Articles which have caught my interest. Mostly Israel stuff and other nubbins from the ongoing holy war.
Thursday, November 06, 2003
Torture: Uses and Questions
Michael Bowden (the author of "Black Hawk Down") has a lengthy, but fairly fascinating column in last month's Atlantic where he takes a look at one of the dark and dirty secrets of government: the use of torture to gain information that might save lives.
Bowden takes a look back at up-and-down standing of the use of torture by the CIA (up during the Vietnam years, down after that, now post-9/11 back up). He interviews a number of "practitioners of the dark art" as he calls them. These include Michael Koubi, who was one of the Shin Bet's top interrogators. Koubi and others give insights into the art of getting someone to talk.
(And, as the article points out, it is an art. There is no one drug or technique that works on all people. Every person reacts differently to interrogation).
Bowden goes to great lengths to differentiate between violent physical torture used as a method of repression by regimes like Saddams, and what he calls coercion or "torture lite" -- moderate force used to extract information that could save lives.
This distinction is expanded into a discussion over the whole morality of using physical force to gain information. According to the Geneva Convention, any use of force against prisoners of war is verboten. And he interviews people from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch who oppose any kind of torture or coercion, no matter what the life-saving benefits might be.
Israel has wrangled with this issue for decades. About 15 years ago, the Landau Commission allowed for the use of "moderate physical force" in so-called "ticking bomb" scenarios. In 1999, the Israeli Supreme Court reversed this decision and officially outlawed all use of force during interrogations. However, it soon became clear that interrogators could still take the risk of coercing suspects if they felt they were dealing with an authentic ticking bomb situation. If it turned out that the physical violence saved lives, then this would serve as a major mitigating factor if the interrogators ever had to face trial.
Bowden comes out in favor of this legal setup for coercion. Officially, it's illegal, and those who would practice it know that they are taking a risk if they do so. This has the effect of keeping the practice from becoming too widespread.
Obviously, the Amnesty guys would scream bloody murder. I myself would have to go with Bowden on this one. It's all well and good to oppose torture or "torture lite" under any circumstances whatsoever, in the same way that it's well and good to oppose war on the basis that it can be hazardous to children and other living things.
Unfortunately, we live in particularly ugly times. And just as war is sometimes necessary, so are physical interrogations.
Quote of the Day
There's something pathetic about a culture so ignorant even its pathologies have to be imported. But what do you expect? The telling detail of the vanishing penis hysteria is that it was spread by text messaging. You can own a cell phone, yet still believe that foreigners are able with a mere handshake to cause your penis to melt away.
-- Mark Steyn, brilliant as usual, referring to a rumor which ran widely in Sudan last week. Read the whole thing.
The Hizbullah Prisoner Swap
The details of the prisoner swap with Hizbullah have apparently been hammered out. Although it isn't clear exactly what the terms are, from the reports available you can glean the major contours: Israel swaps 20 or so Lebanese prisoners, including two senior Hizbullah members, along with 400 Palestinians, none of whom have blood on their hands and all of whom were to be released within three years anyway. In return, Israel gets back Elhanan Tennenbaum, the shady businessman Hizbullah kidnapped three years ago, as well as the bodies of three soldiers who were also kidnapped by Hizbullah three years ago.
As of now, it's not at all clear whether the deal includes new information about missing Israeli airman Ron Arad.
Sharon will bring the agreement to the cabinet for a vote on Sunday. There, he faces a fair amount of opposition from ministers who think it's a bad deal. Which it is.
As I've said before, it's a bad deal for any number of reasons. It ties the Palestinian issue to the Lebanese issue; it legitimizes Hizbullah's claims that they represent the Palestinian cause and sets up Hizbullah's Hassan Nasrallah as the protector of the Palestinians; and it sends a message that Israel won't release prisoners except by force.
There are also rumors that one of the Lebanese who might be released is a vile piece of work named Samir Kuntar who murdered an entire family in Nahariya in 1979. Israel's chief negotiator says that Kuntar isn't part of the deal, but who knows. If he were released it would make the deal all that much worse.
