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Saving Civilization from Al-Qaeda (and the Weather)

Saving Civilization from Al-Qaeda (and the Weather)

You may have read the article in the New Republic last month about how 300,000 ancient books and manuscripts in the libraries of Timbuktu were evacuated in secret to protect them from Ansar Dine, an Al Qaeda cell. The manuscripts not only survived the burning of the Timbuktu library, but were smuggled in footlockers all the way to Bamako, the capital of Mali, where they are currently being hidden away by volunteers until they can be returned.

The problem is, Bamako is in the south and the climate is much wetter and thus more destructive to the manuscripts. As I write this, thousands of unique, priceless artifacts chronicling history, philosophy, science, literature, law and religion from the peak of medieval Islamic and North African civilization are slowly being eaten away by mildew.

I have teamed up with T160K, Timbuktu Libraries in Exile, to help drive attention and funding toward the preservation of these manuscripts, and by proxy, the preservation of civilization itself. There is nothing more offensive than religious zealots imposing their backwards ideologies on free thinking people. At T160K, we seek to keep these manuscripts safe from the elements while they wait out the Islamist threat in Mali.

300,000 unique books and manuscripts have been there 800 years. They should be around 800 years from now.

There are several things you can do to help, but right now we need to fund the Indiegogo campaign.

Fund the Indiegogo CampaignFind Out More

May 21, 2013Comments are DisabledRead More
Brian is in the Kitchen

Brian is in the Kitchen

It was Thursday night and I found myself in the seizième arrondissement taking a video of my French friends taking a shot of Unicum for the first time.  Their faces were distorted in pain, a look that any Unicum pusher knows so well and delights in.  After our Unicum, we found ourselves at a bar at Trocadéro.  We closed down the bar and had to relinquish our seats so they could be stacked and stored as we finished our drinks.  Afterwards we all crashed, myself most of all after a long travel day.  And so began my long weekend that was all too short in my second favorite city in the world.

Paris for all its faults is a jewel of architecture, history and culture, and there is no better reminder of this than the endless flow of tourists who clog every nook and cranny of city during summers, pouring out of Notre Dame and the Louvre and cramming the metros with their camera lenses fixed skywards and their feet tripping on the legs of cafe tables.  But there are also the timeless Parisien scenes: the booksellers on the Seine, the waiters with immaculate black and white uniforms conjuring platters of foie gras and croque monsieur like magicians, the street performers, the omnipresent accordion sound drifting in the air.

Friday my host, Jonathan, went to work so I went to the left bank, to Shakespeare and Company.  It is not the same Shakespeare and Company Hemingway fondly remembered in A Moveable Feast, but it is at least half a century old and filled with books and tourists to read the books.  The reading room upstairs was nearly empty when I went upstairs and finished A Moveable Feast looking out on Notre Dame across the river.  It became the fifth Hemingway I have read, making Hemingway one of my most frequented authors.  I picked up a copy of Green Hills of Africa while there, and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by Joyce.  It seemed appropriate to purchase the books at their authors’ inspirational nexus.  Friday night I met up with Jonathan and he took me to shabbat dinner with his cousin and his girlfriend and two other friends.  Aside from the opening kiddush, the dinner was like any other and flowed with wine and rapid conversation.  Malheureusement my French competency is not what it might be and I found it very difficult to participate at speed with my hosts, who were gracious enough to include me in English several times in the conversation.  I found that it was much easier for me to understand the flow of conversation than to speak, and although many things slipped past me–notably all the joke punchlines–I was able to understand the humor of dialogue and participate as such.  Jonathan and I had discussed my libertarianism earlier that day, and he brought it up at the dinner table which led to a short interchange about the relative merits of American-style individualism and French-style communitarianism.  Jonathan and his friends are in the upper strata, more or less, of French society, so it was interesting to hear their take on French society and what they expected from the future.  Jonathan’s cousin and his girlfriend are moving to Singapore, and Jonathan will be trying to move to the US as soon as possible.  Critics of American exceptionalism will often point out how much better various indicators are in other countries in the world, especially Europe, but I found it revealing how desperately these young people in this particular class are trying to flee France, a country that, after all, has been very good to them and their families.  I heard many times how America was the greatest country in the world.  I also found it interesting one passionate defense of French socialism by a guest at the table, in light of the fact that most of the people she knows are trying to flee French socialism as soon as possible–and the new 75% tax imposed by François Hollande doesn’t help the situation.  At one point the subject of pig latin came up and I became the de facto educator of pig latin at the table.  My French friends had never heard of pig latin before, and were quite amused in their attempts to speak it despite their many errors.  Michael, our host, had particular trouble translating the “ay” sound, instead using “ah,” much to the amusement of his girlfriend.  One thing I noticed, being a passive observer of dinner conversation without the ability to participate, was the flow of conversation topics.  As the proverbial fly on the wall I was able to follow the conversation from elephants to caves to attics to rumors to politics to airplanes to consulting to business to chocolate and that was 4 hours.  I found the simultaneous attempt to follow the conversation and understand French and drink wine to be quite exhausting, but worth the experience.  It has only motivated me more to learn French much much better, a promise I made to Jonathan and I intend to keep.  Friday night we crashed and slept in the next day.

