May 18, 2007
Here we are again

We have been here before. An extended period of Israeli restraint ended when Palestinian violence became intolerable. A rain of crude missiles on Sderot caused injuries, property damage, and a great deal of anxiety.

Residents of Sderot have been living for years under the constant threat of sirens, running for cover, and then an explosion. Their nerves are exhausted. They are screaming for the government to do something.

Politicians, especially those in opposition, are calling for a massive invasion of Gaza. The calculus is, how many soldiers to sacrifice for the sake of missiles that seldom kill civilians? And whatever solution is chosen will be temporary. The missiles are easy to make and carry, and no one sees an end to a situation where one or another Palestinian political movement, family, or neighborhood gang justifies itself by firing them into Israel.

We also know that Hamas and others are smuggling great quantities of weapons from Egypt. Should the IDF sweep through Gaza and clean out the arsenals before Hamas is ready for a more serious war with Israel? Again, how many soldiers should we sacrifice for the sake of what can only be partial and temporary? Should we threaten war with Egypt in order to stop the smuggling? Or should we content ourselves with preparing the IDF for a major war when it comes, and hope that it does not come?

This increase in missile launches toward Israel is associated with violence among Palestinians. Gaza is in extremis, with chaos on the streets, and rooms full of newspeople huddled together on the floor, each with a cellphone to his (or her) ear, afraid of bullets and kidnappers should they venture outside.

Hamas seems to have the upper hand, but it is not all that clear. The basic warfare is between families and neighborhood gangs, some of which are now aligned with Fatah or Hamas. It is another demonstration that Golda Meier was right: Palestine does not exist. Family, clan, and local loyalties are more important than national identity. With the increased salience of Islam, religious fervor is tying many people to Hamas, but others to movements they consider more purely Islamic than Hamas. Once people are listening to a spiritual voice, there is no limit to how far they may travel.

Whoever was firing the crude rockets employed an element of Middle Eastern logic: by causing enough mayhem among the Jews, and bringing the IDF to kill Palestinians, they may stop Palestinians from killing one another.

There is another bit of Middle East logic: Gazans are urging an Israeli invasion that will stop the chaos. At least for now, they would rather be governed by Jews than by other Palestinians.

We have our own Middle East logic: there are some invitations we should not accept.

IDF attack helicopters are at work, guided to targets by blimps and unmanned aircraft that provide constant cover, each with their cameras (night and day) directed by young men and women in Israel. There is also low tech spying by Palestinians on Palestinians for the sake of Israeli cash and other goodies. This is how we know in which room or in which car we can find targets.

Mahmoud Abbas, the impotent president of Palestine, is staying out of Gaza while he calls on Hamas to accept another cease fire. He cancelled one trip when his people discovered Hamas planning to ambush his motorcade. Now he is calling Condoleezza Rice and others, demanding that American and European governments stop the killing by Israelis. Another idea is to invite international peacekeepers into Gaza. To protect who from who?

So far we have the endorsement of the White House and the State Department. "Israel has a right to defend itself, and has shown considerable restraint until now." That will last until one of the smart missiles makes a mistake and kills too many women, children, or old men.

Deaths from Israeli airstrikes are starting to compete with the numbers of Palestinians killed by Palestinians. Those of us who remember Vietnam know that body counts do not produce victory. Quality is more important than quantity. When our helicopters manage to pick off enough of the key people, or when they tire of living in the cellars, the next element in the scenario will come into play: a Palestinian declaration of cease fire. It will not cover all who make, carry, and fire the crude missiles, but with pressure from the outside it may produce another period of Israeli restraint. That will last until the next time Palestinian violence becomes intolerable.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 09:43 PM
May 15, 2007
My new friends

I responded to a note from Khalid that employed his usual collection of accusations about Israeli Nazis, Holocaust, genocide and other cruelties imposed on innocent Palestinians. I sent my reply to all the people who received his message, and thereby met some new friends.

The context is increasing chaos in Palestinian. The nth cease fire between Fatah and Hamas is in smoke. Deaths of fighters and others in Gaza have reached the level of 10-15 per day. It is small change compared to Baghdad, but a step up toward the big leagues. Hamas is blaming Israel for Fatah deaths, which Fatah is not buying. Somebody wounded an official Egyptian emissary on his way to a meeting called to arrange yet another cease fire.