At the moment, the two sides who have a personal stake in the hostage agreement -- both pro and con -- have sprung into action. The Tennenbaum family, along with the families of the three kidnapped soldiers, are taking their case directly to the ministers in an effort to get them to vote for the agreement that would bring their loved ones home. Meanwhile, friends of Ron Arad have taken to marching in the streets to get the government to vote down the agreement unless Arad is included in it.
I really feel for these families. They've been living a nightmare for more than three years. And now that an end to that is in sight, I feel rotten for opposing it strenuously. Sharon says that if we don't cut this deal then we're effectively sentencing Elhanan Tennenbaum to death.
Israel has always been committed to "bringing her boys home". But at what point do the costs become too great? I think this is one.
Wednesday, November 05, 2003
The War over Rabin's Memory
Yesterday marked the actual 8-year anniversary since Rabin's assassination. I've noticed it also signalled the revival of an old argument about Rabin's memory and who gets to own it.
In her blog the other day, Imshin wrote about her ambivalence towards the official Rabin memorial ceremony.
It's that 'Where were you when...?' time of year again for Israelis, and I'm sick of it. I'm sick of the annual Saturday night memorial rally, in Rabin Square, organized by the Rabin family as a Peace Now-style rally, making all those who don't feel very Peace Now-ish unwelcome, although he was their Prime Minister too. I'm sick of boring, repetitive, pompous school ceremonies depicting Rabin as some sort of mythical, unreal, superhero dead guy.
Imshin isn't the only one who feels cold about the rally or left out.
There are a number of possible themes for commemorating Rabin. You could talk about the soldier and the statesman. More importantly, you should talk about how political disagreements can spill over into murder. And you can talk about peace. The commemoration in Rabin Square did the latter, but did it in a way that focused squarely on political -- specifically, left-wing -- issues. The message at the rally, especially in Peres' speech, was that Rabin's legacy was Oslo and Oslo was right. Question is, where does this leave all those people who have realized that Oslo was a mistake or never supported it in the first place?
An editorial in yesterday's Ha'aretz posed this question, especially as it relates to a large part of the national-religious population:
There is no chance at all that children or adults who have lived for almost a decade in the shadow of the Oslo accords - and who opposed and oppose this terrible mistake with every fiber of their souls - will ascribe some kind of significance to the day of their prime minister's murder if this day becomes, as it indeed has in recent years, a day devoted to the legacy of Yitzhak Rabin.Today's lead editorial in the Jerusalem Post touches on the same issues:
If there is anything that we, as a society, can and must agree upon, it is that Rabin's assassination stands for everything that we must be against from a moral, Jewish, or democratic perspective.
Being one of those people who formerly supported the Oslo Accords but now feel they were a mistake, I can well relate to this question. Personally, I try to separate my warm feelings about Rabin as a human being and a statesman from whatever his political legacy might be. But that's me. A lot of other people find it hard to make the distinction.
This year we've seen an increasing number of ugly incidents involving vandalism at Rabin's memorial. Indictments have been filed against three people for defacing the memorial, spitting on it, and/or harassing people who came to mourn. The phenomena seems to go beyond individual acts of nastiness. Television crews yesterday captured right-wing activists in Jerusalem passing out bumper stickers reading Haver Ata Ashem ("You're Guilty, Friend"), a play on the Shalom Haver and Haver Ata Haser ("We Miss You, Friend") stickers you used to see on cars here in the years following the murder. The TV crew interviewed one of the drivers who put the sticker on the back of his van. "What's so important about Rabin?" the driver started yelling. "My father also passed away. Why don't they have a national memorial service for my father?"
That guy is not alone, at least not according to my own cultural barometer. A number of listeners who called into the "Main Stage" radio show yesterday expressed similar opinions: Rabin isn't for us, Rabin belongs to the lefties.
I think it would be sad if Rabin does become the exclusive property of the Left. There was a lot about the guy worth celebrating, no matter what your political orientation. Also, the fact that a Prime Minister was murdered over a political disagreement should never be forgotten. If we look back in 10 years' time and the only thing left of Rabin is his connection to Oslo, then I think we will have all lost out.
