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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Israel's Achilles' Heel

Again Israel is fighting. The Gaza operation, which started five days ago, is still ongoing and two questions are being asked today: whether ground forces will enter Gaza, and whether a temporary truce should be considered. Both questions are a reflection of another, unspoken question: how many soldier casualties will this operation cause?

Fear of casualties in war is Israel's Achilles' heel. The process started in the first Lebanon war in 1982, or rather during the prolonged presence of Israeli troops in Lebanon after that war (Israel withdrew from Lebanon only in 2000). The continuous toll of casualties in Lebanon gave rise to various protest movements, most notably "Four Mothers". This decades-long process brought about a paradoxical shift in the attitude towards war casualties: we fear more the death of a soldier than the death of a civilian.

This is a paradox because the primary role of the army, in any democratic society, is to protect the civilian population. A soldier is supposed to risk his or her life in order to avoid casualties to civilians. And yet most Israelis will be more tolerant of civilian casulaties than of military ones. Not one soldier has lost his life in the past five days, but several civilians died as a result of the Hamas rockets fired indiscriminately into Israeli cities. There is not one word of protest against this situation.

The expected toll of soldier casualties is the hidden barometer by which decision makers operate here, in both the government and the IDF, although few will admit it. The Winograd commission, set up after the second Lebanon war, pointed this out very clearly. Our enemies know by now that Israel is unwilling to risk the lifes of its soldiers in order to protect itself. It will fight mostly from the air or using technological means, thus minimising the risk of casualties. This respect for life is very commendable on one hand, but in the long run it works against the interests of Israel. No country, especially one that is threatened on a daily basis by its neighbours, can survive if it is not willing to use its army to protect itself.

This is not saying anything about the current operation, about which I have mixed feelings. It is a general comment on our warped national psyche.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

God, Man and History, by Eliezer Berkovits

This is the second time I'm reading God, Man and History. I read it a few years ago but felt that it deserved a second, much slower, read. So I left it on my desk at the synagogue, and for the past few weeks I've been reading a few pages at a time every shabbat, trying to absorb this masterpiece of Jewish thought more thoroughly.

Eliezer Berkovits is one of the less-known Jewish thinkers of the past century, and the Shalem Institute in Jerusalem should be commended for publishing several of his works in new editions. This edition of God, Man and History was the first book to be published in this series, and rightly so, as it is considered Berkovits' keystone work. It is a small volume (just over 150 pages) and yet it manages to explain in clear language some of the most fundmental questions of Jewish theology.

The book has three sections, corresponding to the title of the book. The first, and most detailed section, deals with the encounter with God which is the core of Berkovits' philosophy. It lays the foundations for the rest of the book. The second section deals with ethics, that is the practical translation of the encounter into Jewish law and deeds (mitzvot). The last, and shortest section, is about the manifestation of God in history (or rather, lack thereof), particularly the history of the people of Israel. As Berkovits himself states in the introduction, the book follows the footsteps of that "most Jewish of Jewish philosophers", Yehudah HaLevi, the 12th-century Spanish philosopher and poet who sought to define Judaism from within (particularly in The Kuzari).

I will not even attempt to summarise Berkovits' philosophy here. But I will highlight one theme that permeates throughout the whole book, that of man's responsibility for his actions. Berkovits solves the paradox of the encounter between God and man by ultimately demonstrating that God cares for His creation and is engaged in its progress and survival. God is not an indifferent supreme being that leaves the world to its own devices (Aristotle), nor is He the pantheistic "God of nature" (Spinoza). However, there exists, and must exist, a separation between God and man, as such separation is vital for man.

The doubts about the existence of God, which derive from the fact that the encounters between God and man in history were extremely rare and brief, are essential for safeguarding man's freedom. God hides from man in order to enable man to believe in Him without compulsion. There can be no intellectual proof of God's existence as such proof would "put the human intellect in chains". We would have no choice but to believe in God; faith would be redundant. For the same reason, there can be no evident and continuous intervention by God in the world (e.g. by preventing evil) as such intervention would crush man's responsibilities and he would be nothing more than a puppet.

This is a most profound idea. We all know to repeat the mantra of man's "freedom of choice". Yet most of us wish for God to be more present, for Him to resolve the problem of theodicy and to govern the world through miracles. Understanding the concept of the "hidden God" and why it is vital for our existence as human beings, is an important step forward in accepting our reponsibilities in this world.

If I were ever asked to make the impossible choice of recommending one book, and one book only, on Jewish thought, God, Man and History would most definitely make it to the short list.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Time to Reboot America

This op-ed piece from Thomas Friedman doesn't say anything new, but it says it well.

For quite some time now, I've been telling my American colleagues that their country's infrastructure and services are below par, always to be greeted with puzzled looks. Perhaps now they'll understand better what I'm on about.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years, by Chingiz Aitmatov

Aitmatov is a Kyrgyz writer who passed away this year. I have never heard of him or his books, but a friend recommended this book to me recently. As is usually the case with friends' recommendations, this book turned out to be a real gem.

