The Head Heeb : Knocking Down 4000 Years of Icons
Saturday, December 07, 2002
Two more links
You may find Red Letter Day and Segacs' World I Know worth a look - both are interesting, articulate and well worth reading. The latter, especially, has some very comprehensive and insightful coverage of the matsav at Concordia University.
When I describe the Western European consensus about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as "legitimate," I don't necessarily mean that I agree with it. Most of the time, in fact, I don't. What I mean, instead, is that the consensus is real - that, for the most part, it's the product of a complex, multi-faceted world-view rather than bigotry or "brainwashing."
The same goes for the American consensus, of course. The American affinity for Israel is as real as the European antipathy, and is the product of commonalities between the ideals, outlook and heritage of the two societies rather than slanted media. One of the most common fallacies about the Middle East conflict is that supporters of the other side would change their minds if they only knew the real facts - but the truth is that the differences of opinion have far more to do with varying interpretations of the facts than with disagreement over what they are.
The pro-Israel left?
The Likud Party website recently carried an interview with Pilar Rahola, a Catalan journalist and former Republican Left Party member of the Spanish parliament. Sra. Rahola is the author of an essay entitled In Favor of Israel, which will accompany pro-Israeli essays by fourteen other Spanish intellectuals in a forthcoming book.
The book isn't out yet, so I can't comment on the arguments made by the other 14 authors. Nor am I familiar enough with Sra. Rahola or the Republican Left Party - which appears to have its roots in Catalan nationalism during the 1930s - to be able to assess her leftist credentials. The mere expression of pro-Israeli ideas by a member of the European left, however, is something unusual. As I mentioned several months ago, public discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the West has become, in many cases, as polarized as the conflict itself - or, as Sra. Rahola puts it, "Manichaean."
With respect to the views of the left, she goes somewhat further, describing its Manichaeanism as one in which "the good [is] always the Palestinians, and the evil, always the Israelis." And, she says, this view is not confined to the left, at least in Spain:
Since the start of the second intifada, the Spanish press, on the right as well as the left, has taken a particularly aggressive approach toward Israel, an approach that leaves out the reasons for Israel's actions and tends to ignore the Israeli victims in this conflict
So far, so good. Her explanation of the European left's aversion to Israel, however, proves to be nothing more than a reprise of the tired argument that opposition to Israeli actions is a result of anti-Semitism. "Today one must prove oneself to be on the left; it is necessary to be anti-Semitic to have credibility," says Sra. Rahola. "Today there is a virulent resurgence of this savage feeling to the point where one can find genuinely anti-Semitic expressions in the Spanish press."
To be sure, this argument is not entirely without foundation. She may have been thinking, for instance, of the charming El Pais op-ed piece recently quoted by Paul Berman in the Forward:
The blond David of yesteryear surveys from a helicopter the occupied Palestinian lands and fires missiles at unarmed innocents; the delicate David of yore mans the most powerful tanks in the world and flattens and blows up what he finds in his tread; the lyrical David who sang praise to Bathsheba, incarnated today in the gargantuan figure of a war criminal named Ariel Sharon, hurls the 'poetic' message that first it is necessary to finish off the Palestinians in order later to negotiate with those who remain...
In other words, if this author is to be believed, Israel is evil - irredeemably evil - because Judaism is evil. And the person who wrote this wasn't some frothing jihadi, but Nobel laureate Jose Saramago, a prominent figure in the Portuguese left.
On the other hand, expressions of anti-Semitic hate like the above are shocking precisely because they are so rare. Europe has experienced a drastic upsurge of anti-Semitism during the past two years - that much is apparent to anyone capable of reading the news - but it is also apparent that the great majority of anti-Semitic acts are committed by members of European Arab and Muslim communities rather than by the left. There's a certain amount of tolerance of anti-Semitism on the left, or at least a willingness to strike alliances of convenience with anti-Semites, but I've met few leftists on either side of the ocean who are outright anti-Semites - and, to be fair to someone who doesn't deserve it, a Stalinist like Saramago would probably strike a variation of the same theme when discussing a Christian or Muslim state. (He doesn't seem to grasp the difference between the Jewish ethnic group and the Jewish religion, but that mistake is far from uncommon even among Jews.)
I've often wondered about the perception gap between Americans and Europeans, and especially those on the left, in perceiving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (That's really two separate gaps, but they're related ones; the left has much more of a political presence in Europe than in the United States, so leftist views tend to have more influence on European public opinion.) I've discussed it many times with people across the political spectrum, and reached no certain answer, but I don't think anti-Semitism is a major factor. There are, I'm sure, people who oppose Israel because they are anti-Semites. There are probably others who are motivated to stronger opposition to Israel because of latent or open anti-Semitism, but these are people who, if they were not anti-Semites, would still oppose Israel (albeit more mildly) for other reasons. I agree with Randy McDonald, though, that anti-Semitism may be among the top ten factors but it probably isn't among the top three. Far more important, I think, are the Third Worldist influence of Francophone intellectuals such as Fanon, the recent European experience with colonial warfare, and the more skeptical Continental attitude toward use of military force - but that's a discussion for another day. For the time being, it's enough to say that I think Sra. Rahola is wrong.
An even more important problem with Sra. Rahola's theories, however, is that they are the moral equivalent of the "Sharon = Hitler" signs that sprout up like weeds at Palestinian solidarity demonstrations. By labeling all opponents of Israel as anti-Semites, Sra. Rahola essentially writes them off. As Dennis Fox, one of the most sensible figures on the American left, wrote recently in Salon about the "Sharon = Hitler" posters, "[t]hose banners, and the superficiality that inspires them, are calculated to offend, not communicate, and they hinder the movement for Palestinian rights." Equating opposition to Israeli policies with anti-Semitism is precisely the same - it's not likely to change the minds of those who have been labeled, but it is likely to offend them and make them less open-minded about listening to the case for Israel.
Sra. Rahola also shows a disturbing misunderstanding of Palestinian national identity, arguing that "Palestinian identity can essentially be explained only by its anti-Jewish component." Well, no. Golda Meir notwithstanding, there has been a Palestinian Arab ethnic group since the early twentieth century, and its foundations go far beyond anti-Semitism. To an extent, Palestinian nationalism developed in tandem with and in reaction to Zionism, but by now there is a Palestinian cultural tradition, and a strong sense of Palestine as something other than "not Israel." The poems of Mahmoud Darwish are, I believe, available in Spanish translation. Sra. Rahola should read them; it might give her a better sense of what Palestinians are and how the suicide bombers aren't the apotheosis of their culture.
