Tuesday, April 28, 2009


I have recently waded into the murky waters of the history of piracy in the Greco-Roman world. As a participant in a graduate seminar here at Berkeley on ancient Greek economic history, I prepared a presentation on a dossier of Greek inscriptions to do with attacks by sea and on the seas, and to do with local efforts to recoup losses, secure captives, and honor the benefactors who bailed the victims out in their time of need. All this amidst the first direct confrontation between the US military and Somali pirates, and more prolific bloggers weighing in on possible connections between the ancient Mediterranean and the contemporary Gulf of Aden.

It is often said that one man's pirate is another man's...well, you get the idea.  There is quite a debate in ancient history about whether piracy should be understood as just another form of economic activity. The Greeks of "Homeric Society," at least were somewhat ambivalent; as Nestor asks Telemachus in the third book of the Odyssey, "Are you a pirate (leistês) or a trader?" And, as Thucydides later noticed, Nestor was basically fine with the visitor being either. The term peiratês, when it appears in the Hellenistic period, is certainly one of abuse. No one self-identifies in our sources as one. Some then would argue that what distinguishes "piracy," which fed into markets for slaves and produced new ones for "protection," from any other normal, albeit violent, economic activity, was merely its lack of a state-issued grant of legitimacy, unlike Sir Walter Raleigh with his "letters of marque," or national armies when they engage in plunder under the cover of their uniforms. 

That isn't my position, but it got me thinking: what if the pirate draws his legitimacy -- and more than enough, at that -- from his immediate societal context? That the reaction of the Somali pirates to the ultimately lethal Navy Seal operation was to retaliate against non-US vessels, one Lebanese, I believe, was another hint that these people are playing by different rules. In other words, they have their own sources of legitimacy.

This is certainly one of the lessons to draw from this BBC interview with an active pirate, twenty-five years old and living in "the notorious den of Harardhere in central Somalia." Somehow, I don't think this is an unedited transcript.
"So it is no surprise to see us in the same water [as migrants], pirating in search of money - there is no difference. We have local support; most of the people here depend on pirates directly or indirectly. Because if there is a lot of money in the town they can get some through friendship, relatives or business. Also our work is seen by many in the coastal villages as legal and we are viewed as heroes."
Speaking of the economics of piracy, how about the significant Israeli presence in the security industry for both cruise and commercial ships in the region? Yet another high-value, specialized security export. On Saturday, a private Israeli security detail beat back pirates from a large German-Italian cruise ship. As it turns out, the Defense Ministry doesn't keep any statistics on the numbers of ex-IDF, many of them with specialized nautical training, working in that sector, though they do for arms dealing. It seems kind of unwise to me. Could we see a situation in the near future where an Israeli national gets more involved out there than the government would prefer?

Monday, April 27, 2009

American Jewish Fiction

Those looking for a great present, for whatever occasion, might consider Josh Lambert's delightful new guide to American Jewish Fiction published by JPS (2009), reviewed in JBooks. Here is a short description:
Roth, Mailer, Kellerman, Chabon, Ozick, Heller, and dozens of other celebrated writers are here, with their most notable works. Each entry includes a book summary, with historical context and background on the author.

Suggestions for further reading point to other books that match readers’ interests and favorite writers. And the introduction is a fascinating exploration of the history of and important themes in American Jewish Fiction, illustrating how Jewish writing in the U.S. has been in constant dialogue with popular entertainment and intellectual life.
Lambert is currently completing his dissertation, Unclean Lips: Obscenity and Jews in North American Literature, at the University of Michigan.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Erratic Behavior: Sign of Things to Come with the Netanyahu Government?


One day Lieberman "cannot see Syria as a real partner for any kind of settlement" (see previous post), and the next he is "willing to negotiate," albeit "without preconditions" (Ha'aretz). This is diplomatic silliness. It looks we are going to see a lot of instant reversals with this new government. If you play hard to get on Saturday, you can't suddenly drop your skirt (or pants) on Sunday. The Prime Minister's Office has been strangely silent. Maybe they are hoping that Lieberman will render himself irrelevant. 

