Thursday, September 30, 2010

Don't Fool With the Birnbaum

So far as I can see from far away Jerusalem, Jeffrey Goldberg represents a sizable constituency in America's Jewry. Over the past week he seems to have changed his mind about J-Street - for the worse. If you follow his summary, you might want to note the role played by Ben Binrbaum. Birnbaum is a young but rising Washington journalist, who did a mildly brutal expose of Human Rights Watch not long ago; he also had an interesting look at who is going after the reputation of Alvaro Uribe. My impression is that if you've got a story you'd rather not have exposed, you'd probably not ought to talk to Ben.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Warfare by Drone

I recognize that 2004 was a very long time ago, and no reasonable person ought to be expected to remember things that far back. Me too. Alas, upon reading this news item in the New York Times, about how the Americans are stepping up their drone attacks against nasties in Pakistan - an article in which the words "Illegal by international law" never appear, I had this strange urge to find out how far back was it since the general international consensus was united in its condemnation of Israel's illegal assassinations. 2000? 2001? Perhaps even as late as September 12th 2001?

2004. The Americans were already in Iraq, and had been engaging in targeted assassinations for at least two years, but Israel's assassinations of Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantisi were almost unanimously condemned as illegal, not to mention stupid, evil, cruel and so on. Don't take my word for it: do the Goggling yourself.

Freeze? What Freeze?

In this particular part of the world, things are always more complicated than you think. And whenever you're convinced you've finally got a handle on stuff... poof! They come along and complicate matters again. Thus the settlement freeze which Israel just ended: that was pretty clear, wasn't it? They stopped building them for a while, which made everyone happy except the settlers,and now they're building them again, which makes everyone sad except the settlers. There, that was easy enough, wasn't it?

Well, no. My friend Dror Etkes, whose entire career is built around settlements (sorry for the pun), explains in Haaretz that there never was a freeze to begin with, and the whole thing was a charade. Of course, this raises the question, if it's true what are the Palestinian negotiators all agog about? If the situation is the same this week as last?

Anyway, just as we begin to reconcile ourselves to Dror's narrative about the construction of settlements that never abated, we notice this item, likewise in Haaretz, that tells the opposite story: the contractors and workers doing the construction are Palestinian, and they've been unemployed for ten months, but are now pleased to be returning to work, since the freeze is over. Hello? Haaretz? Anybody home?

Monday, September 27, 2010

Shlomo Sand's Theoretical Arrogance

I'm in the process of writing a thorough review of Shlomo Sand's The Invention of the Jewish People. Once I'm finished I'll send it off to a journal or two. If they publish it, I'll link to it here. If they don't, or even if they request significant modifications, as is wont to happen, I expect not to have the time and I'll post it here. Such is the life of a non-academic with other things to do. In the meantime, however, Haaretz has been hosting an article of his at the top of their webpage for a number of days already: perhaps they'd like lots of us to read it. It starts off with some petty psychoanalysis:
A Jewish state or an Israeli democracy? In the talks that appear to be taking place between Israel and the Palestinians, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has asked his negotiating partner to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. One can understand the prime minister: A man so little observant of the Jewish religious tradition is unsure of his Jewish identity, hence his insecurity about the identity of his state - and the need to seek validation from our neighbors.
Then he turns to theorizing:
Most Israelis would respond to this by saying Judaism and Jewishness represent not a religion but a people, so Israel must belong not to all its citizens but to the Jews of the world, who, as we know, prefer not to live here.Strange, I didn't know you could only join a people via religious conversion and not by taking part in its day-to-day culture. But perhaps there's a secular Jewish people-culture I'm not aware of? 
Did you see the cat coming out of the bag? Sand approaches the subject of Jewish nationality with the tools that seemed to work for European nation states before they began dismantling them, and since the Jews don't fit into those pigeonholes, it must be that they're fooling themselves. You can't be a nation if you don't follow the rules as defined by Shlomo Sand, and if you insist then you're cheating and deserve to be reprimanded. And forced to desist, too.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Lawfare Wolves Circling

This was inevitable: the Lawfare folks are now calling for a "Gaza style inquiry" on Afghan civilian deaths.

The Goldstone Report was such a smashing success, you see.

Stuff People Think they Know

Todd Gitlin and Liel Liebowitz thought they knew about the concept of the Chosen People, and even set out to write a book about it. Moving from their uninformed stereotypes into being informed made them change their minds dramatically: which they're eager to admit. The book, by the way, is here The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election.

J-Street tried to convince everyone their donors were lots of run-of-the-mill well-meaning American Jew. Alas, this seems not to have been true at any point in time. There was a lot of excitement in the blogoshpere about this over the weekend; I'm sending you to FresnoZionism because he seems to have done the deepest digging into who is supporting them. It's pretty weird.

The Huffington Post would have you believe that Israeli settlements cover 42% of the West Bank, a statement which is patently false to anyone who's ever been there, but is also contradicted by their own article. Is it possible someone made a dishonest editorial decision when formulating a headline? At a respectable news outlet?


Who created Stuxnet, the computer malware that seems to be afflicting the Iranians? I have no idea; I don't even have the faintest idea who does know, though I'll bet I could find them within six degrees of separation if I knew where to look and how. Nor do I expect anyone to know publicly with certainty for the next few decades. Still, it's nice that Israel is on the short list of possible culprits
Based on what he knows of Stuxnet, Mr. Lewis said, the United States is “one of four or five places that could have done it — the Israelis, the British and the Americans are the prime suspects, then the French and Germans, and you can’t rule out the Russians and the Chinese.” 
Not bad company to be in, huh? Israelycool has additional speculations on the matter.

No matter who did it, it must be said that the whole cyber-warfare thing is a bit unsettling. If this is what early generations of it can do, think what will be possible once the warriors really get into stride.

Mondoweiss is the Enemy

If you ever thought Mondoweiss' rejection of Israel starts from pacifism and an aversion to militarism and wars, think again. Philip Weiss has just published a paean to a Palestinian sniper who shot 11 Israelis in 2002. It's quite simple: Weiss is an enemy of Israel. Not a critic, not allergic to Israel, an enemy at time of war.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Lighten Up, Folks

Robin Shepherd demonstrates that the BBC isn't just biased against Israel: they've got to actually work at it.

Yet, truth be told, perhaps it not a good idea to spend as much time as this blog does being all serious about stuff. Especially at Sukkot, the only Jewish holiday where we're explicitly told to be happy. So for starters, Jeffrey Goldberg insists Fidel - for all his blemishes - is actually pro-Israel.

Judeosphere likes the political cartoons of Shlomo Cohen, as anyone ought. Personally, I think this one is simple genius:

If you're a Facebook user (most people are, I'm not) you'll probably need to see this film

If you're a Twitter user (I'm guilty), this film

And if you user You-Tube (me? never), this film

Interpreting Israel from America

Laura Rozen in Washington speculates why the Israeli delegation didn't show up to listen to Obama's UN speech today. True, she says, it's Sukkot, and the Israelis told the White House in advance that they'd not be there, but that can't be serious. There's got to be another reason- so she goes speculating.

Perhaps. It might however be worth noting that no Israeli politician who wishes to be re-elected can be seen to disregard the Jewish holidays. Offhand, I cannot think of a single case of diplomacy on Jewish holidays for decades. (Perhaps prior to the election of Menachem Begin in 1977, but I wouldn't vouch even for that). I realize this seems parochial: observing an ancient holiday rather than listening to a speech by the President of theUnited States of America, but there it is.

