Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Galgalatz History?

I'm really not sure, but I think history may have just been made on Galgalatz, a popular IDF-operated radio station. Today at 15:10, a complete song in Arabic was played on the airwaves. I didn't catch the name of the artist or the song, but if I had to make a guess based on the voice and style, it sounded like Amir Benayoun, a Jewish-Israeli artist of Moroccan descent.

Amir Benayoun, who sings in Hebrew as well as in Arabic

ADDENDUM: I found the song. It's actually by Dudu Tassa, a Jewish-Israeli artist of Iraqi origin. Enjoy.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Erdogan - More to Laugh About

This is almost as funny as Prince Andrew's analysis of anorexia and his paean to British geography teachers
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the leaked documents “suspicious,” but refused to comment on their substance. According to the semi-official Anatolian News Agency, Mr. Erdogan said that Turkey will “wait until WikiLeaks spill all the beans,” before evaluating the seriousness of the revelations, “because the seriousness of Wikipedia is doubtful” (NYT).
WikiLeaks contains a number of very negative assessments of Erdogan and the Turkish government by the U.S.

Arab Positions on Iran in WikiLeaks and Juan Cole's Efforts to Downplay their Significance


For me, the biggest story of the latest WikiLeaks release so far is the documentation of active Arab lobbying against Iran and repeated calls for aggressive American intervention. In the leaked reports, Saudi and several other Gulf state officials repeatedly urge America to keep the military option on the table. It's interesting to see Juan Cole and others downplay the significance of these revelations. For Cole, it's all about Israel, even though Saudi and other officials hardly mention the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in these cables (see here, for example):
It is no secret that the Sunni Arab leaders in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf have been alarmed by the rise of Iran as a regional power. That rise has taken place for three reasons. First, the worrisome deterioration in the condition of stateless Palestinians under rightwing governments of Israel since 2001, and that country's increasing belligerence toward neighbours, as with the 2006 Lebanon war, have inflamed passions throughout the region, allowing Iran to position itself as a champion of the weak.
The rise of Iran as a regional power has very little to do with the alleged deterioration in the condition of the Palestinians since 2001. There is nothing new about rejectionist (anti-U.S.) powers in the region supporting the cause of the Palestinians, rhetorically and financially. Egypt did this under Nasser and the Syrians have presented themselves as the patron of radical Palestinian factions for a long time. Neither regime owed its rise to Israeli policy or the conditions of the Palestinians.

Cole wants to minimize the real fears of the Gulf states about Iran's ambitions and its pursuit of nuclear weapons to achieve them. Of course, he's right that the "street" in the Arab world supports Iran for its virulent stands against Israel. But the people do not rule in any of the Gulf states. They are far from positions of political responsibility, which might actually make them to identify with the interests of their states in the global arena or to articulate realist political stances.

Lastly, Cole makes an argument from absence about Egypt's position on Iran:

Despite the breathless headlines they generated, the yield of the documents is actually thin. The most populous and militarily most important Arab state, Egypt, appears not to have been among those urging military action. There is no sign in the diplomatic cables of any practical steps toward an Arab attack on Iran, no evidence of logistical or military preparations. At most there is high-level gossip in Arab capitals that something should be done, and by someone else. In any case, if this is the anti-Iranian Arab axis, Tehran can sleep peacefully at night.

In fact, the cables show great Egyptian concern over Iranian meddling in Arab affairs, especially closer to home. I think the jury is still out on Egypt's position. Cole somehow wants to continue to insist in the face of the leaks that only the Americans and the Israelis are bothered by Iran. He believes that the leaders of the region should share view that there is "no evidence" that Iran has a nuclear weapons program or that it aspires  to achieve this capability. Ergo, everyone should rest easy. Those who disagree, he implies, are either trying to manipulate the situation to advance their imperialist interests in the Middle East.(the U.S. and Israel) or being manipulated by imperialist powers.

What's really funny is that Juan Cole is so obsessed with Israel that on his blog he highlighted a cable from January 2007 as one of the most revelatory documents released. He interprets the following passage
Thoughtful Israeli analysts point out that even if a nuclear-armed Iran did not immediately launch a strike on the Israeli heartland, the very fact that Iran possesses nuclear weapons would completely transform the Middle East strategic environment in ways that would make Israel’s long-term survival as a democratic Jewish state increasingly problematic. That concern is most intensively reflected in open talk by those who say they do not want their children and grandchildren growing up in an Israel threatened by a nuclear-armed Iran.
 as evidence that Israel sees an Iranian nuclear program as a threat to Jewish immigration and the demographic balance of the country. He then goes on to sound the trumpet about the inevitability of a binational state or the Lebanonization of Israel "in the next five decades." Cole is still convinced by the old story of low Jewish birthrates and the specter of net migration out of the country. Lastly, he wants to blame Israeli lobbying for the Iraq war and for a potential American invasion of Iran.

Not wanting your children and grandchildren to grow up in an Israel facing a nuclear Iran does not mean that you plan on emigrating from Israel. The kind of declaration cited in the cable simply underscores the resolve of Israelis not to allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons. We don't know how ordinary Israelis would respond to a nuclear Iran; I am not convinced that there would be an exodus.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Ahmed Tibi's Contradictions

I always marvel at MK Ahmed Tibi's willful distortions of the truth. Now, the doctor from Taibeh has seized the stage of the New York Times op-ed page to capitalize on Lieberman and Bibi's latest loyalty oath mischief. That business - a law that applies only to non-Jewish immigrants - is indeed shameful and another expression of the evil and stupidity currently residing in the foreign ministry. But Tibi's argument consists of a lie and a calculated one at that. According to Tibi,
there is far more wrong with the loyalty oath than simply the original intent of applying it only to non-Jews. Swearing allegiance to an Israel that is Jewish and democratic is logically inconsistent and an attempt to relegate Palestinian citizens of Israel to inferior status.

Palestinian citizens of Israel comprise 20 percent of the population. The insistence of some Jewish leaders on the state being “Jewish” is a punch in the gut to Palestinians who for more than 60 years have struggled to achieve equal rights in Israel.
There is racism and discrimination against Israeli Arabs and Palestinians in Israel. But the definition of the state is not the problem and in itself cannot be called racist. Furthermore, there is nothing new about that definition. Tibi apparently is trying to turn back the clock of history with some sleight of hand.

Israel's Declaration of Independence and its Basic Laws already define the country as a "Jewish State." Indeed, the United Nations itself called for its establishment in 1947. There are many people who want to distort the meaning of this simple description. In part, the word "Jewish" lends itself to such distortions because, unfortunately for the Jews, it describes both a confessional identity and a cultural, ethnic, or national one (this apparently confuses many people in the modern world; 300 years ago, few people would have recognized any sort of problem). But the original intent was quite simple: Israel is the "nation-state of the Jews," which means that any person who is "Jewish" may immigrate there. And 62 years later, this continues to be one of the guiding principles of the state. Is there a problem with that? Let Ahmed Tibi say so straight up: I don't believe that there should be a Jewish state.

