Thursday, February 25, 2010

Autism and the Environment

Toxins in the environment are much more dangerous than mercury in vaccines, and pollution is much more likely to be one of the causes of autism than the shots babies get. I've been saying so for years. Now, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof backs up my argument that "it's the environment, stupid!", based on a new article published in the journal Courant Opinion in Pediatrics, "What causes autism? Exploring the environmental contribution" by Philip J. Landrigan (unless your institution purchased access to the journal, you'll have to pay to read it online).

Protecting our environment is a public health issue. Pollution is not just a threat to our flora and fauna, it's a threat to us and to the next generations. I also think that the prominence of anti-global warming advocates has shifted the focus away from pollutants that have nothing to do with carbon emissions. Don't get me wrong - global warming is a serious, pressing problem, but it is far from being the only serious, pressing environmental issue we face.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Jerusalem, City of... Love?

Yesterday was Valentine's Day, a perfect day for romantic movies. I'm sure many couples went out to see "New York, I Love You", the second installment in the "Cities of Love" series, or rented a DVD of the first installment, 2006's "Paris, je t'aime". Each film is an anthology of several love stories from different neighborhoods of the city in the title.

I have not seen either film, nor do I intend to do so. The only reason I'm interested in this series is the odd news that one of the next films will be "Jerusalem, I Love You", with segments directed by American, Israeli and international directors. Jerusalem? Really?

Paris made sense as the first city in the series. After all, it is the City of Love, and considered the most romantic city in the world. New York is also the location of many a love story. Rio, one of the future installments is quite exotic. But Jerusalem?

I do not associate Jerusalem with romance. The only famous Jerusalem love story I can think of is David and Bathsheba - you know, the one with the cheating, the murder of the cheated husband and the death of the bastard baby. Israel has much more romantic cities, like Tel-Aviv, Eilat or even Haifa. These are cities with beaches and quite a night life. In Haifa, there's also romantic natural scenery.

The only love I associate with Jerusalem is the love of God. The excessive love of God, that is. Fanatics spilling the blood of those who are of different religions or are their co-religionists but not devout enough in their own minds.

Oh, well. The creators of the short films about Jerusalemite romance will find something to write about. Romance happens in Jerusalem all the time, just like in any other city. And the movie has one good thing going for it: I'm sure Natalie Portman will appear in it, and maybe even direct a segment. After all, she directed a segment of "New York, I Love You", appeared in both the New York and Paris installments and was born in Jerusalem.

Oh, and one more thing in Jerusalem's defense: Another future installment in the series will be about Shanghai, a city I associate with romance even less than Jerusalem.

Shutting Up Opposing Views

Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren and Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon were heckled by pro-Palestinian protesters during recent appearances at respected universities. Oren was treated to a series of shout downs at the University of California, Irvine (see Youtube video below), while Ayalon was heckled during a speech at Oxford. The protesters chose not to ask difficult questions during the Q&A, but rather to try to shut the Israeli speakers up by shouting all kinds of slogans. It seemed to be pre-organized, but not in a very smart way. The UC-Irvine protesters (and maybe the ones in Oxford, too, but I haven't seen a video of them) had written their slogans on little notes beforehand, and shouted them out one person at a time, with no connection between what Amb. Oren was saying at that point and what they were shouting.

There is no difference between what these protesters did and what the right-wing organization "Im Tirtzu" is trying to do to the New Israel Fund and left wing organizations. Both groups are fighting to shut up their own opposition while claiming that what they themselves are doing is an exercise in free speech. How can an attempt to silence free speech be itself protected by free speech?

You might say that there is a difference between NGOs like the New Israel Fund and government officials like the deputy foreign minister and a diplomat. You might try to claim that the protesters were speaking truth to power. That isn't the case. People in the audience only heard slogans. They didn't really hear in depth arguments in favor of the Palestinian cause, which the Arab protesters could have made during the Q&A. Audience members didn't hear a debate that would make them understand the situation better. Instead, they got fragments of the Israeli view and even smaller fragments of the pro-Palestinian view, but no interaction between the two. The hecklers turned the event into a disgrace unworthy of an academic venue.

UC-Irvine video after the jump.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

L-less Lesbians

Once upon a time in a country far far away there was a young maiden named Jane. Everybody adored her. Boys wanted to date her, but for some reason she was not interested. Even when Brad Pitt came into town, she found her eye wandering to his wife. She did not understand what she was, or perhaps refused to say it in front of others.

One day, she became infatuated with a woman named Marcia and the two had sex. "This was just a one time thing," Jane said. "I am not a... Not a..."

"You can't even say the damn word," said Marcia. "You are what I am. A..."

"No, don't say it," Jane interrupted, anxious of what might happen if she heard the word.

"Give me a ring when you come out. Before then, I don't want to have anything to do with you," announced Marcia. She got dressed and started opening the door, then gave Jane another chance. "Come on. Your window won't be open much more."

Jane said nothing. Marcia went out the door and never turned her head back. Jane regretted her decision the moment she made it, but did not have the courage to change it.

The End.