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Avigdor Lieberman's Interview to the Austrian Kleine Zeitung


Over the weekend Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman gave a long interview to the Austrian Kleine Zeitung, based in Graz, Styria. I cannot figure out how this paper, literally "The Little Newspaper," managed to secure the interview; it is a regional daily that appears mainly in the Austria provinces, with a circulation of 300,000. Most Austrians would go to the Viennese Presse (right-center) or Standard (left) for news of this sort. The interview, while occasionally vague and evasive, is surprisingly reasonable. Conclusion: Lieberman sounds much better in German than in Hebrew. The interview was probably conducted in Russian and then translated by the interviewer, Christian Wehrschütz, a correspondent with extensive experience in the Balkans as well as in Ukraine and Russia.

Some of the highlights follow with my quick and dirty translation.

On the peace process:
Wir hatten Regierungen, die aus politischen Tauben bestanden. Seit der Vereinbarung von Oslo, 1983 [SIC, should be 1993], haben ebendiese Regierungen sehr große Anstrengungen unternommen, eine dauerhafte Regelung für den Frieden zu finden. Wir haben die Hälfte von Judäa und Samaria sowie auch den Gaza-Streifen aufgegeben. Wir haben Tausende Juden umgesiedelt und Milliarden Schekel in die Palästinenser-Gebiete investiert. Trotzdem ist der Friedensprozess blockiert. Daher helfen uns die bisher gegebenen, vereinfachenden Antworten nicht weiter. Gewöhnlich waren das zwei: Besatzung oder jüdische Siedlungen. Es wäre allerdings ein Missverständnis, zu glauben, dass Besatzung und Siedlungen die Ursache für den Konflikt zwischen Israel und den Palästinensern sind. Denn wenn man weiter zurückgeht, vor 1967, gab es auch keinen Frieden im Nahen Osten, sondern nur Blutvergießen und Terrorismus. Und zwischen 1948 und 1967 hatten die Palästinenser sehr wohl einen Chance einen eigenen Staat zu bilden. Sie wurde nur nicht genützt.
We had governments that consisted of political doves. Since the Oslo agreement, these governments especially undertook great efforts to arrive at a lasting peace settlement. We gave up half of Judea and Samaria as well as the Gaza Strip. We evacuated thousands of Jews and invested tens of millions of shekels in the Palestinian territories. Despite this, the peace process is blocked. The simplifying answers offered until now do not help us move further. Usually these were two: occupation or Jewish settlements. However, it would be a mistake to believe that occupation and settlements are the origins for the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. For if you go back further, before 1967, there also was no peace in the Middle East, only bloodshed and terrorism. And between 1948 and 1967 the Palestinians certainly had an opportunity to form their own state. It was simply not exploited.

On his role in the coalition:
Wir wollen sehr aktiv die Initiative ergreifen. Wir haben viele Ideen. Dabei ist heute ist meine persönliche Position nicht so wichtig. Ich bin ein Spieler in einem großen Team, und versuche meine Koalitionspartner zu überzeugen. Doch ich bin überzeugt, dass es dieser Regierung schließlich gelingen wird, eine gemeinsame Plattform zu schaffen und vorwärts zu kommen. Dabei wollen wir die Vision einbringen, eine stabile in sich schlüssige, dauerhafte Lösung ohne Blutvergießen zu schaffen.
We want to grasp the initative very actively. We have many ideas. My personal position is not so important in all this. I am a player on a large team and I try to persuade my coalition partners. But I am convinced that this government will ultimately succeed in creating a common position and to move forward. To this effect, we want to bring the vision that will create a final, lasting solution without bloodshed.

The pitch for an "economic peace process":
Der politische Prozess ist nicht vorrangig der Schlüssel für eine dauerhafte Friedenslösung. [...] Das wichtigste für die Palästinenser ist der Aufbau der Wirtschaft, denn man kann sich vorstellen, was in Österreich geschehen würde, wenn die Arbeitslosenrate 40 Prozent betragen und der Lohn nur 150 Euro pro Monat, wie das bei den Palästinensern der Fall ist.
The political process is not the key to a permanent peace solution [...] The most important for the Palestinians is the development of the economy, because you can imagine what would happen in Austria if the unemployment rate were 40% and the salaries were 150 euros a month, as is the case for the Palestinians.

