it is a fact.

Actually, Herodion is on the outer limit of the advance into the desert; to its east, i.e. further into the desert, it's still mostly empty. Mostly:
This picture is to the south east from the mountain. In the background is Nokdim, whee Avigdor Lieberman lives (hence the cynical moniker for the road), and all around it is...empty. I'm not saying this means it shouldn't someday be part of a Palestinian state at peace with Israel; it should. But no-one's being forced off their land or hemmed in by Nokdim. It's in the desert. Otherwise empty.

The place in the foreground is Sdeh Bar, seen from Herodion. Sdeh Bar is a settlement, sort of, but not really. It is however a place that breaks all your glib stereotypes about settlements and settlers. So we went to visit it, and looked back up at the Herodion:
Remember: in all the history of mankind, no-one has ever lived permanently on this hillside. The people who do so now are two bunches of folks: a group of severely troubled teenager boys, who have been thrown out of every conceivable institution and mostly also out of their families; some have already been in jail; and their hosts, a handful of idealists who have decided this hilltop in the desert is the place to give them a last chance at a normal life. They take in the boys, tell them this is home so they need to take care of it and participate in its upkeep, and move them from a track to career criminality back to normal society. They've been there 13 years, and have mostly been very successful, saving, by now, probably a few hundred young men.

They do so by putting them to work. Some work with the goat herd. Others produce goat-milk products, including fine cheese and yogurt. Others produce "gefet". Gefet is an ersatz wood, used for heating, charcoal or even production of soap, produced from the waste left over when you turn olives into olive oil. The waste is a pollutant, and burning wood to heat wood ovens means cutting down trees. So these folks have figured out a way to make the olive waste useful, and save trees.
They're green, or cleantech, or whatever the word is. The type of folks the Guardian should be enthusiastic about - but isn't.

Imagine you're a deeply troubled 15-year-old. Estranged from your family, full of rage at society, scarred and tainted by a history of violence or craziness. You've washed up, somehow, in this lonely outpost at the edge of the desert, where they're calming you and soothing you by tending to goats, farming, and producing environmentally friendly fuel. You rise each morning and look out at the emptiness -
... and you don't give much thought to the endless chatter about how evil the Israeli settlements are, and how they oppress the poor Palestinians.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Lies, White Lies, Statistics, and Satisfaction

The story behind this link is in Hebrew, and it's also full of conflicting statistics organized, as statistics are wont to be, in an order meant to confuse and obfuscate. Having said that, however, the gist is rather simple: Israelis are less rich than people in most OECD countries, the gap between rich and poor is greater, the proportion of the poor is larger, and Israelis are generally more satisfied with their lives and also more optimistic about their future than most other national groups.

Go figure.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Empire and Psalms

There's an idea growing on Israel's far left that the history of Jerusalem wasn't. Kind David wasn't, Solomon wasn't, lots of the Bible wasn't, and of course the purpose of all this is to undermine any Jewish claim to the land and especially the city of Jerusalem. The central figure of all this seems to be the Tel Aviv archeologist Israel Finkelstein, but it has branched out. Shlomo Sand, of course, eagerly lapped up their theories without offering any space to the colleagues who disagree.

Without getting into the details (which are actually interesting), it has always seemed to me the discussion is a bit pointless. There's no doubt the House of David existed and its capital was Jerusalem; most of the argument seems to be about how large and important the Kingdom of Judea was. And if it was small and of no particular regional geo-political significance, as the revisionists say, what of it? The significance of Kind David wasn't that he was a major war-lord (we're talking about Jews, not Vikings or Mongolians) but that he wrote some of the Psalms.

How significant is that, you ask? This significant:

Or, if you prefer King James: In his hand are the deep places of the earth: the strength of the hills is his also.

War and Peace

Khaled Abu Toameh says that things were getting better between Israel and the Palestinians until the Obama administration forced negotiations neither side was interested in, and now things are getting worse.

Robin Shepherd writes about the hypocrisy of Israel's critics who remain silent as ISAF's war in Afghanistan-Pakistan uses the same methods used by Israel. He tells that he's made this point to colleagues in the British bureaucracy, but sadly he doesn't tell how they respond.
The figures are rising fast. In September, the number of publicly admitted drone attacks was 22. And they are extremely deadly too. In 2009, more than 700 people were killed, many if not most of whom will have been civilian bystanders. By the end of this year, the death toll is likely to have far exceeded the 1,400 or so estimated to have died in Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza.