Good News for Consumers
The best thing about the current government is its mission to take a sledgehammer to the remnants of the old dinosaurs which used to completely characterize the Israeli economy. On a grand scale, Bibi Netanyahu is going head to head with the national utility monopolies -- electricity, water, ports -- and the all-powerful workers' committees which call the shots there.
On a less grand scale, though just as important from the point of view of the average Israeli, Industry and Trades Minister Ehud Olmert has taken an interest in the consumer monopolies. These monopolies effectively control the price of a wide range of products from instant coffee to razor blades. Olmert has ordered the Ministry's antitrust division compare the prices of consumer products in Israel with those in other Western countries and recommending actions if it turns out that -- once you factor in transportation and other costs -- the price of the goods turns out to be wildly inflated.
This is good news for most of us, since a lot of consumer goods are still ridiculously expensive over here. This is a holdover from the early days of the state when the government heavily regulated imports from abroad, seeking to nurture local businesses. Also, for many years competition was considered a bad thing here (those old socialist/bolshevik ideas at work), which meant that certain local firms created de facto monopolies on a lot of consumer products. As a result, the consumer market was both limited and expensive.
(I had sort of forgotten about this until I visited the States recently. I popped into a drug store looking for some shaving cream and encountered about half an aisle's worth of choices. In Israel you normally don't have more than three or four options for any one product.)
A lot of Israelis, myself included, tend to buy a lot of toiletries -- razor blades and deodorants, for instance -- in bulk when we go abroad or when someone from abroad comes visiting. If the Trade Ministry proposal goes through, and this is a big if, then maybe we can start doing more of our shopping locally.
That EU Poll
Jonathan Edelstein over at the Head Heeb has a good analysis of that EU Commission poll which found that Europeans believe Israel is the biggest threat to world peace.
Apparently the problem is less a matter of anti-Semitism more than it is a poorly constructed, poorly thought out survey which didn't define what constitutes a threat to world peace and didn't list the Palestinian Authority or any of the Palestinian terrorist groups as options to choose.
As far as having any real relevence, I agree with today's Ha'aretz editorial that the poll was a sideshow. While it shows that Europeans have a particularly skewed vision of what's going on over here, I don't think it's worth making a big deal about and I was glad that the Foreign Ministry let it slide without too much fuss.
A Reader Writes In...
A longtime reader to this blog wrote in yesterday to call my statement that "You also don't see any Jewish control of the television networks or the big media chains" :
interesting post, but consider:
Point well taken. I had forgotten about both Sumner Redstone and Disney's ownership of NBC. So, I clearly overstated the case when it comes to Jews not having an influence in big media outside of Hollywood.
I do stick to my general point that if you take a look at the Fortune 500 list of the US' biggest companies, especially the upper reaches of it, you'll find that it's mostly a gentile-men's club.
Tuesday, November 04, 2003
The More Things Change, the More they Stay the Same
The news from Baghdad is endlessly bad, at least if you read the New York Times. The U.S. has clearly bungled the occupation of Iraq, working without a proper game plan. Why, it looks just like ... Germany circa 1946.
Some enterprising bloggers unearthed contemporary news reports from the post-WWII days. A headline from Life Magazine screams "Americans are Losing the Victory in Europe" and gives us quotes like "We have swept away Hitlerism, but a great many Europeans feel that the cure has been worse than the disease."
From around the same time, you find a Saturday Night Post article talking about "How We Botched the German Occupation." Another article a month later wonders "How Long Will We Stay in Germany"?
Things like this make me love the blogosphere.
An Ism that Refuses to Die
I've seen a lot of discussion in the last couple of weeks all over the place about the so-called "New Anti-Semitism." The catalyst appears to have been ougoing Malaysian president Mahathir Mohammed's speech to the Organization of Islamic Conference a few weeks ago when he went on a rant about the Jews:
The Europeans killed six million Jews out of 12 million, but today the Jews rule the world by proxy. They get others to fight and die for them."You might also see signs of it in the recent poll showing that a majority of Europeans surveyed think Israel is the greatest danger to world peace today. (Personally, I think the poll indicates that Europeans are more stupid than they are anti-Semitic, but that's me).
