Archive for June, 2010

Unity and…canapes

Check out this wonderfully objective (and hilarious) video about the UN, courtesy of “No Laughing Matter.”

Hat tip: Yair

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The other day, PA President Mahmoud Abbas made the claim that the Israeli expulsion of Hamas politicians from Jerusalem is “an obstacle to peace.”  This follows similar claims of Israel’s intransigence, including the impediments to peace of stopping a terrorist-laden ship from entering Gaza through the blockade, demolishing illegally built Arab homes in Silwan, and building housing in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

If you follow Abbas’s logic, then it stands to reason that Israel, in order to promote peace, should turn a blind eye to illegal Arab building, curtail legal Jewish building, allow terrorists and weapons shipments to infiltrate its borders unfettered, and allow jihadist politicians to operate freely in its capital.  Israel should do all this while continuing to supply food, medicine, and other necessaries to the “besieged” Gaza population.  The Arabs, meanwhile, should continue to hold Corporal Gilad Shalit hostage, refusing to allow him any contact with the outside world, including the International Red Cross, to blame Israel for all of their internal problems and incompetence, and fire missiles and rockets at will into Israel as part of its plan to destroy the Jewish State.  None of these, of course, can be construed as “obstacles to peace.”

The message is clear: the Arab leadership is not interested in peace.  No matter how much land Israel offers them, without conditions which spell the destruction of Israel from within (i.e. changing Israeli citizenship laws to repeal the Law of Return, and replacing it with a Law of Return for Arabs who fled in 1948), there will be no peace.  With language that brands the Jews European colonizers, that claims that the UN’s vote to establish the State of Israel in 1947 was an act to expiate its own guilt for the Shoah, and which refuses to recognize the Jews’ 3,000 year old roots in this land, it is the Arabs who constitute the greatest obstacle to peace.  By teaching hatred of Jews in their schools, by celebrating the death-cult of jihad (including dancing in the streets after 9/11 and supporting Hizbullah in the Second Lebanon War), and refusing even to meet the Israelis face to face in negotiations (which might force them to make actual, real concessions in the name of peace), it is the Arabs who are the greatest obstacle to peace.

But they aren’t obstructing peace all by themselves.  They have the fawning, sympathetic world behind them.  This is a world that automatically sympathizes with whoever can paint himself to look like the underdog.  It is too lazy to study history, and too ideological to look objectively at the facts in the present.  It romanticizes what it has convinced itself is the “religion of peace” despite the abundant evidence that shows that this religion has spawned a cult of idol-worshipers who pray to a god of violence, blood, and burnt flesh.  It listens, rapt, while the Arabs accuse Israel of killing their babies and creating another Holocaust, all the while alternating between denying that the Holocaust ever happened and promising an even bigger, better one very soon.  It believes the Arabs when they claim to have roots in this land for thousands of years (even to the point of making the absurd claim to be Canaanites), while their own surnames reveal their origins to have been Egyptian, Syrian, or Lebanese.  It is ready to trust whatever reports of starvation, squalor, and massacres come from Arab mouths, and refuses to apologize when those reports later turn out to be false.  It is ready to believe in Israel’s guilt without any evidence at all, and to assume the worst of Israel based on its own ignorance, prejudice, and malice toward Jews, Zionists, and Israelis.

When he heard Israeli denials of a massacre in Jenin, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said, “Can the whole world be wrong?”  Even when the whole world DID turn out to be wrong, when an independent investigation (in addition to many journalists and witnesses) found the claims of massacre to be baseless and bold exaggeration, neither Annan nor anyone else who had believed in them apologized.  This isn’t particularly surprising, though it is illuminating.  It shows not only that the whole world CAN be wrong, but that the whole world doesn’t really give a fig if it IS wrong.

So what really matters to most of the world outside Israel?  Only this: That Israel should be as you desire it should be.  If you despise Jews, want this land for yourself, or want someone besides the West to blame for your own stagnation and bankruptcy, Israel is here for you to slander, revile, accuse, and discredit.  If you believe in truth, justice, and have the patience to hear the facts, Israel is here for you to watch, support, disagree with, and treat as you would other nations.  But whichever reaction to have to Israel, be aware that your reaction says more about you, and who you are, than it does about Israel.


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A REAL cause

Ilana-Davita, in her comment on my earlier post about conspicuous consumption, suggested that it might be the first of a series of posts on life choices in a shared world.  Consider this the second in the series, if you like.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and make an incredibly obvious statement: it’s time to get ourselves weaned off oil.

The horrific spillage contaminating the Gulf of Mexico, with its impact on the environment and implications of corruption and negligence at the corporate and government levels, is one good reason.  This disaster is only the latest in a series of screw-ups that shows that if the collection of oil cannot be done in a more secure, responsible manner, perhaps it’s time to find a cleaner source of energy.

I’m not demonizing oil and other fossil fuels for their contribution to air pollution.  According to Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner in Superfreakonomics, the flatulence, exhalation, and manure from cows, sheep, and other ruminants are responsible for 50 percent more greenhouse gas than the entire transportation sector, generating methane, “which by one common measure is about twenty-five times more potent as a greenhouse gas than the carbon dioxide released by cars (and, by the way, humans)”  (authors’ italics).  But the continued production of motor vehicles, particularly by American companies, that churn out the highest pollution coupled with the poorest fuel efficiency is inexcusable.  (I’m continually disgusted when reading the magazine section of the Jerusalem Post to see American SUVs, which consistently score at the bottom of the emissions ratings scale, beginning to make their way to the market in Israel.)  And the excuse, “We’re only making what people want” is rubbish.  Are people really attracted to inefficient cars that cost more money to fill up and churn out more greenhouse gases?  Wouldn’t they be even happier with a reasonably sized car that got 100 miles per gallon?  Or are the auto companies just sticking with an antiquated formula of making large vehicles with the same engine design and saying to hell with fuel efficiency and cleanliness?