So where’s the Goldstone Report against the United States and its NATO allies? And where is the uproar against Obama’s policy of mass targeted assassinations? Of course, I’m not suggesting either course of action. And, to be fair, the Obama administration has been resolute in opposing Goldstone at the United Nations which is a lot more than can be said for the brazenly hypocritical Europeans.
With apologies to Abu Toameh and Shepherd for putting them in the same blogpost,  the other day I asked Juan Cole if he might wish to comment on Ahmedinejad's fiery anti-Israeli rhetoric while in Lebanon. Cole was one of the main people to invent and propagate the idea that Ahmedinejad never said he wishes Israel to be destroyed, an idea still often cited in the Mondowiess swamps, the CiF comments section and similar venues. His answer to me: Ahmedinajad merely wishes Zionism to disappear, as the Soviet regime once did, leaving everything else intact behind it. I have no idea what he bases this assertion on, and am reporting on it here merely for purposes of documentation.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Jerusalem's Municipality Dereliction in Silwan

Haaretz runs the story about the State Comptroller's report this week in which he found that consecutive municipal administrations turned a blind eye to illegal construction in Silwan, the area the present mayor Nir Barkat is trying to legalize while running into international condemnation. Interestingly, the many left-wing Israeli organizations whose Twitter accounts I follow haven't been tweeting about this, a story where the law seems to be solidly on the side of the bad guys, you know...

Some day I'll write at length about this complicated story, in which no-one comes out looking good. In the meantime, however, here are three aerial photos of what was once a public garden with lots of nice trees and is now a cluttered neighborhood, and I'll leave you to ponder if any municipality anywhere in the world is supposed to be happy when residents simply build houses in the middle of a park until there's no park left.




Thursday, October 14, 2010

Michael Lassen, RIP

The Economist, as secular and cynical as they come, offers a profound and beautiful obituary for a craftsman and the uncounted thousands who preceded him.

Oy Oy Oy: The Shame of Cleantech

This bit of map-plotting must have been exquisitely painful for someone at the Guardian: They've put together a list of the world's 100 most important cleantech companies (the Guardian likes that sort of thing), and guess where Israel is on the list? Well, lets start by noting which continents aren't represented at all: South America, Africa, Australia and Antarctica. Also the entirety of what used to be the Soviet Block. Then, let's look at the top countries which are represented, from top down: USA, UK, Germany.... and Israel. And actually, if you count the two American firms which were set up and are run by Israelis, Israel ties Germany.

Boycotters, where are you when we need you?

That Pesky Jewish State

Michael Oren, my favorite Jewish diplomat since Columbus, has an op-ed in the New York Times explaining why Israel needs to be openly recognized for what it is. It's titled An End to Israel's Invisibility.
The core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been the refusal to recognize Jews as a people, indigenous to the region and endowed with the right to self-government. Criticism of Israeli policies often serves to obscure this fact, and peace continues to elude us. By urging the Palestinians to recognize us as their permanent and legitimate neighbors, Prime Minister Netanyahu is pointing the way out of the current impasse: he is identifying the only path to co-existence.
Meanwhile, over at Haaretz, Ari Shavit has a column on the same theme,where he offers seven (7) reasons why Israel needs to be recognized as the Jewish State:
Seventh reason: We will calm down. The basic desire of Jewish Israelis is the desire for a home. Explicit recognition that Israel is the Jewish people's home will strengthen our willingness to take risks and leave the territories. Only recognition of the Jewish national home will make it possible to quickly and peacefully establish the Palestinian national home.
Neither of these men are particularly right-wing. Oren is perhaps right of center, mostly center, and Shavit is all over the map but always from the left.

Comic Relief

A top honcho at the State Department gave a media briefing yesterday, as State Department honchos are wont to do. So far as I can see, however, only Haaretz of all the media types present picked up on the comic part of his message: "US: We suspect Iran doesn't have Lebanon's interest at heart".

Ya think? Why?

Also in Washington (and New York), Jeffrey Goldberg and Alana Newhouse are putting together a list of Jewish English (American) words. I recommend you also read the comments.

As any Jerusalemite will tell you, the single most common sentence used by teenager and post-teenager American Jewish women is "I CANT BELIEVE IT!!!!"

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Rescue in Chile

I am in awe of the bravery and fortitude of these men, and full of respect for the ingenuity of the men rescuing them. Their story puts most other things in perspective.

