Thursday, May 01, 2003
Debunking the Neocon Conspiracy Theory

A nice, concise article in the Chronicle of Higher Education takes apart the theory that Bush is being manipulated by a group of neoconservative Jews in the administration and the media. The theory, of course, has taken root in a lot of the left media, especially The Nation.

The article makes a few points which should be fairly obvious (e.g. the fact that the American decision-makers -- Bush, Cheney, Rummy, Powell, and Rice -- are all Protestants). It also points out the traditional anti-Semitic motifs that underpin the theory: a shadowy cabal of Jews manipulating an unintelligent and easily manipulated ruler.


The mega-strike enters its second dayt.

All public services are either closed or barely operating. The banks are shut and the ATMs are running out of money. The municipal workers aren't collecting garbage. The telephone company isn't fixing problems. Teachers are at home, which means that so are the nation's students. And perhaps most annoyingly, the airports and ports are shut down. Almost nobody is getting either in or out of the country.

(One of the Hebrew-language papers ran a little feature yesterday about a young Israeli couple who have decided to leave Israel for good. They sold their house, packed all their belongings, got to the airport, and found out they were trapped here for the time being before the strike. The husband was quoted as saying "They won't even let us leave without problems.)

The airport strike affects me personally, as the missus and I are expecting our respective mothers, both of whom are supposed to be visiting for Independence Day. At this point, it's a big question mark whether the airports will be open and we've actually started checking alternative arrangements, such as them coming in through Jordan.

On one of the morning shows today, Natan Zehavi (a radio and TV host known for his attack dog style) started chewing out a representative of the Histadrut for making special dispensations allowing the Israeli national football team to fly back home while relatives of those hurt in the Tel Aviv bombing can't come to visit their loved ones.

I loathe these general strikes, yet this one is so much more annoying and unnecessary than usual. The economic package which is supposedly at the core of the conflict between the Histadrut, passed the first reading last night. Peretz stood up -- the so-called-friend of the weak, in an unbuttoned, untucked shirt -- and made a big speech about how the government is abandoning its citizens and moving towards a dictatorship. And yet, as many people have pointed out, this strike has nothing to do with the poor. It has everything to do with the large workers' organizations in the government monopolies and oligopolies.

I'm not necessarily a free-market reactionary, nor am I a fan of Netanyahu, but everything in recent weeks leads me to hope with all my heart that he manages to do to Peretz what Thatcher did to trades union leader Arthur Scargill: break him in two.

The Plot Thickens

In an interesting twist, it turns out that the suicide bomber who killed 3 people at the Mike's Place pub in Tel Aviv was a British citizen. Asif Mohammed Hanif, the bomber, crossed over to Israel from Gaza. With him was another British citizen, Omar Khan Sharif. The two were supposed to carry out a double bombing but Sharif's bomb either failed to go off or else he got cold feet. In either event, Hanif blew himself up, killing 3 and maiming a dozen, and Sharif took off running. (Hanif and Sharif. Sounds like a Middle Eastern-themed vaudeville sketch. If it wasn't so painfully sad it might be amusing).

The police and the General Security Services are still looking for Sharif and have set up roadblocks all over the Tel Aviv area, including across the street from the entrance to my neighborhood.

Although there have been a few cases of foreign nationals planning attacks in Israel (one of which involved the "shoe bomber," Richard Reeve), this is the first time it's succeeded. Because Hanif and Sharif held British passports, they were able to get through the checkpoints with relative ease. The security services here have managed to foil a large number of attacks in recent months, but I don't think anyone seriously considered the possibility that someone would fly over here from Europe to blow himself up.

The incident once again demonstrates the interconnectivity of terrorist groups around the world. Hamas and the Fatah party's Al-Aqsa Brigades, who took credit for the attack in Tel Aviv, are not known for their activities overseas. Clearly, they are now working with other groups.

Two filmmakers who were working on a documentary about Mike's Place were at the place Tuesday night and caught the aftermath of the attack on film. The Mike's Place website has set up a gallery in memory of Dominique Hess, a recent immigrant from France, who was working at the pub and was killed in the bombing.

