Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Drawing the Line: Nationalism or Racism?

Once again, I find myself reacting to something Ze’ev has written in Israel Perspectives; only this time, I’m afraid that my friend and colleague has gone rather seriously off the deep end. In his latest post, Ze’ev argues against Monday's Supreme Court ruling that Israel’s system of “national priority zones” constitutes illegal discrimination against Israeli Arab communities; he feels that this decision constitutes an attack against Israel’s existence as a Jewish state.

According to Ze’ev, “The concept of Israel existing as a Jewish State” implies that “the interests and needs of the Jewish People are placed above all others” – and thus that our Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of equality in educational funding (and other government benefits to “priority zone” communities) constitutes a frontal assault on the essential nature of our country.

Upon reading his post, I left the following comment on Ze’ev’s blog:

Ze’ev, if I’m understanding you correctly, you’re saying that providing equal funding to schools in the Arab sector would destroy Israel as a Jewish state. Is this correct?

If being a Jewish state requires discriminating against non-Jews in this manner, then why bother to educate Israeli Arabs at all? If you want one fifth of our population to be second-class citizens, then why not keep them illiterate, deny them health care, and make them all dig ditches or pick cotton for a living? Oh, and you might want to keep them from voting, make them ride in the back of the bus, and set up separate water fountains for them while you’re at it.

Am I missing something here? When I made Aliyah, I didn’t think Israel was supposed to be a Middle Eastern version of Alabama-circa-1955. Maybe they changed the pamphlets they give out to potential olim... ’cause the Israel you seem to have immigrated to sure doesn’t sound like someplace I’d want to live!

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The basic idea of a “Jewish and democratic state” has always posed something of a dilemma for Israel. Clearly, the State of Israel was created to benefit the Jews – a people who had lacked a sovereign national homeland for nearly two millennia, and as a result had suffered the pains of living as second-class citizens in other people’s countries. Zionism is, after all, our national-liberation movement; and I see no reason to believe that we’re any less entitled to nationhood than anyone else. But at the same time, if we aspire to be a modern democracy, we need to grant full civil rights to all Israeli citizens, Jewish or not. So far, nobody has come up with a fully successful way to arbitrate between these two conflicting demands: How can Israel exist as a state of and for the Jews while still meeting the standards of democracy?

I don’t pretend to have a precise answer to this dilemma; I’m not even sure that a precise answer is something we should seek. After all, sometimes wisdom consists in preserving some areas of ambiguity. I certainly do not advocate complete egalitarianism in such areas as immigration policy; I believe that we do need Israel to remain a Jewish state, and that we are within our rights to take reasonable and appropriate steps to keep it that way. I see no pressing need to alter our flag or our national anthem, Jewish though they be. But the approach Ze’ev advocates seems very wrong to me.

In his response to my comment, Ze’ev writes, “This is the national home of the Jewish People, the only one we have, and as such, all policies and decisions should first and foremost have the best interests of the Jewish People and State at heart. If there are those within Israel, such as the Arab population, who are uncomfortable with this setup, they have plenty of Arab/Muslim countries to choose from where they might feel more at home.” Or, in other words, we can discriminate against you all we like, and if you don’t like it, feel free to leave.

And here, I am afraid, is the nub: I don’t believe that Ze’ev’s problem is really with equal funding for Arab-sector education per se. After all, it seems apparent to me that we can mandate equality in fields like education (as we already do in health care) without in any way harming Israel’s Jewish identity. Ze’ev’s real goal – whether he realizes it or not – is to make Israel such an unpleasant place for Arabs to live that they will emigrate of their own accord, sparing us the effort and stigma of expelling them by force. While I can’t say exactly where the line is drawn between legitimate nationalism and racism, I feel very strongly that economic and social discrimination as a form of “soft ethnic cleansing” is far over that line.

Is it legitimate for Israel to have a flag with only Jewish symbols on it? Why not? How many impeccably liberal countries (many of which are now functionally “post-Christian”) have flags based on the Christian Cross? Can we have a national anthem that speaks of Jewish yearning for our homeland? Certainly! As national anthems go, Hatikva is fairly soft stuff. I see nothing wrong with maintaining Israel as the sovereign state of the Jewish people, and I see nothing wrong with expecting our non-Jewish citizens to accommodate to that situation. I would even go as far as to suggest that someone who really can’t stand living in a Jewish state – however that is defined – might well want to consider living elsewhere. But at the same time, to discriminate unnecessarily – in education, health care, access to housing and employment, and so on – is not legitimate nationalism; it’s gratuitous racism, and I, for one, want no part of it.