It's a Stranger World than You Think

I have mentioned, cryptically, that I've found a Palestinian in East Jerusalem and we're discussing doing a project together. We're still discussing, actually, and perhaps one day I'll report about it. But not yet. In the meantime, however, here's a surprising spin off of the story.

The other day I received an e-mail from a fellow who reminded me that I once taught him at high school, quite some years ago. We've been out of touch ever since, and in the meantime he has become the mayor of one of the larger West Bank settlements. "Well, Yaacov", he said, "your new Palestinian friend and I are both doing a graduate degree together at Hebrew University, and he tells me you're having these interesting discussions, so I asked for your e-mail address and here we are...".

The Palestinian friend of the West Bank mayor... see if you can get your head around that one...

Lee Smith Defends Avigdor Lieberman

A number of readers have been a bit peeved at me for criticizing our Foreign Minster, Avigdor Lieberman. I think, and have said, that he's a disaster, even though much of what he says is actually either true or at least reasonable. As everyone knows, however, telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth may be fine in a courtroom, but it's not a reasonable way to get through life. Politeness, for example, includes an element of fudging the truth. So does education, governing, and lots of other activities. Diplomacy, too. Lieberman is a terrible diplomat, and Israel would be better off with with more Michael Orens, not fewer of them.

Lee Smith, however,a non-Jewish journalist who isn't supposed to be a diplomat, can explain why much of what Lieberman is saying is quite reasonable.

Hussein Ibish Responds

The other day I posed some questions to a blogpost by Hussein Ibish. He has now responded. If you're interested, I recommend reading his post.

I have three quick comments:

1. I meant "mooted", as written, and not "muted", as he speculates.

2. Mr. Ibish says he's Lebanese-American, not Palestinian. I stand corrected.

3. He seems to be saying that the Palestinians have made proposals relating to the Right of Return; indeed, the thrust of his argument seems to be that Israeli governments need to finally recognize the necessity of dividing Jerusalem, while the Palestinian leadership has already indicated it will live without the Right of Return but has yet to tell its people. To which my response is that Israeli leaders have agreed three times already to divide Jerusalem (2000, 2001, 2008), while no Palestinian leader I'm aware of has ever agreed that there won't be a return of Palestinians to what is now Israel. I think I've read all the books and most of the personal reports from the negotiations, but if I've missed something as crucial as that, I invite Mr. Ibish to correct me; should he do so I'll admit it here for everyone to see.

Beyond that I stand by my original post, but thank Mr. Ibish for his serious response.

Bye Bye Matthew

Matthew Yglesias just arrived and he's already left, full of satisfaction with himself for having come to learn, and smug in his conviction that he didn't need to learn all that much because he already knew lots of it. He was hosted by Didi Remez, whom long-time readers of this blog may recognize as an ideologically driven member of our far Left who isn't very convincing unless you agree with him. I'm recording Matthew's arrogance of lecturing to the Israelis who just can't see things as he and Didi see them, and his total lack of curiosity: if people don't see things his way they're wrong, and he has no reason to wonder why they might see things otherwise.

Before I sign off following him, however, here's a tidbit that rather sums it up:
Since I’ve got Israel on the brain, it strikes me in this regard that it’s perhaps unfortunate that the early Zionist leaders decided to revive Hebrew rather than use the Jewish state to ensure the continued existence of Yiddish and Ladino. The successful revival is enormously impressive as a pure example of clear ideological vision but that’s a lot of lost literature and such. 
Umm, Matthew: Yiddish literature didn't really start until the 2nd half of the 19th century, and Ladino, so far as I know, never created much literature at all. This means that modern Hebrew literature was born at roughly the exact same moment in time as Yiddish literature; not to mention everything else that was ever created in Hebrew, all along.

Matthew, incurious as he is, won't be interested, but if any of you are, there's a fine readable story of Yiddish literature in Aaron Lansky's Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books

I warmly recommend.

Oh, and apropos American bloggers coming to Israel to learn or not to learn, Michael Totten has put up his next installment in his reports from Israel.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Links to Stuff

Haaretz yesterday told the sad story about a Swedish textbook presenting both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which has been rejected (in its Hebrew version) by Israel's ministry of education, but accepted by the Palestinian one (in its Arabic version). Not true, say the Palestinians: we haven't authorized the book. (via Elder of Zion). Just yesterday a salesperson from Haaretz tried, yet again, to cajole me back to subscribing to the paper.To her credit, this time she didn't argue when I said, simply, that there's no way I'll support a paper with such an editorial line.