I read years ago that the technology existed to make cars that could get over 50 miles per gallon.  And on a Google search this morning, I found a website for a company that claims to have the technology (replacing the time-honored piston engine for a more efficient design) to make an engine that can get over 100 mpg.  In the short term, redesigning engines to increase fuel efficiency seems to be a worthwhile goal.  So does improving cities’ and countries’ public transit systems, walking more, and searching for ways to utilize renewable sources of energy to replace fossil fuels in the long term.

But there is a further thing to consider when examining the issue of fossil fuels.  Levitt and Dubner discuss the concept of the externality.  An externality is “what happens when someone takes an action but someone else, without agreeing, pays some or all the costs of that action.  An externality is an economic version of taxation without representation.”  The example the authors give is that of someone turning on the air conditioner in his home, creating externalities in the form of black smoke belching forth from the power plant that generates the electricity to run the air conditioner, as well as the environmental effects of mining and trucking coal to run the power plant, and the dangers to human life and limb of coal mining.

An externality of oil dependency often cited by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman is that of lining the pockets of oil producing countries, many of which are located in the Middle East.  These countries are in many cases ruled or controlled by oil magnates who, in the absence of a popular mandate to rule, ingratiate themselves with the more extremist, Islamist element of their society by contributing large sums of cash to jihad-preaching madrasas (study halls) or, in more extreme cases (like that of Iran), actually fund terrorist activities including training combatants and purchasing weapons.  In a dramatic but not unlikely example, an American who pulls up at a gas station and fills the tank of his gas-guzzling SUV (which he drives almost exclusively locally, getting the worst possible mileage) is putting money into the hands of oil companies that purchase crude oil from Saudi Arabia, which funds Islamist madrasas, some of which indoctrinated the 9/11 bombers who then went on to fly American planes into American buildings and kill thousands of Americans (as well as other nationals).  Or, in a more contemporary example, that same American who, after nearly nine years of war in Afghanistan and a fruitless manhunt for Osama Bin-Laden, STILL owns an SUV and fills it up weekly, is putting money into the hands of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad who uses it to finance his Republican Guard which terrorizes the population and keeps him and the mullahs in power, pays street thugs to batter and kill peaceful protesters who oppose the government, and also supports, through training and weapons purchases, two terrorist organizations: Hizbullah, which has taken over southern Lebanon and keeps the government of that country in constant turmoil, and Hamas in Gaza, which spends the money not on its own people, building a state with an economy, quality housing, and agriculture to feed its population, but instead uses it to fight a never-ending war to try to destroy Israel.

If the nutters who fill these flotilla boats headed for the blockade, who claim to care about Gazans, were to forgo the Mediterranean cruise and examine their own energy consumption habits and lobby in their home countries for alternatives to fossil fuel dependency, they would be working toward a REAL solution to help the people in Gaza, as well as reducing carbon emissions, improving sectors of the world economy, spreading democracy to parts of the world where people want to be free, and furthering world peace.  For people who clearly love a good cause, does this one sound worthy enough?

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The Cap’n showed me this fake, but very funny, movie trailer last night.  I sometimes think too little fun is made of Hollywood and the film industry in general.  This dispels that regret.  (Only missing scene: Protagonist doesn’t tearfully confess, “I never learned to read!”)  Thank you, BriTANick.  You made my day.

Hat tip: Nomi

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The best defense

There’s been plenty of ink (real and virtual) spilled over the issues of Israeli PR.  Glenn Jasper wrote recently about the lack of a unified message coming out of Israel.  Others say that Israel gets its story out too late to be the first account in the media.  Others throw up their hands and say that the world and the media are constitutionally anti-Semitic and it doesn’t matter what we do or when.  (There is a grain of truth to that; no matter how sympathetic to Israel a piece on the flotilla may be, the headline always refers to the “bloody raid” carried out on a “humanitarian” boat by the Israeli naval commados.)

I’m never completely satisfied with those explanations, since there will inevitably be differences in opinion and political view in Israel; it’s what makes it a democracy.  And I commend Israel for making sure to have the facts straight before it makes its statements instead of getting a story out there riddled with errors that it ends up having to apologize for.  And just because much of the world and the press wants to demonize Israel doesn’t make us demons; that’s their pathology, not ours.

I’ve been heartened in the last week or two to see a couple of pieces that put forward a REAL public relations program for Israel.  In her June 4 article, “Israel’s daunting task,” Caroline Glick advocates that Israel turn the tables on a hostile UN and demand an investigation of Turkey’s sponsorship of the pro-Hamas flotilla.  She also calls for Israeli embassies throughout the world to urge their host countries to outlaw organizations involved in the Gaza flotilla movement, and for Israel’s Justice Ministry to issue international arrest warrants for those involved in organizing and executing the flotilla, and prepare indictments for them in Israeli courts.  Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon seems to have adopted a similar attitude in response to Turkey’s call for an Israeli apology for the raid on the rogue flotilla, saying that it is not Israel who should apologize, but those who organized the flotilla in the first place.