The problem of course is that Tibi seems to have no issue with the nation-state or with nationalism per se - if he did, he would object to any number of Arab states in the region and nation-states elsewhere. He also would not be suggesting that
The international community could address our situation by calling on Israel to recognize us as a national minority.
Tibi, in other words, wants Kosovo or Bosnia. This is not the game of liberal democracy but of nationalist secession - in other words, exactly the game that Lieberman wants.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Syrian Economy

Please take a look at this excellent post by Ehsani for Josh Landis's Syria Comment on the economic reforms in Syria. The process described in this post are much more important than the blips on Zvi Bar'el's radar.

The Awakening Councils and the Future of Iraq

The New York Times reported today that Sunnis in Iraq formerly allied with the U.S. appear to be (re)joining the Qaeda-led insurgency. The article cites militia leaders in Salah ad Din, Diyala, and Baghdad governorates. The Awakening Councils played a critical role in defeating al-Qaeda in Iraq, initially in Anbar province. (For a compelling interpretation of how this actually happened, see John McCary's The Anbar Awakening: An Alliance of Incentives.) Although the Iraqi central government politicians interviewed in the article deny that such defections are taking place, there seems little reason to doubt that fighters are leaving the employ of the government or threatening to do so. Apparently, the tribal militiamen and their commanders have had enough of the Iraqi central government refusing to pay them or grant them immunity from prosecution. They see little reason to co-operate with the Shi'i-dominated federal government. With American forces leaving Iraq, the Sunni tribes in places like al-Anbar are now renegotiating their role in the Iraqi order. It is unlikely that they will want to surrender their sources of income to al-Qaeda, as they almost did in the bad years of the insurgency. But they need more assurances than they have been getting from Baghdad and from the U.S. The Iraqi security forces are not strong enough to govern areas dominated by the tribes in western Iraq and in the Sunni governorates. Whoever ends up taking charge in Baghdad will have to make concessions to them.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Hanin Zuabi the Flotilla Heroine

Footage released by Israel Army Radio seems to contradict claims by Balad MK Hanin Zuabi that she saw "no people carrying clubs" aboard the ship. It also shows her arguing with Israeli soldiers attempting to evacuated wounded activists. She can be heard insisting to an army soldier several times that the activists "want to stay here [on the ship]." Zuabi, who became the darling of flotilla fans in Israel, credited herself with having assisted in the evacuation of wounded activists from the ship.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

The Guardian on Lebanon-Israel Border Clash

Nearly six hours after UNIFIL acknowledged that IDF troops were removing trees on the Israeli side of the border, the Guardian still has a video on its web site in which the newspaper's caption claims that
the fighting broke out after Israeli soldiers tried to uproot a tree on the Lebanese side of the border.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

World Cup Breaks Taboo

In the 2006 FIFA World Cup, a taboo was broken in Germany. For the first time since the Second World War, Germans were out in droves, waving their national flag. A taboo seems to have also been broken in the current World Cup: the German flag on frequent display in Israel, not necessarily with the presence of other international flags, at Jewish-owned places of entertainment. And according to a poll published in Yediot Ahronot, close to a third of (male) Israelis want the German team to win.

Carmel Centre, Haifa; a day after Germany's defeat in the semi-finals

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Haifa Pride 2010

Though there have been some gay protests or events in Lebanon as of late, Israel remains the only country in the Middle East to hold annual Pride Parades. Admittedly, the Haifa parade doesn't draw quite the crowd that Tel Aviv does, but turnout last Thursday was pretty impressive - over 500 according to one estimate, possibly even more.
Having been present this year and the last, I have to say that the turnout was definitely higher this time around. I spoke to Yulia, who was heavily involved in the event, and asked her what contributed to the sudden spike in marchers. She attributed it to better marketing, but I suspect that last August's shocking event also played a part in rousing people.
The parade went by without a hitch, but police was out in full force to protect marchers just in case.
There was a small group of counter-demonstrators, mostly clad in knitted skullcaps.

Representatives from the self-defined Palestinian gay women's group Aswat were also present. Here, one of the members is being interviewed.

Compared to Tel Aviv, Haifa's Pride Parade can be described as tame and it often felt more like a protest than a parade.
An exceptionally racy poster at this docile gathering: "It's most delicious in the ass".

Monday, June 07, 2010


I used to listen to Rex Murphy on CBC Radio when I was in high school. I believe his show was called "Cross-Country Check-Up" and it was always right on. So is his article in the National Post about the flotilla affair (thanks to Jesse for the link - here is to Cummer Valley Middle School reunions!):
But torpid as is its nature, and comatose as are its eternal deliberations, on one subject, and toward one state, the United Nations acquires a strange and uniquely transformative power. Bring Israel under its gaze and the diplomatic sloths at UN headquarters morph into the swiftest of gazelles. From lotus-eaters to adrenalin junkies in the twinkling of an eye. Quite amazing, really.

So naturally when the debacle over the so-called “freedom flotilla” — news media should be wary of letting activists choose the names of things — roared into the headlines, the UN reacted at the diplomatic equivalent of the speed of light. The Security Council issued its “condemnation,” and in a wonderful reversal of cause and effect also called for an investigation into what it had “condemned.” And the cruellest joke on the planet, what the UN with unbounded irony refers to as its Human Rights Council, issued, as unfailingly in every previous international incident involving Israel it has, a condemnation as well.

Richard Allen: WTF?

Reading over Richard Allen's op-ed in the New York Times today, I asked myself whether the author isn't suffering from the same mental infliction suffered by his beloved President Ronald Reagan. Allen, U.S. national security adviser in the early '80s, recalls his memory of Reagan's reaction to Israel's strike on the Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981 (twenty-nine years ago today) only to compare it, shamefully, with the recent Mavi Marmara debacle. He does so with an insidious mixture of nostalgia and dementia that must be making Reagan smile in his grave.

The point of Allen's narrative is to caution against knee-jerk negative reaction to "daring, risky" Israeli military operations. Even high-ranking officials in Reagan's administration, including VP George H.W. Bush, Chief of Staff James Baker, and presidential aide Michael Deaver, advocated punitive actions against Israel in the wake of the surprise strike on Saddam's nuclear materials testing reactor in 1981, Allen remembers. But the most sober and far-sighted in the situation room--Reagan himself--after hearing all points of view on Israel, only "smiled and turned to the papers on his desk," and, when he did speak directly on Israeli policy, offered only private and pithy pearls of wisdom such as "Boys will be boys." There seems to be an implicit warning here to President Obama to curb any enthusiasm he might possibly have for condemning Israeli military policy, in this case regarding the Gaza blockade - or, more ominously, potential future Israeli strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities.

