Monday, December 11, 2017

British military maps for conquering Palestine

British General Edmund Allenby entered Jerusalem exactly a century ago today, on December 11th 1917, after his forces conquered the town two days earlier.
Before going through the Jaffa Gate he dismounted from his horse and entered on foot, as a sign of respect for the ancient city he was taking control of.

If city is the right word. All of Jerusalem could have fitted into one of London's larger parks in those days. This is brought home when you take a look at the military maps which Allenby and his troops used as they conquered the area they called Palestine from the Ottomans (who didn't call it that) from the Negev in the south moving ever further northwards. If you haven't seen those maps, here they are.

(Technical note: the best way to see the maps is by starting from that link, then choosing the specific area you're interested in from the list in the lower left corner of the screen. Once you've chosen a map, the way to see it in high-quality is to use the "full screen" button, the one with the two little arrows, in the upper right corner. Note that when you zoom in and out the thumbnail map in the lower left corner shows what part of the map you're seeing).

Take the map of Jerusalem (obviously), and you'll see why Allenby enteerd the town at Jaffa gate and not, say, at the Calavatra bridge near the present day entrance to the city, some miles to the west: Because the site of the future Calavatra bridge was an empty field far to the west of town. According to the map, Jerusalem was the walled Old City, and that's almost it.

Should we visit Tel Aviv? The name of the British map is Jaffa, and about the only part of modern Tel Aviv you'll find is Sarona, and miles to the north the tiny Arab village of Sheikh Muannis, where Tel Aviv University is today. Also, the map helpfully notes the sand dunes at the center of today's Tel Aviv.

But wait. That's actually a bit odd. Tel Aviv was founded in 1909; at least a small version of it ought to have been on the British military maps printed in May 1917? Well, I recommend looking at the bottom right corner of the map, where it says that it's a reprint made in May 1917, from... The Palestine Exploration Fund maps, surveyed in 1878!

This makes these maps even more interesting, because they tell us two very interesting things. The first is that when the British military map-makers needed to prepare maps with which to conquer Palestine, the most recent ones they had at hand were 39 years old, but they weren't troubled because they knew that not much had changed between 1787 and 1917. Moreover, they were able to use the maps because their assumption about the limited change was basically correct. Here and there some changes had been made on the ground, such as the founding of the Jaffa suburb of Tel Aviv; but these changes weren't significant enough to bother the military planners.

The second thing is that this series of maps, put online just last week at the website of the Israel State Archives, shows what the country looked like immediately before the beginning of Zionism. The earliest prot-Zionist attempt at settlement, in Petach Tikva, was in 1878; the first successful wave of modern Jewish settlements began in 1882. (The Zionist movement was founded as a movement in 1897).

Was it an empty land? Of course not. Quite sparsely populated, however. And the Jews aren't visible on the map at all. Even in Jerusalem, where there was already a Jewsih majority in 1878, the names on the map are Arabic. The British archeologist surveyors in the 1870s didn't see the Jews at all, or if they saw them they didn't notice. Which is the opposite of what we're told these days, abut how the colonial Brits did't see any Arabs, and neither did the Jews.

I think it's a valuable set of maps. Go yee and navigate.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

What does Trump's recognition of Jerusalem tell Israelis about their place in the world?

President Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital has done more than upend 70 years of American policy. It has underlined how far the Jews still are from international acceptance on their own terms, rather than as others would have them. It indicates that this lack of acceptance is still fundamental to how the world relates to the Jews.

There has been a raging argument between archeologists these past 30 years about how much historical truth there is in the Biblical stories. A consensus has slowly emerged that King David was a historical figure and that he lived in Jerusalem 3,000 years ago; the argument still rages around the question if his Jerusalem was a small and insignificant village or perhaps something much grander. Some historians insist the Jews emerged as a real nation with their own culture only once their elite had been exiled to Babylon, where they collected, collated and edited the Biblical stories for the first time: those would be the people who claimed "By the rivers of Babylon/there we sat down/there we wept/as we remembered Zion" – Zion being one of the names of Jerusalem. There is no way to make sense of the New Testament unless one accepts that Jesus was preaching and died in Jerusalem, the capital of the Jews. In the 2nd century Hadrian ploughed Jerusalem and built a Roman town in its stead precisely because he assumed that would put an end to the pesky Jews.