All this brings me back to a subject I mentioned in passing at the beginning of this article: Sra. Rahola's leftist credentials. In the interview, Sra. Rahola repeatedly expressed her disappointment with the left, and I got the strong impression that she was doing so as a former rather than a current member. She uses the pronoun "we" when describing the left, but at times she describes it as a "failed world ideology." It may be that, at least on the Middle East issue, she is the Spanish equivalent of David Horowitz - a disillusioned leftist who has become an equally dogmatic partisan of the other side.
The interview ends on a better note, with Sra. Rahola explaining that "to be 'in favor of Israel' is the most intelligent, rational, prudent, and honest way to be in favor of Palestine." In other words:
If Europe had had a critical discussion that did not hesitate to condemn the grave and permanent mistakes of the Palestinian side, if Europe had been more critical of the Palestinians, we would be closer to a solution today. But Arafat enjoys support and legitimacy in Europe which allows him to never miss an opportunity for missing the opportunity of peace. I believe that if Europe had been more critical toward Arafat, toward the different aspects of Palestinian violence, if Europe had been tougher in its statements, the Palestinians would have been compelled to step back from the violence and the suicide attacks.
It sounds, to use a term that should be familiar by now to readers of this journal, that Sra. Rahola is calling for militant moderation - a critical rather than enabling attitude toward the Palestinian leadership that pushes it toward compromise at the same time that it pushes Israel. That's not a bad position, as European Middle East attitudes go. It would be better, though, if it were espoused by someone more open-minded about the legitimacy of European opinion and Palestinian identity than Sra. Rahola. She cites dogmatism as a reason for the failure of the European left, but her own dogmatism may ironically make her fellow Europeans reluctant to accept her message.
Live From Baghdad
Just ran across Where Is Raed, a very articulate and heartfelt diary of an Iraqi living in Baghdad. If you want to find out what Iraqis are really thinking - at least Iraqis with the guts to speak their mind in front of several billion people - check it out.
Friday, December 06, 2002
People are linking to me!
Everyone give Kesher Talk, Letter from Gotham, Expat Egghead and The Illuminated Donkey some support.
Oh, and can someone tell me what the "Great Delinking Controversy" was? Diane of Letter from Gotham seems to think my link to a Palestinian blog is relevant to it.
UPDATE: Fixed the Kesher Talk and Letter from Gotham links.
How we know that Eid ul-Fitr has made the big time
The New York City alternate side parking rules are suspended.
The Catalan oath of allegiance
Something that's been going around lately, courtesy of Randy McDonald and J. Bradford DeLong:
We, who are as good as you, swear to you, who are no better than us, to accept you as our king and sovereign lord, provided you observe all our liberties and laws--but if not, not.
What I wonder, though, is who received that oath? In general, medieval commoners didn't owe allegiance directly to the king; they answered to some feudal baron who was the vassal of someone higher up the food chain and so on.
If the people of Catalonia took that oath, then it's a remarkable sign of their independence. If only a few great nobles did, then it's no more than the English barons won at Runnymede.
The Nazis' other race problem
Lately, I've been finishing a book I started months ago but then put down: Hans-Jürgen Massaquoi's Destined to Witness: Growing Up Black in Nazi Germany.
Yes, really. Massaquoi's father was the Liberian ambassador to Germany during the Weimar Republic, and his mother was a German nurse. When his father returned to Liberia at the end of 1929, he stayed in Hamburg with his mother, and the rest, as they say, is history. (After the war, he emigrated to the United States, joined the 82nd Airborne, became a journalist and ended up as the managing editor of Ebony magazine.)
Massaquoi's is a story that isn't often told. Over time, the Nazis' racism has come to be so closely associated with persecution of Jews and Gypsies that many people forget that they were, well, racists. Hitler was no more fond of black people than he was of any other non-Aryans; one charming Mein Kampf passage quoted by Massaquoi compares the education of black professionals to "training exactly like that of a poodle."
The Nazis, though, had much less opportunity to act against black people than against Jews. The black population of Germany in 1933 was minimal, and that of the countries it occupied even less. The one exception was France - and it is no coincidence that in occupied France and Vichy, blacks were specifically mentioned in Nuremberg-style racial laws.
In Germany itself, paradoxically, they weren't. There were so few black people in Nazi Germany that, with a single exception, they passed under the radar; they were subject to the same restrictions as other "non- Aryans," but no more than that. Massaquoi was taunted and excluded from organizations like the Hitler Youth and the military, but he went to school with the Aryan children, got a machinist's apprenticeship after school, caroused in the Hamburg nightclubs with his workmates and made some time with the ladies. In a twisted, Nazi sort of way, being half-African may have even helped him land his apprenticeship, given what transpired at his meeting with one Herr von Vett at the local Arbeitsamt:
You can be of great service to Germany one day," von Vett suggested.
Of course, Massaquoi had no way of knowing that he would come through safe. As a member of a very visible minority living in an openly racist state, he lived in constant fear that he would go the way of his Jewish neighbors. And his fears were quite justified, because there was that one exception. Not all black Germans managed to escape the notice of the Nazis. The "Rhineland bastards" - children of French colonial troops and German women born during the occupation of the Rhineland - were systematically sterilized, and many of them ended up in the death camps. Not only were they the product of forbidden racial mixing, but they were a reminder of Germany's postwar humiliation - and the Nazis knew only one way to deal with that. Massaquoi's book stands as a memorial to them as well as to his own remarkable survival.
Two heads are better than one
My wife Naomi now has posting access to The Head Heeb. Her commentary on entertainment, the media and more will be appearing shortly.
White collar crime can kill
Robert R. Courtney, a former Kansas City pharmacy owner, received received a 30-year jail sentence yesterday for a decade-long skim that involved diluting cancer patients' chemotherapy medications. Prosecutors estimate that the fraud may have involved 400 doctors, 4200 patients and as many as 98,000 prescriptions, some of which contained less than 1 percent of the prescribed drug quantity. It is likely that the drug dilutions contributed to the death of at least 17 patients.
There isn't much to say about this one. As the judge said when pronouncing sentence, Courtney's crimes are "a shock to the civilized conscience." The sentencing judge, in fact, went into a fine tirade that quite befitted the occasion. He got one thing wrong, though, when he stated that Courtney's actions were "beyond understanding." They aren't beyond understanding at all. Greed has been with us for a very long time.
After all, how different is Courtney from any other white-collar criminal who makes money on the side by selling shoddy products? What the Courtney case proves is that white-collar crime is not as bloodless as many people seem to believe. There's something about embezzlement and fraud that leads people to classify them less seriously than crimes against the person or even street-level burglaries - but all kinds of things can be stolen, including life-giving drugs. A sufficiently motivated white-collar criminal will steal whatever is available, whether it's his employees' pension funds, chemotherapy medicine or - like James C. Evans in North Carolina a few years back - food aid earmarked for the Third World. Greed can kill - and when it doesn't, the reason is more likely to be luck than morality.
