Friday, November 30, 2007

Haaretz Expose of Financial Corruption at Israeli Neocon Thinktank, “Shalem Center”

In a long article in Haaretz’s Shabbat Supplement today, Daphna Berman and Naama Lansky exposes financial corruption, and even sexual improprieties, at the well-funded (and hitherto well-respected) Israeli rightwing think tank, the Shalem Center, whose donors include the usual rightwing suspects (Ron Lauder, Sheldon Adelson, Zalman Bernstein, and the russian oligarch, Leonid Nevzlin) Natan Sharansky is the director of Adelson Center for Strategy. Of course, the real directors are the former Princetonians and Daniel Polisar (the current president) and Yoram Hazony (the former president.)

Hebrew readers can read the dirt here. The English link is here Because I did not have the English link, I actually summarized it below. Then Richard Silverstein had told me that Sol Salbe had tipped him off to the article, and he "scooped" me here. Serves me right for not getting Tikun Olam delivered automatically to my inbox, which I will now rectify.

For the moment, here is the gist of Lansky’s investigative reporting. Some of it is significant; some of it is just gossip and sour grapes from fired employees. You know, the usual stuff of exposes.

Several weeks ago, there was a break-in at the Shalem Center’s Jerusalem headquarters, in which nothing was taken, but computers were vandalized and cables broken. A report was filed with the police which omitted all mention of the vandalism, and when the police investigated, they found no signs of a break-in. Two weeks ago the state’s attorney filed an indictment against the Center’s chief financial officer, the accountant Shaul Golan, for fraud and embezzlement of over a hundred thousand shekels (less than $25000.)

That’s only the tip of the iceberg. Apparently, two years ago Golan tried to take financial control over the Shalem Center, which he thought was being run wastefully and corruptly. An internal investigation was conducted which raised the suspicion that spyware had been installed in the computers, and that private email correspondence had been collected and leaked. Golan was arrested and released; many workers were questioned by the police, and armed guards protected the premises for several weeks thereafter.

I suppose the alleged theft of $25,000 is small potatoes when you realize that the annual operating budget of the Shalem Center is over ten million dollars. When the average annual salary of a Israel university professor is something like $40,000, Polisar and Hazony pull in over $200,000 each. According to the article, the two use the funds of the Shalem Center as personal slush funds for family outings, employing family members, using employees as gofers, personal shoppers, and babysitters.

I will skip over the personal eccentricities of Yoram Hazony reported by Lansky – his requirement that the employees use the same font for all their typing, that staples have to be at a 45 degree angle, etc; that they provide him with a particular sort of yogurt, and a certain amount of cream cheese for his bagel. Not surprisingly, there is a huge turnover of personnel. Employees of the Center are often sent out on personal errands, like bringing pizzas to his children, picking up his laundry, moving personal effects to new quarters – all of which is considered part of their regular duties. OK, here’s one funny story. An employee was once told to drop everything and to run to the pharmacy and get a prescription for Yoram as fast as she could. She ran to the pharmacy and breathless asked, “What are the directions?” The pharmacist said, “Just tell me, what sort of cat is this for? Because the directions are different for different sorts of cats.”

When it comes to the Shalem Center, apparently, money is no object. When Hazony didn’t like a design element for the journal Azure after it had been printed, he had all 5,000 copies reprinted. “Whatever it costs, just do it,” he is quoted as saying. Not bad for a center that defines itself as a non-profit organization.

Another employee tells of the decision to hold a brain-storming session not in the Center’s building but in the main ballroom of the King David Hotel, complete with the hotel’s catering, The vast majority of the participants, regulars at the Center, just walked out of the Center and went to the King David.

Of course, there is the usual nepotism associated with family businesses. Yoram’s brother, David, worked there for twelve years in an executive position, and as editor of the periodical Azure – until he was forced to leave because of an affair he conducted with one of his subordinates. (At the time he was working on a book on the Ten Commandments – or maybe, for him, the Nine) As part of the agreement, he committed himself to move out of the villa in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramot (over the green line, of course) that had been purchased for him, or to buy it himself.

Yoram’s wife, Yael, is the chief editor of the publication series of the Center, which has an annual budget of a million dollars to put out 4 or 5 books yearly. Yael is listed as the editor of the Hebrew translation of the Federalist Papers. This is not to the liking of the real editor of the book, Dr. Shlomo Yotbat, an expert in US history, who spent a year editing and annotating the book, for which he was paid, only to see that he appeared listed in one of the book’s pages merely as an “academic consultant” to Hazony’s wife – who apparently wrote none of the notes. Yotbat couldn’t afford to sue, he says, but as a result of the threat to sue and the negative publicity, the Shalem Center agreed to list his contribution as “scientific editor,” and to give him – what else? – some more financial compensation to shut him up. (Reaction of the Shalem Center – “The omission of Yotbat’s name was an error rectified in later editions.”)