Saturday Jonathan and I met up with Michael for petit déjeuner where we had croissants and hot chocolate and toast with honey and orange juice.  Michael unfortunately is recovering from a fractured shin, so he is on crutches and our walking range was limited.  We drove into the city and parked on Île de la Cité.  As we got out of the car, someone across the Seine decided to dive in for an afternoon swim.  He paddled around in the river for a couple minutes before a patrol boat fished him out.  We crossed the bridge and descended upon Paris Plage, a new initiative whereby a “beach” has been built on the formerly paved bank of the Seine.  This beach is one lane of traffic wide and is basically a sand pit.  Many children play with sand pails and parents bring beach chairs, but this is not a beach.  I learn that Paris Plage was met with derision as a project, both for its cost and its disruption of summer traffic, which we got a taste of on our drive down the right bank.  It seems pretty silly in retrospect, but I suppose enough people are enjoying themselves on this “beach” to make it worthwhile.  The bank of the Seine also hosted a disappointingly awful dance trio who inexplicably drew a huge crowd.  After our brief excursion to the beach, we went back to the seizième and got sushi takeout for a picnic.  We picked up Michael’s and Jonathan’s girlfriends and all ended up at the park with our sushi and fruit picnic.  More French was spoken.  More English was spoken with me than before.  Wine was flowing.  After the picnic we went to the cinema on Champs-Élysées and saw Starbuck, a Quebecois movie about a sperm donor who, 20 years later, finds out he has 500 children that want to meet him.  It was an endearing movie but not that good.  It was in Quebecois French without subtitles.  I understood most of it.  After the movie we relaxed at home for a bit before going out for a party.  The party was good.  I learned that in France, many people learn English using textbooks starring a character named Brian.  The question is posed to the students, “Where is Brian?” to which the students respond, “Brian is in the kitchen.”  It thus became imperative to take a picture of Brian in the kitchen.  We did.  The party lasted until 5am.  I had a train to catch at 9am.  I crashed.  The French stayed out for two more hours.

Paris was cathartic for me.  This was my sixth time in the city.  No reason to do all the tourist stuff, although when I arrived I did walk for two hours from Châtelet to Rue de Belles Feuilles while on a conference call with Ustream, which my phone bill will be none too happy about.  But on the walk I passed by the Louvre, across the Pont des Arts, down Saint-Germain, across Les Invalides, to the Champ de Mars and around the Eiffel Tower to Trocadéro, and the next day I walked from Rivoli across Île de la Cité and Notre Dame to Shakespeare and Company, through the Latin Quarter to Pantheon and Jardin Luxembourg, and finally to Odéon and Place Saint-Michel.  So you could say I did most of the things tourists would do, although at this point I can do it without a map and I have a sense of ownership over my route.  Paris is my city, or so I hope it to be one day.  But the most important part about being in Paris for me was the soul of the city, the jazz music in the air, the smell of crêpes and waffles, the sweeping memories of bygone eras: kings, princes, all the wars and republics, the settling of the Seine, the height of power, the darkness of occupation, and through it all the constant beat of Gallic optimism.  There is no other place where roads and history and life intersect on the same metaphysical plane: past, present, future, left, right and center, night, day and eternity.

The next day I took the train to London at 9 in the morning.  The Eurostar train was high speed and whipped through the chunnel at breakneck speed, leaving us with our ears popped on both ends.  London is gearing up for the Olympics, but I saw none of it, opting to catch a train to Oxford to see my good friend for lunch, before turning around and coming back to Hampton Court Palace where my family rented the Fish Court to have a reunion, 16 years later, of our first family vacation.  It’s a full week of vacation for them, but I was only there for the night.  Dinner was at a new Lebanese restaurant in the town, and dessert was a bottle of Graham’s port bottled 1912–its 100 year anniversary.  It is hard to imagine how much different the world was when every person who made that bottle was alive and well and optimistic.  It has been only 100 years, a blink in history, but an eternity for a young mortal trying to imagine how dead and buried he will be when 2112 rolls around.  In the last century there were two world wars, three brutal totalitarianisms, the transformative liberalization of the global economy, the internet and the politics of interconnectivity, a cold war and a space age.  It is hard to imagine what will happen in the next 100 years.  The port was delicious and perfectly preserved.

At 5 in the morning on Sunday I got up and began my trek back to Budapest, with a Eurostar train from London to Paris Nord, the RER B from Gare du Nord to Charles de Gaulle, the EasyJet from Charles de Gaulle to Budapest T2, and finally a taxi to work where I finished out the work day with 2 meetings and a great dinner at Klassz in Budapest with my Ustream colleagues.  I was reflecting during a mad dash through Waterloo station on Sunday to make the train to Hampton how travel is the one thing I am truly exceptional at:  making ambitious plans, improvising, learning by direct experience, catching the trains on time but also lingering at the memorable and ephemeral moments along the way, and never having too much of a plan in order to avoid disrupting the discovery.  Nothing I have ever done or will do comes close to the experience of making it from point A to point B in as interesting and unique a route as possible, with as many things as possible accomplished along the way.

July 24, 2012Comments are DisabledRead More
Morning in Vienna

Morning in Vienna

Sunday mornings are silent in Vienna, punctuated only by the dull hum of a tram or the chirping of birds in the hundreds of parks in the city.  The wind coming out of the Danube valley rushes down the wide boulevards, amplifying their desolateness.  I am in Burgengarten, looking at the backside of the Hofburg palace with HIS • AEDIBUS • ADHAERET • CONCORS • POPULORUM • AMOR emblazoned in Latin across the frieze.  As far as European palaces go, Hofburg is pretty disappointing.  Tour groups wander in and out of the grounds, following their herders with disconnected interest.  One group removed itself even more from human contact by donning headphones which were all connected to the tour guide’s microphone.  This group can’t even interact with each other in person, let alone the drone at the front of the pack leading them through a sanitized history lesson with practiced monotony.  In Michaelerplatz, horse-drawn carriages shuttle tourists around the roundabout.  Students are dragged by invisible leashes through the grounds as their eyes remain fixated on their phones.