How to achieve this - Lieberman was vague:
Außerdem darf die Rolle der USA, der EU und von Japan nicht nur sein, Geld an die palästinensische Verwaltung zu überweisen. Die müssen vielmehr in konkrete Projekte investieren um die Arbeitsplätze für die Palästinenser zu schaffen.
The role of the US, EU, and Japan should not be only to transfer money to the Palestinian Authority. They ought, rather, to invest in concrete projects to create jobs for the Palestinians.

Reasons for Hamas's Success:
Denn die Hamas hat die vergangenen Wahlen nicht wegen ihrer extremen Ideologie gewonnen; vielmehr stand ihr eine sehr korrupte Palästinenser-Verwaltung gegenüber, die weder effektiv noch effizient war. Im Gegensatz dazu hat die Hamas sehr viele soziale Aktivitäten gesetzt. Sie hat Schulen errichtet und eine medizinische Versorgung angeboten. Das waren die Gründe für den Wahlsieg der Hamas.
Hamas won the past elections not because of its extremist ideology but because it opposed a very corrupt Palestinian administration (Palestinian Authority?), which was neither effective nor efficient. In contrast, Hamas founded many social programs. It established schools and offered health care. Those were the reasons for Hamas's victory in the elections.

No negotiations with Hamas:
Wie soll die israelische Regierung mit jemandem verhandeln, der jeden Tag sagt, ich will Israel zerstören oder alle Juden töten? Die Hamas übt weiter Terror aus, schmuggelt nach wie vor Waffen und bereitet Anschläge vor.
Why should the Israeli government negotiate with someone who says, every day, 'I want to destroy Israel" or kill all Jews? Hamas continues to engage in terrorism, smuggles weapons as before, and prepares attacks.

On Syria:
Wir müssen die Realitäten sehen. Bis heute beheimatet Syrien die Hauptquartiere der Terror-Organisationen Hamas und Djihad. Syrien unterstützt die Hisbollah und ihren Waffenschmuggel in den Südlibanon. Syrien unterstützt auch das Atomprogramm des Iran und ich sehe bis zum heutigen Tag nur eine Festigung der Beziehungen zwischen dem Iran und Syrien. Daher kann ich in Syrien keinen wirklichen Partner für irgendeine Vereinbarung sehen. Bevor wir verhandeln können, muss zuerst die Unterstützung für den Terrorismus eingestellt werden.
We have to see the reality. Until today, Syria hosts the headquarters of the terrorist organizations Hamas and Jihad. Syria supports Hizbullaha and its weapons smuggling to southern Lebanon. Syria also supports the Iranian nuclear program and I am only seeing a strengthening of the relations between Iran and Syria. This is why I cannot see Syria as a real partner for any kind of settlement. Before we can negotiate, the support for terrorism must end.

On "land for peace":
Bis heute hat das Konzept "Land für Frieden" keine wirklichen Ergebnisse gebracht. Was war das Ergebnis aller Rückzüge? Doch nur: Hisbollah und Raketen.
Until today, the concept "land for peace" has brought no real results. What was the consequence of all the withdrawals [retreats]? Only Hizbullah and rockets.

Lieberman evades question about "transfer" and loses himself, going off in too many directions at once:
Kleine Zeitung: Was soll stattdessen geschehen? Bei der Zwei-Staaten-Lösung kritisieren Sie, dass zwar die Palästinenser einen Staat ohne Juden bekommen sollen, Israel aber 20 Prozent Araber hat. Daher reden sie auch enormen Umsiedlungen das Wort; doch was ist mit den Arabern in Israel, sprich Palästinensern, die nicht gehen wollen? 
LIEBERMAN: Das ist allerdings nicht nur ein Problem, das Israel hat. Ähnliches gibt es auf der übrigen Welt auch. In Bosnien-Herzegowina zum Beispiel oder in Belgien zwischen Flamen und Walonen. Auch im Kaukasus gab es den Konflikt zwischen Russland und Georgien. Was ich damit sagen will, es gibt nicht nur eine Ursache für das Problem sondern viele. Man darf nicht nur einen Punkt herausgreifen und dann hoffen, das ganze Problem zu lösen; man muss gleichzeitig in viele Richtungen gehen
Kleine Zeitung: What should happen instead? You criticize the two-state solution because it gives the Palestinians a state without Jews while Israel's population would still be 20% Arab. This is why you also talk about enormous transfers [resettlements]; but what about the Arabs in Israel, or Palestinians, who do not want to move?