Wednesday, April 30, 2003
He's Alive!

Despite rumors a few weeks ago that he had committed suicide when US troops took over Baghdad, it appears that Mohammed Said Al-Sahhaf is still with us. And he wants to surrender.

Al-Sahhaf, of course, is the highly amusing Iraqi Information Minister (also known as "Comical Ali" and "Baghdad Bob" in the press) whose absurdist press conferences turned him into the Gulf War 2's biggest media star. According to reports, Al-Sahhaf has been hiding out in his aunt's apartment in Baghdad and is begging US forces to take him into custody for his own protection. Unfortunately for the former Information Minister, he isn't part of the deck of cards -- that list of Iraq's 55 most wanted-- so US troops have no interest in him.

The reports say that he had previously tried to give himself up to Kurdish militamen in Mosul, but they didn't want to have anything to do with him.

That Al-Sahhaf, still amusing as ever.

Holocaust Abuse

Ha'aretz has a piece today which fits in nicely with my scribblings yesterday about the uses and misuses of the Holocaust and Nazism as a contemporary political analogy. As the article notes (and I mentioned yesterday), the Holocaust has become the latest and greatest tools in the hands of anti-Semites who use it to accuse Israelis of acting like Nazis.

For example, it mentions statements made by Nobel Literature laureate Jose Saramago on a visit to the Territories last year. Saramago compared the situation in Ramallah to Auschwitz. (The comment was so stupid that even his far-left Israeli hosts took issue with it).

Another incident mentioned in the article shows how ludicrous the Holocaust analogies can get. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) came up with a campaign to protest commercial livestock growing. They called it "Holocaust on a Plate". The PETA campaign featured big glossy graphics comparing the conditions of dairy cows to those of concentration camp prisoners.

Needless to say there was a backlash. PETA was bombarded with complaints from Jewish groups. A number of bloggers declared an "Eat a Steak" day. PETA quickly dropped the campaign, but the fact that no one in the organization realized how deeply offensive their campaign was seems to demonstrate how overused the Holocasut is as a rhetorical tool.

As I said yesterday, Jewish groups are also occasionally guilty of Holocaust misuse. The latest kerfufle concerns Abu Mazen. Abu Mazen's doctoral thesis for the University of Moscow dealt with the connection between Zionism and the Holocaust. In it, he questioned the figure of 6 million dead and posited that the number wasn't more than a few hundred thousand. His doctoral thesis was published in book form n 1983, and has become part of the growing literature of Holocaust denial.

Based on this, a lot of people on the right say that Israel has no business negotiating with a Holocaust denier. In principle, I'd like to agree with them. Unfortunately, things aren't that simple. You can fault Abu Mazen on a dozen things -- the fact that he is unable or unwilling to reign in terror, for instance -- but throwing his screwy Holocaust thesis in the mix only serves to ratchet up emotions and complicate things more than they already are.

Palestinian Bomber Kills 3

I'm in a grumpy mood today. Which is what happens when you get up early and the first news you hear is of another Palestinian suicide attack.

Last night, a bomber blew himself up at the entrance to Mike's Place, a pub on the Tel Aviv beachfront, not far from the Dolphin disco which was bombed 2 years ago. As with the attack last week in Kfar Saba, the security guard at the entrance physically blocked the bomber from entering and thus prevented an even greater tragedy. Miraculously, the guard was not killed in the explosion but remains in critical condition at the hospital.

Not a particularly auspicious start for the new Abu Mazen government, especially since the attack was apparently a joint effort between Hamas and the Al-Aqsa Brigades belonging to Abu Mazen's (and Arafat's) own Fatah movement.

Earlier yesterday, in his inaugural speech, Abu Mazen declared his intentions to disarm the wide variety of terrorist groups that have sprung up in the Territories (many with tacit, if not active, help from the Palestinian Authority). His goal, he said, was to establish the PA as the sole armed authority among the Palestinians.

Good freakin' luck.