Hamas is increasing the rain of rockets on Sderot. Thirty of its residents were hospitalized yesterday, two of them in serious condition. The assessment here is that Palestinians want to provoke an Israeli response that might bring them to stop killing one another. Israel's government pondered a range of options from a massive invasion to letting the Palestinians kill one another while the IDF demonstrates restraint. Restraint will play well outside of Israel, but not in Sderot. Chances are for something somewhere between the extremes.

Khalid is a resident of Hebron who studied in Oklahoma, then ran afoul of Israeli security and does not, or cannot leave his home town; Chris, is an American who mentions a background in the Peace Corp and more recently Iraq; Mary is an Israeli peace activist; Ahmed is an Arab from somewhere outside of Palestine; Joachim claims time spent in Israel and refers to Hebrew and Yiddish literature.

Khalid cannot resist the analogies of Israeli Holocaust and genocide, despite notes from me (and Mary) that he is infuriating many of the people he needs to convince. He predicts the imminent capture of Israeli government by Gush Emunim and other settler extremists, and then the onset of a Holocaust. Being confined to Hebron may shape his thinking. A high incidence of the Israelis he encounters or hears about are as far off the center as he is. I have tried, without success, to convince him that the settlers have no better chance than Mary of governing Israel.

Mary circulates among the Israeli left, perhaps further away than Meretz and its supporters, as well as among Israeli Arabs and Palestinians. She is hopeful of the proper values spreading further until they turn the Israel establishment. She is the most outspoken about my own isolation among people who think like I do. Either she does not know what prevails in a university faculty of social science, or that is not far enough to the left for her. We remain worlds apart. She recoils at Khalid's accusations about Israeli Nazis, but does not concede that Israelis who describe themselves as anarchists also limit their influence. As I understand political history, that label lost its appeal more than one hundred years ago.

Ahmed signs on to the conventional Arab view of who is responsible. He shows signs of recognizing other perspectives, but most of my notes come back on account of a problem with his address.

Chris sees an Israeli collapse due to our violation of all that is legal and decent. When pressed to compare recent Israeli and Palestinian accomplishments (who is collapsing?) he says that it may not be immediate, but sees an outer limit of three years.

Joachim argues that Jewish involvement in efforts to help the people of Dafur are nothing more than efforts to masks the abominations that we are visiting on the Palestinians. He has some nasty things to say about Russian and Zionist Ashkenazim, as well as classical Hebrew texts that express Jewish affinity for the Promised Land. He is more impressed by segments of the Quran that tell him it belongs to the Palestinians.

This correspondence is instructive as well as annoying. I may be old and stubborn, but I continue to value my education, experiences, and judgment. Arrogance or self-respect? You judge. I remain convinced that my reality is real.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 09:17 PM
May 11, 2007

Three current events raise questions about media bias, public opinion, and who makes the ultimate decisions. Opps, no one makes "ultimate decisions." They are always subject to change. But some are ultimate for the time being.

One: football fans broke through restraining fences in order to reach the playing field and celebrate their team's victory. They trampled several of their own, including two boys who remained unconscious for the better part of 24 hours. Television pictures showed hundreds of males ranging from sub-teens to the middle-aged with body language showing great effort and some pain. Some of those who made it over the bodies of their comrades jumped, did cartwheels, and swung from the goal posts in ecstasy, while 30 ambulances maneuvered around them to collect the injured.

There were some commentators who urged calm among the fans, but the weight of coverage was understanding of their emotions, and critical of the police for not assuring their safety.

Better judgment prevailed among league managers. They decided to punish the team and its fans by requiring that its next four games be played away from home, with its fans not to be allowed into the stadiums. There has already been a minor riot protesting the injustice of the decision.

How to screen those buying tickets in order to exclude the team's fans? Perhaps by the looks of those looking for combat. It will not be easy. All teams' fans look about the same.

Two: the strike of university students entered its third week. These young men and women, mostly from families with above average incomes, want to reduce tuition, ideally to zero. There is a government commission at work, considering by how much to increase tuition. Currently the bill is the equivalent of US $3,000 per year. A typical three-year BA at a university ranked among the best in the world costs $12,000. There are scholarships, loans, and work-study programs for students who cannot meet the costs out of their own, or their family's, current income. As elsewhere, graduates are likely to earn substantially more over their careers than those with less education.