But it’s Noah Pollak in Commentary magazine online who lays it out most clearly in his piece, “The problem with playing defense.” He praises Israel’s after-the-fact-truth-telling, but says “it is restricted to responding to lies, exaggerations, and accusations.”  In his analysis, “Israel is on the receiving end of a viciously negative political campaign, and as any campaign strategist knows, you don’t respond to a negative campaign by expending all your energy trying to explain why the lies aren’t true  — you go negative and play offense in return.”  Among the many suggestions he makes for a formidable offense is expelling the Turkish ambassador and making his return contingent on “a full, credible, and public Turkish investigation of  the terrorist organization that planned and funded” the flotilla; demanding reparations from Turkey for the cost of the operation, including the medical bills for the terrorists who received medical care here after the incident; and funding a Turkish language documentary on the Armenian genocide, putting it up on YouTube, and showing Erdogan that if he wants to call Israelis criminals and murderers, two can play at that game.  Where Israel’s public relations strategy has focused for decades on “the persuasiveness of reason, evidence, context, truth, fairness, and apology,” Pollak points out that this strategy has failed.  His final paragraph is a brilliant summary of what Israel’s PR should look like:

Israel’s hasbara strategy must shift to one that is based on power, self-confidence, and an eagerness to vigorously condemn its defamers. This is the difference between driving the debate and reacting to it, refuting lies and validating them, offense and defense, setting the agenda versus being on the agenda. If the Israelis wish to see a good model for how to set the terms of a controversy, they need only look at the Turkish prime minister’s brilliant performance this week.

In an ideal world where everyone was rational, everyone let the facts speak for themselves, and everyone accepted everyone else’s right to exist (pretty reasonable foundations, if you think about it), Israel’s antiquated PR methods would be effective.  But in an international climate boiling with politics, nationalism, corruption, and calls for violence and the destruction of others, anyone who doesn’t play by the rules — no matter how distasteful they may be — gets eaten.  Israel has shown a great will to survive against terrible odds, and one of the qualities that characterizes its success in that survival is its ability to adapt to changing circumstances.

Well, Israel, perhaps it’s time to adapt again.

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Evelyn Gordon, always worth a read, has an article in Commentary magazine online entitled “New Poll Shatters Myths on Gaza Blockade and Settlement Freeze.”  Not only do I feel personally vindicated for my skepticism that the blockade on Gaza has failed to sour relations between Hamas and the Gazans; I am also heartened that despite what the media would have us believe about terror enjoying a happy home in the hearts of all Arabs who call themselves Palestinians, there is a sign that cooler heads exist within that population.  The myths explored (or, in most cases, exploded) in the article include the following:

1)  Israel’s blockade of Gaza in general, and its botched raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla in particular, has only strengthened Hamas.

2) Palestinians’ prime concern is ending Israeli settlement construction.

3) Israel’s war on Gaza last year was counterproductive.

Gordon concludes her piece with the following observation: “But here’s one thing that really is counterproductive: Western governments making policy based on what they want to believe rather than on the facts. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem likely to change anytime soon.”

This is not to say that Arabs across Gaza, Judea and Samaria are clamoring to join hands with the Israelis and start a love train.  Three Israeli policemen were attacked by Arabs last week near Hebron, wounding two and killing one, a probable result of the removal of the dozens of checkpoints that have been dismantled in this part of the country in recent months.  Syria’s Bashar Asad appears to be looking for any excuse, however lame (the Mavi Marmara, to be exact) to threaten Israel with war this summer.  And neighbors of ours, longtime Efrat residents, just sold their house and moved to Jerusalem stating as one reason for moving that they just can’t take another terror war out here.  Indeed, the dramatic enlargement of the Emergency Medical Center here in Efrat with expanded 24/7 service, and the completion of a large chain grocery store a few minutes away at Gush Junction, may or may not be preparation for the next battening down of the hatches.

Hamas and Hizbullah can have only one goal in mind in their rearmament, and that is for another confrontation with Israel.  Rumors abound as to the range of their rockets and which cities are most likely to be targeted.  Ironically, in 2006, Efrat and many other settlements served as safe havens for Israelis who left their homes in the north until things quieted down: Israelis who until that experience had considered the settlements dangerous, and a nuisance.  You live and learn.

Whatever grandiose plans the Arabs may or may not be hatching for summer fun, this poll is a ray of light for those who don’t automatically assume that Israel messes up everything, or that the media are always competent to present a true picture of the Middle East as it really is.

Hat tip: Yael V.

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Latma does it again with another parody about the strategies of the Middle East’s current Big Three: Erdogan, Asad, and Ahmedinejad.  Tip: Don’t try drinking Coke while watching this; it’ll come out your nose.

Hat tip: Jameel

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…about the Gaza flotilla.  Finally, a full rundown on the flotilla incident from an official IDF spokesperson, including who was on the boats, what they were carrying (only three of the six had “humanitarian aid,” if you can call expired medicine “aid”) and the IDF’s message to humanitarians and those who wish to donate goods to Gaza over and above the 100-160 trucks of food, medicine, hygiene products, and summer camp supplies that enter Gaza daily.  There has been no end of criticism of Israel’s PR apparatus after this fracas, but this well-digested, calm overview of the goals of the Israeli Navy’s operations against the “Freedom Flotilla” (the one carrying terrorists with cash stuffed in their pockets) and the “Rachel Corrie” several days later (that just bore dreamy humanitarians), as well as a rundown of Gaza’s situation, gives the viewer the facts: no raised voices, no screaming for blood and, well, decidedly humdrum.  Definitely not the stuff of a typical media report.

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Our lot

Since the Cap’n and I married and began our family, I have watched as friends have debated, deliberated, and ultimately decided when their family is finished.  Sometimes years would go by, and the couple would decide “just one more.”  Or that they were  maxed out, emotionally and financially, at the size they were.  Or that they wouldn’t do anything to prevent another child, but they also wouldn’t go to great lengths to have another.

It is a great luxury for a couple to be able to decide for itself when it’s “done” having children.  Whether that is after one child, or three, or seven, or ten, to have those choices is a blessing not bestowed on just anyone.  While I’m content with my family, I know that if I ever were not, all I would need to do would be to think of those who have had a harder time than we have:

  • Couples who tried unsuccessfully to have children and in the end adopted (although some were lucky and managed to adopt siblings)
  • Couples without children for whom belonging to a frum Jewish community was too painful without a family, who drifted away
  • A couple who finally gave up fertility treatments, found an expectant mother, supported her throughout her pregnancy, requested a signed affidavit that she had not used drugs, and in the end, the child was seriously mentally ill
  • And of course, the families torn apart by terrorism, whether it be a family whose son was murdered in the massacre at Mercaz HaRav, or the family in which the (pregnant) mother and four daughters were shot and killed on the road, leaving the father to wake up the following morning with no family at all.