Over in my corner of the blogosphere, there has been a big flap over a fairly poorly reasoned article (IMHO) by Tony Judt in a recent New York Review of Books. In the article, Judt argues for a binational state, defending the dissolution of a Jewish state on historical grounds. (Excellent articles by Victor Davis Hanson and Bret Stephens take it head-on).
So, what do we have here? In simple terms, the new anti-Semitism takes a lot of elements of the old anti-Semitism but instead of targeting Jews personally or the Jewish people as a collective, target the Jewish state as a useful proxy. (Mort Zuckerman wrote a useful primer in last week's US News and World Report.)
A lot of classic anti-Semitic motifs are in full currency, especially the notion of a secret Jewish cabal influencing the powers that be to act in the interests of the Jews (or Israel) as opposed to the interests of the country (be it the U.S. or Britain). Other classic anti-Semitic images feature Jews as controlling world finance or the banks, charges that the same Mahathir Mohamed leveled a few years ago against George Soros. The old "Christ killer" and "blood libel"-- the idea that Jews would kidnap Christian children to use their blood in the making of Passover matzos -- calumnies have also been re-tooled for the 21st century, as editorial cartoons from the Arab world and Europe often show an ogre-ish Ariel Sharon slaughtering Palestinian children.
These motifs go hand in hand with a whole range of conspiracy theories, which blame the Mossad for every bit of political intrigue in the world as well as all major conflicts where the US is involved.
The scary thing about the new anti-Semitism is how it unites disparate political elements. This is certainly true in all the cases where it coincides with attacks on globalization. As Mark Strauss writes in a must-read piece about the anti-globalization movement and anti-Semitism:
The backlash against globalization unites all elements of the political spectrum through a common cause, and in doing so it sometimes fosters a common enemy—what French Jewish leader Roger Cukierman calls an anti-Semitic “brown-green-red alliance” among ultra-nationalists, the populist green movement, and communism’s fellow travelers. The new anti-Semitism is unique because it seamlessly stitches together the various forms of old anti-Semitism: The far right’s conception of the Jew (a fifth column, loyal only to itself, undermining economic sovereignty and national culture), the far left’s conception of the Jew (capitalists and usurers, controlling the international economic system), and the “blood libel” Jew (murderers and modern-day colonial oppressors).I would argue that the "green" in the alliance should also include the Jihadist element. Alarmingly, unrepentant communists will gladly march hand in hand with Isamic fundamentalists and racist skinheads so long as the issue of Israel is on the table.
I started noticing this effect most clearly during the 2001 UN anti-racism conference in Durban, where a bunch of different international NGOs effectively hijacked the proceedings to turn it into one long anti-Israel tirade. Hence my standard caricature of the crunchy guy at the anti-WTO rally wearing a "Free Mumia" t-shirt, with a keffiyeh around his neck and holding up a sign reading "Justice for Palestine" which also features a Star of David and a swastika.
The sad thing about all this focus on Jewish power is how illusory actual Jewish power really is in the world. For all the talk of the neoconservative clique running the Bush administration's foreigh affairs, the fact remains that none of the major players in the Bush team is a Jew. (Wolfowitz, a deputy secretary of defense, is the closest you get). Ditto Tony Blair's government. It's true that Jews play an outsize role in certain areas of American commerce such as corporate law and investment banking. But this has a lot to do with the relatively high Jewish population of New York, which is a center of this type of activity.
But as a friend recently pointed out, things like law, finance, and banking are actually ancillary to the main business of America, which is business. If you look at the leadership of America's large corporations, the Jewish presence becomes a lot less prominent. You don't see Jews at the head of General Motors, Microsoft, Lockheed Martin, or most Fortune 500 companies. You also don't see any Jewish control of the television networks or the big media chains.
The biggest American industry which Jews do pretty much control (sorry, but it is true) is Hollywood. I suppose the high-profile nature of showbiz makes it seem that the Eisners and the Weinsteins are the ones calling all the shots.
When I was in the army, I had a buddy who said he was disappointed that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion wasn't actually true. He wanted to get in on the deal. Unfortunately, there seem to be a fair number of people out there who think we already are.