(This post can also be found at the Guns and Butter Blog.)

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Sunday, February 26, 2006

Demolition in Dushanbe: Doesn’t Anyone Care About Tajikistan’s Synagogue?

I don’t often agree with my friend Ze’ev over at Israel Perspectives; but in his latest post, he’s alerted us to an issue that truly demands our attention and outrage, as well as that of the Israeli government: the destruction of Tajikistan's only synagogue.

My previous positions may not recommend me as the world’s most enthusiastic opponent of synagogue demolitions: a few months ago I wrote that the Israeli government should have demolished the Gaza Strip synagogues itself rather than waiting for the Palestinians to do the job (and kvetching when they did). There is a critical difference, though, between demolishing synagogues that no longer function – empty shells bereft of Jews, holy books, and all other meaningful signs of life – and tearing down synagogues that continue to serve living Jewish communities, as the synagogue in Dushanbe does. Several hundred Jews in Tajikistan are now (or soon will be – the demolition has begun, but will not be completed for a few months) without a synagogue; while they have evidently been offered land somewhere to build a new one, they cannot afford to do so. The remaining Jews there are mostly elderly and poor, and they have been offered no compensation from their government for the destruction of their old synagogue.

Ze’ev wrote:

One might have expected the government of the State of Israel to try and intervene in the matter, and save this century old synagogue from being destroyed, yet the government of the State of Israel has been strangely silent.

…and I must say that I agree with him completely on this point. A Google search revealed no articles about Israeli protests (official or otherwise) against this demolition; the United States and the rest of the West also appear to have been rather quiet. No doubt the Americans and the Europeans have other things on their mind at the moment, but even so I would have thought that some Deputy Assistant Under-Secretary of State or other could have picked up a phone and called the government of Tajikistan. How much pressure would really have been required to get them to save (or appropriately relocate) a single little synagogue?

If we can reluctantly forgive the rest of the world for its silence on the Dushanbe synagogue – and I can’t really, not completely, but you’re welcome to do so – what’s our own government’s excuse? Surely Ehud Olmert should welcome the opportunity to prove his yiddishkeit at minimal expense! And standing up to the fearsome Tajiks wouldn’t be a bad stature-builder for Tzipi Livni, who would very much like to remain Foreign Minister after our upcoming elections. Perhaps nobody alerted our senior politicians to the issue; but after all, we have people in the Foreign Ministry who are paid to follow this stuff, don’t we?

It’s not too late to do something about this. Rather than use the Dushanbe demolition as yet another piece of election-year ammunition (and Lord knows we don’t lack for political brickbats just now), I’d like to propose that we do something positive: Write about this issue, talk about it, pick up the phone! Let our government (and maybe a few other governments) know that this is important! Get the big human-rights organizations on the case! March in front of the Tajik embassy!

If we do all this, perhaps we can enable the Jews of Tajikistan to continue to function as a religious and social community – perhaps not one with a great future, but at least one that will live out its days in some comfort and dignity. This, I believe, is a goal that we can all agree on.

(This post can also be found at the Guns and Butter Blog.)

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Monday, February 20, 2006

BlogPlugs: Vive Lisa! Vive Norman!

Lisa Goldman of On the Face has been entirely too quiet lately. So I was very glad to see some new posts from her at last – especially this one, with, for some reason, a French title. (Ah. A quick Google search informs me that “Trois Couleurs” is a famous trilogy of films directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski. I suppose I should rent and view the films, then re-read Lisa’s post – since thinking you know anything about a movie just because you read a review of it is a sure sign that you are that most despised creature – the pseud.) As usual – and I would hate ever to start taking her for granted! – Lisa paints vivid pictures of people and situations, leaving us the richer for having read them. I won’t give away more than that; just go read her article, and tell her I sent you.

Speaking of pseuds, Norman Geras – no pseud he! – has outed one in his analysis of a Guardian op-ed by one Paul Oestreicher. I reserve my right to comment and expand on the points Norman raises; but for now, I’ll just point you his way.
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Thursday, February 16, 2006

Likud to Israel: “Vote for us, or else!”

The Likud has done it again. Just when I was starting to like them – OK, I wasn’t actually starting to like them, but I did have a moment or two when I felt vaguely sympathetic towards their plight – they come out with this warning: “Kadima is a left-wing party that will form a leftist coalition with Meretz and the Arabs.”

