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Building new schools in East Jerusalem

October 20, 2011

Nir Barkat, Jerusalem’s mayor since November 2008, is beginning to change the reality in East Jerusalem. He is currently implementing a program to invest NIS 300,000,000 in the construction and equipping of new schools in the Arab sections of town, and while such things take time to move from the initial idea to completion, hundreds of new classrooms are in various stages of construction, thousands of PCs are being distributed, and various programs for students with special needs are being opened.

The gaps between the Jewish and Arab parts of town remain great, but they’re finally being purposefully narrowed.

The Flight of the Intellectuals

October 19, 2011

Another book I read recently is Paul Berman’s The Flight of the Intellectuals: The Controversy Over Islamism and the Press. A worthy book, mostly for the service he has done by researching it.

It is next to impossible to understand a culture without speaking its language.  Which is why approximately 99% of what gets said about the Muslim world needn’t be taken too seriously. Serious observers can look in from the outside while doing their best to understand, but without the language you know they can’t be seeing the entire picture or even most of it. Berman doesn’t speak Arabic, but to his credit he has at least gone to the effort of reading reams of translated volumes, unlike many of the Western intellectuals he gently criticises; he also knows a lot about fascism, far more than your run-of-the-mill pundit or politician. When he combines these two abilities the result is persuasive – and of course, well written and interesting.

He starts by telling about European fascism, and how the Arab world had its own contemporary versions. This, in itself, shouldn’t be surprising nor controversial. Fascism was a popular political movement between the 1920s and 1940s. Hassan al Banna, founder of the Muslim Brothers, was an important Arab fascist.

Berman then tells about an aspect of European influence on the Arab world which has been known for years, but largely unnoticed: the purposeful inculcation of Nazi antisemitism in the Arab world, largely through the channels of Nazi propaganda in Arabic. He leans heavily here on Jeffrey Herf’s important book, Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World: With a New Preface. The lasting result of the Nazi efforts were to convince large numbers of Arabs that hatred of the Jews was an important Muslim idea – and idea which is still alive and well in the early 21st century.

Having laid these foundations, Berman spends much of his book looking at Tariq Ramadan, a Geneva-based professor of philosophy who is regarded by many in the West as a builder of fine bridges between a moderate Islam and Western values – i.e. something of a hero. Ramadan is the grandson of al-Banna, and one might say that folks shouldn’t be judged by the identity of their grandparents, were it not for the fact, well demonstrated by Berman, that Ramadan holds his grandfather in high esteem and no-where tries to repudiate any of his teachings. Worse: the grandfather was assassinated in 1949, but there are still people around who regarded him as their teacher and leader, none more prominent than Yussuf al-Qaradawi, a popular Egyptian cleric who has repeatedly and publicly supported suicide attacks against Israeli civilians, holds problematic ideas about the treatment of women, and has been banned from various countries such as the USA and UK. As Berman documents carefully, Ramadan holds Qaradawi in the highest esteem, cites him reverentially throughout his own books, and only occasionally musters the courage to differ from him on minor matters. (You can read more about Qaradawi here).

As I said, for those of us who don’t know Arabic and won’t have the time to learn, Berman has done lots of helpful reading and research, and he presents lots of detailed findings. This isn’t an op-ed or a blog post with conjecture or ideological spin. Which is doubly important as the book nears its crescendo, in which Berman takes a hard look at too many of the Western intellectuals who know very little about the subject, and very much about their pet understanding of the world, and blithely tell about how positive and constructive Tariq Ramadan is, how harmless his intellectual heroes, and generally how nasty it is of anyone to insinuate that these Muslim Brotherhood fellow travelers are problematic.

Anyone who reads newspapers knows what these people think; Berman aims specifically at luminaries such as Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash. Most peculiar of all is how such Western intellectuals disdain Muslims who are less sanguine than they, and above all Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali woman who speaks prominently about the evil that can be found in some parts of contemporary Islam. Buruma and Garton Ash apparently seem to believe that Tariq Ramadan is a voice of Mulim moderation, while Hirsi Ali is a benighted fanatic. It’s a very odd position for left-wing humanists to be taking.

