Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Ariel Cultural Center: To Boycott or Not

I was not happy to hear that a new cultural center is about to open in the city of Ariel, an Israeli settlement in the West Bank. I never like it when new buildings are constructed in the occupied territories. In the long term, they will be very costly to the Israeli treasury and to me as a taxpayer, when we will eventually exit the West Bank. Many Israelis think that Ariel would be one of the settlement blocs that would remain a part of Israel in a future deal with the Palestinians, even though it is quite a distance away from the Green Line, but there is no reason to believe Palestinians would agree to that. Even if they did, it would be unwise of us to have such a long and narrow corridor surrounded by the Palestinian state and to give so much territory from inside Israel proper in exchange for Ariel.

Now, having said that, I'm not quite sure what I think about the events of the last few days. Israeli theater companies, who travel away from their home theaters to other cities regularly, have announced that they will add Ariel to the list of places where they'll stage their plays. Various actors, directors and playwrights declared that, for political and conscientious reasons, they will not perform there. University professors and other public intellectuals, including such authors as A. B. Yehoshua and Amos Oz, have signed declarations in support of these theater people. On the other hand, the Israeli Union of Performing Artists has condemned them.

I'm not a fan of boycotts. I rarely join one, and usually vehemently oppose them. With settlements, though, I neither support or oppose a boycott. If someone doesn't want to participate in what he sees as support or normalisation of the occupation, I won't try to convince him otherwise, but I won't join in. That's the same with Ariel. I have no problem with Israeli theaters performing in Ariel, but neither do I think any member of the cast or crew should be forced to go there. I wouldn't have signed either one of the petitions for or against the actors' boycott. But I'm not sure what I'd say to an actor who is having trouble deciding whether to perform in Ariel or not. It is a tough decision, and either action - going there or staying home - is a sort of public political statement. Either action can also be construed as a different statement than what the actor intended.

Ariel is not the same as Be'er-Sheva, as Treasury Minister Yuval Steinitz was quoted as saying this week. Ariel is not a part of Israel and does not have the same legitimacy as Be'er-Sheva. But on the other hand, neither is Ariel the same as Kiryat Arba or Bat-Ayin, two of the most radical settlements in the territories. Most residents of Ariel are just normal, moderate people who would comply peacefully with a government decision to evacuate them. This, too, should be taken into consideration when deciding whether or not to perform there.

Ayatollah Abdallah Yussef

Imagine a senior Iranian or Palestinian cleric wishing for the death of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and all Israelis or all Jews. There would be an uproar.

On Saturday night, Ovadia Yossef, the spiritual leader of the ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) Shas party and a former chief Sephardic rabbi of Israel, wished for the deaths of Abu-Mazen and the Palestinian people. Instead of denouncing Yossef forcefully and saying he's a despicable racist, Prime Minister Netanyahu only said that the rabbi's views don't reflect the government's views. The US administration forcefully condemned the Shas leader's statement. Even the Anti-Defamation League, which recently shamefully joined the opposition to an Islamic center two blocks from Ground Zero, did the right thing this time and condemned the rabbi.

Ovadia Yossef has said some outrageous stuff over the years. For someone supposed to be a man of God, he sure does has a filthy and hateful mouth. In the past he has attacked secular Jews, Arabs, gays and other political rivals in unacceptable ways that go beyond criticism of political views or ways of life. However, it seems to me as if he has gone farther than ever before.

I can understand that Netanyahu needs Shas in order for his government not to fall apart, but he needs to find a way to condemn Yossef's words (and not just lamely distancing himself from them) without creating a crisis in the coalition. The Labor Party, if it had any backbone, would have forced him to condemn this call for genocide, albeit a genocide at the hands of God and not man.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Boycotting an Israeli Qualitative Researcher

A letter forwarded today to the Israeli higher education forum mailing list has revealed something few people have been aware of. Apparently, there have been recent calls to boycott the 7th International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry, scheduled to take place in May 2011 at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, because one of its keynote speakers is Israeli. All I have is the letter denouncing the calls for a boycott and not the actual debate that took place in a health psychology mailing list exchange, so I don't know what exactly happened, but whatever it was, doesn't look like I would have approved. Did they demand that the Israeli's keynote address be cancelled before declaring a boycott? Doesn't matter. Whether they boycott the lecturer individually or the whole conference because of an Israeli's presence, both options are just vile.

