Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Israel and Christmas

Ynet reports that Zara
has reduced the number of Christmas trees in its display windows in Israel and added Hanukkah candlesticks, apparently in response to shoppers' complaints that the Spanish company was marking the Christian holiday while ignoring the Jewish holiday.
Zara's customer service representative in Israel, speaking on behalf of the local franchisers, had a difficult time explaining the whole matter:
We, as ZARA franchisers, are obligated to act in accordance with the global ZARA rules," the representative explained. "We have Christian, Jewish and Muslim customers and we are a melting pot for all clients. Therefore, the Israeli branches don't deviate from the international concept and don't look any different from the branches in Spain
Apparently, the "international" concept is the one used in Spain and other European countries, and somehow, when Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are melted, you get Christianity. Obviously someone forgot to think here. Unless Zara has discovered that its biggest market in Israel consists of Christian shoppers, this decision doesn't make a lot of sense.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Sons of the Land at the Holiday of Holidays

We are in the midst of the annual Holiday of Holidays festival (also known as חג של החגים or عيد الأعياد) in Haifa. This unique festival celebrates the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim holidays which are observed by Haifans around this time. I attend every year to enjoy the music and atmosphere, so I've posted on the holiday before.

The holiday is a long-running tradition and doesn't usually change very much from year to year. However, this year I noticed the presence of a group of people who appeared to want to hijack the message of the festival and were protesting "fake co-existence." What used to be the Tamuz Theater Cafe has been turned into a branch of the ابناء البلد (Abnaa el Balad, "Sons of the Land") movement.

"End the fake co-existence"

In their "office," they're displaying the usual Nakba pictures, along with more recent Gaza ones. Other "decorations" include the Palestinian flag, of course, as well as pictures of keys and Che Guevara.

"We're all Gaza"

I talked to the young guy standing outside, but unfortunately he couldn't seem to produce anything beyond slogans, like the "We are against this fake co-existence" one. His friend was more eloquent. A., the only Jew in the place, told me had grown up attending Arab schools and living in a mostly-Arab neighbourhood. According to him, the goals of the movement were to "educate the Arabs" to rise up so that they would "take the power." I asked him if they voted, and he was proud to say that they do not participate in Knesset elections, since it was a "fake democracy" and would not be able to fulfill their goals. Since the group doesn't vote, I asked him if that meant that "taking the power" would mean through violent means. A. tried to appear mysterious but basically affirmed what I was asking, and supported suicide bombings as a legitimate form of resistance. He proceeded to cite Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, and Hugo Chavez as role models who had been able to "make life better" for their citizens.

"Waiting for their return"

Nineteen-year-old A. also told me that Abnaa el Balad was a secular movement, seeking the return of the Palestinian refugees to a Palestinian state which would be composed of Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. This corresponds with what is written about the group on Wikipedia. He was proud to tell me that although the group was sometimes considered communist or socialist, he was actually an anarchist.

Schedule of movies to be screened that day

Does the opening of a branch here in Haifa, in the heart of the Arab Wadi Nisnas neighbourhood, reflect radicalization of Haifa's Arab youth? Their disillusionment? The dozen or so people in the office were all very young. Most of the writing was in Arabic and clearly aimed only at the Arab sector. They weren't so much interested in capturing Jewish attention and seeking cooperation, but rather in convincing and waking fellow Arabs. Is this the flip side of the Lieberman coin?

[Shaul] Mofaz is a war criminal

I agree that the often praised co-existence in Haifa is in some instances seen more on paper than in reality. I do think, however, that the Holiday of Holidays is a festival which is truly multicultural and that people of all of the city's and country's faiths participate in it. In fact, if anyone is excluded from this holiday, it's Sabbath-observing Jews, since most of the festivities take place on Saturdays, as a religious friend of mine pointed out. In any case, Abnaa el Balad aren't pushing for more or better co-existence. They're pushing for a one-state solution, to be called Palestine.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Hasmoneans in the News

The (descendants of the) guys who gave you Hanukah apparently ruled over a larger area of the Land of Israel than historians have long assumed. New finds in southern Israel seem to confirm the claim of Josephus that the Hasmonean king Alexander Yannai conquered large areas in the south. According to archaeologists with the Israel Antiquities Authority, a fortress inside a former Nabatean caravanserai (a kind of inn for traders) in the Negev was actually built and controlled by Hasmonean forces. Archaeologists had previously thought that the fortress was built by the Romans. The Hasmoneans held the structure and effective control over the Nabateans' primary trade route, from 99 until 66 BCE.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Shmuel Rosner: "I do not eat pumpkin. That is true."

I just caught a lecture by Shmuel Rosner, former chief of news at Ha'aretz, as well as their Washington correspondent, and now a highly influential blogger at the J-Post. The lecture, which was co-sponsored by the Judaica collection of the Doe Library and the Berkeley journalism school, concerned media coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian, Israeli-Arab conflict. Rosner spoke from a lectern that has also belonged recently to Benny Morris, and the journalist at times struck the historian's muscular pose, affected the same contempt for naiveté and for leftist partisanship. I eagerly anticipated his views on Ha'aretz. He said the left-of-center daily is at times too critical of Israel, and may even have caused the IDF excessive pain. Rosner's goal was to describe the community of reporters and organizations covering Israel, and to brief us on how to discern bullshit.

As for the Israeli media, those of us who rely on the Anglophone Israeli media are woefully out of touch with the internal political discourse in Israel. That discourse is created, he argued, on TV, and in the pages of Yediot, Maariv, and, now, Yisrael Hayom.