Human Rights Violations Quiz

In a world of balanced reporting, these would be easy questions to answer. Test yourself:

In what part of the world has a perceived occupier shot more than 80 civilians this summer?

More significantly, in what part of the world have some 200,000 (two hundred thousand!) civilians been forced out of their homes, with thousands of casualties?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Two States for [??] People

Salam Fayyad broke off a meeting yesterday in New York with Danny Ayalon when Ayalon insisted their joint communique mention "Two states for two people". Jonathan Tobin comments:
The point here is more than mere sophistry. If the peace talks do not result in recognition of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, then the conflict will not be over. While some groups are putting pressure on Israel to concede its right to build in disputed territories prior to even the start of negotiations (such as the left-wing lobby J Street, which published a full page ad in the New York Times today demanding that Israel freeze settlements without mentioning any corresponding concessions from the Palestinians), the PA won’t even admit that a two-state solution will allow for one of the two to be Jewish. One needn’t be a peace-process cynic to understand that what is going on now is a charade, not a genuine negotiation.
I'll offer a different take: If Israel will not be recognized by the Palestinians as the Jewish State, then there's no need for the Temple Mount/Haram elShariff to be in Palestine. On the contrary. Since Palestine will be Judenrein, but Israel (defined as Jewish or not) will have a significant Palestinian minority, the holiest place for both sides should obviously be in the country which is home to citizens of both nations.

Come to think of it: This should be true of the entire city of Jerusalem. Rammallah, with Palestinians only, should be in Palestine. Haifa, Jaffa and Jerusalem, with mixed populations, should be in the country with the mixed population, the country that can't acceptably be defined as Jewish.

Diversity in Jerusalem (and Beyond)

Here's an interesting item about three public markets in Jerusalem: the gigantic mall at Malha, the upscale-touristy open-air promenade at Mamila, and the oldest of the three, the tourist market in the Old City (about a three minute walk from Mamila). In all three there are Israeli and Palestinian shoppers together; in the Old City the stores are all operated by Arabs and in Malha most or all of the stores are operated by Jews; in Mamila there are Jews and Arabs on both sides of the counters.

In the past I've toyed with the thesis whereby the more direct the Israeli control of Palestinians, the better for them in many ways. Where would any reasonable person prefer to live: in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, In Syria, in Hamas Gaza, or in Israeli Haifa? Over the past year or two Salaam Fayad and his people may finally be getting their act together in some parts of the West Bank, and hopefully this will continue. In the meantime, however, for all the many blemishes, Jerusalem seems not to be so bad.

In a different universe, meanwhile, there are currents in the Haredi community, in Jerusalem and elsewhere, which may lead them, too, into a natural participation in the broader society. Perhaps.

Bill Clinton, by the way, thinks he understands how these sort of issues play out in the negotiations for peace. I'm not convinced, but it's interesting how closely he follows the matter.

On a different - but not totally unrelated - subject, TNR offers a description of the occupation of West Sahara, and the difference in the way that occupation is treated compared to Israel's. A whiff of hypocrisy, if you read closely. Which raises the question: where would it be better to live, in West Sahara or in Kalkilya, say, on the West Bank? (h/t Silke).

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Things in the Intertubes

Michael Oren gave a speech (three times) on Yom Kippur, and lots of folks are trying to decode it. You can, too: here it is. (Me, I'm not decoding).

Jeffrey White has a new study about what will happen if Israel and Hezbullah have another war. Save, and check his accuracy after it happens, I fear.

The Muqata has dug up an old one about the season we're in. It's worth your time.

Scholars on Shlomo Sand

I've finished reading Shlomo Sand's The Invention of the Jewish People. Who knows, perhaps I'll find the time to write a review of it (it's an astonishingly poorly researched book that will be lapped up enthusiastically by all the usual suspects). In the meantime, here's a quick round-up of some serious reviews by real scholars.

Israel Bartal published his review in Haaretz, where it's no longer accessible - but The Zionist Conspiracy blog (true to its name) saved it online for us here.

Anita Shapira published her review in The Journal of Israeli History; you can find it online here.

Hillel Halkin lacks the academic stature of Bartal and Shapira, but he's a knowledgeable fellow and writes well; here's his TNR review.

Not Everyone Likes the Jews

A new book, The Secret History of MI6, tells that British hostility to Zionism was so intense after WWII that its secret agency went so far as to blow up ships that were to take Holocaust survivors to Mandatory Palestine. According to this review of the book, it seems no-one was hurt, as the ships were attacked when in port, empty.

Some latter day Brits still intensely dislike Israel, and they're busy passing anti-Israeli resolutions. Across the pond some folks don't like Israel much either. They pretend they're merely upholding fine moral principles, but sadly, a fellow named Dr. Fred Gottheil unveiled their dishonesty when he asked hundreds of signatories of an anti-Israel petition to sign one about human rights in Muslim societies: most refused to sign.

If you enjoy reading about such nastiness you'll be gratified to learn there's a new blog all about antisemitism, titled JHate - a blog about anti-Semitism. (Remind me to write about the different spellings of the term someday).

Finally, on a related but upbeat note. Remember when after the earthquake in Haiti an Israeli medical team did such a fine job that the usual suspects united in condemning Israel for pulling out its field hospital after a mere month? Well, it appears the story is more complex. Once there were larger hospitals in operation there wasn't much need for an emergency field hospital there, but it seems various Israeli organizations are still in Haiti, till this very day and not packing up to leave.

Update: Juergen sends in this nice article about Ireland: the author thinks the post of Israeli ambassador in Ireland must be the worst job an Israeli diplomat can have. (Worse than Turkey?)

Monday, September 20, 2010

View through Obfuscation

Shmuel Rosner ponders whether the NIF has learned anything from the public pressure on it these past months, and is not convinced. Yet he expects the pressure to continue, and recommends the NIF-folks take this into account.

View from the West

Prof. Fouad Agami, always a contrarian, has numbers that tell a surprising - and optimistic -story:
The truth is that the trajectory of Islam in America (and Europe for that matter) is at variance with the play of things in Islam's main habitat. A survey by Elaph, the most respected electronic daily in the Arab world, gave a decided edge to those who objected to the building of this mosque—58% saw it as a project of folly.

Elaph was at it again in the aftermath of Pastor Terry Jones's threat to burn copies of the Quran: It queried its readers as to whether America was a "tolerant" or a "bigoted" society. The split was 63% to 37% in favor of those who accepted the good faith and pluralism of this country.

This is remarkable. The ground burned in the Arab-Islamic world over the last three decades. Sly preachers and their foot soldiers "weaponized" the faith and all but devoured what modernists had tried to build in the face of difficult odds. The fury has not burned out. Self-styled imams continue to issue fatwas that have made it all but impossible for Arabs and Muslims to partake of the modern world. But from this ruinous history, there has settled upon countless Muslims and Arabs the recognition that the wells are poisoned in their midst, that the faith has to be reined in or that the faith will kill, and that the economic and cultural prospects of modern Islam hang in the balance.

To this kind of sobriety, Muslim activists and preachers in the diaspora—in Patterson, N.J., and Minneapolis, in Copenhagen and Amsterdam—appear to be largely indifferent. They are forever on the look-out for the smallest slight.