Thursday, December 05, 2002
If you haven't read Asma Hasan's American Muslims: The New Generation, you should. Written by a self-described "Muslim feminist cowgirl," this book is an insightful and entertaining look at the encounter between second-generation American Muslims, the traditions of their faith and the values of an open Western society. Whether you're Muslim or not, do yourself a favor for Eid ul-Fitr and buy the book.
Among other things, Ms. Hasan raises the interesting possibility that a "Reform Islam," similar to the liberal branches of Judaism, might come about as a result of the interaction between Islam and the West. Her discussion can be found at pages 143 and 144:
A plausible model of adjustment to American life is an assimilation similar to the kind American Jews have experienced. Some feel that the creation of Reform Judaism was the greatest catalyst to Jews' assimilation... When Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise proposed the idea of Reform Judaism, it made, and still makes, much sense. Wise proposed that Jews adopt a "reformed" version of Judaism that would make life in America easier for Jews. Jews could still practice Judaism without having such practice interfere in their daily lives as Americans... I know my life would certainly be easier if I didn't have to worry about informing waiters at restaurants that I cannot eat ham, bacon, pork, or food prepared with lard. If a "Reform Islam" existed, I wouldn't have to worry about this issue and a few other aspects of Muslim life.
Ms. Hasan concludes, however, that "a similar outcome is not possible for American Muslims:"
"Reform Islam" cannot exist for the simple reason that Muslims, as a group, cannot set up Islamic doctrine. Islam itself, and American Islam, have no real structure for such widespread interpretation. Most Islamic countries, as I have said, have a group of religious scholars, called the ulema, who interpret Islam for their country. American Muslims don't have an ulema. As a result, Muslims don't have a governing authority who can "decree" a "Reform Islam." In truth, Islam is really supposed to be practiced and interpreted by each individual and not handed down by a Pope-like figure.
I make no claim to be an Islamic scholar, but I find myself somewhat more sanguine about the possibility of a "Reform Islam" than Ms. Hasan. For one thing, Ms. Hasan reversed cause and effect in her discussion of the origins of Reform Judaism. The Reform Jewish movement didn't begin in the United States, nor did it begin with Isaac Mayer Wise; in fact, the first Reform temple opened in Hamburg the year before Rabbi Wise was born. And it wasn't the cause of Jewish assimilation; it was the result.
The Reform movement grew out of the Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment, which was an intellectual movement that began in central Europe during the 18th century. To make a long story short, Germany and Austria in the early 1700s were at once the most oppressive and the most congenial places to be Jewish. Poor Jews, who were the great majority, lived like dirt, but Jews who had money and royal connections - the famous "court Jews" - enjoyed opulent lifestyles with access to the highest levels of society. In addition, their status as court Jews put them above and outside the control of the local rabbinate.
For the first time since the fall of Rome, it was possible for Jews to compromise with modernity - to live as members of the larger society without ceasing to be Jewish. Central Europe in the eighteenth century was not the first or only place in which Jews had freedom - the Islamic world was also quite liberal in its treatment of Jews, and so were isolated European locations such as Carolingian France and tenth-century Germany - but in none of these prior places did Jews find themselves at liberty in a modern secular society. Many upper-class Jews responded to this opportunity by assimilating, and their assimilation often included secular scholarship; one of the prominent figures of the Haskalah was the great philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. It was from this exposure to Western ideas, and the day-to-day mixing of traditional and modern practices, that a coherent liberal Jewish theology coalesced.
In addition, what Ms. Hasan says about Sunni Islam - that it is non-hierarchical and respects the autonomy of believers - is also true of Judaism. With the partial exception of Hasidism, the Jewish religion does not have any "pope-like figures" or religious hierarchies; the autonomy of individual congregations and believers is an integral part of the Jewish faith. Reform Judaism wasn't "decreed" any more than Ms. Hasan's hypothetical Reform Islam would be; it was proposed, discussed by liberal Jewish intellectuals, and gradually cohered into a religious movement. There is a Reform seminary and board of rabbis in the United States today, but they didn't create the Reform movement; in fact, quite the opposite.
Making comparisons between religions is always a tricky business, but I think one might be justified in this case, not least because Sunni Islam is very close to Judaism in theological terms. The environment in which American Muslims find themselves today is not remarkably different from that facing upper-class German Jews in 1750 - they are members of a traditional culture in their second or third generation of exposure to intellectual freedom and material temptation. As members of a non-hierarchical faith, they are more capable of adapting to modernity than otherwise; there is no authority to decree a Reform Islam, but also no authority capable of preventing one from forming. Like Jews, American Muslims have theological autonomy; some will exercise this by choosing to retain traditional ideas and practices, but others will want to combine the Islamic and American aspects of their heritage. Inevitably, these people will converse and philosophize with others of like mind, view their ancestral traditions with a somewhat different emphasis from their ancestors, and create new rituals to observe their religion in ways meaningful to them. Of such things are theologies made.
There is evidence that new rituals are being created already, and not only in America. The Wall Street Journal reported the other day that Western-oriented Jordanians have transformed Ramadan from an occasion for private contemplation into a public holiday celebrated by exchanging cards and presents and having iftar parties at restaurants. They aren't violating Islamic law, of course, but reform Islam doesn't require that. By changing their emphasis and creating rituals that combine Islamic tradition with the secular West, they are in the process of reforming their religion. One sure sign of this is that their practices and attitudes have aroused opposition among more conservative Jordanians; for that matter, Ms. Hasan herself has been criticized by some Islamic traditionalists for her view that Islam is compatible with Western liberalism. Whether any of this will give rise to an organized Reform Muslim theology is uncertain, but Mendelsson would have a great deal to talk about with those Jordanians at their iftar buffet.
This just in
Vegard Valberg reports on an Asian 419 letter that asks victims to fax their responses to a Nevada area code.
Further news from the 419 front
For those who don't know, "419 fraud" is the name given to a common funds-transfer scam in which the perpetrator - who usually, but not always, claims to be a Nigerian civil servant or businessman - solicits the aid of the victim in laundering his ill-gotten gains in return for a substantial commission. 419 - named after the section of the Nigerian criminal code dealing with fraud - began in the 1980s as a letter scam, and has since mutated to e-mail.