But the foreign media was the real focus.

The lecture was full of lists. The four cardinal sins of foreign journalists in the Middle East:

1. Obsession

2. Prejudice

3. Ignorance

4. Condescension

5. Unprofessionalism -- chiefly a matter of dereliction of fact-(re)-checking. (Not officially on the list, but something he lingered over later with regard to the unreliability of the Palestinian media, as well as the merely innocuous nature of the Swedish reporter who accused the IDF of harvesting Palestinian organs).

Rosner's rules for readers of foreign reporting:

1. What leaders say behind closed doors doesn't matter. What matters is what they say in public, to their own people, in their own language.

2. Israelis and Palestinians can't keep secrets. You will know what you want to know...eventually.

3. Commissions and reports of all types have little value.

4. Envoys of the US and other world powers are always too optimistic -- and almost bound to fail.

5. Do not overestimate the impact of the White House or other foreign intervention.

6. Just because someone doesn't speak English, it doesn't mean they're dumb.

7. Arabs generally have a lot of patience.

8. Never underestimate the power of domestic politics to dictate events.

9. Beware of predictions.

10. Beware of polls.

11. Beware of reporters with political biases.

12. There are many groups in the Middle East that hate each other, but they all agree on at least this: Americans are naive.

I found the scolding of foreign journalists quite satisfying. Rosner painted a vivid picture of what I imagined as a horde of professional gawkers gathering their luggage and translators at the carousel at Ben Gurion Airport, and then greedily speeding to as close to the scene of the carnage as they could get during the last two wars. And with print media downsizing everywhere, the correspondents are becoming ever less versed in the local cultures they cover. The result is a foreign media that covers Israel as a conflict, not as a country. Sounds problematic to me. We get the Israeli leadership's sound-bite, then the Palestinian's. Gazans are suffering these deprivations; now, look -- look how much it sucks to live in Sderot! The foreign media makes our heads swivel like the cat at the window watching the movements of birds outside. But what would the alternative be? What would covering Israel as a country really look like? I am not sure, and I wish I would have asked Rosner. To him, Israel as a country does have to be explained to (certain) Americans. Take his audiences at the American War College in Pennsylvania. Part of what is culturally idiosyncratic about Israel, Rosner explained to them, is the lack of distance between civil society and the military. "Everyone is a civilian, everyone is a soldier," said Rosner, unapologetically. But in fact, the image of Israel as a face-to-face society, where everyone knows someone who is affected by war, the rigors of the occupation, terrorism should be very familiar to readers of, say, the New York Times. This may be the way Israel really is, but it's also something that Israelis desperately want us outsiders to know. I find that very interesting.

A face-to-face society with 5 million cell phones, boasted Rosner, offers the determined journalist an almost unique opportunity to recover the truth about complex events. His paradigmatic example was the so-called massacre of Jenin in 2002. How did his team at Ha’aretz debunk the rumors of a massacre? By calling the soldiers, particularly reservists, they knew. “They couldn’t all be lying,” claimed Rosner. These informants were the “cousins’ best friends" of Rosner’s news division. Social proximity for him is a comparative advantage over foreign media in terms of access, not a journalistic liability. The fog of war was lifted, a little too effortlessly. On the other hand, Rosner insisted on the incompatability of perceptions born of different cultural contexts. Shimon Peres, so his opening joke went, isn’t the same Shimon Peres at home as abroad. Here, I thought Rosner combined not-so-satisfactorily a post-modern uncertainty about what we can really know with great faith in the capacity of the critical reader or journalist to get to the bottom of things. American journalistic pretension to objectivity almost sounded like the American naiveté he seizes upon. But his epistemology is certainly practical. There are things we can know (the Jenin massacre didn’t happen), and things we can’t (what happened to Muhammed al-Durrah).

Granted the last question, I asked about my personal cause celèbre: archaeology in East Jerusalem driven by vulgar ideology. I offered myself up as the guinea pig here. It's an Israeli media story that, for me, is opaque. I read about it in English in Ha'aretz and on the website of the Israeli Antiquities Authority. But I can't seem to figure it out. Are all the projects undertaken in the Ir David legal or illegal (under Israeli, not international law)? Was there a "cultural context" that Rosner could provide that would explain the seemingly contradictory reports? Rosner's answer, and he must have been fatigued at this point, was to draw again a distinction, however provisory, between the forces of objectivity and those of subjectivity. There are the "objective" archaeologists, and there are the ideologically driven right-wing zealots who fund and support the dubious excavations. At this point, Rosner could have taken a line from the Berkeley-version of Benny Morris, who, when an audience member complained that a faulty microphone rendered his lecture inaudible, explained bluntly, "This is the situation." In the final analysis, Rosner admitted, we have to trust someone. "I trust reporters, not newspapers," he said, naming a few of his favorite colleagues' names. Indeed, this is the situation. I agree.