View from the East

I spent the morning in East Jerusalem. Not long ago I met a fellow there - a Palestinian, of course - who seems a potential partner for a discussion I've been wanting to have for a number of years already, about the town we both live in.

I'm not going to name him yet, because although we've had a few meetings already, he and I have yet to define what it is we're doing, beyond telling each other stuff. (And showing). Give us a few weeks (each of us is busy with other things), and perhaps we'll reach an agreement about what we're up to.

I will however note a few quick impressions.

We visited a girls school, at which apparently all the girls and the staff were dressed in traditional clothing, the adults with their heads covered. Except for the principal, who was dressed in Western garb, spoke fluent Hebrew, and seems to have a shelf-full of academic degrees and qualifications from all sorts of institutions of higher learning on all sides of our conflict.

Set aside the strategic aspects of two nations clashing; there seems no dearth of things Israel does which can be interpreted, from the East Jerusalem perspective, as either malicious, or very idiotic. Of course, there are other explanations for the same things, too: it's a complicated story.

There's a UNRWA school over there. The story of UNRWA is quite odd, and I wrote a section about it in Right to Exist. The thing about UNRWA is that it exists to support Palestinian refugees: but the area I was in doesn't have any Palestinian refugees. On the contrary, it's an area populated by a number of clans who've been precisely there, where they are now, for something like 250 years. Apparently, back in the 1950s the Jordanians (or someone) convinced UNRWA to support the locals in the village they'd been living in for centuries, because it abutted on the border with Israel. Assuming my friend's story was correct - and the UNRWA school is certainly there - then the UNRWA story is even more bizarre than I thought.

At one point we drove past an elderly man with some bags. His job, I was told, is to collect bread. When the locals throw out their garbage, they separate the old bread from it, because bread cannot be treated as garbage. (This is true in some Jewish families, too, mostly ones from Arab societies). This elderly man has appointed himself, and is recognized by all, as the remover of cast-aside bread. He comes by regularly, collects the bread which is placed separately near the garbage bins, and makes use of it (to feed animals, apparently).

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Root Cause: America Fights Back

The Guardian has a long and not very coherent article about Faisal Shazad and how he came to be a (failed) terrorist. The cause? America is killing Muslims.

Of course, other people are killing Muslims too, included mostly other Muslims, but also - at least quite recently - Russians, Serbs, Indians, Chinese and so on. Unlike America, moreover, some of them have been at it for rather a while, and even at times were the aggressors. Not that you'd learn any of this from the Guardian.

Shahzad's reasoning, shared by suicide bombers in Gaza, Sri Lanka and elsewhere, was that his act was a war tactic. Aerial bombing by states cannot avoid killing children. Hence terror bombings by militants that kill children are a logical response. The anti-terror police have a programme (so far successful) to prevent another 9/11, but it cannot address root causes – American foreign policy...

Nothing new here, move on...

Aznar's Friends of Israel

Since I spend far too much time following all sorts of folks who don't much like Israel, it's only fair to point out that some people actually do (like Israel). Jose Maria Aznar, for example, who was once the prime minister of Spain until he sided with Tony Blair and George Bush on some matter, and was booted out by his electorate for his efforts. Anyway, deep into retirement he is now trotting the globe touting his new organization, Friends of Israel. He seems to think there's a connection between Israel's legitimacy and well-being, and that of other places. How odd.

He even explained this at some length to the Haaretz person in Washington. More elbow power to him, I say.

Boycott Now!

Yet another good reason to boycott Israeli universities, the sooner the better.

Calling the United Nations

Imagine a hypothetical world in which everyone had decided to revoke the use of violence and refrain from war, preferring instead to live by universally accepted rules. Even in such a world there might sometimes be rogue elements who cheated, but in the rare cases of potentially violent mischief making, any side which felt itself put-upon would send a complaint to the world referees, who would call out the culprits, admonish them, and everything would go back to normal. Obviously, in such a world it would not be legitimate for anyone to retaliate with force, even when they felt attacked, since the world body would resolve the matter for them like an efficient nursery school teacher.

If, in exceedingly rare cases, some group insisted upon being unreasonable and aggressive, the world body could, at least conceivably, take action itself. This would be highly regrettable, but at least it would be clearly moral.

The odd thing is that there are people who sincerely believe this mumbo-jumbo, or at least pretend to. The Archbishop of Canterbury, for example, and others, too. For their benefit, here's a letter sent recently by a representative of the Israeli government.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Unetanneh Tokef

I've written in the past about Unetanneh Tokef, perhaps the single most powerful prayer of the High Holidays (but not for any lack of competition). The prayer was probably written in the Galilee in the Byzantine era; it's earliest copy comes from the Cairo Geniza.

A 13th century story tells how R. Amnon of Magenza (=Mainz) was tortured to death for refusing to convert to Christianity, and died as he was reciting Netanneh Tokef; whether the story is true or not I can't say, but it's old, it reflects real conditions in medieval Europe, and if one had the strength to die reciting a prayer this would be as good as any.

The Hebrew text, an English translation and analysis can all be found here.

At 1:50 pm on Yom Kippur of 1973 Egypt and Syria attacked Israel, and the Yom Kippur War began. Like 9/11, or Kennedy's assassination, it was a moment in time no-one ever forgets; the war was the second most bloody of our many chapters of conflict, exceeded in bloodiness only by the war of 1947-49.

Kibbutz Beit Hashita in the Jezereel Valley, a community of a few hundred families, lost 11 of its men, the highest proportion of casualties in any Israeli town in that war. In spite of being a very secular, left-leaning kibbutz, when the kibbutzniks commissioned Yair Rosenblum to write them a commemorative text he simply put Unetanneh Tokef to music, combining various styles of Israeli music. The most famous recording is by Hanoch Albalek, a member of the kibbutz. It has long since become a nationally recognized version.

By way of closing the circle, one might add that Beit Hashita is near Beit Alfa, the site of a magnificent Byzantine-era synagogue, so perhaps the anonymous author of the original prayer lived close nearby; in any case he couldn't have been very far away, given the size of the Galilee.

The Will to Power

Here's a fine review of what sounds as a tel-it-as-it-is book, Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don't. According to the review
Mr Pfeffer starts by rubbishing the notion that the world is just—that the best way to win power is to be good at your job. The relationship between rewards and competence is loose at best. Bob Nardelli was a disastrous CEO of Home Depot. But he was paid nearly a quarter of a billion dollars to leave and quickly moved to the top slot at Chrysler, which then went bankrupt. Mr Pfeffer points out that CEOs who presided over three years of poor earnings and led their firms into bankruptcy only faced a 50% chance of losing their jobs (and perfectly successful senior managers are routinely cleaned out when new CEOs take over). There are plenty of things that matter more than competence, such as...
Silke would like this book.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Explaining Halachot is Problematic (or Not?)

As I mentioned earlier, I'm reading Shlomo Sand's The Invention of the Jewish People and finding it remarkably unconvincing. Perhaps the single weirdest thing about it is that Sand is offering a revolutionary new reading of Jewish history, yet he never - not once - cites the relevant Jewish sources. If there's one thing Jews did throughout their history it's read and write books; some of the more important of them relate directly to his subject matter: say, the Talmud, for example. He seems never to have glanced at them, nor even to have any idea what's in them via the ample modern academic literature about them. I cannot stress enough how truly bizarre this is.