I got in yesterday evening, after deciding on a whim to visit this city I once visited ten years ago.  There hasn’t been much change, and my feelings about it remain the same.  It is sprawling, scrubbed down, impersonal, and boring.  Classical German romantic façades make carbon copies of each other on street after street, with the occasional rusted dome popping up above the fray.  When I got in, I took the metro right to Landßrase where I thought, mistakenly, there would be something to see or do.  Instead I was among residential complexes, so I decided to walk to the Danube, not anticipating my journey across less than 10% of the city would take two hours.

On the way there, I saw a park that would be a convenient shortcut to the water.  The door was labeled “Hundezone,” and I saw a couple dogs inside with their owners, but thought nothing of it.  I walked into the park, and almost immediately the dogs, who were calm and playful before, started barking angrily and going for me.  I made it halfway up the hill before I had one dog right on me, with another dog, that came up to my chest, sniffing at me aggressively.  The owner was yelling in German, and I couldn’t tell if he was yelling at the dogs or at me.  I didn’t feel very safe, and he wasn’t doing much to dispel my fears, as he just stood there and let his dogs threaten violence on me.  I’m glad I don’t understand German because I don’t want to know what he was saying.  Was he egging them on?  His family was picnicking 30 feet away, and they were watching the spectacle but didn’t seem to pay it much mind.  Meanwhile, I’m about to have my limbs torn off by at least five dogs, none of whom were nicer than your average French waiter.  I quickly turned tail and got out of the dog zone, which I thought might have led to a misunderstanding.  Maybe it was specifically for ill trained dogs?  But I couldn’t find anything out about it online later.  By the time I reached the Danube, the sun was just about to start going down and I realized, against all intuition, the Danube is an urban wasteland in Vienna.  There is an office park across the way, one high span bridge every two miles, and nothing but bike paths along the shore.  It took an hour to walk back to the nearest metro stop.

One thing I did notice on my walk through the back streets of Vienna was the abundance of graffiti.  I feel you can tell a lot about a society through its rogue artwork, and it is not surprising that a land where certain thoughts of an Aryan nature are not permitted by law, the Nazification of the urban landscape would be close at hand.  Vienna does not disappoint.  It is one of those cruel ironies of free speech that the less free the speech, the more in bursts to the surface, and in this case, it is clear how the fringe (at least I hope the fringe) of Austrian society finds its outlet, how the stormy, angry undercurrent shows through cracks in the stony, impersonal, buttoned-up façade of the city.

After checking into my hostel (itself far on the outskirts of the city with a gorgeous view of the valley), I took the bus back into town and checked out a couple of the popular metro stops.  I once met a girl in Moscow in 2010 who told me her philosophy on travel was to “go where the party was at,” so I hopped onto the subway and got off at where the most people got off, in this case Stefansplatz.  This was a charming area, with a cathedral, several open squares in close succession, with music, restaurants and fountains sharing one crowded space on the cobblestones.  I ended up in a bar talking with high schoolers from an American school in Vienna, and at one point shots of lemon vodka got passed around.

I hopped on the metro again and went to Schwedenplatz, where I was told there would be “an assortment of good and bad places.”  I don’t know what good places there were to be had.  It was worse that Wrigleyville in Chicago for its drunkenness and worse than Las Vegas for grittiness.  I was glad to hop back on the train and go to Thaliaßrase where I was told there would be a series of arcades under the train tracks with bars and clubs.  There were, with Viennese and foreigners mixing in an orgy of popular music, booze and lights.  The party capital of Austria is no different from the party capital of Anywhere…in the cities of the world, all humans party the same.

After getting back to my hostel, I met a couple from Mexico City doing a tour in Europe on their way to Budapest, and a couple from Arizona doing a tour in the other direction.  Hostels are one of those rare places where you are always destined to meet people with interesting stories, shared experiences, and there is always an element of fate.  Every day the crowd changes, and thus every day new possibilities about who you can meet anywhere in the world.  In one night’s stay at a hostel I made new “friends” in Canada, Mexico, and Arizona.  My new “friends” from Canada were interesting. They were a couple from Vancouver Island who lived on an organic dairy farm.  I asked them if they ate organic in Europe, and they said that ignorance was bliss.  The guy, Jeremy, said there were two kinds of non-organic contaminants: crop-specific, which are added by farmers deliberately to their crops (and can be chosen out by conscientious consumers) and environmental, which affect all crops in the form of air, soil and water contaminants, which he was more concerned about.  I found the distinction interesting because it’s basically a choice between free choice and neighborhood effects, always an interesting problem in economics.

Which brings me back to Burgengarten.  The “free” wifi is spotty at 1 KB/s max, clearly a tragedy of the commons.  Every family in the park has 2 kids, one boy and one girl.  No one raises their voice above a whisper.  Every dog is football sized and on a leash.  The grass is immaculate.  The park is square and the fountain in the pond makes perfect ripples which radiate outwards rhythmically.  It is the same feeling you get throughout this city.  The subways and trams and busses arrive the second they are supposed to and are cleaned by hand so they glisten, even in the underworld.  Viennese pedestrians wait for red lights at empty intersections.  Every cobblestone in this city is in perfect place with its perfect purpose, although that purpose remains, as so many things in this city, beneath the surface.  I’m fairly certain that no one here poops.