Golan emerges towards the end of the article as somewhat of a good guy, because he tried to save the Shalem Center from the wasteful and corrupt management of Hazony and Polisar by attempting to hire a former employee, Sarah Kramer, who had begun to institute procedures and reforms before she was fired. A year after she was fired, Kramer met with other employees to see if they could wrest the control of the Shalem Center from its founders. Hazony found out, declared the situation “a nuclear war,” and went into action, which was to seize the computers used by the employees, fired other employees (though often keeping them on payroll provided that they not show up) Any employee who had been associated with Golan was summarily dismissed. Remember, we are talking about a research institute, not a biotech company. Yoram Hazony, who is apparently at work on a 1200 page treatise on human nature, which aims to present a new model of the human brain, with a Jewish accent, that will replace models by thinkers such as Noam Chomsky (I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP! -- JH), has been angling to be a rector or president of a new Jewish university that he wishes to establish. He recently confided to a friend, interviewed by Lansky, that if his new university is not established, “there will be no future for Zionism, no future for the Jewish people, and I daresay, no future for the West.”

At the end of the article, Haaretz published a response from the Shalem Center, which defended all its actions, and blamed disgruntled employees associated with Golan for all the dirt.

And now it’s Jerry’s turn to make a comment.

I have read many of these exposes in Israeli papers before, and the pattern is predictable: A Jewish organization has a charismatic but quirky guru at its head, who charms the pants off of rich Jews, who then bankroll him. He treats the organization as a private slush fund for his megalomania, and, if he is halfway intelligent, he can actually do a lot of good with the money. But there is no effective oversight; the employees are treated like dirt, and most important, the guru is usually there for life, without control and peer review.

The problem is not the ideological orientation of the Shalem Center. OK, I am obviously not in their ball park. But it is a pity that the Center has fallen the victim of its own success. I would suggest to the Shalem Center’s Board of Directors that they start looking for a replacement for Hazony, or kick him upstairs (making him “President” or “Rector,” since he likes the title).There are decent, hardworking, and intelligent neocons who work at the Shalem Center – Michael Oren comes to mind. And ribono shel olam, get a CFO who knows how to keep the rapacious intellectuals in their place.

Isn’t it about time that the quirky gurus from Princeton are replaced? For the sake of the future of Zionism, the future of the Jewish people, and the future of the West?

Shabbat Shalom.


Thursday, November 29, 2007

What Can Be Learned from the Hannah Diskin Affair at GWU

The Washington Jewish Week, a center-right community newspaper that I receive gratis, for some reason, published an article this week about a George Washington University Instructor who quit teaching her class on the Israel-Arab confict after students complained to the chair of the Political Science department that the class was one-sided and biased in favor of Israel. The students were left in the lurch, and the university had to find a substitute. This, according to the WJW, admittedly not the most reliable of newspapers.

The instructor, Hannah Diskin, was described by the WJU as "visiting from Hebrew University". and a "postdoctoral fellow" funded by Mitchell Bard's American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise. And indeed, Dr. Diskin is listed as a postdoctoral fellow for the current year on the AICE website.

Cecelie Surasky has a convenient summary of the matter on her wonderful Muzzlewatch blog. But I looked a little more closely at the matter and didn't like what I saw.

Let's start with some facts that escaped the notice of the WJW reporter, Eric Fingerhut regarding Dr. Diskin. (Mr. Fingerhut deserves considerable credit for pursuing the story.) These facts are culled from Dr. Diskin's cv which appears not on the Hebrew University website, but -- surprise!-- on the website of the West Bank Ariel College of Judea and Samaria. (Yes, that's the one that calls itself a "university center", despite that it is not recognized as such by the Israel Council of Higher Education)

First, Dr. Diskin, who is listed by AICE as an "AICE supported postdoctoral fellow" at GWU this year, received her doctorate from Tel-Aviv university over twenty-five years ago. Generally, the limit for eligibility of postdoctoral fellows is seven, maybe, nine years. Why would AICE award somebody like Dr. Diskin a posdoctoral fellowship?

Second, Dr. Diskin is not on the faculty of Hebrew University, so she cannot be described as "visiting from Hebrew university." Her cv lists her as having a "teaching position" at Hebrew University from 1992-2005 in the Political Science department. That is usually code for being an adjunct instructor. Her husband, Avraham Diskin, is a professor in that department and a former chair. He is a visiting professor at GW this year. (Oddly, this was not mentioned in the WJW article.) In fact, if I understand her employment history correctly, she has never been more than an adjunct at Hebrew University or any other university inside or outside of Israel. From 2001 she is listed as the Director General of a publishing company.

Third, Dr. Diskin's area of scholarly expertise -- according to her publication history -- is Polish-Christian relations. The only book that she has authored by herself is entitled, The Seeds of Triumph: Church and State in Gomulka's Poland -- a book that was published twenty years after she received her doctorate. She has coauthored with her husband several articles in one of his main areas of scholarly expertise, the Israeli electoral system. She has not authored a single article on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, as far as I know.

