Sunday, December 04, 2011

Islamist vs. Islamist: Musings

Trying to figure out the results of the first portion of the Egyptian vote should be easy for anyone who follows Israeli politics. The first results indicate surprising strength for the Islamists, but they are Islamists of 2 very different stripes. That is to say: how do we understand the two political parties that have garnered the most votes in Egypt, the Freedom & Justice Party (FJP; representing the Muslim Brotherhood) and al-Nur (representing the Salafists)?

For those who follow Israeli politics, the parallels are clear: the Muslim Brotherhood is akin to Shas or the National Religious camp and Nur is akin to the ultra-Orthodox Haredi. While these Israeli minority parties are never called upon to form Israeli governments -- and it seems reasonable to believe that their Egyptian counterparts will be called upon to form the next Egyptian government -- the difference between these two religious camps capture the difference between the FJP and al-Nur. FJP represents a political position of religious sentiment; al-Nur represents a political position of religious totality. And while Shas and the Haredi parties speak the same religious language, they hardly see eye-to-eye. Shas represents a low- and middle-class constituency and is willing to engage in both domestic and international issues; the Haredi represent an impoverished underclass and are focused on a set of narrow social issues and on acquiring funding for their institutions.

So too the FJP and al-Nur. The FJP represents a legacy movement led by members of the professional class, saturated with religious sentiment. It has waited for decades for the chance to lay claim to Egyptian society. al-Nur hasn't a clue what to do with its new-found strength, other than demand for a piece of the pie. The Salafists want strict Wahhabism for Egyptian society, and while this orientation surely has implications for international and security questions, there can be no doubt that like the Haredi, al-Nur's focus is exclusively on xenophobic questions of the role of women, the role of minorities, and the centrality of shari'a. Whether it is Egypt or it Israel, just because you are religious doesn't mean you'll get along.

All this transpires against the watchful eyes of the Egyptian generals, who might work in tandem with the FJP, but not with al-Nur. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) believes it is entrusted with the security and viability of the Egyptian state. SCAF has no intention of relinquishing that role. It will be interesting to see if the FJP and al-Nur can work together, with SCAF looming from above. My bet is no.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

A Halloween Tale

To tell this story properly, we have to back up 70 days, to late August, 2011, as Hurricane Irene barreled up the East Coast.

People who know me even a little bit know that while not a full-fledged survivalist, I like to think of myself as prudently prepared. What passes for "prudent" is the difference between my version of sanity and what other people might call "crazed." I went to somewhat extended lengths in anticipation of the fizzle known as Y2K (I still have a small amount of rotted-out firewood left over from a half-cord I bought in late 1999), and I actually bought sheets of heavy plastic to seal my house during the anthrax scare of  the winter of 2001. I read stories of near-miss asteroids with special care and one of my favorite genres of movies are apocalyptic disaster films (I've even reviewed a few in years past on the blog). I'll take "The Walking Dead" over anything on TV Sunday night.

For Irene, I was in total freak-out mode. Sometime around 2010 I had taken a recommendation from Engadget and bought on eBay for $20 a so-called "zombie apocalypse" cell phone. Two days before Irene hit I was researching solar-powered handcranked radios (with flashlight and cell charger) and ordered overnight Amazon Prime a little Eton radio recommended by the Red Cross. I called it my zombie apocalypse radio. I froze water in bags to keep my lower fridge cooled. I bought water, lots of flavored Zero water at BJ's. I downloaded hurricane apps to my iPhone and iPad.

I never lost power, other than a slight flicker, though 700,000 of my fellow Connecticutians were knocked out, some for 7 days.

So now fast forward to October 28. By Friday, I vaguely became aware that forecasters were predicting a freakish snowstorm for Saturday night October 29. Now I am from Minnesota. I know how to survive snowstorms. Hell, we had a whopper of a winter here in Connecticut in 2011, one that equaled the kind of thing I was familiar with from my childhood. But in general I don't take Northeast snowstorms too seriously, and am of the general impression that Connecticutians are wimps when it comes to snow.

I knew I should make some preparations. Friday night came, and I decided to put off preparations until Saturday morning. Saturday morning I went to the grocery store, bought a gallon of water, some cookies, and a few other trivial foodstuffs (stupid me -- most required refrigeration), went to a liquor store to pick up a 6-pack and a bottle of single malt, and then headed home. No bags of ice for the fridge. No hoarding of batteries; already had done that 70 days earlier. Nothing to worry about. At worst, I figured I might be snowbound for a day or two. Great! I was all set for Sunday NFL on RedZone (little did I know I would end up missing 2 weekends of football). At 2 pm I torrented a movie and burned it to a DVD as I saw the first giant wet snowflakes melt on the driveway. At exactly 3 pm I popped the DVD into my home theater system, sat down with a sandwich, got 3 minutes into the movie, and then everything went dark.

The rest is -- as they say -- history. A firetruck pulled onto our street -- one of our street's electric poles had been shorted out and the pole was literally burning. This was the first meeting of our neighborhood gawkers. We would meet to commiserate on the sidewalks of our street many times more in the days to come. We were ready for a night without power. And then the immensity of the regional disaster set in. What happened on our street happened a thousand times over throughout the Northeast. Little did I know I was at the epicenter of the mess, and that I would be amongst the last 4% of people in my state (and some tiny decimal point for the multi-state region) to get power and heat back.

There is no point recounting a day-by-day litany of what essentially is nothing to report. The snowfall was maybe a grand total of 3 inches in my area. It seemed like nothing. I was fortunate in that I had gas water heat and stovetop, so I could shower and cook (that is until all my food spoiled). Sunday, after the storm had completely passed, I actually drove on perfectly passable freeways to Brooklyn to celebrate my daughter's birthday. On my drive back that afternoon, listening to the Hartford radio station WTIC I realized I was returning to a disaster zone. Hearing of monstrous scenes around working gas stations, I tanked up about 30 miles outside of Hartford. It was a bit crazy, but the whole episode of waiting in line and gassing up took a grand total of 15 minutes. At my home exit, a working gas station caused such a backup of cars on the street leading off the exit that I had to weave my way from the exit through a parking lot in order to find my way home. I returned to a dark and cold house. The next day I smartly had barbecue chicken on my gas grill as I tried to save to good purpose one last thing from my failing freezer.

Hartford was relatively unscathed; driving up one block from my house I encountered fully functioning shopping plazas, diners, and gas stations. My workplace, Trinity College, was untouched. Classes went on normally. Every day I recharged my phone (and then my toothbrush, and then my razor) in the office. There was heat. My students were oblivious to the mess just beyond our ivory tower.  It was frustrating to spend half the day in a disaster movie, and then half the day as a normal person. My students naturally and simply did not get that I was beginning to unravel.

But there was something about the need to protect the homestead. This was my house. I needed to be there. I'd rush home each afternoon to try and get a few hours of sunlight to clean the house and prepare for the interminable night. As soon as I entered my town there were trees and wires hanging as sudden obstacles. It was a full-fledged disaster zone.

Monday night, night 3, was supposed to be Halloween, postponed by the city fathers to Saturday, November 5 (when it was then completely canceled). I started going to sleep at 8 pm and rising at the crack of dawn. Sleep was impossible - I have sleep apnea and cannot get a restful sleep without a Constant Positive Air Pressure (CPAP) machine. I was becoming the zombie I was so worried about.

I realized by day 4 that all the wonders of a zombie apocalypse cell phone were of not much use when the cell towers began losing their standby power. The cell serving my home area was becoming progressively less and less reliable. Returning home each night with a fully charged iPhone, I could use an on-and-off 3G network to keep track of outage reports for my town. I tried to cut back on calls, and tried to rely more and more on texting. In the office I was fine and dandy. But it was at home when I needed the comfort of being connected to someone, anyone. I learned during the daylight hours how to point my little solar-powered radio to the sun so as to get the best charge. And it was important to get home during the daylight hours, to try to take advantage of the daylight temperature highs in order to raise the temperature in the house for the cascade that would occur each night.

I tried the fireplace. It was a wasted effort, but it kept me busy. The wood was next to useless, so I burned some books I was planning to throw out or donate. All the heat seemed to go up the smokestack, and the smoke sometimes backed into the living room, giving the entire house a hickory smell. Then the flue would be open, letting in more cold. No good.