Google Books Feature of Interest to Academics

I am not sure how new this is, but Google Books has a feature that might be of interest to academics in the humanities. As I will demonstrate, it is far from perfect but quite promising. You can now "clip" text from Google Books. So, let's say you're reading something and you quickly want to copy a quotation into your Word processor or Zotero. You just select your sentences and Google Books produces the selected part in plain text, even if the original is in Rashi script or German Fraktur - well, almost. It also gives you a URL for just that quotation, which you can either share as a link or embed, like this:

Here is the plain text that it produced based on the above:
חיקור רין הרמנ מן ז ל הנוגעים לזה הענין או אז יבין איך ראוי להתנהג נחקירות כאלה קראתי ס מסעות הים והנאני ולפי קוצר דעתי טוב מאד להעתיק סיפורים כאלה לל הק למען יראו בחורי עמנו כי לא חסרנו דבר וכי יש לאל יד לשוננו העניה והקצרה למצוא רי באר כל העשתונות כמו בשאר הלשונות ומטעם זה משבח אני גם ס עמורי שמים אשר בו הראה המחבר תקפו וגבורתו נחכמת התכונה אלא שהוא

As you can see, it's not perfect, but pretty darn good I'd say.

Google Books fares much worse with old German books. Here is an example:

This is the "transcription" into plain text:
ie ett nácete je t fyeran baf biefer ben feiner Samilie er ffcn iinb in ffetitltdje treten feilte ci junger ei l tvar

I also found that it occasionally put in Russian letters. There is definitely a pattern in the transcription, though it isn't completely regular. I'm sure the Googlers are working on this stuff.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Osem to Enter European Dairy Market


Gad Dairy, a subsidiary of the Israeli food manufacturer Osem has announced that it will enter the European dairy market. The subsidiary, which is Israel's fourth-largest creamery, will introduce its cheeses to the British kosher market first and apparently has ambitions to expand into the "ethnic food" sector (Ynet). Those who have tasted some of the country's other dairy products will probably agree that Israel turns out excellent supermarket cheeses and yogurts.

Gad Dairy's estimate for 2009 domestic and international sales is $70.9 million (270 million NIS). Its parent company, Osem, is the fourth-largest food manufacturer in Israel, after Tnuva, Strauss, and Coca Cola Israel, with sales at around 3,220 million NIS for 2009. Osem is also the maker of the infamous Bamba and Bissli snacks and invented "ptitim," which are often annoyingly referred to as "Israeli couscous."

Complaining about the inferior quality of American cottage cheese is something of a pastime among expatriate Israelis in the U.S.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Difference Between Haifa and Jerusalem

BY CARMIAIn Bat Galim, Haifa: "At this location, the Ruth Children's Hospital will be established."

In Talpiyot, Jerusalem: "At this location, with G-d's help, an integrated medical centre will be opened, which will include family and child medicine and a centre for child development."

Shabbat shalom.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Iraq Election Law Vetoed by Sunni Vice President


UPDATE: Here is some more behind-the-scenes detail as well as speculation about Hashimi's vote. The author suggests that Hashimi is trying to position himself as a nationalist but is actually following a line that benefits Kurdish interests. He breaks down some of the seat numbers and explains why the Kurds are also interested in the minorities clause (it has to do with increasing Kurdish influence over Shabak and Yezidi lists).

Last week, the Iraqi parliament passed an elections law that was to have resolved some of the contentious issues surrounding voter eligibility. But today, one of Iraq's two vice presidents, Tariq al-Hashimi, vetoed the bill. Hashimi belongs to the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni Islamist coalition. He objected specifically to some of the details of the proposed legislation which limited the representation of "minorities" and Iraqi refugees living abroad to 5%, according to the New York Times. Most of the 2 million Iraqi refugees residing outside the country are Sunnis; their numbers constitute 8% of the country's population of 25 million.

Initially, it seemed that the bill's handling of Kirkuk voter lists - it decided that 2009 lists of city inhabitants would be used - favored Kurdish interests, since it is widely believed that the Kurdish share of Kirkuk's population has increased significantly in the last 5 years. But on Tuesday, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, Massoud Barzani, expressed his opposition to the law, threatening a Kurdish boycott in response to the seat allocation (i.e., the 5% limit). Apparently, Iraq's president, Jalal Talabani, who is a Kurd, had also threatened to veto the bill, already before Hashimi did so (NYT).

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

"Still Optimistic: Israeli Society through Caricature"

Information pamphlet about the exhibit

Students for Museum Studies at the University of Haifa have put together an exhibit entitled, "Still Optimistic: Israeli Society through Caricature." On display until the end of this month, the exhibit features caricatures and cartoons addressing a broad spectrum of issues that Israel is and has been facing for at least the past decade and a half. With so many excellent cartoons, it was very difficult to pick a favourite. Instead, I chose to highlight a few which resonated with me for different reasons.

This cartoon by Moshik Lin (2005) portrays globalization/Americanization, but with a local, ironic twist: the English signs and international companies dot a street named after Eliezer Ben Yehuda, considered the "reviver" of spoken Hebrew.

Eran Wolkowski (July 2006) displays the absurdity of the Second Lebanon War, when residents of northern Israel were under fire or had fled south, while life in Tel Aviv went on as usual. The mother, carrying beach equipment, looks at the מקלט - bomb shelter - which is locked and unused. Tel Avivians are often criticized for "living in a bubble."

Also in 2006, a couple of very high-ranking Israeli politicians were embroiled in sexual harassment cases. The scandals were viewed as a turning point by many who thought that it was time that sexual harassment was addressed in a more serious manner, similar to North America. (Caricature by Moshik Lin.)

Israeli teachers are known to receive pitiful salaries. Pointing to the person next to him, the homeless man tells the woman dropping the coin in his cup, "He intends to become a teacher, so he's doing his internship with me" (Shlomo Cohen, 2007). This was also the year that teachers went on strike for over two months.