Monday, November 03, 2003
Bastard Blows Up Self Before Hurting Others
Security forces manage to foil suicide attacks around here on a regular basis. This time, a good intelligence tip off led the forces to a Palestinian village not far from where I work. There, a would-be shahid blew himself up before being allowed to hurt anyone else.
In the meantime, of course, police had to shut down everything in the region looking for the guy. My office park has been locked down all morning. From what I understand, the traffic standstill extends halfway between here and Tel Aviv, 20km away.
We went to bed last night prepared to face the "Mother of All Strikes," in the words of the Histadrut's yappy chief Amir Peretz. We woke up this morning to find out that the national labor court ruled that the proposed strike was not justified in comparison to the damage that it would wreak on the economy and could therefore only be held for four hours today.
The result: confusion-o-rama, as a lot of people have no idea if and when they are supposed to be working. The teachers' union decided not to join in the general strike at all. The hospitals will finish up their strike, as mandated by the courts, at 10 this morning. But the situation at the airport remains completely unclear.
Kudos to the courts for a well-reasoned decision. Now we'll wait see if the Histadrut will bend to the rule of law.
Sunday, November 02, 2003
We're #1! We're #1!
I am the last guy in the blogosphere getting to this, but apparently the European Commission commissioned a poll asking Europeans to choose which country poses the biggest threat to world peace. You'll never guess who won.
Ha! In your face North Korea!
And then they wonder why Israelis are so adamant about keeping the Europeans from sticking their beaks into our problems.
Saturday Night, Back at the Square
Tuesday marks eight years since Yitzhak Rabin was murdered following a peace rally in Tel Aviv. The annual rally commemorating the event was held last night in the same square where Rabin was murdered, and which consequently bore his name. According to police estimates, 100,000 people turned out for the rally last night, the largest number in recent years. They turned out to hear political speeches by opposition politicians and other figures from the peace party, as well as to hear music and remember Israel's greatest Prime Minister of the last 30 years.
The large turnout can be attributed to a number of factors. For the members of the country's beleagured left wing it was an opportunity to rally their spirits after three years in the political wilderness. A lot more people probably came out of a sense of outrage and defiance, following nasty incidents last week at the memorial marking the spot near Rabin square where he was gunned down.
One incident was captured by a Channel 2 television crew who were on the scene to film a segment for the Friday night news. As they were filming, a man walked up to the memorial site and spat on it three times (possibly representing the three shots that were fired into Rabin's chest). Then, with a look that combined both hatred and smug self-satisfaction, the man calmly strolled away.
Then, on Thursday night, the memorial plaque was vandalized by scumbags who spray painted swastikas on it and wrote "Kahane was right" (referring to ultra-right wing demagogue Meir Kahane).
The two incidents reminded a lot of people, myself included, of the atmosphere of hatred that existed in the months leading up to the assassination. Rabin spent the last few months of his life under an unprecedented attack from the right about the Oslo accords. He was demonized as a traitor and a Nazi, and even had a death curse put on him by a group of wacko rabbis.
To an extent, I think we've forgotten a lot of this in the last couple of years. The politics here are a lot less polarized than they used to be, mostly because of the unifying effects of the intifada. But the desecration of the memorial reminded us that there are still psychos out there who know no boundaries of acceptable behavior in their hatred and zealotry.
I was thinking of attending the rally myself last night, and we probably would have done so if my wife hadn't been feeling under the weather. We haven't been in years, not since the start of the intifada when we went looking for answers from then-PM Ehud Barak and received nothing but political platitudes. After that, I felt a bit alienated from the whole lefty tone of the thing.
This year we contented ourselves with watching the coverage on TV. I had forgotten how ritualized the Rabin commemorations had become. In fact, they became ritualized very quickly, within a year of his murder. Each year you see the same people -- Shimon Peres, Rabin's daughter Dalia Pelosoff -- giving the same speeches about how Rabin's dream has not died.
You get a lot of the same songs: Shir Hashalom ("The Song of Peace"), obviously, as it was the number which closed that rally in 1995 where Rabin sang along; Ha Reut ("Comradeship"), an old song about the fallen from the 1948 war, where Rabin was a commander; and slightly newer things like Hoy Rav Hovel ("Oh Captain, My Captain"), which is based on Walt Whitman's poem commemorating Abraham Lincoln.