One of my favorite stories is the Jewish folktale, “It Could Always Be Worse,” about a family who felt cramped in their small house and sought advice from their rabbi.  One by one, he has them move their livestock (a cow, chickens, a goat) into the  house with them until they go mad.  Then, he advises them to turn their animals out again and lo and behold, the house feels suddenly spacious.  This is a humorous story about how our feelings of satisfaction can depend on how we view our circumstances.

Some say Hashem gives us only what we can cope with for challenges.  I don’t know if that’s true, but I do believe that humans are capable of overcoming great sadness and suffering, and that comfort and support is to be found in the others around us, both in the form of their love and understanding, and in the knowledge that we do not grieve alone–that there is always someone else who has had a similar (or, God forbid, worse) experience.

May we only know blessings and happiness.

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It’s the message, stupid!

Most of us in the blogging world are avid Monday morning quarterbacks, analyzing the events of the day with all the benefits of hindsight.  I have read and listened to bitter criticism of Israel’s public relations campaign from those on both the left and right of the political spectrum, but I’m never entirely comfortable with that kind of criticism.  I don’t think I’m media savvy enough myself to express anything like a knowledgeable opinion, and when I see how hard Israel tries to handle hot situations like that of an “armada of humaniterrorists” (Stephen Colbert’s term), I have more compassion than condemnation for those who have to take the fall.

So I was interested to read that Soccer Dad has an interesting post up where he includes an article by Glenn Jasper, an Israeli  PR professional, detailing Jasper’s analysis of Israel’s PR machine (including in the wake of the flotilla fracas).  Here is an excerpt of Jasper’s piece:

It wouldn’t matter if [Information Minister Yuli] Edelstein drank Red Bull 24 hours a day and was 100% available for all requested interviews. Because an hour later, someone from the government opposition will submit to an interview and completely contradict what Edelstein has said.

It doesn’t matter that Jerusalem has wonderful views, great restaurants and almost-perfect weather, especially this time of year. Because the world is being told – by Jewish-Israelis – on a regular basis that Jerusalem is a place of conflict, and that the conflict is all the fault of the Jews.

And it doesn’t matter that we have our strongest international spokespeople since the days of Golda Meir and Abba Eban.

Because we do not have that item that can often be the difference between success and failure for any PR campaign. In fact, it should be the cornerstone of any campaign.

It is the unified message.

His thesis is that without a unity of message (which, by the way, Israel’s enemies employ with great success), Israel continually undermines its public relations.  Without that unity around a single message (i.e. that of Israel’s right to defend itself against terrorism and violence), no amount of articulate, fluent-English-speaking spokespersons (like Michael Oren and Mark Regev) will succeed in winning the PR war being waged against Israel.

Whenever I read someone’s theory about the causes of anti-Semitism or knee-jerk condemnation of Israel (if they are really two distinct things), I always want to say, “That’s it!  That’s why!”  While I’m not sure Jasper has the only answer, I think it’s an awfully good one.

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Much as I’ve enjoyed the last week or so, hashing over the awful events in the news, entertaining trolls and anti-Semites, and doing a lot of people’s thinking for them, it’s been a bit draining.  In fact, it seems miraculous to me that more people (especially Jews) don’t just become misanthropes given the sorry state of the world as reported in the news.  The Cap’n reminded me of the Good News feature in Arutz 7, and Barbara Sofer does a beautiful job in the Jerusalem Post (though even she was clearly nettled in last Friday’s column).

And then a friend told me about Jon Stewart’s treatment of Helen Thomas’s recent confession that made her long career in the White House press corps go down in flames.  His wickedly funny barbs at Thomas, followed by a highly amusing update on South Carolina politics (to which I pay no attention whatsoever normally) were just the tonic I needed to soldier on.  Check it out.

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The Crunch family is approaching its second anniversary of moving from Beit Shemesh to Gush Etzion (which, to the unfamiliar, is “across the green line”).  Initially, I had some anxiety about the move.  Efrat, while functioning as a comfortable suburb to Jerusalem, has had its share of unrest.  Property crime, vandalism, and even occasional personal crime exists here, sometimes Jew-to-Jew, and sometimes Arab-to-Jew.  During the terror war in the first years of this decade, an Arab worker, clean-shaven and wearing a loose robe, walked into the local supermarket and attempted to blow himself up.  (He failed, releasing detonator powder everywhere, and while fumbling with his fuse, was shot in the head by his own employer who recognized him in his shaheed get-up.)

And yet, despite the occasional flare-ups, there is a cooperation between Jews and Arabs out here which cannot be ignored.  We share the roads; we share an economy.  When it was still safe to do so, Efrat residents shopped in Arab markets in Bethlehem, and Arabs shopped in Efrat’s stores.  (The riots and shootings ended that.)  But even today, they buy gas in our filling stations, and we hire them to build and repair our homes.  And in two days’ time, a new grocery store will be opening here in the Gush with both Arabs and Jews working and shopping in it.

Living here, I have come to appreciate the complexity of the relationship between Jews and Arabs, and Arabs and their government.  The attitudes of the Jews I know towards Arabs run the gamut from total distrust and hatred to pity and a desire to give them whatever they want, and everything in between.  (Teaching my children to avoid labeling Arabs as good or bad is almost a daily task as they see them zoom past on the roads, or ride donkeys along the roadside.  I tell them that most Arabs are normal people like us, making a living and raising families.  Some plot to kill Jews; those are the bad ones.  And others risk their lives to save innocent people, including Jews, by reporting attacks in advance to the police or the Shin Bet; these are very, very good Arabs, and righteous Gentiles besides.)