Abu Mazen makes all the right noises, but I'm not brimming with optimism for a lot of different reasons. Not the least of these is the big middle finger his own people gave him last night. Abu Mazen has little popularity in the Palestinian street, unlike the bloodsucker Arafat and Hamas' spiritual leader Ahmed Yassin. On the other hand, the Palestinian street widely supports suicide bombings in Israel and the Islamic terror groups have already told the new PM to go soak his head.

And this is even assuming that Abu Mazen is willing or able to take the necessary steps. IDF Intelligence assessments indicate that he is neither. Despite all his fine talk, the best the new Palestinian Prime Minster is willing to do is come to some agreement with the terror groups that they chill out for a while.

All of which leads us back to the untenable scenario before Operation Defensive Shield, where the Palestinians pretend to do something about security while in reality the terror groups merely lay low and use the time to regroup. At the same time, the Europeans scream at the US to pressure Israel to make concessions, which it won't do without seeing some progress on the security front.

Colin Powell recently said that, unlike past plans, the road map will be measured by performance instead of declarations. For his sake -- and ours -- I hope they stick to this plan.

Tuesday, April 29, 2003
Holocaust Remembrance Day

Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Stores closed early yesterday. Places of entertainment are closed. The TV and radio stations broadcast Holocaust documentaries and panel discussions, as well as sad songs. And, at 10 a.m. sirens sound and the country stops for two minutes of silent tribute.

Of all the holidays and days of commemoration, this one is probably the most complex. It touches on the deepest aspects of the Jewish psyche and a lot of the fundamental assumptions that underpin Israel, which arose from the ashes of the Holocaust.

One of the subtexts of the day is the tension between the feeling of strength and the feeling of victimization. The official name of the day is Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Day; it commemorates not only the millions murdered by the Nazis in the camps, but also those tens of thousands who fought back -- primarilly in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and with the Partisans.

In the initial aftermath of the Holocaust and the establishment of Israel, there was a certain sense of shame that so many Jews had gone, in Aba Kovner's words, "like sheep to the slaughter." The passivity of Europe's Jews stood in stark contrast, as it were, to the tough Jews who fought for independence against five Arab armies. The emphasis on the Warsaw Ghetto uprising served as a palliative to this shame, not the least for the Holocaust survivors themselves.

Over the years, as more information came out and as we gained some historical perspective on the Holocaust, the sense of shame faded away and the focus returned to the survivors and, increasingly, the second and third generations who grew up with the memory of it. Since then, a number of rituals have sprung up -- government ceremonies, special lessons at schools, and the aforementioned sirens.

I have to admit a certain sense of uneasiness towards Holocaust Remembrance Day. Not because I object to commemorating the Holocaust, God forbid. Rather a sense of uneasiness about the lessons we learned and it usage as a nationalist building block.

As a general rule I get an uneasy feeling any time the Holocaust comes up as a contemporary analogy. And it comes up a lot, especially when the Israeli-Palestinian discourse gets heated.

The most offensive element of the new wave of anti-Semitism which has reared its head in recent years is the one that compares Israelis to Nazis. At almost every anti-globalization/anti-war/anti-whatever rally, you'll see some twerp -- usually white, always wearing a keffiyah -- hoisting a placard equating the Star of David with a swastika. Like most slogans, it's shallow and stupid. (How can you say with any intellectual honesty that any Israeli action in the last 55 years is even remotely comparable with Auschwitz?). But also deeply hurtful to anyone who lost family members in the time of the real swastika.

The other side of this coin also bugs me. This is when politicians here use the Holocaust to highlight the sense of Israeli vulnerability. This comes up more often than you'd expect when discussing Arafat. In his speech last night marking the beginning of the Remembrance Day, the Prime Minister said "Never again will we place our security in the hands of strangers, nor rely on the kindness of others." He has used this kind of analogy before, most notably when he warned the US not to make a Munich-like appeasement of terrorism. But this analogy is also fundamentally wrong: Israel's Jews are a lot stronger and capable of defending themselves than Europe's Jews were in the '40s. And no one is seriously asking us to put our security in the hands of strangers. If anything, we're just asking our friends to get our back.

