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,, 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. 

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Rebbe Sightings

I've spotted pictures of the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, aka The Rebbe, in several unusual places, such as in a barber shop in the Lower East Side (open on Saturday) in Manhattan and in falafel joints across Israel. However, I didn't expect to see the former Chabad leader at Art Tattoo, the Russian-staffed tattoo and piercing shop at Haifa's Grand Canyon Mall where this picture was taken. Thanks to Yolanda for noticing.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Halakha in the Zoo


Entrance to kohanim [Jewish priests] forbidden

I found this curious sign at the Haifa Educational Zoo, and I'm pretty sure that Israel is the only country in the world in whose zoos you will find warnings of this sort, aimed at preventing a violation of halakha, or Jewish law. Other than the usual caged animals, the Haifa Zoo also hosts little museums and exhibits (which look rather old-fashioned), at the entrance to one of which I stumbled upon this sign and observed an interesting scene.

A group of school children were invited into the room, but after reading the sign which forbids entrance to kohanim, i.e., descendants of priests in the Jewish Temple, some of the kids started shouting to the guide that their classmate wasn't allowed in since he was a kohen. The boy, who looked about 13, seemed confused. He didn't know whether to follow his classmates into the room or not, and kind of hung around the door. After having settled everyone else down, the guide looked at the poor kid who was the source of great disruption, and said, "You're either in or you're out!"

After darting in and out of the door a few more times, he finally decided to stay.

I think what confused him the most was that he wasn't really sure who was supposed to forbid him to enter the room: the zoo authorities (and hence the guide), he himself, G-d, or someone else.

When I peaked into the room, I understood why the sign had been posted. Most of the room's display consisted of stuffed, mounted animals such as birds and desert mammals. However, there was one old display case with human fetuses in formaldehyde, which obviously caused very strong reactions in the visitors.

Although the rules derived from the Torah are complex, in brief, dead bodies and body parts are considered ritually defiling and therefore kohanim are not allowed to be close to them.