A commenter on my blog some time ago expressed total disbelief that any Arab could want to be governed by Israel rather than by fellow Arabs.  It seems likely at the outset; but further investigation proves that it is merely conventional wisdom, and not necessarily the truth.  One study conducted (entitled “Coexistence in Israel”) shows that 77% of Israeli Arabs would rather live in Israel than any other country in the world.  Why?  Because their quality of life is better here than Arabs enjoy in most other parts of the world.  And at least some West Bank Arabs feel similarly.  An Arab who worked on renovations for friends of mine in Beit Shemesh was distressed at the prospect of Israel withdrawing IDF presence from his village (as a “confidence-building measure”).  His reason was that when the IDF is present, there is no crime, and Hamas is kept at bay.  When the IDF leaves, the village will revert to lawlessness and Hamas will be free to enter and take over, creating an existence of fear and less freedom for the residents.  Another Arab working in Efrat told friends of ours that they have no respect for their own leaders, a bunch of fatcats who don’t work for a living but skim off the aid given for developing the Palestinian economy to make themselves rich.  Are these Arabs saying what they think the Jews want to hear, or what they really think?  My friends and I are inclined to think they are being truthful.  Why?  Because these Jews don’t know anyone in their villages, and far away from their chieftains and the listening ears of the PA and Hamas, they are free to speak their minds in a way they never could at home.  There is no threat to their lives or their well-being when they’re at work, and it’s more likely that they can speak freely among strangers than among those they know who may expect them to act or speak in a certain way.

There is plenty of talk about the Arab leadership and its relationship to the Arab “street.”  It is commonly believed that the leadership is more moderate than the citizenry, and that their loud pronouncements against Israel and reluctance to get serious about peace are due to a need to keep the support of the more violent, anti-Israel “street.”  I become more and more skeptical of this as time goes on.  Israeli Arab leadership is strongly against young Arabs performing national service in Israel, claiming that the programs are discriminatory and warning that those who choose to serve in them will be ostracized.  Meanwhile, it was reported in 2009 that the number of young Arabs lining up to do national service (a palatable alternative to serving in the IDF, which is not required of Arabs) had quadrupled and that some of those young people’s villages were encouraging and supportive of their choice to serve, pointing to a gulf between the leadership’s goals and those of the citizenry.

I have also heard from those who criticize Israel’s blockade of Gaza that it has failed to drive a wedge between Gazan Arabs and Hamas.  Again, this would seem to be the case if one goes by intuition.  But do the facts bear it out?  First of all, the reports out of Gaza are conflicting about whether there is really a crisis there or not.  Some sources say the people are starving in the streets, there is no clean water, and unemployment is sky-high.  Other sources say that the people are well fed, the markets well stocked, and ample medicine is available to keep the population healthy.  The cry goes up that Israel must be responsible for providing clean water, food, medicine, and economic opportunity for Gazan Arabs.  Having uprooted all of its citizens from Gaza and handed over the land with the Jews gone and their greenhouses still intact, one would think that that would have provided Gaza with a good start (in addition to all of the monetary aid they received).  Instead, the greenhouses were destroyed, Hamas was elected, democratically elected Fatah members were ousted in a bloody coup, and missiles were launched toward Israel with ever-increasing frequency.  Are these events Israel’s fault?  Or did Hamas squander a golden opportunity to make good its reputation as the Arab party free from corruption, and get the credit for laying the foundations of a successful Palestinian state?  I’m inclined to think the latter, and absenting any facts to the contrary, I’m willing to bet that in the privacy of their own minds, there are many Arabs in Gaza who agree with me.  But, surrounded by Hamas and their neighbors (some of whom may function as the ears of Hamas), who is free to speak his mind candidly about the situation?

I share my friend’s concern about the continued dependence of Gaza on Israeli and world aid.  Arabs live complicated lives, and they are thinking, sentient beings.  I believe most are not interested in seeing the aid that is meant for them and the building of their society spent on weapons to be shot at Israel.  I believe most are not happy about having their basic needs provided for by the Jews (not their people) instead of the Hamas (their elected people).  My friend raises the point of the role of pride in Arab culture, and he’s absolutely right.  How good is it for a people’s pride to be the longest-standing refugee population in the world?  What does it do for their pride to be given handouts instead of the wherewithal to support themselves?  How must they feel being the political stick used by the rest of the Arab world to beat Israel with, never to see their own agenda for a decent life furthered?

While the world hammers away at Israel to make more concessions to the Arabs in the hopes of wooing them toward peace, a large question remains unanswered: Peace with whom?  With the PA (which at least still pretends to talk about talking about peace)?  With Hamas, whose raison d’etre is the destruction of Israel at the cost of its own people?  With both?  With neither?  I think Israel and the Arab people share a goal of living free and independent lives.  I think the greatest threat to that goal is not withheld concessions from Israel, or the threat posed by the average Arab on the street; it’s the Arab leadership itself.  They benefit from media circuses like the “Freedom Flotilla” and the media war on Israel, not the citizens of Gaza.

Perhaps it’s time to hold the Arabs in power responsible for the welfare of their own people.  After all, isn’t that what they were elected to be?

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Firehose of hate

I was reading the comment thread to Jameel’s hilarious post about secular Russians crashing a leftist demonstration in Tel Aviv, carrying signs that were NOT in the spirit of the demonstration as a whole.  A few of the early comments actually address the post, but it isn’t long before the comment thread is taken over by a few individuals spewing vicious diatribes against the Jewish people.