I want to be very careful about what I say here. The fact that Dr. Diskin has never had, apparently, a permanent university position, does not in itself exclude her from being an effective teacher, or for that matter, a competent scholar. There are many fine scholars in Israel who, for various reasons, are without a permanent tenure home. (I cannot refrain from saying that the plight of women academics in Israel is particularly pronounced, but I have no idea whether that is relevant in this case.) I also don't think that her political views, which I obviously don't share, are particularly relevant to the question -- provided that she keeps them to herself.

My problem is not with Dr. Diskin, but with GW, which allowed an advocacy operation like AICE sponsor an adjunct instructor who is an expert in Polish-Christian relations to teach a class on the Arab-Israel conflict!

I won't even begin to comment on the appropriateness of her assigning as one of the two books in the class, Mitchell Bard's Myths and Facts, a highly biased and one-sided polemic that has no academic value whatsoever. Bard's organization sponsors her, and then she turns around and assigns Bard's book?

Nor will I speculate that the position was arranged for her by AICE as part of a package deal that brought her husband and her to GW on her husband's sabbatical. That is not the issue. Had she been teaching in her field of expertise, or even in her area of teaching competence, without such tendentious sources, then who would have cared?

When are universities going to learn that they cannot be cavalier with accepting money from outside organizations that fund teachers who, based on the news report, do not meet the minimum standards of objectivity? Assigning the Bard book in a college classroom, if true, is a big smoking gun.

Most amusing, though predictable, is the reaction of Daniel Pipes. Pipes has lead a crusade against what he calls biased Middle East professors. One would have thought that he would have been the first to criticize Dr. Diskin's use of Bard's one-sided work -- after all, the assumption is that as a scholar, he would oppose tendentiousness on both sides, right?

But no -- apparently, alleged advocacy and biased teaching is ok when you are on the side of Israel. Pipes was quoted as saying,
So far as I know, it [Bard's Myths and Facts] is a reliable source, perfectly reputable," he said.


Sunday, November 25, 2007

A Note On "Viability"

Why do I insist on Israel's resettlement of, say, around three hundred thousand Palestinian refugees, if the Palestinians can have a "viable" state on the West Bank and Gaza of their own? Shouldn't the Palestinians just drop the demand of resettlement of refugees -- any refugees -- within the 1948 armistice lines?

I don't have the time now to answer these questions, but I do want to say a few words about the curious notion of "viability."

For several years now, the US and/or the Quarter have called for a "viable and democratic Palestinian state alongside a safe and secure Israel." I have never heard of the call for a viable Israel; Israel's viability is taken for granted. Why, then, a "viable" Palestine? Well, there is the fear that considering what Israel plans to keep-- close to 80% of mandatory Palestine for most of the mandate's period -- and the control that it wishes to continue to have over the West Bank and its resources, a mini-Palestine will not be "viable". So the term "viability" seems to reflect the minimum conditions of a state's continued existence that keep it from degenerating into anarchy. Once we have taken the patient off life support, the patient should be able to stay alive.

Now, let's think of other terms besides "viable". How about "strong", "secure", "independent", "economically prosperous, with room for natural growth and expansion"; a state "that neither dominates nor is dominated by its neighbor state" (you know, the one established by Eastern Europeans), and "that has the same opportunities possessed by the other state"?

Wouldn't it make more sense to use those terms rather than the anemic "viable"?

Frankly, talk of a "safe and secure Israel besides a democratic and viable Palestine" reveals the zionist, and, arguably, racist assumptions of the speaker. It implies that Israel has needs of security guarantees from the Palestinians, where the history of the conflict shows precisely the opposite. Both sides have killed thousands of each other (the Jewish side admittedly killing more of the other side, but let's reserve that point, for the sake of argument), but only one side has successfully thwarted the national aspirations of the other side, and kept millions under the longest occupation in modern history, if one includes those areas that it seized outside the 1947 partition plan. The phrase also implies that Israel is a liberal democracy (a questionable assertion, as students of liberal democracies will tell you) and that the Palestinians are somehow uniquely challenged in this regard.

The original thinking behind the two-state solution for Palestine was that because there were two communities with strong feelings of nationalism, the partition of the country was the way to satisfy the central claims of both communities. When the Arab Palestinians thought they had the upper hand, they rejected partition; when the Zionists thought they had the upper hand, they rejected partition. If the two-state solution has any hope for success, it must be recognized by the majority of peoples of the region as at least partially just, even if the governments, beholden to special interest groups, are unable to conclude an agreement.

A lot of people think that the concern with justice is naive; that the world is in an unjust place, and that power rules. That may be. But I can tell you that if one side feels that it has been unjustly shafted in a peace agreement, that the "state" and the territory it has received is not just less than what belongs to it by right, but considerably less than what the other side got -- then this is a recipe for disaster, instability, terrorism, and war.

A solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, if it has any chance of succeeding, must at least give the strong impression to both communities that it is leveling the imbalance between the two states. A more equitable division of Palestine will help in this regrad; federation between the two states will also help. Recognition of historical injustice, even if it implied, will help. And attempts to get the maximum number of groups on board will also help.

Since none of the above will be considered at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, that is why this whole affair is -- I hope -- doomed to fail. I would not like there to be a third or a fourth intifada, But if waging an intifada is a necessary condition for achieving justice for the Palestinians, then I can no more deny the Palestinians the right of armed resistance than I can any other group under occupation.

As the good book says, "Justice, justice, you shall pursue."

Monday, November 19, 2007

Von Berlin bis Annapolis

I am currently in Berlin at a conference commemorating the centenary of the death of the greatest Jewish scholar of the nineteenth century, Moritz Steinschneider. Steinschneider is known as the father of Jewish bibliography; a better appellation would be the father, with Leopold Zunz, of Jewish literary history, and of the history of cultural transmission from the Greeks to the Arabs to the Jews and the Christians. I will have occasion to speak about Steinschneider in a separate post; he was a Jewish liberal who detested nationalism, and certainly, Zionism, while possessing a deep love of Jewish history and the Jewish people. He was especially interested in the impact of secular philosophy, science, and medicine on Jewish savants in the middle ages. This was part of a broader interest in the transmission of culture from one group to another -- and that is what my conference here in Berlin is about.

But Annapolis, which is around a half hour from where I work,may be hosting a peace conference. So here are my two cents about that, from Berlin.

My hosts last shabbat asked me what I thought Israel needed from the US. My answer, which, I am embarrassed to say, I literally shouted several times, was, "Tough love." The next day the LA Times published an op-ed by Bernard Avishai and Sam Bahour, which said the same thing, only more reasonably and coherently. So please read the following article by these two very intelligent and decent human beings. I have not always been a fan of Avishai's work in the past; I felt that as a liberal Zionist he sometimes cuts the state too much slack (Who am I kidding? I do the same) But at times he is right on the money, and this is one of those times.

The whole piece can be read at Sam's great blog, epalestine or at the LA Times here

I like agreeing with people -- it's my nature -- and I especially like to agree with people with whom I usually don't agree. So, rightwing readers of this blog, rest assured that we agree on this one. Annapolis won't be good for Israel.

OK, end of agreement.

It won't be good for Israel because nothing will come out of Annapolis, certainly nothing that answers the minimium requirements for a just peace. If the Palestinian negotiators capitulate, that will be a disaster, because even moderate Palestinians will not accept anything less than a two-states. There will then be violence, and Israel will suffer. The Palestinians will suffer more.

No way out.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

"Just let me do the talking"

One of things that Israelis love to say is, "Rak ten li le-daber" -- 'Just let me do the talking.' Well, Israeli males certainly like to say it. It means something like, if you just let me speak, I will convince you that I am right or reasonable or something to that effect. Ehud Barak was completely convinced that he would succeed as a negotiator -- all he had to do was to put his suggestions on the table at Camp David, and the Palestinians would either be convinced, or would show that they are not serious about peace. It is like your brother-in-law who tries to convince you that he can sell your car at a better price than you can -- just let him do the talking. When one brother-in-law fails, another pops up, or maybe it is a cousin or a neighbor.

The latest "brother-in-law" is Ehud Olmert. He says that the Palestnians are partners -- well one or two of them are, and that they will go with his deal. That deal is not as good as the one that they accepted (with reservations) when offered by Pres. Clinton. But no matter...they lost the intifada, they are suffering mightily, Hamas has taken over Gaza -- trust me, I can convince them.

Of course, conventional wisdom would say that under those circumstances they will be less likely to cut a deal. After all, it took an initial victory in the October 1973 war to give Egypt the security and national honor it needed to cut a deal with Israel. Why would a battered Palestinian authority agree to terms that it couldn't agree to when it was politically stronger?

Ehud Olmert has made a big deal of Muhammed Abbas's reasonableness as a partner. What will he say when Abbas hangs tough on demanding that Israel recognizes its responsibilty for the Arab refugee problem, or rejects Israel's demand for recognizing it as a Jewish state? I suppose he will "pull a Barak" -- he will go around the world saying, "What do you want? I tried. The buyer wasn't serious."

Let's hope that he doesn't react that way. Who is ready for another intifada?

Little Victories

This evening a comment was left on my post, Three Cheers for Adalah and the Israeli Supreme Court by an Israeli woman, who wants to be known as "sister of child of Abraham". I reproduce the comment (very slightly edited) because of its importance:


We recently had a similar "problem" in our community, a new yishuv for secular and orthodox jews (within the green line) I might have been naive thinking a place like this would be more tolerant, seeing as many people moved here to get away from homogeneous societies they had previously lived in. After what happened in Misgav, the question was raised: what would we do if an arab famiy wanted to join our community?

