Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Israel you won't find in Haaretz

To learn more, visit their website - HaShomer HaChadash.

Is China more pro-Israel than Europe and the United States?

It went unnoticed by me, and apparently by much of the international English language media, that China, a traditionally loyal diplomatic backer and arms supplier of the Arab states and their terrorist proxies, is carving out an increasingly nuanced position on the Israeli-Arab conflict, one more balanced to the interest of the State of Israel and more likely to result in a just and lasting peace agreement. Here's the report, from May 14th, 2010, on Al Jazeera (Google Translation):
A dispute on Jerusalem between the Chinese and the Arab delegation, attending the fourth session of the Ministerial Meeting of China-Arab Cooperation Forum in the port city of Tianjin. The dispute erupted after Chinese officials refused to sign a joint document with the delegation, which includes the Arab Foreign Ministers, East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state. According to Al Jazeera's correspondent in China, Ezzat Shahrour that the Arab delegation was surprised at the last minute when Chinese officials refused to sign the document, despite all the efforts that have been made at the last minute in order to contain the situation.
Let's be clear about what happened here: the Chinese delegation to the China-Arab Cooperation Forum refused to sign a worthless piece of paper affirming Arab claims to East Jerusalem. Had the Chinese done so, at most they could expect a weak protest from the Israeli Foreign Ministry, before the matter was hushed up by senior Israeli officials in the interest of maintaining fragile bilateral relations. On the other hand, the refusal to sign the document, a meaningless communique of no practical significance, deals a significant and unexpected blow to Arab confidence in China's support for their claims.

Indeed, the new Chinese position can be said to be more pro-Israel on the subject of Jerusalem than that of much of Europe, the President of the United States and the supposed "international consensus", which now excludes the world's most populous country and soon largest economy. For decades, the international community and its key Western members have generally envisioned and endorsed a Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem. Even countries which are strong Israeli allies pay routine lip service to Arab demands for the city by signing on to weak, non-binding pro-Arab political statements in the context of improving economic or other relations with Arab countries. This is generally understood and quietly accepted by the Israelis as a type of "throw a bone" diplomacy that is no cause for concern. European nations with limited means naturally cannot be expected to act against their economic self-interest in dismissing Arab demands and alienating Arab governments and consumers, especially when meaningless gestures are involved.

In contrast, China is a country of sufficient size and strength that its political support and large consumer market are perhaps more vital to the Arabs than the reverse. Furthermore, any Arab actions to sanction or condemn the Chinese would merely strain their bilateral diplomacy, and at a time that the Sunni Arab states are wooing the Chinese for support on the much more pressing issue of Iran's nuclear program.
[The al Jazeera] correspondent pointed out that Israel had succeeded over the past years to weave a network of relations with China and the wide range covering all areas, and reflect the cooperation between the two parties in China to change its position gradually from the Palestinian cause.
That an emerging global power has quietly been maneuvered out of a multi-generational support for extremist pro-Arab policies on an issue of such importance as the status of East Jerusalem is a significant victory for Israel's generally lackluster, if not altogether dismal international diplomacy. It would appear that Israel's much purported international isolation is not nearly as complete as it has been made out to be. China's turnaround raises the achievement bar for Israeli diplomats, provides a way forward for pro-Israel advocacy, and lays the foundation for a new international consensus - one not beholden to petulant, self-entitled Arab claims on Jerusalem.

Monday, December 13, 2010

KabobFest gets less Festive

KabobFest, a collaborative blog I mentioned in the past devoted to issues of interest to English speaking Arabs and Muslims, has undergone a dramatic transformation in the past year. It was once a quite interesting place, a lively and happy meeting ground for exchanging ideas and perspectives on current events, laying the foundation for mutual understanding, debating passionately but respectfully. There was a time when I saw more Jews in their comments section than Arabs; in fact, that's what originally drew me to read and comment there.

Those happy, lively days of Kabob are dead. There's no more pretense to civility, no apologia to rage and aggression, no more bones thrown to the cause of justice and peace. The naked worship of murder and brutality, the extolling of savage ideology and the demand that it be taught to children would be refreshing for its honesty, if it weren't so very ugly. The posts and comments have become stale, rancid with petty acrimony, laced with hatred, expressing regressive abuse towards dissent, unchecked bigotry, paranoia, and rampant conspiracy mongering. Kabob is no longer the enlightened pleasure to read that it once was, and that's a damn shame.