And that, my friends, was a story about lesbians not only without the L-Word, but also without the L-Letter.

Absentee Voting In Israel

First, a few disclaimers. I am a dual citizen of the United States and Israel. I vote in US elections (as a "Special Federal Voter" - ain't that a cool title?) despite the fact that I haven't lived there in over twenty years. I might move to the States temporarily for a few years, but I plan to return to Israel after that.

Alright, what was all that about? Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman have proposed to allow Israelis living abroad to vote in Knesset elections. Not all citizens living abroad will be allowed to vote. The exact formula hasn't been finalized yet: Lieberman's proposal says that anyone who has had an Israeli passport for at least 10 years will be eligible to vote absentee, while the Likud proposes that this right will be given to citizens who left Israel less than six years before the election, and spent no less than 40 days in the country during that period. It should be noted that currently, every citizen may vote as long as he's in Israel on election day, regardless of whether or not he lives in Israel.

I don't like the current proposals. Lieberman's proposal is too broad and is simply meant to reduce the percentage of Arab voters. Someone who spent very little time in Israel can vote absentee ten years after becoming a citizen, even if he left the day he got his Israeli citizenship. Netanyahu's proposal is also ridiculous. If I understand it correctly, 40 days in Israel are enough to restart the six-year countdown.

People who have permanently left Israel should not be allowed to vote by absentee ballot. They have no moral right to do so. They will not have to live with the consequences of their vote. What's the difference between Israel and the US, you ask? Not much difference. As someone who does not live in the States, I don't have a moral right to vote in US elections. I have a legal right, which I implement. If Israelis who left the country years ago are allowed to vote, I won't blame those who take advantage of this right. I'll blame the lawmakers who gave it to them.

But there still is a difference between Israel and the United States - the proportion of Americans abroad is miniscule. The proportion of Israelis abroad is quite large. I don't have much impact on US elections, except for cases of very close elections. With the large number of Israelis living abroad and the proportional representation system, absentee voters will have a huge impact on elections, even when one party or bloc has a clear lead.

Israelis who are abroad temporarily - one week, one month, or even a few years while studying or working - should be allowed to vote. The best way to differentiate between those who have left the country for good and those who are abroad temporarily is to set a real limit: let's say that someone must have lived in Israel for at least four out of the last eight years in order to qualify for an absentee ballot.

It seems like Labor and Shas are going to kill absentee voting. Too bad. While I'm glad what Lieberman and Netanyahu are proposing won't become law, I'm sorry no solutions for the temporary absentees will be reached.

Asperger's No More (No PDD, Either)

The American Psychiatric Association is working on the new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, DSM-V, which would replace the current version, DSM-IV. As part of the revision process, the APA is considering a new approach to Autistic Spectrum Disorders, where all the disorders will be given the same diagnosis, without categorizing them into autism, Asperger's Syndrome, Pervasive Developmental Disorder - Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS) or any other category. Autistics will still get the treatments they need, and might even get better care, because it will be custom tailored to each one's needs, rather to the label they got.

This is a very smart move. The lines between the different autistic categories are quite blurry, and a person can fit one category at a certain age and then move to another as he grows older. My nephew, for instance, who has an autism diagnosis, is now almost like a non-autistic kid. Is he an Aspie? Does he fit the description of PDD-NOS? He doesn't fit perfectly into either one. He's an extremely high functioning autistic kid. That's it.

The DSM-V is also going to have revised criteria for an autism diagnosis. I'm not sure I'm crazy about what is being proposed, but I'm not an expert either. For more information, you should check out a New York Times op-ed on the matter and Sullivan's post at Left Brain/Right Brain.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Gay Soldiers in International Forces

The "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy that bans openly gay men and women from serving in the United States military should be repealed immediately. Many countries, including Israel, allow gays to serve openly in their armed forces and no harm is done.

The main argument made by supporters of the current policy is that changing the regulations would hurt unit cohesion. In other words, homophobic soldiers won't feel comfortable around homosexuals who are out of the closet. Well, it's easy to check if American soldiers are less open-minded than Canadian and European soldiers. Many Americans already serve with openly gay foreign soldiers, as part of NATO and other international forces. How are the relationships between American soldiers and their gay counterparts? It wouldn't take too long to conduct such a study.

Obviously, there will be problems here and there with homophobic incidents, but on the whole, acceptance of gays will probably go smoothly.

Rahm Emanuel, the R-Word and Sarah Palin

The Wall Street Journal revealed that Rahm Emanuel, Barack Obama's White House chief of staff, used the phrase "fucking retarded" during a strategy session last summer. Mr. Emanuel shouldn't have said that, and he rightly apologized.

That is not enough for Sarah Palin, who is using the fact that she has a son with Down Syndrome to demand that Obama fire Emanuel over the remarks (to be fair, I'm using the fact I have an autistic nephew and a few relatives with different kinds of mental disabilities as proof of my right to voice an opinion on the matter). Well, okay, it's Sarah Palin, looking for a chance to hit the Democratic administration whenever she can. What surprises and even worries me is the fact that a lot of people, even liberals, agree with her.