Yet at no point in the past 2,000 years of history did any significant political power ever see the real city of Jerusalem as a Jewish capital. In one of history's remarkable twists, British forces conquered Jerusalem exactly a century ago this week. At the time a majority of Jerusalemites were Jews, and had been for at least 40 years if not 80, yet the British carefully gerrymandered all municipal elections to ensure there'd never be a Jewish mayor.  During 30 years of British rule there were a number of proposals to partition the land; none of them ever suggested Jewish control over Jerusalem. The partition plan eventually adopted by the UN 70 years ago last week invented an unprecedented departure from the universal principle of sovereignty, the Corpus Separatum, to ensure the Jews – still a majority of the city's population – would not control Jerusalem.  Deliberations on implementing this oddity went on at the UN years after Israel and Jordan had divided the city between them.

After the Six Day War Israel's leaders assumed the Christian world, which the West could still have been considered to be, would refuse to accept Jewish control of the city. They were talking about religion and its expression in Western civilization, not about international laws.
The near-universal rejection of President Trump's recognition of the plain fact that Jerusalem is Israel's capital looks far more sinister than a mere disagreement over the best way to promote a notional peace agreement. This is reinforced by the blatant flimsiness of the reasons for the rejection and their distance from reality. It looks to this Israeli as a continuation of an ancient insistence that the Jews must be what the others say, and that for them to be accepted they must behave as the others demand. It can't be that Jerusalem is the capital of the Jewish State, because that would mean that the Jews really have returned to national normality, and that they are a nation and state as all the other 200 states are.

The louder the howls are, the more pervasive the condemnations, the more it seems to many regular, middle of the road Israelis that our place among the nations is still not yet finally accepted nor sincere.

Postscript: the cool response of some American Jews to the recognition is also a worthy theme for analysis. Not today, however.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

On Being Jew-ishy

Dr. Devorah Baum of Southampton University may be more connected to some form of traditional Judaism than she lets on in her New York Times op-ed published on the evening of Yom Kippur. So perhaps she herself isn't the problem in her piece at all, but rather the Times editors who welcomed her article and its timing, and the many readers who heartily agree with her theses. The thesis, in a nutshell: Jews are the uprooted, the outsiders, a minority whose identity is unclear but it's not that of the majority. Above all, they're a sensibility (her word).

Well, no. Baum's prime examples are Franz Kafka (died 1924), and Lenny Bruce (died 1966). In the meantime it's 2017, and the State of Israel is gearing up to celebrate it's 70th anniversary. A country invented to end Jews' condition of minorities looking in, is now home to half the world's Jews, and the younger and growing half. So there's that.

I read Baum's op-ed yesterday, then went to shul for Yom Kippur. I love Yom Kippur, but this time I read the machzor with her strange words in the background. I inherited the book itself from my father, but the words themselves we both inherited from centuries of our forefathers. In it are sections of the Pentateuch, which even skeptical modern academia admits has been with us for 2,500 years (the text itself claims it's almost a thousand years older). The commandments founding Yom Kippur come with the whiff of the desert. Isaiah makes an important appearance. He lived in Jerusalem in the 8th century BCE, so there's an echo of the original city on the hill. There are long and detailed Talmudic descriptions of the Temple, harking back from the late Second Temple era, when Jerusalem was larger than it ever was again until the 19th century.

There are blood-curdling descriptions of the Roman persecution in the 2nd century CE, calling to mind the Mishnaic Galilee. There are medieval supplications for mercy, calling to mind the great rabbis of Spain and France and their end; then of course there's Amnon of Magenza, though no more than one German in 10,000 knows that Magenza is Mainz, refusing to budge from his religion even while his limbs are being chopped off. (The poem may actually have been written many centuries earlier, in Israel, but a popular belief of 800 years has power of its own).

Recent centuries - prior to the 20th - didn't add much to the texts, except to parts of the Yizkor, but they added melodies, so that the Ashkenazi ones and the Sphardi ones are quite distinct. Then, once Israel was created it added new layers, and 30 years later, after the Yom Kippur War, yet additional ones. In recent years some Israeli rabbis are trying their hand at creating a combined Ashkenazi-Sphardi version, on the one hand, and secular teachers and thinkers are trying their own versions to fuze the ancient and priceless with the modern.