Lieberman: But that is not only a problem faced by Israel. There are similar things in the rest of the world as well. In Bosnia-Hercegovina for example, or in Belgium between the Flemish and Walloons [French-speakers]. In the Caucasus too there was the conflict between Russia and Georgia. What I want to say here is that there is not only one cause of the problem but many. One must not take out only one point and then hope to solve the entire problem; one has to go in many directions at once.

Interviewer asks for clarification:
Kleine Zeitung: Was heißt das konkret, etwa für die jüdischen Siedlungen? Sie selbst leben in einer jüdischen Siedlung in einem Palästinenser-Gebiet. Wären Sie bereit, Ihr Haus aufzugeben? 
LIEBERMAN: Weniger Spannungen, weniger Konflikte, dass wollen alle Völker. Doch es darf keine Illusion geben; kurzfristig, schnell ist das nicht möglich, Hokuspokus gibt es nicht. Doch ich in überzeugt, dass diese Koalition, mehr als jede andere zuvor die Chance hat, sich in die richtige Richtung zu bewegen.
Kleine Zeitung: What does this mean concretely, for example for the Jewish settlements? You yourself live in a Jewish settlement in a Palestinian area. Would you be prepared to give up your home?

Lieberman: Less tensions, less conflicts; all peoples want this. But one must not have illusions; in the short-term, quickly, this is not possible. There is no abacadabra. But I am convinced that this coalition, more than any one before, has the chance to move in the right direction.

On his reputation abroad:
Ich bin über mein Image nicht besorgt; Image ist nur ein Produkt der Massenmedien. Wir haben weit ernstere Probleme als mein Image.
I am not concerned about my image; image is only a product of the mass media. We have far more serious problems than my image.

Ahmadinejad and Iran:

Es ist nicht akzeptabel, dass ein Staatspräsident eines UNO-Mitglieds täglich zur Zerstörung Israels aufruft. Die Kooperation des Iran mit Nordkorea, mit Hugo Chavez und mit Syrien ist die wirkliche Achse des Bösen. Doch das ist nicht nur unser Problem; das ist das Problem der gesamten Region und der gesamten internationalen Gemeinschaft. Auch die Vertreter der arabischen Welt haben mit uns in jüngster Zeit vor allem über den Iran, und nicht über die Palästinenser gesprochen. Denn die Araber verstehen, dass ihre Existenz nicht durch Israel, sondern durch den Iran bedroht wird. 

It is unacceptable that the president of a UN-member country daily calls for the destruction of Israel. The cooperation of Iran with North Korean, Hugo Chavez and Syria is the true axis of evil. But that is not only our problem; that is a problem for the entire region and the whole international community. The representatives of the Arab world have talked to us, in recent times, about Iran, not about the Palestinians. Because the Arabs understand that their existence is not threatened by Israel but by Iran.

How to deal with Iranian nuclear program:

Was das iranische Atomprogramm betrifft, muss klar sein, dass, sollte der Iran Atommacht werden, es in der Region zu einem schrecklichen nuklearen Rüstungswettlauf kommen würde. Der beste Weg, das Atomprogramm zu stoppen, sind wirklich harte, sehr harte Sanktionen. Die UNO-Resolutionen sind nicht genug; daher müssen der Sicherheitsrat und die EU viel wirksamere und härtere Sanktionen verhängen. Das hat bei Libyen funktioniert. Der Iran muss daher isoliert werden. Nur das kann Ergebnisse bringen. 

Regarding the Iranian nuclear program, it has to be clear that should Iran become a nuclear power, it would lead to a terrible nuclear arms race in the region. The best way to stop the nuclear program is through very tough, really tough sanctions. The UN resolutions are not enough; the Security Council and the EU must declare much more effective and harsher sanctions. That worked with Libya. Iran has to be isolated. Only that can bring results.

Military option?
Wir sprechen über keinen Militärschlag, Israel kann ein Problem, das ein Problem der ganzen Welt ist, nicht militärisch lösen. Ich schlage vielmehr vor, dass die USA als größte Weltmacht die Verantwortung übernimmt, die Iran-Frage zu lösen." 