Beyond the Alzheimerish absurdity of comparing a planned strike with botched crowd control, I find this an example of the worst kind of American staythecoursiveness with regard to Israel.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Report by Turkish Newspaper Hurriyet Strengthens IDF Account

An article published today in Hurriyet, one of Turkey's biggest newspapers, strengthens some of the accounts provided by IDF soldiers of what happened after they landed on board the ship. The article has a link to a collection of photos restored from memory cards that belonged to activists on board the ship. It shows three bloodied soldiers being dragged below deck by activists. It also documents the activists holding knives and iron bars. According to the Hurriyet article, which was summarized by Haaretz, the IDF seized cameras and deleted photos from their memory cards, but the files were later restored using standard memory card software. Some activists also concealed their cameras or dimmed them.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

I've mapped out the home provinces of each of the activists who were killed and placed a marker in each province's capital. The data are based on a Zaman article (Turkish English-language newspaper) that appeared last weekend.

Those who died appear to have been from all over Turkey. They may well have met up before and prepared/trained together in the months that preceded the flotilla, but they're not all from the same approximate area (other than most of them being from Anatolia). We probably cannot derive too much meaning from geographical plot, but it does help rule out the hypothesis that I had considered according which the people who attacked the soldiers were a bunch of young people from the same small town. TO the contrary, the median and mean age of those killed was about 31.

My assumption is that most of those killed were directly engaged in fighting with the soldiers, but it's possible that some people were in the wrong place at the wrong time. What's clear is that the actions of a small group of hot heads completely changed the mind state of the boarding party and increased the threat perception they had, compelling the soldiers to use lethal force.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Details from Shayetet 13 Operation on Marmara

The Jerusalem Post has an exclusive interview with S. who took part in the operation, who is described as "the 15th and last Shayetet 13 commando to rappel onto the ship." His description paints a totally different picture of the events than we have received in most of the international media until now. From the perspective of the soldier, the melee on the Marmara was an organized ambush carried out by trained fighters who used the cover of the flotilla to attempt to capture or kill Israeli soldiers.

Quotations from the article:

The attackers had already seized two pistols from the commandos, and fired repeatedly at them. Facing more than a dozen of the mercenaries, and convinced their lives were in danger, he and his colleagues opened fire, he said. S. singlehandedly killed six men. His colleagues killed another three.

Based on preliminary results of its investigation into the navy’s takeover of the Mavi Marmara, which ended with nine dead passengers and more than 30 wounded, the IDF said on Thursday that the commandos were attacked by a well-trained group of mercenaries, most of whom were found without IDs but with thousands of dollars in their pockets.

The group was well trained and was split into a number of squads of about 20 mercenaries each distributed throughout the upper deck, the IDF said. All of the mercenaries wore gas masks and ceramic bulletproof vests and were armed with either bats, slingshots, metal bars, knives or stun grenades.

The IDF’s understanding is that the mercenaries mainly chose dual-purpose items of this sort rather than guns, since opening fire would have made it blatantly clear that they were terrorists and not so-called peace activists.
T. said he realized the group they were facing was well-trained and likely ex-military after the commandos threw a number of stun grenades and fired warning shots before rappelling down onto the deck. “They didn’t even flinch,” he said. “Regular people would move.”

Each squad of the “mercenaries” was equipped with a Motorola communication device, the IDF said, so they could pass information to one another. Assessments in the defense establishment are that members of the group were affiliated with international global jihad elements and had undergone training in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Preliminary Results from Navy Investigation

Here is the timeline of events that the Israeli navy arrived at in its investigation, as reported by Ha'aretz:

Monday, 4:30 AM operation on Mavi Marmara begins. It was targeted because "of the presence of hard-core activists including members of the IHH." Operation was supervised by Navy chief Eliezer Marom and the head of naval commandos, Lt. Col. A., who were on vessels next to the Marmara.

First four commandos who rappelled onto the ship were attacked with bars, axes, and knives. Team leader had his personal weapon taken away and activists were pointing it at his head. After jumping off the rope, the fourth commando shot the activist holding the gun. This took place 20 seconds after the first commando had landed. The commanders of this first unit to land were among those to land first.

10 more soldiers were able to land, after the original rope was fixed by one of those who had already landed. 10 more soldiers rappelled onto the ship. They cared for the wounded and took over the upper deck of the ship.

4:32 AM Lt. Col. A. gives orders by radio to use live fire (in the article, this event appears after other incidents, but the narrative explains that the order was given "two minutes after the incident had begun")

4:36 AM: a second force landed from another helicopter, led by a major. Commandos on board the ship realize that 3 soldiers are missing; they begin a search for them. Naval commando chief Lt. Col. A. boards the ship along with dozen other soldiers who climbed aboard from boats or landed from a 3rd helicopter.

During the search for the missing soldiers, there is "limited shooting" on the bridge and in the lower deck, until the 3 missing soldiers are recovered.

Soldiers reported that they were fired upon (time not mentioned in summary of report). At least two commandos suffered gunshot wounds. 9mm casings were found - this is ammunition not used by the commandos, so the conclusion was that these were fired by people on the ship. The captain of the Marmara told the naval commando chief Lt. Col. A. that guns used by activists were thrown overboard before the complete takeover of the ship by the commandos. Several handguns and an M-4 rifle were taken from soldiers.

Altogether between 60-100 activists were involved in the fighting. They were apparently well-trained, judging from the weapons they had and code books which were found containing orders passed from group leaders. The rioters included Turks, Yemenis, Afghans and one Eritrean; all were experienced in hand-to-hand fighting. Even after shots were fired, some of them did not retreat.

The security forces had trained extensively for the operation, with a ship at sea holding 50 soldiers playing the role of activists. The scenario envisioned was more like a demonstration at Bil'in - a village on the seams of Israel's security fence ("wall").

Commandos were not prepared for the possibility of dozens of rioters attacking them as they landed.

The report does not explain at which points exactly the 8 other activists were killed. It claims that all of these casualties were of the hardcore, trained fighters.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Imagine Israelis Protesting in Lebanon or Yemen...

An article published today in Ha'aretz (no English version available yet) by Fadi Ayadat indicates that almost all of the hundreds of activists from the Gaza Flotilla were deported today, save for seven individuals whose injuries did not permit their transport. The majority of activists (450), including, apparently, Europeans, were flown to Turkey, but another 100 from different parts of the Arab world, were sent off to the Allenby Bridge, which is generally used by Palestinians to enter Jordan. Previous news reports indicated that there were even individuals from Yemen among the activists. Most interesting to me was the fact that 5 activists were Lebanese and deported back to Lebanon via the Rosh ha-Niqra crossing between Lebanon and Israel.