Admittedly, learning history from the Talmud requires some careful scholarship, since its creators were in no way recording the annals of their times, nor were they interested in what modern historians do. So what? Lots of historians spend lots of time and effort deciphering past issues from oblique sources.

An example of a matter the Talmud never actually tells us, though it would have been of major significance, is the relationship between their scholarly efforts and the broad, non-scholarly Jewish public. The rabbis haggled endlessly over the tiniest minutiae of countless matters; how did this relate to the daily life of the general public?

Today I passed an interesting hint. The topic is a convoluted discussion about which cheeses produced by pagans can be eaten by Jews, if at all, and what are the Biblical sources for the different positions. Back in Mishnaic times there had been an early discussion between Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Ishmael (2nd century); it was cited by Rav Dimi when he moved from Eretz Israel to Babylonia (4th century). At one point in the original discussion Rabbi Yehoshua had admonished Rabbi Yishmael not to explain: "Yishmael my brother! Keep your lips sealed!"

The Gemara asks why Rabbi Yishmael wasn't allowed to explain his position, and answers that it was a new, recent rule. The Gemara interrupts itself and insists: so what was the reason for the proscription, and gives a technical explanation about the method of cheese production. Having clarified that, the Gemara goes back to ask what was special about new rules that it was forbidden to explain them, and cites a report from Ulla (a 3rd century rabbi who lived in the Galilee but traveled frequently to Babylonia): the rabbis in the west (=Eretz Israel) never explained their halachic rulings for 12 months, fearing that if they did the people might decide they weren't convinced and not act as instructed; after 12 months people would have gotten used to the new instruction and there would no longer be any harm in explaining it.

Avoda Zara 35a. This thread starts and is explained here.

Jews are Palestinians are Jews

There's been quite a bit of ridicule of this article in the Guardian which refers to the people who lived in the Holy Land in the days of Jesus as "early Palestinians". CiFWatch was on the story here and here, Daled Amos was on it here, Mellanie Phillips here. Some of them talk about how this is no coincidence, rather the result of the concentrated efforts of Replacement Theology Christian thinkers and Palestinian ideologues. Fair enough.

These days, however, I'm in the middle of Shlomo Sand's The Invention of the Jewish People, which I hope to review in depth sometime. Sand isn't a Christian theologian, nor a Palestinian ideologue. He's a Jewish professor at Tel Aviv University. Yet his book, profoundly wrong as it is, is part of a clear effort to re-write history so that the Jews were not here 2000 years ago, and certainly not 3000. That slip-of-tongue in the Guardian probably wasn't, which is why it slipped past the editor. There are ever more people out there who actually do think Jesus' compatriots were early Palestinians, whatever that might mean.

Begin's Memoiries - and Rabin's, and Even Kissinger's

Lee Smith has read Yehuda Avner's new book The Prime Ministers: An Intimate Narrative of Israeli Leadership, and describes it at length. Avner worked closely with Levy Eshkol, Golda Meir, Ytzchak Rabin, and Menachem Begin, and kept piles of notes upon which he based this book. Lee says that it's all fascinating, but that Begin towers above all the others.

Yet another book we've got to read, I guess.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The More Peace Negotiations, the More Palestinian Violence

Today was the worst day of rocket fire from Gaza since the aftermath of Israel's operation there last year. The BBC reports this under the following headline: Israel bombs tunnels as leaders talk peace. I spoof you not. Ah, and some of the shells shot by the Palestinians are phosphorous. As of this moment, the Twitter accounts of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are silent on the matter. The last time HRW tweeted about Israel/Palestine was on Sept. 8th, when they condemned the conviction of a Palestinian activist by an Israeli court; the last time they had anything to say about the Palestinians was to condemn the murder of four Israelis on Sept 2nd. As for Amnesty International: I followed them backwards until August 12th. No condemnation of anything Palestinian, not even the murder of four Israeli civilians.

Something about the Northwest

Michael Totten has a report from the Golan Heights you ought to read. The thing about Michael is that he lets folks tell you about their world, in their words, without editing them so as to fit the template he wants you to think in. Ironically, this rather simplistic way of doing things - no self-respecting journalist or newspaper editor would be caught dead doing it that way - results in a complex picture of reality that's much better than the one the professionals would foist on us.

Meanwhile, a bit further to the north of Michael (he's in Oregon), David Brumer seems to be organizing the locals to confront their BDS neighbors. So if there are any readers of this blog from the Seattle area, this is for you. Ah, and if you wish, you can send my regards to Richard Silverstein, too. I'd do it myself but he's banned me from any channels of communications an account of my disagreeing with him on stuff.

Jews at the Western Wall

Palestinian Media Watch has a video from the Palestinian Authority TV station (not Hamas: the PA good guys) which was broadcast over Rosh Hashana: Jews praying at the Western Wall are sinners and filth. (via Elder).

Meanwhile, Geoffrey recommends this video, about the Jews who used to go to jail for the crime of blowing the shofar on Yom Kippur, back in the days before the Zionists had done all those bad things to the Palestinians.

The first hero of the story, the Rav Segal, is no longer alive and doesn't participate in the film. I remember him, however, as a little old man with a white beard and an aura of commitment about him; people used to turn to watch him as he walked the streets of the Old City.

On Tariq Ramadan and Islamist Jew Hatred

Due disclosure: I like Paul Berman's writings. I haven't read them all, but he always strikes me as a clear-eyed scholar who reads a lot and thinks about what he's reading. I'm saying this because in the case of an intellectual argument about a book I haven't read, my natural inclination, at least until I read the book, is to side with Berman. Not blindly, mind you, but at least initially.

The book under discussion being The Flight of the Intellectuals.

Mark Lynch, a professor at George Washington University and potentially a member of the class Berman criticizes, recently published a long review of the book, which he didn't much like. Now Berman has responded, he's been joined by Jeffrey Herf, and Lynch then responds to them responding to his responding to Berman; the discussion is here. Herf, in case you've missed it, is the author of the important Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World, so you can see where part of the argument goes.

More due disclosure: I have no empathy for any intellectual position which overlooks, excuses, or in any other way diminishes the significance of antisemitism. In my book, it's not possible to be moderate and reasonable if your being moderate and reasonable doesn't include the Jews. But maybe that's just me.

The best thing would probably to start by reading Berman's book, but if - like me - that's not something you've got the time for this week, the exchange is interesting.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Working Women

Here's an interesting item about women in Israel's workforce: Most Israeli Arab women aren't employed, though the reason offered is a fine example of obfuscation: due to cultural reasons and limited access to the job market. So which is it? And what's the statement based on, anyway? The item then tells that only 56% of haredi women are in the workforce, but that the rest - secular and modern orthodox - have a higher rate of employment than in any developed country.

Not all that surprising. I don't think I know any healthy women capable of working who don't do so.

As for the haredi women, here's an interesting article about the revolution being spearheaded by Adina Bar Shalom - who just happens to be the daughter of the Rav Ovadia Yosef, who backs her efforts. Actually, the fact that her father is an exceedingly important rabbi is probably what gives her the ability to be so revolutionary. A woman with lesser credentials in the hierarchical haredi society wouldn't dare, couldn't have the impact, and would probably be forced to give up.

Terms of Negotiations

Up front, unambiguous, and with no obfuscations: I'm in favor of the continuation of the settlement freeze. Not in Modi'in Illit, which will remain in Israel no matter what, and certainly not in any part of Jerusalem. But in all the places we know we'll leave some day - and let's define them broadly, not narrowly - I'm in favor of the freeze. I'd be in favor of it even if there were no negotiations: we know that someday we're going to disband those settlements, so there's no rational point in building in them, is there. So let's stop.