The story takes place over the course of one day, and includes one major plot and one short sub-plot. Yedigei, a railroad worker in remote Kazakhstan, sets out to bury his old friend, Kazangap, in an old cemetery. Throughout the long journey to the cemetery, Yedigei recounts his personal history and that of the few other souls that live with him at the remote railroad station. The shorter sub-plot involves the discovery of extraterrestrial life by an American astronaut and a Soviet cosmonaut. The location of the Soviet launch site near Yedigei's station serves as the background for this science-fiction background story.

I will not go into the plot itself; it is far too elaborate and clever for me to try to summarise it in a few short paragraphs. Aitmatov paints an achingly beautiful picture of hardships of life in the remote steppes of central Asia under Soviet rule. He succeeds in describing the rich tradition and history of the local people and how their culture and practices are challenged by the laws of the Communist regime. The animal world plays a major role in the story, with Yedigei's camel, Karanar, being one of the main characters in the book. There is an ever-present criticism of the Soviet regime, but it is so subtle that the book does not become an anti-government manifest.

The sub-plot about the extraterrestrials seems, at first, to be entirely disconnected from the main story. However, as details about the discovery become more apparent, and especially the reaction of the leaders of the USA and the USSR to the discovery, it all comes together. Yedigei's earthly worries and dealings are interwoven with galactic events, to make a strong statement about the human condition. The past, present and future are interwoven in an intricately designed masterpiece.

It's hard to do justice to this book by attempting to review it. I learnt a lot about Kazakh culture and the hard-working rural inhabitants of the Sarozek desert. But mostly I learnt that one can tackle the big questions in life through a simple story. In two words, my recommendation is: read it.

Thursday, December 18, 2008


In these tough times, a little perspective doesn't hurt.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Korean Air and the "Korean Mindset"

Following up on my previous post about Gladwell's Outliers:

I was visiting Korean Air headquarters in Seoul yesterday and had dinner with some managers from the Maintenance & Engineering group. After the proper level of inebriation was attained, I brought up Gladwell's theory about the link between Korean culture and KAL's crashes in the 1990s. I was somewhat apprehensive about broaching this topic as you never know what might be considered offensive when talking about national culture. But the KAL people immediately agreed that one of the main problems that plagued their company was indeed the "mindset" of the pilots, as they put it. They readily agreed that changing this mindset and training the first officer to speak up more directly to the captain was indeed helpful in solving the problem.

However, when I asked them why Asiana Airlines, whose pilots are also Korean, did not experience a similar problem, they were stumped for an answer. After some furious debate between themselves, the explanation offered was that the Korean "mindset" was only part of the problem, and that other issues - such as faulty or missing safety regulations - also needed to be fixed at KAL.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell purports to explore the root causes for success: what is it that makes people successful. Not just ordinary people, but outliers, those who are so accomplished that they lie outside normal experience. His basic claim is that the characteristics and personality of the individual are not the main explanation for their success. Rather, it is their environment which is the determining factor: when they were born, what culture and values they grew up with and how their family and community shaped them.

Here are a couple of examples:

  • Forty percent of successful Canadian hockey players were born in January, February or March. Reason: the cut-off date for selecting players to the children teams is January 1st, so the older the child the more likely he is to be fitter and stronger than his classmates and be selected to the hockey team.

  • Successful corporate lawyers in New York will have a similar profile: born in the mid-1930s to Jewish immigrant garment workers. Reason: they went to underpopulated public schools, received inexpensive college education and were barred from mainstream law firms, leading them to specialise in takeover disputes which later became all the rage in corporate America.

By far the most interesting story in the book is the chapter about the relationship between national culture and plane crashes. Gladwell analyses the example of Korean Air, who had a terrible crash record in the 1990s. Reason: the deferential, hierarchical culture of Koreans prevented first officers from challenging the captain's decisions in the cockpit even when these decisions were tragically wrong. (No chance of that happening in an EL AL cockpit, I guess). The same is true, apparently, also in Colombian culture.

Outliers is a very entertaining book, and Gladwell is a gifted writer. But as with his previous books - The Tipping Point and Blink - I was left with a feeling that this is more of a collection of anecdotes rather than a rigorously researched study. It is almost impossible not to be captivated by Gladwell's narrative, but after the initial "wow" effect, one finds several holes in his "theory of success". If Korean Air planes crashed because of Korean culture, why does Asiana (the 2nd airline in Korea) have a good safety record? And if working in the rice paddies shaped the champions of mathematics and science among Asian immigrants, why did the same not happen to West African immigrants, who also grow rice for a living?

It seems at times that Gladwell shot the arrow then painted the target. He had a theory and then looked for examples that support this theory. Not to mention the fact that if you believe Gladwell, then it really doesn't matter how smart you are and how hard you work. If you were born in the wrong generation or to the wrong parents, your chances of becoming exceptionally successful are very small. That is a very discouraging thought, especially in the prevalent American culture, so my guess is not many will like this book.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Zero-Star Hotel

With companies cutting down on travel budgets and asking employees to use cheaper hotels, one can only hope things will not get as bad as this.