One female representative of the Turkish Red Crescent who came to oversee the deportation of Turkish citizens was quoted as saying that the injured activists had been treated well in Israeli hospitals and that they did not face any overt hostility from the local population while treated.

Can anyone imagine Israeli civilians going to Turkey or a country in the Arab world to participate in a major act of civil disobedience, or to clash with the local authorities? It would be absolutely unthinkable.

Footage by Marmara Activists

This video shows soldiers in a speedboat attempting to board the Marmara as people on the ship shoot water hoses, throw a stun grenade, and hit the soldiers with a metal chain.

Analysis of Flotilla Video

Highlights use of paintball guns and speculates about tactics used by commandos boarding the Marmara.

Breakdown of Flotilla Activists' Countries of Origin

From Ha'aretz:

Israel gave the following breakdown of countries and numbers of those activists ordered expelled, excluding the nine killed and the seriously wounded in Monday's raid:
Australia 3; Azerbaijan 2; Italy 6; Indonesia 12; Ireland 9; Algeria 28; United States 11; Bulgaria 2; Bosnia 1; Bahrain 4; Belgium 5; Germany 11; South Africa 1; Holland 2; United Kingdom 31; Greece 38; Jordan 30; Kuwait 15; Lebanon 3; Mauritania 3; Malaysia 11; Egypt 3; Macedonia 3; Morocco 7; Norway 3; New Zealand 1; Syria 3; Serbia 1; Oman 1; Pakistan 3; Czech Republic 4; France 9; Kosovo 1; Canada 1; Sweden 11; Turkey 380; Yemen 4.

Monday, May 31, 2010

The Marmara Incident - Preliminary Notes

Everyone involved in this blog probably had the same initial reaction of disbelief, shock and sadness when they heard about the deaths (so far, 9 confirmed) that resulted from Monday morning's IDF raid on the Marmara. Now that more information has become available, however, this incident has become somewhat less unfathomable to me.

It is now clear that the IDF troops who boarded the Marmara encountered very violent and determined resistance that caught them completely off-guard. News reports indicate that they were not armed with lethal rifles (only paint ball rifles??) and that they carried hand guns as a last resort. Looking at the way in which they boarded the ship, it's almost certain that the boarding commandos did not expect to use their weapons and did not expect to engage in truly violent confrontations. As a result, as they touched down on the deck of the ship, they were overpowered and separated from each other. The most definitive video clip, shown only by Israeli media so far, to my knowledge, shows soldiers being bludgeoned and one of them being tossed over the deck. On Ynet, that video clip provided by the IDF spokesperson is followed up with testimony from a soldier with a broken arm who recounts how he and his comrades landed on deck the Marmara with their paint ball rifles strapped on their backs, not in their hands, and how the activists started beating them to a pulp with metal clubs. The soldier goes on to describe how his paint ball rifle was destroyed, and how he tried to reach for his handgun but found out that his arm was broken. Throughout this, he saw other soldiers down on the ground, still receiving beatings. The Ynet-supplied video stops there. I have yet to see video evidence that shows what happened next, but my assumption is that a few soldiers opened fire at that point.

Comments by ministers and senior officers to the Israeli press reveal that they had no idea that this scenario - definitely the worst case scenario - was more than a remote possibility. Previous incidents of this sort were resolved with minimal violence, resulting either in the granting of passage to the Gaza Strip in one case or in vessels being towed to Israel.

Clearly, there was an intelligence failure in this particular case. The decision to use naval commandos also seems quite ludicrous in hindsight. This was a policing operation on the high seas that should have been handled by units with crowd control experience.

Some readers of this post may disagree with the blockade of the Gaza Strip and with the rationale behind the boarding, but I am quite convinced that few will dispute that it seems highly likely, based on the evidence we've seen so far, that the IDF soldiers involved in the raid resorted to lethal force as a last-resort measure and in self-defence. Whether they should have been sent on this kind of a mission is the bigger question.

Note: The IDF video footage is now available on the BBC News website.

The IDF spokesperson's YouTube channel now has a clip up from the naval commandos' radio communications in which a soldier reports hearing live fire from the activists "down below".

Friday, May 21, 2010

Twist in Ashkelon Cemetery Saga

IAA announces new evidence that the ancient cemetery sitting on a site that the government wants for a bunker for an ER in Ashkelon was "pagan" not Jewish. In case you missed the recent unpleasantness, some Haredim have been rioting over this and attacking Jerusalem municipal employees. Not sure what would be more discomfiting, confirmation that the cemetery was certainly Jewish or evidence of mixed use. And this the same week that an inscription in the Golan Heights was discovered in a Roman period synagogue that appears to refer to the name of some (other) Semitic deity. Whew. Israel has to be one of the most politically contentious environments in the world to work in as an archaeologist.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Was the Yishuv Indifferent to the Holocaust?


The notion that the Zionist leadership in the Land of Israel and yishuv society as a whole reacted with indifference to news of the extermination of European Jewry during the Second World War has become almost a commonplace among non-specialists in the subject. In the past two decades, critics of contemporary Israel and the enterprise of Zionism in history, have led the charge in alleging that the yishuv took little interest in the victims of the Holocaust because of its ingrained negative view of Diaspora Jews (shlilat ha-golah) and single-minded devotion to the enterprise of state-building. Tom Segev's The Seventh Million: The Israelis and the Holocaust (1991, English translation published in 1993) unfortunately strengthened this sentiment. Although his book is still a classic - composed in beautiful prose like all his works and revealing a wealth of insights about Israeli society, its third chapter, "Rommel, Rommel, where are you?" paints an exaggerated picture of Zionist callousness toward the plight of European Jewry.

The Seventh Million: The Israelis and the Holocaust

A new work by the Israeli historian Yosef Gorny significantly challenges the revisionist accounts that emerged in the 1990s about the yishuv and the Holocaust. The book, entitled קריאה באין אונים:העיתונות היהודית בארץ ישראל, בבריטניה, בארצות הברית ובברית המועצות לנוכח השואה, בשנים 1939-1945 ("Helpless Cry: The Jewish Press in the Land of Israel, Britain, the U.S., and the Soviet Union during the Shoah, 1939-1945," was published in 2009 and has now been reviewed in Ha'aretz by Dina Porat. The reviewers herself is the author of a pioneering related work, The Blue and the Yellow Stars of David: The Zionist Leadership in Palestine and the Holocaust, 1939-1945 (Hebrew version in 1986; English translation published by Harvard University Press in 1990).