The bad Holocaust analogies are like the bad Hitler analogies (everyone from Saddam to Sharon gets a little Chaplin moustache pasted on them it seems). The bottom line is this, when you compare everything and everyone to Hitler and the Holocaust, you cheapen the original and denude them of meaning.

(Today's Ha'aretz has an editorial arguing the contrary. Its argument, however, is that you can use the Holocaust to learn general lessons. I agree. The problem is when you try to apply it to specific lessons.)

On the Other Hand

But enough sniffing.

When the siren sounded this morning I could see the traffic on the freeways come to a stop and some of the drivers get out of their cars to stand at attention. It's always moving to see the country come together like this, everyone stopping what they're doing, even if it is for only two minutes.

Despite whatever reservations I have about the Holocaust as part of contemporary political discourse, I don't have any reservations about the importance of Holocaust Remembrance Day. The need to commemorate and remember what happened increases each year, as the generation of survivors gets smaller and smaller. Those who were children in the camps are now in their 60s and 70s. A lot of their elders are already gone.

My grandmother will be 90 this year. In 1940, the year the Nazis invaded Holland, she was living in Amsterdam. On her way home one afternoon, a friend of hers stopped her and said "Don't go home. The Germans are there." I owe my existence partly to that friend, as well as to an acquaintance of my grandfather's who worked at the Dutch Interior Ministry and pulled my grandparents' records. My grandparents were lucky; they went underground and successfully hid from the Nazis. Most of the others in my family weren't so lucky.

In a decade or a decade and a half there will be few people left to give a first-hand accounts of that time, or to counter the claims of the Holocaust deniers who have grown in sophistication over the years.

Monday, April 28, 2003
Celebrity Blacklisting

I've only been half-paying attention to the brouhaha over the Dixie Chicks (of, as LGF calls them, the "Blixie Chix"). First they make a comment about how they're ashamed Bush is from Texas, then the backlash predictably comes. Boooring. Now we have Act 3 in this little drama, as the Chicks attempt to play it both ways: go on network TV and kinda sorta apologize, and then go appear on the cover of Entertainment Weekly sans clothes and with all sorts of slogans written on their bodies.

Maybe it's just me, but it feels like somebody's trying to milk all the publicity possible out of this incident.

At least the Chicks aren't complaining about being blacklisted, unlike a number of other vocal, left-leaning celebs. Sure, some radio stations have decided to boycott their records and stage events where they run over Dixie Chicks CDs with bulldozers, but this is far from McCarthyism. If anything, it's the radio stations' own attempt at milking this thing for what it's worth.

Hugh Hewitt, writing in the Weekly Standard looks at the celebs that are screaming McCarthyism (yes, Tim Robbins, we're talking to you) and posits that it's all a matter of wishful thinking:
Robbins and Sleeper and all defenders of the critics of the war chant slogans about free speech and the First Amendment and seem wholly unaware that they are asking, in effect, for a silencing of views they don't like. No mature participant in the world of politics expects such deference, and it is laughable to treat blowback as repression. The collective "alarm" being voiced is really just blacklist envy: a desire for some sort of martyrdom to cover the embarrassment of having been very wrong on almost every prediction.

Here We Go Again

It looks like that big strike the Histadrut was threatening a few weeks ago is back on. The country was supposed to shut down before the holidays, but the Histadrut and the Finance Ministry managed to come up with a compromise which was supposed to at least delay everything until late May. Thoughtfully, they're waiting until after Holocaust Remembrance Day tomorrow.

However, the Histadrut and its hyperactive head honcho, Amir Peretz, have decided that the Finance Ministry isn't holding up its end of the bargain (the actual reason is a bit arcane, but basically boils down to the fact that FM Netanyahu has decided to push his economic plan sooner rather than later), and so we're back to duck and cover mode: gas up the car, pull money, get that passport sorted out now, etc.

Of course, nothing is certain, and there's still time until Wednesday, when the strike is supposed to start.