One can brush all this aside and insist that Judaism is feeling good about welcoming refugees into our midst, or fixing the world to fit a Progressive agenda. By the end of the 21 century, or perhaps long before, there won't be many Jews of that sort left as Jews. Or one can return to what was obvious and banal for a few thousand years: the recognition that Jews have been creating their culture all along, layer on layer, ever richer and deeper.

Jews aren't a sentiment. Jews are the ones who participate in the vibrant ongoing ancient Jewish conversation.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Helmut Kohl Visits Yad Vashem – June 6th 1995 (German original - below)

Helmut Kohl, former (and important) Chancellor of Germany, died yesterday. I met him once, for 70 minutes, when he came to visit Yad Vashem on June 6th 1995. I was the highest-ranking official at Yad Vashem who spoke fluent German, so I used to accompany German-speaking VIPs when they came to visit. That evening I wrote a letter to some German friends, describing my interaction with their fellow. Looking back, I had some ambiguous thoughts about the experience and about the man. This afternoon I dug up the old file and translated it into English, and here it is: 22 years old and never published.

Helmut Kohl at Yad Vashem

The Germans bury their dead for a limited period. 10, 20, perhaps 25 years, depending upon the plans of the local officials, the ability or willingness of the family to pay, and the amount of land which can be allocated to cemeteries. Now and then a bulldozer comes by and pushes the old dead aside so as to make room for their children, until someday place will be needed for their grandchildren. Some Germans prefer to be cremated so as to spare their children the effort – or, perhaps unconsciously? – to spare themselves the embarrassment. Is it really merely a coincidence that back in the days when they wanted to dispose of millions of dead, they used cremation?

Only a few are allowed to rest forever. Important folks such as bishops, knights, prominent politicians, fallen soldiers even if they fell in the wrong sort of war… and Jews. It's ironic. Almost all the truly old cemeteries in Germany are Jewish cemeteries. Travelers might be forgiven for thinking the Jews were the only ones who lived in Germany for centuries. If you know where to look you'll find an old Jewish cemetery in practically every county in Germany; almost always, the newest gravestones in these cemeteries are older than the oldest ones in the regular places.

Federal Chancellor Helmut Kohl came to visit us at Yad Vashem this morning. I accompanied him throughout his 70 minute visit. We began in the Valley of the Destroyed Communities, a sort of cemetery of cemeteries. Once the Jews were gone, their cemeteries began to die, so they've been symbolically transplanted to Jerusalem where the Jews still live. I had intended to suggest some of these ideas to him, but he wasn’t interested. "Yes yes, I understand", he said, and moved on. Not that he didn't observe his surroundings. The gigantic stone blocks of the Valley reminded him of his beloved Rhineland, and he told me about the beautiful cathedral in Speyer, and how the setting sun makes it glow.

That's how it went the entire time. He never saw Yad Vashem, and even less what it means. I told him a thing or two that could have made him reflect, but he didn't. Mostly he saw similarities to his own story, or to the story of Germany – his grandfather had had a similar experience, you know? At one point we came upon a group of German tourists. He spotted them immediately, and went over to shake hands. "It's good that you're here", they told him. "They also are Germany" he remarked to me afterwards. I concurred.

As a professional politician, he cultivates the people around him. He wanted to know who I am, and where my German comes from. (Should I have told him I learned German to understand you people? No, I shouldn't have – and didn't). Then, as he stood before the TV cameras, his entire demeanor abruptly changed. He seemed somehow smaller, and he spoke about shame, memory, and the future… but you saw him on the evening news, no doubt. A minute later it was over, and he carried on his friendly chatter with me. Is this important? The millions of viewers saw his shame and remorse, and only I know that right in the middle of his visit to Yad Vashem he found the opportunity to tell me that he had thinner hair than his father (or was it the other way around?)