Yet even with the concerted effort for utopian sameness, there are signs of decay in the republic.  Scratched paint at the bus stops. Public garbage bags stretched open. Puddles left undrained in the road.  The air is stale, the food has been bland and the people have been mildly entertaining at best.  It has copied the cultural milieu of Germany with none of its work ethic, proud history and heritage, or national heroes.  There is an undercurrent of national arrogance, reminding me of that old joke about Austria:  “The Austrians have only accomplished two things: to convince the world that Hitler was German and Beethoven was Viennese.”  In short, I remain, as before, underwhelmed with what Vienna has to offer.

I will be glad to get back to Budapest tonight.

June 17, 20122 commentsRead More
Thoughts on Israel Discourse

Thoughts on Israel Discourse

I choose the title of this post carefully.  The point is not to elucidate a position on Israel: actually, I rather believe here I criticize that very concept.  But I seek to address what my main issues are with the Israel Discourse and (perhaps) arrive at a satisfactory end point.

It is my position that the Israel Discourse poses more of a threat to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than the conflict itself.  With a longer essay, someday, I would like to further extrapolate this position, but for now, a very long blog post will do.

The Questions

When I say Israel Discourse, I mean the body of arguments, debates, positions, political views, religious justifications and/or oppositions and policy on or about Israel, Palestine, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and any or all matters relating therein.  I say “any or all matters” because this “issue” is not a singular one–it is composed of many overlapping–and in some cases contradictory–questions in many disciplines including history, political science, theology, moral philosophy, jurisprudence and human rights.

Within these disciplines, several questions arise that often form the fodder for the Israel Discourse.  I would categorize these questions roughly inside the disciplines to which they belong.  These are in no particular order of importance, and I seek to phrase the questions as neutrally as possible (i.e. as questions on which argumentative propositions can be based, not argumentative propositions in and of themselves).  This is, of course, an incomplete list, and I will use the term “Palestine” inclusively to refer to the historical and modern region, except where geographical alternatives are appropriate.

Historical Questions

  • What peoples have lived in Palestine during what eras, ancient to modern?
  • What were the events leading to the formation of the modern State of Israel with respect to population displacement, war, immigration and colonial involvement?
  • What were the military, social, political and economic gains or losses of Israel during the 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982 and 2006 wars?

Political Questions

  • What is the political status of the State of Israel? (questions of legitimacy would fall here)
  • Do the West Bank and/or Gaza exist in a state of occupation?
  • What is civil status of Jews within Israel?  Non-Jewish Israeli citizens?  Palestinians in the West Bank or Gaza?  Jews in the West Bank or Gaza?
  • What is the political status of the West Bank?  Gaza?  What is the political status of the Palestinian people?
  • What are the geopolitical factors regarding neighboring countries (Egypt, Jordan, Syria, etc) which affect the political status of the State of Israel, the Palestinian people, or the Palestinian region on a whole?
  • What role do Palestinian political organizations (formal and informal) play in the determination of the political status of the State of Israel, the Palestinian people, or the Palestinian region?
  • What role do Israeli political organizations (formal and informal) play in the determination of the political status of the State of Israel, the Palestinian people, or the Palestinian region?
  • What responsibility do Arab states have toward the Palestinian people, especially with regards to financial or humanitarian assistance and migration opportunities?
  • What is the obligation of Israel regarding the worldwide political status of Jews?
  • What is the role of the media regarding perceptions of Israel, or Palestinians?
  • What is the role of antisemitism in discourse of and relating to Israel and Palestine?

Theological Questions

  • What is the theological justification for the settlement of Palestine by Jews?
  • What is the theological justification for the settlement of Palestine by Palestinians?
  • What is the theological justification for violence against Israelis?
  • What is the theological justification for violence against Palestinians?
  • What role does religion play in the determination of the historical and the political, especially with regard to land and statehood?
  • What is the status of Judaism with relation to Israel?
  • What is the status of Israel with relation to Judaism?
  • What is the status of Israel with relation to religions other than Judaism?

Philosophical Questions

  • What is justice for victims of a great tragedy?
  • What is a Right of Return and on what philosophical, political and moral foundations is it based?

Jurisprudence Questions

  • What are the civil rights of the various constituencies in Palestine and under what jurisdiction do they exist?
  • Who is the proper adjudicator of criminality in Palestine, and how are questions of law settled non-nation-state regions like Gaza and the West Bank?
  • What is the status of international law with regard to anti-Palestinian socioeconomic, political, military or paramilitary action?
  • What is the status of international law with regard to anti-Israeli socioeconomic, political, military or paramilitary action?
  • What is the jurisdiction of the State of Israel?
  • What is the Right of Return and on what juridical foundations is it based?

Human Rights Questions

  • What rights do Palestinians have regarding property (land, capital) either they or their ancestors have previously owned or occupied within Israel and/or within the West Bank or Gaza?
  • What rights do Jewish or Arab Israelis have regarding property they have settled, capitalized upon, or purchased within Israel and/or within the West Bank or Gaza?
  • What is the status of human rights within Israel regarding non-Jewish citizens or non-citizens?
  • What is the status of human rights within the West Bank or Gaza regarding non-Jews or non-Jews?
  • What is the obligation of international NGOs to monitor and/or criticize human rights abuses in Palestine?
  • What are the human rights practices of the IDF?
  • What are the human rights practices of the Israeli government with regard to settlements, settlers, or soldiers?

As you can see, there are a multitude of questions.  Imagine that for each one of the questions listed above, one can establish a series of propositions to make an argument.  Such propositions would, or should, lend themselves handily to an argument regarding the proposition on the table, but for many reasons–and in my personal experience almost invariably–lead to a far reaching discussion that often seeks to incorporate as many of these questions as possible!  I’ll get into that in a bit, but first, let’s establish some propositions (fairly common ones) that arise from the above questions.