The great majority of 419 frauds follow a common formula. The writer begins by apologizing for contacting a total stranger, and excusing himself by saying that the victim's name was given to him by an (always anonymous) colleague. He then explains that he has come by a substantial amount of illegal income, usually through official corruption, and that he needs help transferring it to a foreign bank account. Usually, he claims that, due to some technical civil service regulation or provision of the local banking law, he cannot open a foreign account in his own name. Left unexplained is any indication of why a corrupt and well-connected civil servant can't get around the banking laws or, failing that, simply give the money to his lawyer. However, the writer is counting on the promise of an outsize commission - usually around 30 percent - to blind the victim to the obvious plot holes. If the victim responds, of course, he is asked to front the writer some "expense" money - occasionally amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars - which he will never see again.
A few months back, Proletarios Epanastatis reported a new twist to e-mail 419 scams. This letter departed from the usual 419 pattern by claiming to be from "Dudley Rogers," the "secretary" of the Matabeleland branch of the Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers Union. Rather than the usual tale of sordid civil service corruption or diamond-trade embezzlement, the "Rogers" letter took on a distinctly political cast:
After the last general elections in my country where the incumbent president Mr. Robert Mugabe won the presidential election, the government has adopted a very aggressive land reforms programme. This programme is solely aimed at taking the land owned by white African farmers for redistribution to black africans. This programme has attracted worldwide condemnation from world leaders including British prime minister, mr Tony Blair and also forced several white farmers to flee the country for fear of victimization and physical abuse. Two weeks ago, our headquartes [sic] in Harare was attacked and looted by black protesters and in the process burnt down the whole building. Fortunately, they did not get access to the huge funds kept in the strong room which belong to the co-operation. This cash was kept at the secretariat rather than in the Bank for fear of seizure by the government. Now I have the funds in my possession and would need to get it invested in a viable business venture in Europe or Asia.
Foreign account, yadda yadda, can't do it himself, yadda yadda, substantial commission, yadda yadda. As Epanastatis commented, there is a distinct possibility that the author was trying to play on the sympathies of his mostly-white marks by claiming to be a dispossessed white farmer rather than a corrupt civil servant or deposed dictator, and that the victims would be more inclined to believe that a white person would actually pay the promised commission.
Unlike most 419 scams, however, this one could be checked, because the CFU has a web site that lists its officers. Dudley Rogers exists, and the CFU has a Matabeleland branch, but he isn't its secretary. That office is held by Mrs. Estelle Scheijde, who probably doesn't much resemble Rogers even from a distance.
Nevertheless, the CFU took the letter seriously enough to conduct an investigation. The final report is as follows:
Further to my message in the above regard, dated 05.09.02, it has been established without doubt that Dudley Rogers of Tshabezi Safaris based in West Nicholson is definitely not the author of the fraudulent message referred to in my original statement.
End of story? Not quite. Lately, the troubled politics of Zimbabwe have given rise to another 419 letter, this one purporting to be from a black commercial farmer:
My name is George Nwanga Matongo, the son of Phiri Matongo, a farmer from Zimbabwe, murdered in the land dispute in my country. As led by my instict, I decided to contact you through email, after searching for contacts via the internet, as it is the only means I can contact anybody since I am cutting off ties with Zimbabwe for security and safety reasons. However, I apologize if this is not acceptable to you.
He did so, of course, by selling off everything that wasn't nailed down and depositing it with a "private security company" in South Africa, to be used later in buying a new farm in Botswana. Unfortunately, the valiant Mr. Matongo wasn't able to get out in time, and:
President Mugabe's support for the violent Zimbabwean war veterans and some lunatics in the society, led to the murder of my beloved father and other innocent lives. I was continually threatened to abandon my inheritance from my father after he was murdered. I resited
Down with Mugabe! Long live the MDC! And, by the way, please help me launder my money.
It might not be too cynical to view the "Matongo" letter as a second draft of the "Rogers" letter. It's harder to check, for one thing, and its hero is more sympathetic - a black farmer who made good against all odds rather than a leftover white Rhodesian. If the "Rogers" letter was a play to white prejudices about the Zimbabwe crisis, the "Matongo" letter is a play to liberal white sympathies.
It would not surprise me at all if the two letters were written by the same person. The only thing that would surprise me, in fact, is if the author of either letter came from Zimbabwe. My theory is that, at this point, many or even most e-mail 419 scams no longer come from Africa - e-mail addresses don't have much to do with the residence of the account holder any more. It still makes sense for authors of 419 scams to pretend to be African, because (1) it's traditional, (2) the sorry state of African public records makes their stories hard to check, and (3) the notorious corruption of African governments and the civil strife taking place in much of Africa makes the stories superficially plausible to the marks. Of course, the second and third factors also hold true for other regions; I'm already starting to see 419 letters purporting to come from associates of Slobodan Milosevic, and Afghanistan or Venezuela can't be far behind. If the "Rogers" letter really came from Japan, then it's an additional item of evidence in my favor, but I doubt I'll ever know; my request for the details of the CFU's investigation is still pending, and probably always will be.
The Internet, pseudonymity, transnational ISPs and civil disturbance. Coming soon to a 419 near you.
Hodes on Chanukah
Ivan Hodes, a frequent correspondent, had the following to say about yesterday's Chanukah post:
1) Victory of fundamentalism over "assimilation?" I think that, you know, worshipping foreign gods in the Jerusalem temple is something a bit more than assimilating.
Both true. The point I was making, though, was that the Hasmonean uprising was actually two wars - a war of independence against the Seleucid kingdom, and a civil war within the Jewish community between traditionalists and Hellenizers. The worship of foreign gods in the Temple was a Seleucid imposition following the rebellion of Jason, not a practice instituted by the Hellenized priesthood - even Menelaus didn't go that far. The practices of the Hellenistic Jews of the 170s - building gymnasia in Jerusalem, encouraging philosophy and theater, seeking status for Jerusalem as a Greek polis - can properly be called assimilation, and the Maccabees eliminated these as well as fighting against the Seleucids' attempts at cultural genocide. Their victory proved temporary - within half a century, Hasmonean kings once again took Greek names and embraced Hellenistic civilization - but part of the Chanukah story is the triumph of traditionalism over modernism within the Jewish community, and this aspect of the story is emphasized quite often by Orthodox Jews today.
As for the Maccabees' use of Greek fighting techniques - well, I suppose that's assimilation of a sort, but I'd still draw a distinction between assimilation of techniques and assimilation of values. To take an extreme example, the Taliban and al Qaeda know how to shoot rifles and fly planes, but I'd hesitate to say that they have assimilated to Western civilization.
Wednesday, December 04, 2002
The Hip Hop Who?
Your One Stop Shop for Latino Jewish Hip Hop
More militant moderation?