The media and public opinion are mostly in support of the students. Resolution of the dispute is complicated by considerable faculty support of the students, faculty opposition to the same government commission on account of other issues it is considering, and a government too preoccupied with other things (mostly its own survival) to make protracted efforts to solve this. Among the difficulties, the prime minister is also serving as temporary finance minister, due to the finance minister's suspension while under investigation for suspected criminal activity. Without a full-time finance minister, it is more difficult than usual to deal with an economic controversy.

Three: a group of about 200 Jewish "anarchists" and Palestinians attacked part of the barrier working its way through the West Bank. These attacks are standard events, occurring once a week or more often. The barrier inconveniences Palestinians and enrages some Israeli Jews, even while it makes it difficult for our neighbors to annoy us by drive-by shootings, suicide bombings, stabbings, and car thefts.

Five reservists who had the job of protecting the barrier were outnumbered by media personnel called by protesters to their event. We saw replay after replay of the pushing and shoving employed by the soldiers. Most dramatic was the picture of an officer who jabbed his weapon into the stomach of a young Jewish man who was trying his best to be violent. It hurt. The young man fell on the ground and held his tummy. Later we saw him leaving the hospital, upright and in no apparent pain.

Within hours politicians were concerned about the soldiers' overreaction, and a senior officer ordered the suspension of the man photographed jabbing his weapon.

Other judgment may prevail. The event is bringing forth an investigation. Substantial military and political voices are expressing support for the five soldiers who had to deal with 200 protesters. Public sympathy for Palestinians and Jewish anarchists is not assured.

What is the message that in all of this?

We wanted a Jewish country. We got a Jewish country. The prophets will serve as national icons until the Messiah arrives. Justice is a prime value.
Those who are outside of the elite (like football fans) claiming to be weak, or supporting the weak (like students, Palestinians, and Jewish anarchists) have at least a short term advantage in public disputes. Whether they rule is a more complicated question. Our ancestors granted the prophets holy status as critics of the well-to-do and the rulers. We never let them govern.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 01:12 AM
May 06, 2007
Education and intellectual success

Us highly educated Israelis wonder about the training of the younger generation.

On the one hand, the dominant image of the primary and secondary education available to most students is depressing in the extreme. Low salaries cannot attract decent students to enter the profession, existing teachers appear to be over-unionized and under-qualified, and the students' results on international tests have dropped from those of earlier years.

On the other hand, more than one-half of the country's universities appear in most rankings of the best in the world. Salaries are also low in this sector when compared to those in Europe and North America. We all know about good scholars and scientists who have gone elsewhere for more promising careers. However, there are usually more good candidates than the available positions, not only at the top universities, but also at the others and in the burgeoning category of colleges.

Among the signs of success in higher education are the likes of Google, Microsoft, and Intel that have located corporate research centers in Israel.

An article entitled "Jewish Genius," by Charles Murray in the April edition of Commentary Magazine includes a comprehensive discussion of historical and biological elements that may explain the signs of intellectual success over the ages. It reminded me of a conversation with a Korean friend. He told me that his nation had a high incident of literacy for a thousand years. I congratulated him on a record more impressive than that of any European nation, but reminded him that my nation was writing the Bible 2,500 years ago. At the time, I did not realize that my half-Korean, half-Jewish grandson was observed to be reading before his second birthday. Better than his father, who we did not notice reading until after his second birthday. Both began without parental efforts. Maybe both kids were equally capable, and the more capable younger parents were quicker to notice what was happening.

If one wants to find the most intense Jewish investments in schooling, the place to look is that of Ultra-Orthodox boys. Many of them begin school at 3 years, when they learn to read. By the end of primary school they are finished with the Bible, for which they have had to learn the Hebrew equivalent of Chaucerian English. Depending on the congregation, they may be conversant in Yiddish as well as Hebrew. By the equivalent of junior high school they are into the Talmud, which requires fluency in Aramaic as well as Hebrew, and a capacity to read the Hebrew alphabet as we know it, as well as the script used by Rashi and other commentators of the Middle Ages.