Gorny's book lays to rest the myth that the Jewish press in the Land of Israel ignored the victims of the Holocaust or that the yishuv's inhabitants and its leading personalities were indifferent to the fate of European Jewry. According to Porat,

Reading and comparing the various newspapers show that the Jewish press, both within and outside the Land of Israel, covered the Holocaust extensively, with the newspapers here writing about it more. A comparison between Hebrew newspapers Davar, Haaretz and Hamashkif shows that Davar, the Labor movement daily, which has been criticized from all sides (especially by the first to research the issue, S.B. Beit Zvi, in his book "Post Ugandan Zionism on Trial" ), actually published a lot more about the Holocaust than either of the other two papers. At the time, Hamashkif, the Revisionist paper, was incessantly attacking Davar, for explicitly political reasons, to the point that it became an uncontested axiom that Davar was ignoring the Holocaust.

The comparison between the newspapers also shows that they published pretty much whatever information they received about what was happening to the Jews in Europe, including some hair raising stories that were inconceivable at the time in terms of the number of victims and especially the cruelty of the killing methods. Indeed, readers and journalists alike argued during the first half of the war that the many articles describing atrocities were an exaggeration, akin to "spilling blood into the lines of the newspapers," and called on editors to exhibit greater responsibility in the kinds of pieces they published and stop demoralizing the public and creating panic.

The book's title, Kri'ah be-ein onim is a triple entendre, as the word "kri'ah" means both "call" or "shout" as well as "reading" (i.e., the act of reading). It can therefore be translated as either. The phrase "be-ein onim" literally means "without potency," i.e., "powerless" or "helpless." One could therefore translate the title either as "Helpless Cry" (more elegantly, "Cry in the Wilderness") or "Impotent Reading." To add to these possibilities, the plural noun "'onim" (אונים) has a homophone (at least for those Hebrew speakers who do not pronounce 'alef and 'ayin differently), עונים, which means "respondents," - in other words, "Reading/Cry without Response."
The Holocaust in American Life

I see the charge that "Zionists didn't care about the Holocaust during the war" as related to those works of scholarship and political polemic which talk about Holocaust memory having been manufactured after World War II by Zionists or Jewish elites. Alongside the myth that the yishuv was indifferent to the Holocaust, a myth arose several decades ago that American Jews did not really talk about the Holocaust until 1967, and that it only became a major focus of their attention due to Zionist manipulation. That is the heart of the accusations contained in works like Peter Novick's The Holocaust in American Life and the (far worse) piece of propaganda by Norman Finkelstein, The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering. These accounts have also been significantly undermined by recent, heavily empirical scholarship, most notably in Hasia Diner's We Remember with Reverence and Love: American Jews and the Myth of Silence after the Holocaust, 1945-1962.

We Remember with Reverence and Love: American Jews and the Myth of Silence after the Holocaust, 1945-1962

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Why Pick on Goldman?


Frank Partnoy, a finance professor at the University of San Diego, writes in the FT of May 11 that the SEC has unfairly targeted Goldman Sachs for censure in an act of "misguided political theatre." For Partnoy, Goldman is being punished for its success. In his counter-factual, if everyone had taken the positions Goldman had on sub-prime, we wouldn't be in this mess. I'm no philosopher -- or economist -- but I'm not sure that such a counter-factual world exists in the realm of possibility. But the core of Partnoy's case is that the SEC is not doing its job, which is to protect "investors." By going after Goldman, the SEC is advocating for "European banks" instead of Joe Six-Pack. Never mind that Joe Six-Pack, if he's lucky, has his retirement tied up with the fortunes of some of these "European banks." What Partnoy and others no doubt are really mad about is Goldman being singled out.

So, is it legitimate for the government to prosecute selectively? Absolutely. The SEC is a law enforcement agency with limited resources with which to prosecute. They are bound to prosecute selectively, but what makes their selection legitimate is the discretion awarded to them in the law. Not that this discretion hasn't been challenged and circumscribed. For example, in 1996, the Supreme Court heard United States vs. Armstrong, et al. Christopher Armstrong and his co-respondents filed a motion for discovery or dismissal alleging that they were unfairly selected for prosecution on federal crack cocaine charges because they were black. The due-process and equal protection clauses of the Constitution are meant to protect against "invidious discrimination in the exercise of prosecutorial discrimination." In other words, there are limits on prosecutorial discretion. You can't prosecute somebody on the basis of race, for instance. But in the Armstrong case, the court ruled in favor of the government, confirming a broad, robust concept of prosecutorial discretion.

Targeting Goldman precisely because of their stature in order to deter other banks from similar misdeeds is entirely within the scope of prosecutorial discretion as confirmed in Armstrong. For Partnoy, "these government officials do not understand modern markets." On the other hand, his understanding of the law leaves something to be desired.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Growth of Islamic Banking in Turkey

On Wednesday, FT contained a special insert called "Istanbul as a Financial Centre." The headline read, "Ambition yet to be matched by reality," a state of affairs which is then explained in articles about lack of political and social consensus, a conservative business oligarchy that offers little power and protection to equity holders, and competition from Moscow to be the regional hub both for multinationals and financial services. All this is set across the backdrop of a city that is potentially very attractive to highly skilled migrants. As for the Turkish economy, as George Bush used to say, "The fundamentals are strong."

What caught my eye was the article by Delphine Strauss on the growing stake of Islamic banks in Turkey's financial sector. These banks have grown at almost double the rate of commercial banks over the last three years. In Turkey's case in particular, we could chalk this up to a political climate that is increasingly friendly to these institutions, as the Islamic AKP has entrenched its power. Yet it appears that these banks are increasingly competitive across the Islamic world. In a very interesting article in October's Anthropology News, BU PhD candidate Sarah Tobin, analyzes the gains made by Islamic banks during the global financial crisis (UC Berkeley, sadly, doesn't give me access to the article online; as for the performance of Islamic banks, it should be noted, that the Dubai credit crisis damaged them considerably). Tobin, whose work is in Jordan, sees the rise of these institutions as more than just the result of their cautious investments in a volatile market. Islamic banks are providing all kinds of non-pecuniary services, from giving customers a daily feeling of religious authenticity, to "Islamicizing" certain transactions that the Koran on some readings would seem to disallow, to scoring brownie points with an Islamic regime -- which is where Turkey might come in, though it sounds like many of the banks' biggest customers are religiously conservative Anatolian businessman, the new elite of the AKP world.