As Ben Gurion understood, what's important is not whether someone is a moderate or extremist, but whether what they believe is representative of the masses. In that sense, while the progressive, liberal forum that KabobFest once was has now been snuffed out, I believe the site is finally hitting its stride, expressing the thought prevalent in the wider Arab and Arab American mainstream without the restraints and inhibitions of the past. This is important for them, to be true to themselves, and it is even more important to us, the rest of us, to understand who they are, and to pity them for it.

Vayigash! Or, how "Shema Yisroel" is not like "Allahu Akhbar"

One of the pleasures of not being a respected religious scholar is that I am at liberty to free associate, to make connections that are remotely plausible, but certainly interesting, at least to me. The following is presented in that spirit.

KFJ, over at his personal blog, writes the following:
The local Chabad newsletter sent me this gem today:
Our Sages point out that the Hebrew verb vayigash (“and he approached “) is employed by the Torah to describe a person entering into battle as well as one engaging in prayer. Indeed, use of this word often implies a combination of the two — an approach that is both a plea and a confrontation (as in the case of Judah’s approach to Joseph, which gives the Torah reading of Vayigash its name).
Does that mean Judaism also has a theological concept easily misrepresented to portray violence? Jews and Muslims have so much in common!
The man's got a point, and it's on his nose. When bearded Jewish ninjas hijack civilian airliners and smash them into American cities screaming "Vayigash!", then we'll have something to talk about. Although, I suppose if "Jihad" is the Muslim equivalent of "Vayigash" (and it's not), then "Allahu Akhbar" ("G-d is Great"), the ubiquitous Muslim battle chant recited in a variety of circumstances, particularly those of danger, is roughly equivalent to the Jewish "Shema Yisroel" ("Hear O'Israel"), a prayer recited twice daily, but also by those on their deathbed or in imminent danger.

This, of course, is where all attempts at drawing out a commonality between our two faiths necessarily end. "Shema Yisroel" are actually the first two words of the Shema, an essential, three paragraph Biblically mandated Jewish prayer which affirms G-d's Kingship and sovereignty, our acceptance of His commandments, our performance of His commandments (among them the mitzvah of tzitzis), and includes a remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt. More specifically, the first two words are short notation for the first line of the prayer, which underpins the totality of our faith - Shema Yisroel Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad, "Hear O'Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is One."

Commentary on this one sentence in the Jewish texts is voluminous; the implications of every word, from the standpoint of Jewish law to mysticism are inexhaustible. For the purposes of our conversation, it's sufficient to note that while Muslims say that "G-d is Great", we Jews say that "G-d is One". Let that simmer for a second.

How do we know that G-d is Great? It's obviously because He does great things, and I don't need to elaborate. Does G-d think of himself as great, though? Great in relation to what? It's nonsensical. Great is not what G-d is, it's what G-d does. Compared to the power of a human being, or to the power of an imposing beast, G-d is great - i.e. He performs great feats.

What G-d is, to the extent that is possible or necessary for us to comprehend, is One, because there is nothing but Him. "One" is not something He does, that's who He is. The very premise of our existence, of our people's existence, of humanity's existence, is geared towards actualizing and internalizing this reality, that G-d is One. G-d innermost desire is not to be One - He IS One - but to be understood by His creation as such, to be made whole through the free will of entities which see themselves as independent beings seeking a return to his Oneness, like the reunion between estranged lovers, a prominent metaphor in Jewish mystical texts and liturgy.

It appears to be a small thing, a focus on what G-d does, rather than what G-d is, but one could make the case that it concerns issues of substance. The moment you focus on what a deity beyond the laws of nature does, the interest naturally shifts what that deity can do for you, and how you can elicit this cooperation. You are apart from the deity, aloof from the deity, you have big plans for rearranging this world to your liking, and it would make your life so much easier if this external, super-natural entity could clear the obstacles in your way.