In the discussion that followed I used the word "racism" much to the dismay of my neighbours, adding that Jews wanting to live only with other Jews was racist as much as say, Germans wanting to live with only Germans. These double standards always amaze me!

In the end, it was decided that although no one would want a situation where Arabs would join the community, we wouldn't be able to not accept people on acount of there ethnicity.

So for now, my husband and I can keep living here....

sister of child of Abraham

Well, sister of child of Abraham, all decent human beings can be proud of your stance. I hope that your community will follow your family's lead. It has to start somewhere -- I assure you and them, that were an Israel Palestinian family welcomed in your committee, it would not only be a kiddush ha-Shem (a sanctification of God's name), but it would point the way for other communities like you. Look, let's face it: you can't force people to live with people they don't want to live with. But you can educate people to see why excluding people on the basis of the ethnicity, or religiosity, etc., is wrong. -- especially when the majority has no "separate but equal" facilities for the minority.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

"The Only Democracy in the Middle East"

The Occupation Magazine is still the best source of ongoing news of the Occupation.

From Walla Editorial translation by Daphna Levit Monday 12th November 2007

With a partial quorum, the Committee approved the vote on the “law of conditions for listening-in”, which will allow the police to listen to any citizen practically without supervision

The Constitution Committee of the Knesset approved the vote on the proposal for the “law of conditions for eavesdropping” in the second and third readings, which will allow the police to listen-in on land and cellular lines of every citizen without requiring the approval of the court; also to verify the geographic location of the speaker when he is speaking on a cellular phone; or to acquire patterns of his internet surfing and the text messages he sends.

In fact, this means the establishment of a data base which will give the police access to this type of information without it being requested from the telephone companies, the cellular or internet service providers. Although officially the police will need the authorization of the court to obtain this information, in those cases it is assumed that the eavesdropping could help save life or prevent serious crime, the police will conduct it on their own initiative.

The Voice of Israel (Broadcast) reported that only 4 of 16 members attended the committee meeting and some of them accused the Committee chairman, MK Menachem Ben Sasson of snatching the agenda. MK Rubi Rivlin (Likud) said that bringing this proposal to a vote is probably Kosher, but it stinks. MK Ben Sasson responded “We announced the date of the vote and all was Kosher.” With regard to the law itself he added: “The citizens of Israel can be assured that the privacy of the individual will not be affected”.

The Easy Cases

It's the easy cases that the tribe can agree on. We can all agree that the Kahanists, or the settlers harrassing Palestinian children, or uprooting olive trees, or the abusive soldier at the checkpoint, are moral monsters. But when it comes to the IDF in toto, or the Israeli government, or the State of Israel and its supporters, or some of the assumptions of Zionism -- the harder cases for the tribe -- we pull back. We start the litany of justification and finger-pointing.

Oded Na'aman of "Breaking the Silence" talks about the problem of focusing on "easy cases" or what he calls the "extraordinary cases."

IDF Spokesperson Tells the Truth!

On Thursday, 1.11.07. , The Daily Israel Today published a story revealing that soldiers from Golani 12th battalion take pictures of corpses of terrorists which they killed, and use them as screen savers on their cell phones. At first glance, it seems that that is the real news is in this story. At a closer look, the article gives us a rare glimpse at the logic that guides the IDF spokesman when examining cases like these. This is due to an unexplained honesty of the IDF's response to the incident.

After the obligatory declaration of the IDF's commitment to morality and human rights, the IDF stated: " The issues will be examined, and if we see that this is indeed an extraordinary case, and not a widespread phenomenon, it will be dealt with with utmost seriousness."

Yes, yes -- according to the IDF, if this is a widespread phenomenon, meaning, if they find out that in many cases soldiers have corpses as screen savers on their phones, the problem will NOT be dealt with.

Finally the IDF stated, without shame, their policy since Breaking the Silence began publishing soldiers' testimonies: The IDF does not investigate or punish when dealing with the illegal norms of its soldiers. It only acts in extra-ordinary cases. The reason is simple: the IDF is aware of the importance of ethical values. And ethically, an extra-ordinary problem is better than a widespread phenomenon, so the IDF deals only with the former.

Indeed, even if there is a widespread phenomenon, what could the IDF possibly do? put the whole army in jail? If there is a normative problem, they might as well leave it alone. It isn't such a big deal... we will let the troops have a little fun. After all, they need to be proud of their work. "And I will tell you something else" -- one can almost hear the IDF saying -- " they got those dead Arabs in some great positions"

Only when people like Amoz Oz and Avishai Margalit (and I) look into the mirror and see Barukh Marzel staring back at them is there hope for some progress.