I never thought I'd see the day when Ray Hanania would write for Ha'aretz, and still less that I'd see him do so as a militant moderate. There he was, though, describing the Palestinian leadership's collective failure to move beyond the past in almost the same words I used here two days ago:
Although the so-called intellectual elite of the Palestinian Diaspora pays lip service to the concept of compromise, they really don't support it. Most Diaspora Palestinians live in a national dysfunctionalism driven by historical emotions they can't seem to overcome. This is fed by internal Palestinian divisions, Arab factionalism and the rise of religious extremism.
Hanania isn't the only one sounding those themes just now. It hasn't been a bad week for militant moderation overall, with Sharon promising to pass the United States roadmap to a Palestinian state if he wins the election, and the EU threatening to cut ties with Hamas if it continues to stand in the way of a cease-fire. However the Israeli elections come out, the campaign seems to be doing some good already, in the form of movement toward the center by the most unlikely parties.
What stands out in Hanania's article, however, is his advice to Arab Israelis that they, too, need to move to the center after a decade of increasing disengagement from Israeli society:
Israel's Arab voters still look upon themselves as if they are voters in Arab countries, where elections are either rigged or irrelevant. They need to become politically savvy and professional about voting. They must abandon their naive beliefs not only in how they vote, but also in how they deal with Israel's Jewish majority. [...]
The idea that Arab Israelis have something to prove to Jewish Israelis about the sincerity of their commitment to coexistence is something I haven't seen from the Palestinian side of the fence for a long, long time.
It would probably be fairer to say that Israeli Jews and Arabs have something to prove to each other. Nearly every Israeli with whom I'm personally acquainted agrees that Arab Israelis - especially Bedouin farmers, who have at times been rewarded for their loyalty to Israel with land confiscations and poisoned fields - have legitimate grievances. The position of Arab citizens of Israel compares, at best, to those of minorities in the United States - they are equal under the law, but face a great deal of private and semi-official discrimination, especially if they exercise their right to forgo military service. Arab municipalities and schools tend to be underfunded compared to their Jewish counterparts, and Arabs are disproportionately concentrated at the lower end of the social ladder. There are still many unanswered questions about the death of 13 Arab citizens during the suppression of the October 2000 riots. And yet...
The most puzzling thing about Arab Israeli politics during the past decade isn't that they have grievances - they have every right to do so, and to fight for equality within Israeli society. What throws me, and many Jewish Israelis, is the extent to which the Israeli Arab political class seems to have given up on Israel entirely, and on the very concept of being Israeli. Prominent Israeli Arab leaders, including members of the Israeli legislature, have Palestinianized themselves to the extent of comparing Israel to Nazi Germany and advocating suicide attacks against their own country. The views of the silent majority remain to be ascertained, but among those who claim to speak for Arab Israelis, there appears to be an increasing willingness to see their complaints as inherent problems with the existence of Israel rather than matters to be redressed through the Israeli courts and political process. Paradoxically, this trend has accelerated at the same time that Arabs have gained more access than ever to both.
The 1990s were a decade of intense self-examination in Israel, and one of the matters re-examined was the position of Arabs in Israeli society. During this time, the fringe Arab parties ceased to be Israeli Arabs' sole entry into the Knesset, as mainstream Jewish parties such as Avoda (Labor) began adding Arabs to their candidate lists and even reserving places for them. One of these candidates, Saleh Tarif, became Israel's first Arab Cabinet minister - during the Sharon administration. Increasing patronage during the Rabin and Peres administrations, combined with the economic boom of 1992-2000, resulted in a narrowing of the income and educational gap between Arab and Jewish Israelis. The Haifa municipality, under Amram Mitzna, set an example of treating Arab Israelis as citizens rather than subjects. Accolades such as the Israel Prize and first prize at the Miss Israel pageant were won by Arab citizens for the first time. And in the courts, Arabs began to win a string of civil rights victories.
Since 1995, the President of the Israeli Supreme Court has been Aharon Barak. Barak is Antonin Scalia's nightmare - a judicial activist who has parlayed the lack of a written Israeli constitution into even broader latitude for the Supreme Court to make constitutional law. Under Barak, the court - which now includes its first Arab judge, Abd-er-Rahman Zoabi - has steered a progressive course, deciding landmark civil rights cases in favor of women, homosexuals, non-Orthodox Jews and Arabs. The decisions of the Barak Court include the invalidation of the Shin Bet's long-standing "ticking bomb" justification for torture, a requirement that Israeli land authorities and planning commissions include Arab members - and, most controversially of all, the Qa'dan/Katzir case.
For those unfamiliar with the story, Adel Qa'dan was an Arab medical worker and father who, like most parents, wanted to raise his children in a safe neighborhood with good schools. The controversy arose from the manner in which he chose to do this - namely, by applying for permission to buy a homesite in the Katzir communal settlement. Katzir was owned by the Jewish Agency, a quasi-public agency which administers much of the land in Israel, and administered in much the same way as a co-operative apartment in the United States - prospective purchasers needed board approval. Not all communities in Israel work that way - there are many ethnically mixed urban neighborhoods, for instance, and some towns (including a mixed area of Katzir adjacent to the communal settlement) require no board approval - but many of the more desirable ones do, and were traditionally reserved for Jews. Katzir was, in other words, a segregated community - and, true to form, it rejected Qa'dan's application. Unlike many others, he went to court, which gave Barak his chance to make law regarding segregated housing. He did - and didn't.
The language of the Qa'dan/Katzir decision is sweeping. The following is excerpted from the official headnotes to the case (H.C. 6698/95):
The Court examined the question of whether the refusal to allow the petitioners to build their home in Katzir constituted impermissible discrimination. The Court's examination proceeded in two stages. First, the Court examined whether the State may allocate land directly to its citizens on the basis of religionor nationality. The answer is no. As a general rule, the principle of equality prohibits the State from distinguishing between its citizens on the basis of religion or nationality. The principle also applies to the allocation of State land. This conclusion is derived both from the values of Israel as a Democratic State and from the values of Israel as a Jewish State.
From there, however, the case took a wrong turn. The Supreme Court, unwilling to sweep aside precedent allowing kibbutzim to select their members and permitting the government to set aside land for sale to Bedouins at below-market prices, limited the mandate of the case to its facts. In addition, rather than ordering Katzir to sell Qa’dan a homesite, the Supreme Court remanded the case to the State of Israel to reconsider his request “with deliberate speed.” The last time I recall seeing that language was in Brown v. Board of Education, and we all know what came of it then - years of foot-dragging, delay and pain before any meaningful change was accomplished.
The same thing happened with Qa'dan/Katzir. Not surprisingly, the Katzir committee turned Qa'dan down again for unspecified reasons, and he had to go back to court and start all over. His appeals dragged on. He still hasn't moved into Katzir, and it's likely that he never will; he's given up on the case, and made frustrated statements (such as describing Jews as a "cancer") that all but guarantee that Katzir will never want him as a neighbor. Because of this, many people have concluded that the Qa'dan/Katzir decision was noothing more than window dressing to disguise institutional racism.