"And who the hell are you?" Moses asks the Sudanese refugees he encounters in the desert (Daniela London-Dekel, 2007). The issue of what should be done with the Sudanese and other African refugees crossing into Israel is still a contentious topic which has yet to be properly resolved.

Lastly, I thought this cartoon, which is also by Moshik Lin and perfectly relates to the title of the exhibit, was brilliant. The man follows the arrow labeled, "It'll be fine," which is the answer to any and every problem in Israel, on these Escheresque stairs.

Monday, November 09, 2009

New Election Law in Iraq


The Iraqi parliament passed a crucial elections law yesterday, which is said to end a political stalemate that had prevented any progress on the road to holding new elections. The electoral law specifically addresses the thorny issue of voter lists in Kirkuk, the oil-rich city in northern Iraq, home to a mixed population of Kurds, Arabs, and Turkmens.

Located in the Kirkuk Governorate, outside of the present borders of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which is currently comprised of the Iraqi governorates Arbīl, As-Sulaymāniyyah, and Duhok , the former Ottoman city's political future is still uncertain. As is well-known, Saddam Hussein settled large numbers of Arabs in the city to reduce Kurdish influence there. In the post-Saddam era, large numbers of Kurds have moved to Kirkuk. Arabs and Turkmens in the city and the Iraqi central government fear that Kirkuk will fall under KRG control. They have thus far insisted that future Iraqi elections, to be held in early 2010, would use 2004 voters' lists for Kirkuk. These lists would presumably have fewer Kurdish eligible voters for Kirkuk than lists compiled in 2009. As a result of the political stalemate among the various interested parties, a comprehensive elections law has languished.

The bill that passed yesterday, appears on the face of things to favor the Kurds. Under the new elections law, Kirkuk voter eligibility will be determined by 2009 residents' lists. Such lists would increase the Kurdish share of the vote and political representation of the city. As Juan Cole, translating and paraphrasing Al-Zaman, writes, Kurdistan Alliance MPs were jubilant at the passage of the bill. Cole believes that American Vice President Joe Biden must have lobbied hard with Arab leaders to achieve the passage of this bill (he takes issue with another blogger on this point):
Steve Clemons reports that Vice President Joe Biden played a central role in the negotiations. Clemons stresses his calls with Kurdistan president Massoud Barzani. But since the legislation was a big win for the Kurds, the hard talk must have been with Arab leaders such as PM Nuri al-Maliki, who gave up a lot on Kirkuk.

The New York Times quotes both Turkmen and Arab legislators from the city, reporting that

[t]he compromise satisfied each of the groups competing for dominance in Kirkuk. “We have passed a stage, a crisis, and no one is a loser,” said Abbas al-Bayti, a Turkmen legislator.

Osama al-Najafi, an Arab legislator, said: “There will be no injustice for the people of Kirkuk. This is a great victory for their historical rights.”

There is a proviso in the elections law intended to prevent voter registration fraud in Kirkuk, but that in itself does not seem enough to assuage the fears of Arabs and Turkmens that they might find themselves under Kurdish rule. Does anyone know how the impasse was really resolved? My suspicion is that some high-stakes wrangling was involved that included more far-reaching guarantees to the various parties, all backed by the U.S. government.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Erdogan Again


In the past two years, we have seen repeated crises in Turkish-Israeli relations. Most of these were set off by Turkish condemnations of Israeli policies and military operations. A few of these spats involved warnings issued by the Turks to both Israelis and American Jews that recognition of the Armenian Genocide by either Israel or American Jewish organizations would lead to irreparable harm to the Turkish-Israeli relationship. Time and again, Israeli commentators and politicians have tried to assuage the Turks as well as the Israeli public. "Everything is okay," and "military relations continue to be excellent and are immune from these political disturbance. Those sounding this line, however, are running out of credibility very quickly. Turkey's prime minister, Tayyip Erdogan , seems intent on destroying ties between the two countries. Until now, the highlight was his angry outburst at Davos (see clip below). The recent cancellation by Turkey of an air force drill that was supposed to have included Israel also caused a stir. But Erdogan's remarks (Ha'aretz) today, ahead of the Organization of the Islamic Conference's meeting in Istanbul, take the cake.

Erdogan's statements included a defense of Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir and the incredible assertion that Muslims are incapable of carrying out genocide (I will not mention the obvious here; suffice to say that millions of Armenians feel very differently about this matter). Erdogan also charged that Israel had committed worse crimes in Gaza than Sudanese paramilitary forces had in Darfur. All this comes on the heels of the General Assembly's endorsement of of the Goldstone report. It is clear that the current Turkish government does not believe that Israel is an important ally. However important the ties between the armed forces of the two states might be, Erdogan's attacks on Israel since 2007 make him an enemy rather than a friend of the Jewish state.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

A Movie in the Making

The parking spaces in Wadi Salib, one of Haifa's poorest and most run-down neighbourhoods with a complicated history, were filled to the max today. Normally, the main attractions in this historic neighbourhood are the more recent government buildings and the numerous hummusiyot (hummus joints), each one of which has its own devoted followers.

But for the past few days, Avi Nesher, a well-known Israeli director, has been filming scenes here for his latest movie, גמדים (Dwarfs). According to one of the actresses, the film is about a boy from Haifa who time travels from the Second Lebanon War in 2006 to the 1960s, encountering various characters.
The filming took place at the flea market, which has preserved much of its original character. One of the sets built here is the above movie theatre, complete with a 'Bollywood' poster and actors dressed to look like teens from the 60s.
Locals get a close look at the antique car which is part of the props.