Now, we’re all used to a bit of more-or-less subtle racism in Israeli political campaigns; but this statement, coming from a party with aspirations to national leadership, is a bit over-the-top. Not only is it rather offensive; it’s also wildly unlikely to be correct, unless every poll taken so far in this campaign is completely inaccurate.

Not once in Israel’s history has an Arab political party been part of a governing coalition. Considering the Israeli Arabs make up a considerable portion of our population, I consider this a crying shame and something of a mark of dishonor for our society. I am not saying, mind you, that the marginalization of the Arab parties is entirely the fault of the Jewish/Zionist parties or their voters; the Arab parties themselves, by remaining staunchly anti-Zionist, have made themselves pretty much untouchable as potential coalition partners.

Is there any reason to think that the next Israeli government will be the first one with an Arab party in the governing coalition? None that I can think of. According to recent polls, Kadima plus Labor should garner anything from 56 to 63 Knesset seats – either just shy of the required 61-seat majority required to form a government, or just over the threshold. Shas, a party that hates being in opposition and is likely to wind up with around ten MK’s, is making conciliatory noises about territorial compromise; clearly they’re positioning themselves as a coalition partner, and their economics would fit in reasonably well with Labor’s socialism and Kadima’s vagueness. While it’s obviously too early to determine the exact makeup of a Kadima-Labor coalition, there is no reason to think that a comfortably large Knesset majority couldn’t be assembled while effectively shunning Meretz, the non-Shas religious parties, and especially the Arab parties. Surely the “Likud spokesman” who tried to frighten us with the prospect of an ultra-leftist coalition knows all this as well as I do.

So why the scare tactics?

Part of the problem, I think, is with Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu. I can’t recall any campaign he has run which didn’t rely on scaring the voters; a deeply insecure man himself, he doesn’t seem to know any way to sell himself other than to try to make everyone else feel as frightened as he does. So instead of campaigning based on positive images of a Likud-led future, Bibi’s party is reduced to trying to convince us that the future under Kadima would be even worse than another Netanyahu administration.

Another problem for the Likud is that except for Netanyahu’s economic policies (which I suspect aren’t too popular even in his own party, although I rather like them) the party doesn’t seem to have much of an agenda, other than doing nothing and blaming the rest of the world for Israel’s being stuck in a rut. OK, they won’t negotiate with Hamas. But neither will Kadima. Neither will Labor. As long as Azmi Bishara doesn’t become Prime Minister, every Israeli politician is going to be “tough against Hamas”. (OK, I’m giving Yossi Beilin a break here; but c’mon, folks, cut the poor guy a little slack!) So once we’ve decided that none of the major parties want to invite Khaled Mashaal over for tea, the only advantage Bibi has is that nine-year-old photographs of him may be slightly more frightening than photographs of Ehud Olmert.

From what I’ve seen so far, the Likud seems like a party struggling unsuccessfully to stave off complete despair. If this trend continues, we can look forward to nearly six more weeks of increasingly lurid threats. By the Ides of March, I fully expect to hear the Ehud Olmert plans to invite al-Qaeda and Hamas into a Kadima coalition!

(This post can also be found at the Guns and Butter Blog.)

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Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The Revenge of Elmer Fudd: A Cheep Shot at Richard Cheney

This is supposed to be a blog about Middle-East politics and counter-terrorism. Why, then, am I writing my second post in less than a week about hunters and their weapons?

The answer, I suppose, is that sometimes one has to focus precisely on one’s “official” subject matter, while at other times a shotgun approach works best. (If you found that last joke lame, you may want to stop reading now. It won’t get any better. Even I’m frightened of reading the rest of this post, and I haven’t even written it yet. As I seem to be saying more and more these days, don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

So – Dick Cheney, the Vice President of the United States, accidentally shot his hunting companion, a 78-year-old lawyer and Republican “stalwart” by the name of Harry Whittington. The unfortunate Mr. Whittington took a charge of birdshot in his face, neck, and chest, leaving him with as many as 200 small pellets lodged in his body – including one close enough to his heart to cause heart complications. Other than to draw the obvious conclusion that one should avoid being near Mr. Cheney when he’s carrying a loaded firearm and has that gleam in his eye, what can we learn from this incident?