"G-d is Great" is an attempt to elicit and harness G-d's power to bend and break the rules in the service of man. "G-d is One" is an attempt to elicit and harness the free will of human beings in the service of G-d.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Bocherim of the Rebbe

Meet our religious fanatics.

Damn straight. Happy Chanukah!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Prophets and Dialectics

It's very difficult to have a meaningful discussion with prophets, who aren't. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz put it best, and now that I've had to lean on his wise words a half dozen times in the last month alone, I've decided to archive them here, for easy future reference and universal posterity:
"When you learn Bible year after year, everybody becomes a minor prophet. And that is the way people in Israel are talking. They are not discussing things, they are telling you what the truth is. It is very hard when you have prophets shouting at each other; they can’t get anywhere,” he said.

“Being a prophet is a one-sided thing. But learning Talmud is learning a world of discussion, of dialectics. If people would be trained in dealing with matters in a dialectical way, with two or three opinions, and the Talmud is in so many cases not finished, it leaves an argument afloat – this is the kind of training for seeing and perceiving a different world.

“I’m surely not against the prophets, I’m really very much for them, and not only because of theological reasons. I’m just saying that it’s a matter of being one-sided.”
You want to be a more interesting human being and a better rounded Jew? Learn Talmud. Good advice to start the week.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Good Shabbos and Happy Chanukah!

A Good Shabbos and Happy Chanukah (we're into day three now) to everyone, and especially to my dear friend, who apparently reads my blog from time to time but may not speak to me for another three years if I wish him a Chanukah Sameach directly. You're welcome!

Incidentally, my 70-some year old Israeli friend from the gym is adamant that we should all pronounce the "ch" in Chanukah like in "chicken", but you shouldn't believe him. As with so many Jerusalemites, his is a fascinating story. He was born and raised on Mt. Scopus, an island of Israeli sovereignty adrift in the Jordanian occupied West Bank. I hadn't realized there was housing for families on Mt. Scopus at the time. When I asked him about this, he launched into a geography lesson of the streets and neighborhoods of late 1940's Jerusalem that left my eyes glazed over. When he was old enough to go to school, he was sent to a boarding house in West Jerusalem and could only go home once every two weeks, during the UN-coordinated convoy to Mt. Scopus. They used to shoot at them as kids, the Jordanian soldiers did. When he came of age, he qualified to be a fighter pilot and returned the favor. We sometimes also work out at the gym, honest.

I'll leave you with something of Chanukah that I wrote in 2006, back when I  knew much more than I do now, and coordinated Jewish student activities on my university campus to prove it.
The Jewish calendar is filled to the brim with remembrances of tragedies and massacres, but Chanukah is NOT one of them! We were threatened as a people, physically and spiritually. We rose up to defend our nation and our faith, kicked some Hellenistic butt and prevailed. Chanukah is about the victory of the Jewish people over forces that wish to destroy us - including physical threats, but also those threats that undermine who we are as Jews and how we see ourselves in the world. As the physical threat to our survival has arguably decreased, the forces that seek our spiritual assimilation and dissolution are more vigorous than ever.

When we celebrate Chanukah, we not only remember the past, we rededicate ourselves to our heritage, to being Jews. This is why it is important to spread the message of Chanukah to every Jew - we each are dependent on one another for the survival and prosperity of the Jewish people. We light the Menorah and display it in as public a place as possible, so that the flame of the lit candles rekindles the fire in the soul of every Jew, allowing us to overcome any challenge to our physical and spiritual survival.

And how do we light the Menorah? On the first day we light just one candle, on the second two, on the third three, and so on, cumulatively, until we've lit all 8 candles. We are told in this week's Torah portion about the town of Timna - that it sat on the slope of a hill, and you could only either ascend or descend to reach it. We are told to draw a lesson from this for our Chanukah candle lighting, and to our everyday lives. There are only two types of actions that one can make in the world - those that either elevate or lower us in relation to our prior state. With each night of Chanukah, we light one more candle, to signify our growth, our ascent, over the previous day. Having elevated ourselves eight days in a row by lighting Chanukah candles, perhaps we'll set a similar pattern to follow in everyday life as well.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Getting my Lolcats Fix

 You don't get tired of lolcats. Lolcats gets tired of you!