On that level, I've got no problem with the American position that since negotiations have finally started it would be a bad idea to interfere by building in the settlements. So long as the negotiations may possibly lead to peace, no changes should be made in the disputed areas.

By either side.

So while there's no problem with Palestinians building in areas we all know will eventually be part of their state (the corollaries of Midi'in Illit), it should be clear to all sides and the international community that the Palestinians, too, must refrain from actions which harm the negotiations. Things such as firing rockets at Israeli civilians, shooting at their cars, or stoning Israeli civilians. Shhh! There are negotiations going on, and all sides must refrain from harming them.

Why is this reciprocity not crystal clear? Because it isn't, you know.

Update: Khaled Abu Toameh (a Palestinian) says the same, only with greater fervor.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Things You Can Learn from Old Graves

A few months ago Didi Remez challenged me to state my position on Jerusalem's history. In case you've missed it (many people have, thankfully), there's an academic insurgency underway these past 15 or 20 years, spearheaded - predictably - by a coalition of anti-Zionist European archeologists, and some Israeli ones. In a nutshell, the claim is that the bible wasn't (this was the title of a long article about them in Haaretz about a decade ago). King David wasn't, the House of David wasn't, the Temple wasn't, Jerusalem wasn't - not until much later - and so on.

I wrote a bit about this in Right to Exist: A Moral Defense of Israel's Wars, but in a general way, not focusing in particular on Jerusalem. Didi helpfully sent me an article of the sort he regards as acceptable, to help me along; so far, however, I haven't said much on the matter because doing so would require serious investigation and I've not found the time. I do intend to get there, however.

Today I joined a tour of ancient burial places in Jerusalem, given by Dr. Eyal Meron, an archeologist himself. While I've been living in this town for more than 40 years, and consider myself as knowledgeable about it as the next fellow, there are vast swathes of things I don't know. Most of what Eyal showed us today was new to me - in spite of most of it being very ancient.

We started in the Dominican monastery of St. Etienne, also known as the Ecole Biblique, a French compound transplanted into the middle of Jerusalem like a combination of time- and place travel.

The monastery itself is off to the left
However, we were here to see something else. If you cross the courtyard to the far right corner, behind the statue of St. Stephen, there's a door most people don't notice
behind which lies a peaceful grove of trees
and in the grove there's an underground structure. The roof above its entrance is modern
and some of the local Dominican brothers of the 20th century are buried in it. But then, deeper inside, there's a set of rooms, chiseled into the rock, and quite very dark (sorry, no photos). There's a front room of a precise size (7X8X5 ama, if I remember correctly), a shallow hole in its floor with bird bones - remains of sacrificial offerings - which were still there when the first Dominicans investigated the cave in the 19th century, and ornately decorated walls. There are a series of side rooms, each of them with two or three rock shelves on which cadavers were laid out, and beneath them hollow cavities where the bones were collected.

The bones are still there, jumbled together, remains of at least 20 different individuals, all of whom lived in this city in the 8th century BCE, about 2,800 years ago.

Such an elaborate and expensive arrangement for the dead, explained Eyal, signifies a city in which some of the living are very wealthy. Who were they? There's no way to know. Not the royalty, since their graves have been identified elsewhere. "Open the Bible to the book of Kings, read the chapters about the mid-1st-Temple days, and choose any of the rich powerful or important families: this is the burial place of one of them".

That was merely the first station on our tour, though it's the last I'll report on today. Still, Jerusalem being the fiendishly complicated place that it is, I can't resist adding that when you walk out the gate of the walled, serene and reflective monastery, with its impressive church, important library, shady groves and long dead Jewish aristocrats, and you're on a busy but grubby street behind the bus depot of East Jerusalem with all its clamor and squalor, right across the street there's a shop selling cold drinks and junk-food. The name of the shop?
That's right. The Argentine butcher from Cuba, selling his candy bars and glaring at the Church. In Arabic.

Update: Elder of Ziyon has posted a film from Jerusalem in 1918. Definitely worth watching.


Robin Shepherd reads Chris Phillips, a Guardian expert about something or other, and shows that in Phillip's world, if someone - say, Tony Blair - doesn't recoil from Israel in the correct way, there must be something profoundly wrong with them. After all, no reasonable person could possibly not understand the world the Guardianistas do.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Things to Boycott

While I've never systematically done the maths, my consistent impression is that when the Economist talks about technology, the representation of Israel is higher than it's proportion of the world's population, or even higher than it's proportion in, say, the population of the OECD countries alone. Here's an example from their most recent Technology Quarterly, about an Israeli company that may yet revolutionize air travel if the existing power players can be induced to move over a bit. This would probably save billions and be good for the environment, so the Guardian should be in favor.

The following article doesn't mention Israel at all. Yet it just so happens that the name of the researcher who is so lavishly praised in it rang a bell: Yoel Fink. So I did a spot of googling, and yes, he's that cute little two-year-old who lived across the street from us in Jerusalem; I used to baby-sit for him and his sister, way back then. He seems since to have grown up, and done quite well for himself. Go figure.

Still Trying for a Retraction

Victor, now joined by Soccer Dad, still think they can wring some sort of apology from someone for that outrageous outpouring of smug condemnation of Israel in the rape-by-deception case of two months ago. Dream on, my friends, but it's good that you're trying.

Dore Gold on Jerusalem

A month or two ago I read Dore Gold's The Fight for Jerusalem: Radical Islam, The West, and The Future of the Holy City. I suppose I should have reviewed it at the time, when it was still fresh in my mind, but alas, I didn't. So this will be a quick note about some of the interesting things readers can expect to find, and a warm recommendation that they do so.

Dore is an historian of Islam, whose first book was about the Wahabbis in Saudi Arabia:Hatred's Kingdom: How Saudi Arabia Supports the New Global Terrorism, and whose most recent book is about Iran's nuclear ambitions The Rise of Nuclear Iran: How Tehran Defies the West. During Netanyahu's first stint as prime minister in the late 1990s Dore was our ambassador to the UN, which give him a good grasp of how that organization really works, about which he then wrote in Tower of Babble: How the United Nations Has Fueled Global Chaos. He's a serious fellow, intelligent and well informed, and if his books are influenced by how he sees the world, well, so are most books; unlike most journalists or bloggers, he writes in depth about things he really knows about. His book on Jerusalem draws on his two main tracks, that of the scholar and that of the diplomat.

He sets up the story by clarifying that the present accepted wisdom that Jerusalem must be divided between Israel and Palestine is new: until Ehud Barak hastily offered to divide the city in summer 2000 this was not the only option on the table. This is not to say the idea hadn't been floating around for a while and was advocated by many, but there were reasonable alternatives, and significant players such as all American administrations were willing to entertain some of them.

The bulk of the book is divided into three sections, each with a different focus, separate tone, and independent story. The first looks at Jerusalem's history from the perspectives of each of the three Abrahamic religions. One theme of this section is that each of them saw Jerusalem in the context of its own political context: at different times it was more or less important based on who was in power where. This was and remains true for the Christian world, it was clearly true for the Muslims - and if I may add a comment of my own, it's strikingly true about the Jews today: if you're anti-Zionist, skeptical about Zionism, or of Israel's hard left, you're probably supportive of the present project of denying Jerusalem's historical significance for the Jews so as to weaken their connection to it and enable handing its heart to the Palestinians. Politics informs history, not vice versa.

