Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Sub-Prime Crisis: My response to a response to a response

A friend of mine—an enthusiastic supporter of John McCain, or at least an enthusiastic opponent of Barack Obama, but otherwise a nice guy—forwarded a rather cute PowerPoint presentation that provided a rather snarky interpretation of the recent fallout from the subprime mortgage crisis. (I don't know if the PowerPoint is available online anyplace—if I can find it, I'll add a link to this post.) My friend added the following:


I responded to him—and everyone else on his distribution list, most of whom, I fully believe, had already written me off as some kind of communist, or at least something of a crank—as follows:

Well, considering that Clinton ceased to be President almost 8 years ago, I'd say he's fairly thoroughly off the hook. (As far as I'm aware, the whole "subprime" mortgage boom started years after Clinton left office.) I don't know what Charlie Rangel (who used to be my Congressman in my Upper West Side days twenty-something years ago) has to do with anything; if you're talking about regulations that encouraged banks to lend money to borrowers in less expensive neighborhoods in their districts, then you're off target considering that (A) the mortgages now going into default were almost entirely *not* generated by banks and thus had nothing to do with these regulations; and (B) these regulations have been in existence for something like 20 years, and didn't cause any major problems in all that time. So I suspect Rangel is off the hook as well, although I do wish he'd use less hair gel. (Is his hair still so greasy? It used to look like an oil slick.)

Basically, the Bush administration has been in charge for almost eight years; for much of that time the administration had a Republican-controlled Congress (including John McCain, until the last few days a dedicated fan of financial deregulation), and even now the Republicans have enough strength in Congress that the Democrats can't break a filibuster or override a veto. Of course, this doesn't mean that Bush is responsible for everything that happens on Wall Street, or even in Midtown. But the fact is that (A) the regulatory infrastructure is part of the Executive Branch of government, which Bush controls; (B) many experts as well as ordinary people have been predicting for the last few years something very like what's been happening over the last weeks; and yet (C) the Bush administration did nothing about this brewing mess, through either direct executive action, promotion of legislation, or any other form of leadership. Considering that - unlike most politicians - Bush is from an old Wall Street family and has been in business for himself (mostly drilling dry holes, I'll admit), I think it would not have been out of line to expect him to have a better handle on these issues; after all, if the Republicans have anything to recommend them, it's supposed to be that they understand business and economics. I know Bush puts on a folksy image and appears clueless, but that was all supposed to be a put-on, wasn't it?

Bush, of course, is not up for re-election; and John McCain has never specialized in economics and financial matters. (He doesn't have the background for it, and I don't think he's ever pretended to be an expert on the subject. And given some of the crazy-assed derivatives of derivatives that are a large part of the current crisis, even the "experts" have a lot of trouble coping with what's going on nowadays. I've read that it's become almost impossible to come up with meaningful book values for a lot of the corporations dealing in the new financial instruments, because even the professionals can't figure out what some of these pieces of paper are worth.) For that matter, Obama isn't an accountant or a finance geek either, although he's probably got better financial chops than McCain. Neither candidate seems to be offering any magic answers, and frankly at this stage I think it's too late for magic answers; the time to prevent this crisis was four or eight years ago. (Old Arab proverb: The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago; the second-best time to plant a tree is today.)

Considering, however, that McCain has suggested privatizing Social Security, and that he very recently suggested deregulating healthcare in much the same way the financial markets had been deregulated, I think there are some legitimate grounds for worrying about his judgment in these matters. I certainly see nothing in his record to indicate that a McCain administration would be God's gift to American (or worldwide) financial markets or to the American healthcare system.

As you may be aware, Israel for the last several weeks has been buying 100 million U.S. dollars per business day, in an effort to help prop up the U.S. dollar and keep our own currency from becoming so expensive that we can't export anything. (This seems a bit surreal given Israel's financial past, but it's true - times have changed! Our central bank's target is to increase its U.S. dollar holdings by $10 billion, which is a fair chunk of change for a nation of our small size.) We do like to do our part, of course, even if we can't support you Americans to the degree the Chinese can. And we understand that you're too busy in Iraq to do much about Iran, even though we still can't quite figure out why you went into Iraq in the first place. (You certainly didn't ask us if it was a good idea!) So we'll probably have to deal with Iran for you as well. But we are *not* prepared to solve the subprime mortgage crisis for you! Maybe the Chinese have an extra trillion dollars lying around?