One of the young actors, between shots, looks like he is deep in thought. Behind him, part of the still-functioning Istiqlal Mosque is visible.

Even though Israel has become "Americanized" during the past couple of decades, the society has managed to hold on to a few of its fundamental characteristics. The kibbutz ideals of social equality and fraternity are still visible in many aspects of daily life. For example, Nesher's last two movies, סוף העולם שמאלה (Turn Left at the End of World) and הסודות (The Secrets), were big hits in Israel. It's impossible to even imagine an American director of the same relative stature hanging out and filming a movie literally "among the masses," with no visible security present and no roping off the area. Locals mingled with actors taking a break from shooting, due to the rain. I was free to wander onto the sets and examine props, some of them antique or near-antique items, and expensive film equipment, as closely as I wanted to.

Yet, it seems like many famous Israelis have a love-hate relationship with this quality of approachability/social equality. On the one hand, they love feeling "like a family" and being able to walk on the street undisturbed and live normal lives but are disgruntled because they know that, in America, they would be making oh-so-much more money and be treated with all the perks that come with being a celebrity there.

ADDENDUM: The movie was actually released with the title of "פעם הייתי," (English title: "The Matchmaker") rather than the original "Dwarfs."

Thursday, October 22, 2009

J Street Drama


In a recent post, Noah K. referred to Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren's "snub" of J Street, reported by Ha'aretz's Natasha Mozgovaya. To express the matter with a little more precision: Oren is refusing to personally attend an upcoming J Street conference, opting to send more junior representatives. In an apparent response, Tsipi Livni, Kadima chairwoman and head of the opposition in the Knesset, sent a note commending the new organization for its conference.

The Driving Change, Securing Peace conference, set for October 25-28, is, I think, J Street's first major public event. General James Jones, the National Security Advisor to the President, will be there as will Martin Indyk and a number of Congressional representatives. But the conference has not yet been able to attract many other senior political figures. It looks very interesting though. J Street has the potential to energize a young, intelligent and engaged base of left-of-center supporters, who will surely make up the next generation of American Jewish leaders. The trick will be to go from being merely a "voice" or a "forum" to making a difference in House and Senate races and in policy decisions by the White House.

Currently, J Street is supporting the reelection of Congressman Steve Cohen (D-Tennessee, 9th District), a member of the Progressive Caucus. Rep. Cohen faces a potentially tough, racially-charged contest for reelection in November 2010. Although he easily beat his Democratic opponent in the last election, despite a smear campaign, he will be running against a former Memphis mayor, who has pledged to make the contest for the predominantly African-American district one of "race, representation, and power." Cohen's embrace of J Street, it appears, may have cost him AIPAC's support.

Some readers might remember Cohen from his appearance on the Colbert Show:

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Better Know a District - Tennessee's 9th - Steve Cohen
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorMichael Moore

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Interfaith Kishkushim?

Event advertisement on campus: "When was the last time you met a swami/chief rabbi/imam/bishop/lama/Sikh?"

This evening, the University of Haifa hosted the fourth meeting of the Elijah Board of World Religious Leaders. Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Ramakrishna, and Sikh representatives came to share their views on issues of religious leadership. Druze and Bahai leaders were also expected. The audience, mostly, but not only, composed of University of Haifa students, was almost as diverse.

Opening remarks were made by Professor Majid al-Haj, Vice-President and Dean of Research at the University of Haifa.

He addressed the audience in Hebrew (simultaneous English translations were provided via headsets). He started out with a citation commonly invoked in these types of gatherings. Here is a partial transcript:
"As a Muslim, I have to mention that in the Quran there is a passage that says, 'We have made you nations and tribes so that you may meet one another.' That's the main concept that exists in Judaism, in Christianity, and in all religions... The function of religion is to improve the society, and to regulate the relationships within the society and between the different groups."
As I've attended a few interfaith gatherings in the past, the concept and the content didn't seem entirely novel to me. One of the Buddhist monks described what often happens at these gatherings in a very humorous way: "You're nice, I'm nice, bye bye!" He did add that this was not his experience in this case, as these religious figures have been traveling together extensively for the past few days and have shared intimate experiences with each other.

One thing that sometimes frustrates me with these kind of meetings is that in order to stay civil and maintain their peaceful and unified stance, they must remain at the level of "interfaith kishkushim." No doubt that the visual message of all these different religious leaders together, highlighted by the various head coverings and robes and different ethnic backgrounds, is powerful. However, it seems obvious to me that there were many subjects that speakers shied away from (or possibly were told to avoid) for the sake of unity. And yet, that is not what will help people clear up misconceptions they may hold or understand the point of view of other religions.

Advertising for this gathering promised people the chance to meet different religious leaders. That means that it is potentially an opportunity for people to get answers about very real questions they may have about other religions. However, those very questions, though they represent dialogue, might also at the same time shut down real dialogue. I think there are two basic conditions which must exist at this type of gathering in order for real dialogue - by which I mean dialogue which transforms the people it engages - to occur. The first is that the leaders must be willing to speak openly and bravely about their faith, and the second is that the audience must not ask questions in order to provoke or to prove their own religion "right," but rather to learn and understand.