By mid-week my workplace had slowly come around to the fact that its workstaff was struggling. Meals were offered, warm spaces to sleep. I took advantage of the food, but decided I wasn't going to sleep in the vicinity of students. TMI.

I was a wreck. There is some psychological need to finish the day and then go home to relax. But there was no relaxing at home. An elaborate wall of home theater relaxation was dead. I love my gadgets, but without power and without WiFi, I was a goner. One day at the office I examined gas powered generators on Amazon, which UPS would have delivered overnight, but 1200 watts would power nothing more than some lamps for 7 hours a gallon. What would be the point? I had, after all, plenty of shabbes and yahrzeit candles.

It became clear that my region of Connecticut would be the last to be re-energized. On Thursday night, night 6, the first lights in my neighborhood winked on. But not on my street. My town actually posted a map on its website (no longer available) that indicated my street was working! It infuriated me no end that we might be completely passed over because of that erroneous map. I was waking up at 3 am and taking long drives through darkened neighborhoods throughout my town to see for myself the extent of the blackout. There was a murder a block and a half from my house, something that rarely occurs in my placid suburb. Two days later there was an armed robbery at the Whole Foods. It seemed as if the very fabric of normalcy was unraveling.  On night 6 I got sick, but had a very game house guest who cheered me up with company and some excellent pharmaceutical advice for battling a cold (in fact I am still sick). She was happy to play "disaster" with me for an evening, and it made all the difference in getting to the end of Week 1.

I tweeted like crazy. I actually lost followers who became bored to tears with my endless accounts of my region's travail. It was hard to find the proper hashtag to make sure I was getting my message out. I eventually settled on #CTblackout, but very few people went along for the ride. As anger towards the utility Connecticut Light and Power increased, I also locked on to #CLP and then found a community of fellow tweeps.

CL&P is led by a seasoned engineer turned manager. For the first few days the Governor and the CEO would hold twice daily joint press conferences; by the end they were so estranged that the Governor would leave the room before the CEO came to the podium. I dropped everything I was doing to tune into these press conferences. The engineer set midnight Sunday (night 9) as a deadline for his company to have 99% restoration statewide -- a laudable target set by an engineer for a system spinning out of control. I really depended on that calm scientific prediction. On Saturday afternoon -- day 8 -- a wire crew actually was on our street. Said my brother in Minneapolis: "Well, you can't be far away now."

The deadline came and went. On the day of the deadline, a supervisory truck and a tree crew actually came down our street, doing a few cuts. But there was no line crew. I was now completely despondent. I swore I would stay each night in my house, and declined offers to sleep elsewhere. I finally gave up Sunday night and slept at friends in a nearby town. But by Monday morning, with a revised 99% deadline set for midnight that night (and one that looked just as unlikely), I swore to myself I was not going to sit by passively. Using my iPhone, I read up about neighborhood electrical lines -- triple-phase AC, dual-phase AC, step-down transformers, ground, the whole shebang -- and then drove down my street looking for line breaks. I spotted two. I called CL&P, pushed enough buttons to send me over to a live voice (and I must admit, the 2 times I felt I absolutely must talk to a human being I was connected almost immediately), and asked a few questions. My mantra was: "I am not mad, I understand that this is a question of science and engineering, but why is my street still out?" The CL&P human voice told me my neighborhood's circuit number, and the exact number of accounts associated with the circuit. I drove down my street again, counting houses -- an exact match of accounts to homes. I finally had a useful data point to work with. Armed with this information, I drove all around my town (charging the phone simultaneously), looking for the now more prevalent out-of-state line crews and in particular for the parked white CL&P car which carried the supervisor. I found a helpful supervisor about a half-mile from my house and armed with my newfound knowledge of circuits numbers and line voltages, I struck up a conversation. He actually called into dispatch to try and find for me the crew tasked with our circuit.

Within a half hour of talking to this very decent midlevel field supervisor, a CL&P car came down our street and inspected our wires; then an hour later a tree cutting crew from South Carolina came to cut away branches for 4 hours; then while I was at a late afternoon lecture on campus an unknown line crew came through. I’ll never know if my running around was actually helpful, but I was so frustrated with that missed Sunday night deadline that I simply was not going to sit in my cold house and wait for things to take care of themselves. At the same time all the running around and obsessive dedication did me in. I returned from campus at 5:45 completely exhausted. As I turned up my street I saw lights all down the block. The streetlights were at a low buzz (like when a CFL bulb first comes on), meaning I must have missed the re-energization by a matter of a minute. Inside the house, I could hear the oil-fed furnace had kicked on. Only when I saw the house temperature rise above 57 degrees (an 8-day record high) did I then venture to the grocery store in a fog of confusion; I then slept and woke up sicker than the day before. But at least the 36 customers of circuit 47N8 (my street as known to the engineers of CL&P) got their power back. In my mind, I’m an unsung hero.

Not for a second do I forget that there are still thousands of customers even now without power. As I finish this post, there are still 13,000 customers statewide without power, 1300 in my town. Today the high temperature was 70 degrees, so I hope it wasn't an awful day for them. 

It was a Halloween Tale  I and many hundreds of thousands will never forget.

Monday, November 07, 2011

First, but not last, post concerning the Halloween Blackout

I sent this to a friend in Israel:

After 218 hours – that is 9+ days – power was finally restored to circuit 47N8 and its 36 customers (that is how the utility thinks of my street). Working on my street over the last 3 days were crews from Kansas, Georgia, Kentucky, and South Carolina. It was amazing. There are still 40,000 customers without power, down from 830,000, meaning I was in the final 4%.
I actually slept somewhere else last night for my first sleep with the CPAP machine in 8 nights. I am now doing laundry, and am headed to the grocery store to get the basics, at 8:45 pm. My classes are in ruin, I am exhausted, and I have a cold.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Let's Make A Deal

The prisoner swap scheduled to take place next week -- over 1,000 Israeli-held prisoners for one kidnapped Israeli soldier -- has generated a great deal of speculation and analysis. There are so many potential dots associated with this surprising bargain that need to be connected -- so many players, so many "under the table" components -- that virtually anybody with even a half-baked "insight" has felt compelled to rush forward with a "thoughtful" interpretation of what looks on the surface to be a hard-to-swallow transaction. The more dots, the grander the interpretation and more fanciful the account of the Gilad Shalit deal, bordering on full-blown conspiracy theories. The consumer of analytical pieces on the Arab-Israeli conflict oftentimes feels that he who connects the most dots wins: whoever manages, by dint of knowing obscure facts and being privy to the "inside baseball" machinations of all the players, to create a grand unifying theory that ties together every loose end has probably got the story right.

In this case, however, the less dots connected, the closer one comes to what I believe is the true story.

The most grandiose "connect all the dots" interpretations have come from not a few Israeli journalists, usually of leftist sympathies, and also from the Iranian media, who have speculated that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is "clearing the decks" of all old business, thereby strengthening his domestic stature, in anticipation of launching a military strike against Iranian nuclear sites. In this version of things "as they really are," even this week's US announcement of the uncovering of a sinister Iranian plot to kill the Saudi ambassador on American soil is part of the groundwork in anticipation of a coordinated attack on Iran.

If, however, we step back from these preposterous conspiracy tales and concentrate on the principal players in the deal, we might draw a different conclusion.

Who then are the players? First, we have HAMAS in Gaza and to a lesser degree in Damascus. Second, we have the Israeli coalition government of PM Netanyahu in Jerusalem. Third, we have the Egyptian military junta (the "Supreme Council of the Armed Forces"; or SCAF) in Cairo. Finally, we have the exchangees and their surrogates: on the Israeli side we have Gilad Shalit's family and friends; and on the Palestinian side we have hundreds of detainees, some convicted of murder, some detained for less weighty security reasons. Seen from this more direct perspective, we don't have so many dots to connect.

Instead, what we have is a deal that makes sense for everyone involved. As with all plausibly successful transactions in the Arab-Israeli conflict, everyone can walk away claiming victory, and everyone also loses.

First, let's look at HAMAS. HAMAS hasn't had much going for it in recent months. Inside Gaza, HAMAS was reportedly losing its popularity, unable to convincingly move the needle in any positive way for the residents of the Strip. A unification deal with the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority unraveled, and the PA campaign at the UN left HAMAS without a viable strategy. The component of HAMAS based in Damascus was also facing the prospect of diminished influence as Syria descended into near-civil war. So it made sense for HAMAS to slightly alter its negotiating stand in the Shalit package in order to sweeten the deal for Israel, and thereby gain back a bit of stature.