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Sunday, January 07, 2007

Olmert triumphs in poll – humiliating What’s His Name the Minister for Something or Other

In a recent poll of 345 Kadima voters, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert triumphed over one of his fellow Cabinet members. Asked whom they would prefer to be Kadima’s next candidate for Prime Minister, the voters chose Olmert over the other minister by 8.7% to 5.8%. The only candidates the voters liked better than the current Prime Minister were Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni (preferred by only 49.3% of the poll participants); Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz Who Used To Be Something Important In The Army (preferred by 14.5%); None of the Above (11.6%); and Undecided (10.1%).

“This is significant triumph for our Prime Minister over someone whose name, I seem to recall, sounds very much like something used to build interior walls,” said one of Olmert’s remaining unindicted spokesmen. “Who says that Ehud Olmert is the least popular leader in Israel’s history? The numbers show that this simply isn’t quite true.”

An Ehud Olmert political-strategy consultant (who refused to be identified because he was concerned about possible loss of clients) claimed that Olmert’s fifth-place finish was in fact a much better result than it seemed: “Remember that the people who chose ‘None of the Above’ were clearly referring to Tzipi Livni and Shaul Mofaz, since they are the only ones who came out above ‘None of the Above’ in the poll. So these 11.6% of the Kadima electorate obviously prefer Ehud Olmert to Livni and Mofaz; they simply chose a more emphatic way of stating their revulsion to those two, rather than merely stating their obvious preference for Olmert.”

According to the same strategist, those who chose “Undecided” were also in the Olmert camp: “As Prime Minister, Olmert has seen first-hand the results of rash decision-making by earlier Prime Ministers, and has learned that putting off crucial decisions until later - or making Avigdor Lieberman make them and take the blame for them - is the essence of great leadership. Clearly, the Israeli people want an undecided Prime Minister, and Ehud Olmert is their choice for the job.”

Counting all the “Undecided” and “None of the Above” voters as members of the Ehud Olmert camp, the Prime Minister’s popularity among the Kadima electorate is clearly impressive: at over 30%, it is more than double Shaul Mofaz’s support, and well over half the support enjoyed by Tzipi Livni. “Ehud Olmert has shown that he has what the voters want, and momentum is on his side. If elections are held at some point in the future, there is a distinct possibility that he’ll be elected to something,” said Olmert’s spokesman.

Housing Minister Meir Sheetrock® Sheetrit could probably use some cheering up.

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Thursday, January 04, 2007

Living in denial

Perhaps things are just as bad in the rest of the world, but it seems to me that the Middle East is suffering from an epidemic of denial: denial of the Holocaust, of course, but also lots of less spectacular denials of generally accepted fact*. This phenomenon does not bode well for our happy little region.

The recent Holocaust-denial conference in Teheran, along with British “historian” David Irving’s early release from an Austrian prison, has highlighted some spectacular instances of denial; however, most discussion of the subject has very little to say about why deniers feel the need to challenge the factuality of the Holocaust. After all, few of them seem all that horrified at the prospect that a future holocaust might occur - for example, the nuclear incineration of the State of Israel - so why is it so important to pretend that the Holocaust of the last century didn’t happen?

Our Palestinian neighbors also have their little denial issues. Prominent among them is the refusal of most Palestinian opinion-shapers to admit that today’s Jews have any authentic connection to “Palestine”; according to this narrative, we are merely a bunch of interlopers from Poland who somehow - Invasion of the Tsuris Snatchers? - took over the ideas and claims of the “true” People of Israel. (Of course, in some versions there is no such thing as the People of Israel even in the past; so not only are we fake Jews, we made up the whole Judaism thing in the first place, in order to experience the pleasure of living here and worrying where the next bomb will explode.)

On our own side, many Zionists refuse to accept the existence of the Palestinians as an authentic people. According to this reading of history and sociology, there was never a separate Palestinian-Arab language, culture, or politics (at least until recently - 1964 is a frequently-cited year for the first use of “Palestinian” as a term for a distinct Arab ethnic-national group); and therefore the Palestinians of today are merely a figment of their own imagination. The fact that millions of people today identify themselves as Palestinians, mourn the “calamity” (“naqba” in Arabic) of Israel’s creation, and share common aspirations for the future is irrelevant: Palestinians didn’t exist in the past, and thus it’s obvious that they don’t exist today.