One gets the sense from Strauss's report on Turkey that the Turks lag behind the rest of the Islamic world on this score both because of the secular Kemalist legacy and because participation in Islamic finance is more "political" -- or less "authentic" than elsewhere. On this account, if the AKP loses power tomorrow, the sector shrinks precipitously. Here, Tobin's article is a helpful companion. She underscores that with each bank maintaining its own Shari'ah board charged with interpreting a great diversity of financial instruments, practices, and markets ultimately, as I understand it, in light of the Koranic injunction against taking and receiving interest, no clear standard of "Islamic banking" exists. The local diversity of Islamic law surely plays a role too. And though Jordanian banks may be more conservative than those in Dubai, it seems the charge of "un-Islamic" might be leveled against anyone at anytime. This is not to say that particular forms of investment, types of enterprise, and grand strategy do not pattern the Islamic banking sector. They do, and that's what I find so interesting. The FT piece, for example, describes "sukuk-style bonds," which are offered but twice a year, and are indexed to the revenues of government agencies. Whatever Islamic banking is, it's certainly not a simple reaction against modernity. Standard & Poor's just started rating a Shari'ah-compliant fund from Qatar last Tuesday.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Hamas Economy

I'm not holding my breath for a popular uprising in Gaza against Hamas, but I found this article by Avi Issacharoff and Amos Harel interesting because it highlights the economic and political structures on which Hamas, like the Palestinian Authority, depends for its hold on power. Apparently, Hamas has been unable to pay its many "civil servants" their wages for the past two months.

Friday, April 30, 2010

US and Iraq Clash over Cultural Property

The damaged documents from Baghdad in US custody (photo:NPR).

A potential cultural property dispute is brewing between the US and Iraq over relics of the Jewish community of Iraq. When US forces discovered the cache, it was suspended in sewage water inside the former offices of the Iraqi secret police. Initially, as I recall, this concatenation of Jewish, Zionist, and Israeli objects and texts, puzzled observers. What were very, very old Torah scrolls and a book by Ben-Gurion doing in the basement of the Mukhabarat? At the time, some read it is a kind of Judaica fetishist's trove. However, according to the
WaPo story, the apparent randomness of the collection is the clue to its origin. This is the totality of what Iraqi Jews left behind for their inquisitors to seize -- a "snapshot" of the refugees' former life; their genizah. But you can see that the different property claims to this stuff are being fought out over just that issue: is the detritus of the community, or its metonym? Is it an "archive?" Papyrologists, among other scholars of antiquity, are always asking themselves, "What is an archive?" For what it's worth, I still think you could get a pretty interesting take on the Mukhabarat's culture and outlook at that historical moment by analyzing what they decided to keep in their archive.

In any case, the US government is treating this piece of cultural property precisely as they would treat any other. It belongs to the nation-state of Iraq, but we're its guardian for now. In other words, despite the warm relationship between Natan Sharansky, Dick Cheney, and a certain Pentagon official, Jews aren't getting special treatment. But there is certainly room for negotiation. The Cypriots got the State Department to ban the import of coins minted in Cyprus during the Graeco-Egyptian Ptolemaic "occupation" of the island, even if they were unearthed today in Egypt or Turkey. Samir Sumaidaie, the Iraqi ambassador to the United States, seems to want to tie his claim here to implicit claims of looting during the invasion, laying liability for the whole lot at the Americans' feet. Rhetoric that ties the loss of cultural property during US occupation to losses sustained during Ottoman occupation is much more likely to receive a friendly hearing in the court of public opinion. Why quibble about these lamentably damaged Jewish documents while the Istanbul archaeological museum is bedecked with Mesopotamian loot?

Jews, Arabs, and Dogs Unite in 'Red Haifa'

A day ahead of schedule, a May Day march took place today on Khoury Street between the working class neighbourhoods of Hadar and Wadi Nisnas.
Residents of Massada Street, which together with Hillel Street is locally known for its alternative scene, had hung up banners announcing the march. This also happens to be the area where the incident with the café that refused entry to a soldier occurred.

A demonstrator selects a placard in preparation of the march.

"Uniting against privatization, exploitation, and capitalistic rule."

There was also a presence of teachers who bemoaned the privatization of the education system and the lack of government funding.

Several dogs clad in red also took part in the march.

The demonstration was formally kicked off with the marching band of the Communist Youth Alliance - Haifa.

The Hammer'n'Sickle Mobile with Hebrew and Arabic signs.

"Yes to a just peace"

A marcher carries a copy of the socialist paper, "The Struggle."

"Jews and Arabs building power for the workers"

Aside from Jews, Christians, Muslims (and dogs), there also seemed to be at least one Druze demonstrator.
Attorney Walid Hamis, a representative of the Balad political party, and the former mayor-deputy of Haifa as well as a recent mayoral candidate.

Perhaps the "The Socialist Zionist Left" (above) and the young man (below) agreed to disagree on this day in a show of unity.
"A Palestinian workers' state from the [Mediterranean] sea to the [Jordan] river"

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Simon Schama on Shlomo Sand

The Invention of the Jewish People

Excellent review by Simon Schama of Shlomo Sand's The Invention of the Jewish People, which has now been translated into English.

"Gagging" Human Rights Groups


Yesterday, the English edition of Ha'aretz ran a story that began with the lead:
More than half of Jewish Israelis think human rights organizations that expose immoral behavior by Israel should not be allowed to operate freely, and think there is too much freedom of expression here, a recent survey found.
Its headline claimed that the "Majority of Israel's Jews back gag on rights groups." The article in the Hebrew edition had the same lead but a different headline putting the emphasis on the poll's finding that "74% of the public [believes]: punish those who reveal security matters." I could find no reference to it elsewhere in the Hebrew press yesterday.

The poll in question was commissioned by the Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research at Tel Aviv University and the majority of those quoted in the article are affiliated with that institute. Unfortunately, the article gives no indication as to the original wording of the poll. I fear that Ha'aretz editors are once again playing fast and loose with an opinion survey for the purposes of editorial comment (the linked Jerusalem Post article describes Ha'aretz reporting of an opinion survey about Israeli views of President Obama). The Steinmetz center only has a link to an announcement of a conference about "academic freedom of expression in society during conflict" (PDF program in Hebrew), where the research will apparently be presented on Thursday, April 29.

The pollsters were puzzled that an overwhelming majority of Israelis nevertheless expressed support for freedom of expression. I think there is a lot of mistrust of human rights groups among Israelis. Many of those surveyed probably don't believe that the NGOs are "exposing immoral behavior" but that their findings are selective and highly politicized.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Cow Sightings

Can you spot the two cows crossing the street?
Trying to catch up with the rest of the herd, the cows caused a bit of traffic today at an intersection by the Check Post in the heart of the Haifa Bay.
It was a bit unexpected, but so was that time I saw (the same?) cows walking through the campus of the University of Haifa.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Modern Trade Routes and Ancient Gazan Artifacts

I was disappointed to find no word of the whereabouts of a huge hoard of early (?) Hellenistic coins found near Rafah in January in this recent article on Gazan antiquities from the Christian Science Monitor. I tried to investigate the issue earlier this year. I asked a friend at the American Numismatic Society who works in the region, and on contemporary coinage from the Arabian peninsula, but he hadn't heard anything.