I think that's the wrong lesson to draw. The Qa'dan/Katzir case itself ended in disappointment for the plaintiff, but Brown v. Board also didn't accomplish much at first. Although the verdict in Qa'dan/Katzir was limited to the facts of the case, the principles of law set down by the court were not, and any future land segregation cases will be judged against a presumption that the "principle of equality" forbids discrimination. In fact, the reason the court gave for limiting the immediate effect of its decision was that it wanted to "look to the future" rather than potentially undo thousands of prior land transations. Discriminatory restrictions on land transfers in Qa'dan/Katzir's "future" - which is now - face a heavy burden, and are highly unlikely to be upheld.
Also telling is the reaction of the Knesset when a bill was introduced to overturn Qa'dan/Katzir. After Michael Kleiner - possibly the most right-wing member of Knesset today - proposed the bill, the Israeli Attorney General and the Knesset legal advisor condemned it as racist, Avoda threatened to quit the government if it passed, Israeli Presdent Moshe Katsav stepped outside his ordinary ceremonial role to urge its withdrawal, and even some members of Sharon's Likud party expressed dismay. Within days, the bill was withdrawn in disarray. What has happened, in other words, was that the values underlying Qa'dan/Katzir have been internalized by a substantial majority of the Knesset, including some of those who are nominally right-wing. It is no longer acceptable in the Israeli mainstream to interpret the term "Jewish state" in a racist manner.
Qa'dan/Katzir, I think, will be Israel's Brown v. Board - sweeping in rhetoric, cautious with initial remedies, but ultimately working a profound change on society. The case, for all its flaws, represents the acceptance of the principle of equal citizenship by a powerful branch of the Israeli government. As Ray Hanania says, though, Arab Israelis must accept that principle as well.
And another trial
Egyptian political prisoner Sa'ad Eddin Ibrahim is home again, at least for the time being. Ibrahim was serving a seven-year sentence for, among other things, tarnishing the image of the Egyptian government - something that government proved perfectly capable of doing on its own when it indicted him. Yesterday, Egypt's highest court, the Court of Cassation, threw out his conviction on unspecified procedural grounds and ruled that he was entitled to a new trial. Ibrahim was freed immediately and spent the evening at home with his family.
This is Ibrahim's second legal victory in the Court of Cassation. Earlier this year, the court reversed his initial conviction in the "State Security Court," a triumph that proved to be Pyrrhic when the lower court quickly convicted him again. This time, though, the result promises to be different - instead of sending the case back to the State Security Court, the Court of Cassation will conduct the retrial itself.
In a country where the government is otherwise tightly controlled, the Court of Cassation is known for its independence. This is not infrequent in Third World countries - especially those that were once under British rule - where the courts are often the branch of government with the greatest independence and integrity. Although Egypt is a civil law country, its courts absorbed a healthy measure of the British common law tradition, which holds that courts make law rather than simply administering it. A common-law court is not a mere instrument of the state, but an institution that traditionally holds power and authority independent of the government under which it is constituted. The independence of Third World common-law courts has died very hard, even in such places as Ian Smith's Rhodesia and the South African bantustans.
This is, to a great extent, why the "State Security Courts" were created in the first place. Since Nasser's fall, Egypt has always been careful to maintain a facade of constitutionalism and parliamentary rule, so Mubarak didn't want to provoke a legitimacy crisis by replacing the court system outright or bringing its judges under a firmer leash. Instead, he used his emergency powers to create a special court system that theoretically had jurisdiction only over threats to the state but in fact has interpreted its mandate very widely. Fortunately for Ibrahim, Mubarak also wasn't willing to go so far as to make the State Security Court's rulings unappealable - which means that, ultimately, the Court of Cassation was able to exercise its supervisory power over the case. Whether it can deliver a fair verdict on retrial will be the ultimate test of its independence.
Tuesday, December 03, 2002
The Sankoh trial?
The international war crimes tribunal for Sierra Leone commenced its work today as eight judges were sworn in. The court's mandate is expected to last three years, and it will have jurisdiction over crimes committed since the Lomé accords of November 30, 1996. Among those expected to be indicted are RUF leader Foday Sankoh and former military dictator Johnny Paul Koroma.
There are few people who deserve a war crimes indictment more richly than Sankoh, whose army of drugged-up child soldiers committed some of the worst atrocities in the history of Africa. There are thousands of Leonians today who have no hands thanks to Sankoh, not to mention the thousands killed or raped and the entire country left in ruins. Even though he's getting a pass on atrocities committed before 1996, he's responsible for more than enough since then to hang fifty times over - or at least he would be if the tribunal had the power to impose the death penalty.
It may be assuming too much, however, to look forward to Sankoh's day in court. The last time a war crimes prosecution was brought against an African dictator - Hissene Habré - the case ended up being dismissed on jurisdictional grounds. A United Nations court won't have that problem, but war crimes tribunals in Africa don't have a good track record either. The two parallel courts that have handled the Rwanda genocide have gone to opposite extremes. The Rwandan courts have convicted hundreds at drumhead trials, but even so, they had to let thousands of suspects walk free because they didn't have the time or money to try them all. The internationally constituted Arusha tribunal, in contrast, dispensed justice entirely too slowly, ultimately finding that some of its defendants had to be freed because they had been denied their right to a speedy trial. Rwandan prosecutors also found the Arusha tribunal high-handed and inconsiderate of the priorities of the Rwandan government.
To some extent, the Sierra Leone tribunal has learned from the experience of Rwanda. The court will sit in Sierra Leone rather than in a neighboring country, and its judges will be a mix of Leonians, other Africans and Westerners. The United States is supplying the chief prosecutor, but the Leonian attorney general and other local prosecutors are also on the team. Funding to the tune of $60 million is being provided by the international community, and the indictment list is expected to be kept to the thirty or so worst offenders. It's a workable arrangement, at least on paper, and the appointment of renowned British human rights attorney Geoffrey Robertson as the chief judge means that the court is likely to be an honest and fair one.
Sometimes, though, a system where everyone gets to steer can end up going in circles. The cracks may already be beginning to show; according to Agence France-Presse, there are unconfirmed reports that four top court officials have resigned due to a perception that the Leonian prosecutors are out of control. The court has confirmed that "some" resignations have occurred, but claimed that they were for personal reasons. Of course: resignations are always for personal reasons. Needing time to think things over after having punched one's boss in the nose is a personal reason. So is disagreeing with the Attorney General.