On to the Israelis: PM Netanyahu has just passed through a very difficult summer domestically and internationally. The unprecedented "social justice" campaign and the continued uncertainty created by the Arab Spring caused the typically reluctant Netanyahu to take a decision on a matter of national consensus, to bring a hapless soldier home from captivity. With the military and intelligence communities prepared to sign off on a slightly sweetened package, Netanyahu likely saw a window of opportunity suddenly open and soon close, and took the deal.

Interlocutor Egypt has faced growing domestic and international opprobrium, the latter directly related to SCAF's sclerotic response to last month's momentary crisis with the Israeli embassy fiasco. SCAF's standing hardly improved in the wake of the Maspero pogrom this month. Here was a chance to rehabilitate the international respectability of SCAF.

A sidebar to this story is the heroic status of the Shalit family in Israeli reckoning. It is not easy for outsiders to understand the special status that families of hostages hold in Israeli society. Some observers of Israel stand in awe of the special regard such families tend to receive; on the other hand, Israeli leaders can be drawn into entertaining ridiculously lopsided arrangements because of the cultural status accorded such families by the media and political elites. Even so, the Shalits have been relatively ineffective in hastening their son's homecoming.

The Palestinian detainees, particularly the hardcore HAMAS vanguard, have practiced the art of sumud ("steadfastness") to perfection. A few of the soon-to-be released detainees have been under Israeli detention for over 30 years, and those that are not being released have reportedly accepted their fate for the sake of their brothers and sisters. Israel clearly crossed through some of its so-called "red lines" -- but not all. It is not the first bitter pill to be swallowed by the Israelis in such deals, but in the end it looks like it was HAMAS that blinked most recently, allowing for the deal to be made.

The outlines for this deal have been on the table for over 3 years. With every delay, the terms of the deal tightened. All 3 players stumbled into an international environment which begged for closure to this one tiny irritant against a complex weave of problems which cannot be resolved. The deal was always out there to be made. Reluctantly, they all stumbled into the chance to each improve their own standing, if only for a news cycle. Nothing more.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Turkey & Israel: A Friendly Match?

Here is an interesting tidbit, despite all the brouhaha: Thursday the Israeli soccer team Maccabi Tel Aviv is playing a match against the Turkish team Beşiktaş in the Europa League, in Istanbul. Very few Israeli fans have made the trip to support their team. Normally, thousands would have made the trip; media reports have the number this time at less than 200. Extra security has been deployed in Istanbul. Here is a pregame report from Turkey's largest English-language paper, Hürriyet Daily News. Here is how the pregame is being covered in one of Israel's leading papers, Haaretz.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Start-up Nation Becomes Fed-Up Nation

It all started in June over cottage cheese.
The 3 large dairy concerns in Israel (Tnuva, Strauss & Tara) simultaneously raised the price of cottage cheese (for the 3rd time in less than 24 months) in June of 2011, and a disgruntled consumer started a Facebook page to protest the price hike. 90,000 people signed in to the page, a hue and cry went forth in the land, and the dairy monopolies rolled back the price increase. There was some online chatter that the cottage cheese revolt marked the arrival of the popular uprising movement of the region (the so-called "Arab Spring") to Israel. It was far from a "people's revolt" however, and despite the efforts of leftists, anarchists, and fringe political activists, no one seriously took the cottage cheese revolt to be on par with the "Arab Spring." But Israelis seemed restless, as if they didn't want to be left on the outside as the region roiled.
There used to be in Israel an array of mechanisms, largely of a socialist hue, which counteracted against economic and social inequities as Israelis naturally acquired wealth and emerged into some prosperity. In the old pioneering days there was a powerful national labor confederation, aligned with the ruling power, which put pressure on the leadership to have national funds allocated to the workers and their social welfare. An array of government subsidies and socialized services helped turn a nation of impoverished immigrants into a healthy and robust society, all against the background of a defense posture which drained the economy. But times have changed, the Histadrut is a shadow of its former self, the Army has a manpower problem in that it has more recruits than it needs, a wave of privatization has transformed the once-pervasive Israeli state system into a market-driven capitalist "start-up nation." Both Israelis and American Jews boasted of the robust, unstoppable IT service-based economy which brought untold blessings to a nation that a scant 30-years earlier was a philanthropic basket-case.
#J14, 4 days in - the entire site
Which brings us to July 14. A few days after the cottage cheese revolt, a university student pitched a tent on one of the iconic boulevards of downtown Tel Aviv to protest the lack of affordable rentals in metropolitan Tel Aviv for university students. University undergrads in Israel are 20-21 years old and have finished a mandatory 12-24 month stint in the Israeli Army.
The fuse was slow to burn: at first a small number of protesters and malcontents set up shop in sympathy with this sudden appearance of citizen activism. Using the Twitter hashtag #j14 (akin to #j25 - still used on Twitter by Egyptians to refer to the first great protest at Tahrir Square on January 25, 2011 and all that has come thereafter), the protest seemed to me to be nothing more than a tiny group of anarchists and professional malcontents when I visited the site on July 18. I counted 43 tents which filled a single block. I tweeted that day:
The renters' protest is a joke -virtually no one there - mostly anarchists trying to catch a ride. Media exaggerates
Boy did I get that wrong.
Within 2 weeks, #j14 had become a mass protest, and the tent city extended the entire length of the Boulevard, nearly a mile. On July 30, an estimated 150,000 Israelis marched in the largest cities of the country to join together in a corporate complaint against not just rentals, but the seeming collapse of the social contract between Israeli politicians and the citizens of Israel. There have been larger protests in modern Israel's history, but never for a matter of domestic-only concern.
There has been some pushback from the Israeli oligarchs. One government minister dismissed the protesters as enjoying a tent city of "nargilas and sushi," suggesting the protesters are spoiled middle-class kids on a summer lark. Caroline Glick, true to form, dismissed the frenzied media attention lavished on the protest movement (Channel 2 uses the logo "a nation in protest").
As long as the protest remained focus on the purely domestic issue of "social justice" - prices, wages, and rent - the protest could be embraced by Israelis across political, religious, and ethnic divides. But everyone sees a variation of their own grievance in the amorphous call for "social justice." As soon as the leftists stress the onerous cost of the settlement movement (as two writers from the leftist tendentiously argued in today's New York Times) , or Israeli-Arabs make their own special claim for justice (see hashtag #tent48), or ultra-Orthodox, or Kahanists, or labor federation officials stake out their share of the justice pie, the protest is bound to be victim of the old Eastern European Jewish adage: "put 2 Jews in a room, and you'll have 3 opinions." Most protesters are comfortable blaming the misappropriation of their tax dollars to governmental corruption and preferential treatment for the rich; the next step - seeing the untenable occupation as the second source of economic woes - might be a bridge too far for some neophyte protesters.
Israelis are fed up, but unless the next week and the week thereafter produce ever larger and consistently peaceful turnouts, the summer will end, classes will resume, and the dysfunction that is the Israeli economy and government will continue on. Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu and his government won't fall, the Israeli parliament will sputter and fulminate over populist distractions, the settlement project will continue to suckle at the nation's teat, the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer. Same as it ever was.
USA readers - sounds familiar, no?

Thursday, July 28, 2011

New Article by BingoProf

I don't just tweet and blog. Sometimes I actually publish scholarly material. Five years ago I delivered a paper at a conference at Bar-Ilan University. Two days ago, I received an actual bound copy of the conference proceedings, hot off the presses. The book is entitled The Convergence of Judaism and Islam: Religious, Scientific, and Cultural Dimensions. It was edited expertly by Michael M. Laskier and Yaacov Lev, and was published by the University Press of Florida, Gainesville, 2011. My article, entitled "Jewish Mysticism in the Land of the Ishmaelites: A Re-Orientation" appears on pp. 147-167,  and is one of 16 interesting studies on the general theme of the book. Reuven Firestone liked the book. Good enough for me....

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Israel: "Things have never been better"

Whenever I spend time in Israel and hear Israeli after Israeli tell me that "things have never been better," I get very, very worried.