I looked the conference up and found that the Israeli keynote speaker in question is Dr. Michal Krumer-Nevo, the director of the Israeli Center for Qualitative Research of Peoples and Societies (ICQM) and a lecturer at the Department of Social Work at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. The conference website seems to suggest that there was a call to boycott BGU specifically rather than all Israeli universities. "It is not appropriate to hold one person responsible for the reprehensible actions of their university administration," declares the site. I'm assuming they are referring to Prof. Rivka Carmi's denunciation of Neve Gordon's call for a boycott against Israeli institutions, but again, I didn't see the debate itself so I don't know for sure. Poor BGU is getting hit from all sides now, from the right wing McCarthytites "Im Tirtzu" to the international left-wing bleeding hearts.

Turns out that there's going to be a public forum about boycotting academics, with Krumer-Nevo's participation. If I understand correctly, this wasn't originally planned to be part of the conference but was added as a response to the calls for a boycott. If I were Krumer-Nevo, I would not agree to take part in such a forum aimed at appeasing those who don't want her there, but it is her right to react differently than I would. It probably will not be fun for her, though.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Im Tirtzu vs. BGU

After targeting the New Israel Fund, "Im Tirtzu" ("If You Will It") is now taking aim at the political science department at Ben-Gurion University. It claims that a majority of its faculty members are left wing extremists and it has sent a letter to Prof. Rivka Carmi, the BGU president, saying that if steps aren't taken to make sure that the faculty and course content will be more balanced, Im Tirtzu will discourage students from studying there and will ask donors to stop the flow of cash. Since "balancing" the faculty without firing anyone would cost a lot of money by adding several new lecturers,  Im Tirtzu is actually calling for the firing of faculty members they don't like. They were careful not to actually use the word "fire". They must have been thinking of another word - "deniability" - when they wrote the letter. "You're calling us McCarthyites? But we never said anything about black-listing or terminating anyone's job!"

I don't know how Im Tirtzu came to the conclusion that a majority of the faculty members are extremists (9 of 11, they claim). I find this doubtful. Yes, this is the same department headed by Neve Gordon, who supports a boycott of Israel, and there probably is a vast majority of left-wingers among the faculty members, but not a majority of extreme leftists. Besides, what is important isn't their views but whether they abuse their roles as teachers and researchers to advance their agenda. If there's evidence of such conduct it's worthy of further scrutiny. If there isn't, it's just an attempt to shut up people whose views "Im Tirtzu" doesn't like.

Gabriel and I Debate on JSF (Six Months Ago)

This may be old, but it's news to me. I just found out that a debate I had in the comment section of one post on "Jews sans frontieres" in January was reproduced in another post a month later. I don't know whether to see this as a compliment or an insult. Did Gabriel see this as an interesting debate with someone who has interesting arguments that make for fertile discussion despite his disagreement with me, or is he using me as an example for Zionist ignorance and racism? I'd like to think it's the former.

I find one this curious (emphasis mine):

"When [the video] was published on JSF, I was challenged by Emmanuel Shiff, apparently a student from the Hebrew (colonial) University, about my criticism of the Israeli peace movement."
Why would he assume (wrongly, by the way) that I'm from Hebrew University? There are, after all, seven universities in Israel, five of them with political science departments.