Yet the millions probably aren't that stupid, either. I suspect he consistently wins elections precisely because he's the sort of person who can walk through Yad Vashem as if he's strolling through Central Park: intelligent, charming, and untouched. Ah, and ever thinking about his homeland. In Central park or in Yad Vashem, the things he'll take note of are the things that remind him of the beauty of home. I have no doubt that Herr Kohl loves his country, most likely without needing to hate anyone else – and with no need to trouble himself with things that are past and gone.


*      *      *

Late in the afternoon I took the kids to an open air music performance. It was a group of locals singing the canonical Israeli songs, shirim ivri'im: about birds, mountains, about the very act of singing. Patriotism of the best sort; not directed against anyone. A way of thinking (or feeling) that forges community out of many individuals and creates identity. It was a fine experience, and a piece of culture which Israelis don't have in common with most Germans, certainly not those who relate well to Yad Vashem.

I expect Herr Kohl would have empathized fully.


Yaacov Lozowick
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Following the publication of this post a number of German-speaking readers asked for the original version. So here it is.



Kanzler Helmut Kohl besucht Yad Vashem, 6. Juni 1995

In Deutschland wird man beerdigt fuer eine begrenzte Zeit. 10 Jahre, oder 20, oder 25, je nach Entscheidung der Beamten, Faehigkeit oder Wille der Verwandten zu bezahlen, und die Grosse der Flaeche die die Verwaltung bereit ist fuer Toten zu bezeichnen. Ab und zu kommt ein Bagger und schafft all die Alten ab, um Platz fuer deren Kinder zu haben, bis die Enkel alt werden. Manche bevorziehen die Einaescherung, um der Gebliebenen die Muehe zu sparen - oder, vielleicht unbewusst? - sich die Schmach zu ersparren. Sollen wir uns so wundern, dass als man damals Toten millionenweise bei sich hatte, hat man sie verbrannt?

Nur Wenige duerfen in Ruhe liegen. Ehrenbuerger - Bischoefe, Ritter, Politiker - gefallene Soldaten, auch wenn sie einen falschen Kreig gefuehrt haben, und Juden. Ironisch: die einzige alte Friedhoefe die es in Deutschland gibt, sind Juedische. Beinahe konnte man glauben, allein die Juden sind schon jahrhunderte da. Wenn man nur sucht, findet man so einen Friedhof in fast jeden Kreis Deutschlands. Fast immer sind die juengste Grabsteine aelter, als die aelteste Steine bei den Friedhoefen der Deutschen.

Heute war Bundeskanzler Helmut Kohl bei uns in Yad Vashem. Ich habe ihn begleitet waehrend der 70 Minuten seines Besuches. Es fing an im Tal der zerstoerten Gemeinden: eine Art 'Friedhof der Friedhoefe'. Nachdem man die Juden verbrannt hat, sterben nun ihre fruehere Friedhoefe, und sie werden symbolisch weitergepflegt in Jerusalem, wo die Juden noch leben. Ich wollte einen Bruchteil der obigen Ueberlegungen vorstellen, aber er hatte keine Interesse daran. "Ja ja, ich verstehe schon", sagte er, und wir gingen weiter. Wobei er doch was gesehen hat. Die Steine haben ihn erinnert an das Rheinland, seine Heimat, und er erzaehlte mir wie wunderschoen der Dom in Speyer um Sonnenuntergang ist.

Es ging so die ganze Zeit. Er hat Yad Vahem nicht gesehen, schon gar nicht das was Yad Vashem beduetet. Ich habe ihn Einiges gezeigt die einem nachdenklich machen koennte, er wuerde es aber nicht. Meistens sah er irgend eine Verbindung zu seiner eigenen Geschichte, oder zu Deutschland: bei seinem Grossvater sei es auch so gewesen, usw. Unterwegs traffen wir einige Deutsche Touristen, die zufaelllig zur selben Zeit in Yad Vashem waren. Er merkte sie sofort, und ging hin. "Gut, dass Sie hier sind", haben sie ihm gesagt; danach merkte er mir, stolz auf seine Landesleute: "Das ist auch Deutschland". Ich habe bestaetigt.