If you're already visiting Elder of Zion, be sure not to miss the Peter Hitchen's story he has linked to, about how media reports of Palestinian reality in Gaza and on the West Bank are, how to put this, not fully reliable.

Much (by no means all) of what Avigdor Lieberman has to say is reasonable. The problem is that they aren't the sort of things a top diplomat is supposed to say, nor does he seem to have a sense of time and place. As a foreign minister he's a disaster. Evelyn Gordon, however, has the numbers to prove that one of his recent outbursts was quite factual, even if not diplomatic.

Apropos Lieberman's positions, our Hard Left and their American financiers are aghast about how Israel is rapidly departing the democratic world. They might benefit from a glance over to The Netherlands, a country with no enemies, no engagement in war since 1945, and no particular reason to worry about much, which has just elected a new government:
The new government will ban the face-covering Islamic veil, and forbid police and workers in judicial institutions from wearing the headscarf. Immigration via marriage will be curbed. State subsidies for newcomers’ language courses will be turned into loans, and a failure to pass the subsequent tests could become grounds for a refusal to grant residence permits.The agreement is long on heavy-handed police tactics as a response to crime-ridden ethnically mixed neighbourhoods, but has nothing to say about poor infrastructure, school drop-out rates, skills shortages and low social mobility among both immigrants and natives in such areas.
 Maybe Israel's Hard Left and its American financiers are more noise than substance, however (though they certainly are very noisy). According to a poll described in the JTA, America's Jews seem, by and large, to be somewhat to the right of Israel's electorate on the issues of Israel. I admit I was a bit surprised by this, but I"m far away and it's hard to tell. From here it's hard to know how important the Peter Beinart and Matthew Yglesias types are - or perhaps, aren't.

Finally, the Guardian tells with a straight face that conditions in Basra (Iraq) are vastly improved recently. The report would have us accept that everything was fine until 2003, but even using that dubious timelline, things are pretty good. I don't deal much with Iraq, which is mostly beyond the scope of this blog. However, back in early 2003 I wrote (in an e-mail, I wasn't blogging then) that the invasion of Iraq could not seriously be judged for a decade. I'm not certain I was right about that, but since the decade isn't up yet, I don't have to stake a position yet.

When do We Get to the Real Issues?

Netanyahu yesterday offered to renew the settlement freeze if the Palestinians accept Israel's definition of itself as a Jewish State. The Palestinians promptly said no. This isn't particularly troubling, since the settlement freeze is a temporary matter and such recognition would have permanent implications, so it's like trading apples for ownership of land: not a serious proposition. It would have been much more helpful had Netanyahu offered a settlement freeze, to be monitored by the Americans, for a cessation of Palestinian incitement against Israel in the media and education system, likewise to be monitored by the Americans. Now that would be a move towards creating an environment of peace. But of course, no-one will ever be able to end Palestinian incitement, so no-one even moots it. Regrettable, actually.

Hussein Ibish, one of the more reasonable Palestinian voices out there (well, he's in Washington, not Ramallah, so he's perhaps not fully a "Palestinian" voice), rejects Netanyahu's call, while noting - plausibly - that in effect Netanyahu is talking about Jerusalem, not Jewishness of Israel: the essence of a Palestinian acceptance of Israel as a Jewish State would be no significant Right of Return; Netanyahu (speculates Ibish) hopes to achieve that goal without paying its price, which is the division of Jerusalem. This must be rejected, says Ibish, as Right of Return is a matter to be discussed at the very end of the process.

Perhaps. Yet this begs a question: if at Camp David in 2000, Taba in 2001, and the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations of 2007-2008, there were Israeli offers to divide Jerusalem, and none of which (so far as we can know) ever included any indication of a Palestinian willingness to relinquish their demand for a Right of Return - when, exactly, will such an offer be made? First Israel must agree to dismantle all settlements, move back to the lines of 1967 (with or without land swaps), divide Jerusalem, accept some responsibility for the Naqba.... and then what? Having achieved much of what they demand, the Palestinians will then, from the goodness of their hearts, give up on their dream of using the return of great-grandchildren of refugees so as to demographically take over Israel?

The negotiations have repeatedly reached their end station, and at least three times in the past decade Israel has made ever growing concessions on the most central of issues. The Palestinians have never even discussed the single greatest of their demands, much less offered any compromises on it. So when, pray tell, will it be politically correct to request this of them?