Well, to put it mildly, I am very, very worried that the cocked trigger leading to large-scale violence in the Arab-Israeli conflict is ready to discharge. I really can't go into details just now, but suffice to say that there is an air of self-satisfied exuberance in the current Israeli national swagger which might lead the dull-witted to believe it is true. Israeli PM Netanyahu is more popular than ever; the 18th Knesset's government is self-assured and unafraid; Israel has joined the OECD because its advanced globalized service economy is running on all cylinders; and life expectancy is better than in the US.

The problem is that whenever I've encountered in Israel this level of certitude and confidence, the sky falls in. Israelis become transfixed by a certain "konseptzia" (conception) which time after time lulls them into missing the signs of an impending national crisis. I think we're in one of those times.

State-to-state war is unlikely for the medium term, insofar as neighboring Arab states are engrossed in their own internal madness. But if the 21st century has taught us anything, we must know that asymmetrical warfare can be very destabilizing. Whether it is a 3rd and ferocious intifada borne of general frustration with the comatose effort to bring about Palestine, or a missile downpour from Lebanon or Gaza, I sense in my gut that something is very wrong with this picture. It's nothing I can document or prove -- but I worry when Israelis think "things have never been better."

Saturday, July 02, 2011

The Jewish Ledger Bites Back

Over at the beleaguered Jewish Ledger (with a "featured video" from the Michelle Bachmann campaign on its home page) there appears a signed editorial from the owner (-nrg, or N. Richard Greenfield) concerning an incident that I wrote about 2 weeks ago. At least I think it is a response. Hard to know what it is. Go read it, then come back.

Here's the sentence from this unbelievably slimy & self-serving editorial that absolutely made my day:

Even if we had not had difficulty over the years with one of the authors, who uses four letter words in his "blog" to describe our publication and has called for Jewish communal leaders to "ostracize and repudiate" the paper, we would have made the same decision.

Let's break that down, as Jon Stewart would dissect the crap that spews forth from Fox News. Please note: this blog you are now reading was referred to as a blog in quotation marks, I guess because my blog really isn't a bona fide blog - can you spot the difference between my blog and all the other blogs on the internet cloud? Is my blog engaging in false advertising? Is this page you are now reading falsely representing itself to be - shall we say - a communal newspaper? No, that goes on over at some other URL.

I was also accused of using "four letter words" (note the plural) in reference to the Jewish Ledger. Gee, I checked and checked again, and damn me if I can only find one 4-letter word in my entire post. And let's be clear - I didn't call the paper SHIT, I merely said it went to SHIT. Big difference. When something goes to shit, it means it has fallen apart, become a shadow of its former self, and disappeared. I looked it up. The phrase, now shortened, originally was "he went to shit and the cows ate him." But let's not quibble. The paper has gone to shit. Oh My! I've used a bad word to describe a once great institution of my community that has gone to shit. Simply inexcusable.

So then I checked my other words. Were there any other 4-letter words? Is "rag" a 4-letter word? Nope, that's three. Is "drivel" a 4-letter word? Hmm...nope, 2 too many. Shit!

I do admit to calling on members of this community to put a metaphorical and economical stake through the heart of the current configuration of the Jewish Ledger by canceling subscriptions and suspending advertising. Proudly guilty of that too. But that's such old history: the lionizing of a rabbi who praised the assassination of an Israeli Prime Minister and mocking a rally to honor Rabin's shloshim. Who even remembers that shit?

"Over the years"? I wrote one letter 16 years ago and canceled my subscription and haven't said a peep since. This is my 199th blog post, and I've been doing this for 5+ years. Have I even once mentioned the Jewish Ledger? Shit, no!

So let's dispense with the silly stuff and get down to the original offense: the 3-paragraph letter written by 5 Trinity College professors (some so much closer to AIPAC than J Street I can't even begin to describe) is characterized as "uncivil and disrespectful." Dear reader, please go back and read the original letter in question (for some reason my community's Federation web site thought it not particularly uncivil or disrespectful): can you find one uncivil or disrespectful statement? I don't see the words "rag," drivel," or "shit" anywhere in it! Was anyone slurred in our letter, as Greenfield claimed? SLURRED? Hmm, let's make sure I understand the word "slur.", 3rd definition seems closest: "to cast aspersions on; calumniate; disparage; depreciate." Jeez, maybe I am not as discerning of the meaning of English words as others. Maybe Mr. Greenfield has got a dictionary that defines "slur" as "to disagree." Nice dictionary.

And since the supremely high editorial standards of the great journalistic venture known as the Jewish Ledger (35,000 "subscribers" six times a year; the rest of the time a whole lot less) will not permit its vigilant owner from publishing a letter that is uncivil, disrespectful, and full of slurs, there was only one thing that he could do with a letter from the director of one of the most highly respected academic centers for the study of religion in public life, the director of a Jewish Studies program, the foremost Jewish demographer in the world, and an internationally renowned Holocaust historian -- kill the letter.

Let's put it this way. The owner of the Ledger has one opinion. Five professors (and 2 rabbis I know of, and not a few communal leaders) have another. What makes it into the paper are some of the letters to the editors that agree with the owner's opinion, and of those which disagree - run them on the web site, pull them from the web site - but don't ever let them see newsprint. The owner claims that he received something like a 10 to 1 ratio of supportive letters for his editorial. That's something like Michael Lerner's claim that he received long-winded letters of praise from readers for his awful Tikkun. And let's not forget - for about 24 hours the letter actually appeared on the Ledger web site, and then was retroactively removed (and then the whole site went down - I bet an IT consultant might say the site went to shit - for 2 or 3 days). Let's see, was it civil on Thursday and then uncivil on Friday?

I am going to double down on my so-called "blog" posting and end it with an 8-letter word: bullshit. 

Monday, June 20, 2011

Censored by Jewish Ledger

Sometimes blogging is the only way...

I live in a Jewish community with an "independent" Jewish newspaper, The Jewish Ledger. Some local Jewish newspapers are simply arms of the local Federation, but some are "independent." As with most local community papers, The Ledger has been around for some time, since 1929 when it was founded by Samuel Neusner (yes, the father of one Jacob Neusner). By the time I arrived in Hartford, in 1983, it had been under the ownership of Bert Gaster, a very decent man and fine local journalist, for 17 years. In 1992, Bert sold the paper to N. Richard Greenfield. And then The Ledger went to shit.

Greenfield turned the paper into a mutant, extremist, right-wing rag. After Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995, The Ledger published a laudatory front-page interview with one Rabbi Abraham Hecht, who had declared months before the assassination that the rabbinic rule of "pursuer" applied to Rabin, making licit (for followers of the rabbi) Rabin's murder. The Ledger editorially opposed Oslo, supported followers of the extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane, opposed all deals with the Arabs, and even criticized Netanyahu for making his limited deal in 1997. Before I canceled my subscription, I wrote a letter to the editor, which was published (with slight revisions) on January 12, 1996 only because I simultaneously sent it to the leaders of the local Jewish community. In part:
The Connecticut Jewish Ledger, once a beacon of civility and communal conscience, has become under the guidance of its new owner a shameful disgrace...
Hartfordites should not be surprised at this turn of events... When no other paper in America provided a platform for Rabbi Hecht, there was the Connecticut Jewish Ledger, running a front-page "exclusive" article in defense of the man who said, "if a man kills [Rabin], he has done a good deed." On the weekend leading up to the Madison Square Garden rally in Rabin’s honor, not a word could be found in the Ledger of the efforts made locally to provide transportation to the rally, nor a report of the moving shloshim ceremony held at Beth El Synagogue. Instead the Manhattan rally was snidely dismissed by the Ledger as a "Garden party" of do-gooders, and it was challenged for not providing a platform for Rabin’s enemies...
With this letter, I formally ask that my subscription to the Ledger be canceled. I also ask all readers and all communal leaders consider ostracizing and repudiating this mutant voice of extremism which has sprouted in our midst.
Needless to say, I quit following The Ledger. Nevertheless, this pathetic excuse for a newspaper sometimes comes to my attention. Two weeks ago, Greenfield published an editorial entitled "Supporting J Street Harms Israel," signed by the owner himself. The occasion for this editorial was a planned co-sponsored event between the local Jewish Community Relations Council and J Street Connecticut, at which Colette Avital, former Consul General of Israel in New York, former Labor MK and former Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, was to speak. Claimed Greenfield: "J Street stands outside the boundaries of acceptable behavior for most Jews." It was an extreme, beyond-the-pale bit of drivel, typical for Greenfield. Simultaneously, The Ledger published a letter from a collection of local opponents of J Street which called upon the JCRC to sever its ties with J Street and renounce the co-sponsorship.