The second section of the book focuses on the diplomatic events of the past century. The single most important finding of this section is the degree to which international diplomatic opinion was not united until recently. The meta-narrative these days is that Jerusalem belongs legally to the Palestinians, and even if it doesn't any military changing of borders is illegal and forbidden so Israel has no claim to any areas beyond the 1949-67 line. Gold draws on the documents of the United Nations, foremost among them security council decision 224 and the negotiations that preceded its formulation, to show that as recently as 4o years ago the present narrative wasn't consensual at all. If there's an illegal Israeli occupation today, and there's no if or but about it because that's the only possible way to view the matter, how come there was so much discussion and differences of opinion back in the 1960s?

The third section of the book deals with the position Jerusalem is acquiring before our eyes (though most of us aren't looking) in the more extreme strands of Islam. In a nutshell, the city has taken upon itself an apocalyptic status; by this reading, a Muslim takeover of Jerusalem would blow a gale in the winds of the Islamists, and rather than portending peace it would spur extremism. I wouldn't accept this as fully true merely because Dore Gold says it's true, but the case he makes is serious enough that it ought be discussed more widely than it presently is (well: presently the entire thesis is utterly and totally taboo in polite discussion in the West, so saying it ought be discussed in greater seriousness sets a very low bar).

Gold doesn't much talk about my pet thesis, that the city can't be successfully divided even if one wished to, but it's a valuable book. Read it, tell other people about it, ask your congress representative or MP if they've read it, badger your pet journalists with its ideas, leave comments you've learned from it at online discussions.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

On the Making of a Gadol

A Gadol is one of the highest accolades Judaism knows to bestow: a top scholar. It takes at least 40 years of non-stop adult study to get there, along with various other requirements. Shmuel Rosner has some glum thoughts about why there aren't any being produced.

Yet another reason for reflection this year. Rosh Hashana isn't really a holiday, in the "we're having a great time" sort of way - but Id el-Fiter is. So if there are any Muslim readers here (I doubt it), may they have a fine holiday; for the Jews among us, Gmar Tov.

Daniel Gordis on a Timeless Nasty Sterotype in Time (Magazine)

He's angry, is Danny Gordis. Spot on, though. Spouting ancient negative lies about Jews is now fine, even on the cover of Time Magazine.

Ah, here comes the rub. Part of the answer that Time offers is that Israelis have despaired of peace (though why that might be is never explicitly stated – Palestinian recalcitrance is never actually mentioned, like a dark family secret that everyone knows but that everyone hopes will go away if it doesn’t surface). Israelis have learned to build decent lives even in the face of the conflict, and the Palestinians are now a nuisance, not a strategic threat. That’s true, and a fair point.

But what about the rest of the answer that Time offers? Why are Israelis not more interested in the peace process? Money. Yes, you read that correctly. The Jews are more interested in money than in peace.

Yedidya Stern on a Conversion Law

Law professor Yedidya Stern summarizes the issues of a conversion law. America's non-orthodox Jews probably won't be able to live with his proposal, but it's as good as any other I've heard.
THE ZIONIST majority, both here and in the Diaspora, must demand that authority for conversion be transferred from stringent, haredi rabbis to moderate rabbis willing to implement a halacha that embraces converts. A lenient policy is justified today because Jewish identity is guaranteed here; Jews are the vast majority and the public domain is Jewish, eliminating concern that too many converts might endanger it. We are not a minority anymore, and halachic policy should reflect this crucial change. Moreover, potential converts are sociologically Jews even before converting. Already connected to Jewish life, they serve in the army, speak Hebrew and identify with the words of “Hatikva.” Lastly, the vast majority of candidates for conversion are “from the seed of Israel”; that is, they are of Jewish descent, even if their mothers are not Jewish. These considerations should motivate the adoption of a more open and welcoming conversion policy.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Some Insight's into Israel's Hard Left

In my post yesterday about the Sabbar Kashur story I remembered wondering, back in July, where all the Israeli feminists were: The answer, it seemed obvious, being that they're lefties first, and feminists second. Well, today's Haaretz has a piece by Meirav Michaeli, one the most vocal and visible of our public feminists. She seems to say exactly that: her anger at imagined Israeli racism made her oblivious to what was really going on.

Here's another example of the hard left's willingness to play with facts in the service of ideology. The Geneva Initiative group have been running spots implying that Palestinians are eager to make peace with us, while it's the Israelis who've been interfering. There's nothing remarkable about this - it's the consensus in most Western media, with some notable exceptions - but these are Israelis trying to convince the majority of Israelis who know better because we've been closely watching the conflict all our lives, and we know people will die if we make the wrong decisions. Well, according to this story, the authors of the campaign haven't been careful with their facts, and the top Palestinian leaders they've been quoting object to being quoted.

Neither of these stories is particularly important on its own, though they fit a pattern. The hard left assumes the worst about us and sees themselves as the last bulwark of sanity, the lone campaigners who bear the burden of saving us from ourselves.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the NIF and the organizations it supports. If you follow their newsletters, fund-raising pitches and publications, you'll easily be convinced that Israeli democracy is in dire straights, seriously threatened by forces that would do away with it were it not for them who are battling for our soul. The possibility that Israeli society is merely being its usual raucous democratic self seems not to occur to them, just as in previous years it was obvious to them that they alone understand and cherish human rights, or peace, or social well-being, or whatever value they choose to be the defenders of. In spite of their being highly educated people, they can't seem to appreciate that the rest of us may understand and indeed share the same values, while wishing to organize our communal life along different priorities

Yesterday there was a news item about how the ministry of education intends to move funds from civic studies to Jewish studies - a classic case of prioritizing. The item was sparse on data, so I have no idea what the ministry's intention really is. The NIF responded via Twitter:
Oh that's not good: Education Ministry cuts high school funding for civics courses in favor of Jewish studies
I twittered back:
@NewIsraelFund says this is a bad thing. Israelis know so much about their heritage, you see. If only...
To which the NIF responded:
Israelis have many heritages, but that won't help them get along. But this will. (the link leads to a Hebrew/Arabic site about an NIF "Project Democracy").
The self confidence is breath-taking.

Here's a nutshell history of the Jews, for the benefit of my friends at the NIF.

Jews have been around for thousands of years, longer than almost any other group, and not for lack of adversity. This can be explained in three ways. First, divine intervention. This blog doesn't pretend to understand divine intentions. Second, pure coincidence. If so, there isn't much reason for activism one way or the other. Random fate will do its thing irrespective of our efforts. Third, the Jews are still around because it's important to them to stay around.

I'm a fan of the third explanation. Jews remain Jews because they decide to remain Jews, because being Jewish is a matter they hold in highest esteem and reverence. Democracy is of course a wonderful thing, but it appeared very recently, long after the Jews already had thousands of years of practice surviving as Jews. Since many Israelis know embarrassingly little about their own culture, teaching them about it can't be a bad thing. Prioritizing civil studies over Jewish studies says something profound about you.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Time to Demand Retractions

Back in July there were stories galore about an Israeli court which jailed an Arab, Sabbar Kashur, for having sex with a Jewish woman in Jerusalem while pretending he too was Jewish. It got quite a few good miles, that particular lie. At the time a lefty reader who no longer comments on this blog but writes me directly, demanded of me that I condemn the overt racism of our legal system. We had a long e-mail correspondence, in which I refused to write about the story since it wasn't credible.There are racists in Israel, but you don't generally find them among our judges. I was also puzzled that no-one seemed interested in defending the woman who'd been led into sex by the deception that the man was unmarried while in reality he is and has children. Where are all the feminists when you need them, I asked him? (The answer, it seemed obvious, being that they're lefties first, and feminists second).

