Saturday, January 17, 2009

Actually, the Gaza war isn't over!

And seeing that matters of war and peace apparently aren't this blog's strong suit, I figured I'd start sharing some of the pictures I've taken over the past couple weeks. At left is the Dome of the Rock viewed through the Cotton Merchants' Gate--I'll post more when I'm not as short on time...

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


Or at least it looks like things are moving in that direction.

Interesting to note that the article doesn't name or quote anyone. Leading me to believe that it's absolutely, 100% true. Although as I noted in my last post, Olmert's looking like one of the few people committed to seeing this thing through...

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Re: Free speech in Israel

And two notable items from Haaretz on the possibility of a ceasfire in Gaza. 

But first, bloody essential reading on two issues that are quickly becoming favorites of mine: Mexican drug wars, and the only conceivable way of stopping them.

It looks like Egypt is pressuring Hamas into a one-year ceasefire with interim Turkish control of border crossings into Egypt. Since Hamas hasn't been able to behave itself during the daily 3-hour humanitarian ceasefires--and especially since a Turkish "peacekeeping" force probably won't be willing to actively reign in Hamas--this is a bum deal for the Israelis, and accepting it would be accepting the delusion that Egyptian political fecklessness (or grandstanding) is really moderation in disguise. It's not.

Except hey, check this out a few paragraphs from the end:

Maher Taher, a Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine official representing the Palestinian organizations in Syria at the Cairo talks, utterly rejected the Egyptian initiative, which he said calls for a cease-fire of 10 to 15 years, the deployment of international forces in Gaza, and the suspension of weapons manufacturing and all smuggling into Gaza.

So Hamas wants out, but might not want out. The Egyptian government wants to solve its own security dilemma vis-a-vis its border with Gaza while maintaining its standing as a moderate and pro-western Arab state--without bringing it into open conflict with Syrian and Iranian interests, and without empowering the country's sizable Islamist opposition. And Iran and Syria want to see some kind of return on their investment in resources and national prestiege, in the form of a meaningless ceasefire and the dead or injured Israelis such a ceasefire would entail.

This puts the current Israeli impasse in an interesting light: does Olmert realize that even at this late point there's pretty much no way of stopping the rocket fire, getting Gilad Shalit back and bringing some semblance of order to the Strip by negotiation alone? Even more fascinating: how could Livni and Barack possibly think otherwise?

And now to this post's titular issue: Danny wondered how Israel can defend free speech while at the same time curtailing it--this in response to the long-standing ban on seating anti-Zionist parties in the Knesset.

The cop-out answer is that the Knesset actually does seat parties that are anti-Zionist in the sense that they don't exactly conform to the minimalist definition of Zionism as support for a Jewish, democratic state in the Land of Israel. Hadash, for instance, supports a cooperative Jewish-Arab socialism that is basically binationalist--as I mentioned in my last post, they currently seat 3 MKs. There have also been parties that are religious enough to be considered anti-democratic, and they probably account for 10-15 seats currently: UTJ and maybe even Shas fall into this category. So "Jewish and democratic" can mean anything from "socialist with a large population of Jews who share in decision-making" to "hardcore Torah state in which all but the most religious are pretty much disenfranchised."

In reality, a party can drop the "Jewish" or "democratic" half of the "Jewish and democratic" criterion and still be kosher. Parties are only trefe--and this will hopefully help me pivot into the non cop-out answer--if they are neither Jewish nor democratic. Admittedly, this could disenfranchise anarchists, Arab nationalists, and Jewish extremists who believe in the dismantling of the current state (the now-outlawed Kach being the leading and possibly only example of this last camp...). But parties are only banned under really extreme circumstances--when their leader is an amateur terrorist like Meir Kehane, or a treasonous scumbag like Azmi Bishara. 

The 1992 parties law is easily abused, but seldom invoked. Which raises the question of why a democracy in which parties like UTJ, Hadash and Balad (usually) don't represent a crisis in the existence or self-definition of the state needs this kind of a limitation in the first place.