Only at one point does Berman shy away from saying explicitly what he seems to be saying. He notes that his Western intellectual adversaries are unfazed by the antisemitism and animosity towards Israel of people like Ramadan and Qaradawi. To me, it seems that this isn’t an oversight but rather the essence of the matter: too many left-wing Western intellectuals can’t see the fascist aspects of the Islamist animosity towards Jews, because they agree with it, especially when it’s directed at Israel. Why mark Ramadan as a dangerous reactionary when one shares his distaste of Israel?

That’s where we’re at,  at the moment. It’s not a good place to be.

A conflict of visions

October 18, 2011

Since I don’t blog much anymore, I don’t need to say anything about the deal to return Gilad Shalit to Israel. Though of all the endless things being written today, it’s interesting that perhaps the single most powerful piece comes from Haaretz columnist Bradley Burston: Bravo for these people, these Israelis. He notes that since the 1950s, Israel has released 13,509 prisoners for 16 soldiers.

Anyway. If I’m online already, I might as well tell about a book I recently read: A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles, by Thomas Sowell. He presents his topic succinctly:

One of the curious things about political opinions is how often the same people line up on the opposite sides of different issues. The issues themselves may have no intrinsic connection with each other. They may range from military spending to drug laws to monetary policy to education. Yet the same familiar faces can be found glaring at each other from opposite sides of the political fence, again and again. It happens too often to be a coincidence and it is too uncontrolled to be a plot. A closer look at the arguments on both sides often shows that they are reasoning from fundamentally different premises. These premises – often implicit – are what provide the consistency behind the repeated opposition of individuals and groups on numerous, unrelated issues. They have different visions of how the world works. (p.3)

Sowell’s thesis is that people see the world through what he calls a ‘vision’, which forms and informs how they understand what they see. These visions are not sharply defined or cogently articulated ideologies; rather they are loosely understood frameworks. Most of us adhere to a version of this vision or that one, without ever being aware of doing so, and without recognizing that our political adversaries don’t recognize theirs, either. Significantly, they are mostly unchangeable. The two major visions which informed political discussion in the late 18th century are the same ones which most of us hold in the early 21st.

Sowell calls the two visions the ‘constrained vision’ and the ‘unconstrained vision’. 18th century proponents of the constrained vision include William Godwin and Thomas Paine, while Edmund Burke and Adam Smith represent the constrained version. People who see the world through the constrained vision understand the human condition to be, well, constrained: there are inevitable limits on what Man can achieve. Reality is far too complex for any single individual or even any group to understand all its ramifications, and therefore nobody can know how to correct its myriad imperfections.

People who think it’s in the power of people to perfect the world are, obviously, unconstrained. Both sides agree that reality is sorely lacking, but they disagree totally on what can be done about it. If you recognize the constraints of reality, you don’t have any pretensions, you don’t seek the action or policy that will correct the world, and you don’t allow yourself to believe that any one group of people know how to fix it. If you’re of the opinion that the world can be mended, you’ll constantly be on the alert for the policy which promises to achieve this, or the group of people who have figured out how. If you’re of the constrained persuasion you seek the best results which society has so far achieved, and look forward to incremental improvement over time; if you’re unconstrained you’ll constantly be on the lookout for solutions and hopeful that the next brilliant leader will show a way to make everything alright.

If it sounds like I prefer the one vision over the other, I apologize. Sowell, interestingly, manages to pull off an entire book without ever taking this position or that, though I personally came back with the impression that he leans to the constrained vision. Of course, the two pristine positions are both unrealistic, precisely because reality really is messy. Yet as broad guidelines, most of us lean towards the one vision or the other, most of the time.

Here, as an example, is Sowell using the template to demonstrate how proponents of each vision understand the phenomenon of war (p.158-9).

