Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Sad Comment on Israeli Archaeology

Construction in Maaleh Hazeitim (Photo: cnn.com)


This may seem like utter trivia, pure kishkushim just one day after Bibi met Obama, but excuse me, this is important: a ceramic vessel with a Hebrew inscription was found in East Jerusalem. Excavations in the Ras al-Amud section of the city uncovered a "water pitcher" bearing the name "Menachem," according to Ha'aretz, "marking the first time such a handle bearing this name has been found in Jerusalem." Never mind that the Israeli Antiquities Authority people who put out this information to the press don't/can't date the vessel anymore precisely than "somewhere between the Canaanite era (2200 - 1900 B.C.E.) and the end of the first Temple period (the 7th - 8th centuries B.C.E.) [sic]," which I suppose means either that they haven't looked at it very closely in their haste, or that it's the kind of household ware that sometimes doesn't change significantly for centuries, even for a millenium. Never mind the gross hazards of trying to identify this particular Menachem, with, say, some pharaonic official in the region. The point is if course that the IAA found an Israelite in East J-lem.

So what's the big deal? As I have noted before on this blog, the legal status of excavations and of antiquities uncovered in East Jerusalem (and perhaps elsewhere in the territories), both under Israeli law and under international agreements on cultural heritage, is at best murky. What drives archaeology in East Jerusalem is settler money. And the IAA and other relevant authorities tend to look the other way when enforcement of the law conflicts with the objectives of organizations like the Ir David Foundation. Here, we have something slightly different -- a salvage excavation. Construction of a "girl's school" uncovered some ancient remains that, presumably, were then taken out scientifically. Just like nearby Siwan, another hotspot neighborhood,
Ras al-Amud has attracted both controversial settlement building, at Maaleh Hazeitim, and archaeological interest. As Nadav Shragai wrote last year in Ha'aretz:

"Right-wing activists ascribe great significance to widening Jewish construction in Ras al-Amud, and to realizing ownership of lots and buildings that it has managed to acquire in recent years in that vicinity.

According to their thinking, Maaleh Hazeitim makes it harder to create a Palestinian territorial corridor, a sort of "safe passage" between the West Bank to the east, and the Temple Mount."

For me, this is very disconcerting; obviously a combustible situation . The best way to avoid another outbreak of violence like the one we saw surrounding the Dung Gate controversy is to depoliticize archaeology as much as possible in greater Jerusalem.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

"Health Expo" Exposed: Undercover Missionaries

I picked up a flyer last week at the Haifa Cinematheque advertising a "Health Expo" at the Auditorium, to take place from May 3-8. The expo promised free medical checks such as blood pressure, body fat percentage, and best of all, free massages. Yesterday I finally had some free time to check it out, but the experience turned into something completely different from what I had expected. It's interesting to see how missionary groups operate in Israel.

I had the choice of doing registration in English, Russian, or Romanian, oddly enough. The young man who took my details told me he had moved to Israel two weeks ago with his wife. I was then ushered to the first "station," where I was measured and weighed. Each of the attendants manning the stations wore a white overcoat and was either Romanian or Russian, with limited Hebrew. All of the attendants were either from abroad or fairly new to Israel, and were exceptionally nice.

The next stations were blood pressure and the peak flow metre. After doing the lung capacity test, I was encouraged to leave my contact information on a form and tick off the "courses" in which I was interested (cardiovascular disease, stop smoking, new start, happy life seminar, etc.). The form was titled 'Folow Up Interest' [sic], and the logo included the slogan "Association promoting activities on education, health, and family." My registration form also included the following invitation:
If you want to continue to learn more on how you can prevent and treat disease, learn practical solution for a healthier life, and share your experience with other people interested in same area:

I was also given an assortment of brochures with the following titles (translated from Hebrew): Rest, Moderation, (Fresh) Air, Physical Activity, Sunlight, Water, Proper Nutrition, and Faith.