Until then, we will just be agreeing on the easy cases.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Col. Moshe Hager Lau and "Breaking the Silence"

I never thought that when I relocated to DC for the semester, I would have enough material from my shul visits for this blog. Last shabbat Kesher Israel in Georgetown hosted Col (Rabbi) Moshe Hager Lau, currently the head of the military preparatory academy (mekhinah), located in Beit Yatir, in the Hebron Mount area, over the Green Line. The settlement is one of the middle class modern orthodox settlements that sprouted during the 1980's along with much bigger places like Efrat (although Beit Yair is a moshav, or was -- readers, correct me if I go astray here.) The official name of Yatir is Metzadot Yehuda, apparently because the moshav really isn't where the Biblical Yatir was, as if that matters much. Here, too, the separation fence/wall leaves the green line in order to divide Yatir from the West Bank and to annex it into Israel.

Col. Hager Lau is not only the head of the mechinah at Yatir; he is the head of the council of mekhinot, of which there are a bit over a dozen, half of them religious, half of them secular. These institutions provide a year of military preparation and ideological reinforcement to young men going into the army, usually joining elite units. (I will devote a post to them sooner or later). In any event, Col. Hager Lau led a group of soldiers into Hebron during the second intifada. Some of those soldiers are now members of "Breaking the Silence," the group of soldiers who document the activities of IDF soldiers on the West Bank. The founder of that group, Yehuda Shaul, was a soldier in Hebron then, and many of the pictures of the "Breaking the Silence" exhibition are from there.

Col Hager Lau gave the devar Torah at our synagogue. Using the metaphor of "Jacob wearing the clothes of Esau," he talked about how the Israeli soldiers, when they fight, are like Esau, but that when they leave the army, or even come home for a vacation, they take off the clothes of Esau, and put on the clothes of Jacob. Even when they are in the army they are only wearing Esau's clothes; the true warlike nature of Esau (according to rabbinic Judaism, anyway) does not effect their essential nature as Jews.

After the davening was finished, I wanted to go up to him and say, "Bullsh-t". But I don't talk that way, not to mention that this was shul on shabbat, and what do I want from the guy? So I told him that my son and others who were brought up to be like Jacob, could not so easily take off the clothes of Esau when they left the army; in fact; their stint as "Esau" had been a nightmare for them. He was nonplussed, even sympathetic. He knew about "Breaking the Silence" and said that it was an important group; indeed, he had invited one of its members to come and speak to his mechina students about the importance of acting ethically towards the Palestinians.

What follows is more or less what he told me.

I spend an entire year teaching my students -- in a class devoted just to this issue -- how they have to behave responsibly and ethically towards the Palestinian civilian population, to alleviate their suffering to the best of their ability, consonant with Israel's security needs. As an educator and as a religious Jew, I know that power can go to your head, but I do not tolerate -- nor does the school, nor does the IDF -- the humiliation of Palestinians. During the first intifada, I was a company commander, and one of my platoon commanders really lost it and wrote racist graffiti on the walls. I ordered him to erase it, and I asked him how he could do such a thing. Occasionally there are foul-ups, and the army has to deal with these, as should any decent army. But what is the alternative? To take down the checkpoints? To let in suicide bombers?

I believe Hager Lau's sincerity. I believe that he genuinely thinks that he is doing his best to be moral, and that he instructs others to do their best. But he simply doesn't get it. It is not only the abusive soldier at a checkpoint that is immoral. (Soon to be a thing of the past; it is now an abusive security guard -- the Israeli version of Blackhawk.) It is the checkpoint itself that is immoral. And if a system of checkpoints, repression, violation of human rights, is necessary for the continued existence of the state of Israel, who but an amoral tribalist would possibly wish to pay that price, at least, for more than a short period? And Colonel Hager Lau, because he is willing to pay that price, is not a moral person.

Of course, I am not much better than he is. I pay taxes and do my other citizen duties. I wimp out. What have I done to end the occupation besides write this pseudononymous blog, sent some emails, given some lectures, and attended some demonstrations?

Friday, November 9, 2007

Mukasey, Waterboarding, and Jewish Ethics

Michael Mukasey's nomination for Attorney General was approved last night, over objections that he had not condemned waterboarding as an interrogation technique, or labeled it "torture."

Mukasey is a modern orthodox Jew. I suppose that the likelihood is high that he will relocate to Washington, DC, and if he does, there is a very good chance that he will attend the Georgetown synagogue, which I also attend, when I am in the US. And if he does that, then there is an excellent chance that he and I will be drinking schnapps together on a weekly basis at the kiddush following the services. Already there were jokes last Shabbat about simulating drowning with single malt scotch.

So this post relates what I would say to him over schnapps, if I thought it beneficial or appropriate, which I don't.