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Emerging Story of UNRWA

Anyone who deals thoughtfully with matters of Israel and Palestine knows that UNRWA, the UN agency whose sole task it is to preserve Palestinian refugee-hood by conferring it on children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of the original refugees of 1947-49, is a very strange organization. It's a UN organization whose mission in life is to foil peace between Israel and Palestine by ensuring the growing millions of descendants of Palestinians insist they must return to the homes of their ancestors or there can be no peace.

Asaf Romirowsky is now writing a doctoral thesis on the organization. He has just published an article, along with Alexander H. Joffe, about one small segment of the story, when a British General who was hired to help in 1951 was fired for saying out loud that the Arab countries had no interest in doing what other host countries worldwide were doing, namely figure out how to give the refugees new lives. This was in 1952.

I look forward to reading the whole doctoral thesis when it's finished.

More Limits to My Comprehension

Mitchell Plitnik is another liberal American Jew with a blog and Twitter feed for his opinions on Israel. So far as I can make out, he's of the Btselem-J-Street-NIF coterie, so it's possible he doesn't represent a large political camp (but a loud one, surely). The other day he posted a long and rambling piece about how he realizes the Obama administration is useless, because their attempts to take all sides into account on the road to peace means they're not going to bludgeon Israel into positions Plitnik thinks it needs to take. Since Obama won't supply the goods, Plitnik looks around and seeks other options:
The Palestinians desperately need a new leadership that is not softened by privilege the way the Fatah old guard is. They need one which is pragmatic, and understands that pragmatism in terms that recognize Israel as the occupying power and the United States as the country that has a “special relationship” with that occupying power. They need to be visionary enough to realize that they have to work with the US and Israel, but also strong enough to bear in mind that they, as the Palestinian leadership, cannot agree to put Israeli or American interests ahead of their own. That’s where Fatah has failed.
Their pragmatism must also recognize that the Palestinians are never going to win their independence by force of arms, and that they need to build up sympathy not only for their people’s suffering but also for their own political agenda. Those are the places where Hamas failed.
If such a leadership coalesces, perhaps from the seeds of the current popular movement against the Security Barrier, a completely new dynamic would emerge. The response to such a new dynamic in Europe, the Arab world, the US and, perhaps most importantly, in Israel could well lead to the evolution of new, creative solutions that deal with the current realities on the ground, realities which include the Israeli consensus for a state of Jewish character, the Palestinian need for independence and a viable political entity, and the need to deal with the millions of Palestinian refugees...
We need to press the point that Palestinians are due their rights even if the conflict remains unresolved. Palestinians and Israelis must come to be seen as equally human, equally deserving of their opportunities at a better life, and this recognition must be practical, not just empty words.
In one sense, then, the failure of the Obama Administration’s efforts opens an opportunity. If we acknowledge that these talks cannot succeed, and the eventual solution, because of the massive expansion of settlements and ongoing split in the Palestinian polity, is going to necessarily be different from the one we have previously envisioned, then we have the time to change the political landscape here.
And, happily, that effort comes about by arguing, incrementally, consistently and continuously, for the rights of all people, Jewish, Arab and anyone else, living in the “Holy Land.” We can work to make things a little better in the short term, and that effort, if undertaken properly and with good strategy, can also be building a new political reality in the long term.
I've read the whole thing three or four times, and don't know what he's talking about, nor how he proposes getting there. Platitudes, he's good at them, but what is he advocating? How will it make things better? In the real world, I mean, the one the Israelis and Palestinians live in, not the one imagined in liberal talk shoppes in Washington. I get the feeling he sees himself superior, morally and diplomatically, to us benighted folks over here, blinded as we are by our parochial inability to see stuff, but what might give him that feeling I cannot say.

It's very puzzling.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Limits of My Comprehension

Matthew Yglesias, in spite of his name, is a young Jewish liberal blogger. He's not as bad a Glenn Greenwald, and I don't know which of them is more popular. I don't read either of them regularly, but I go by from time to time, or I follow links when they say something particularly outlandish about Israel. The other things they write about don't much interest me.

Surprisingly, it turns out Yglesias has never been to Israel - until this week. Now he's here, studiously not seeing the 90-some percent of Israel that's not directly connected to the conflict with the Palestinians, but tweeting and blogging (a bit) about what he's seeing - so I'm a regular reader for the duration. It's odd how much he doesn't know, given the statements he occasionally makes. In one of his tweets today he told us that
As best I can tell, 99% of the clichés you've heard about Israel and Palestine are accurate.
and also
Hebron is the strangest thing I've ever seen
Personally, I have a sneaking suspicion he went to Hebron with Btselem or someone like them, so the chances he understood what they were showing him were, how to put it, slim.