Wie ein guter Politiker, der die Leute kultiviert, wollte er ueber mich wissen, und woher ich mein Deutsch habe. (Haette ich ihm die Wahrheit sagen sollen: ich habe es gelernt als Versuch Euch Deutsche zu verstehen? Nein, ich haette es lieber nicht sagen sollen, und tat es tatsaechlich nicht). Als er vor die Kameras stand, aenderte sich ploetzlich seine Koerpersprache, er wuerde irgendwie kleiner, sprach ueber Scham, Erinnerung und Zukunft - aber das habt Ihr ja gesehen, bei den Nachrichten. Eine Minute spaeter war es erledigt und vorbei, und er erzaehlte mir freundlich weiter. Ist das wichtig? Die Millionen haben gesehen, dass er sich schaemt, und nur ich weiss, dass er mitten in Yad Vashem Gelegenheit gefunden hat zu erzaehlen, dass er noch weniger Haare habe als sein Vater sie hatte (oder war es umgekehrt?).

Aber die Millionen sind wahrscheinlich auch nicht so dumm. Ich vermute, er wird immer wieder gewaehlt, gerade wiel er so Jemand ist, der durch Yad Vashem gehen kann genau wie er durch Central Park gehen wuerde: intelligent, nett, unberuehrt. Na ja, und sich an seine Heimat denkend. In Central Park, oder in Yad Vashem, er wird die Sachen merken, die sich an das Schoene seiner Heimat erinnern. Ich bin ueberzeugt, Herr Kohl liebt sein Land, wahrscheinlich sogar ohne Andere zu hassen - und ohne sich stoeren zu lassen durch den was vorbei ist.

*      *      *

Am Abend ging ich mit den Kinder in die Stadt. Es gab so ein Open Air Concert, von einer Gruppe die Israelische Lieder singt. Patriotische Lieder, Shirim Ivri'im, ueber die Voegel, die Berge, ueber das Singen selbst. Nationalismus der besten Art, gegen Niemanden gerichtet; eine Denkart die aus vielen Einzelne eine Gemeinde schafft, eine Identitaet hervorrufft. Es war ein schoenes Erlebnis. Und ein Stueck Kultur wo die Israelis mit den Deutschen nichts gemeinsames haben.

Moeglicherweise, haette gerade Herr Kohl es verstehen koennen.


Yaacov Lozowick

Monday, March 13, 2017

Is the $15BN sale of Mobileye to Intel anything to celebrate?



Earlier today we were told that technology giant Intel is about to purchase one of Israel's largest tech firms, Jerusalem-based Mobileye. The initial reaction in Israel was one of glee. During the afternoon I had the opportunity to talk with a fellow who understands more about the matter than most of us, and he didn't seem unequivocally exuberant. Here's the gist of what he had to say.

The Sale of Mobileye is a Good Thing:
1. Great for the tax man. If you assume balancing the budget is good for everyone, injecting a billion $ into the treasury coffers from somewhere else is fine.
2. Great for the ego. Somebody just forked out $15,000,000,000 for the brainchild of some of our neighbors, what's not to like?
3. A whole bunch of locals are going to get dollops of dollars in their bank accounts.

The sale of Mobileye may not be such a Good Thing.
4. Until this morning, Mobileye was a Jerusalem-based company with hundreds of employees, most of them probably reasonably well-paid. Selling to a foreign firm could mean that down the road the new owners pull out whatever they can, knowledge and talent, and Jerusalem will have one less successful employer.
5. The buyer, Intel, used to be one of the world's top 2-3 tech giants. Then it missed a couple of important developments, such as the rise and spread of smartphones, and nowadays it's still very large but not very-top-tier.
6. More worrisome, Intel does not have a good track record of moving into new fields beyond its original core business; driver-less cars look a lot like a new field beyond its original core business.
7. Most regrettable: until this morning Mobileye was one of the very few Israeli tech firms which was bucking the Israeli tradition of inventing something Really Cool and selling to a larger, non-Israeli firm which then makes long-term profit off the original idea. Many of us think it's time some of these brilliant Israeli start-ups should stick around and become a successful Israeli giant. Mobileye was on our short-list; and now it's off.

The sale of Mobileye is a bit odd:
7. Since 2014 the company has been on the NASDAQ. Moreover, many of the worlds` leading car companies have been beating tracks to its doorstep. Why buy back the stock and sell to some other company? The valuation of the present sale is higher than the NASDAQ value, but still?

