This Blog Has Moved


New Address:

All posts are available in the new blog

Please do not post any comments here. Go to the new address to comment. Thank you.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Fall (cont.)

A year and a half ago I wrote about the fall of miss USA in a beauty pageant as symbolising the decline of the United States.

This post came back to my mind this morning, as I read about the victory of Li Na over Venus Williams in the Australia Open. Another small metaphor of the decline of the US, befittingly this time in the hands of a rival from China.

Li Na

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Israel and the Haiti Earthquake

Like most Israelis (OK, perhaps a little more than most) I am critical of Israel and I have a tendency to point out the bad things and ignore the good things. It’s mostly a criticism born out of love, just as a father is more upset with the wrongdoings of his own children than with those of other people’s.

So when Israel does something right, I am only to happy to point it out. Israel’s response to the disaster in Haiti has been fast, effective and disproportionate (in the positive sense of the word). Within 48 hours, two 747 aircraft with 220 military medical personnel and a fully operational field hospital were on their way to Haiti. The Israeli rescue delegation set up and started saving lives almost immediately. This CNN report is worth watching.

On a side note: Many countries sent aid to Haiti – some more, some less. I’m still waiting to hear about a Muslim country sending aid: food, clothes, supplies, medicines. Anything really. I know Abu Dhabi or Saudi Arabia are very poor countries compared with Israel, but surely they can pinch something together for Haiti. After all, isn’t Islam a charitable religion?

Monday, January 11, 2010

What the Dog Saw, by Malcolm Gladwell

Every time I visit the US, I pick up a copy of the New Yorker. I love reading the long, well thought out and superbly written, essays. “What the Dog Saw” is a collection of 19 essays written by Malcom Gladwell and published in the New Yorker over the past decade or so. The essays touch on various subjects but they all have that “Gladwell touch”: a seemingly mundane and boring topic is turned into a fascinating narrative with thoughtful insights.

What the Dog SawThe book is organised into three categories. In the first - “Minor Geniuses - Gladwell explores people who have made a significant impact in their field of expertise. I truly loved the first essay in the book, about Ron Popeil, who single-handedly invented the direct marketing of kitchen appliances, first by selling on street corners and later on late-night TV. The story is fascinating from both a business and a personal perspective. The third essay in the book is about an equally captivating character, Nassim Taleb, who devised an investment strategy based on the “inevitability of disaster”, that is betting that the most unlikely event (like 9/11) will happen. I found other essays in this category less captivating, such as the one about John Rock, the inventor of the birth control pill. I didn’t agree with the conclusions Gladwell drew from Rock’s decisions regarding the Catholic church’s approach to the pill.

Essays in the second category deals with “theories, predictions and diagnoses”. There is an essay about Enron and how how all the information was there for everyone to see. Another, related, story deals with a subject that was at one time close to my heart: the impossible job of military intelligence assessments. In these two stories Gladwell makes a brilliant distinction between puzzle and mystery. A puzzle is a problem which has a definitive answer and finding that answer depends on finding all the relevant pieces of information. A mystery, on the other hand, is a problem with no definitive answer, because it requires judgement and assessment and cannot be solved by gathering more information. Many of the intelligence assessments are mysteries and that is why intelligence organisations have failure built into their very nature.

The last category of essays is about “personality, character and intelligence”. Gladwell makes minced mint out of the “profile builders” of the FBI, those psycho-experts that can tell you who the criminal is (almost) by analysing the crimes he committed. In another essay he asks the question “are smart people overrated?”, and in a third he asks whether it is possible to hire people based on interviews. I found some of the essays in this category to be less engaging and less convincing, as they touched on topics that appeared in Gladwell’s previous book “Outliers”, which I didn’t like.

All in all, this is a delightful collection of long-winded essays but easy-to-read essays. Vintage Gladweel, vintage New Yorker.

PS – This was my first ever audiobook. I never thought I could concentrate on a book by listening to it, but I found out that while driving or jogging, listening to a book is a great way to pass the time. I’m now trying to listen to a novel and see if it works just as well.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

State, Army and Religion

The past few weeks have seen the age-old discussion about the relationship between state and religion in Israel make the front pages again. The current debate was prompted by Defense Minister Barak’s decision to kick out the Har Beracha Yeshiva from the “Hesder”, literally “arrangement”, by which religious boys can do a shortened army service (about half, 1.5 years) and spend the rest of the time continuing their studies. This arrangement has been around for decades and the army tolerates it because most of the religious soldiers join elite combat units, meaning they will spend considerable time each year doing meaningful reserve duty.