(There are a large number of other songs associated with the time period. This comes from a 2-CD collection of sad songs called "Shalom Haver", released a few weeks after the assassination as a joint venture by Israel's 4 leading record companies. In my estimation, some 85 percent of Israeli households own this collection.)
This year's rally, as opposed to some in recent years, was unabashedly political. The speakers attacked the government's policies and called for discussions and negotiations with the Palestinians. Peres gave the main speech, once again defending the Oslo Accords and criticizing the settlements.
As noted, I am a former Oslo fan turned hawk. However, I consider myself a pragmatic hawk who still hopes for a negotiated two-state solution to the conflict. So a lot of what Peres had to say made sense. Rather, a lot of his analysis made sense. The government has invested tons of money in the settlements, money which should rightly have gone towards investment in Israel proper. Despite everything that has happened in the last three years, I still believe we need to get out of the Territories and give up most of the settlements. If we don't, as Peres pointed out, the demographics of the situation will eventually spell the end of Zionism.
However, Peres didn't have any good solutions to the problems other than his standard stump speech. Talking is good, but it doesn't do anything when the other side violates every agreement it signs. And he really lost me at the end when he started reiterating the old saw that we need to "fight terror as if there were no negotiations and negotiate as if there were no terrorism." This was a stupid formulation when he first made it in the mid-'90s and it is equally stupid today. If we had taken a much harder line with Arafat when Hamas launched its brutal wave of suicide attacks in early 1996 -- if, in effect, we had tied the fight agaings terrorism directly to negotiations -- we might not have reached the point where we are today.
I can understand the partisan tone of the speeches, but I'm not sure they contributed to what should have been the main focus of the evening which was remembering Yitzhak Rabin.
I Remember the Fourth of November
So here we are eight years later.
I can't believe how fast the time has gone by. And with each passing year, Rabin fades more and more, becoming a figure who belongs to history a lot more than he belongs to our lives. For quite a few years after the assassination, I would get teary eyed every time I heard Rabin's last speech from that rally, or Clinton's "shalom haver" remarks, or especially the eulogy Rabin's granddaughter gave for him at the funeral. Now less so.
I met Rabin, who was a friend of my grandfather's, on several occasions. I have vivid memories of him standing around at the Independence Day party chain smoking, nursing a beer, and chatting with the hevreh. I was one of the millions who passed by Rabin's coffin when it lay in state at the Knesset, and one of tens of thousands who lined Jerusalem's Herzl street to watch the funeral procession. And yet, even to me he has begun to seem less and less than a real person and more of a concept, a mythological character.
I suppose all of this is a function of time. For the second graders my wife teaches, those who were born after the assassination, Rabin has always been dead. My kids will probably regard him in the same way I regard JFK. And so it goes.
Strike Time. Again.
Because it's been, like, three weeks since the last strike...
If nothing changes by this time tomorrow, the country will suffer a mega-strike, the kinds of which we have scarce seen here despite being a world leader in the field of striking. At least this is what the Histadrut is currently threatening.
For the last week, Histadrut chief Amir Peretz and Finance Minister Netanyahu have held a series of meetings to try and resolve the problems between the national labor union and the government. Officially, the two sides are fighting about pensions for public sector employees as well as Netanyahu's proposed economic reforms.
What it really boils down to, if I may channel Saturday Night Live, is a contest of Quien es Mas Macho? between Peretz and Bibi. Will the Histadrut dictate industrial policy to the government or vice versa?
Unfortunately, while the Great Men engage in their pissing match, the rest of us have to reach for our urine umbrellas. This strike sounds like it's going to be an ugly one. The Histadrut is threatening not only to shut down the ports and airports and cause the garbage to start piling up but also to cause problems with gasoline supplies, cause electricity and water outages, and possibly impede hospital operations.
I know my relatives vacationing abroad are on edge, seeing as they may be stuck out there for a while. Me, I'm a bit more antsy about the prospects of my wife going into labor while the delivery rooms are shut down.