And most recently, our distinguished Knesset Education Committee has rejected Education Minister Yuli Tamir’s plan to include the Green Line - Israel’s pre-1967 de facto border - in maps included in Israeli geography textbooks. (I’ve written about this issue already - see “Lines and Inanity”.) Despite the fact that the Green Line figures in essentially every discussion of an eventual peace settlement with the (imaginary) Palestinians, nobody is supposed to know where the Green Line is; since “it died in 1967”, it’s somehow no longer relevant despite all indications to the contrary.

For the moment, I don’t want to get into the details of any of these denials of reality, or the many others floating around the Middle East. What I find depressing is not any single instance of denial, but rather the fact that denial is so widespread and pervasive. These flights from reality are not, after all, merely harmless fantasies.

All the denials I’ve mentioned are, at base, similar: they represent a refusal to face facts that do not fit in with our desires, and the willingness to ignore facts - or replace them with convenient fictions - in order to preserve our sense of how the world should be. So some of my fellow Zionists deny the existence of the Palestinians, because Israel can hardly be expected to adjust its borders to accommodate an imaginary people; while much of the Arab world denies the national existence of the Jews (at least as an indigenous Middle Eastern ethnic group), since they can hardly be expected to welcome us home (even grudgingly) if this was never our home in the first place.

Holocaust denial is a bit strange, even among flights of fancy. After all, what’s the point? The State of Israel was not created as a response to the Holocaust; the legal and political foundations for the Jewish State were set up between 1916 and 1923, when Adolph Hitler was a corporal in the Kaiser’s army and later a struggling painter in Vienna. (At most, one might say that the Holocaust nudged the process along a bit in the aftermath of World War II; but on the other hand, had the Holocaust not occurred, there would have been many more Jews alive to lobby for the creation of Israel and add to its population.) It would seem that Holocaust denial involves more than one fiction: first, that the Holocaust is the only justification for the existence of the State of Israel; and second, that it never happened or, at best, has been grossly exaggerated.

Reality, of course, is unimpressed by our denials:

  • Whether the Palestinians existed a hundred years ago or not, they exist today, according to any reasonable reading of current events; and, sooner or later, Israel is going to have to reach some form of accommodation with them.
  • The Jews are a genuine, if somewhat odd and annoying, religious/ethnic group; we have a genuine connection to the Land of Israel, which we have maintained faithfully for thousands of years. After all that time, we’re not all going to decide to go somewhere else.
  • The Holocaust happened, and in its course some six million Jews were murdered.
  • Even had the Holocaust not happened, the Jews would be entitled to a national home in Palestine/Israel; so said the League of Nations, which created the legal foundations not only for Israel but for most other countries in the Middle East and many in Eastern Europe.
  • The Green Line is a major fact of Israeli (and Palestinian) life and history; there is no point in hiding it from students as if it had never existed.

Refusing to face up to facts is not healthy - they do not, after all, go away when we turn our backs on them, and the more unpleasant ones have an annoying habit of biting us in the butt when we’re looking the other way. We don’t have to love them, but we do have to live with them. By retreating into fantasy we render ourselves incapable of coping successfully with the real world of today, and abandon all possibility of building a more hospitable future.

*  “Generally accepted fact” is, of course, a bit of a complicated issue - since many true things have been widely disbelieved at times, and many falsities have been “generally accepted” as true. Further, “facts” - even when based upon accurate observation - always reflect some point of view, some limitations in perception. In the immortal words of Stuart Mayper, “No fact is simple.” Nonetheless, the “fact” remains that we can distinguish between “extensional” and “intentional” thinking: The former attempts to ground itself in observations of reality; while the latter begins with a framework of ideas and desires, filtering information based upon what fits comfortably into this framework. “Denial”, then, represents an extreme case of intentional thinking.

If this seems a bit abstruse, remember that you didn’t have to read the footnote.