Again, I am not establishing a position on these propositions, but merely relating them as I have heard them from arguments on all sides of the spectrum.  No doubt, each of these propositions will have vociferous supporters and detractors, and of course, I don’t seek to suggest that any one person has all (or any) of these positions.

“Pro-Israel” Propositions

  • Resolved: That Palestine is a Jewish homeland, and displaced Jews have a Right to Return. (historical, theological, political)
  • Resolved: That Palestinians have a robust body of protected civil and human rights within Israel. (juridical, human rights)
  • Resolved: That Israel was created on largely unsettled or unoccupied land. (historical)
  • Resolved: The formation of Israel was, and remains, necessary for the protection of Jews from worldwide anti-semitism and cataclysmic violence such as the Holocaust. (historical, human rights)
  • Resolved: Jews have a right to a country of their own. (political)
  • Resolved: Israel is, and ought to be, a Jewish state. (political, theological)
  • Resolved: Israel has a right to exist. (political, historical, philosophical)
  • Resolved: Israel has a right to defend itself. (jurisprudence, political)
  • Resolved: Other Arab states have repeatedly expelled Jews and Palestinians in contravention of international law. (historical)
  • Resolved: Anti-semitism is responsible for a worldwide media bias that poisons the world against Israel; or, Israel is the only country that the world cares about with regard to its treatment of Palestinians. (political)
  • There were no such thing as Palestinians until 1948. (political)

“Pro-Palestinian” Propositions

  • Resolved: That Palestine is an Arab homeland, and displaced Palestinians have a Right to Return (historical, theological, political)
  • Resolved: That Israel has routinely and systematically violated the human rights of Palestinians both within Israel and in the West Bank and Gaza (juridical, human rights)
  • Resolved: That Israel was created on occupied land, and the formation of Israel necessitated the forced population displacement of many Palestinians (historical)
  • Resolved: Palestinians continue to live in a state of violence, occupation and statelessness in violation of the very human rights treaties the Holocaust inspired the world to create (historical, human rights)
  • Resolved: Palestinians have a right to a country of their own (political)
  • Resolved: Israel is not, but ought to be, a democratic state. (political, theological)
  • Resolved: Israel has no right to exist. (political, historical, philosophical)
  • Resolved: Palestinians have a right to defend themselves from, or attacking, their Israeli occupiers. (jurisprudence, political)
  • Resolved: Palestinians belong in Palestine, whereas Jews do not. (historical).
  • Resolved: The world does not recognize the self determination of the Palestinian people and is content to view them as terrorists rather than activists fighting for a cause. (political)
  • Palestinian is an established and recognized ethnic and national group with legitimate aspirations of self determination. (political)

I have attempted to outline this (admittedly incomplete) list of propositions in order to make several points.

Israel-Palestine and the Mismatched Proposition

Many propositions about Israel do, indeed, have a similarly inclined counter-point.  By counter-point I mean a proposition that can be made simply by negating the original proposition.  An argument can thus be made from that proposition using a line of reasoning.

However, this is not often the case.  Before I attempt to speculate as to why this is not the case, I want to point out two examples of the sort of discourse I mean.  These are both taken from my personal experience, and illustrate the problem with the Israel Discourse rather well.

First, the following resolution.  For the sake of argument, I will use the “Pro-Palestinian” side.

Resolved:  That Israel was created on occupied land, and the formation of Israel necessitated the forced population displacement of many Palestinians.

I have properly labeled this a historical question, because it is, indeed, historical (if the tense of the question doesn’t betray the discipline).  To argue this proposition on either side, one not need look any farther than the historical event in question (the formation of Israel in 1948).  The question is of and relating to this event, and no other.  Certainly, many historical factors tied into this creation event, and these factors are helpful.  For instance, to ponder the historical creation of Israel one must necessarily ponder the Balfour Declaration, the British Mandate, and of course the well documented violence that preceded the formation of Israel in 1948.

However, to settle this question, which specifically concerns the existence (or not) of a population in a land during a time, one doesn’t even need to discuss these formation events.  This is a purely demographic questions which asks: Who lived in Palestine before and after the creation event?

Is this such a difficult question to solve?  Does this question require the use of anything other than a reasonably trusted primary source such as a census, land records, or eyewitness evidence?

Yet right now I would wager that my “Pro-Israel” readers are creating a multitude of “counter-arguments” in their head.  These arguments probably include (and I have heard these all before in response to this very proposition):

  • Palestinians didn’t use the land, whereas the Jews settled and tilled it and capitalized on it. (irrelevant, because the question wasn’t how the land was being used, but that it was being occupied)
  • Jews had nowhere to go after the Holocaust (irrelevant, because the question was not how the Jews ended up in Palestine, but what space they occupied when they got there)
  • Jordan, Egypt, Iraq and Syria all dispossessed and/or displaced their Jews (irrelevant, because the question was about what happened to the Palestinians in Palestine, not what happened to the Jews in Iraq)
  • Jews, not Palestinians, have an original and inherent right to this land because it is their homeland (irrelevant, because it doesn’t oppose the proposition; in fact, it supports it by adding a justification for the Palestinian displacement)

I don’t seek to take a position on this proposition one way or the other (I wouldn’t dare), but I seek to illustrate a very important point:  Why is this simple question so difficult to settle?  Are we so blind as to ignore historical truths when (and if) they occur?  If a historical answer for this question could be found (let’s say, an accurate census in which it is clear just by the population decline compared with land ownership records that a large majority of Palestinians were unwillingly displaced shortly before or during the creation event), would that settle the question?