Given the horrors of war, and the frequent outcome in which there are no real winners, those with the unconstrained vision tend to explain the existence and recurrence of this man-made catastrophe in terms of either misunderstandings, in an intellectual sense, or of hostile or paranoid emotions raised to such a pitch as to override rationality. In short, war results from a failure of understanding, whether caused by lack of foresight, lack of communication, or emotions overriding judgement. Steps for a peace-seeking nation to take to reduce the probability of war therefore include (1) more influence for the intellectually or morally more advanced portions of the population; (2) better communications between potential enemies; (3) a muting of militant rhetoric; (4) a restraint on armament production or military alliances, either of which might produce escalating counter-measures; (5) a de-emphasis  of nationalism or patriotism; and (6) negotiating outstanding differences with potential adversaries as a means of reducing possible causes of war.

Those with the constrained vision see war in entirely different terms. According to this vision, wars are a perfectly rational activity from the standpoint of those who anticipate gain to themselves, their class, or their nation, whether or not these anticipations are often mistaken, as all human calculations may be. That their calculations disregard the agonies of others is no surprise to those with the constrained vision of human nature. From this perspective, the steps for a peace-seeking nation to take to reduce the probability of war would be the direct opposite of those proposed by people with the alternative vision: (1) raising the cost of war to potential aggressors by military preparedness and military alliances; (2) arousal of the public to awareness of dangers, in times of threat; (3) promotion of patriotism and willingness to fight, as the cost of deterring attack; (4) relying on your adversaries’ awareness of your military power more than on verbal communications; (5) negotiating only within the context of detergent strength and avoiding concessions to blackmail; and (6) relying more on good sense and fortitude of the public at large (reflecting culturally validated experience) than on moralists and intellectuals, more readily swayed by words and fashions.

Like other evils, war was seen by those with the constrained vision as originating in human nature and as being constrained by institutions. To those with the unconstrained vision, war was seen as being at variance with human nature and caused by institutions.

History, I’d add, doesn’t support one vision or the other. There have been moments in history when individuals or small groups guide society forward – the 18th century Enlightenment  is as clear an example as I can think of – but there are lots of cases where even the best and the brightest have no more success in improving reality than anyone else before or since. The question each group will answer differently will be Why: are the successes proof of the correctness of the intentions and the failures the results of counter-efforts of reactionaries; or are the successes the mere luck of incremental progress suddenly falling into place and the failures the simple structure of nature?

Your answer will say more about you than about reality.

Hanan Porat, RIP

October 4, 2011

Hanan Porat died earlier today. He was 67.

Most of the world won’t take any notice. Porat was not a world-famous figure. Even the kind of people who might have once recognized his name have probably forgotten, since he’s been out of the public eye for many years. Here and there, if you know where to look, you’ll find mention of him, as one of the most important leaders of the Israeli settlers, as one of the founders of Gush Emunim, as a firebrand Knesset member in the 1980s and 1990s, and as the owner of a ghastly off-the-cuff response to the murder of 29 Palestinians by a settler in Hebron in 1994.

All of which is true – though he afterwards claimed the response to the murder had been misunderstood, he hadn’t been responding at all, and hadn’t understood what the reporter was referring to. Those of us who knew him hoped this was so, and indeed, could see why it was plausible, while recognizing how awful it seemed.

But none of this really captured the significance of the man, and it certainly won’t explain why I’ve come out of my non-blogging period to eulogize him today.

To understand Hanan Porat you had to know two things about him. The first was that he was born in the same place he died. In Gush Etzion, on the West Bank, in 1943 – though of course, it wasn’t the West Bank in 1943, simply a hilltop in Mandatory Palestine. In 1948 the four Jewish settlements of the Etzion Block were overrun and destroyed by combined forces of the Jordanian Arab Legion, and the local Arab villagers; large numbers of the defenders died in the fighting or were shot down in cold blood after they surrendered, in May 1948. Five-year-old Hanan became a refugee. Between the ages of five and 24 he and his fellow uprooted neighbors used to stand on a low hill a few miles to the west, inside Israel’s borders, and gaze wistfully at the tall oak on the top of the ridge where once their homes had stood. When in 1967 Israel suddenly controlled the place where the ruins of their homes had been, it was clear they had to go home; Kfar Etzion thus became the first of what the world unanimously calls “illegal Israeli settlements”. How a Jewish village which was ethnically cleansed and razed in 1948 could become illegal in 1968 is a mystery, but life is full of mysteries, I’ve come to see.