So, my interlocutor hazarded the following explanation.
8. The industry of driver-less cars is heating up, and looks like it's on its way to being a multi-trillion $ field; as such it's going to attract everyone and their cousins. Mobileye is well placed at the moment, but with everyone else pouring in, it could be forgiven for being a wee bit apprehensive. Intel is way bigger, and perhaps it's more likely to survive among the giants if it's part of a giant itself.

Which brings us back to the original question: seen from the perspective of Jerusalem and Israel, how good is this transaction. Having rained on my parade for a few minutes, The Fellow then drew an optimistic scenario:
9. Intel already has a large presence in Israel, including one block away from the Mobileye offices. It knows how to make the best of what Israeli tech has to offer. So it won't have any particular incentive to extract what it can and go elsewhere. If acquiring Mobileye proves to be part of a successful strategy to migrate into a new field, and a gigantic one at that, of driver-less cars, Jerusalem may end up a very important center of development for that field. Now that would be something to kvell about!

Postscript: those of us Israelis old enough to remember President Jimmy Carter can tell that Israel once had a car industry of its own - well, sort of. There was a factory which produced local cars called Susita; their defining character was that they were made of cardboard. Honestly. Well, if not cardboard, maybe fiberglass. They were light, cheap, came in two colors (Yellow-ish tan, and dirty yellow-ish tan), they crumpled upon impact with anything sterner than a cat, and they weren't exactly proof of our global industrial significance. We also remember, and will swear to the truth of the legend about the bored camel who once ate one of them in a parking lot in Beer Sheva. Here you can see an article in Hebrew with lots of pictures of the last few specimens, which have survived into the 1980s and beyond because they have crazy owners who feed them chicken soup every evening. The article, from 2013, includes pictures of a camel who was brought to the annual meeting of Odd-Owners-of-Susitas, and the contention is that since the 2013 camel refused to eat any of them, the original story must be false. Hmmpf, I say.

Seen in this context, today's story about Mobileye is science fiction, no less.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Matti Friedman's Pumpkin Flowers

Matti Friedman's haunting description of his time in Southern Lebanon, and ours, begins with the daily transformation of night to day, the hour before the world wakes. Armies know this to be a time of grogginess, so they purposefully enact procedures to ensure alertness; in Friedman's day it was called konenut im shachar, which he translates as Readiness with Dawn. Correctly, he opens his memoir by describing how the days began - and how his days, almost 20 years later, are still formed by them:
Sometime first light would reveal that the river valley had filled with clouds, and then the Pumpkin would feel like an island fortress in a sea of mist - like the only place in the world, or like a place not of this world at all. There was a mood of purposefulness at that hour, an intensity of connection among us, a kind of inaudible hum that I now understand was the possibility of death; it was exciting, and part of my brain misses it although other parts know better....
Readiness with dawn ended up being a time for contemplation. Look around: Where are you, and why? Who else is here? Are you ready? Ready for what? So important was this ritual at such an important time in my life that this mode of consciousness became an instinct, the way an infant knows to hold its breath underwater. I still slip into it often. I'm there now.
So the first compelling thing about this book is the report about a strange and almost forgotten time in our history and how it's still present for the men who were there. I read somewhere that war novels or memoirs have a standard format. Innocent young men go to war, kill and watch friends be killed, conquer demons and collect scars that will remain with them forever, and return home wiser. Not long ago I read Karl Marlantes's Matterhorn, about Vietnam, which is a fine specimen of the genre. Then I read Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, which fits the template less and was noted by many reviewers for its departure from it. One reviewer of Pumkin Flowers describes it as the Israeli version of Things They Carried. Yes, perhaps.