The event went forward on June 13 to a full house (and was not covered by The Ledger).

A group of colleagues at Trinity College, representing diverse positions when it comes to Israel (all supportive), sent in response a letter to the editor, which Greenfield refused to print, because (as I have known for nearly 20 years) he is an extremist ideologue who hasn't the slightest idea how to run a respectable communal newspaper. Here is the letter:

To the Editor:

We are writing to take exception to your editorial condemning the Hartford JCRC for joining with J Street to sponsor a talk by Colette Avital, former Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and Israeli Consul General to New York. None of us are members or promoters of J Street. All of us, like the overwhelming majority of American Jews, support a 2-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. We are strong advocates of a safe Israel living amongst its neighbors in security and peace. At Trinity College, we have fought the proponents of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel. 

The editorial attack, which claims that J Street is beyond the pale of Jewish acceptability, is supported by arguments from Frank Luntz, CAMERA, and Caroline Glick that are no more representative of  the Jewish consensus in the United States than are the views of extreme left-wing Jewish activists in our midst who try to slander Israel at every turn. For every critical interpretation of J Street’s history, one can find thoughtful Americans and Israelis who see the organization in a different light. Even a critic of J Street such as Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic has repeatedly stated that J Street exists within the mainstream of American Jewish political life. Colette Avital, whom we all know well from her years of superb work in New York—and who is highly regarded as a mainstream politician in Israel—obviously agrees, because she has joined J Street as Senior Advisor to the political arm of the organization.

Contrary to what you claim, J Street exists comfortably under the umbrella of worldwide Jewish support of Israel. To be sure, there are profound disagreements beneath that large umbrella, in Israel as well as in America. While we may have our own disagreements with J Street, we believe that its policies and actions on behalf of a Jewish and democratic Israel are fully consonant with American Jewish political discourse. And we believe that it would be both wrong and counterproductive to exclude J Street from American Jewish or Diaspora-Israel discussions, as you urge. Rather, it is important to foster a respectful and constructive discussion amongst all who advocate on behalf of a Jewish and democratic state of Israel, and not rush to label those with whom we disagree as inauthentic or illegitimate. Far from being condemned, the JCRC is to be applauded for using its auspices to bring Colette Avital to our community.

Samuel Kassow
Charles H. Northam Professor of History
Trinity College

Ronald Kiener
Professor of Religion
Director, Jewish Studies Program
Trinity College

Barry Kosmin
Research Professor of Public Policy and Law
Director, Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture
Trinity College

Mark Silk
Professor of Religion in Public Life
Director, Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life
Trinity College

Michael Sacks
Professor of Sociology
Trinity College

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Wrong Again

OK, I got it completely wrong. The longest week of empty speeches is over, and I made a bad prediction. I bet that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wouldn't be heckled at the big AIPAC meeting or in front of a joint meeting of Congress. He was heckled at both events. My bad.
Asked one journalist, "Would Barack Obama receive a standing ovation in the Kenesset?" Answered an Israeli journalist, "Would Bibi?"
But I was right about the more important things. I predicted nothing important would arise out of President Obama's big Middle East reset speech, and nothing did. I also agreed with Nehemia Shtrasler of Haaretz: nothing would arise out of Bibi's big visit to Washington, and nothing did.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Obama's Cairo 2 Speech vs. Bibi's Tweets

Endearing himself even further to Middle Easterners, President Barack Obama showed up on Middle Eastern time (read: about a half hour late) to deliver his "reset speech" for what some are calling his "Cairo 2" address, hearkening back to his famous lecture to the Muslim/Middle East world delivered in Cairo in 2009. Stripped of all its rhetorical flourishes, the speech had three main points:

1. "It will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region, and to support transitions to democracy."
Praise for Tunisia and Egypt; attack Qadhdhafi in Libya; threaten the Assad regime in Syria ("President Assad now has a choice: He can lead that transition, or get out of the way"); and finally cajole Yemen and Bahrain to do the right thing. Not a word said about the liberal monarchy of Jordan, and the repressive monarchy of Saudi Arabia, which sent troops to Bahrain to help kill protesters. Selective, to say the least.

2. "We must support positive change in the region...through our efforts to advance economic development for nations that are transitioning to democracy."
A billion here and a billion there to Egypt, once it democratizes. Nice carrot.

3. The pursuit of peace in the Arab-Israeli conflict
No simple one-sentence quote for this sticky wicket. But basically Obama adhered to the principles of American peace processing for the last 20 years: 2 states ("a secure Israel and a viable Palestine") with fixed borders based on the 1967 lines and limited land swaps to compensate for adjustments. Deal with borders and security first, and put off the thornier problems of Jerusalem and refugees until later. Only one oblique mention of settlements, and a question posed to Hamas: are you prepared to recognize the existence of Israel? Basically, Obama reiterated the wearying approach of veteran peace processor Dennis Ross. In other words: nothing new.

Within minutes, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was tweeting, first in Hebrew and then in English, an angry response to Cairo 2. Amazing - international diplomacy by way of Twitter. Let me string together the infantile 140-character at-a-time Bibi tweets designed to respond to a 1-hour presidential address:

Israel appreciates President Obama’s commitment to peace. / Israel believes that for peace to endure between Israelis and Palestinians, the viability of a Palestinian state… / cannot come at the expense of the viability of the one and only Jewish state. / That is why Prime Minister Netanyahu expects to hear a reaffirmation from President Obama of U.S. commitments made to Israel in 2004, / which were overwhelmingly supported by both Houses of Congress. / Among other things, those commitments relate to Israel not having to withdraw to the 1967 lines / which are both indefensible and which would leave major Israeli population centers in Judea and Samaria beyond those lines. / Those commitments also ensure Israel’s well-being as a Jewish state / by making clear that Palestinian refugees will settle in a future Palestinian state rather than in Israel. / Without a solution to the Palestinian refugee problem outside the borders of Israel, no territorial concession will bring peace. / Equally, the Palestinians, and not just the United States, must recognize Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people, / and any peace agreement with them must end all claims against Israel. / Prime Minister Netanyahu will make clear that the defense of Israel requires an Israeli military presence along the Jordan River. / Prime Minister Netanyahu will also express his disappointment over the Palestinian Authority’s decision to embrace Hamas.. / a terror organization committed to Israel’s destruction, as well as over Abbas’s recently expressed views which grossly distort history / and make clear that Abbas seeks a Palestinian state in order to continue the conflict with Israel rather than end it.

If we are to believe this tweeting frenzy, Bibi wants to roll back the clock to April 2004 and invoke a tendentious interpretation of a letter issued by President George W. Bush to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in which Bush said it was unrealistic to expect Israel to fully withdraw to the 1967 lines and that resettling Palestinian refugees in Israel was not viable. Bibi also wants to insist on this newly trumped-up demand that Palestine not only recognize Israel, but recognize it as a Jewish state (something not asked of Egypt or Jordan or even of Yasser Arafat way back when). Bibi then throws up a newly-resurrected demand (abandoned by a different Israeli government back in 2001) that Israel requires a military trip-wire presence along the Jordan River. Oh, and Hamas is a terrorist organization, lest anyone forget.

A few hours after this Twitter frenzy, Bibi boarded a plane pointed towards Washington DC. Bibi will reiterate all these talking points at the weekend AIPAC conference and then again on Tuesday in the Capitol building, all to great applause. It's pretty certain this time there won't be any heckling of Bibi.