(So far as I know, in 1967 Porat fought with his paratrooper unit in the very bloody battle of Ammunition Hill in Jerusalem, but this isn’t central to his story).

The second thing you needed to know about Hanan Porat was that he lived and loved the Bible. There are lots of people around who will sniff at this: “The Bible? That old book from the dawn of time which old-fashioned people insist on taking seriously, which shows how backward and non-sophisticated they are? That one? Fairy tales, tall tales and myths, nothing any serious body would wish to be associated with”. Given the sheer staying power of the Bible as a cultural item these sniffers are probably wrong, and readers of the Bible will undoubtedly still be at it centuries after their derision has been lost and forgotten, but I doubt Porat would much have been troubled by them one way or the other. He was born to a generation of Jews who read the original version of the Bible in their living mother-tongue, and looked out the kitchen window at the places where it happened. For him, the Bible wasn’t old-fashioned, dated or anachronistic, it was the foundation of his life. He grew up eventually to be a scholar of Jewish learning, but unlike dozens of generations that preceded him, his central focus wasn’t the Talmud and its myriad layers, rather the older Bible, and its many interpretive layers.

Which reminds me that there was actually a third thing you needed to know about Hanan Porat: that he was a fascinating, mesmerizing and charismatic teacher. A few months ago, when he and his entire audience all knew he was dying, he gave a talk during a ceremony at a nearby military cemetery, and people talked about it, repeated parts of it, quoted it with tears in their eyes. His face was disfigured and his speech laborious and hard to understand, but who cared? His images soared, his ideas soothed, his sentiments penetrated.

I first heard him as a teenager, when he was perhaps 30. Listening to him was like being in those biblical events, watching the actors as they walked the hills (this particular hill, this specific Biblical figure, this exact immortal verse in this eternal language. Here. See them?) By the time I ceased to be a teenager I had already recognized some of the pitfalls of his politics, and it didn’t take long to see the danger of his charisma. He was immersed in his way of seeing the world (which is true about most of us, tho our versions are different from his), and he was not at all a practical thinker if by that one means a pragmatist who always puts achievable near-term targets over dreamy unattainable goals. Eventually he climbed onto the political stage, where he often came across – and probably really was – as a rather otherworldly fanatic, impervious to arguments external to his vision (as many politicians are). By the time he slipped off the stage, no-one really noticed or cared; even in his own political camp he was overtaken by the hard-nosed realists. So he went back to being a teacher.

I haven’t gone to hear him for many years now. Decades. Yet over the past year or so, as his approaching death became common knowledge, I stopped to think of him from time to time: he was one of my most important teachers, ever. For all his fanaticism, he never preached hatred: he wasn’t against the Palestinians, he was for the Jews; in spite of that horrendous slip of tongue, he wasn’t for violence – and in a century crowded by murderous genocidal monsters with unlimited blood lust, his brand of fanaticism will some day be seen for the clear limits it set itself. His importance, eventually, wasn’t in the political sphere at all. It was in his ability to transport us straight into the events of the most enduring book in the annals of Man: See the angels and the patriarchs, negotiating down in that valley? And look, over there, a prophet facing down a king! If you stand silently and don’t make any noise, we’ll presently see the peasant woman on her way back from bringing her offering to the priest…

David Pollock on East Jerusalem Palestinians who prefer Israel

September 8, 2011

Pollster David Pollock discusses his poll which found that more Palestinians in East Jerusalem would prefer to end up in Israel over Palestine. Fully 40% say they’d move so as to stay inside Israel if their home were slated to be in Palestine.

These finding are surprising only if one willfully looks away from the reality of life in Jerusalem. Which is, or course, what almost 100% of observers do, as do all of the diplomats, statesmen and self-appointed experts.

Scientific inquiry and political science in Jewish tradition

August 26, 2011

This blog is still theoretically active, though learning the ropes at the new job has meant there’s no time to write. Eventually I’ll get back to it, or at least that’s the intention. In the meantime, oddly enough, I’ve just posted at the old blog.

Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples

July 31, 2011

In some circles it’s fashionable to lump all of Islam into one threatening block. Following the massacre of dozens of Norwegians at the hands of an evil Christian fanatic who held such views, it is even more fashionable to strive to say the opposite: Islam is great, though there is a minority of crazy Muslims, and if we could we’d convince everyone that what makes them crazies isn’t their religion.

Anyone who reads history and accepts the messiness of the human condition knows that both extreme positions are nonsense. I recently finished reading Albert Hourani’s A History of the Arab Peoples: With a New Afterword (I read the 1991 version, so can’t say what’s in the new Afterward). I warmly recommend if, like me, you accept that the Arab and Muslim role in the world is very important while admitting to not knowing much about it. Hourani manages to pack a multi-faceted history of an entire civilization into about 450 pages.

The story can be summed up in a single sentence I once saw in a Bernhard Lewis book (quoted from memory) about how Islam has served for ages as a source of comfort hope and resilience for myriads of people. Hourani demonstrates this by being relentlessly upbeat about his material. Early nomadic Arab society produced sophisticated poetry. Early Islam produced legal structures for the dispensation of justice. Then it encouraged mystical movements which responded to deep emotional needs. Soon after it established a gigantic empire from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean it fractured into separate political formations of varying degrees of autonomy but continued to offer a unified civilization which enabled trade and the exchange of cultural ferment. It produced philosophers, historians, poets and ever more developed systems of jurisprudence. It tied backward rural areas to developed urban ones in ways which benefited all.

A large section of the book deals with the Ottoman Empire, which between the 16th and the 18th centuries ruled over most of the Arabs; at the end of the 18th century European powers began eroding Ottoman powers and sphere of control, until finally at the end of WWI nothing was left of it and Britain and France controlled most of the Arab world – for a few short decades.

Hourani is always respectful, his tone is calm, and he’s very erudite. Even his depictions of the antagonists of the Arabs are measured and reasonable; I could find a point or two to quibble with him over his depiction of Zionism, but what for. If half of Israel’s Western critics were half as fair as he is it would be a much better world. If half of the West’s chattering classes accepted half of his respect for all parties it would also be a better world.

Yet eventually the insistence on being so upbeat does cast a shadow of doubt over the story. Most jarring is the lack of violence. History has always been violent, and even the peaceful times and areas mostly got to be like that because violence removed enemies and warded off potential sources of disturbance. The transformations Hourani describes were often violent, and maintaining the peace included harsh measures inside and tumult on or beyond the borders. He never says otherwise, of course, he simply skips these parts of the story.

His treatment of the 20th century Arab world is problematic. It’s fine that he wishes to be upbeat, that he respects the people and societies he’s describing and wishes to portray them with empathy and optimism. This really is fine, and is a useful antidote to much of the ignorant verbiage about the Arabs which regularly inundates the Western media since 9/11 at the latest, and to a lesser extent since the latter part of the 20th century. Yet he gets carried away. Since 2002 the United Nations Development Program has been publishing a series of devastating reports about the lives of the Arabs, and how their political and cultural conditions are robbing them of the benefits healthy modern societies can offer their citizens. There is nothing significant in the final chapters of Hourani’s book that will explain how this came to pass. He accepts at face value the Nasarist claim that the Arabs are part of the Non-Aligned World. (After the collapse of the Soviet Union The Economist once quipped that the Non-Aligned had lost the power with which they had been non-aligned). He has nothing significant to say on the absence of democracy throughout the Arab World.

And of course, he never remotely hints at the virulent Jew hatred which seems to have such a strong hold on the minds of hundreds of millions of Muslims, including, probably, most Arabs. Since he never hints at it, he has no need to explain it.

Still, given the breadth of his tale and the fairness and aplomb with which he tells it, I’d recommend the book without hesitating. No book can do total justice to its subject, and once the reader recognizes the weakness of this one, it’s a valuable and enriching volume. You’ll know a lot more about the subject after having read it than you did before – and that’s quite an achievement.