The second thing about the book is its claim that the odd little war between Israel and Hezbullah in the 1990s, repressed as it was at the time, mostly forgotten ever since, and always unnamed, was actually the harbinger of the larger war which has since overrun the region and sent tentacles across the globe. The IDF generals at the time, he remembers, were still preparing for the big wars with the tank divisions; the civilians were focused on the big peace which was certain soon to arrive.
So civilians in Israel were thinking about the new Middle East, and the army about the real war, but nothing came of either - it turned out that what was happening in Lebanon was both the new Middle East and the real war. Something important was afoot while everyone looked elsewhere, and marginal events turned out to be of the most significance. This is often the case.
Then there's another paradox, which he describes well but never fully spells out. Israel's war in the Security Zone in the 1990s was a stupid war, but the political and military leaderships were committed to it so it took a major effort of sections of civil society to convince the voters to convince Ehud Barak to run in the 1999 elections on the promise to leave, which he and we did in May 2000. By the end that year the pervasive Israeli expectation of peace was destroyed. So the war of the Security Zone ended because Israeli society had had enough of futilely spilling blood, but the stage was now set for what looks to be decades of off-and-on violence and further rounds of war. A dialectic result if ever there was one, compounded, to be honest, by the uncertainty of the wisdom of allowing Hezbullah to assume it had won. If the coming 40-50 years see no further wars between Israel and Hezbullah, we'll be able to say the war of 2006 corrected the false message sent in 2000; if there are, the withdrawal of 2000 will look less justified. Historical perspective takes time.

Until then, Friedman's book is a moving guide to those confusing days, and a poignant memorial to the soldiers that survived it and to those that didn't.

Matti Friedman, Pumpkin Flowers, a soldier's story.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Michael Herzog dissects John Kerry having a go at Israel-Palestine peacemaking

Michael Herzog is a serious fellow. A retired brigadier general in the IDF intelligence corps. The son of Chaim Herzog, commander of the IDF intelligence corps and eventually President of Israel; nephew of Yakov Herzog, a top-tier official in the 1960s who died young after besting Arnold Toynbee in a discussion about Jews and their place in history; also a nephew of Abba Eban, Israel's legendary foreign minster in the 1960s. He's the older brother of Yitzchak Herzog, the current leader of the Labor Party. He's been involved in just about all the rounds of Israeli-Arab negotiations over the past 20 years or so, in one capacity or another. So when he describes the most recent failed attempt to forge peace between Israelis and Palestinians, of which he was part in an advisory role, he's worth listening to. He knows Israel from its center to its edge; he's been observing Israel's Arab neighbors for 50 years; and he has as much experience of dealing with putative American peace-makers as any Israeli.

John Kerry's chapter of the decades-old off-on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations garnered much less attention than some of its predecessors, such as the Camp David negotiations run by Bill Clinton in 2000 or their Hail-Mary-pass edition in December 2000, or even the Olmert-Abbas negotiations of 2008. Most observers on all sides seem to have resigned themselves, some more and others less, to the futility of such attempts, and anyway the minutiae involved doesn't easily lend itself to Twitter-style reporting. Yet in Herzog's telling, Kerry's chapter was as serious as its forerunners, and its failure is as instructive.

Herzog doesn't tell us who offered exactly what and what was extracted in return. Rather, he tells about the dynamics. They're not that surprising to seasoned observers of the genre, but they're instructive; I think they're important.

The Palestinians first. It's well known they regard their acceptance of Israel in its borders of 1967 to be their final offer; they've made all the compromises required for peace, and the purpose of negotiations is to bring them sovereignty in the entire West Bank,Gaza, East Jerusalem, along with a resolution to their Right of Return, and Historical Justice. It's the historical justice which you've got to keep in mind, as according to Herzog, in the Kerry negotiations as in all earlier attempts the Palestinians put immense weight on being accorded justice as they define it.

The demand for justice is unusual in the annals of international peace negotiations, which usually focus on more concrete issues; also, negotiations generally involve give-and-take; when one side insists it has finished giving and is at the table only to take, negotiations won't succeed.

The story Herzog tells about Netanyahu is a bit surprising, though not earth-shattering. As he tells it, Netanyahu actually demonstrated seriousness and eventually also flexibility towards reaching an agreement. Herzog quotes him once as telling Kerry that a compromise must hurt both sides, and he was willing to accept hurt. The Palestinians, not: see above. Herzog cites American negotiators who agree that Netanyahu eventually showed significant flexibility.

Which raises an interesting question. The Netanyahu and Obama governments didn't get along so well, as we all noticed, even up until the final days of Obama's administration. If Netanyahu had actually moved significantly towards where Kerry wanted him, what was that final bitter speech in the State Department in January 2017 all about? I pose this question for future investigation. Something doesn't add up.