  • If there isn’t already a policy in place to prevent the President and Vice President from going hunting together, perhaps there should be. In fact, it would seem to me that this and future Veeps should be strongly discouraged from going hunting with anyone higher in the government hierarchy than Second Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Department of Agriculture With Special Responsibility for Elementary School Earthworm Appreciation Programs. White-water rafting with high officials might also be problematic. Badminton would be OK, I suppose, as long as the President wears shuttlecock-proof body armor.

  • The circumstances under which poor Mr. Whittington was shot do not give me warm, fuzzy feelings about the possibility of Richard Cheney’s becoming Commander in Chief of the world’s most powerful military. There are certain situations in which one’s true personality inevitably manifests itself: for me, it’s when I’m confronted with a large portion of really good lasagna; and evidently for Dick Cheney it’s the sound of a covey of quail taking flight in an attempt to avoid becoming his dinner. Both of us seem to have a little restraint problem; but I’ve never actually stabbed a dining partner with my fork, nor is there any significant likelihood that I’ll ever be in control of a major nuclear arsenal.

  • I can hardly count myself as an opponent of firearms, considering that I’ve got a pistol at my side as I write, and two sniper rifles (mine and Vaguely Sinister Wife’s) next to my side of the bed. However, there is something I find a bit troubling about recreational hunting. I can’t complain about the morality of the pastime (at least as long as one eats one’s kill), since I’m far from being a vegetarian and I’m rather better at identifying hypocrisy than Dick Cheney is at distinguishing between birds and barristers. What bothers me is more a matter of culture: in my life, guns exist in order to kill people – hopefully only in self-defense or in defense of the innocent, but killing is killing even when it’s necessary. Practice (under tightly controlled conditions) is important and even fun, but for me firearms are never really recreational. I’m always aware that in an emergency I may be called upon to make life-or-death decisions very quickly, with no chance to change my mind. Using firearms purely for sport seems strange to me – almost sacrilegious. (Don’t bother arguing with me about this – it’s just my personal “gut” feeling, not a statement of general morality.)

And finally:

  • What ever happened to golf? I know Dick Cheney’s from Wyoming, where golf may be considered a bit tame. But then again, the Vice Presidency of the United States is perhaps the tamest job in America; if Cheney can handle the challenges of that position (which consist largely of looking appropriately lugubrious at funerals of people one didn’t know and wouldn’t have liked anyway) surely he could maintain his concentration through eighteen holes with some well-heeled defense contractor and a cute administrative assistant or two. Sure, golf looks silly – but as I can attest, it’s actually a difficult and challenging sport. And is hitting a little ball into a small cup really any more pointless than shooting quail (who may even be Republicans, for all we know) when there are perfectly good supermarkets nearby?

    Besides which, golf needn’t disappoint the man who requires a bit of danger to keep him interested: It’s perfectly possible to injure the innocent while golfing, at least the way I hit a golf ball.

Ah well… time to return my thoughts to my home in the Middle East, where my firearms are ready to hand and my golf clubs are tucked away in the back of a storeroom. Sigh…

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Monday, February 13, 2006

Tyrants Should Tremble When Buses Strike

For the last three weeks or so, Tehran’s bus drivers have been striking for better pay and working conditions; here’s a very good Observer (U.K.) article and commentary about the ongoing dispute, written by Nick Cohen. (Hat tip: the inestimable, astute, and erudite Norman Geras of NormBlog.) I won’t waste your time (or mine, for that matter) restating what’s in the Observer piece; go ahead and read it.

Finished yet?

Good. The article pretty much speaks for itself, but it triggered a couple of thoughts:

  1. In case we needed to be reminded, this story shows that a dictator is never a friend of “the people”, or at least not for long. Power-seekers are also wealth-seekers and prestige-seekers; once they don’t have to worry about winning free and fair elections, they no longer need the support of the poor, who have little to offer beyond their votes. It doesn’t matter whether a dictator is a right-wing capitalist, a left-wing socialist, a theocrat representing the religion of your choice, a populist demagogue, or some other flavor of despot. Ideology is, in many ways, a distraction; the central dynamic in these situations is power and its abuse by entrenched elites. Thus we should always be cautious – at least – about supporting “good” dictators who we think are our friends and allies; in truth, the despot is a friend only to himself, and not always even that.