Barak’s decision came after the head of the Har Beracha Yeshiva, R. Eliezer Melamed, vociferously backed a handful of Hesder soldiers that wrote banners proclaiming their right-wing political views, specifically that they would refuse to obey an order to evacuate Jewish settlements. He stated that the soldiers should follow the rabbis’ rulings and where there is a conflict with a military order, they should prefer the rabbi’s directive. Obviously, from the army’s point of view, this is an unacceptable stance. Both R. Melamed and Barak climbed very tall trees and it seems hard for them to find a ladder to climb down. The debate escalated after some of R. Melamed’s colleagues backed him, while other Hesder rabbis sought to calm things down.

The truth of the matter is that once this debate turns to the question of whose authority the religious soldiers should listen to above all else – the army’s or the rabbis’ – there is no way out. No religious person can accept a statement that there is a higher authority than God. And no army will accept a statement that a soldier can decide whether to carry out an order based on his religious belief. (I’m assuming, for the sake of the discussion only, that the rabbis’ right-wing stance faithfully represents God’s will; in my opinion, it doesn’t). So trying to bring the discussion to a head on this point is useless. It will cause more harm than good.

To me, what needs to be done is very clear: a separation of state and religion. Israel is a secular country that has an army to protect it. The army is an organization that has no religious significance, just as the government has no religious significance. A decision by the government to build settlements or to evacuate them is a legitimate democratic decision that has no religious bearing. Speaking of the State of Israel, its government or its army as having any kind of religious meaning is not only ridiculous from the secular state’s point of view. It is also ridiculous from the religion’s point of view! It belittles the Jewish religion and relegates it to a position of subservience to a civilian organization, instead of allowing it to be independent of any authority. Israel is not governed by the laws of the Torah and by associating themselves with it from a religious standpoint, the various religions institutions are, pardon the expression, prostituting themselves and the religion they purport to represent.

Compare it if you will to religion and science, or religion and academia in general. There are many religious scientists and professors in Israel. Some of them are prominent figures in their field of expertise. Some of them deal with issues that are clearly in contrast with their religious views, like the age of the universe, or contraception and abortion, or the study of the New Testament. Yet they continue their work and excel in their fields precisely because there is a clear separation between science and religion. They do not go and ask their rabbi whether to believe the universe is 4 billion years or a mere 6,000 years old. They do not ask for permission to read Luke or Matthew. They understand there are areas of life that Halacha does not cover.

In short, there are two, and only two, decisions a religious person can make regarding the secular State of Israel (and its army). He can either decide, like the extreme ultra-orthodox among us, that until a Jewish religious state, i.e. one that is governed by Halacha, can be established, one cannot recognise the State of Israel or benefit from it. Or he can decide that he has a religious duty (a kind of dina demalchuta) to be a fully loyal citizen of the secular State of Israel, just as he would be a fully loyal citizen of France or India if he were living there as a Jew. All other “in between” combinations are nothing but compromises that do more damage to the religion and to religious people.

Brave rabbis (sounds like an oxymoron in our day and age) should tell their students very clearly that the Jewish religion has nothing to do with a government decision to evacuate settlements. Just as religion has nothing to do with government decisions to provide healthcare or build roads or tax income. Only a clear separation between the domains can solve the non-existent dilemma these rabbis have plunged their students and followers into.

הכלב היהודי, אשר קרביץ

I picked this book up on a whim, during one of the end-of-year bookstore deals. For decades, Israel had only one major bookstore chain – Steimatzky – and all the rest were small mom & pop shops. Then, about a decade ago, Tsomet Sefarim grew as a competitor to Steimatzky and forced it to start reducing prices and offering special deals. Some pundits think the current situation, where the two chains compete fiercely against each other, although beneficial to customers, has hurt writers and devalued Jewish Dogbooks in general. People buy because it’s on sale, not because it’s a book they really want to read. I confess this is how I picked this book. It simply sat on the shelf where I could get 2 for 1, or perhaps was it 1 plus 2 or 2 plus 2. Who remembers? (Which reminds me of this – sorry, Hebrew only).

Yet sometimes a book you never heard about and you read just because you happen to have it, turns out to be a gem. This is the case with “The Jewish Dog”, by Asher Kravitz. Or perhaps I should call it “Der Yiddisher Hund”, which is the Yiddish subtitle of the book.

The Jewish dog is the life story of Koresh, a dog born in 1935 to a Jewish family in Germany. Koresh’s life parallels the horrors of the Holocaust in Europe – from the rise of Hitler and the deportation and extermination of the Jews – and ends with the hope of rebirth of the Jewish State in Israel (it dies in Israel in 1947, right after the UN decision to grant Jews a homeland). The dog, an intelligent, observing animal, goes through various phases and owners in life, and even gets different names. It is through its life experiences that it imparts the reader with insights and understandings about the world and human nature, with a cunning that would dwarf many humans I know.