The utility of ultra-Orthodox education is less commendable. Typically there is no science, secular history, or literature aside from sacred texts.

An American anthropologist (himself religious but not ultra-Orthodox) observed a group of ultra-Orthodox 12-year olds in an Israeli yeshiva. He found himself jealous of their knowledge, which dwarfed his own. Yet he came to suspect their breadth. When he asked them to draw a map of Israel, none of the group knew what he meant by a map. None could name Israel's neighbors. One thought that the Philistines were still a problem. When asked to indicate how long it takes to travel from Beer Sheva to Jerusalem (83 kilometers), several said that the biblical Abraham had done it in three days, and since he had the Lord's help it must take longer now (Samuel Heilman, Defenders of the Faith: Inside Ultra-Orthodox Jewry ).

My late father-in-law told a story about riding a bus in Jerusalem. When the hourly news broadcast reported something about Libya, an ultra-Orthodox man sitting alongside of him asked "What is Libya?" "A country in Africa," was the response. The next question was, "What is Africa?" Erich began by asking the man if he had heard about Egypt. "Of course. What a question. We all know that we were slaves in Egypt." Assuming that the man actually knew how to locate Egypt on a map, and something about directions, Erich told him that Libya was just to the west of Egypt.

I recall a conversation with an ultra-Orthodox man who I perceived to be well educated. I commented that my experience with religious Christians was that they often had an intimate knowledge of the Bible, but did not know the stories of Tamar. I suggested that the unpleasant elements of the stories, one a story of seduction (Genesis 38), the other a story of rape (II Samuel 13) explained the lack of knowledge. Religious Jews, I assumed, knew the stories insofar as they read the Bible ritually every year. He seemed puzzled, and asked, "Who was Tamar?" He reminded me that it was forbidden to study the Bible alone, without a qualified teacher.

A study of ultra-Orthodox women by Tamar El-Or carries the title, Educated and Ignorant. It emphasizes the paradoxical contrast between a community that provides its members with intensive schooling and is organized to exclude outside influences.

Some of the ultra-Orthodox go on to one or another field of secular education, with or without abandoning their communities. Others study sacred texts for their whole lives, marry early, and send their many children to the schools thought to be appropriate. Their incomes typically consist of the government grants to yeshiva students and what the wife earns as a teacher or in one of the other occupations considered appropriate. They contribute to the statistics of low average family incomes, especially in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak.

The hope for the secular majority may lie in the Coleman Report, a product of the US Office of Education in the 1960s. It found that formal schooling was secondary in its importance for intellectual success. The stronger influences came from parents and friends. It did not inquire about genes.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 09:39 PM
May 03, 2007

We are stuck with a period of political uncertainty. Perhaps that is obvious. Politics is a craft of uncertainty. But this is more uncertain than usual.

Some calculations:

The interim report of the government committee to investigate Lebanon II was highly critical of the prime minister, defense minister, and the chief of the IDF general staff. However, it was not so critical as some committees that have reported on previous issues, that demanded the resignation of key figures. The chief of the IDF general staff resigned in January, and is studying at Harvard. The prime minister and defense minister are holding on.

Compared to other military activities, the results of Lebanon II do not seem all that bad. It punished Lebanon, and Israel's casualties (military and civilian) were less than in any previous war. The performance was better than Kennedy's Bay of Pigs; Johnson's management of Vietnam; and Israel's remaining in Lebanon from 1982 to 2000 with a steady drain of casualties.

An estimated 150,000 people turned out in Tel Aviv to demonstrate their demand for the resignations of the prime minister and defense minister. It was impressive, but not overwhelming. The standard of comparison is the 400,000 who came to protest Israeli actions in Lebanon in 1982.

The foreign minister advised the prime minister to resign, but she followed up with a public presentation widely viewed as weak and vacillating. She is no longer a leading candidate to replace the prime minister.

Lebanon II is not the prime minister's only problem. Continuing inquiries by the State Comptroller and the Attorney General might produce indictments for one or another form of corruption with respect to his actions in previous positions, or his personal property dealings.

Party colleagues of both the prime minister and the defense minister are restive. The defense minister faces a party primary later this month that seems likely to displace him. He is pondering resigning as defense minister before that. The final report of the government committee investigating the war is due in a couple of months. Commentators agree that it is likely to be even more critical than the interim report about the prime minister and other senior people in the government and the IDF.