Well, two months later a new version of the story is out, and it looks very dramatically different. Victor Shikhman has a detailed description with lots of links, which I recommend you read. He's also demanding an appology from Andrew Sullivan, which is unlikely to be forthcoming, and you can follow that part of the story here.

Interestingly, the Schocken publisher who owns both Haaretz and Ha'Ir, the local Tel Aviv sheet where the new story appears, has not yet found the time to translate it into English. Someone else did, as Victor tells, and this has led Lisa Goldman, a left-leaning blogger in Tel Aviv to ponder the story. She's not willing yet to accept that our courts may really be honorable, but she feels for the woman, something no-one was willing to do back in July. (One of the links notes that the Guardian was even worse than everyone else, when they published the name of the woman in contravention of Israeli law but also simple human dignity.)

I need to go take a shower. The amount of filth this blog has been dealing with recently is becoming unbearable. In the meantime, any support you can give to Victor in his lost battle will be worth it. And also, since the media isn't picking up on this, please forward it far and wide with whatever tools you've got - links, twitter, facebook, honing pigeons and so on.

Google is a Form of Male Hegomony

An e-mail doing the rounds tells that when you put this text into Google Translate -

I drive a car
I don't know how to drive
I wash the car
I wash the floor
I wash the kitchen

and ask it to translate into Hebrew, you get this response -
אני נוהג במכונית
אני לא יודעת איך לנהוג
אני שוטף את האוטו
אני שוטפת את הרצפה
אני שוטפת את המטבח

The problem, for those of you who are Hebraically challenged, is that the driver of the car and whoever washes it are male, while the non-driver, the floor-washer and the kitchen cleaner are all female.


You could say that Google are male chauvinist pigs (along with being male chauvinist capitalist hegemons, I expect), but the thing about Google Translate is that it's supposed to be automatic. There's no little man behind the screen dashing off translations.

The explanation, I expect, is as follows. Google Translate has been built as a product of the massive book-scanning project the company is engaged in, which has allowed them to create awesomely powerful text-comparison algorithms based on very large numbers of translated works. This little experiment seems to indicate that in those books the declinations of male vs female activities - in books of all languages, mind you - indeed have a gender-weighted statistical pattern.

It may really be a fact that more men wash cars, and more women wash floors.

Propoganda is a Form of Lying

Since Israelis are extremely adverse to boredom, here's a quick summary of one of our many exciting stories running in the background, and then a comment on how it's reported by our enemies.

The story is about a book published last year by two rabbis, Yitzchak Shapira and Yosef Elizur. Its title is Torat HaMelech, the Law of the King. The book explains the conditions in which it is permissible intentionally to kill innocent non-Jews: what we call murder. I haven't read it and have no intention of doing so, but by all accounts it's an abomination. Most book stores don't sell it, thankfully.

It clearly flirts with the limits of what is permissible to say in a democracy. Is it a literal example of shouting fire in a crowded theater? Probably not, though you'd have to read it to know, but it may fall within the metaphorical range of such a shout.

The police are looking into it. The Shabak is, too, and that's noteworthy since the Shabak, unlike it's American FBI counterpart, deals almost exclusively with security matters, not regular crime; also, the Shabak unlike the police reports directly to the prime minister. The High Court of Justice is involved, too, and last month declined to intervene for the time being after having been briefed by the Shabak about the ongoing investigation. At least one of the two authors has been arrested, and the investigation and interrogations have branched out to include rabbis who have publicly recommended the book.

This branching out has sparked a broader furor. Criminal and security investigations into arcane halachic discussions are sensitive but given the gravity of the allegations no-one objected. Calling in rabbis for participating in a halachic discussion tripped a new wire, especially at a moment when university professors have been strident in protecting their right to say whatever they wish, and artists on the public payroll likewise. So recently there was a conference in Jerusalem with some 250 participants, at which a series of rabbis, some of them quite respectable, got up and announced that while they hadn't read the book and probably wouldn't agree with it if they did, they sharply condemned the interference in rabbinical discussions.

Other rabbis, however, including some heavyweights such as Shlomo Aviner, Yuval Sherlo, Yaacov Meidan and others, have sharply castigated the book; Yaacov Meidan, head of the largest and most important yeshiva on the West Bank (Har Etzion) said the book should be burned. Otniel Schneller, a former leader of the settlers who has moved to the center and now represents Kadima in the Knesset, rejected calls for legislation that would grant rabbis the same legal status of professors, saying that professors merely talk, while rabbis have followers, they're more important than professors, and therefore must be held to higher standards.

You can find numerous links to the story, mostly in Hebrew, here, here, here, here, here etc.

So far, a reasonable, careful response to a scandalous book in a democracy.

Now, read Max Blumenthal's description, and see if you can find any similarity to the reality. Notice how he refrains from telling the parts of the story which don't fit into his malicious portrayal. He outrageously inflates the significance of the supporters of the book by repeatedly claiming that Rav Lior was once the chief rabbi of the IDF, which he never was, and on the contrary he's known for his tirades against the IDF for following government policies he doesn't like. He conflates the story of the matter of an outrageous book with the matter of Rav Ovadia Yosef's recent hope that God (not men) will punish Israel's Palestinian enemies (which I've already explained in context). He accuses that the attorney general and the prime minister are silent while rabbis call for violence, somehow overlooking their direct subordinates who are running the investigation.

The reason I've gone out of my way to refute Blumenthal, a well-known loathsome propagandist for Israel's enemies, is that a friend yesterday forwarded me an e-mail from someone who may be an ordinary, well-meaning, but seriously uninformed American Jew, who was deeply troubled by Blumenthal's report. Had he read the report on a Hamas website, he'd not even have read it. But Blumenthal can engage in Hamas-style propaganda and be listened to, at least by the uninformed, since he's Jewish, he's in Jerusalem, and he uses similar words, if not sentences, to those used by legitimate critics of Israeli actions.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

A Secret Herd of Elephants?

Haaretz gleefully cites a French newspaper for breaking a story by a fellow from New Zealand about a secret IDF base which is one of the world's larger signal intelligence units.

Hager compares the Urim base's capabilities to those of the U.S. National Security Agency, Britain's Government Communications Headquarters and a similar organization in France. "However, there is one difference," he says at the end of the report. While those units were uncovered long ago, "the unit at Urim remained unknown until this report."

I dunno. On the one hand, it's nice to know we're the biggest and bestest. On the other hand, the base is clearly visible not only from the public road that runs along its perimeter, but for miles away. When you build very large radar domes and receivers on flat terrain, they do tend to be rather obvious; it's also rather hard to pretend they're just the new-fangled hi-tech whizz-bang dairy farm of the kibbutz next door. Even tomato-packing sheds don't really look like that. And you know what? I just checked in Google Earth. Lo and behold: you can see the contraptions there, too.

The Horror: Jews Think They're Right!