The usual bullshit answer is that in democracies, limitations on freedom of speech--whether they curtail your right to deny the Holocaust in Germany or Austria or your right to call for the expulsion of Arab citizens in Israel--are fundamentally pragmatic; that they're regrettable, self-consciously extreme, perhaps even last-ditch efforts at protecting values that would otherwise to vulnerable. But this logic gives into the paranoid fear that those values aren't resiliant enough to stand on their own. Indeed, the day when Zionism must be sustained by a formalized ban on anti-Zionism is the day that the Zionist project has officially failed.

No more convincing an answer is that these limitations are based on some Lockian concept of civic nationalism, whereby political communities are sustained by values that cannot be compromised. Thus the ban on anti-Zionist parties becomes a kind of revolt against whatever post-modern nihilism views "civic nationalism" or the "political community" as inconcequential, ephemeral, or even oppressive. 

I'd rather not use this as an opportunity to argue against the idea that freedom is only meaningful if it's granted to everyone and everything, or, conversely, that it's meaningless if it's ever denied to anyone--just to point out that Israel isn't America, and that parties do, from time to time, pose a pretty viable threat to the security of the state. Israel's already-tricky balance between democracy and security would be much better served if its future constitution bans parties on this basis and this basis alone. 

Israel needs a constitution: Part I

Although in reality it's more like part 349020493980, although I want to start keeping a running count...

Today's evidence: the banning of the country's two largest Arab parties from next month's(?) Knesset elections. 

Now the ban on the Balad was probably long overdue, and it's a testament to the strength of Israeli democracy that Israel's semi-treasonous Arab nationalist bloc has been allowed to seat MKs at all. Israeli politics are such that the unseated Balad MKs probably could have been seated with another party--with the rival and more moderate United Arab List, or with a newly-formed right-wing Arab party untainted by the Bishara scandal. 
The ban on the United Arab List is an ugly--albeit temporary--symptom of war hysteria. Chances are Balad and the UAL will both file suit in the country's Supreme Court, and chances are they'll both win (even Balad, whose lip-service to a two-state solution lets it sneak past the current ban on anti-Zionist parties in the Knesset, will likely be reinstated). Except that by a uniquely Israeli bureaucratic quirk, the committee that voted on the ban is actually headed by a Supreme Court justice. Worse, it's packed with MKs who might have a vested political interest in seeing the Arab parties dismissed: should the ban stand, the 7 MKs from Balad and UAL would have to run as down-ticket candidates with Hadash, Maki or another Arab-friendly left-wing party. 

But it would take a dramatic, widespread change of heart for Israel's sizable bloc of moderate Arab nationalist voters to be suddenly drawn in by the Utopian and explicitly binational socialism of the Israeli left. Balad and UAL voters will probably stay home on election day, and remain disenfranchised, politically marginalized and deeply embittered--while right-wing parties that have capitalized on inter-communal distrust (Yisrael Beitanu comes to mind...) stand to pick up at least a couple of the vacated seats. 

And if the ban isn't upheld, the parties whose CEC members voted for it (everyone but Labour, from the looks of it) will gain a short-term reputation for being tough on the Arab "fifth column" in the midst of a major conflict with the Palestinians. Successful or no, the attempt to ban the Arab parties turns racism into a not-so-subliminal electoral crutch (as if it wasn't already...)

A constitution that ensures free speech (or at least free speech within certain broad but acknowledged limits) and requires that elections be handled by a body other than the Knesset would prevent this kind anti-democratic posturing, as well as the procedural incoherency that allows it to take place--and it would reassure Balad and UAL voters that they have nothing to fear from their country's Jewish majority. 

Monday, January 12, 2009

We'll Meet Again. Only no. No we won't.

Seems the newsmedia's come down with an acute case of postmodern fatalism over the past 24 hours (speaking of fatalism, it is with profound embarrassment to I admit to having Google'd "song at the end of Dr. Strangelove" for the title to this post. In my defense, I kinda remember it had the words "meet" and "again" in it...anyway...). Exhibit A is this profoundly terrifying (although not so profoundly terrifying) story in the New York Times about what seems like a serious attempt by Israel to obtain American permission for a strike on Iran's nuclear capacity. 