In the meantime, however, he continues to blog about other subjects,and this afternoon he dabbled in an argument between two other bloggers (who seems to be professors) about the outcome of WWII. I've read Yglesias and the two others, and for the life of me I can't figure out what it is they're talking about. The discussion seems to be about how bad things were in post-1945 Europe, and how WWII couldn't plausibly have been said to have ended well until one had the perspective of, say, 1990:
There’s definitely a sense in which it all worked out for the best in the end, but the conclusion of the war in Europe was both very harsh on the Germans and also a spectacular failure in terms of cosmic justice. You can see this by contemplating the fact that a war France and Britain nominally launched for the sake of saving Czechoslovak and Polish independence concluded by sentencing Poland and Czechoslovakia and a great many other countries to decades of Soviet domination.
Soviet domination was a very bad thing, on balance. Still, compared to Nazi domination it was great. Not to mention millions of Eastern Europeans who were slated to die for being in the way of the Germans, and all the remaining Jews. I look at this exchange of opinions between these three fellows, rub my eyes, and ask if it's the same 20th century we're talking about.

Meanwhile, ideological enemies of mankind are still with us, though they use different terminology these days. Barry Rubin notices that the Muslim Brotherhood, an important movement, has essentially declared war on the West... and no-one is noticing. Of course, no-one would expect someone like Matthew Yglesias to make an issue of this sort of thing, but perhaps the New York Times? The Economist? Someone? Anyone?

Finally, since I'm listing odd things, Lizas Welt, an iconoclastic German blog, who follows Henryk Broder in telling the story of one Edith Lutz. Ms Lutz, it appears, has figured out that merely attacking Israel won't get her the media attention she wishes for, so she has decided to tell everyone she's Jewish. A Jew who says awful things about Israel: now that's just what the German media needs. The problem, in Liza's formulation, is that her conversion to Judaism seems to have been very private. So private that no-one in the Jewish community knows about it.

All of this is getting too complicated for poor old me. I guess I'm losing it.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Review of Shlomo Sand, The Invention of the Jewish People

Inventing History from Thin Air

What if you wished to explode as myth a consensus national narrative? The ultimate dream of an iconoclast. How would you go about it, if you wished to be taken seriously? Would you seriously study the narrative, sifting through its content and its details, plumbing its historical depth and breadth? Would you strive mightily to understand it's compelling force, and trace the causes of its vitality?

Or would you create a shallow straw-man caricature and poke triumphal holes in it? Would you collect any shred of complication and shadow of uncertainty, string them together regardless of coherence, and refuse to recognize any attempts of synthesis? Would you brand adherents as malicious fools who invent and believe falsehoods?

Shlomo Sand, author of The Invention of the Jewish People, disdains the serious options and embraces the trite. The history of the Jews as an ancient nation is false, he claims; rather, the Jewish people are an artificial and unnatural invention, conjured in the 19th century and embellished in the 20th. Had he backed this with seriousness it might at least have been challenging. Instead, the result is a cringe inducing piece of astonishingly unconvincing scholarship.

The straw-man caricature: Sand seems to have read quite a bit about modern European nationalism. As he tells it, in the 19th century intellectuals overemphasized the longevity and coherence of their national pasts to bolster the national cohesiveness, strengthen its credibility and generally convince people how important their nation needed to be for them. Later, as the 20th century waned, these goals fell out of fashion, and the histories were changed to fit the new, multi-cultural Zeitgeist. This new narrative, we are expected to accept, is solidly true where its cynical and manipulative predecessors were not.

Sand neglects to discuss the non-Western world. Do his paradigms fit Asia, Africa, the Arab world or Latin America? He doesn't say. Yet he insists Jewish nationalism is European and shares its trajectory. As early European nationalism was based on bad history, so that of the Jews.

Sand never claims the Jewish religion is invented: it was the nation. The idea that Jews are a nation and share common ethnic roots was invented in the 1850s by Heinrich Graetz, who was copying German intellectuals. The Germans were busy inventing mythical Teutonic roots for the German Völk, so Graetz invented a Jewish version in which the Bible was about a specific ethnic group which was twice exiled yet managed to survive in ethnic purity all the way until the 19th century. The idea was taken up by Simon Dubnov, and through him passed to the intellectuals of Zionism who convinced the Jews that since they were direct descendents, it was time to return. Israeli historians continue to tout the myth, but Shlomo Sand has freed himself.