It is not possible to write about the plot of this short book without ruining it for those who have not read it. In fact, the little blurb on the inside flap of the book has the word “spoiler” written on the top as a warning (even though it doesn’t reveal too much). So I will only point out that Kravitz’s style is simple yet thoughtful, peppered with verses from the Bible and with subtle hints about the “big picture”, which is not how one would normally see the world through a dog’s eyes. He manages to deal with the most horrific period in history – the Holocaust – in a manner that is light and occasionally even comic, yet it does not belittle the enormity of the period it describes. I highly recommend this book.

Monday, January 04, 2010

The Enemy Within

Israelis are used to fretting about the threats from without: Syria and Egypt in the past, Iran in the present, a possible Palestinian state in the future. But Israelis tend to suppress their fears from the real threat to the country’s existence, the threat from within: the so-called “Arab-Israelis”. (Arabs who were here when Israel achieved independence in 1948 and were granted Israeli citizenship). Mostly this burying-one’s-head-in-the-sand attitude comes from wishful thinking (“they prefer to live with us so they’ll behave”) or political correctness (“they are Israeli citizens, like you and me”).

Ignoring the problem will not make it go away. The allegiance of many Arab-Israelis to the State of Israel is an impossibility. Israel Jews cannot ask Israeli Arabs to declare full and unconditional loyalty, simply because such loyalty is not something they can give. Would you ask an American Jew to declare full and unconditional loyalty to the US if the US were an enemy of the Jewish State? Those politicians asking Arab-Israelis to declare unconditional allegiance do so because they want to promote their own agenda, possibly legitimising a future deportation or a “population swap” deal.

So what we are left with is an intractable problem: a huge minority (around one fifth) that cannot be integrated fully. So long as they are a minority, the problem is more or less manageable. But demographics being what they are, the problem will not go away; it will become only bigger. And Israel will find itself managing an apartheid regime to contain the problem, pretty much like it’s been doing with the Palestinians in the occupied territories for the past four decades.

A recent loud and clear reminder to this problem was the “interview” of MK Jamal Zahalka, an Arab member of parliament, to one of the TV shows earlier this week. Putting aside, with sadness, the lack of any vestige of civilised debate, the views expressed by Zahalka are such that will exasperate almost any Israeli Jew. Like calling the Defence Minister a murderer of children who then listens to classical music (the not-so-subtle reference to Nazi commanders of death camps is clear). Or labelling Ramat Aviv (a suburb of Tel Aviv) Sheikh Munis, the name of the Arab village that was there before 1948. Or asking Israelis to listen to what Haniyeh (head of Hamas in Gaza, an advocate of the destruction of Israel) has to say. Instead of helping Israeli Jews understand the plight of Palestinians in Gaza, these declarations achieve exactly the opposite: they raise an impenetrable barrier between Jews and Arabs and preclude any reasonable debate.

By the way, I’d love to see Zahalka express similar views against Arab political leaders on Arab television networks, or even on Palestinian television. Arab-Israelis take the freedom of speech granted to all Israeli citizens as granted (and so they should) but all too often they forget there are 21 Arab countries, and not one of them is a democracy.

I’m sure most Arab-Israelis are honest, hard-working citizens who care much about the same things I care about. But they are stuck impossibly between a rock and a hard place and a future of living peacefully together currently looks like an impossible dream.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

The Snow Cow, by Martin Kochanski

I am not a skier. Never have been. Most likely never will be. So when I started reading a book subtitled “Ghost Stories for Skiers”, I was afraid my non-existing knowledge of skiing would hamper my understanding or my reading pleasure. Fortunately, my fears turned out to be mostly baseless; or, at least, so I believe, as one cannot really know if one misses out on some subtleties due to one's ignorance, right?

Snow CowThis book contains thirteen (most probably an intentional number) short stories, all set in a skiing setting, usually in some upscale resort in Switzerland. The stories, as the name of the book suggests, all revolve around mysterious things happening to people who are in the ski resort – the holiday goers, the chalet owners, the local help, etc. Some of the protagonists are either dead of alive; others are plotting unspeakable crimes; others still are innocent bystanders who get drawn into a situation they cannot escape. The eponymous cow is the main character in the first story, as the drawing on the book cover suggests, this is not a mild-tempered, grass-chewing, cow.

The back cover of the book says that these are “stories to be shared in the firelight after a long day’s skiing”. Maybe this is part of some ski lore that I’m unaware of, but I found some of the stories disturbing enough even when read in the comfort of my bed. The thing about short stories, especially ones that deal with ghosts, is that you can read a couple just before falling asleep and the images from the story will most likely accompany you in your dreams. At least on one occasion, that was not a pleasant experience. So perhaps the firelight in the ski resort is indeed a better place for reading this book.