Such a proposition should be (and ought to be) easily settled and understood.  Would that not benefit all sides to come to a conclusion that can be supported all around?

I ask because such a simple proposition–one regarding recent history which can be easily verified or disproved–is a far cry away from some of the harder propositions that exist about questions of theology and moral philosophy.  So if we have to start somewhere, shouldn’t it be at a place where at least–hopefully–some consensus can be found?

Here is the second resolution.  This one is more philosophical in nature, and definitely one that I’ve encountered personally.  For the sake of argument, I will use the “Pro-Israel” side.

Resolved: The formation of Israel was, and remains, necessary for the protection of Jews from worldwide anti-semitism and cataclysmic violence such as the Holocaust.

This is a very, very common proposition and continues to be a powerful argument for the existence of (a) Jewish state.  Like most propositions on self determination, it includes a very good justification: historically documented persecution of Jews by many peoples over the millennia have left Jews with no national homeland, until Israel.

To discuss this proposition the key is the word necessary.  For all its historical and sociopolitical implications, the question of legitimacy for the State of Israel rests on the idea that not only is the State of Israel a sufficient protection for the Jews against antisemitism, it is a necessary one.  The proposition therefore exists to challenge any counter point on the legitimacy of Israel based on its necessity.

But that’s not what we have.  Instead, the following propositions are often stated in opposition.  My “Pro-Palestinian” friends almost certainly are formulating these arguments right now.

  • Palestinians are a persecuted minority with no national homeland, and a homeland is necessary for them as well for the same reasons. (irrelevant, because the question is whether Israel is necessary for Jews, not whether a Palestine is necessary for Palestinians; if anything, this enforces the proposition, not detracts from it)
  • The Holocaust doesn’t give Jews the right to persecute others. (irrelevant, because the persecution of Palestinians is not at point, merely the necessary conditions for the formation of Israel)
  • Jews have inflicted more (or a comparable amount of) suffering on the Palestinians than they faced under Hitler/in history. (irrelevant, because again, the question is the necessity of the formation of Israel for the Jews, plus this is a classic case of reversing the question: clearly the suffering of Palestinians doesn’t negate the suffering the Jews, regardless of who the relevant actors are, and suffering is certainly not a zero-sum game)
  • The Holocaust did not happen, thus the de facto justification for the formation of Israel does not exist. (irrelevant, because it is a historical fact that the Holocaust did, indeed, happen)

Again, I pose the same question as in the former proposition:  Why is this question so difficult to answer?  Is not a similar feeling of common moral outrage over persecution felt by all?  Can’t in principle most people agree to the basic premise that self-determination is a valuable and legitimate aspiration for any nation?
There exist, of course, very valid and legitimate counter-points to both propositions.  For instance, to the latter proposition, an arguer could easily make the point that Jews live in safety in many parts of the world not in Israel, thus proving that the continuing existence of Israel is not necessary under the stated criteria.

Likewise, an arguer against the former proposition could make the point that many Palestinians were, in fact, legally dispossessed of their land or compensated for it, or left voluntarily.  Historical evidence would of course be required in either case.

My point here is that despite a list of personally rational propositions and counter-propositions that could be made to establish an argument, so many discussions that make up the Israel Discourse quickly decompensate.

Thus what you have, oftentimes, is a complete mismatch of propositions that quickly escalate out of control.  Some of my favorite exchanges from recent memory:

A:  The occupation of Gaza and the West Bank is a human rights travesty.
B:  The Palestinians have places to go (i.e. other Arab countries) whereas Jews have nowhere to go.

This is a human rights proposition met with a political one.

A:  Israel has no right to exist.
B:  Israel has been attacked in 7 wars and has defended itself against Arab attackers.  All the Arabs want to do is wipe Israel off the map.

This is a political proposition met with a historical one.

A:  Israel has committed war crimes against Palestinians.
B:  Jews aren’t allowed to speak their mind in Egypt.

This is a juridical proposition met with a politico-historical one.

A:  Israel shouldn’t have attacked the Gaza flotilla.
B:  [Country Xyz] abuses human rights every day, but the UN and the world only criticizes Israel.

This is a political position met with another political one, but one that is completely irrelevant to the question at hand.

As a friend of mine likes to point out, the Israel Discourse very much resembles the sound byte world of the mainstream media, in which talking heads seek not to engage in intellectual discourse, but to make their talking points regardless of their opposition (even if the opposition might agree with them!).  I would like at some point to put proof, from the media and literature on the subject, that this is the case, but I am pressed for time.  I hope my readers at this point can recognize in their own lives when they have experienced this sort of argument and have been as frustrated as I have in many of these situations.

(One final caveat on the Israel Discourse and its tendency to decompensate:  I have this feeling that so many discussions about Israel end up being a battle to claim the lowest common denominator of victimhood, and thus claim the mantle of highest possible virtue–perhaps this could be called a corollary of Godwin’s Law.  But I merely ponder.)

Israel-Palestine and the False Duality

I mentioned earlier that I created the list of propositions for several reasons.  The first of course was to demonstrate some examples of illogical counter-arguments that mismatch propositions in odd ways.  I hope I have sufficiently demonstrated, for a blog post, that this is frequently the case within the Israel Discourse.  The second was to illustrate that to have any position on Israel is decidedly complicated.  Exceedingly complicated.  Complicated beyond all compare.  And, despite what most people may think, they do not have one mind on this issue.  This is why I have put “Pro-Israel” and “Pro-Palestinian” in quotes.  For most people–I would estimate an overwhelming majority of people–their views are going to straddle both sides of the divide.