  2. Stories like this should be cautionary to those on the Israeli religious right who denigrate democracy and yearn for some form of Jewish theocratic state. I feel a bit odd having to mention this – it should be obvious to anyone, I would think – and yet, I frequently see anti-democracy comments written by some of my fellow “settlers” and their supporters, as well as other nominally Zionist types. (Even more strangely, all such comments I’ve seen were written by people who grew up in democracies. Perhaps these folks are too familiar with the problems of democracy, and not familiar enough with the alternatives.) These messianic types long for a return of the Biblical monarchy, or perhaps advocate a state run by a revived Sanhedrin; presumably they believe that such a non-democratic regime would be virtuous because it would be run by righteous, observant, scholarly Jews rather than by Ayatollahs, Communists, or other disreputable types.

    I’ve got news for you, guys: There is no such thing as a virtuous dictatorship. Power corrupts, and democracy – despite its manifest flaws – is the only system available that limits this corruption.

  3. President Ahmadinejad and the rest of Iran’s ruling establishment should be very worried indeed. In general, dictators don’t have too much to fear as long as their opponents are intellectuals, students, human-rights activists, and the like. These groups and individuals can all too easily be marginalized, suborned, suppressed, exiled, killed, or simply ignored; after all, nations can live quite comfortably (at least for a time) without philosophers. But when ordinary workers begin to lose faith in “the system” and cease to cooperate with it, things can become very rocky very quickly. A government can function without philosophers and novelists on its side, but it can’t survive for long without bus drivers, mechanics, nurses, garbage men, and the rest of the working-class heroes who keep society running. If Ahmadinejad and the mullahs keep trying to suppress labor unrest as they’ve been doing, sooner or later an Iranian Lech Walesa will appear; and once that happens the regime’s days are numbered.

Don't say I didn't warn you, guys!
Ralph Kramden’s gonna getcha if ya don’t! watch! out!!!

(This post can also be found at the Guns and Butter Blog.)

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Saturday, February 11, 2006

Befuddled BlogScoop: Vegetarian Hunters Threaten New Cartoon War

It was reported yesterday that a rare German hunting gun that may have belonged to Adolf Hitler sold for just over $140,000 in an online auction. The combination shotgun/rifle would have been worth around $7,000 under normal circumstances; so apparently someone (or, given the nature of auctions, several someones) thinks that the claim of previous ownership is credible.

Something about this story triggered my finely-tuned bloggerly instincts: something was odd. I set the matter aside and proceeded with my Friday routine, which seems to involve a good bit of hectic running about for little discernable purpose. Then, while I waited for my turn at the supermarket meat counter, it came to me: Hitler was a vegetarian!

The idea of a vegetarian hunter is, most will admit, a rather odd one; after all, hunting, in its primal form, is supposed to be about putting food on the table. But then, as I continued to stroll along the supermarket’s aisles (it may have been as I passed the breakfast cereals; I recall receiving an accusatory glare from the Trix bunny) I had yet another revelation: Hitler wasn’t the only eccentric hunter of his day; Bugs Bunny’s nemesis Elmer Fudd was also a vegetarian!

The apparent coincidence smelled fishy to me – although it may have been the sea-bass fillets, now that I think about it. Regardless of the source of my nasal discomfort, I proceeded to conduct some inquiries upon my return to the Mideast Musings Research Center. It was a matter of mere minutes to ascertain that Adolf Hitler and Elmer Fudd had never been seen together. I kept digging.

After some exhaustive (and exhausting) historical research, I uncovered the bizarre and shocking truth: Elmer Fudd and Adolf Hitler were one and the same person! I have not yet managed to elucidate all the details of this seemingly impossible double life; and yet I have documentary proof that the enthusiastic yet ineffectual hunter of harmless (albeit sarcastic) rabbits and ducks was also the genocidal tyrant who became our era’s leading icon of evil.


“Elmer Fudd” in a rare candid photograph taken during rehearsal – before the make-up artists and hairstylists had finished the job of disguising the Fuehrer as a cuddly outdoorsman. “He could not bear to eat meat, because it meant the death of a living creature. He refused to have so much as a rabbit… sacrificed to provide his food.” (Léon Degrelle, The Enigma of Hitler)

Was it naïve to fall for Fudd’s fatuous false front? Perhaps. Looking back on my childhood, I feel a sense of personal failure in not having unmasked the Great White (!) Hunter way back then. If nothing else, that speech impediment should have awakened my suspicions – it was too obviously designed to cover up something. And in retrospect, it’s painfully obvious that Fudd’s publication of a book of Haiku shows an influence from his wartime alliance with the Japanese.