Though it isn't my university, I'll defend it anyway. Yes, the Mount Scopus Campus of Hebrew U is in East Jerusalem, but the campus was founded in 1925, before the 1948 War, and remained Israeli territory even between 1949 and 1967, when it was an Israeli enclave sorrounded by Jordanian-controlled territory.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Keyword Mystery: Who Googles Amish Sperm

What do you get when you mix together a post about autism among the Amish and a post comparing two TV shows, which includes a reference to sperm donation? The result is that people who search for "Amish sperm donation" find my blog on Google. I first noticed this oddity three years ago, though back then it was a one-time thing. Lately, I've been getting hits from people searching for variants of the Amish+sperm combination almost every week. Why the hell are people regularly searching for this? Is there something I'm missing? A new documentary about Amish mating habits or fertility? Is the Amish population shrinking? What's going on here?!?

Please, if you got to this post while looking for ways to donate sperm to the Amish (or to receive a donation from them), leave a comment and explain yourself.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Jewish and Democratic

On Monday, poet and translator Salman Masalha, an Arab citizen of Israel, wrote an opinion piece in Ha'aretz where he wrote that a "Jewish and Democratic" state cannot exist:

"There is no such thing as a Jewish democratic state, just as there is no Muslim democratic state. Religion and democracy can never dwell under one roof." (Read the whole article here in English or in Hebrew)

This prompted lots of angry letters to the editor, and today political science professor Shlomo Avineri, a regular Ha'aretz contributor, wrote his own rebuttal:

"In the standard Arab view, "Jews" are comparable to "Christians" or "Muslims." In other words, they are a religious group, not a nation. And it is not only Arabs who think this way: There is no doubt that for hundreds of years, Jewish identity was perceived by Jews and non-Jews alike primarily as a religious identity, and some still think so.

But the essence of the Zionist revolution is the view that the Jews are a nation, and as such, they have the right to national self-determination in a political framework. This principle was accepted by the United Nations on November 29, 1947, in its decision to partition British Mandatory Palestine into two states - Jewish and Arab (not Jewish and Muslim-Christian )."

Later in the article he writes:

"One of the problems that complicates attempts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is this very issue - the fact that the Arab side has difficulty recognizing that Jews in the state of Israel view themselves as a nation. Identity is a matter of self-definition, not external definition. Just as Jews are not the ones who will determine whether the Palestinians are a people or not (there are more than a few of us who have yet to be reconciled with the existence of the Palestinian people ), Salman Masalha cannot determine whether the Jews are a people or not. It is a question of self-determination." (Read the whole article in English or the original Hebrew)

Needless to say, I'm on Avineri's side here.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Two Types of Criticism

Thomas Friedman's op-ed today is about Shlomi Eldar's documentary "Precious Life", a film I haven't seen yet, but would like to. It follows the story of a baby from Gaza who gets treatment for a rare illness at Tel HaShomer Hospital in Israel. 

Friedman's description of the film is a segueway into a discussion of two ways of criticizing Israel - constructive and destructive:

"Constructive criticism starts by making clear: “I know what world you are living in.” I know the Middle East is a place where Sunnis massacre Shiites in Iraq, Iran kills its own voters, Syria allegedly kills the prime minister next door, Turkey hammers the Kurds, and Hamas engages in indiscriminate shelling and refuses to recognize Israel. I know all of that. But Israel’s behavior, at times, only makes matters worse — for Palestinians and Israelis. If you convey to Israelis that you understand the world they’re living in, and then criticize, they’ll listen.

Destructive criticism closes Israeli ears. It says to Israelis: There is no context that could explain your behavior, and your wrongs are so uniquely wrong that they overshadow all others. Destructive critics dismiss Gaza as an Israeli prison, without ever mentioning that had Hamas decided — after Israel unilaterally left Gaza — to turn it into Dubai rather than Tehran, Israel would have behaved differently, too. Destructive criticism only empowers the most destructive elements in Israel to argue that nothing Israel does matters, so why change?