The article does its anti-journalistic best not to differentiate between innuendo and intention--between discussions that were expressly hypothetical ("so what if we were to maybe attack Iran at some point in the future? Would you help us out?"), and the expressly actionable ("we're attacking Iran next Tuesday. You in?"). "Israel Considers Attacking Iran" isn't a six-column front-page-of-RCP blockbuster--not like "US Rejected Aid for Israeli Raid on Iranian Nuclear Site," for instance.

So what to make of this. "Holy fuck, we barely avoided World War III" is a natural, if unreasonable response--hell, you don't have to look that far down the page to find the article exposing its own deep irresponsibility:

White House officials never conclusively determined whether Israel had decided to go ahead with the strike before the United States protested, or whether Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel was trying to goad the White House into more decisive action before Mr. Bush left office.
So the story isn't that Israel actually wanted to attack Iran--only that it was testing America's tolerance for such an attack. Or that it was testing America's commitment to containing Iran. Or that it was trying to exact some kind of a concession vis-a-vis American control of Iraqi airspace in the hypothetical event that Israel actually did feel a need to attack Iran. All are possibilities. The Times bloggeristically (horray for neologisms!) ran with the most sensationalistic (not to mention apocalyptic, given the story's implied difference between "bunker busting bombs" and "conventional weaponry. Last I checked, unconventional weapons were either 1) chemical agents or 2) nukes. Hmmm...) of these. Indeed, for a moment or two I thought I was reading the first, honest-to-God "mankind-at-the-brink"-type story since this barely-remembered (by me, at least--I was like what, 14 at the time?) fiasco.

Moving on to pages two and three it becomes obvious that the story has nothing to do with an actual Israeli military threat to Iran, and everything to do with the complexities that arise when Israeli and American security interests diverge. The article handles these issues well--it's just unfortunate that the Times has given an invaluable boost to the argument that Iran should be allowed to develop nukes for legitimately self-defensive purposes...

This week's other non-brush with destiny: this mindbloggling article in Slate about--among a host of other issues--the halacha of nuclear war. Unfortunately, the halachic basis for possessing nuclear weapons--that nuclear leverage in the prevention of nuclear war is kosher while the actually use of nukes is not--is undermined when opposing nuclear powers are aware of the halacha of nuclear war, since wielding the nuclear gun is useful only when there's a realistic chance of your firing it. I'd argue that it's equally irresponsible to wield the nuclear gun if you're not prepared to use it as when you are--that both amount to blackmail, and that, in some deeply perverted sense, gambling with millions of innocent human lives should actually mean gambling with millions of innocent lives, rather than maintaining the cheap, possibly deadly veneer of decisiveness. 

So there really is no such thing as halachic nuclear war, although there is such thing as an empty nuclear diplomacy that is incidentally halachic. Embedded in this is the idea that cyclical violence--based as it is on the self-perpetuating, self-justifying logic that provides something as unnatural as violence (most of us aren't violent people, I don't think...) with anything even resembling a moral basis--is deeply immoral even if, paradoxically, the alternative is to cede power to whoever was immoral enough to exercise violence in the first place.

Not sure what the Rabbis had to say about the latter half of that statement, or the the following, vaguely postmodern dilemma: remain on a suicidal moral high ground, or accept that civilization can't exist without a certain acknowledged measure of barbarity. Things to remember this week...

Hamas is getting desperate

Really, really desperate. Indeed, the current front page of Jpost abounds with signs that the Gaza op has gone more successfully than anyone could have imagined.

Sign the first: Hamas observing the latest 3-hour ceasefire on Jewish Standard Time. Because, of course, it's hard to fire rockets at kindergartens when you're both cornered and militarily decimated. The fact that Hamas would so flagrantly and willingly cede the moral high ground to Israel is a sign that things can't be going all that well for them...