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Having written the above, I’m aware that my revelations may ignite yet another cartoon-instigated Kulturkampf. If rampaging mobs of Warner Bros. cartoon fans start setting fire to stuff and threatening to behead “Wascally Iswaelis” who defame the Great Fudd, I suppose you can blame me. ‘Twas ever thus: those who speak the truth sometimes upset the applecart.

A Frenchman Speaks Out – the original photograph that (as a grainy photocopy) helped spark riots throughout the Muslim world when Danish Islamic leaders claimed that it was one of the cartoons published by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. According to the Associated Press, the photograph had nothing to do with Islam or the Prophet Mohammed; someone, apparently, was telling a porky.*

*“Porky” (short for “Porky Pie”) is Cockney rhyming slang for a lie. See here for a comprehensive Cockney-to-English lexicon.

(This post can also be found at the Guns and Butter Blog.)

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Wednesday, February 08, 2006

SnoopyTheGoon Blogs Bibi

Every so often, I come across something I really wish I’d written myself. Here’s one of them, courtesy of the good (if possibly slightly odd) folks at SimplyJews.

WARNING: Do not attempt to read while drinking coffee, or for that matter while drinking anything else you wouldn’t want to experience nasally.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you, folks. I even put it in boldface!

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Tuesday, February 07, 2006

At Last! - My Amona Post

I’ve been trying to come up with something coherent – not to mention original, interesting, and important – to say about last week’s demolition of nine houses at the Amona settlement outpost, and the violent confrontation between Israeli security forces sent to perform the demolition and the many protestors who came to oppose them. This has proven to be very difficult for me – not because I’m choked up with emotion about the incident, but simply because I’ve been unable to construct a comprehensible, reliable picture of what happened there.

Normally, I have no great difficulty in assimilating the news. I gather information from various sources, correct for known biases, add in my own experience, observations, and general knowledge, ask questions where necessary – and it’s possible in most cases to feel that I know more or less what happened. This time, though, I found that the picture simply wouldn’t come clear for me. One set of accounts – emanating from the police and many journalists – has the police acting with admirable restraint while being pelted with stones and other projectiles by settler youth who came a-purpose to make the confrontation violent. Another set of accounts – emanating from anti-demolition protestors, their supporters, and some news media – has the police engaging in wanton, unprovoked, and extreme violence against protestors who were, for the most part, completely innocent.

Were I not a raging centrist, I could make my own cognitive life easier by dismissing one side’s version as the product of extreme bias or even out-and-out dishonesty. Unfortunately, I can’t convince myself that anything so simple and convenient is true. Many of the people accusing the police of unnecessary brutality are thoughtful, principled, and careful in their judgments; but so are many of the people who accuse the Amona defenders of being primarily at fault. Both versions of the story can’t be correct, can they? It would almost seem that there were two different Amona incidents on two separate planets – both of which claim to be Planet Earth.

Let’s assume that the people involved (or at least most of them) are telling the truth as they see it. How are they seeing such different and contradictory truths?

When I contacted one of my fellow bloggers privately about this question, s/he asked in response: “How many good, honest, thoughtful left-wingers were actually at Amona, or had kids and neighbors there?” The answer, of course, is “few, if any” – but there were certainly plenty of cops there, many of whom report that they felt endangered. My colleague also reminded me that TV Channel 10’s reporter, Roni Daniel, reported that the police used unnecessary force, while Channel 1’s reporter, Chaim Yavin, claimed that police lives were definitely in danger. While my blogger friend clearly believes that the police were principally at fault, I can’t agree that only the right-wing version of the story is credible.

*          *          *

The human brain is a pattern-finding machine: it is hard-wired to make sense of a chaotic flood of sensory inputs by fitting them into schemas and narratives. This built-in programming is so powerful that it can lead us to perceive patterns that aren’t really there – for example, we can often see faces in random designs, simply because we have extensive neural circuitry that enables us to evaluate facial expressions without having to think consciously about them, and which operates even when there isn’t really a face to look at. Faced with complex situations, we simplify them in order to grasp their “essentials” – which may be an excellent survival trait for dealing with emergencies, but can create very distorted perceptions of the real complexity of the world.