I don’t believe there’s a Jew on Planet Earth who hasn’t encountered some sort of anti-Semitism in his or her life.  And, like good Jews in the face of criticism (to put it mildly), Jews tend to look inward at their own conduct, their own achievements and failures, and rush to remind the world of their contributions to it.  There are dozens (if not hundreds) of videos circulating on the Web proudly stating the life-saving accomplishments of the Jews, our triumphs in the fields of science, literature, art, commerce, finance, philosophy, and every other field we’ve applied ourselves to.

While these are useful for reminding Jews of our own good deeds, they mean nothing to the anti-Semite.  Some of the characters leaving comments on Jameel’s post accuse the Jews of inventing polio (hey, they were the ones who came up with the antidote!), withholding a cure for AIDS, controlling the media and the US government, and exercising influence in the country far beyond their deserts.  One person promises to come up with a plan to reinstate quotas (2% to reflect the Jewish percentage of the total population).  Another promises a new holocaust as payback for the “holocaust” being inflicted by Israel (i.e. the Jews) on the Arabs in Gaza.

This drivel, and more, can be found in what these people write.  And contrary to normative Jewish impulse, I believe that the correct response is NOT to remind them of all the good stuff Jews have done in the world.  Because the truth is, they already know all the stuff we’ve done for the world.  And it makes them hopping mad.

The solution is to put the focus on the angry misfits themselves, and the source of their own peevishness.  Because like most anti-Semites, these people are ignorant, lazy, stupid, and constantly on the defensive.  Rather than going out and getting an education, or a job, or a life (or therapy, or medication), they would rather dump on the people they see who do everything better than they do.  America is the perfect setting for an experiment on how non-Jews do versus the Jews.  Putting aside the handicaps Jews had in the beginning (i.e. the quota system), other things being equal, how have they fared?  I’d say both have done pretty well.  But proportionally, Jews do better.  Why?  Despite equal opportunity, non-Jews get fewer years of education relative to Jews.  This limits opportunities for professional advancement (as does sitting on one’s ass, griping about other people).  Jews and non-Jews place unequal emphasis on the importance of literacy and learning, justice, the rule of law, and the value of human life.  Non-Jews (Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists) embrace fatalism as part of their religion; Jews believe they have the power to change the world and themselves.

In short, successful people are undaunted by adversity.  Rather than giving up or finding someone else to blame, they work harder.  Successful people build themselves up through education, experience, and belief in themselves.  Successful people don’t need to put others down to succeed.  They don’t need to find someone to blame to overcome failure.  They don’t need to hate others to love themselves.

In other words, non-Jews and Jews are successful insofar as they embrace the values inherent in Judaism.  So perhaps the solution to anti-Semitism is for the Jews to round up all the anti-Semites and … convert them!

One day later…

This was a post about a very tongue-in-cheek solution to the problem of anti-Semitism in the world.  In calling anti-Semites ignorant, lazy, and stupid, I really did not expect a small but very vocal posse of anti-Semites to stand up and ask be counted as such in the Comments section.  (They also fulfilled the title of the post.)  They and other bottom-feeders who troll the Internet looking for places to park their hatred and invective (not necessarily on the subject at hand) may make the Comments section a little nauseating to read.  If you have the stomach to see what the current climate accepts for public discourse, read on.  If you have a nice dinner planned for later in the evening, you may want to skip that section.

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In college and for some years afterward, I was a card-carrying Liberal.  I championed the poor and disenfranchised, and automatically mistrusted capitalism, the government, and anyone powerful.  I didn’t necessarily have a lot of facts about the world at my disposal (despite—or because of—being a recent college graduate), but my dogma of rallying behind the underdog made those facts unnecessary in most cases.

Jokes have been made about how as people get older, they tend to get more conservative.  This may be because their opinions, formed in their youth and eventually calcified in their minds, become outdated (and hence, conservative) over time.  Or, perhaps, aging has the effect of making one better able to appreciate depth, complexity, nuance.  Wisdom begins to trump fervor, and facts push emotions off center-stage.

I don’t mean to insult Liberals here (or to praise Conservatives—I consider myself neither), but over the years, I have come to recognize some of the flaws in their thinking.  In their impatience to make the world better, they don’t take the time to fully understand the problems they wish to tackle; they see the world for what they want it to be rather than the way it is.  Opinions and dogma become conventional wisdom, and conventional wisdom, unfortunately, is often wrong.  The economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who coined the phrase “conventional wisdom,” wrote, “We associate truth with convenience, with what most closely accords with self-interest and personal well-being or promises best to avoid awkward effort or unwelcome dislocation of life.  We also find highly acceptable what contributes most to self-esteem.”  In Galbraith’s view, economic and social behavior “are complex, and to comprehend their character is mentally tiring.  Therefore we adhere, as though to a raft, to those ideas which represent our understanding.”

The road to my abandonment of Liberalism has been slow and gradual.  First I discovered that what one reads in the press is not always true.  When Barbara Bush was invited to speak at the graduation of the Wellesley College class of 1990 (as runner-up to Alice Walker who canceled her plans to speak), a conversation took place on campus with students asking whether the wife of the President was really an appropriate choice of commencement speaker over, say, a woman who has carved for herself a distinguished career.  At no time was Mrs. Bush dis-invited to speak, but when wind of the arguments and counter-arguments on campus reached the press, a firestorm took over op-ed pages all over the country.  Students on campus refused to speak to the press, leaving the press to take the idea of hairy-legged, radical feminists bashing the First Female and run with it.  Wellesley, feminism, and the individual students who were identified as having spoken out on the issue were maligned; at least one student received death threats and moved off campus to an undisclosed location until the furor subsided.  On graduation day, the press was present in great numbers, and once the First Ladies (Mrs. Gorbachev accompanied Mrs. Bush and spoke briefly through an interpreter) had finished speaking and were driven away, reporters and camera operators broke frame and stood around, idling and chatting loudly as the students were given their diplomas.