What did happen? After all, Graetz or not, the Jews have demonstrably been around for quite some time? In Sand's telling, back in the 8th and 7th century BCE there were two small kingdoms. Israel was the larger, older and more developed; Judah, to its south, was a motley collection of perhaps twenty villages. Admittedly, there was a house of David (for which there is external archeological evidence), but it had no regional significance. Unfortunately for Israel, it was defeated in the 8th century by the Assyrians, while Judah was conquered by the Babylonians only in the 6th. In the meantime, the Judeans had absorbed refugees from Israel and began inventing a glorious mutual past. Some exiled intellectuals picked up an early form of Persian Monotheism and at the end of the 6th century brought it back to Jerusalem. Their descendents then spent 300 years reworking old legends into the Old Testament as we know it. The Hasmonean kingdom is too well documented to have been invented, but Sand is eager to remind us how Hellenistic it actually was. It also forcibly converted the Edomites, south of Jerusalem, and this launched 1,500 years of large scale Jewish proselytizing. The Romans didn't exile anyone. Jewish Proselytizers and slaves spread their religion far and wide, eventually reaching 8% of the citizenry of the Roman Empire (mostly women). After Christianity proved better at proselytizing the Jews still converted tribes in Arabia, Yemen, and the Berbers. The final large group to be converted were the Khazars, who are the forebears of most European Jews. Yiddish is originally a Turkish language, witness the words dovenen and Yarmulka. The descendants of all these people remained Jews, until in the 20th century:

Forgetting the forced Judaizition and the great voluntary proselytization was essential for the preservation of a linear timeline, along which, back and forth, from past to present and back again, moved a unique nation – wandering, isolated, and, of course, quite imaginary (p.189).

Shoddy scholarship: Of course, the Bible says quite clearly that the Kingdom of Israel was the larger of the two – remember ten tribes vs. two? The prophets never tired of castigating popular pagan practices, so the idea that Monotheism wasn't a monopoly isn't exactly new. The whole point of the original Hasmonean revolt was a reaction against Hellenic influences, and the last generations before the destruction of the 2nd Temple were rife with internal Jewish strife, some of it violent. Of course there was an important Jewish presence in the Galilee (but not in Judea) for centuries after the Roman wars: who created the Mishna and the Jerusalem Talmud? And anyway, hasn't Sand himself just granted a Jewish presence in the land now known as Israel since at least the 10th century BCE? Are there many modern nations who can quibble about whether their roots go back 3,200 years or merely 2,800? What exactly is the point of Sand's argument?

The point is that he's not arguing, he's proclaiming. At every juncture of his story he always accepts the most skeptical interpretation on offer, even if this requires intellectual acrobatics (e.g. the Romans exiled no-one, but Jewish slaves propounded Judaism throughout the empire). He never presents a spectrum of interpretations and explains his choice. When no-one has plausible proof for a pet speculation – say, that the Khazars who disappeared from history in the 13th century fathered the millions of Eastern Europe's Jews of the 19th – he invents: Jews in Eastern Europe lived in shtetls and wore caftans, Jews in the West didn't, so they can't be of the same stock. Hence they must be Khazars (p.238ff).

Academia being what it is, each of Sand's propositions could have been the trailhead for a fascinating tour through the historical evidence and its modern interpretations; some of his statements might even withstand the scrutiny, others, inevitably, less so. Yet that would have required a very long lifetime of scholarship. Sand prefers to string together the outliers and to fashion their separate notions into a unified narrative, even as he silences all dissenting voices – assuming he even knows they're there.

His treatment of the original sources is even worse.

Whatever the biological origins of the Jews, the story they've been telling themselves about themselves is very old indeed. Allow me to suggest that the Jews are the people who have been telling themselves the Jewish story all along – so whether there once were Jews in Arabia, Berber North Africa or pre-historical Ukraine is insignificant if their descendants long since stopped participating in the communal discussion, the joint reading of ancient books and the never-ending creation of new layers of interpretation.

The thing about the Jews is that they've left a paper trail a mile wide. The oddest thing about Sand is that he seems blissfully unaware of it.