The Amona incident involved several thousand participants: as I recall, something like 4,000 protestors faced 3,000 or more police and soldiers. (I’ll correct those numbers as necessary and appropriate; approximations are good enough for now.) The physical confrontation took place over several hours, and was the culmination of many months of legal maneuvering. Roughly 150 protestors and 50 police sustained injuries serious enough to require medical attention. Looking at these numbers – and remembering how the human mind copes with complexity – I can begin to understand how the dissonant accounts of Amona came about.

First, let’s look at one of the complaints frequently raised against Ehud Olmert’s decision to go ahead with the forcible demolition at Amona: that settler leaders had offered a “reasonable compromise” early that morning, which would have made the whole confrontation unnecessary; and that Olmert rejected this compromise – presumably because he wanted to look “tough” for his potential voters in the run-up to Knesset elections. I won’t attempt to judge whether the offered compromise was indeed “reasonable” – other than to state that nothing offered to me before 7:30 in the morning seems reasonable, except maybe the chance to go back to sleep for a few hours. The important point here is that whether the compromise offer was in fact reasonable, or indeed credible, depends in part on how one perceives the process that led up to the final decision to act forcibly. Had the whole legal-political process lasted a week or a month, such a last-minute compromise offer might have been acceptable as a way of resolving the conflict in good faith . But after a legal process lasting many months (and including many delaying tactics), the same offer could well be construed as yet another insincere effort to force a delay, in the hope that the promised days before the houses would be moved could be turned into weeks and months, and perhaps even years. (It’s also worth noting that at least some of the protestors were themselves highly critical of the compromise offer – they explicitly rejected a non-violent resolution of the conflict, at least until things started getting rough.) So whether a “reasonable compromise” was in fact offered and rejected depends, in large part, on who you are. Long, complicated legal processes are something like Rorschach blots – what you see in them depends largely on your own viewpoint.

*          *          *

Out of about 4,000 protestors, about 150 sustained injuries requiring medical attention; of these injuries, only a small number were serious and only one was at all life-threatening. While I don’t want to minimize the suffering of those who were hurt, I think it should be emphasized that fewer than five per cent of the protestors were injured; given that there were almost as many police and soldiers on hand as there were protestors – and further, given that any policeman who was excessively violent is likely to have hurt more than one protestor – it seems clear that the vast majority of the confrontation took place at a level of violence below that which would cause serious injury to protestors.

Let’s assume that out of about 150 injuries sustained by protestors, around 50 were “legitimate” – that is, they would have occurred in a “normal” civil-disobedience/riot scenario, without any excess police brutality. (This seems reasonable and even conservative to me, given the number of people involved.) This leaves us with an “excess” of something like 100 injuries which we can ascribe to unnecessary police violence. Assuming that one “bad” cop, on average, would cause three injuries (a figure that seems reasonable, given the accounts I’ve read and the videos I’ve seen, and given that the protestors were not wearing armor or helmets), all these “excess” injuries would have been caused by around 33 cops – in other words, about one per cent of all the security-force personnel present in Amona.

Performing the same sort of analysis of police injuries is complicated by the fact that the police were wearing protective gear (which means that far fewer police were injured than would have been the case without armor); and further by the fact that while injuries to protestors were caused principally by batons and the like, wielded by hand, injuries to police were caused mostly by thrown and dropped objects. The first complication means that many more police were potential casualties than the fifty who were actually injured; the second complication means that a relatively small number of protestors likely accounted for most of the police injuries. I can’t give precise numbers with any confidence, but it seems reasonable to assume that as few as forty or even twenty protestors may have accounted for the majority of police injuries. (Of course, a few of the police injuries were probably “legitimate” – that is, the normal injuries you would expect to see in a civil-disobedience incident of this size and severity.)

Tentatively, then, we can say that 99 per cent of the security-force personnel at Amona were not directly involved in excessive violence (except, perhaps, as targets for thrown stones); and 99 per cent of the protestors acted more or less within accepted bounds of vigorous civil disobedience. This explains why pretty much everyone who was there perceives his own side as being in the right: The “bad” one per cent of the opposing side was much more “worthy” of attention, as it posed a threat; while most participants were themselves relatively innocent, and would if anything tend to ignore or downplay the few “bad apples” on their own side of the confrontation. Indeed, it’s likely that many participants never even saw the roughnecks on their own side.

*          *          *

Where does all this tedious analysis lead me? My conclusions are simple enough.

Both sides were right, mostly.

In a highly-charged conflict involving thousands of people on both sides, only a small proportion of the participants were injured, and the vast majority acted within the acceptable bounds of a civil-disobedience scenario.