I wish Mr. Robertson the best of luck; he's chasing a worthy quarry. I wouldn't bet the rent on him catching it, though.
Tonight is the fourth night of Chanukah, or whatever variant spelling you prefer to use. In the United States, Chanukah has become one of the two or three most prominent holidays in the Jewish calendar, largely because it falls in close proximity to Christmas. In fact, though, it's not a major holiday. It isn't a yom tov, a holiday on which work is forbidden; when I taught at a Hasidic elementary school for a brief period a decade ago, the students didn't get Chanukah as a vacation. If not for its role as a commercialized Christmas substitute, Chanukah would rank with Purim on the Jewish calendar, or maybe with Tu b'Shevat.
One of the paradoxes of Chanukah is that it is celebrated most avidly by assimilated Jews, who are most likely to live in non-Jewish neighborhoods and to feel the need for a substitute Christmas. The irony, of course, is that Chanukah is a celebration of the victory of fundamentalism over assimilation. The heroes of the Chanukah story, the Maccabees, were religious zealots; their enemies were as much the outward-looking Hellenistic Jews as the Seleucid monarchy. As a modern Jew who treasures the fusion of Jewish tradition and ethics with the limitless horizons of Western civilization, Chanukah seems to me a distinctly ambivalent holiday. I've always had a nagging suspicion that, had I been alive at the time of the Maccabees, I would not have been on their side.
On the other hand, I have the luxury of choices that the Maccabees did not. At the time of the Hasmonean rebellion, the Jews of Palestine suffered from religious persecution so severe as to amount to attempted cultural genocide. The Seleucids were not interested in fusing Jewish and Hellenistic tradition; they wanted, instead, to replace the Jewish culture with the Hellenistic. As unpleasant as the Maccabees might seem to those who prefer Judaism with a more worldly focus, they were necessary to the survival of the Jewish community of their time.
Perhaps this is why the Maccabees have been celebrated, quite unselfconsciously, by Jews who they would have hated. The Maccabees were revered in Ptolemaic and Roman Alexandria, for instance, among Jews who had eagerly adopted Hellenistic philosophy and who dramatized Jewish legends in Greek-style plays. Maybe the Alexandrian Jews, who had troubles of their own with the city's Greek community, simply relished a story that ended with the Jews kicking Greek ass. On the other hand, their version of the story, like ours, emphasized the miraculous survival of the Jews in Palestine, and when one of them retold the legend of their own deliverance from Ptolemaic persecution, he called it the Third Book of Maccabees. Time and again, it was to the Maccabees that Jews turned for comfort in troubled times.
Today, we are once again living in a time when Jews have a choice other than between orthodoxy and total assimilation; it is once more possible for a modern Jewish theology to take root and for the discipline of tradition to be moderated. If not for those traditions, though, we would not have reached this time. The Maccabees are just as much the ancestors of modern Judaism as of the present-day fundamentalists.
I'll celebrate Chanukah this year. It's my holiday too.
Monday, December 02, 2002
Touching on a touchy topic
This is a brief explanation of my views on the Middle East, because I'll be discussing that topic quite a bit, especially with the elections coming up.
I like to think I'm a militant moderate where the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is concerned. Over the years, I've obtained empirical proof that I'm somewhere near the middle in the form of personal derision by partisans of both sides. During the time that I've been cluttering up cyberspace and annoying university faculties with my views on the Middle East, I've been called both a self-hating Jew and a "fanatical, maniacal Zionist," often for the same opinions. Curiously enough, those opinions are usually the ones I'm most certain are correct. But being a moderate is only the beginning of the story.
As I see it, there are two ways to be middle-of-the-road about the Middle East. One is to be both anti-Israeli and anti-Palestinian. This is the "plague on both your houses" viewpoint - the Israelis are racist colonial bastards and the Palestinians are medieval savages, and each deserves the other. A person who considers Israel a relic of the nineteenth century and Palestine a relic of the ninth is, in his own way, a moderate.
The other way - and, I think, the harder one - is to be for both sides; to recognize that both Israelis and Palestinians have legitimate aspirations and that both have a great deal to give to the world. It's important, especially now, to recognize that Palestine includes Mahmoud Darwish and Hanan Ashrawi as well as Sheik Ahmed Yassin, and that Israel has produced Amram Mitzna and Amos Oz as well as Michael Kleiner. It's important, also, to recognize that Israel, Palestine and the Palestinian diaspora have shown the capacity to be productive and creative, to examine themselves critically and to evolve as societies - in short, to generate hope. That's my kind of moderation. It isn't always easy, because the Israelis sometimes do act like racist colonial bastards and the Palestinians sometimes do act like medieval savages, but thus far I've kept to it.
Calling myself a militant moderate, though, is only another way of summing up a set of opinions. Those opinions, like any others, are based on fact, and are subject to change as the facts change or as I realize that my version of the facts is wrong. Of course, getting to the facts can itself be a difficult exercise on this particular subject, because history has become so politicized that it is often hard to tell fact from propaganda. (Quick, how many people were killed at Deir Yassin?) I have, over time, developed methods of judging the credibility of sources, determining which commentators are most objective and which historians most rigorous. There's always the possibility, though, that some or all of my factual assumptions might be proven wrong. If so, then the opinions based on those assumptions have to be re-evaluated. Therefore, take anything below with the appropriate amount of salt, and keep in mind that it's all subject to change without notice.
One of the opinions most fundamental to my view of the Middle East is that it's a multi-party screw-up, and that there's plenty of blame to go around - the Israelis, the Palestinians, the Arab world and the international community all have to accept their share. Nobody starts with a moral credit. Some of the Yishuv leaders were inflammatory and intolerant - but no more so, and for the most part less so, than the Mufti. Ethnic cleansing on a major scale took place during 1947-49, but it worked both ways - East Jerusalem wasn't called the "Jewish Quarter" before the war for nothing. Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967, but it did so during a defensive war, and the "Four No" resolution at Khartoum a year later played a part in making sure it continued. The Irgun committed a massacre at Deir Yassin, but the Arab Legion committed one at Kfar Etzion. There are plenty of other parallels, but I think my point is made; in the Middle East tit-for-tat, nobody can claim to be on the side of the angels, and nobody can claim to be the one who didn't start it. Nor can anyone claim to be the one who didn't keep it going;right now, the Palestinians are driving the conflict, but there have been plenty of times when it was the other way.