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Tuesday, December 26, 2006

A Hedgehog’s Hasbara

Last week I attended the second day of a conference on “The Media as a Theater of War, the Blogosphere, and the Global Battle for Civil Society”. (Unfortunately, I missed the first day, which actually covered a lot of the stuff I was most interested in. My immune system and assorted pathogens disagreed with my plans - and the less said about the details of the dispute, the better.) In the aftermath of the conference (and, indeed, during the conference itself), a number of my fellow blogger-attendees reacted rather negatively to much of the conference’s tone and content.

I’ve waited to set out my own thoughts on the subject, although I’ve written a bunch of long comments on Something Something - Liza wrote a pretty scathing review of the conference there, and some pointed debate (to put it mildly) followed between the liberal-blogger set (of which I appear, somehow, to have become an honorary member) and the rest. Foremost among the defenders of the conference is Richard Landes, who put the whole thing together and, as far as I’m aware, was principally responsible for selecting its panelists. Rather than repeat what Liza and Lisa and Yael wrote about the conference itself, I’ve been trying to figure out what’s really going on here: why is it that good and sincere people have such radical disagreements about a topic that - at least at first glance - should be fairly simple?

*            *            *

There is one thing that all of us (or at least all of us involved in this debate) agree on: Israel’s image in the eyes of the rest of the world is abysmal. Our response has been to attempt more effective hasbara - literally, “explanation” but more accurately translated as “public diplomacy”, “public relations”, or (less delicately) “propaganda”. The problem is that Israeli public diplomacy has been monumentally unsuccessful of late: the plucky little underdog of yore is now seen as the big bad wolf, oppressing and occupying the Palestinians, offending Hezbollah (by existing, basically), insulting Iran by accusing President Ahmadinejad of all kinds of horrible things, and feeling offensively sorry for itself every time a walking bomb blows up a bus or café.

We seem to have tremendous difficulty understanding why we are perceived so negatively. Are we not a thriving democracy? Do we not mean well? Okay, we’ve had to do some rather unpalatable stuff at times, but hey, we live in a rough neighborhood, and it’s not like we enjoyed knocking all those houses down! And our adversaries include some genuinely evil people: guys who think blowing innocent women and children to bits is a good thing, as long as it happens to us and not them.

The hasbara establishment - consisting of certain individuals and agencies of the Israeli government, along with a bunch of concerned individuals and private organizations - has responded to the failures of Israeli image-making by circling the wagons, closing ranks, girding their loins, going for the jugular, and keeping their powder dry: or, in other words and without the tortured metaphors, they’ve opted to do pretty much what they’ve been doing all along, but louder and more forcefully.

Others of us believe that a more nuanced, diverse, and proactive approach is called for. For example, rather than simply reacting to events on the ground by trying to explain or justify them - the approach that is implicit in the use of the Hebrew word for “explanation” to describe public diplomacy - we believe that public-relations concerns need to be a major input into policy-making: Just as politicians get advice from security experts before making decisions with security implications, they should get advice from people who understand international journalism and public opinion before making decisions that will affect how Israel is perceived overseas.

While we “hasbara rebels” don’t have an official set of beliefs - we aren’t a cohesive, organized group, although someone recently accused us of being a “sorority” and I’ve always wanted to sneak my way into a sorority - a lot of us seem to believe that current, traditional Israeli hasbara is not only too reactive, but also too strident, too self-righteous, and too focused on the evils of our adversaries. I’m not going to repeat all our arguments (and the counter-arguments) here; go to the thread at Something Something to see what I’m talking about. (At some point I should collect everything I wrote there and edit the good parts into something. Eventually.)

At some point early in the debate, I began to realize that the people with whom I was debating - while sincere, well-meaning, intelligent, and well informed - nonetheless didn’t get it: No matter how my sorority sisters and I tried to explain our position, they didn’t understand that we could be enthusiastic Zionists, eager to see Israel positioned better in world opinion, cognizant of the genuine problems out there (including some egregious bias in news reporting, along with an awful lot of simple and not-so-simple cluelessness) - and yet strongly disagree with their approach to hasbara.

I don’t yet entirely understand why traditional hasbara practitioners have such difficulty understanding the Sorority view - it’s not exactly rocket science, after all. Since the debate began, I’ve had the refrain from a favorite song of my youth constantly running through my brain:

Oh, you know all the words, and you sung all the notes,

But you never quite learned the song.