We're not talking about any military strike. Israel cannot solve a problem, which is the problem of the whole world, militarily. I suggest rather that the US, as the world's superpower, ought to take responsibility for solving the Iran-question.

Anticipate deterioration in US-Israeli relations?

Nein. Wir haben traditionell wirklich sehr tiefe Beziehungen mit den USA. Sie beruhen nicht nur auf wechselseitigen Interessen, sondern wir teilen auch dieselben Werte. 

No. We traditionally have a very deep relationship with the US. It is not based on our respective interests, rather, we share the same values.

European role?
Allerdings müsste Europa härter gegenüber dem Terrorismus hier auftreten. Hamas und Hisbollah müssen unakzeptable Organisationen sein. Doch ich bin nicht sicher, dass alle europäischen Länder diese meine Meinung teilen.

Europe has to take a harder line against terrorism. Hamas and Hizbullah must be unacceptable organizations. But I am not sure if all the European countries share my opinion. 

Europe's Muslim population:
Das Grundproblem ist auch hier eine Frage der demokratischen Werte. Es ist sehr wichtig, die Werte der freien Welt zu bewahren und an alle Bürger weiterzugeben, unabhängig davon, ob sie Juden, Christen oder Moslems sind, oder ein anderes oder gar kein Bekenntnis haben. Im Falle der Moslems muss Europa auch von den muslimischen Ländern fordern, dass sie zur Demokratie und zu den Menschenrechten finden. Wie sieht es beispielsweise mit Menschenrechten in Saudi-Arabien aus, wo Frauen noch immer kein Wahlrecht haben? Erst wenn Selbstverständlichkeiten wie Demokratie und Menschenrechte in allen moslemischen Staaten zur Realität werden, werden sich auch die Moslems anderswo langsam ändern.

The basic problem is one of democratic values. it is very important to guard the values of the free world and to pass them on to all citizens, regardless of whether they are Jews, Christians or Muslim or even of no faith at all. In the case of the Muslims, Europe has to demand from Muslim countries that they find themselves toward democracy and human rights. How does it look with human rights in Saudi Arabia, for example, where women still cannot vote? Only when things we take for granted, such as democracy and human rights become a reality in all Muslim states will Muslims elsewhere gradually change.

On Israel's Jewish population:

Der Schlüssel für das Zusammenleben heißt Toleranz. Wir müssen in Israel toleranter im Umgang miteinander werden. Nach Israel kamen Menschen aus Asien, Afrika, Europa, der ehemaligen Sowjetunion und Südamerika. Sie alle haben unterschiedliche Vorstellungen, ein unterschiedliches Temperament und eine verschiedene Mentalität. Daher ist es unmöglich, die Vorstellung nur einer Gruppe durchzusetzen. Also können etwa die Vorstellungen der Religiösen nicht säkularen Bürgern verordnet werden und umgekehrt. Wir versuchen daher, den richtigen Zugang zu diesen Problemen zu finden. Das betrifft auch die Zivilehe und andere jüdische Werte. Denn Israel muss ein Platz für alle Juden sein. 

The key to coexistence is tolerance. We have to become more tolerant in Israel in our interactions with each other. People from Asia, Africa, Europe, the former Soviet Union and South America all came to Israel They have different preconceptions, temperaments, and mentalities. Therefore it is impossible to implement the conceptions of one group. The ideas of the religious cannot be mandated for secular citizens and vice versa. We are therefore trying to find the right approach to these problems. This also concerns civil union and other Jewish values [sic]. Because Israel has to be a place for all Jews.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Obama and Netanyahu


Aluf Benn provides an  excellent analysis of Netanyahu's Washington-strategy. Many commentators are convinced that Israel's new prime minister is on a collision course not only with the Europeans but also with the White House. Benn contrasts Netanyahu's strategy so far with that of his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, in order to explain what Bibi might be thinking:
The prime minister is aware of the assumption of many that his rejection of the idea of a Palestinian state, and opposition to withdrawals from the West Bank and the Golan Heights, will result in an inevitable crisis in relations with Obama and propel Israel into political isolation. But he is not afraid. The way he sees it, it's better to come to the White House with a list of demands and requests, and to condition any concession on a quid pro quo, than it is to play the role of yes man to the president and gain nothing in return. 