Palestinian Dissidents

Several days ago, David Keys, the director of Cyberdissidents.org, published a personal note on the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, from the vantage point of human liberty. I'm reproducing it in its entirety.
Two week ago, a Palestinian blogger was arrested in the West Bank for satirizing Islam.  Current Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have stressed borders, refugees, recognition, settlements, terror and land--but largely neglected the issue of individual freedom.  The mission of CyberDissidents.org is to promote freedom of expression in authoritarian Middle Eastern countries--not to address war and peace.  But having met last month privately with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in Ramallah and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, I feel compelled to offer a few brief thoughts on the conflict.
In the long run, treaties with those who deny their citizens fundamental freedoms are unsustainable.  The great dissident Vaclav Havel said it best: “Without free, self-respecting, and autonomous citizens there can be no free and independent nations. Without internal peace, that is, peace among citizens and between the citizens and the state, there can be no guarantee of external peace.”  In other words, a nation that terrorizes its bloggers will likely not treat its neighbors much better.     

Gaza is controlled by a theocratic, totalitarian government that routinely threatens genocide.  Hamas ruthlessly persecutes women, minorities, gays, Christians, atheists and dissidents.  The terrorist organization won an election but is acting as a tyrant.  Talk of peace with such a group is nonsensical.  Despite overseeing economic growth in the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority also remains autocratic and repressive, as was demonstrated two weeks ago with the arrest of atheist blogger Waleed Al Husseini.  

Peace in the Middle East will only be as strong as the freedom each individual feels to dissent, critique, argue and protest.  No matter how hard we try, external peace cannot be fully realized without internal freedom.
The incident he is referring to is covered quite well by another article on Cyberdissidents, which I'm also posting in full, below. The BBC has so far filed a single story on the wrongful imprisonment, torture and potential murder of a man who did nothing more than express his beliefs, by a government financed lavishly by the European Union and the United States. What kind of a society is Western aid money creating in "Palestine"? Maybe it's time to ask this question.
Palestinian blogger Waleed Al-Husseini was arrested in the West Bank city of Qalqilya by security forces on October 31st. His “crime” was expressing atheistic beliefs online. Al-Husseini created several Facebook pages in which he wrote in the name of Allah, presented satirical poems in Quranic style and refuted religious arguments.

According to local reports, Al-Husseini has been tortured and Palestinian authorities may refer him to a martial court. He could face execution or a thirty year prison sentence for expressing his alternative religious beliefs on his blog and Facebook.

Facebook groups and online petitions have already been created in support of Al-Husseini and are demanding his immediate release.

Liberal Moroccan blogger, Kacem Al Ghazali, who himself is facing an assault for atheism, has published an appeal on his website calling on activists to support the detained Palestinian blogger.

Walid was not arrested by Hamas forces, but by the Fatah-led administration of Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank.  This is not the first time such action has been taken.  During the recent Ramadan holiday, Palestinians were arrested by PA security forces for not observing the fast in public.

CyberDissidents urges the Palestinian Authority to release Waleed Al-Husseini immediately and respect the freedom of worship of all Palestinians.
I'm sure Abbas and Fayyad will get right on that. This episode reminds me of something I wrote a couple of months back:
Let's remember that this basket case of a state-building process, which exposes the deep contradictions and weaknesses of Palestinian polity and society, is proceeding under an Israeli security blanket and unprecedented financial support by the US and EU. Even under optimal conditions then, is anything short of creating an authoritarian-style Arab state conceivable in the timeline offered by ongoing peace efforts? Are the Palestinians self-organizing towards this outcome out of short term instability or long term socio-political necessity? In other words, hanging in the balance, will Palestinians choose to emulate the pluralistic democracy to their west, or the stifling autocracies to their north, east and south? Perhaps even more glumly, which of these two outcomes is more likely to make and enforce a peace with Israel?
We're beginning to get some answers to these questions, and they're ugly.

You Just Had to Be There...