In my opinion, there were two highlights at the conference. The first was Imam Dr. Abduljalil Sajid from England, who was brave enough to speak about what he termed, "religiously-motivated violence." He said very clearly that this is an issue in his faith community which will not go away by wishful thinking or by prayer alone, and in fact will grow. He elaborated that imams and sheikhs must stand up and challenge it. Collective actions with others (including people from other faith communities and "people with no faith") is what is needed. He also said, "My appeal to all of you is do not ignore or deny it. Accept it and do something about it. Share the concerns with your community and work against violence."

The second highlight was the "meet and greet" which followed the more official part of the program. Here came the real chance for the audience to approach, question, and learn from the international visitors. Unfortunately, some of the local leaders left a little early.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Michael Oren: an American in DC

So is Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren going to address the J Street convention? It's not clear. Kishkushim had high hopes for American Jewish/Israeli relations upon his appointment. I can't say that I am terribly informed about what this organization represents, amounts to, how it functions. But a quick glance at their website gives the impression that it's an organization that positions itself as an alternative source of power to the demonized Israel Lobby of "K Street." Hence the name. They have a political action committee (PAC) to support their own candidates. It looks like the real thing. The positions? I haven't gone through the policy papers, but I would be interested to know if there is one in there that really pisses Oren off. What these guys seem to be is the mainstream of American Jewry: a lot of the secular, the Reform leadership, some of the intellectuals (see Michael Chabon), the part of the Obama crowd that's tuned into the Middle East. So it's a real limiting case for the Israeli representation in Washington. To what extent are they going to assuage the concerns of an American Jewish public that is largely skeptical if not outright contemptuous of the status quo in the territories? Bibi thinks that the status quo is safe -- and you can hear Oren saying that too in the Ha'aretz piece. However indignant the Israeli leadership is about J Street, they should hold their noses, if they must, and deal. It's the right thing to do.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

International Film Festival in Blue-and-White

One of the draws at Haifa's annual International Film Festival is the park in the Carmel Centre, which fills up with little booths selling lots of funky stuff. Admittedly, some of the products look a little too familiar already: the "I've-just-been-to-India" clothes and accessories, the Henna tattoos, and the cheap jewellery, for example.

But here's what I found interesting at the festival:

Udi (left) and his Israeli-invented Discovery ironing board cover which he so passionately demonstrated to me. Honestly, if I ironed more, I would buy it. I don't even know how to explain what that cover does, but it works. He had me stick my hand under it while running a hot iron over it; he left the iron sitting on it for a good few minutes; and he showed me how nothing falls off from it (like the shirt in the picture, hanging off its collar) and more neat tricks. He promised to email me the link.

Then I ran into "Hebrew Goat" (עז עברית), made in Kibbutz Hazorea. The Kachuta cheese below is said to have won 18 competitions,

while I was told that this cheese is the only "yellow" goat cheese (גבינה צהובה) in existence! I was urged to take a picture of it.

When I saw the product below, I just knew this had to be an Israeli invention. It was designed to replace the traditional "threading" method, which lots of Israeli women use to remove facial hair. It's a spring and works by trapping and pulling out the hairs between it. It was marketed under both the name "Spring" and "epi-face," which is a cute word play since most Israelis pronounce the word "happy" as "epi," which is short for epilate here.

Then, of course, there was "The Druze Woman Who Bakes Pita with Za'atar." But in order to appeal to as many taste buds as possible, she not only offered the traditional Labaneh cheese as a topping, but also hummus and chocolate spread.

I also met Asaf Elazary, a student at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem. His T-shirt, "Suck My Shmok" (top right), was just one of the original designs he was selling for 40 NIS a piece.

Lastly, I discovered some very young entrepreneurs selling home-made lemonade and magnets for modest prices of 2-3 NIS.

The film festival will wrap up on 10.10.09.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

And the Winner is.... "Ajami"!

Ajami movie poster up in Nazareth

The Israeli Film Academy has just wrapped up its annual awards ceremony. The Ophir Prize is often called the "Israeli Oscar" and this year, Haifa was awarded the honour and hosted the ceremony in the Auditorium (the same complex where the Cinematheque is located). This makes the city look really happening, especially as the decorations for the annual International Film Festival, which launches next week, are already up.

The film that came out as the big winner this year was none other than "Ajami," named after the Jaffa neighbourhood which it is based in. It took home the Ophir Prize for best film, best directing, best script, best editing, and best composition. Co-directed by the Jewish-Arab duo of Scandar Copti (resident of Ajami) and Yaron Shani, the film reflects the mixture of Jaffa. It's a gripping tale of all the balagan that goes on in Ajami: relations between Jewish and Arab neighbours, West Bankers and Israeli Arabs, Christians and Muslims, and everything in between. Most of the dialogue is in Arabic, but the local version of it, which is peppered with Hebrew.

I couldn't find an English trailer; for now it seems there's only Hebrew and Arabic.

ADDENDUM: It seems that the people at Global Voices really enjoyed my piece. Their post on Ajami, published a day after this one, is surprisingly similar to mine.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Other Gilad?

$10,000,000 for any information which leads to the finding of the missing soldier Majdi Halabi

It's been almost four and half years since the disappearance of the Israeli soldier Majdi Halabi. The then 19-year old soldier from the Druze town of Daliyat-el-Carmel was on his way to his base, but never made it to his destination. He hasn't been heard from since, and the Israeli public hasn't heard much about him, either. While everyone knows the names Gilad Shalit or Ron Arad, hardly anyone could tell you who Majdi Halabi is.