It looks like the Israeli PM (Twitter followers: 5,776) and the American Prez (Twitter followers: 8,100,112) are going to have a great weekend together. Game on!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

George Mitchell Processes Out

Appointed on Day 2 of the new Obama administration, former Sen. George Mitchell has finally met his match. The man who produced a peace agreement in Northern Ireland, investigated steroid use in the MLB for Bud Selig, and studied the causes of the second intifada, gave up the ghost in a letter of resignation dated April 6, not released to the public until May 13, a week before his resignation was set to kick in.
The man who was quoted as saying after his Northern Ireland experience: "I had 700 days of failure and one day of success" will walk away at age 77 without a similar sense of accomplishment. In  the 850+ days he served as Special Envoy for Middle East Peace the Israelis and Palestinians were engaged in direct face-to-face negotiations for a little less than 40. It took Mitchell a year to get the Israelis to agree to a 9-month partial settlement freeze, and it took the Palestinians 8 of those 9 months before they agreed to sit down with the Israelis. Nothing really happened during those 40 days, and the rest was even more pointless squabbling, with Mitchell (when he was in theater) driving back and forth between West Jerusalem and Ramallah, a well-dressed lawyer shuttling between two awful clients.
The timing of the release of Mitchell's resignation letter may or may not be significant. Why the letter was held in pocket for nearly 5 weeks is certainly intriguing. But it would be unwise to draw too much from this strange detail. The truth is, George Mitchell had very little to work with. The Obama administration was hoping for a more pliable Israeli government back in early 2009, and instead got Binyamin Netanyahu and a cabinet of rightists. Mitchell started off with a supportive Egyptian ally to his task - now gone - and a fractured Palestinian leadership internally primed to accept virtually any suggestion, but unwilling to sit with the Israelis - that's now gone too.
With the US presidential election cycle about to begin, and with so many "known unknowns" still to be worked out in the wake of the Arab Spring of 2011, my bet is that Mitchell's resignation marks the beginning of an even more thorough pull-away from the endless pit of the Arab-Israeli conflict on the part of the Obama administration. In the weary debate between those who argue for American leadership and a proactive approach on the one hand, and those who argue that the "peace process' is nothing but trouble until the parties themselves truly want to negotiate, my bet that is that Obama has decided to step back, and Mitchell's resignation is the epitome of that new policy.
Leave it alone and let it fester. I think that is where the Obama administration has come down on this particular piece of the puzzle. No bold moves in the wake of getting Bin Laden - certainly no watershed moment in the Middle East, at least - but rather time to step back and let the parties see what the alternative to an American-led (and largely pointless) peace process might take them. For the moment, in the Middle East, there are bigger fish to fry.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Reversal of Fortune

I've been critical of President Obama on his Middle East policy throughout the Arab Spring. But time to switch gears. I can't help but be impressed with the guy this week. I watched Obama Saturday night at the White House Correspondents Dinner, having no idea that he had made the most historic (and right-headed) decision of his presidency. Given the disaster of Eagle Claw in 1980 (the failed attempted hostage rescue in Iran) and the 1993 Black Hawk Down incident in Mogadishu, there was good reason to believe something would go wrong this time. But not a single American casualty. What a cool customer. And I am further impressed by his decision not to publish the photos of UBL to the public. Class.
Great job, Mr. President.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Bibi, meet Bieber

Here I am, a silly diaspora Jew in a position of some influence, trying to counter the uncomplimentary image that Israel enjoys in leftist circles, wringing my hands over every second-rate washed up aging rock star (Elvis Costello, Roger Waters) who announces his commitment to boycott apartheid, racist, illegitimate Israel, worrying about this and angsting about that.
And every week, no matter how hard I try, the incompetent, venal, and corrupt politicians who populate the Israeli government make my self-appointed task just that much more difficult, that much more impossible.
This week Justin Bieber (Twitter followers: 8,803,025) came to Israel for a Thursday night concert in Tel Aviv. This week, Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu (Twitter followers: 3,870) apparently extended a clumsy invitation to Bieber, claiming that he, Bibi, was approached by Bieber's entourage with the idea of a meet.
After a day of Middle East wrangling, which included Bibi's ham-handed demand that the meeting include Israeli children from the communities around Gaza currently under missile attack, the meeting was canceled -- we don't know by whom -- and Bieber was tweeting his sincere disgruntlement with his frustrated encounter with the modern Jewish state. Watch Bieber's wide-eyed wonderment turn into something very different, first by the local paparazzi, and then by the politicians -- "so sweet cruisen on scooters around tel aviv this place is beautiful :)" "amazing place...not a bad day. just wish got a little more space and privacy from the paps [paparazzi] to enjoy this time with my family. thanks" "im in the holy land and i am grateful for that. I just want to have the same personal experience that others have here" "You would think paparazzi would have some respect in holy places. All I wanted was the chance to walk where jesus did here in isreal" "They should be ashamed of themselves. Take pictures of me eating but not in a place of prayer, ridiculous" "People wait there whole lives for opportunities like this, why would they want to take that experience away from someone" "staying in the hotel for the rest of the week u happy?"
And the takeaway tweet?
"I want to see this country and all the places ive dreamed of and whether its the paps or being pulled into politics its been frustrating"
And finally, the lesson we've all learned at the feet of Bibi: "patience is a virtue"

So, after all the hullabaloo about boycotts and delegitimization, comes finally the absolute mega-star of the moment, and within 36 hours Bibi helps (along with the local paparazzi) to turn a trip to the Holy Land into a trip to hell.

Why do we even try?

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Judge Goldstone Revisits His Report

     This is rather surprising. Judge Richard Goldstone, the South African (and Jewish) human rights jurist who issued a damning report in late 2009 against Israel in the wake of its conduct during Operation Cast Lead in December 2008-January 2009, has published a semi-retraction (certainly a serious modification, at the very least), of his original report.
     Takeaway line? "If I had known then what I know now, the Goldstone Report would have been a different document."
     This Goldstone Report has become a rallying cry for the delegitimizers and demonizers of Israel, like Norman Finkelstein and Philip Weiss who have published breathless, hate-filled books or web reports based on Goldstone's original findings. (BTW, I noticed that Weiss on his scurrilous website Mondoweiss had not a word to say about Goldtone's retraction - at least not more than 24 hours since it was published in The Washington Post. [NOTE: A piece has since gone up on Mondoweiss, calling the retraction "confusing and potentially damaging." You gotta love the slavish consistency of Mondoweiss.]) Since I once referred to the Goldstone report in an approving way in one of my earlier posts, I believe it is my duty to now point out that its author has retracted the most serious allegations of intentional crimes against humanity on the part of Israel, and criticizes Hamas for failing to investigate its own alleged abuses, something Judge Goldstone readily admits Israel has credibly done.
     I still maintain that this outcome -- a one-sided report that has circulated for over a year, now repudiated by its author on a much smaller bully pulpit -- could have been avoided if the Israeli government back in 2009 had decided to submit itself to the Goldstone investigation process. But Israel self-righteously chose to shun this UN-backed judicial venue, resulting in a completely lopsided presentation of evidence.
     This is not to take away from the utter naivete of the esteemed judge. Wrote Judge Goldstone yesterday:
Some have suggested that it was absurd to expect Hamas, an organization that has a policy to destroy the state of Israel, to investigate what we said were serious war crimes. It was my hope, even if unrealistic, that Hamas would do so, especially if Israel conducted its own investigations. At minimum I hoped that in the face of a clear finding that its members were committing serious war crimes, Hamas would curtail its attacks. Sadly, that has not been the case. Hundreds more rockets and mortar rounds have been directed at civilian targets in southern Israel. That comparatively few Israelis have been killed by the unlawful rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza in no way minimizes the criminality. The U.N. Human Rights Council should condemn these heinous acts in the strongest terms.
    What a rube...
    Now of course be on the lookout for all of Israel's detractors to come up with some grand conspiratorial explanation for Goldstone's change-of-heart.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Barack Obama, Professor-In-Chief

Remember the words of Joe Biden back in October of 2008, in the final month of the presidential campaign?

“Mark my words, it will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama like they did John Kennedy. The world is looking. We’re about to elect a brilliant 47-year-old senator president of the United States of America. Remember I said it standing here . . . we’re gonna have an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy.”

Well, it took a while. A failed policy in the Arab-Israeli peace process, a failure to close Guantanamo, a caught-in-the-headlights response to the anti-authoritarianism movement in Iran in the summer of 2009, followed by a similar churning and hand-wringing when it hit in 2011 in North Africa and Arabia, and now a meaningless set of pronouncements on Libya ("[Qadhdhafi] has lost legitimacy and he needs to leave"), allowing weeks to pass as the opposition to Muammar Qadhdhafi was bombed from the skies. Protesters are murdered in the streets of Bahrain and Yemen; Saudi mercenary troops are sent to Bahrain; but since all 3 of these countries are American allies, nothing more than pointless words were offered up. Even as the American President, the great advocate of universal human aspirations, tries to now set in place a no-fly zone over Libya (simultaneously signaling that there will be no mission creep), the Obama administration has done next to nothing in Arabia.