Sign the second: Iran is threatening to cut Hamas loose if it agrees to a premature ceasefire. Which means two things: firstly, Hamas's Iranian backers are not happy about how things have gone for their Palestinian proxies over the past couple weeks. And secondly, Hamas wants out of this mess badly enough to potentially jeopardize its relations with Iran. Now I don't think Iran is remotely serious about following through on this, but it's pretty significant that threats like this are even being aired...

On while I'm on the topic of the Gaza op and the cynical genius thereof: remember the Arab world's adulation over the Samir Kuntar-for-dead-Israeli-soldiers swap a few months back? This article in the English edition of Al Ahram reasoned that the prisoner deal automatically raised the asking price for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who has been held by Hamas for the past 2 1/2 years. Predictions that Israel would empty its prisons of Hamasniks in exchange for Shalit have proven comedically wrong, thus turning the Gaza invasion into a masterpiece in lateral thinking...

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Brian Eno's views on Gaza, and how little I care about them

New rule: you're allowed to have fucked up, borderline-unjustifiable views on Israel if--and only if--you make at least three of my 10-15 favorite albums of all time. So on account of Here Come the Warm Jets, Music for Airports and Another Green World (with assists from My Life in the Bush of Ghosts and Paul Simon's Surprise, which he produced), the greatest (well not the greatest...but maybe my favorite) musical mind of past 30-odd years is hereby forgiven. Hate away, Brian Eno. I'll still come running to tie your shoes (also: three guesses as to which Eno song popped into my head when I was on some faraway beach in the Kinneret today)

Other haters whose hateration I'm inclined to simply ignore (or rather, whose haterating will not in any way factor into my respect for their work), should they ever prove to be haters: Thurston Moore, Jeff Mangum, David Simon, David Cross (and, by extension, Bob Odenkirk), Thom Yorke, Prof. Peter Bearman, Bradford Cox, Armando Ianucci (the "Time Trumpet" guy)...and obviously Bob Dylan.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

War? What war?

I caught my first horrifying glimpse of the Gaza conflict at around 8:30 last night. Exhausted by a long day spent hunting for the place where I was supposed to pick up my cell phone (the basement of an office tower in the post-industrial wastes of Givat Shmuel, as it happens), and, perhaps incongruously, studying Midrash (but more on this later...) I was, ominously enough, waiting for the bus on the corner of Herzog St. and...Gaza road. A few middle-aged types were chattering in Russian (with the animated smugness of a group of people convinced that no one could understand what they were saying); I was struggling to stay awake, and after ten minutes of wondering when and if the 19 would get around to picking me up I heard a veritable hurricane of sirens approaching the center of town. In the space of about 30 seconds there passed 15 police motorcycles, two SUVs, a Magen David Adom ambulance, and a single stretch limo with no license plate and thick, completely blackened and probably bulletproof windows. "Sarkozy," one of the Russians said. The bus showed up about a minute later.

Indeed, one of the great paradoxes of this self-indulgently paradoxical state of ours is that in Jerusalem--undoubtedly one of the most conflicted and divided cities on earth--you have to go actively hunting for evidence of conflict. For instance, I was having coffee at an Arab-owned cafe on the Via Dolorosa this morning, on the periphery of the Muslim quarter (note to caffeine addicts: the Moslem Quarter is home to the best coffee you'll probably ever have. Imagine Greek coffee loaded with cinnamon and you'll get a vague sense of what Arab coffee tastes like...) The TV was turned to Al Jazeera, which was broadcasting the predictable reel of burning buildings and dead Palestinian children, a routine with which the small group of Arab teenagers watching were apparently bored--a minute or two after sitting down, the owner and I were alone in the cafe. 