Sunday, April 27, 2003
What we Talk About When we Talk About Jenin

Last April, following a wave of horrific Palestinian terrorist attacks, the IDF embarked on Operation Defensive Shield and re-conquered the West Bank in order to destroy the terrorist infrastructure. The operation went fairly smoothly. The big exception, and the incident which still stands out strongest a year later, was Jenin. IDF soldiers battled it out with members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the cramped confines of the Jenin refugee camp for days. The fighting was fierce and in the end 23 Israelis and 56 Palestinians were killed.

At the time, the IDF imposed a news blackout on the incident. In the 10-day or so lacuna between the battle and the dust-clearing, Jenin developed its own mythology. The Palestinians were quick to scream about a massacre. Saeb Erekat, the odious PA spokesman, threw out figures of hundreds of Palestinian dead. Later on, reports conducted by Human Rights Watch and the UN concluded that the number of dead Palestinians was less than 60 and the majority of those were armed combatants. But by that time it was too late. Even with the debunking, the myth of Jenin still hovers in the air.

Two recent documentaries by Israeli Arab directors -- Mohammed Bakri's "Jenin, Jenin" and Nizar Hassan's "Ijtiah" -- have once again brought the Jenin story to light. The Bakri movie was the subject of controversy when the Israeli Board of Film Censorship decreed that the movie could not be shown in Israel for reasons of libel. The Bakri movie, it was argued, is highly one-sided and inflamatory, twisting around facts and interviews to heighten the image of Palestinians as victims and Israelis as nazis. (The decision to ban the film was outright stupid and has no place in a democracy, but that's just my $0.02).

Ha'aretz's Aviv Lavie profiled Nizar Hassan in this weekend's magazine. The article's sub-heading tells us that Hassan's film sets out to "alter the myth of Palestinian victimology," which sounds intriguing until you read further down and discover that he just wants to replace it with a different myth about Palestinian heroism. While the interview doesn't shed much new light on Jenin (or Palestinian victimology, for that matter), it does illustrate the tortuous state of Israeli-Palestinian discourse.

As noted, Hassan seeks to replace one myth with another. Instead of seeing Jenin as the story of Israeli aggressors and Palestinian victims, he sees it as the story of Israeli invaders and noble Palestinian defenders. Like the glorious Egyptian victory in the Yom Kippur war, this is classic Arab wishful thinking. Yes, the Palestinians in Jenin put up more of a fight than others in the West Bank. This just means that it took a week to conquer Jenin instead of a day and a half; the end result was the same.

Hizari seems to be a bit more even-handed than Bakri in that he doesn't twist quotes around and presents the Israeli soldiers in more complex terms. However, as with everything in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, contextualization is everything and contextualization is tricky.

Which brings us back to the discourse thing. Lavie seems to have sympathy for Hassan and his project, but even so the conversation between them keeps crashing time and time again. As Lavie reports:
As time goes by, dialogue with Israelis becomes more difficult for him. The conversation with him is full of little crises and provocations, with each side trying to lay the blame on the other. He doesn't miss an opportunity to drive the conversation onto the shoals and claim the same thing against me.

The worst problem comes when Lavie presses Hassan about the terrorism -- in particular the Seder-night bombing at the Park Lane hotel which killed 30 people --that drove Israel to launch Defensive Shield in the first place. In response, Hassan launches into a monologue whose trail I still can't follow even after five re-readings. It has something to do with moral resistance and being sincere about presenting the Palestinian perspective and not being objective. The basic point being: this is a movie for us, not for you, so shut up.

Something about this exchange depressed me, and makes me very pessimistic that anything will ever come out of negotiations with the Palestinians. Probably the biggest, and the most intractable, problem with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the fact that both sides view themselves as the victim. But whereas the Israeli public has and continues to show a willingness to compromise if Israel's security can be assured, with guys like Hassan there's nothing really to talk about. Recent polls -- which show that 60% of Palestinians support suicide bombings -- seem to indicate that Nizar Hassan is not alone.


So now everyone who comes back from the Far East with a headache gets pounced on by guys in biohazard suits. We've already had a couple of false alarms over here.

Am I the only one thinking that this whole SARS epidemic sounds eerily like the beginning of Stephen King's The Stand?