The fact that for a while already there has been a $10,000,000 reward on any information that leads to his discovery hasn't brought about any results either. You might see a sign about him if you are the Horev Centre in Haifa or pass by the University of Haifa, or catch the huge billboard up at the entrance of Halabi's hometown. That's how I learned about Halabi a few years ago. Someone has opened a Facebook profile in his name to "support the family." The Hana Fitness Centre in Daliyat-el-Carmel held a "sports event," sponsored by Speedo and others, on the fourth year anniversary of his disappearance. These all seem to organized by family members and fellow townspeople. But that's all. It just doesn't seem to be enough for a state that prides itself on its high concern for its soldiers.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Burning Crosses in the Middle East


Cross burning in Haifa

If you were in Haifa last night, you may have seen the burning crosses. Although burning crosses has different connotations in the United States, here it is done by Christian Arabs to mark the eve of عيد الصليب (Eid el-Salib), or the Feast of the Cross. The sight is pretty similar to the Jewish holiday of Lag Ba-Omer, with lots of children out until late, making fires. Along with that, there is the non-stop sound of fireworks going off. Today, the actual day of the holiday, it is quieter and there are special ceremonies at the churches. Hebrew readers can find out more about the holiday and its local customs here, under "חג הצלב".

Cross burning in Sakhnin

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Historic Development in Turkey-Armenia Relations

Turkey and Armenia announced today that they would establish diplomatic relations. If the protocols are formally ratified by the two countries before the deadline, it would spell the end of Turkey's sixteen-year blockade of Armenia. Turkey closed its border with its Caucasian neighbor in 1993, during the Armenian-Azerbaijani war over Nagorno-Karabakh. I do not know enough about domestic politics in Armenia at the moment to speculate on whether serious political obstacles exist in the country to prevent ratification. Many Armenians in Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and the large Diaspora will certainly protest any change in relations with Turkey that does not address the issue of genocide recognition. In Turkey, there are also likely to be voices, especially among opponents of Erdogan, against opening the border with Armenia.

More interesting for watchers of the region will be the fallout among Turkey's and Armenia's neighbors: especially Azerbaijan, Georgia, Russia, and Iran. For Azerbaijan, the Turkish move is a serious a blow, as the blockade was one of Azerbaijan's major instruments in pressuring Armenia during negotiations over Nagorno-Karabakh. For Georgia, the opening of the Turkish-Armenian border means increased competition and the end of profits from shipping Turkish goods to Armenia via Georgia. Both will likely become even more dependent on the U.S. for aid and protection.

For Russia, which has emerged as Armenia's main backer in recent years, the deal means both an improvement in relations with Turkey and new opportunities for energy development. Turkey perhaps stands to gain the most - on the ground and in international diplomacy.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Dolls and Wheelchairs

There is a prevalent belief in Israel that everything that happens "abroad" (which usually means North America and Europe) gets here ten later. Witness the relatively recent sushi craze. Or, to cite another example, recycling has made its inroads but is still limited to plastic bottles and paper, at least in Haifa. Yet, environmental awareness is practically non-existent. So, too, is the concept of wheelchair accessibility.

For just over a week and ending tonight, Beit Hecht in Haifa hosted an exhibit, called "Magic of the Dolls." The building of Beit Hecht itself is quite unique. Most people who have been to Haifa know that there is a German Colony downtown, where German Templars used to live. Few people, however, know that there are still Templar buildings in other neighbourhoods of Haifa: Neve Sha'anan and the Carmel Center. Beit Hecht is one of such buildings.

The dolls exhibit hosted works by many different artists, each unique in its material, theme, size, and style. Unfortunately, for anyone who has limited mobility, which included someone in my party, almost half of the exhibit was off-limits as the only way to access the second floor was by a long and steep stairway. There was an elevator, but it didn't work, and I'm not sure when the last time it ever worked was. Though the staff did express sympathy, apparently it hadn't occured to anyone to try to make the entire exhibit accessible, or at least to warn us before we purchased our tickets.

The dolls which we did manage to see were captivating. They ranged from the realistic to the fantastical and cartoonish.

The doll below, however, puzzled me. It was labeled, "The Druze Woman Who Bakes Pita with Za'atar." "The Druze woman" baking pita is indeed a familiar sight in Haifa and the surrounding area. But I've never seen a Druze woman wearing this kind of costume, which looks closer to the clothes worn by some Bedouin women.

Maybe in ten years, this lovely exhibit, in its entirety, will be accessible to all.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Talk of the Town

Ever since the "Body Worlds" exhibit arrived in Haifa a couple of months ago, it has been the talk of the town. Here, like elsewhere around the world, people are alternately fascinated and grossed out by the idea of plastinated human bodies, stripped of their skin, displayed in various poses.

The exhibit has already been hosted by major cities around the world such as Tokyo, Berlin, Los Angeles, and London. It's a bit surprising that little Haifa has been put on the map in this way. Though there have been various controversies surrounding this exhibit or other ones like it in the past, here "Body Worlds" had to contend with angry rabbis. Haifa's chief rabbi, She'ar-Yashuv Cohen, asked the public to boycott the exhibit. It seems, however, that the call to boycott had little success. People are advised to buy tickets in advance online, and even with that option, tickets are fully sold out on weekends. This is despite the fact that the exhibit is open until 22:00 on Thursdays-Saturdays - quite unusual hours for an Israeli museum - and the regular entry price of 85 NIS, which is far from cheap by Israeli standards. It's that popular.