All that sounds, at least to me, like plain common sense, but there aren't too many militant moderates these days - or, at least, not too many who make their position public. The intifada has not only radicalized the parties to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it has increasingly radicalized the public debate, to the point where a great deal of public Middle East discourse tends to iconize one side and demonize the other. On the one hand is the Kahanist narrative, which portrays the conflict as a struggle between heroic Zionists and savage Palestinians (when it even deigns to acknowledge that Palestinians exist). On the other is the radical pro-Palestinian view that has gained a great deal of currency within the American and European left, which iconizes the Palestinians and excuses their worst excesses while portraying Israelis as fiends in human form. It isn't even rare these days to see suicide bombers held up as heroes, or Israeli policies in the occupied territories described with ridiculous words like "genocidal" - the sort of idiocy that makes "Zionism is racism" look like the good old days. Both sides need to face up to their wrongdoing and mythology, and slogans are an inadequate substitute.
Oh, yes. Zionism and racism. Zionism is not, repeat not, a form of racism, Resolution 3379 notwithstanding. Herzlian Zionism is not an ideology of racial superiority, or even one of racial exclusivity; Herzl's Altneuland includes an Arab character who is deputy prime minister of his utopian Jewish state. The Zionist project is not per se synonymous with Palestinian dispossession, and a Zionist state is perfectly compatible with a Palestinian state and with civil rights for Arab minorities. Zionism is a form of nationalism, certainly, and to some extent a Volkist form of nationalism, but it isn't racist unless the term is defined to include all forms of nationalism - including Palestinian Arab exclusivism.
There can be no denying that certain threads of Zionist philosophy are racist - all it takes is one look at the Hebron settlers to prove that. However, all this shows is that any ideology can be corrupted. The United States, for instance, has been guilty, during its history, of racist acts much more severe than anything Israel has dreamed of committing. However, this does not mean that the United States is a racist nation or that American ideals are racist. In fact, the American ideals of freedom, equality and fairness are a great deal of the reason why the United States has come so far in overcoming its racial heritage.
Zionism - the right kind of Zionism - will do the same thing for Israel. In fact, it already has. The ideals of Labor Zionism are the reason the Arabs in Israel after 1948 became citizens rather than South African-style subjects. These same ideals were seen again during the "olive wars" this fall, when groups of Israeli and American Jews protected Palestinian olive growers from attacks by the wrong kind of Zionists - West Bank settlers. These Jews were not left-wing activists or opponents of Israel, and the reason they gave for protecting the Palestinian farmers was that "it was the Zionist thing to do." This kind of Zionism was also seen when Amram Mitzna, as mayor of Haifa, stated that he would block the deportation of Arabs from the West Bank with his own body, and when the police chief of Hadera responded to an attack on Arabs at a beach picnic by attending the next picnic himself. They didn't do these things in spite of being Zionists, but because they were Zionists. This is Amram Mitzna's kind of Zionism, Amos Oz' kind of Zionism - my kind of Zionism. The kind that looks forawrd to cooperation on the basis of equality and dignity rather than dwelling endlessly upon past hatreds and present revenge.
Which brings me to opinion number four: peace between Israelis and Palestinians depends upon moving away from the past. The phrase "no peace without justice" is one of the most tragic in the English language, and it doesn't sound any better in Arabic or Hebrew. In fact, all peace requires at least some sacrifice of justice. Except for the peace of the vanquished and the peace of the grave, the foundation of peace is compromise. A compromise may be workable, and even fair, but it will rarely be seen as just by any of the compromising parties, because each will be required to give up something to which it feels it is entitled. I don't think there's any need to reiterate what the Israelis and Palestinians will ultimately have to give up, because that was made clear at Taba. The Taba compromise is fair, but it is not one that either Israel or Palestine will see as just.
That, I think, is the end product of militant moderation - moving beyond justice, beyond hatred and beyond the past to build a peace that everyone can live with in the here and now. Militant moderates are less interested in getting even for the latest suicide bombing or missile attack than in securing a future where Israelis have security and Palestinians freedom.
The devil's in the details, of course, and I'll go into many of those details in the months to come.
First, a word about the title...
My name is Jonathan Edelstein; I'm 31, married and practicing law in New York. I'm Jewish, of course; why else the handle?
I was named "the Head Heeb" ten years ago, shortly after I joined the New York Army National Guard. I believe that everyone should do at least one thing in his life that is completely out of character - it's a good way to test one's limits - and joining the military was mine. When I enlisted at the age of twenty-one, I had a strong anti-authoritarian streak - even stronger than the one I have now - added to a liking for privacy and a desire to be left alone. Any rational person would have predicted that I wouldn't last long in the reserves, and the adjustment was indeed difficult - but I came to like military life in surprising ways. I found that regimentation was easier to take when I could feel that I was doing a service - as I did when my unit was called up for the January 1998 ice storm and in the aftermath of September 11 - and that privacy for camraderie wasn't a bad trade. I found out, in other words, that some of my limits weren't limits after all, and that living in a squad bay with 50 people from across the country is a good way to broaden one's horizons.
I stayed with it for ten years. Even my anti-authoritarian streak wasn't greatly offended - I was a member of a signal unit, and rank in tech units usually gives way to knowledge. I never made much rank, but as long as I knew what I was doing, it didn't make a difference. As I write, I've been out of the service for just under a month, and I'll probably miss it for a long time.
At any rate, the old 101st Signal Battalion made me the Head Heeb - or, to be more specific, its chaplain did. At the time I joined up, the battalion chaplain was Rabbi Jake Goldstein, one of the few Hasidic Jews in the military and the only serving officer who had permission to wear a beard. Military planning took its usual course, and made him the chaplain of a battalion of five hundred Christians - that is, until I joined. My first drill back home, unfortunately, was his last; the 101st would only be a two-Jew battalion for one month. Thus, at the end of the drill, Rabbi Goldstein laid his hand on my shoulder and told me that I was now the Head Heeb of the Hundred and First. Ever since, I've worn the name with pride.
So what is this blog? At the moment, nothing much. Eventually, I hope, a running commentary on the topics that interest me. Law, both domestic and international. American and Israeli politics. The Middle East conflict. Post-colonial African and Pacific cultures - yes, that's the one I always have to explain. Judaism. Islam. Religion in general. Language. Literature. Food. Movies. Marriage. Have I left anything out?
One thing this will not be is a "warblog." I don't intend to concentrate on war in general, or any war in particular. I'm also a bit too contrary to be tied down to any one side. For instance, I'll support Israel sometimes and the Palestinians others, depending on who is pissing me off most at any given moment. I also plan to focus on cultural and legal issues that don't relate to war or even, necessarily, to current events.
For the time being, this will be a blog under construction. I won't comment every day - this is a diary, not a career - but new articles will appear on a regular basis. Also, as time and my poor HTML skills permit, I'll add a comment section and links to sites that I find of interest, including newspapers, Israeli and Palestinian blogs, friends' journals and the other things that make the Web such a rich tapestry. I hope you'll stay with me, and join the conversation.