Both sides are wrong, mostly.

Left-wingers, government spokesmen, and others are wrong to the extent that they categorize all, or even most of the protestors as “violent hooligans”. Right-wingers are wrong to categorize all or most of the policemen and soldiers at Amona as excessively violent. Given the build-up, this incident could have had much worse results than it did; and rather than castigating ourselves, our government, our society, or anyone else for what happened, perhaps we should congratulate ourselves – quietly, of course – for the fact that we all handled this as well as we did.

Now can we talk about something else?

(This post can also be found at the Guns and Butter Blog.)

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Sunday, February 05, 2006

Treppenwitz Blogs Amona

While I’m still trying to get my thoughts together for my own Amona post (or if they never do come together, I’ll give up and move on to another subject), David Bogner of Treppenwitz has written his. As usual, Dave’s post is very much worth reading.

Pending investigations, I’m prepared to believe that the police involved in last week’s fracas (or at least some of them) indeed acted with undue violence. At the same time, there are a couple of points Dave makes that I can’t quite accept at face value:

  1. I’m not convinced that the timing of the demolitions at Amona really had all that much to do with Ehud Olmert and the upcoming election campaign. The demolition orders were issued quite some time ago, long before Ariel Sharon’s stroke. That said, it may be that Olmert felt some pressure to be particularly decisive at this moment – but so what? One point that is constantly raised by those who opposed the demolition is that a compromise was offered immediately beforehand, and Olmert rejected it. If this compromise offer was really sincere, why was it offered only on the morning of the demolition? It looks to me like the “compromise offer” was in reality just another deceptive delaying tactic.

  2. David, like most anti-demolition writers, decries the violation of the “rights” of those living in Amona and those who came to protest the demolition. But settlers – myself included! – need to remember that we do not live inside “Israel proper”, and that as residents of territories under military administration, we do not have the full civil rights we would have inside the Green Line. Even legal settlements exist subject to the government’s say-so; and the illegal settlement outposts are simply that: illegal. The fact that settlers were encouraged (by Ariel Sharon, among others) to “grab” these hilltops is unfortunate; but the fact remains that the people living in these outposts, and the people supporting them, know quite well that they are on shaky ground. I get a little tired of hearing about how victimized they feel when the government finally decides to enforce its own laws!

  3. David makes a very thoughtful analogy between the more extreme section of the settler movement and the “wicked son” of the Passover seder. However, like most pro-settler commentators, he appears to assign all (or most) blame for the alienation between settlers and the general Israeli public to the latter. He discusses “the sense of ‘otherness’ and disenfranchisement that had taken hold of the teenagers in the settler movement as a result of the unrelenting and heavy-handed rhetoric directed at them,” but never addresses the reasons the general public might have for feeling alienated from the settlers. As someone who maintains contact with both camps, I believe that the setter movement itself has a lot to answer for in this regard; sadly, most of the movement is becoming only more self-righteous and dismissive of ordinary Israelis as a result of the ongoing process of disengagement from the Palestinians.

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Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Disgusting Quote of the Day

Knesset Member Arieh Eldad (of the National Union party) spoke to Army Radio while being treated for a broken arm he sustained fighting against Israeli forces working to demolish nine houses in the illegal outpost of Amona, north of Jerusalem. Israel Insider (hardly a left-wing news source – I can’t imagine they would be trying to make Eldad look bad) quotes him as saying:

“They are relating to human beings here like they wouldn't relate to Arabs.”  [The italics are mine.]

It’s possible, of course, that somebody mistranslated Eldad’s remark; if so, I’d like to see his original Hebrew. But if this is really an accurate translation of what he said, it’s utterly reprehensible, even for someone who just got his arm broken. People who think like that – even if they’re normally able to repress their true feelings and pretend to be civilized – have no business being in politics, here or anywhere else.

Addendum: It turns out that Israel Insider got the quote right. According to Israel’s Army Radio website (link is in Hebrew), Eldad said the following:

Mityachasim kan l’b’nei adam c’mo shelo hityachasu l’aravim.

B’nei adam” translates literally as “descendents of Adam”, and is the Hebrew equivalent of “human beings”. While translating idioms is always somewhat dicey, I’ve checked with several people whose Hebrew is much better than mine, and all of them agree that the implications of the remark in Hebrew are about the same as in English.

(This post can also be found at the Guns and Butter Blog.)

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