Mike, it is a collosal mistake to justify the use of torture -- sorry, "extreme interrogation methods" -- by appealing to the so-called "fight against terrorism." The mistake is twofold; first, as former Undersecretary of Defense, Dov Zakheim, once told me, torture is useless in getting good information. But more importantly --it is morally abominable, even if the information is useful, and even if it will save lives. Because there are worth things than death, Mike, even the death of innocents. And one of them is the deprivation of human dignity, of kevod he-beriyot that results from torture.

Ah, you will say, but what of the imperative to save lives? Doesn't that override the preservation of human dignity. Or to frame that as a Jewish question -- doesn't pikuah nefesh override kevod ha-beriyot? After all, Judaism teaches us that life is sacred. Even a liberal like David Landau, the editor-in-chief of Haaretz, justified depriving the Palestinians of liberty of movement and livelihood during the Second Intifada, if the outcome was to thwart suicide bombers. What of the ticking-bomb defence? Death is irreversible, but loss of dignity is not.

To this I reply as follows: First, Judaism does not teach that life is sacred; the "sanctity of human life" is a Catholic, not a Jewish doctrine. Preserving life (especially Jewish life) is an important value, but not an overriding one. There are times when it is better to die, or to let die, than to violate human dignity.

The Talmud in Sanhedrin tells of a man who literally was dying for love of a woman. The doctors concluded that if the man did not have sexual relations with the woman, he would die. The rabbis said, "Let him die instead." Then the doctors suggested that she merely appear naked before the patient, and the rabbis still said, "Let him die instead." Finally, they suggested that she merely converse with the patient from behind a barrier. The rabbis said, "Let him die instead." The Talmud asks on this, "Why such severity?" One of the answers is, "So that the daughters of Israel should not be sexually licentious." Or as Maimonides writes, "So that the daughters of Israel should not be 'up for grabs'(hefker), and become in these matters sexually licentious."

I understand the Talmud and Maimonides to be saying that the dignity of the woman cannot be compromised for the sake of somebody else, even for the sake of saving his life. As Kant would say, you cannot use people as means to an end; each individual human being is an end unto himself. Now, admittedly, the Talmud does not talk about human dignity. But, as I have argued elsewhere, the particularistic ethical principles of the Talmud often can, and should, be extended to include all human beings.

So Mike, there are limits, and we have to beware of the self-serving moralistic arguments (e.g., the ticking-bomb argument, or the water-boarding-is-not-torture argument, or the national-security argument) that allows us to be "moral" while behaving like beasts.

The death of innocents is a horrible fate, but there are worse. Even if I bought the utilitarian argument on waterboarding -- which I don't -- I would be stopped by the Kantian argument. And, of course, by the best construal of Jewish tradition.

I am not taking a pacifist line. There will be all sorts of grey areas. But that is what the international conventions are for -- to agree upon how civilized nations behave.

Waterboarding is torture, Mike. You didn't say it, but I hope you believe it.

Shabbat Shalom


Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Oxford Union Brouhaha -- Post Mortem

Having corresponded with some of the people involved -- but not with the Oxford Union president, Luke Tryl -- and having read some of the accounts, this is my current take on the disinvitement of Finkelstein and its implications.

Luke Tryl, by his own admission, on three separate occasions, concedes that he felt under pressure from Alan Dershowitz and other groups for his decision to invite Norman Finkelstein to speak on behalf of the two-state solution. However, he claimed explicitly, both at the Oxford Union, and in an email to Avi Shlaim (the contents of which were discussed by Shlaim in a letter to the Jerusalem Post), that this pressure was not the decisive factor in his disinviting Finkelstein, i.e., that he did not cave in under pressure.

I am not interested in the psychology of Tryl. Needless to say, it is not in his interest to appear as somebody who caves in under pressure; better to say that he came to the conclusion that the initial decision was a mistake. But self-interest or not, the latter scenario may be the truth.

Paul Usiskin's group,UK Peace Now, initially appeared to take the credit (at least by implication in one of their news releases) for convincing Tryl; they then backed off when they saw the negative reaction. I am inclined to believe, with Shlaim, that they initially exaggerated their role. Still, after an email exchange with Usiskin, I take back my accusation that he has gone over to the neocons. It still may be worth distinguishing neocons from liberal Zionists. Paul's heart on several issues is in the right place. I just wish that his group continues to look for allies on his left and not merely on his right.

The most believable person with whom I corresponded is one of the pro-Israel students in the Oxford Union who approached Tryl and complained about Finkelstein's invitation. He was willing to concede that there was external pressure on Tryl, but that this was not, in his opinion, the reason for Tryl backing down.

Finally, there is the question of Lord Trimble's role. Trimble bowed out, he said, due to diary pressure. Jonathan Hoffman of Engage claimed that he refused to appear on the same panel with Finkelstein, and this was the decisive factor. Hoffman is inclined to accept the statements by Tryl that fit his views, and to dismiss those that do not.