(from “The Hedgehog’s Song” by the Incredible String Band)

It’s rather sad, and very frustrating; I wish I could find some way to convince people who know that their approach isn’t working to think constructively about why it isn’t working and how it might be made to work better.

On the other hand, the debate has had one happy consequence: I’ve ordered CD’s of the first three albums of the Incredible String Band - the second of which includes the old favorite that I’ve had running through my head for the last week. After almost forty years, it’ll be nice to hear that music again.


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Thursday, December 21, 2006

Blogging toy of the day: WriteToMyBlog!

In the past, I've used Microsoft Word to write most of my blog posts; I like its spell-checking and formatting (as opposed to the primitive capabilities of's built-in editor), and I especially like the "smart quotes" feature, which automatically inserts “real” quotes (like the preceding) instead of the tacky "telegraph-style" quotes you get otherwise. It also puts in genuine apostrophes: I don't like the ones like the preceding, while I can’t help loving the real ones.

The problem, however, is this: how does one get what one has written from Word to one's blog?

The new Word 2007 is supposed to have blog integration built in; nice thought, but it doesn't help those of us who don't have (and can't afford) Word 2007. I've been using a Word add-in (from Google, the owner of and much else of the universe) called Blogger for Word; this allowed me to manage blog posts and send new ones to my blogs, right from Word. Only two problems: First, it doesn't work on my office PC, where I do most of my writing; and second, it doesn't support the new version of Blogger, which I'm now (perforce, more or less) using. Good-bye, Blogger for Word.

So what to do? After some frantic Googling, I've discovered a new tool that shows some promise: WriteToMyBlog. It's a free, Web-based editor that allows you to manage posts, write and post new ones, insert pictures (using a range of hosting options), and do all sorts of other cute stuff. So far, the only feature I don't see that I really want is the "smart quotes" (along with "smart apostrophe" and automatic N-dashes) - so you're probably seeing this with a bunch of non-smart quotes. Sorry sorry sorry. If it actually works, it looks like a pretty decent tool - and if you can read this, it worked!

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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Lines and Inanity*

Among the many odd bits of education I’ve picked up here and there, I’ve had the pleasure of receiving some very useful training in General Semantics – a rather obscure discipline that is very difficult to define, but which can be described as a system for promoting accuracy of thought and feeling. (One of my principle teachers was Robert Pula, who I just found out – thanks to Wikipedia’s wonderfully rich cross-referencing system – died two years ago. Rest in peace, Bob.) A good bit of my rather annoying analytical style can probably be attributed to my exposure to General Semantics almost thirty years ago.

One of the fundamental concepts of General Semantics is that the map is not the territory; the word is not the thing – meaning that our verbal and non-verbal representations of reality are, at best, just representations, and not reality itself.

If we want to think accurately, we need to be aware that it’s all too easy to use these representations in ways that radically distort our understanding of the world. For example, I frequently see some of my fellow Zionists saying and writing things like, “The Palestinians don’t want peace; they just want to destroy Israel.” The problem here is that there is no such “thing” as “the Palestinians”; several million people can be classified (more or less accurately) as Palestinians, and they lack even a means of expressing a majority opinion on this or any other subject. To talk about “the Palestinians” as if they were a unitary object with a single opinion on Israel – or, for that matter, on anything else – is non-sense. (I’ve written in this vein before; see the second paragraph of my response to A____ in “Strategic assets and white elephants”.)

Since – with our limited and imperfect senses – we can never perceive reality entire, all we have is representations: words, maps, and other abstractions from the reality that is “out there” but which remains forever inaccessible to us. If we want to get along well with the universe, we should seek the most accurate representations we can get: Someone trying to understand the Middle East can no more afford to think in terms of what “the Palestinians” think than an American long-distance bus driver can afford to use a map that shows New Jersey next to Idaho. Successful navigation requires maps that fit the territory.

*          *          *

All of this brings me to one of this month’s existential crises in Israel: Yuli Tamir, our Minister of Education, has come under a barrage of criticism from the Right for her decision to order the inclusion of the “Green Line” (Israel’s pre-1967 de facto border, which was in fact an armistice line recognized by neither Israel nor its Arab neighbors as a legal border) in maps to be included in new elementary-school geography textbooks. According to some (but by no means all) Israeli Rightists and their supporters overseas, including the Green Line in our children’s maps will somehow turn them all into raging members of Peace Now and otherwise sap and impurify all of their precious bodily fluids.