Thus, I wish to dedicate the second half of this essay to the extraordinary bravery of people who question the accepted wisdom of their so-called intellectual leadership on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.  This “leadership” across the spectrum is revealing of perhaps the most embarrassing aspect of the Israel Discourse–that it continues to be perpetrated, reinforced and magnified by the most vocal and stringently polarizing figures on the right and the left, until reason is left far behind.  Ironically, from both the grimy, corrupt, destruction-bent and vitriolic anti-Zionist left and the slimy, power hungry, stodgy and non-pragmatic pro-Israel right come very similar viewpoints on humanity, political discourse and pragmatism.

  • The humanity of the “other” matters little to naught compared to our own short-term political interest
  • The important battle to be fought is that on the airwaves, in order to justify the unconscionable on the ground.  A corollary of this is the belief that what the media thinks is more important than what we do.

Fortunately, not everyone is so pigheaded.  Most reasonable people–I would assume–can make certain acknowledgements about freedom, liberty, human rights, and–gasp–history that might not “prove” a solution for the conflict, but might indeed come close to understanding its more troubling aspects.

For instance, a secular humanist who believes in self-determination might well agree with the proposition that Israel is necessary for the protection of Jews against worldwide antisemitism, but might also agree with the proposition that a Palestinian state is necessary for the same reasons.

A historian of South Africa–which I happen to be–might draw historical similarities between the nationalistic ethno-centric nature of the Zionist movement and its analogous National Party in South Africa, especially with regard to how the state is defined as a political entity with respect to its occupants, without jumping on board with the proposition that Israel is–or shares more qualities than not with–an apartheid state.

A scholar of human rights might take great umbrage over the treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank & Gaza by Israeli soldiers or Israeli settlers, but simultaneously believe that the capture of Israeli soldiers for material or strategic gain, or the indiscriminate murder of Israeli civilians is likewise a humanist scandal.

And a pragmatic jurist might find Palestinian self-determination to be a completely invalid concept based on the historical formation of the Palestinian people and their respective origins, but not feel compelled to invalidate the legitimate democratic aspirations of the Palestinian people who remain, to this day, largely stateless.

My point here is to clarify that a range of positions may be had on the issue, which don’t necessarily corollate with the well-worn ideological positions of “Pro-Israel” and “Pro-Palestine”.  But the ideological lines, of course, are how the debate defines itself.  So how is this problem to be reconciled?  How can an Israel Discourse be addressed on its arguments alone, if its very existence is predicated on a false duality?

And it is, my friends, a false duality.  To take a “Pro-Israel” or “Pro-Palestine” position is to completely ignore the tapestry of complex questions which I have outlined above, which make no promises, cure no problems and certainly, when taken as a whole, make no sense.

And yet that is what occurs.  At almost every turn, conversations quickly decompensate into their polemic elements.  An innocuous, even sarcastic point might be countered by a reasonable challenge, such as–in a recent example from Facebook–linking to a Haaretz article on the IDF starting to use cameras to stave off criticism:

LK:  “Too bad the Israeli government has a bad track record of photo editing.”

CF:  “It’s better than nothing dude.”

This is where, somehow, the conversation takes a political turn.

JK:  “i don’t know, i think it’s worse than nothing. it means they’ll continue doing exactly what they’ve been doing (murder, torture, humiliation), and then doctor and selectively release photographs to try to convince the world otherwise. besides, the entire occupation is criminal…”

CF:  “Who’s “they”? The soldiers and the politicians trying to control a message are completely different people, and the soldiers are less likely to gamble with their careers if there’s a recording device present. A good example is taping of police interviews. Since police interviews have been taped in some jurisdictions, prisoner abuse and coercion have decreased.”

Now more people join the conversation.

NI:  If they want to use cameras to avoid intl criticism then all of the cameras should be streaming live to an objective UN body with no editing.

CF:  Lol find one army in the world that would have its practices real time streamed to the UN for scrutiny

At this point, the conversation is still genial.  As far as I can tell, it’s more about cameras and psychology than Israel.  But see how JK takes up this opportunity to turn the conversation toward his topic of choice:

JK:  I don’t see anything in the article that suggests the IDF rank and file would be the ones curating what photographs get released and where they get released to, but in any case the question is somewhat of a distraction: even if the IDF were the world’s “most moral army,” the entire occupation of Palestine is illegal and immoral. Any attempt to portray the IDF as a “moral army” that does not recognize the illegality and monstrosity of the occupation just serves the propaganda interests of the occupiers.

What?  Where did we get here?  In three steps, we went from the Israelis not having a good record on photo editing, a point on which LK and CF seemed to be in agreement on, to an amicus incursion by JK, who is fixated on perpetrating a point of view that–while it has some legitimacy–has no place in this conversation.  But it continues–now another friend joins the conversation.

BA:  the difference is that police interviews are controlled by a separate entity.beauracracy.. in the case of the IOF, these videos are likely to be edited to fit the narrative they want to portray to the world

LK:  remember the photos revealed post-mavi marmara? didn’t one of them turn out to be a recycled photograph of a weapons cache the Israeli army found years prior? the date was cleverly edited. who says this can’t happen again. and even if they didn’t edit anything, when you have 1000 hrs of footage, for example, why release all of it? why not just release the segments that show the soldiers picking dandelions? there’s so much potential for deception and this doesn’t make me confident or relieved in the slightest.

As far as I can tell, LK is merely defending his original assertion that the Israeli army has doctored photographic evidence in the past.  CF tries to bring the conversation back, only to have JK hijack it again.  Wasn’t it Winston Churchill who said “a fanatic is one who won’t change his mind, and won’t change the subject?”