But it was not the stories which  enjoyed most about this book. Some were good, some were less good. What I enjoyed most was Kochanski’s habit of inserting a sentence, or a short paragraph, that didn’t really contribute much to the story line, but were wonderfully cynical or funny. Most of them made me do a double take, just to make sure I got the meaning correctly, and quite often they made me laugh. I may be wrong, but it seemed to me almost as if Kochanski were using the story only as an excuse to get a sentence he had been thinking about for a long time into the book. Here are a couple of examples (hopefully they’ll be appreciated even out of context):

Jägermeister is a worthy product of the land that gave us weltschmetz, schadenfreude, and angst. It tastes so vile that you have to down it in one. Like some Wagnerian magic weapon, it will heal any wounds except the ones it has caused itself… (from “The Long Man”, p. 59)

Now the man at the ski shop was from New Zealand, and when someone from Nizullund talks about sex, he calls it `six`. They guy in the shop didn’t talk about sex at all, but it being snowboards, he had to talk about decks rather a lot. (from “Downhill”, p. 86)

Kochanski is clearly a very erudite person. And his writing is mostly flowing and intelligent. I hope to see a novel from him in the future.

Friday, January 01, 2010

VaYechi – The Foreign Grandsons

ויברכם ביום ההוא לאמור: בך יברך ישראל לאמר, ישימך אלהים כאפרים וכמנשה. וישם את אפרים לפני מנשה.

(בראשית, מח, כ)

The blessing that Ya’akov gives his grandsons, Efraim and Menashe, on his deathbed, has become the traditional blessing of parents to their sons. On Friday evenings and on the eve of Yom Kippur, parents will put their hands on the heads of their children and bless them using the same words Ya’akov used:

And he blessed them that day, saying: 'By thee shall Israel bless, saying: God make thee as Ephraim and as Manasseh.' And he set Ephraim before Manasseh. (Bereshit, 48, 12).

But a closer look at the verses of this week’s parasha reveals a little drama before Ya’akov gives this blessing to his grandsons.

Yossef’s family grew up in Egypt. He married Asnat, the daughter of a local high priest, and his sons were born and raised in the royal court. Yossef names the eldest Menashe “for God has made me forget all my toil and all my father’s house” (41, 51). He names his second son Efraim “for God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction” (41, 52). Thus Yossef, through the names of his sons, marks the break from his past and the connection with his new home, Egypt. The two sons grow up in the house of the high priest of Egypt, not in the house of their Jewish grandfather, Ya’akov.

Even when Ya’akov and his family move to Egypt and settle in Goshen, away from the centre of power and disconnected from Egyptian culture, Yossef and his family remain where they are. His sons continue to grow up in an Egyptian environment. In fact, when Yossef is called to his father’s deathbed, the Torah tells us “he took with him his two sons” (48, 1). One can imagine the trepidation with which Yossef enters his father’s house, fearing whether his father will accept his sons, who have grown up away from him in a completely foreign culture.

Ya’akov starts blessing his son Yossef by telling him how God appeared to him to promise him and his seed the Land of Israel. But then he takes a pause from blessing Yossef and says:

And now your two sons, who were born unto thee in the land of Egypt before I came unto thee into Egypt, are mine; Ephraim and Manasseh, even as Reuben and Simeon, shall be mine. (48, 5)

The two grandsons are accepted in full by their grandfather and are each given land in Israel, as if they were sons and not grandsons. Yossef thus receives a “double portion” in the Land of Israel. It seems as if Ya’akov accepts Efraim and Menashe fully. But here comes the surprising part. After Ya’akov finishes his blessing to Yossef, the Torah says: “Israel beheld Yossef’s sons and said: Who are these?”.

What is going on here? A minute ago, Ya’akov divided his estate in Israel further to include portions for Efraim and Menashe, and now he asks his son “Who are these?”. He sees these two young men, dressed in the royal Egyptian garb and looking totally foreign to him, and wonders who they are and how they grew up. Are they truly deserving of the land he just promised them in Israel? Shouldn’t he have checked who his grandsons are before imparting such generous gifts unto them?

To understand this seemingly out-of-place question, one needs to remember another place in Bereshit where the words “Who are these?” (מי אלה) is uttered. When Essav meets his brother Ya’akov after the long years of separation and sees his big family, he asks “Who are these?” (33, 5). Ya’akov replies to his brother: “The children whom God has graciously given your servant”.

Yossef’s reply to Ya’akov question is strikingly similar: “They are my sons, whom God has given me here”. This reply reminds Ya’akov of the words he himself uttered in response to Essav’s question, and this memory gives him the understanding that although his grandsons may look foreign, they are his seed and the gift of God. The sons of Ya’akov come in many different shapes and forms, but they are all descendents of the great patriarch, all sons of God, and are therefore worthy of a place in the family.

With this understanding, Ya’akov then proceeds to bless Efraim and Menashe with the blessing that has become the prototype for all future blessings of Jewish parents.

The idea for this week’s Parasha Thought is from R. Binyamin Lau.