This controversy highlights one of the more surreal absurdities in a region that possesses over 60% of the world’s proven absurdity reserves: Although the Green Line is a significant factor in our lives, it is entirely absent from most of our maps. Since a November 1967 government decision decreed that Israeli maps should show only the post-Six-Day-War cease-fire lines and not the previous borders, the Green Line has achieved a kind of massive, intrusive invisibility.

This might make some kind of sense if the Green Line were in fact irrelevant; but it isn’t. Not only is it still a major part of Israel’s history and a constant point of reference in the debate about an eventual settlement of the Israeli/Arab conflict; it’s also a significant influence on the day-to-day lives of many Israelis:

  • Until about six years ago, Israelis living across the Green Line received reductions in their income taxes. Many Israelis think we still do, and resent us for it.

  • People living across the Green Line (myself included) have an easier time obtaining gun licenses than otherwise-similar people living inside “Israel proper”.

  • Many banks will not give mortgage loans on houses across the Green Line, or else will finance a lower percentage of a home’s purchase price than they would inside pre-1967 Israel.

  • People living across the Green Line know that they can be evicted from their homes by their government, as a result of an eventual agreement with our Arab neighbors or else as part of a unilateral Israeli withdrawal. (When we bought our house, Vaguely Sinister Wife and I had to sign papers acknowledging this; in fact, according to what we signed the government can, at least in theory, evict us without compensation for the loss of our home.)

  • As soon as you cross the Green Line from pre-1967 Israel, you come under military rather than civilian legal jurisdiction. This is easily forgotten, since Israelis living in the West Bank are normally dealt with by the Israeli legal system just as other Israelis are; but this is a privilege extended as a courtesy, and can be revoked at the government’s will. This means that if the government should decide to evict us from our homes, and should we decide to protest this decision, we could quickly find ourselves without the civil rights we normally take for granted; martial law is already in place, merely held in abeyance for us as long as it’s not needed.

  • Stuff grown or manufactured by Jews across the Green Line is apt to be boycotted by members of the Enlightened Public overseas, and even by some Israelis.

  • The Green Line features prominently in our social lives. Many people won’t visit me at home since I live on the “wrong” side of the Line by a couple of kilometers. (Others, of course, avoid me because they’re allergic to cat fluff, or simply because they don’t like me.)

In short, the Green Line is important – historically, politically, legally, economically, and socially. So where the hell is it? An awful lot of Israelis have no idea.

By eliminating the Green Line from Israeli maps, our government did not eliminate the Green Line; all it accomplished was to create a lot of inaccurate maps and ignorant Israelis. If we intend to navigate our future successfully, we need to know where the Green Line is and what the Green Line is. So let the maps be reprinted; let the Green Line show forth in all its wriggly and impractical glory! And when, eventually, it really does become merely a fact of history, let it enjoy an honorable, dignified – and visible – retirement.

* This is a rather wretched play on the title of the seminal – and rather impenetrable – textbook of General Semantics, Science and Sanity by Alfred Korzybski. I apologize abjectly – although I suspect that Korzybski would have approved of it.

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

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Sunday, December 10, 2006

Watching a watchdog: HonestReporting veers off course

On 8 December, media watchdog HonestReporting came out with a special report on the new – and already discredited – United Nations Human Rights Council. The report is worth a read, although there’s not much there to surprise anyone who follows the United Nations and its relationship with Israel.

As I dutifully read through the report, slightly bored and mildly depressed, if not astonished, by the hypocrisy of the U.N.’s supposed human-rights establishment, I came across the following sentence:

On November 15, 19 Palestinian civilians were killed when an Israeli artillery shell veered off course, missing its intended military target.

Alarm bells began to ring. My boredom vanished. I suddenly felt that old familiar tingle in my typing fingers (all ten of them). Wasn’t HonestReporting going a bit beyond the facts here?