Ehud Olmert emerged from his many talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas with the impression that, because of the Palestinians' positions on the so-called core issues, there is no chance for a final-status accord with them - which is why he opted to emphasize Israeli generosity to secure international support. Netanyahu prefers to enter into negotiations with maximalist positions rather than to begin with concessions that may win the world's approval but won't satisfy the other side. He is ready to pay the political price this will exact abroad for the sake of appearing consistent in his positions and preserving his coalition at home (Ha'aretz). 

We will see what happens, but for now, Benn's reading seems more persuasive than the hysterical fears of a collapse of US-Israeli relations and of Israel's position in the West. Netanyahu does not seem fazed by the missteps of his foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman. My sense is that Lieberman will not play a major role in foreign policy at all - Bibi will hold the reins tight here as well as in his economic policy.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Open Thread: Hillel Halkin on Bashir


I must admit, I had a tepid reaction to "Waltz with Bashir," Ari Folman's Oscar-nominated animated film about his experiences during the First Lebanon War and after it, when he seems to have suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome. The dream sequences were indeed seductive, particularly the young soldier floating back to Israel (or Israeli-occupied buffer territory below the Litani line), the lone survivor of his unit, adrift at sea, forgotten or at least unrecognizable to his own army, safely "stateless" in a way out there in international waters.

But as for the politics? What is there to make a fuss about? What were the film's politics? Or did it have any? Was it just too post-Zionist, too Etgar Keret? I took from the film some bite-size lessons: war, in general, corrodes our moral constitution -- it breaks people; the massacres of Palestinians at Sabra and Shatila were committed by Christian militiamen, not by the IDF; however, some IDF leadership looked the other way, while some soldiers on the ground were to a certain, undefined degree culpable -- not only for inaction but for rendering specific services to the Phalangists, which, at least in hindsight, made the massacre possible.

Hillel Halkin's review in Commentary makes to my mind a rather jejune complaint about the film's lack of "historical context." The only "context" he adds to the what the film depicts in that case of the massacres are his imaginative reconstructions of "what really happened:" maybe, he reckons, Israeli soldiers were unwilling to wake up their superiors in the middle of the night to investigate the activities of the Phalangists in the camps; maybe they were scared to go in; maybe they were happy to unleash their local allies on their eternal foes...I don't know, yeah, maybe...maybe Folman nudges the viewer in the direction of some of these interpretations. Maybe he doesn't nudge enough.

True, the film doesn't provide an historical context for the conflict as a whole. Israel's 1982 geo-strategic gambit isn't laid out. Nothing of the war's objectives, the internal Israeli debates that preceded it, the machinations of the PLO and its Syrian backers, etc. These omissions produce, in Halkin's mind, a generic "anti-war" film, which, he condemns as intellectually deficient. Fair enough. Still, the film was about experience; it wasn't didactic. And the reviewer's war experience, as it turns out, was one of trying to explain the war with his fellow reservists as he trained in southern Lebanon in the run-up to the war; of trying to explain the massacres in their immediate aftermath. Folman had a different experience, clearly. Now, it's quite a different thing to accuse the film of providing fodder for anti-Semitism insulting the honor of the veterans, and splashing shame on the Jewish state. It seemed to me that Halkin's review almost makes that leap.

How is that possible? Halkin, naturally, interprets the film as an Israeli; I, on the other hand, as an American (Jew). And, as Halkin points out in introducing the film, Israelis and the rest of us saw this film differently. How else to explain the mild reaction of the domestic audience and the wild accolades it has garnered abroad? The review, even more than the box office receipts, points up the wide (and at times widening) gap between the way Israelis see themselves and the way the rest of the world sees them (see Roger Cohen in the NYT, whatever you think of his opinions). Note that the "hero" of "Waltz with Bashir" has to go abroad (like Oedipus of old) to gather clues about who he really is.

I am puzzled by extreme reactions to this film. Did you have one?

Here's one from the Commentary website, a response to Halkin by a certain Jerome Kaufman:
"The film blames the entire massacre in the Sabra and Shatila camp on the Israelis."
Is this guy serious?

And why did Halkin have to diss the score? I liked the music!