There is no obvious candidate to replace the prime minister from within his own party. Benyamin Netanyahu is leading in the polls, but the wide government coalition will not be quick to dismantle itself and risk its members' futures in national elections.

The prime minister's party, Kadima, has suffered from the problems of several key members under charge for one kind of criminal infraction or another, but it still owns the center of the political spectrum. Labor and Meretz to the left do not profit from the public's view of Lebanon II. Many, perhaps most, think that the war was not aggressive enough. The threat of Netanyahu coming back to power might be enough to unite the left and center, and weaken those who simply want to rid the country of the prime minister.

Ehud Olmert is a skilled politician, even if he does not score high on credibility or integrity. He is promoting himself as the best person to fix the problems of the military and the government.

This is a terrible time to listen to the radio. It is filled with the blather of established commentators and those who call in. Most are more certain of their conclusions than I. But most are not professors, trained in the art of seeing patterns in uncertainty, and comfortable with balanced ambiguity.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 11:45 PM
May 01, 2007
Politics, music, and the Talmud

This is an ugly week for politics. Prime Minister Olmert's head is on the block (figuratively), and Defense Minister Peretz is next in line. Both are accused of failure in Lebanon II. The airwaves are filled with speculation and planning for mass demonstrations.

It is a good time for classical music and other things.

My routine on Shabbat at 11 AM, for an hour or so, is to study Talmud with a religious friend. I get ready for it in mid-week, going through material first in English, and then the text's mixture of Aramaic and Hebrew. I have been doing it for several years, somewhat to the concern of friends and relatives. "Why is a nice Jewish boy doing that? Are you becoming religious?"

They can relax. The Talmud does not drive me to the rituals of a synagogue. It does give me a sense of participating in arguments that have gone on for more than 2000 years.

The Talmud presents its text in the center of each page, and around the edges are commentaries about its cryptic discussions. The commentaries are by revered sages of the early Middle Ages, and by rabbis who are still working. My teacher explains other things, which he learned from his teachers. They learned from their teachers, and backward for generations.

The beauty of the Talmud is its concern for the detailed application of law. The commandments found in the Torah are important, but no less so are what they mean in practice. When the Torah commands Jews to pray "when you lie down and when you rise" (Deuteronomy 6), what does that mean? When, exactly, are the appropriate times? How to define precisely liability for harm caused by the sources of damage mentioned in the Torah.

Some disputes seem both endless and trivial, as rabbis debate various points concerning how close one can pray to a latrine, or to a place on the ground where someone has relieved himself. The dangers of oxen are considerable, and each variety imaginable has provoked argument. It is easy to understand the statement of Paul, "Doth God care for oxen?" (I Corinthians 9:9)

The Talmud documents the evolution of Jewish law on points of modern relevance. It includes arguments recalled from long before the Talmud itself came into being, when the rabbis decided that "an eye for an eye" meant monetary compensation for damages, and defined numerous ways of evading the death penalties indicated in the Torah.

Discussions also show roots of law dealing with traffic accidents. There are principles of sharing liability when several parties have participated in the damage, and an assumption that the damaged parties have some responsibility for avoiding trouble,

Here and there I wonder if the rabbis were having fun at the expense of their students, and their students' students over the generations.

One item deals with Chanan the wicked. He stood before a court for striking a man on his ear. His fine was equivalent to a certain coin. His only coin had a face value twice as much as the penalty. His coin was faulty, and no one would give him two smaller coins in exchange. What to do? Chanan the wicked was not about to pay a greater fine than necessary. He struck his victim on the other ear and surrendered his coin (Bava Kamma, Chapter 4, page 37a).

In another argument, a rabbi raises the question, "What if a man falls from a roof, and penetrates (sexually) a woman on the ground?" Is such a man liable for compensations for the full range of items applicable to ancient (and modern) claims: pain, healing, loss of employment, and humiliation? Not for humiliation, because (according to the rabbis) he did not intend to inflict the injury (Bava Kamma, Chapter 2, page 27a).

This week's political commentary is no more enlightening.

Posted by Ira Sharkansky at 07:38 AM