I didn't have a chance to look at the brochures until the exercise pulse and pulse recovery rate station when I had to sit quietly for five minutes. I noticed that the pamphlet on faith, even though written in Hebrew, used a lot of the key words and phrases that I've come across in Christian literature. It stressed "a personal connection with G-d" and that in order to trust G-d, we must get to know Him, which can be done by reading Holy Scriptures. These pamphlets, by the way, were also available in Russian and Romanian (but not English). After the "biological age" station, the Swedish massage, and the cholesterol and glucose station, I sat down to wait my turn for the last station, a personal meeting with a doctor. While waiting, I told the young woman next to me that I thought this event may actually be a missionary Christian event. She expressed complete surprise and doubt, but said, in Russian-accented Hebrew, that now she would 'davka' go in order to see what this was all about. I afterwards saw her speaking with her (boy?)friend, who I understood worked at the event. When I asked him about his involvement, he said he only handed out flyers. I also saw her speak to another attendant, who then came straight over to me and told me that I had nothing to worry about. The doctor told me I should change my lifestyle.

I was becoming more and more curious if my theory was correct when I finally came across the sentence,
"המנוחה האולטימטיבית נמצאת בישוע. תנו לאלוהים את הקשיים והצרות שלכם ותקבלו את מחילתו ואת שלומו"
The ultimate respite lies in Jesus. Give G-d your difficulties and burdens and receive His absolution and peace.
almost at the very end of the Rest pamphlet.

On my way out, I saw the manager and one of the attendants who had told me my "biological age." I started asking a few questions, but found them to be extremely evasive. For example, I asked to know more about the "faith" which they were advocating in the Faith pamphlet. The manager told me it's just about belief in general - hoping and trusting. I asked to know what exactly that means, but the manager, who was from Romania and didn't know Hebrew, wouldn't really elaborate. He told me that this expo was only about health and feeling good. I asked some more questions, but again, he was very evasive. When I pointed out that a very specific faith, Christianity, was being advocated, the (boy)friend of the woman I spoke to earlier flatly denied it. When I showed them the brochure with the Jesus citation, the manager said he couldn't read Hebrew and didn't know what it said. After the attendant translated for him, the manager told me that this was a (mis?)translation from America. Then the manager went on to tell me that he keeps the Sabbath, eats "kosher vegetarian" food, and reads the Torah.

The attendant, who actually spoke (accented) Hebrew told me that it's about helping people and making them feel good. When I asked him who was finacing the expo, he told me "we're a charity organization," but wouldn't tell me which organization that was. The money apparently comes from donation. Okay, but who would donate money to this? He said many of the donations were from abroad from people who want others to "feel good." He also said, "who else will take care of these people? I see people here who are so unhappy. The woman behind you is 65 and just lost her husband. Who's going to help her, the government?" By now I had understood that this attendant, as some of the others, was an Russian immigrant, probably with some Jewish background, who had been living in Israel for some time.

I also commented that I found it strange that many of the visitors to this expo seemed to actually be friends with the attendants and not random Haifans who had come to check out the Health Expo. It was now after closing hours, and many of the "visitors" had actually stayed on and were chatting with the attendants. The (boy)friend then said, "Yes, we're a small community." At this point, the three finally admitted that they were Adventists. They conceded that part of their "total health" plan included spreading the gospel, but they hurried to reassure me that nothing was being forced on anyone.

After I arrived at home, I started doing my online research to complete the picture. Apparently, the Health Expo is a strategy that the Adventist group uses to evangelicalize around the world, but they seem to be much more open in other places regarding their true message.

The flyers which the group had used to advertise the expo had been printed in Hebrew, Russian, and Romanian. On the flyer, it was mentioned that the fair was being co-sponsored with the non-profit HOR organization, which is a Romanian Jewish association in Israel. I wonder if they realized that Jesus was part of what they were sponsoring.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Natan Sharansky, from Refusenik to Likudnik to Publicist

BY NOAH S.        

Natan Sharansky, the famous Soviet dissident and Israeli political leader, spoke yesterday evening at the University of California, Berkeley. Freshly appointed by Prime Minister Netanyahu to head the Jewish Agency for Israel, Sharansky is touring college campuses in an attempt to foster a more positive image of Israel among American youth. The audience in the large lecture hall, however—considering the stature of the guest and the amount of publicity for the event—was surprisingly sparse and composed largely (in this author’s estimation, at least) of non-students who were old enough to remember Sharansky when he was a hero for Americans and Jews during the Cold War. But then, this is Berkeley—a “haven” for “anti-Israel forces,” as the student organizers put it—the speaker was Sharansky—famous now more as George W. Bush's favorite author than anything else—and the event was part of the dubiously titled “Caravan for Democracy” series, which is funded by such local favorites as Media Watch International (a group aligned with Likud) and the Jewish National Fund (among other things, since 1901 a major land-owner in Palestine/Israel which still refuses to lease its land to Arabs). It is a shame, though, that more students were not in attendance, because they would have been challenged by a trenchant thinker with a compelling personal story to think through some of the basic justifications for the existence of a Jewish state.