I expected my attackers to claim that I lacked a proper knowledge of Jewish history… But it seemed to me that to spend my life at Tel Aviv University amid its vast collections of volumes and documents about Jewish history without taking time to read and tackle them would have been a betrayal of my profession. (p.X)

Fair enough. How then to explain that his method of disproving the accepted wisdom is to disregard its entire library, to castigate some modern cherry-picked interpretations, and to proclaim himself the winner. It's bizarre. Throughout his book, there is no indication he has ever read a single page of the Talmud, (his rare quotations are from secondary sources), nothing to convince he has heard of the excruciatingly complex process through which Jewish law evolves nor what's in it, or that he tried to piece together the lines of communication that held the Jews together. He seems not to have opened a Jewish prayer book: itself a fascinating historical document.

Much of the literature he never looked at is legal (halachic), or literary interpretation (midrash). It's not well adapted to inform about earlier historical events. Yet if one makes the effort it can be an excellent source to learn about the conditions in which its authors lived. The Talmud, for example, offers a wealth of information about the lives of the Jews in the five centuries during which it was created.

Had Sand been interested in post-destruction Jews, he'd have encountered a thriving Jewish community in the Galilee mourning its exile from Jerusalem and Judea – rather further, one might note, than the exile West Bank and Gaza Palestinians suffer from the homes their parents left in Israel. He'd understand that the Jewish communities were forever bolstering their defenses against assimilation and integration, even if with varying levels of success. He could never have overlooked the intensity of the obsession with Jerusalem, the Land of Israel and their utter centrality to Jewish identity, because Jerusalem is mentioned more than 36,000 times in the pre-modern Jewish literature, and the rest of the land thousands of times. Ultimately, he would have had to confront the easily documentable fact that large numbers of Jews who made their way to Israel in the 20th century had never heard of Graetz, Dubnov, Dinur or any other Zionist historians, nor have their grandchildren, yet they recognized their connection to the land they were moving to and living in.

The fact that this is all absent from Sand's thesis is, quite simply, unbelievable.

Blanket denigration: Sand's father was a life-long Communist, so he is also: ultimately, it may be that simple. His book is infused with a classical Marxist style of thought: if you're with us, you're right; if you disagree with us it's because you're of the wrong camp. Political identity trumps cognitive ability and rational inquiry is subordinate to politically ordained ideology.

There's no original research in the book; specialists have developed the various sub-plots and Sand synthesizes. In recent months I've taken to asking scholars who know more about the specifics than I what their positions are: historians, archeologists, geneticists. So far, they've generally conceded that knowing the past is an imprecise matter, but that they don't find the deniers of Jewish history very convincing. Sand would take this as proof: the people I've been talking to are all Zionists, so obviously they're incapable of rational inquiry and by definition must be biased.

Nowhere is this more pronounced than his treatment of genetics.

The irony of the discussion is that while genetic genealogy is still in its infancy, it has the potential to resolve the discussion of Jewish ethnic cohesion once and for all. The nosedive in the cost of DNA sequencing, the growing ability to crunch imaginary amounts of data, and progress in understanding what DNA can teach us will result, probably within a decade or two, in the ability to map the genealogy of all humanity, should there be any interest. It may never be possible to know what uneducated Jews throughout the centuries thought about their identity – but it may be possible to know, with reasonable clarity, where they came from and who their descendents are.

The specialists will be able to know, that is. The rest of us will tag along. Unless we're non-specialists of Sand's school, who don't need to understand how scientific knowledge is acquired, so long as they know the political identity of the scientists:

But in a state which the law prevents marriage between a "Jew" and a "non-Jew" [this is not actually so], we should be very wary about research that seeks genetic markers common to the "chosen people". Like similar investigations carried out by Macedonian racists, Lebanese Phalangists, Lapps in northern Scandinavia and so on, such Jewish-Israeli research cannot be entirely free from crude and dangerous racism (p.279).

Like Bolshevists rejecting bourgeoisie knowledge for its authors rather than its scholarship, Sand has no need to engage with Israelis: they're racists, after all. QED.

Finally, a word about integrity. As of this writing, within a year of the publication of the English version of Sand's book, it is ranked at 26,000 on Amazon. While this is an imprecise indicator, sales don't seem to be going very well. 4,000 copies, perhaps 8,000. Yet those of us who follow the anti-Israeli Zeitgeist know that Sand's thesis about the fictional Jewish people is very popular. Apparently his audience sees no need even to read him. The existence of his book is enough.