The first time I had heard about this exhibit was when I was in Berlin in 2001. I read about it in the newspaper and my first reaction was disbelief and horror. Over these last eight years, I've become desensitized to the idea and therefore was ready to go when "Body Worlds" showed up in Haifa. Coming out of the exhibit, my feelings on it are that it is less about education (which it claims to be) and more about making money. I think that even though part of the exhibit includes listing lots of facts about the human body, unless one has a background in anatomy or biology, most of the information will be meaningless at the end of the day.

Let's face it: we've come to see "Real Human Bodies," not for a science lesson.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Jimmy Carter's Hamas Delusion


Jimmy Carter is in Damascus today and had the following to say after his meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and before checking in with Hamas head Khalid Mishal:
"I don't believe there is any possibility to have peace between the Palestinians and Israel unless Hamas is involved directly in harmony with Fatah.

"My own preference is for the United States government to find a way at a very [early] date to have direct discussions with the Hamas leadership.

"The first step has to be reconciliation between the Palestinian leaders to have a stable foundation to negotiate effectively with the Israeli leaders.

"I will be discussing with [Hamas] if they are willing to make the commitments for peaceful relations with Israel in the future and accept the overall requirements for peace and accommodation."
This is all silliness. The only terms under which Hamas would agree to any sort of "harmony" with Fatah is if such an agreement were to extend the Islamists' power and legitimacy. If Fatah does agree to such a settlement, it will mean that its leadership has effectively surrendered. In any case, any Fatah-Hamas reunion is not in Israel's interest nor in that of the U.S. At least not as long as we are talking about the same Hamas that exists today.

Hamas today derives its power from Syrian and Iranian money, training and weapons, and from its security organization in Gaza. Its legitimacy in Palestinian society is based on its religious vision, social welfare organizations, electoral success, and its uncompromising stance against Israel, which it has demonstrated with its successful terrorist attacks. Neither its bases of legitimacy nor its sources of power make a rapprochement with Israel at all likely. Hamas is therefore irrelevant to a solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It thus has very little to offer to the U.S. The U.S., like Israel, would do much better to focus on the West Bank, at least as long as Fatah maintains power there.

In the meantime, Israel will probably have to live with Gaza being ruled by Hamas. Unfortunately, the scenarios in which Hamas might be removed from power are limited to the following,
  1. internal revolt
  2. military defeat of Hamas as political and security force
  3. end of sponsorship by Iran and Syria
none of which will take place any time soon.

UNIFIL Hunting Israeli Spies in Southern Lebanon?


Relatively little has been reported in the Israeli media about the Israeli espionage network allegedly discovered in Lebanon over this past month. The Lebanese have announced several arrests of various figures, including some senior former officers. Now, in a strange episode, the Spanish commander of the UNIFIL forces in Lebanon seems to have inadvertently revealed that Spanish units participated in the hunt in southern Lebanon (Ha'aretz, ABC.es, Ha'aretz English). If this is true, Israel should take immediate measures. Helping the Lebanese security forces hunt down Israeli spies is not part of UNIFIL's mandate. The fallout could be very serious and it certainly undermines future UNIFIL missions. 

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Obama's Moves


Watching Obama maneuvering the treacherous terrain of Middle East policy has been a pleasure. History will show that those who regarded him as a naive idealist did so at their peril. Netanyahu is slowly waking up to reality; others might do so too late and find themselves under the White House steamroller. The Obama administration is as serious about its ideals and goals as it is cunning about achieving them. 

The decision to start off by challenging Netanyahu on settlement construction was nothing short of brilliant. Simply put, Obama and America had nothing to lose by pressuring Bibi on this. No serious person in American politics would today sacrifice their credibility by arguing that Israel should be allowed to expand settlements as it sees fit. In the U.S., there is a small number of (mostly religious) American Jews who still believe in the enterprise, but they were against Obama from the beginning, and the delusions in which they have been living are now colliding with the hard facts. The only remotely palatable argument, voiced by Netanyahu's propagandists such as Charles Krauthammer, that Israel should at least be allowed to expand settlements in order to accommodate "natural growth" in these communities, is itself a huge concession. Moreover, it too has been rejected by the Americans. 

As other commentators have observed, the more Netanyahu and the Israeli lunatic fringe (like it or not, this is how policy makers in Washington view everyone right of Netanyahu) fight with Obama, the more pathetic and/or racist clamoring emanates from their midst, the more U.S. diplomats stand to gain in their negotiations with the Middle East's other regional powers and domestically. 
The strategy followed by the Obama administration vis-à-vis the Israeli-Arab conflict and the region is best described as Machievallian liberalism. Right now, he is trying to make the Israelis understand the limits of their power and to force them to make policy choices in response to these constraints. These constraints have in fact always existed, but in the past Israel benefited from subsidies of good will (on the part of the U.S.)  to overcome them. But over time, subsidies of this nature cause inefficiencies and distortions that become unsustainable. 

Now, for the first time in a while, Israeli leaders are being forced to act as consumers (and producers) in a free market, where prices reflect the supply and demand of political, military, and economic power. Unfortunately, the subvention of lunacy has rendered some groups in Israeli society extremely uncompetitive in the marketplace of political ideas and in the practice of power. The settlers, for example, who think Israel can do just fine without America, are suffering from delusions of grandeur typical of corporations who have benefited from state largesse for years. 

The new calculus is very simple. You want to keep building settlements? Pay for it. You want to waffle on a two-state solution? It will cost you. You want to be able to shape responses to the Iranian problem? Quid pro quo.