An important EU bloke, one Karel de Gucht, has explained that there won't be peace in the Mideast because Jews always think they're right so you can't talk to them.
"Don't underestimate the opinion … of the average Jew outside Israel," he told the radio station. "There is indeed a belief – it's difficult to describe it otherwise – among most Jews that they are right. And a belief is something that's difficult to counter with rational arguments. And it's not so much whether these are religious Jews or not. Lay Jews also share the same belief that they are right. So it is not easy to have, even with moderate Jews, a rational discussion about what is actually happening in the Middle East."
EU bureaucrats, on the other hand, know for a fact that they're often wrong. Proof: the same fellow later clarified his comments:

"I gave an interview … I gave my personal point of view," he said. "I regret that the comments that I made have been interpreted in a sense that I did not intend. "I did not mean in any possible way to cause offence or stigmatise the Jewish community. I want to make clear that antisemitism has no place in today's world."

Friday, September 3, 2010

A Rabbi Speaks Like A Rabbi

Rav Ovadia Yosef has done it again. During his televised Saturday night talk he called for the death of Mahmoud Abbas and "these Palestinians". Saeb Erekat denounced him for preaching genocide, the State Department chided, media outlets pontificated, and in Israel, where at least some people might have been expected to know better, public figures piled onto each other in their haste to condemn.
It seems, after all, a serious matter. Rav Yosef, who just turned 90, is the greatest living Sephardi rabbi, and arguably the most important halachic scholar of our day. One in eight Jewish Israelis vote for the Shas party he founded in the 1980s, and more hold him in highest esteem. Prime ministers and opposition leaders alike visit him to explain matters of state in the hope of gaining his support. He's important. And complex.
Along with his unfortunate penchant for expressing himself in earthy bluntness, Rav Yosef has been a revolutionary force for modernizing halachic thought and integrating it into modernity. Again and again he has courageously formulated rulings that contradicted those of all his peers. He found a way to permit and encourage organ transplants; he permitted artificial inseminations; in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War he swiftly freed almost a thousand women from Aginut, and the list goes on. Most famously, in the late 1980s he was the first important orthodox rabbi to announce that peace with the Palestinians is preferable to continued control of the West Bank.
How then to explain this week's outburst, let alone excuse it? By listening to him in his natural context.
The Rav Yosef doesn't use the Internet, has never encountered a blog, is unlikely ever to have read Haaretz and certainly doesn't follow the New York Times. He doesn't watch television, though his weekly talk is broadcasted live. Lesser men have invested decades in migrating the compendia of all halachic literature into a digital database, Bar Ilan University's Responsa Project; for a long time Rav Yosef didn't even know this was happening, nor did he care. He has read those tens of thousands of books, and knows what's in them. His world is about Jewish learning, Jewish belief, Jewish thought, imagery, and language. It is extraordinarily rich, but overlaps only partially with the secular world, and hardly at all with the world of international diplomacy or media. Had one asked him for the date of his inflammatory speech he'd have answered that it was the 19th of Elul, not the 29th of August.
Elul is a distinctive month. For orthodox Sephardi men, it can't be overlooked, as they rise daily at 3am to chant slichot, the mediaeval supplications for mercy. Since Rav Ovadia's words and their meaning come straight from the slichot, any attempt to evaluate what he was saying and what his audience heard ought to notice them.
Common wisdom tells that the high holidays are about personal reflection, balance taking, resolutions to improve and divine absolution. Indeed they are – partially. They are also about communal behavior, national survival, and God's obligation to protect his people and avenge them. The theme of the seven weeks between the beginning of Elul and the end of the high holidays is that we're unworthy sinners pleading for God's forgiveness, but also that we're miserable and down-trodden and may he raise us for the glory of his name. That second theme has a clear subtext, that we suffer for our adherence to him and therefore are worthy of his protection.
There are numerous examples; here are two. The Ata rav slichot (Thou art benevolent) supplication says
Terrified by their travails
By their revilers and persecutors
Please don't abandon them oh God of their fathers…
Deliver them in sight of everyone
Let the evil ones no longer rule over them
Or the Ase Lema'an (Do it for their sake) verse, repeated every day: Do it for Your Truth, do it for Your greatness, do it for Your name, do it for Your kingdom… do it for Abraham Isaac and Jacob, do it for David and Solomon, do it for Jerusalem… do it for the martyred for Your Oneness, do it for the massacred for Your name, do it for those burned and drowned sanctifying You, do it for infants suckling at the breast who did not sin…
After a month of daily supplication and shofar blowing, Rosh Hashana amplifies the themes in two full days of devotion, followed by another eight of supplication and finally the blast of Yom Kippur. The Yom Kippur service contains the agonizingly long and detailed description of how the Romans tortured ten great scholars to death, followed by Avinu Malkenu (Our Parent, our Sovereign), recited for ten days and repeatedly on Yom Kippur: Avinu Malkenu, abolish our persecution and the conniving of our enemies, thwart the intentions of our enemies, destroy our persecutors, silence them…
Tellingly, the haunting Barbara Streisand recording of Avinu Malkenu drops this part, as do many of the references one can find in Google. It's as if enlightened or secular modern Jews are uncomfortable with the overt violence in many of the texts of this highest of Jewish annual cycles. They misunderstand the meaning.
In the middle of the second century CE the Jews renounced the use of political power. The catastrophe of two defeats by Roman armies, the first destroying the Temple and the second depopulating Jerusalem and Judea, was too much to bear. The Mishna, followed by the Gemara, were so traumatized they succeeded in hiding the true extent of the destruction and horror; it took the archeologists and historians of the 20th century to decipher the true enormity, especially of Hadrian's genocide. Instead, the Talmud concentrated on the loss of great scholars and the stubborn, sometime suicidal determination to pass on the teaching of Torah. Implicitly, and eventually explicitly, the Jews told themselves they had a pact with God. They would suffer in his name, but he would fight their wars; they might die for his law, but he wouldn't allow their enemies to win. Their personal fate might be terrible, the destinies of their community dire, but the nation would always survive, and the enemies – eventually – would be defeated.
The yearning for divine retribution, at times blood-curdling in its intensity, was a substitute for action and for the need, even the permissibility, of counterforce. No matter how harsh the persecution of the Jews, there was never any cycle of violence. Words of violence effectively replaced the violence itself for 18 long centuries.
Admittedly, this has changed. In the 20th century the Jews returned to the use of national power. Most of them are secular, they no longer believe in a God to fight their battles for them, and not all of the violence they engage in is wise. The ancient traditions, however, are still there. When the Rav Yosef lifted the theme for his talk straight out of the prayer book, he wasn't calling for genocide, nor inciting to violence. On the contrary. He was continuing a quiescent tradition, by calling on God to do what the Jews won't do and shouldn't do.
There is no causal line from his words to deeds, nor did he intend there to be. He was speaking as a Jew does in Elul. Perhaps it's too much to expect anyone to respect him, but at least they might refrain from damning him.
Postscript: Earlier today it was reported that the Rav Eliashiv, arguably the only living rabbi of similar stature to Rav Ovadia, criticized the comment: "There's no sense in aggravating the whole world", he reportedly said. Which shows that the ancient favorite pastime of rabbis, to disagree with one another, is as vital as ever.
Update: Reader David Sigeti draws my attention to the fact that Rav Yosef supports the continuation of the settlement freeze so as to give a chance to the peace negotiations just starting; most rabbis aren't taking that position openly at the moment.