But what caught my eye in this article was the assertion by Abu Ahmed, a black market antiquities dealer from Gaza, that in his view the biggest market for these artifacts is in Israel. There is huge money in "Biblical" antiquities, and so many different people profit from it. Of course many of the people who profit most from off-the-record sales of these objects live in Israel. It is disconcerting to the say the least that despite tight border controls Gaza is still a major exporter of this stuff to Israel. The Israeli Antiquities Authority and the IDF can do better.

Friday, April 23, 2010

J Street à la française

The French blogger Gilles Paris recently posted a story on his Le Monde blog about the formation of a J Street-inspired organization in Europe. With little familiarity with the nature of lobbying in the EU, it is difficult to me to judge how this will all work in practice, or how it will compare with J Street's efforts to rival AIPAC for influence in Washington. But the organization's leaders, the French celebrity philosopher Bernard Henri-Levy and the Franco-German politician, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, have planned a start-up meeting in Brussels in May. The focus is thus squarely trained on influencing EU foreign policy with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Just guessing, again, but BHL's influence seems stronger on the national level -- he was Chirac's special envoy to Afghanistan -- while Cohn-Bendit is a truly European figure. It was "Danny the Red," after all, who in 1968 heckled the French sport minister beside a Nanterre pool with the charge, "That's what the Hitler Youth used to say!"

What's this organization about? For one, stemming the flow of delegitimation of the state of Israel in European political discourse. Well, that doesn't deserve to be scoffed at, which is particularly clear if you read the comments on the Le Monde blog post. But I find this part of their charter most interesting:

"Si la décision ultime appartient au peuple souverain d’Israël, la solidarité des Juifs de la Diaspora leur impose d’œuvrer pour que cette décision soit la bonne. L’alignement systématique sur la politique du gouvernement israélien est dangereux car il va à l’encontre des intérêts véritables de l’État d’Israël."

"While the ultimate decision belongs to the sovereign people of Israel, the solidarity of Diaspora Jews pushes them to work to find a good solution. The systematic alignment [of Diaspora Jews] with the policy of the Israeli government is dangerous, since it runs the risk of going against the true interests of the State of Israel."

Many will find the presumption of BHL and Cohn-Bendit to know "what's best for Israel" sickening. But I think the question of the alignment of interests is a serious one. It's also at stake in Amos's criticism of Roger Cohen's NYT column today (see below). Cohen's point there is that old one about a disconnect between the way Israelis see things, chiefly their security threats, and the way other stakeholders do, namely, the Americans, and implicitly, Diaspora Jews, and so on. I doubt that BHL and Cohn-Bendit can "disalign" mainline European Jewish organizations from official Israeli policy positions. Europe isn't fertile ground for another J Street.

More Condescending Idiocy from Roger Cohen

It's always amusing to see journalists and academic critics belittling Israeli security concerns, which these know-it-alls dismiss as a mixture of manipulation and pathological paranoia. See for example Roger Cohen's latest column along these lines:
To enter Israel is to pass through a hall of mirrors. A nation exerting complete military dominance in the West Bank becomes one that, under an almost unimaginable peace accord, might be menaced from there.
What does Cohen know about qassams and katyushas? What good is "complete dominance" and military superiority when terrorists can fire rockets at your cities and threaten the lives of thousands of civilians?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Is the Peace Process in America's Interest?

In a letter to the Times on the occasion of Israel's 62nd birthday, Jeremy Ben-Ami of J-Street repeats the axiom that has guided public debate in this country for the past three decades:
An analysis of the Obama administration’s calculus on Middle East policy should reflect that many in the Jewish community recognize that resolving the conflict is not only necessary to secure Israel’s future, but also critical to regional stability and American strategic interests
It is a piece of wisdom recycled endlessly but never truly interrogated. How much has the peace process, as opposed to specific peace agreements, actually contributed to regional stability, and how has it aided American interests?

Monday, April 19, 2010

Goldman Case Difficult

Binyamin Applebaum reports in the NYT that

Several experts on securities law said fraud cases like this one, which focuses on context rather than content, are generally more difficult to win, because it can be hard to persuade a jury that the missing information might have led buyers to walk away.

Goldman Sachs is reporting its quarterly earnings tomorrow, and chances are that the firm made a lot of money. Today would probably have been a good time to buy Goldman stock at a discount.

Taliban "Snipers"

Some very impressive reporting in the Times on a firefight in Marja involving at least one talented Afghan marksman and some WWII-era rifles. The video is a must-see.

Friday, April 16, 2010

SEC Sues Goldman: WSJ vs. NYT

I generally prefer the New York Times over the Wall Street Journal, but I was disappointed to see how the NYT's lead article about the Securities and Exchanges Commission's announcement that it would sue Goldman Sachs. I really hope the Times is not pandering to the sentiments of its misinformed online commenters. Compare the leads of the two papers to see what I mean.

Wall Street Journal:
WASHINGTON—The Securities & Exchange Commission on Friday charged Goldman Sachs Group Inc. with defrauding investors by allegedly marketing a financial product tied to subprime mortgages without telling them a big hedge fund was on the other side of the trade.

New York Times:
Goldman Sachs, which emerged relatively unscathed from the financial crisis, was accused of securities fraud in a civil suit filed Friday by the Securities and Exchange Commission, which claims the bank created and sold a mortgage investment that was secretly devised to fail.

It is unclear to me how this particular derivative was "devised to fail." Goldman had no control over whether the housing market really would collapse. Credit default swaps and other derivatives always involve one side "betting against" the other. More precisely, companies and investors try either to reduce risk or increase potential rewards by entering into these kinds of contracts. Anyone who invested in this kind of highly speculative financial instrument would have had access to information about the ratings of the underlying mortgage bonds.

The WSJ story puts the emphasis on the heart of the suit:
"Undisclosed in the marketing materials and unbeknownst to investors, a large hedge fund, Paulson & Co. Inc., with economic interests directly adverse to investors in the [CDO], played a significant role in the portfolio selection process," the complaint said.

The complaint said Paulson had an incentive to stuff the CDO with mortgage-backed securities that were likely to get into trouble. SEC enforcement chief Robert Khuzami alleged that Goldman misled investors by telling them that the securities "were selected by an independent, objective third party."

The S.E.C. alleges, in other words, that Goldman misrepresented Paulson & Co.'s role. The Times buries this fact in a later paragraph:
Goldman told investors in Abacus marketing materials reviewed by The Times that the bonds would be chosen by an independent manager.

Instead, it focuses on the money that Goldman made - "unfairly," - from the housing market collapse:
The instrument in the S.E.C. case, called Abacus 2007-AC1, was one of 25 deals that Goldman created so the bank and select clients could bet against the housing market. Those deals, which were the subject of an article in The New York Times in December, initially protected Goldman from losses when the mortgage market disintegrated and later yielded profits for the bank.

As the Abacus deals plunged in value, Goldman and certain hedge funds made money on their negative bets, while the Goldman clients who bought the $10.9 billion in investments lost billions of dollars.