Welcome to a third front for the American military. Relying on contract mercenaries to support the thousands of hunkered down soldiers in Iraq, and doubling down in the now pointless battle for deteriorating Afghanistan, Obama will now send American pilots to crisscross North Africa.

Barack Obama's mettle has been tested, and he has failed, flailing away in many contradictory directions. The dictionary definition of mettle is "courage and fortitude." None of that from the Harvard-trained legal academic turned political naif. In George W. Bush we had the laughable decider. In Barack H. Obama we have the ineffectual professor (how many times have we heard his catchphrase "let me be clear"..."I want to be clear"?). Which is worse is beyond me.

(Update, May 12. 2011: .I want to completely retract this last paragraph. Sometimes you go with the information you have at the time. Now I, and the world, have learned a bit more about Obama and the Middle East. The problems are still quite apparent, the Libya intervention is still in my judgment a mistake, but this paragraph was way too harsh. I was wrong.)

Saturday, March 12, 2011

South Sendai Before & After

Fiddling around with Google Earth, I was able to put together a before and after picture set of the tsunami's effect. Unbelievable.



Saturday, February 12, 2011

Between al-Firdaws Square and Tahrir Square

One of the most iconic moments of 2003 took place on April 3 in Paradise (al-Firdaws) Square in downtown Baghdad, when hundreds of Baghdadis brought down a large metal statue of the Iraqi tyrant Saddam Hussein. It was a glorious bit of television, broadcast around the world, and it conveyed both the liberation of a persecuted people from the hands of a corrupt and brutal dictator, and a resounding military victory for the American liberators, who in less than a month had crossed the Iraqi border and carried out the promised regime change. At the time media commentators compared it to the toppling of the Berlin Wall.

Here we stand nearly 8 years later, and all the joyous emotions of that day have long dissipated, erased by an ugly and interminable American occupation of Iraq, years of sectarian squabbling amongst Iraq's new generation of politicians, and a broken country with no infrastructure to speak of.

On February 11, 2010 the entire world was witness to another iconic moment, this time from Liberation (Tahrir) Square in downtown Cairo. Hundreds of thousands of Cairenes had peacefully, and without foreign intervention, toppled the Egyptian tyrant Husni Mubarak. It was a glorious bit of television, broadcast around the world, and it conveyed the liberation of a persecuted people from the hands of a corrupt and brutal dictator. Media commentators compared it to the toppling of the Berlin Wall.

There is very good reason to believe that 8 years from now these wonderful, moving images from Tahrir Square will be regarded just as bittersweet and misleading as those image from al-Firdaws Square 8 years ago. The dictator is gone from Cairo, but the 60-year regime he ran for the last 30 survives intact. He inherited a broken and impoverished country of 45 million people. There are 35 million more mouths to feed at the end of his reign. His generals stole from the national treasure at every turn while a generation of young people lost all hope for a better life. Every one of those generals and Field Marshals, trained in the discipline of the Free Officers movement, remains in charge in Cairo today. None of this bodes well.

When it comes to the Middle East, my default position is one of pessimism. Even so, I wish for the wonderful people of Egypt, whose hospitality I've enjoyed, a phenomenal future. They, like the Iraqis, deserve a future of tranquility and endless possibilities. It may make all the difference in the world that what happened in Tahrir Square came about as the result of peaceful people-power rather than as the result of a foreign invasion and nauseating "shock and awe."

So here are two images of the Arab world which we Americans must integrate, if we are ever to understand the Middle East: the lessons of that day known as 9/11; and the lessons of that day which should be known henceforth as 2/11. From 9/11 we learned and reflected back unspeakable hatred; from 2/11 we should learn that there is a much more complex, humane, and diverse Arab world than we ever imagined. Between al-Firdaws Square and Tahrir Square, I'm betting on Egypt, "the mother of the world."

Friday, February 11, 2011

Alf Mabruk Ya Masr!

What a wonderful moment for the hundreds of thousands of Egyptians who brought down a tyrant in less than 3 weeks! What an amazing new world we live in where a satellite dish can bring about more change than a cruise missile! And the entire thing happened with a minimum of violence from the protesters - a brutal dictator brought down by peaceful people power! Amazing!

A thousand blessings O Egypt!

From 1952, the modern state of Egypt has been ruled by Egyptian generals who think of themselves as the exclusive protectors of the nation. Over 60 years, there have been internal coups, resignations offered and retracted, assassinations successful and botched, advisers and interlopers from Moscow and Washington, and through it all one thing has remained constant - the space for civilian political discourse, which was so important for Cairo in the years between World War I and World War II, has always been severely constricted. Generals and officers have been all the leaders, and most of the diplomats, business tycoons, technocrats, and politicians of Egypt for nearly 60 years. Husni Mubarak has been neither arrested nor deported. He and his loyalists for the moment remain. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, in whose hands Egypt has been deposited, is full of Field & Air Marshals and Lt. Generals of every stripe, and 3 weeks ago they were all huddling with their compatriot Husni Mubarak wondering how they would prevent the tumult of Tunisia from reaching the Nile.

Junior Soprano has been set out to pasture. But the Soprano family business survives. Ruthlessly running a crime family, or a modern Arab nation, isn't as easy as it once was. But nothing today has changed the fact that the regime is intact. The new dictator lurks amongst the members or the attendants to The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. This story has just begun.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Obama League in the Middle East

I cannot help but cheer people who are calling for their freedom from the clutches of a tyrant. But what I as an insignificant speck believe is not what the American President ought to be doing, certainly not in such a showy, obvious fashion. President Barack Obama's many moves in the last 96 hours are so thoroughly naive and unprofessional, so hamhanded and self-aggrandizing, that I am afraid it is now too late to step back. The potential for unpredictable blowback -- despite good intentions -- is great. Obama and his foreign policy team have a history of making serial mistakes when it comes to the Middle East and they have very little to show for it: an Arab-Israeli "peace process" at one of its historic nadirs, Iraq in chaotic stasis, Lebanon turning to Hezbollah. Obama's conduct this past week (and VP Biden's and SecState Clinton's, for that matter) is just more of the sad pathetic same.

On Friday, minutes after Egyptian tyrant and apparent President-for-life Husni Mubarak announced the appointment of a military crony as his very first Vice President, the White House made it known that President Obama had spent a full 30 minutes on the phone with his Egyptian counterpart, and Obama came out to the cameras in support of the move. Then today on Tuesday, within minutes after Mubarak gave a pathetic speech to his nation and the world, announcing that now at the age of 82 he will not stand for September's presidential election (and never intended to) -- but will not leave his post -- the White House again let it be known that President Obama had another unusually long 30-minute phone call to the Cairene presidential palace. Within an hour of Mubarak's pronouncement, there was the American President again on worldwide television, sternly declaring that "it is my belief that an orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful, and it must begin now." More than a hint of colonial chutzpah clings to his words.

Twice the beleaguered Egyptian President speaks to his proud people, and twice the American President directly inserts himself into the tumult. Obama made it positively crystal clear that his heart is with the young Egyptian demonstrators, even as he grudgingly rugtrades with the elderly Egyptian generals. This second appearance by the President of the United States was so thoroughly unnecessary, so completely uncalled for -- and suggests an extremely untoward insertion of the American President into the domestic concerns of the Egyptian citizenry -- that now one can only hope and pray that whatever the outcome, the United States of America is not directly linked either to the chaos or the counter-revolution sure to come.

I understand why Obama performed so clumsily today. During the summer of 2009 there was a massive citizen's revolt against the Ahmadinejad regime, brutally repressed, which captivated the world. When Obama was asked about it at the time, he used Harvardesque diplomatic doublespeak and clumsily dismissed the revolt as an internal "robust debate." He was pilloried at the time for this dismissive characterization, and the non-policy the US took then allowed the hardliners in Tehran to push ahead with their repression. So now Obama does not want to miss out on Middle Eastern history, particularly when the media seize upon the narrative that the Obama administration is "behind the curve" in reacting to momentous events in the Middle East.