How about everybody take a deep breath, pop a copy of “Precious Life” into your DVD players, watch this documentary about the real Middle East, and if you still want to be a critic (as I do), be a constructive one. A lot more Israelis and Palestinians will listen to you."
I agree that there is constructive and destructive criticism, though my approach isn't exactly the same as Friedman's. First of all, to be constructive you don't have to start every criticism of Israel with "I know the Arabs are bad too, but..." - that would just be a waste of time. That just sounds too apologetic, as if you have to be much more careful when criticizing Israel than when you're criticizing any other country.

Second of all, you can usually (but not always) understand from the criticism itself, without any "contextualizing introductions", if the critic sees a complex picture or sees everything as Israel's fault.

Thirdly, I'd also use the same standards regarding critcism of Arabs. Just like there are some who see everything as Israel's fault, there are those who see everything as Israel's enemies' fault. That is no more helpful or less destructive than blind criticism of Israel. When you call out either side, be constructive.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

After the Skirmish: Israeli Stupidity

Following this week's deadly border skirmish between Israel and Lebanon, the Israeli government is now demanding that the officer in charge of the Lebanese unit involved in the shooting be fired. If no steps are taken against him, my genius government says, Israel will treat the Lebanese Army as an enemy army.

First of all, aren't we already treating it like an enemy? After all, it is. We may prefer the Lebanese Army to control Southern Lebanon rather than Hizbullah, but Lebanon is still our enemy, just like Syria. It doesn't mean we should attack them or go to war, but it means we should be much more vigilant on their border than on the borders with Egypt and Jordan, with whom we have peace agreements. Hopefully, one day we'll have peace with Lebanon as well, but until then, it is our enemy.

Second of all, does anybody in their right mind think Lebanon will do something just because Israel demands it? In fact, if Israel wants the Lebanese to do something and says so publicly, the chances of our wishes being fullfilled is much lower than if we had kept our mouths shut. We'd never fire one of our own officers if Lebanon demanded it. We probably wouldn't do it even if it was our closest ally, the United States, that made the request. Why should we expect the Lebanese to be any different?

So, in this case, is the government just stupid or belligerent (or both)? If they realize nobody on the other side is going to fire the officer, then this demand is tantamount to a declaration of the Lebanese Army is our enemy. As I said before, I think it's our enemy anyway, but making a special declaration about it just sounds like a needless and dangerous provocation. The international tribunal investingating former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri's murder is expected to announce indictments against top Hizbullah operatives next week. Do we really want to give Hizbullah a way to avoid the internal turmoil that would stem from the charges by providing them with some external turmoil instead?

Thursday, August 05, 2010

The Letter S: A Poem

Beware, what follows can only be described as silly, stupid and substandard. Blame Plinky, not me!

Quill and ink well at the State House
Sing sad songs,

So sad, so sad.

Spread sillyness,

Sad sillyness.

Somber sillyness.

Students study soulful Sylabi.

Sacred saints,

Sordid songs.

Shower singing.



Singing sensations.

Spearhead spirituality!

Save souls!

Save shoeless soles.

Sacred sanctuary.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

The Lebanese Skirmish

What was that yesterday? Was Hezbullah trying to start a war through Shi'ites in the Lebanese Army? Was it just a big misunderstanding?

Something stinks about the Lebanese actions. Even UNIFIL says that the Israeli soldiers were entirely within Israeli territory doing routine work - cutting off a tree near the border, to maximize visibility and avoid Hezbullah ambushes from setting up there. Instead, they got into what seemed like a Lebanse Army ambush. The oddest thing is that the shots weren't even fired at the soldiers operating right near the border, but at officers watching a few feet away. Half an hour later, RPGs were fired at an Israeli tank that was well within Israeli territory.

Sounds to me like the Lebanese were picking a fight. We shouldn't play into their hands. A war with Lebanon would be good for nobody but Hezbullah, and perhaps for Iran, too. The skirmish is over, let's keep it that way.