"This is very bad" he said after a few moments of watching me watch Al Jazeera. "What are they saying?" I asked, explaining that I didn't know Arabic. I'm not sure if he said "we killed three of them" or "they killed three of them," but it really doesn't matter: the badness apparently lay in the fact that three IDF soldiers had been killed, and not in the mountains of dead bodies that Al Jazeera so enthusiastically broadcasts. I took this to mean that the man was generally worried about the continuation of the war, a response that betrayed the shocking lack of partisanship even in the heavily-Arab sections of the Old City. Indeed, there were no more Israeli police in the Arab half of the Old City than there were when I was there a year ago, and the entrances to the Temple Mount were manned by the usual detachments of unoccupied, blue-clad mishtarah. "This is very bad" is no more trenchant a commentary on things than an offhanded "hey, how 'bout that war going on?" would have been--which is an attitude that epitomizes the passive, instinctive co-existence upon which any workable peace must be based, and which seemed to be holding just fine when I walked through the Muslim quarter at around 10 this morning...

As for what I was doing in the Muslim quarter: My next class isn't until Monday; Hebrew U doesn't begin until next Thursday, and I have a week of potential moonlighting as a tourist or backpacker between now and then. I am, in essence, without anything to do. And when I woke up I realized I hadn't laid eyes on the Old City since getting to Jerusalem two days earlier. I'd seen what could be called the worst of the New City: the crammed buses, the crowds squeezing their way down a now-truncated Jaffa Road (by the way, those who claim that Jews are the ones who have been the most severely victimized by Zionism are vindicated by the current state of the Jaffa Road. Right you are, Professor Massad: no Palestinian terrorist ever did as much damage to the New City's central thoroughfare than the proposed Jerusalem lightrail, which has turned the once-proud avenue into a disemboweled one-way street. I remember seeing the "Coming Soon: Jerusalem Lightrail" signs outside the central bus station when I was in Israel a year ago; naturally my first thoughts were "Sure. Lightrail. This is Israel. Who the fuck are they kidding?" Well children, if you will it...), the long distances that usually have a hill or two thrown in, for spite it seems. It felt wrong to have been in Jerusalem for two days without at least dropping by the Western Wall, or seeking out the isolated corners of the Old City I hadn't seen yet. Or getting a cup of Arab coffee, for that matter.

I spent a couple hours wandering the Old City, and the place is every bit the noir-ish, literary backdrop come to life I remember it being. This is one of those places that I'll never process as being completely real, or really as anything other than a kind of socio-historical play-theatre--hey, there's a Crusader church, you think to yourself. Or a Roman street, or a Mamluke palace, or a medieval synagogue. It's useless mental acrobatics to arrive at some satisfactory reflection on how just how all that stuff got there; to shoulder the crushing intellectual weight of socio-historical reality rather than accepting the odd, better yet ineffable coincidence of its all being there. Of course, when something becomes inexplicable it also becomes unreal--because there is, I'm convinced, no such thing as inexplicability, inexplicability being a much-too-convenient recourse for those who'd rather gawk at history than be deeply involved or even troubled by it--which is my typical attitude when faced with the churches, mosques, palaces and synagogues that clot every level of the mound-like Old City.

Today--during the couple free hours I had before a talk at the Yeshiva I wanted to go to (more on this in another post, hopefully...) I went in search of the Mamluke architecture hiding out in the alleyways of the Moslem and Christian quarters. Much of the Old City's classical Moslem architecture--much of it dating from the 13th and 14th centuries, and some of it dating from earlier--has been horribly neglected, and on the inevitable day (sometime in the next 15 years, hopefully) that Jerusalem is partitioned, there will hopefully be some kind of Arab-Israeli effort to save as much of it as possible. That's just the kind of cooperative effort that could make partition less of a bitter pill to swallow--for both parties...

...I was gonna upload pictures, 'cept that I unpacked my backpack in preparation for a 5-day jaunt up north and left my USB cable back in the apartment. So expect a week-and-a-half's worth of pics next Sunday or Monday; of Jerusalem, Warsaw (definitely more on that later), and hopefully Haifa, Akko and wherever else I find myself between now and next Sunday. Meanwhile, see if you can make sense of what must be strangest Haaretz article since the start of the Gaza offensive...