CF:  Even if they edit EVERYTHING, my comment was only about the psychology of being filmed, which could only help reduce atrocities, not increase them. I don’t get your logic.

JK:  propaganda that whitewashes an intrinsically violent occupation legitimizes and prolongs the occupation. as others have above i’d argue that no such reduction is likely to occur, but even if so, the reduction in violence is dwarfed by the violence intrinsic to the occupation. this isn’t an insignificant question; supporters of palestinian self-determination need to call out all of this bullshit on the part of the IDF and israeli government for what it is, each time they come out with a new round of it.

The conversation continued, but for the interest of space, I want to quote a later participant, who added this gem:

DD:  Was there a point to any of that? Yes the Nakba and Ma’ale Adumim are fucking horrible. Gold star. We’re talking about camcorders.

DD’s bluntness sums up the very issue.  His distaste for the Nakba, the Palestinian occupation, the atrocities committed by Israel–all irrelevant to a fanatic who is content to hold his position hostile over a disagreement over video equipment.  But DD also shows that there is the possibility of knowing truth in both the Israeli and Palestinian polemical narratives; as he says later to JK:

DD:  you don’t have an argument- just a full tour of every irrelevant permutation in this conflict and an abdication of any moral condemnation of the Palestinian “tactic” of shelling civilians, which is a direct violation of all international law governing war. I’m elated that you are opposed to the occupation and the various forms of misery that attend it. I am too, though you assume otherwise, presumably because whatever Middle East-related sources you’re lifting your talking points from leave you unequipped to debate someone who opposes occupation and at the same time does not condemn Israel at every juncture.

I challenge any of my readers to create an Israel Discourse which is not predicated on this false duality–with this obsession with a side and a cause–but in which propositions may be made and debated on their own merits, and arguments may be had that attempt to find truth, instead of insisting on a fanatical point-counterpoint that goes nowhere.

This duality is made worse by the equally egregious defenders of Israel in the United States, who share with their brethren on the other side a dislike of logic and a love of polemical ideology.  Take the rhetoric of Abe Foxman, who doesn’t seem to be able to reconcile a Jew who is critical of Israel.

Resolving the Discourse as a Necessary Condition for Resolving the Conflict

I want soon to be able to make the argument that the Israel Discourse is the problem of the conflict. The way discourse is propagated, misused, misunderstood and reinforced is a threat to the State of Israel, a threat to the Palestinian people, and ultimately a threat to peace in the region.

This argument will necessarily require a lot more research than I have yet to conduct.  My opinions are formed but not formulated.  I don’t think that they are particularly controversial, except for the inevitable backlash I will have to face from countless people who believe they know what is right, which will probably prove my point.  At this point, a lengthy blog post will serve to get my ideas on paper.

April 12, 2011Comments are DisabledRead More
Russia, Georgia and the Dirty War

Russia, Georgia and the Dirty War

Picture this.  A powerful, tested military power invades a small, militarily weak country with strong diplomatic ties to the Western powers, including the United States, Britain and France.  The invasion of this small country prompts an international outrage.

What’s next?  For World War II purists, the stage has just been set for a massive international conflict.  I know the Russians would revile at even considering a strategic likeness to the Great Dictator, but in essence, there is a parallel.  And that parallel does not lead down the right path.

What is most ironic, of course, is that the Russians claim that the Georgians themselves have perpetrated acts of genocide against the South Ossetians.  This claim has yet to be independently verified, but even if the Georgians don’t take kindly to the people of one of their two breakaway regions, most Georgians, no doubt, are completely ignorant of any sort of “ethnic cleansing” that occurs there.  If any such atrocities are occurring, most Georgians are innocent of the matter.

Unfortunately, the PR war that Russia is waging has been lost.  There is no way they can continue to hammer this poor country into submission without drawing criticism and, eventually, sanctions.  What is doubly ironic is that their war is being criticized most strongly as an overextension of military force by the country who has most exercised its own military force in recent times–the United States.  Not only that, but the country the United States has most recently beat down on–the country whose people did nothing wrong and whose leader could have been removed diplomatically through UN negotiations–and the country whose acts of genocide should have been punished when they occurred, in the early 90’s and not 12 years later–was, until recently, hosting 2,000 Georgian soldiers who were sent their to strengthen ties with the United States.

It seems that Georgia’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili, had calculated everything.  Which is why it is so strange that he would order a military deployment into South Ossetia, when he knew it would provoke Russian ire.  But that’s a story for another day.

What is outrageous is the degree to which the Russians have been bombing–and invading–sovereign Georgian territory outside South Ossetia.  Most recently, over 60 civilians were killed in Gori, and bombings have been reported outside Tbilisi and in the port cities as well.  This is all part of Russia’s plan to weaken a military that could not be weakened any more.  For a country that receives it oil, electricity and internet from Russia, it seems to be doing pretty well for itself considering.

Parallels have been drawn to the 2006 Israel war with Lebanon.  But whereas the Israelis had declared war against a subnational terrorist group, Hezbollah, the Russians have clearly staked out to defeat the sovereign nation of Georgia.  The Lebanese were right to be angry, however, and the anger in Georgians today toward the Russians is at par with the anger of these Lebanese two summers ago.

Such anger is not going to go away when the last bombs fall.  On the contrary, it will brew, beneath the service, until open conflict erupts again.  It was inevitable in the rise and fall of international politics, just like it was sixty years ago and thirty years before that.  I just hope the United States intervenes before it’s too late for Georgia and its people.

August 12, 2008Comments are DisabledRead More