This vicious and distasteful media circus, that worked itself into a frenzy all spring and only expired after Mrs. Bush’s very gracious speech (and the college’s and students’ gracious reception of her), left a lasting impression on me.  Since then, I’ve studied propaganda and the power of limited exposure to facts and events, utilized Snopes to investigate urban legends and gross fabrications on the Web, and watched several seasons of Penn and Teller’s Showtime series Bullshit! which exposes fraud, consumer exploitation, and the creation of new conventional wisdom.

All this introduction is meant to contextualize the place of Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner’s Freakonomics (published 2005) and Superfreakonomics (2009) in my continuing education.  Freakonomics sets the tone for both books as an exercise in curiosity, employing the tools of research and economics to explain human behavior.  (Each book stands alone, however.)  While economics is perhaps one of the fields traditionally distrusted by Liberalism (and indeed, many items of conventional wisdom buoyed by Liberals are sunk by the facts in these books), the principles that inform Levitt’s inquiries are both sound and useful.  The worldview of the his work is described in the following fundamental ideas:

  • Incentives are the cornerstone of modern life.
  • The conventional wisdom is often wrong.
  • Dramatic events often have distant, even subtle causes.
  • “Experts”—from criminologists to real-estate agents—use their informational advantage to serve their own agenda.
  • Knowing what to measure and how to measure it makes a complicated world much less so.

Levitt (the economist, a professor at the University of Chicago) and Dubner (the writer, a New York-based journalist and author) use the tools of economics to ask questions about human choices and behavior, and seek answers through history, research, experimentation, and interviews of enterprising people engaged in activities ranging from high-end prostitution, to investigating what really happened the night Kitty Genovese was murdered, to inventing simple, effective, inexpensive solutions to devastating hurricanes and global warming.  Some of the issues they tackle in their books include

  • Why cheating to lose is worse than cheating to win
  • What the Bagel Man saw: mankind may be more honest than we think
  • Why the 1960s were a great time to be a criminal
  • Which is more dangerous: a gun or a swimming pool?
  • The various costs of being a woman
  • Why is chemotherapy so widely used when it so rarely works?
  • Robert McNamara’s other career
  • “Big-ass volcanoes” and climate change
  • Monkeys are people too (in which it is revealed that—aw, hell, you have to read it to believe it)

Levitt’s insights and observations are sharp, fascinating, ticklish, and his curiosity is infectious.  Dubner’s writing is ingeniously structured, witty, engaging, and amusing.  They are a successful team, and their books are a revelation in an era in which too many people seem to have too little curiosity or interest in information.  Their stated hope is not only that people will find their brand of inquiry interesting, but will find ways to utilize it themselves.

Reading these books was entertaining and enlightening.  But more than that, I would say that reading these books is necessary.  In the following excerpt, one gets both a taste of their work, and a look at how experts and journalists disseminate information to the reading and listening public:

Consider the recent history of homelessness in the United States.  In the early 1980s, an advocate for the homeless named Mitch Snyder took to saying that there were about 3 million homeless Americans.  The public duly sat up and took notice.  More than 1 of every 100 people were homeless?  That sure seemed high, but … well, the expert said it.  A heretofore quiescent problem was suddenly catapulted into the national consciousness.  Snyder even testified before Congress about the magnitude of the problem.  He also reportedly told a college audience that 45 homeless people die each second—which would mean a whopping 1.4 billion dead homeless every year.  (The U.S. population at the time was about 225 million.)  Assuming that Snyder misspoke or was misquoted and meant to say that one homeless person died every forty-five seconds, that’s still 701,000 dead homeless people every year—roughly one-third of all deaths in the United States.  Hmm.  Ultimately, when Snyder was pressed on his figure of 3 million homeless, he admitted that it was a fabrication.  Journalists had been hounding him for a specific number, he said, and he hadn’t wanted them to walk away empty-handed.

It may be sad but not surprising to learn that experts like Snyder can be self-interested to the point of deceit.  But they cannot deceive on their own.  Journalists need experts as badly as experts need journalists.  Every day there are newspaper pages and television newscasts to be filled, and an expert who can deliver a jarring piece of wisdom is always welcome.  Working together, journalists and experts are the architects of much conventional wisdom.

To some people, these books may seem overly skeptical, amoral and cynical, celebrating the baser instincts of human beings and seeing only the negative side of things.  They couldn’t be more wrong.  Levitt and Dubner are hopeful, optimistic, and celebrate curiosity, questioning, and fact-finding: things any intelligent person should value.  As Dubner writes in the Explanatory Note of Freakonomics, “Levitt’s underlying belief [is] that the modern world, despite a surfeit of obfuscation, complication, and downright deceit, is not impenetrable, is not unknowable, and—if the right questions are asked—is even more intriguing than we think.  All it takes is a new way of looking.”

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Challah for the masses

Last Thursday, 8-year-old Beans was assigned a parashah project to present on Friday.  (This takes the place of the Ima-shel-Shabbat role on gan Fridays.)  Her mission: to choose a theme from the week’s parashah and create a game, a presentation, or a project which explores that theme.  Beans loves to bake and enjoys making things with her hands, so choosing the theme of challah (i.e., the mitzvah of taking out a portion of the dough with a blessing) appealed.  We discussed the mitzvah as described in the Torah (Num. 15:17-21), why we do it, how it is one of three mitzvot specially designated for women, and the process of preparing the dough and taking challah.  When the dough reached the stage before shaping, she stood on a stool next to me, we took a portion of the dough, and said the blessing together.  Then we got down to the business of shaping it—her favorite part.  It is customary for whichever kid is doing the parashah project to provide some sort of kibbud (refreshment); Beans took small, individual challot to each kid and teacher.