The pattern of end-run Israeli flexibility and Palestinian recalcitrance is not new ; it has actually been the norm for at least 16 years. Which makes the American part of the story so odd. Herzog credits Kerry with investing endless time in the negotiations, including daily conference calls from whatever country he might be in. Man, was he serious about this! Serious, but inept. He missed details of major destructive power, such as not noticing the distinction between an Israeli willingness to free convicted Palestinian murders from prison, to the Palestinian insistence they be sent back to their hometowns, where the Israelis expected them to stir up trouble. He also missed things that weren't details at all, such as being in constant touch with Netanyahu to ensure he didn't backtrack, while not being in similar touch with Abbas, not realizing he wasn't on board, and eventually watching him jettison the process for yet another empty agreement with Hamas. Most damning, in my reading, was the apparent American assumption that it was Netanyahu whose positoins needed eroding, while Abbas was taken for granted: if we deliver Netanyahu Abbas will make the deal and won't need cajoling of his own. Or, as Herzog puts it: Kerry felt his positions were closer to those of Abbas.

Except, of course, the Palestinian positions were never what Kerry thought they were, which is why irrespective of how much Netanyahu grudgingly moved, no agreement was within reach at any moment. If you read too much of the New York Times and not enough of the Palestinian sources, you'll end up believing in a reality which doesn't exist.


Sunday, January 22, 2017

Here we are - Hinenu

I mostly don't write about books I dislike. Jonathan Safran Foer's new novel, Here I Am, will be an exception, for reasons which actually have to do with some of the themes of this (mostly dormant) blog.

The late Jacques Barzun taught me, in his magisterial From Dawn to Decadence, that the task of literature is to enlighten us about the complex lives of people. Well, Foer's book didn't do it for me. None of the protagonists were appealing to me as people, nor, even at the end of almost 600 pages, were any of them particularly familiar. Though I don't read much literature, so maybe the fault is mine.

I wonder whether the book will age well. Portions of it take place in an online game called Other Life, which may have millions of players, and may be forgotten in ten years. There is a section written as a text-exchange - a form of communication which may gone by the end of the decade for all anyone knows. A pivotal event hinges upon breaking the code of a cell-phone, which may seem a quaint curiosity five years from now, when we all use DNA-related wave-length to secure our phones, assuming phones don't go the way of the fax machine. Great literature takes the particular and demonstrates its universality; I'm not certain particular technology does that.

The book is overtly Jewish - in an American way. It's extremely verbal. Its Jews are talkative, virtuoso and compulsive players of sophisticated word-games; it's exhausting. Not long ago I read John William's Stoner - a short, taciturn novel that hits Barzun's target fully - which couldn't remotely be about Jews. Foer's Jews aren't taciturn. But what are they? Part of the story is that none of the children see any sense in Judaism; I didn't find much in the stories of their elders to change their mind. Thus begging the question: what's Jewish?

And then there's the Israel Thing. May I please request of American Jewish writers that they desist from describing Israel with stuff about Moshe Dayan, Golda Meir and Jerusalem of Gold? How credible would it be to describe early 21st century America by mentioning President Hoover, General Marshall or square dancing? If Foer's American characters were shallow and unconvincing, his portrayal of Israelis is beyond silly; it's offensive.

But that's not the worst of it. The book presents itself as the story of an American Jewish father whose family is disintegrating until a cataclysm in Israel forces him to find himself (Here I am) in relation to something larger. The title of the cataclysm is "the destruction of Israel". Now I'm not one to say that Israel is indestructible, but if you're going to use that as the conceptual framework for a 600-page novel, common courtesy to the real Israeli's would be to flesh out some remotely plausible scenario, one that somehow addresses Israel's real flaws or vulnerabilities. Foer can't be bothered enough even to flesh out any sort of scenario at all. The destruction of Israel is mentioned, from time to time, as a minor distraction on the TV screens that flicker in the background of the more important events at the front of the stage.

Unless I missed the true point of the book, which is that for American Jewish parents who can't think of any compelling reason their children should care about being Jewish (the best they come up with is "this is what we do"), the destruction of Israel is no more interesting than the real-life destruction of Syria has been these past six years: not at all.