When you are a despised and suspect superpower with grandiose aspirations, better to be behind the curve than ahead of the curve. You'll be blamed either way, but better to not inject yourself into the maelstrom. The danger is this: an overly intrusive and present America does no one any good. If the revolutionaries win, they will remember that all of Mubarak's pathetic half-measures were orchestrated not by Tahrir Square but by Lafayette Circle. If the generals survive, they will not forget the betrayal of their stable guidance by a knee-jerk presidential "change agent." In a region where conspiracy theories and suspicion of foreign intervention are overpowering, Barack Obama has unilaterally claimed ownership of Egypt. Which reminds me of Colin Powell's and Richard Armitage's "Pottery Barn rule" of diplomacy: "You break it, you own it." As Egypt was breaking before our eyes, Obama cried out: "Hey, that's mine!" Obama's conduct these last few days has been bush league -- or maybe we should now call it Obama league.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Big Trouble on the Nile

Just take a second to let 2 simple facts sink in and you might get a sense of just how sick modern Egypt is, all under the watchful eyes of the American hegemon.

1. Ever since the day Husni Mubarak ascended to power a bit more than 29 years ago, the entire country has been under emergency rule. In fact, Emergency Law (under which the constitution has been suspended, many political parties outlawed, and censorship imposed) has been continuously in effect (with one short hiatus) since 1967, going back through the rule of Mubarak's predecessor, Anwar al-Sadat, and his predecessor Gamal Abdel Nasser. But back then, Egypt was not an American satellite. Back then, of course, Egypt was in the Soviet sphere of influence. Superpowers come and superpowers go, but the last 60 years of Egyptian rule have been predicated on the Egyptian military and the absence of constitutional law, out of which every single modern ruler of Egypt has emerged.

2. Ever since Husni Mubarak ascended to power a bit more than 29 years ago, until today, there has never been a Vice President of Egypt, and no clear line of succession was ever enunciated for Mubarak's Egypt. It kind of made sense for Mubarak to have it this way - keep all the politicians and generals guessing, and make your personal "pragmatic" rule indispensable. Today, fully in keeping with the tradition of modern Egyptian politics, Mubarak grudgingly made a vice-presidential appointment in the form of Omar Suleiman, a military leader and intelligence master spook. Whatever hopes Husni had for grooming his son Gamal for succession probably went down the drain yesterday during a 30-minute phone call with the Oval Office. Suleiman has some kind of international gravitas, and has been Egypt's principle diplomatic contact with the West, with Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, and with Israel. Unfortunately, every diplomatic deal Suleiman has shepherded, whether it is between Hamas and Israel, or Hamas and the PA, has unraveled. Still, can't blame a guy for trying. Hell, there's even an archive video of Suleiman shaking hands with Israeli Shas leader Eli Yishai in Jerusalem. If Mubarak, in what might be his last days or months in power, wanted to signal international acceptability and strategic continuity for what will come the day after, the appointment of Suleiman makes the outside world breathe a bit easier. But it is unlikely such an appointment will stem the popular domestic clamor for Mubarak's own political departure.

So take a second to assimilate these two simple facts: modern Egypt has known military strongman after military strongman in an environment of massive political repression for six uninterrupted decades, and until today had gone three decades without a Vice President.

I'm reminded of the moment Walter Cronkite shed a tear on American national television for the assassinated Anwar al-Sadat in 1981. The American media mourned the sudden departure of Sadat, characterized as the brave and visionary peacemaker of Camp David, while Egyptians more likely shed tears of joy at the violent departure of another tyrant. In Sadat's place came a cautious but similarly brutal military henchman. There will be those who cry today for the "stalwart American ally in the Middle East" Husni Mubarak, fearing that what is transpiring today in Cairo is more akin to Tehran 1979 than Tunis 2010. I'm no Egypt expert, but I think the glib predictions that the devil you know is certainly better than the devil waiting-in-the-wings are unfounded. The likely outcome of this widespread upheaval, the likes of which Egypt has not seen since the bread riots of  1977 (a much bloodier moment for a far stronger Sadat), will be more military rule in civilian garb. Neither Tehran 1979 nor Tunis 2010, Cairo won't turn to Islamists or to civilian politicians - instead it will turn to its generals for the umpteenth time. The Nasser-Sadat-Mubarak legacy will in all likelihood march on.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Another Pillar Crumbles?

On New Year's Eve, 1978, President Jimmy Carter and his wife Roslyn were enjoying a posh celebration in Tehran, Iran, hosted by Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. It was a glorious evening of elegant dress, fine food, and a modest amount of drink. When Carter had first become President earlier that year, he tried to promote a more humane foreign policy by publicly criticizing the brutal Iranian dictator for his repressive policies. By the end of the year, a chastened Carter allowed pragmatism to prevail, and American fear of a growing Islamic movement in Iran had brought the President of the United States to sup with the "King of Kings."

Said the American President in his New Year's toast: "Iran, because of the great leadership of the Shah, is an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world."

"We have no other nation on Earth who is closer to us in planning for our mutual military security. We have no other nation with whom we have closer consultation on regional problems that concern us both. And there is no leader with whom I have a deeper sense of personal gratitude and personal friendship."

In less than a year, the Iranian Revolution had overwhelmed the "island of stability." By January 1979, the Shah fled Iran. The American strategic masterplan known as the "Twin Pillars" -- relying on Iran and Saudi Arabia to contain Soviet influence in the Gulf -- evaporated into nothingness overnight.

On PBS tonight Vice President Joe Biden said of Egyptian President Husni Mubarak: "I would not refer to him as a dictator." Two days ago, SecState Hillary Clinton described Mubarak's rule as "stable." Once again, the wise, seasoned overseers of American foreign policy side with the despots, fearing the alternative. A lesser set of pillars -- Jordan, Egypt, and (still) Saudi Arabia -- have become our "longstanding" Arab allies in the Middle East. What a losing trifecta of broken monarchs and despotic strongmen! The sad truth: the Obama foreign policy preferences in the Middle East are not one iota different from those of George W. Bush. Biden and Clinton will regret their comments of late January, 2011, just as Carter, that feckless champion of human rights, must now regret his toast on New Year's Eve, 1978.

Mubarak has learned a thing or two from his Iranian neighbors (remember, it was to the Egypt of Mubarak's predecessor that Pahlavi initially fled). One thing Mubarak learned from the open revolt against the Iranian government in the summer of 2009 is that the internet and its freewheeling forms of social communication can serve as powerful megaphones for revolutionaries. So tonight, in anticipation of tomorrow's "Gathering Day or Rage," the 4 major ISPs of Egypt (2 jointly owned with European telcos) went dark. See this fascinating analysis of Egyptian DNS traffic from earlier today, with a dramatic graph showing the sudden dropping off the grid of this country of 80 million people at 2234 UTC. 

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Following events in the Middle East

Here is a note I sent students in my Arab-Israeli Conflict course:

Hi Folks,

There is so much exciting news coming from the Middle East region these days. It is all directly relevant to our class: the "Jasmine Revolution" in Tunisia, the daily street demonstrations against the Mubarak regime in Egypt, street demonstrations in Yemen against the Saleh regime, the collapse of the Lebanese government and the appointment of the new prime minister Najib Mikati, and the brouhaha surrounding the release of the "Palestine papers" which I mentioned in class. I want to make you aware of two video news sources which may help you learn what is going on:

First, I want to draw your attention to the half-hour news digest called MOSAIC: World News from the Middle East. It is edited here in the US and provides key news stories as broadcast by regional news outlets like al-Jazeera (from Qatar) and IBA (from Israel), with voice-over translation as needed.

Then there is al-Jazeera English on Livestation. They are doing a great job in English covering the events in Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen. If your Arabic is fluent, you can also find on Livestation al-Jazeera.

Like all media, both these venues have their editorial slant, but right now there is no better way to find out what is going on. A lot of journalists (both local and Western) are rooting for the demonstrators, and you will certainly be able to see it in their reporting. Watch the news in particular tomorrow, Friday, from Egypt: it is a well-practiced tradition throughout the Arab world to hold large street demonstrations (either organized or spontaneous) after the important Friday morning prayer services at mosques. Remember that Cairo is 7 hours ahead of us.