Most people have a favorite challah recipe.  I have two that I work with, and both are successful.  The recipe I used last week for Beans’s project is based on a recipe given me by Ilana Epstein.  I increased the amount of dough by 50% and made several adjustments to the recipe to aid rising, make it moister, and give it a distinctive flavor.  Here is my recipe for several week’s worth of moist, sweet challah:

Flour (around 16 cups; I used 2 cups whole wheat flour, about a cup of bread flour, and the rest all-purpose)

4 tablespoons yeast

1½ cup demerara sugar

½ cup canola oil

3 eggs

4 cups warm water

1-2 T. salt

Start by combining about 6 cups flour with the yeast and sugar in a large mixing bowl.  In another bowl, mix the oil and eggs together.  Add oil and eggs to the dry ingredients and mix well.  Add warm water and another 6 cups flour.  Knead on a well-floured surface, sprinkling salt gradually into the dough as you knead, and adding flour to the dough slowly to remove the stickiness.  (This takes about 10 minutes).

Place the dough in a large, oiled bowl.  Cover with a dish towel or plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place for about an hour, until the dough has expanded by 50%.  Turn out gently onto kneading surface and knead another few minutes before returning to the oiled bowl.  Let rise for another hour.

Since this makes such a large batch of dough, one separates challah with a blessing.  Before turning the dough out to shape it, take a lump of dough about the size of a golf ball, raise it up, and say, “Zot challah.”  Then say the blessing: “Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha’olam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu lehafrish challah min ha’issah.”  Set the lump of dough aside to be burned in the oven once the challah loaves have been baked and taken out.

Divide the dough and shape or braid as desired.  Place loaves on baking paper on cookie sheets, coat lightly with beaten egg, and bake in a 375 degree Fahrenheit oven for about 17-20 minutes, or until dough is lightly golden brown and the bottoms of the loaves sound hollow when tapped with a wooden spoon.  (The amount of yeast I used in this recipe eliminates the need for another rising; dough puffs up nicely while baking.)  While challah loaves are cooling, raise the temperature of the oven and burn the lump of dough set aside; give it until it’s blackened and no good for eating.  Double-wrap carefully before discarding.

As I mentioned, Beans and I baked these challot on Thursday night for her to take to school on Friday, and I bagged them as soon as they were cool.  They still tasted fresh and soft on Friday night when we ate them, and were still soft and delicious at lunch on Saturday.  Challah for the masses… the gift that keeps on giving.

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In a week with a conspicuous absence of humor (at least in Israel), I just saw the following video on Facebook.  One of the singers is Jerusalem Post columnist Caroline Glick, and other videos by Latma are highly recommended.  Have a look and a chuckle.  (Hat tip: Jeff W.)

And keep following the facts on the Muqata blog, including a description of the “humanitarian cargo” on the ships, including bullet-proof vests, rifle scopes, and night-vision equipment, and some of the home videos of the would-be martyrs “humanitarian aid workers.”  It’s quite a story unfolding.

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Flotilla fallout

In continuing to follow the facts as they trickle out, I am also reading about the pasting Israel is getting in the foreign press.

This is puzzling.  First of all, before anyone had many details at all about the incident, there were already papers and people condemning Israel’s “act of piracy” (read more about that here) against a flotilla of “peaceful humanitarian aid workers” attempting to break the Gaza blockade.

My piece yesterday was based on extensive reading of reports, viewing of video footage taken of the boarding of the Mavi Marmara, and whatever eyewitness statements I could get.  (Parents of the Israeli commandos have been circulating their sons’ accounts of what they encountered when they were lowered to the ship’s deck.)  What were these vociferous condemnations based on?  I would venture to guess that not a lot of thought or information was required in order for some people to assume conclude that Israel must have been in the wrong for intercepting the Gaza-bound flotilla.  No need to verify details such as what was really on those ships, whether the activists aboard them kept their word to be boarded peacefully, whether there was an alternative, peaceful, non-confrontational way for those goods to have made it to Gaza without lives being lost, or to think about why the flotilla set sail in the first place.  Any attempt by Israel to contact, warn, negotiate, or offer to assist was ignored; as soon as a Jew in a uniform descended and mayhem broke loose, THAT’S when the cameras started rolling and the journalists started paying attention.

Professor Richard Landes remarked that “When an army that is vastly superior, but neither wants to be killed nor kill, meets an vastly inferior enemy who wants to kill and be killed, it behooves both participants and observers to understand why things go awry.”  It should be obvious that the situation was bizarre to begin with.  It is the job of any person who truly cares about a situation to inform himself before reacting, and this should take days, not seconds, since there is lag-time between when events unfold and reports are published.  Intelligent, free-thinking, discerning people should show a little more patience.  (Those who don’t risk looking like fools whose mouths are bigger than their brains.)

I urge everyone who feels strongly (in whichever direction) about this incident to follow it closely, but wait for the facts and results before flying off the handle.  Americans are always urging the parties concerned to “exercise restraint.”  I don’t think that’s a bad policy here.  After all, enough blood has been spilled for little benefit.

In the meantime, I encourage anyone interested in a (nearly) 20/20 hindsight assessment of the incident to read an interview with Joe Settler at the Muqata, which includes both praise for and critique of Israel’s performance in this operation.

And for a little chizuk, check out this YouTube video of a high school kid taking on a mob of hysterical, blood-thirsty Leftists and pro-terrorists in Los Angeles.

Compare his calm and understanding of the facts of what happened (“I’m an informed person”) with their rage and ignorance (“[The] Israeli state does not even exist!”  And the Bible, and the Jewish presence from Biblical days?  “I don’t know about that”).  Personally, I’d rather be like the teenage kid than those adults.

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