Rahm Emanuel is a jackass for using the R-word, but it isn't a reason to fire him. He apologized, and that's it. Does using the word "retarded" mean that he has policies that would harm people with disabilities or that he has negative feelings toward the mentally disabled? No. It just means he's foul-mouthed. This isn't like racial epithets.

"Retarded" has become a word that should not be used, ever. It didn't start that way. It was a statement of fact. Retardation means delay. Mental retardation means exactly the same thing as delayed mental development. It was the use of the word "retarded" as an insult that turned the word into one that should not be used, because it has a negative connotation. The new words and phrases that replaced the term should be used when referring to people with cognitive disabilites, but shouldn't be used as curse words. "You're so mentally disabled" is no better than "you're so retarded".

The word "retarded" doesn't need to be banished from the world completely, if it is used satirically. Attention to it (or to "retard") started when it was used in "Tropic Thunder". In the film, the term didn't laugh at disabled people. It laughed at, and criticized, supposedly liberal actors who play disabled people to win awards, not to open up the audience's minds to the difficulties of life with such conditions.

When I think about it, the Hebrew words Mefager (retarded) and Pigoor (retardation) are used all the time, even by myself. I'd never use the English word, but the word in Hebrew is just so pervasive in the language and the culture. Every time I say it, I think to myself "damn, I shouldn't have said it. That was the last time." But then again, the word isn't the exact translation. It's used way more often in Hebrew to mean "delay" than it does in English ("Israel's train system is Mefageret behind Europe's"), so that might explain why it is considered less offensive. Either that, or just Israelis or more ignorant about the issue than Americans.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Ajami, Oscar Nominee

For the third time in a row, an Israeli film has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. Unlike "Beaufort" and "Waltz With Bashir", this film has nothing to do with the First Lebanon War, though it does touch on Jewish-Arab relations. "Ajami", which I have not yet seen, tells the story of  people who live in Ajami, a mostly-Arab neighborhood in Jaffa. It has an 86% favorable rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on seven critics' reviews [Update: As of Feb. 15, it has a 95% favorable rating among all critics, with 19 positive and just one negative review. Among Top Critics it has a 100% positive rating, based on six reviews].

"Ajami" is competing against “El Secreto de Sus Ojos” (Argentina), “The Milk of Sorrow” (Peru), “Un Proph├Ęte” (France) and “The White Ribbon” (Germany). I haven't seen any of these, either, but I understand that the French and German films are very good and are very tough competition. Then again, these last few years this category has provided surprises. Last year, there were two favorites to win, including "Waltz With Bashir", and neither of the two won. Maybe "Ajami" will be this year's dark horse.

Update (Feb. 15, 2010): I watched the film and loved it. It is very powerful, and the acting is excellent. Surpisingly, all the actors are amateurs, but it doesn't show. The movie might be a bit confusing at times, but that doesn't hurt the film. It is similar to the movie "Precious" in how cruel and relentless the protagonists' lives are and how little hope there is for the future.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Im Tirtzu's Attack on the New Israel Fund

Im Tirtzu, a right-wing student organization who for some reason insists on calling itself a centrist movement, has started a campaign against the New Israel Fund and its chairwoman, former MK Prof. Naomi Chazan. In ads in newspapers and online, Im Tirtzu claims that 92 percent of the negative claims against Israel and the IDF in the Goldstone Report whose source is Israeli, came from organizations funded by the NIF. They invite people to read a report they prepared, and I assume they hope people won't actually read the report. I read it, and checked out some of their refrences to the Goldstone Report.

They're careful to say it is 92% of negatives claims against Israel made by Israeli organizations, but most people who read it would think it is a whopping 92% of all claims, which isn't the case. Remember, that NIF sources are less than 14% of the whole sources of the Goldstone Report. The Palestinians' claims would still be there even if it weren't for NIF-funded organizations.

Now, how did they get to the exact 92% figure. They took 191 references to NIF sources (including "New Profile", which Naomi Chazan has already said is not affiliated with the NIF), plus 56 references to non-NIF Israeli organizations. At this stage, the NIF is responsible for only 77% of the references. That isn't bad enough, so Im Tirtzu needed to increase the percentage. What did they do? They split the 56 non-NIF references to those who are either supportive of Israel or neutral (40) and those who criticize it (16). So those critical of Israel are now 191 NIF sources (92%) and 16 non-NIF sources (8%). But wait, why didn't they perform a similar split between NIF sources criticizing Israel and those supporting it? I noticed that at least a few of the NIF sources they listed actually talk about life under the threat of the Qassams. If I had the time to go over all the references, I'm sure I'd be able to find more NIF sources in the Goldstone Report that are either supportive of Israel or neutral.

I have to say that I'm not too thrilled with the organizations that did give the Goldstone Commission certain one-sided information, but it's their right to give the Commission information as they see it. This McCarthyist campaign by Im Tirtzu is disgusting.

The New Israel Fund has many great programs in Israel, most of them not related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I would hate to see them lose contributions because of this slanted report.