The official charges by the SEC can be found here.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Iraqi Jews in the Meshulash ("Triangle")

Another interesting tidbit mentioned by Somekh: apparently the teaching corps for the Arab education sector in the Triangle (Meshulash) region in Israel in the 1950s was made up entirely of Iraqi Jews. It sounds like a fascinating story as is everything related to language teaching and study (Hebrew, Yiddish, Arabic, and other) in the days of the yishuv and early state of Israel. My friend Liora Halperin at UCLA is doing very impressive work on the period of the yishuv for her dissertation, which promises to open up some great discussions around this topic. For a sample, see her article, available to those with access to Muse.

Haim Blanc (1926-1984)

Haim Blanc, whom I mentioned in yesterday's post on Sasson Somekh's lecture, looks like a remarkable figure in his own right. Somekh told me that Blanc went from Romania to France and then the U.S. He was attached to the U.S. army forces after the war, according to Somekh in France. I wonder if he was also with the occupation forces in Germany. Apparently, he was born in Czernowitz, a detail that Somekh neglected to inform me about. I am sure he grew up speaking either German or Yiddish and I wonder if his original name was not Weiss. He went to Harvard after the war, then went to fight with the Palmach in 1948, was wounded in action. For more, see the Hebrew Wikipedia entry on him.

Somekh told me that Blanc's doctorate was on the Arabic of the Druze in Israel. The consensus then had been that they spoke a different dialect of Arabic (than non-Druze). He proved that this was incorrect and that they did not speak a different dialect at all. Remarkable: as far as I understand, Blanc only started studying Arabic when he came to Israel.

His 1964 work on Communal Dialects in Baghdad discussed the "qiltu" and "gilit" Arabic dialects. Jews spoke the former, Muslims the latter. I am a complete ignoramus on these matters though - perhaps there were some differences among Muslims, and I don't know what the various Christian groups spoke. "Qiltu" and "gilit" both mean "I say." If I recall correctly, qiltu is less prestigious and comes from northern Iraq.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010



Sasson Somekh (see post below) also gave me the definitive etymology for the popular fast-food dish known as "sabih" in Israel. While everyone agrees that it was brought to Israel by Iraqi Jews, there are various stories about the origins of the word. Somekh claims that he knows the person who first sold the delicious eggplant-egg-potato-in-a-pita sandwich (probably somewhere in Ramat Gan, but I did not ask). The man's name was ... Sabih, which Somekh tells me was a popular name among Iraqi Jews in the twentieth century because it was religiously neutral.

Arabic as a Jewish Language


Earlier today, Professor Emeritus Sasson Somekh (b. 1933) delivered the first of three lectures held under the auspices of the annual Taubman series at the University of California - Berkeley. Somekh, who was born in Baghdad and came to Israel with the airlifts of Iraqi Jewry in 1951, at the age of 17, is Israel's foremost authority on contemporary Arabic literature. In his Taubman lecture he spoke about "Arabic as a Jewish Language," beginning the series with background about Judeo-Arabic and a survey of the two greatest Iraqi Jewish writers.

Somekh's brief sketch of the history of Judeo-Arabic will probably be familiar to most of our readers and can be found in several sources, including his own publications. The highlight of his talk was Somekh's discussion of Iraqi Jewish literature in the twentieth century. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries marked the onset of a linguistic revolution for the Jews of Iraq. Until then, Jews in the various Arab countries spoke some form of Judeo-Arabic, which they recorded in Hebrew letters using a relatively standardized system of transcription. But in the twentieth century, an increasing number of Iraqi Jews learned what Somekh calls "Arabic-Arabic" - for the first time, they wrote literary Arabic in Arabic letters. In North Africa and Egypt, on the other hand, Jews tended to be literate primarily in French, while in Yemen, Jews continued to write Judeo-Arabic until very late.

For a brief period of a few decades, Iraqi Jews wrote for an audience of non-Jewish Iraqis, taking part in many of the journalistic and literary endeavors that sprang up in Baghdad from the 1920s to the 1950s. Somekh mentioned such writers as Meir Basri, Shalom Darwish, and Ya'qub Bilbul. At least some of these authors have been studied by Arab scholars and praised for their contributions to Iraqi literature. The situation is more complicated with those writers who came to Israel as teenagers or in their early twenties. Sami Michael and Shimon Ballas, for example, left Baghdad between the ages of 18-20. Both had been part of political (Michael, who was active in the Communist Party) and literary circles (Ballas) in Baghdad. In Israel, they learned Hebrew and published most of their works in that language. Somekh, who came to Israel when he was 17, belongs to this group. Although he did not speak about it, he has published a memoir called Baghdad, Yesterday: The Making of an Arab Jew which has been translated into English.

Baghdad, Yesterday: The Making of an Arab Jew

But a different group of writers found itself in a sort of "doubled exile" after the immigration to Israel. Somekh spoke about two remarkable individuals who, for whatever reason, wrote almost all of their works in Arabic while living in Israel. They were perhaps the most accomplished Jewish novelists to write in Arabic but their work has made almost no inroads in the Arab world. Yitzhak (Ishaq) Bar-Moshe and Samir Naqqash (1938-2004). Both were born in Baghdad but came to Israel at different ages.

Bar-Moshe left Baghdad when he was 23. He found work as an Arabic-language broadcaster and journalist employed by the Israeli government and did not become active in literary circles until 1972 when he published a first collection of stories, in Arabic, called "Behind the Fence." Over the next decade, he had published ten more short story collections and four enormous autobiographical novels. Most of his stories are "like Kafka's worlds," devoid of local context and often philosophical. A posthumously-published memoir called Two Days in June (2003) described his experience of the 1941 "Farhud" (pogrom) against Baghdad Jews in June 1941.

Samir Naqqash arrived in Israel at the age of 13. Unlike many others of his generation, he mastered literary Arabic and indeed never learned to speak Hebrew properly. He published his first collection of stories, called Al Khata (The Mistake), in 1971. Subsequently he published about a dozen novels, plays, and short stories. The most remarkable feature of Naqqash's writing was his transcription of the differing colloquial dialects spoken respectively by Baghdad's Jews and Muslims. Because these dialects, which were the subject of a study by Somekh's revered teacher Haim Blanc (Communal Dialects in Baghdad. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964) would have been incomprehensible - in writing - to readers of literary Arabic (indeed, Somekh claims that Baghdadi Jews would not have been able to decipher the Muslim dialect and vice versa), Naqqash added footnotes to each of his many passages of dialog with a "translation" into fus'ha. To accomplish this, Naqqash engaged in the "Sisyphean labor" of adding diacritical marks (of his own contrivance) to precisely render the dialect pronunciations.

Somekh's talk next Wednesday will discuss the Cairo Genizah. More to follow.