Let's. Get. DANEgerous! This cartoon was the first show on American television that I could actually understand, some months after we emigrated to the US in `91-92. My parents, at least in my recollection, were perpetually annoyed with my considerable cartoon consumption. As my father would dictate to me, over and over again, as was and remains his style, a young boy needs a constructive hobby. Paradoxically, for reasons which remain unknown to me, astronomy was always the first on his list of approved hobbies. To this day, I cannot think of a less constructive activity than amateur astronomy. In my defense, I would insist that watching cartoons was critical, simply critical, to my rapid acquisition of the English language. Indeed, upon closer recollection, I learned many important words from watching Darkwing Duck; words which fundamentally affected the course of my life, such as "villain", and "villains" and "villainous", though perhaps not in that order.

The Utility of Iranian Sanctions

A reader, Mike, in my Death of Linkage, Andrew Sullivan Sobs post, picks up on a quick point I made towards the end:
Sanctions, carrots, incentives… all that matters in the end is whether Obama pulls the trigger, and everyone knows it, including the Iranians. I don’t think he’ll do it, and I think you don’t think he’ll do it either. So then why punish 80 million Iranians with increasingly crippling sanctions, when the policy of this government - of the entire international community - is a farce? When did the Obama Administration make the wrong choice between starving Iranian children and destroying Iranian nukes? Has Iran become the world's largest open air prison yet? I'm just asking.
He offers a reasonable estimate of the Obama Administration's policy:
The thinking of the Obama administration goes like this: Sanctions that act against Iran's populace will bring the country down from the inside, whereas a military attack could unify the country behind its current leadership.
We need to consider whether a sanctions regime, no matter how draconian, has ever prevented, or could ever prevent, a country of 80 million people with advanced research institutions from going nuclear if it really wants to. If North Korea can do it, Iran can do it, and is doing it. National impoverishment is a price worth paying for a regime intent on surviving any conceivable foreign military challenge to its rule, which is precisely what nuclear weapons permit.

Frankly, I'm not familiar with a single case where sanctions alone, without a credible threat of military action, proved effective in radically changing the behavior of a regime - which is what an Iranian decision to end nuclear weapons development would be, a radical departure from longstanding policy. Maybe someone can provide an example. Even in the case of Gaza, where a landlocked population was being deprived of everything short of necessities, and is being denied less so now, no substantive popular pressure has built up against Hamas. This is the nature of closed societies. The Soviet Union was willing to accept a very basic standard of living in exchange for a well respected space program and massive military. After a period of time, with liberal use of regime security and internal intelligence forces, the population accepts its fate.

I think the approach should be the exact opposite. The United States should destroy Iran's nuclear enrichment facilities and then immediately eliminate all trading restrictions and international sanctions on the country, perhaps in reverse order to make the bombing campaign all the more stunning. This way, the livelihood of Iranians is disentangled from the nuclear program, demonstrating that the international community is not coordinating collective punishment against their nation. The US should then make it a matter of policy that Iran will never obtain a breakout capacity, and publicly charge the US military with devising whatever weapons are necessary to achieve this end. When the Iranian government and people understand that they will never posses a nuclear warhead, ever, their behavior may become more constructive, and on a time-line that sanctions will never match.

The point I was trying to make, however, is not merely that sanctions are ineffective, but that without a credible military threat they're quite literally a farce. The international community, with the United States at its fulcrum, has publicly committed itself to preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. The sanctions being imposed now will not achieve that goal, but are designed to pacify public concerns (i.e. show people that we're doing something) without addressing the problem in any substantive way. By pretending to be doing something, thus lowering public apprehension and thereby support for robust military action, the sanctions regime works for Iran's pursuit of a nuclear weapon, not for the international community's efforts to abort this outcome.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Farming Olives in the Shomron

I received this video through my very evil, very illegal, very inappropriate contacts with the Global Untermenschen. It's a promotional puff piece for Jewish farming in the territories liberated in '67. What I personally found interesting are the modern techniques and equipment being used to harvest and process olive trees, which contrast sharply with traditional Palestinian olive picking. The days of buck-toothed and barefoot felahe kids climbing trees to get the olives on most remote branches (you know who you are) are long behind us.

On My Bookshelf