As I wrote earlier, the culprit here appears to be Tryl. He owes Finkelstein an apology for disinviting him, for offering multiple explanations of the disinvitement, and for misrepresenting Finkelstein's position. I agree that the debate with the original panelists was flawed, and that it did not include all voices -- e.g., the position of Meron Benveniste, a Zionist who is a one-stater, or rightwing Israelis who are one-staters, or Jewish Zionists who are two-staters.

Was there censorship here? The purpose of the pro-Israel crowd was NOT to censor Finkelstein, or to prevent him from appearing at Oxford. Rather, it was to dictate under what rubric Finkelstein can appear; The Finkelstein they wish to portray -- an extreme, self-hating Jewish holocaust-devaluing supporter of Palestine -- can and should appear for what he "really" is, they say. But the real Finkelstein -- a moderate, if somewhat abrasive, scholars who supports a two-state solution because it is the international consensus -- cannot be allowed to appear. And why? Because it shatters the mythic worldview of his opponents, who to this hour simply cannot believe that Finkelstein favors a two-state solution, or that he is not an extremist.

It is very important for that crowd to marginalize Finkelstein as an extremist, and to portray themselves as centrists.

This reminds me of Alan Dershowitz's claim that he was not trying to silence Finkelstein when he tried to convince the University of California Press not to publish the book. Dershowitz claimed that he had no problem seeing the book published by an ideological, left wing house like Verso or Seven Stories. He simply did not want a mainstream academic publishing house publish the book, lest Finkelstein be taken seriously as a scholar. Apparently, he did not want the intense criticism of Israel to be associated with anybody besides the "anti-semites" and the "loonies of the left," two categories to which the real Finkelstein does not belong.

Once again, I can understand why the Zionists were upset with the choice, and they certainly had a right to express their opinion. But disinvitement at such a late date was scandalous.

Censorship is not only about silencing the Other. It is about retaining the power to determine how the Other will be perceived.

The "Forgotten Refugees" -- Jewish Refugees from Arab Lands

The NY Times reported yesterday on the efforts of a group, "Justice for Jews from Arab Countries," to get recognition for what they call the "forgotten refugees," those Jews who left Arab lands as a result of discrimination, persecution, etc., and whose property was expropriated, etc. The focus of the group will not be demands for compensation, but rather recognition, especially in the United Nations, where the Palestinian refugee problem is often on the agenda, and the origins of the problem commemorated.

In so far as this group wishes to address the violated rights of the Jewish refugees from Arab lands, I applaud its efforts, and I urge all supporters of the Palestinian national movement to join. In fact, I think the demands of the group should not just stop at recognition, but should include compensation and the right to return to Arab countries. Although it is wrong to equate the exodus of Palestinians with those of the Jews for several reasons -- primarily, because the Jewish exodus was encouraged by the Zionists as part of the "ingathering of the Exiles" -- that does not reduce the responsibility of the Arab countries for the forced emigration and expropriation, nor does it eliminate the pain of leaving one's ancestral home, losing property, etc.

The Canadian former minister of Justice, Irwin Cotler, a noted Zionist and international expert in human rights, who will be speaking at the group's conference, was quoted as saying:

“I know this may sound Pollyannaish, but I believe that if we allow people to understand the truth of what occurred, then they will be able to recognize the other,” he said. “Right now the other is being demonized.”

I agree with Mr. Cotler. From the Palestinian standpoint, any discussion of the rights of refugees to recognition, compensation, and repatriation, can only help raise the awareness of people, including Israelis, that there is no statute of limitations with respect to fundamental injustices. By embracing the cause of the Jewish refugees, the friends of the Palestinians should emphasize the similarities but also the differences between the two exoduses: one group was expelled from its home; another group was expelled to its home, at least according to Zionist and traditional Jewish ideology, and in many cases, into the physical homes of the expelled Palestinian refugees.

The most significant difference between the two exoduses is that the Palestinian refugee problem was caused by the Zionist refusal to allow the Palestinians to return to their homes, but the Palestinians were not at all responsible for the expulsion of the Jews from Arab countries; on the contrary, they also suffered from it. The idea that future compensation to be paid to the Palestinian refugees should be reduced by the compensation for the Jewish refugees, an idea apparently accepted by the PA negotiators, is horrendous. The Arab states should pay, not the Palestinians.

It is the significant differences that caused me to raise my eyebrows when I read that, according to the Times,

Another objective is to push for early passage of resolutions introduced in the United States Senate and House that say that any explicit reference to Palestinian refugees in any official document must be matched by a similar explicit reference to Jewish and other refugees.

Inasmuch as this forced and artificial balance serves a rightwing and anti-Palestinian agenda, it is offensive to both groups. The Zionists have always accused the Arab countries of using the Palestinian refugees as pawns in propaganda warfare; supporters of Israel should not be doing the same with the Jewish refugees from Arab countries. Injustices on both sides should be redressed by the appropriate parties and not forgotten. But one group should not suffer at the expense of the other.