I very recently wrote about the Beit Hanoun tragedy, although in writing that essay I didn’t investigate the details of how Israeli artillery managed to be off-target by several hundred meters. (I was more interested in the applicability of “international law” to the incident, rather than the technical aspect of what went wrong.) Still, I remembered enough about the incident to be suspicious: HonestReporting’s description didn’t ring quite true.

The first problem here was the word “veered”. (The immediate picture that came to my mind when reading that “an Israeli artillery shell veered off course” was an ancient cartoon sequence of some guy firing off a rocket, which then, predictably, did a loop-the-loop and hit him in the butt.) If the tragedy happened because a shell “veered off course”, we are meant to assume that it had been aimed correctly and somehow took a wrong turn in mid-flight. Now this might indeed happen with a primitive rocket, and it nearly always happens when I hit a golf ball; but it doesn’t generally happen with artillery shells.

And indeed, some very quick research revealed that it didn’t happen. According to the IDF itself as well as to other reports, the shells flew straight enough, but were aimed inaccurately because of a malfunction in one circuit card of the artillery battery’s “Shilem” targeting system. The “Shilem” apparatus for this battery had been replaced five days before the Beit Hanoun tragedy; and according to at least one report, it had not been given a live-fire test before being used in the Beit Hanoun bombardment. The final report of the IDF investigation into the incident has not been released, so we don’t yet know why this particular device malfunctioned; the “Shilem” system has been in use for about 30 years and has an excellent record for reliability, which may have (perversely) contributed to the tragedy by allowing the system to be deployed with minimal post-installation testing before real-world use.

According to both the Jerusalem Post and Haaretz, seven shells were fired off-target, not just one. So even though a hardware failure was responsible for the death of nineteen innocent civilians, the operational procedures in use that day failed to correct the problem in an appropriately timely manner. (Apparently, part of the problem was that the same system that had made the mistake in the first place was also in charge of tracking where the shells hit – and it thought it was doing just fine.)

So: It was seven shells, not one. The shells didn’t change their minds in midair; they were aimed wrong by a defective system, under circumstances that remain unclear. And what about the “intended military target” of the shelling?

Here I was on firmer ground, since I had already written about the targeting of the Beit Hanoun bombardment. The actual target of the shelling was an open area that had been used on the previous day for launching Kassam rockets at Israel. Without repeating a long discussion of the targeting issue, I will only say that blithely referring to an open field as a “military target” is, at best, something of an exaggeration. The impression conveyed by the phrase “military target” is of something substantial – a weapons factory, a troop formation, or the like – rather than an open field that had been used for a military purpose on the previous day but might well be hosting a soccer game today. Even if the IDF had a more or less valid military intention in firing these shells at Beit Hanoun, the target was hardly an impressively military one.

*                       *                        *

All of this may seem like a lot of bother about one sentence in an otherwise unobjectionable report written by an organization of whose goals I approve. But I think that this sentence highlights an important problem with many of the individuals and organizations that support Israel in the public sphere: the tendency to be just a little bit too convinced of Israeli righteousness, to be too fast to gloss over our own side’s transgressions, and thus to lose the trust of a skeptical world.

Organizations like HonestReporting bill themselves as guardians of the truth – in HonestReporting’s own words, “Promoting fairness. Ensuring accuracy. Effecting change.” If these organizations want to achieve anything, they need to be seen as more than just pro-Israel propaganda mouthpieces. It’s fine to be pro-Israel – many people, myself included, are immediately suspicious of anyone who claims complete neutrality – but if you’re billing yourself as a guardian of accuracy and an opponent of media bias, you need to be scrupulously accurate yourself and try hard not to be swayed by your own biases.

On this occasion – and, I’m afraid, on many others – HonestReporting has let its sympathy for Israel overrule its professed dedication to accuracy, and thus has damaged its own effectiveness.

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

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Monday, December 04, 2006

The Son Also Rises

According to the Jerusalem Post, Ariel Katsav – son and purported alibi witness of Israel’s embattled President Moshe Katsav, who has been accused of multiple counts of sexual harassment and rape – has now himself been accused of sexual harassment by a fellow employee of Israel Railways, where the younger Katsav is Director of the Customer Service Department.

Presumably Ariel Katsav, wishing to carry on the family tradition of hands-on management, misunderstood the meaning of the word “service” in his job description.

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