The talk was brilliantly composed and delivered, though problematic upon close scrutiny. Sharansky structured his argument around “two ideas” which he claims share a “deep connection”: “the desire to be free” and “the desire to belong,” or between “democracy” and “identity.” (The connection between the two forms the basis of a course Sharansky is leading at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem.) Those familiar with his books The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror (2004) and Defending Identity: Its Indispensable Role in Protecting Democracy (2008) will recognize the argument. It is directed mainly against those “intellectuals,” as he called them, who believe in “post-identity,” “post-nationalism,” “post-modernism,” and “multiculturalism” - in other words, the relativists who believe that “nothing is different, that everything is equal.” (Berkeley professors?)  In order to illustrate this caricatured line of thought, Sharansky quoted (God help usnone other than the hippie-icon John Lennon, who asked us in 1971 to “imagine” a world in which there are “no countries,” “no religion,” and “nothing to kill or die for.” (Actually, Sharansky only quoted “nothing to die for.”). The logic of Sharansky’s unnamed intellectuals, represented here by the post-Beatle, holds that “strong identities” like nationalism and religion are “the enemies of peace.” Strong identities in Europe supposedly led to two world wars; war is evil; therefore, identity is evil. For them, being a human rights activist and a nationalist is an internal contradiction. And by this logic, the nation-state of Israel, which claims to be a leader of the free world yet retains its identity as the homeland of only one people, is an anachronism in a post-identity Western world. Sharanksy has set out to prove these critics wrong.

Born Anatoly Borisovich Shcharansky in Donetsk, Ukraine (then the Soviet Union) in 1948, Sharansky never saw any contradiction between the desire to be free and the desire to belong because under the Soviet regime both were stifled if you were a Jew. He was neither allowed to voice a dissenting political opinion, nor to learn anything about his religious and cultural heritage. When he attempted to immigrate to Israel in 1973 and was refused passage—thus acquiring the title of refusenik—he became an outspoken dissident and spent years in Soviet prisons. He realized that he had found something—his Jewishness—which he was “willing to die for,” and it gave him the strength to withstand the KGB. In this brief biographical narrative, Sharansky did not take time to discuss why the struggle to express one’s political views and the struggle to express one’s cultural identity publicly—which in his case did coincide—should resonate with people growing up in a free world. A tighter case would have to be made; perhaps those who have read his latest book could chime in here. In any case, the argument offers some insight into the psychology of this Soviet dissident turned militant democrat.

In fact, most of the talk was about Sharansky’s own story, and the move from the personal to the contemporary political came only at the very end, in a rhetorical flourish when he accused European intellectuals of “having nothing to die for.” As a result, he claimed, when faced with a very small minority of possible fundamentalist terrorists whose identity is strong and who are willing to die for their cause, they feel bewildered and defenseless. In the wake of World War II, just as Europeans vowed never to fight again, Zionists vowed never to not fight again. Israel has paid the price in its international image for the post-war move toward pacifism and post-identity among "intellectuals," Sharansky claimed, because it became a nation-state precisely at the moment when the idea of the nation-state became unpopular. The Western nations said accusingly, “We have given up our nationalism, our colonialism - why not you?” Sharansky’s answer is that Israelis need to have a strong identity to fight and die (and kill) for if they are to defend against “all these totalitarian regimes” in its region. One senses that Sharansky’s experience in the Soviet prisons has left its indelible mark upon this man’s political philosophy. 

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Worried about Iran?

With all due respect, this is much scarier. The Iranian problem is nothing compared to the challenge that India and the West (indeed, truly the whole world) face in Pakistan. 
Several current officials said that they were worried that insurgents could try to provoke an incident that would prompt Pakistan to move the weapons, and perhaps use an insider with knowledge of the transportation schedule for weapons or materials to tip them off. That concern appeared to be what Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was hinting at in testimony 10 days ago before the House Appropriations Committee. Pakistan’s weapons, she noted, “are widely dispersed in the country (NYT).”

The Michael Oren Pick and Lieberman Shenanigans


Ambassador Michael Oren

Yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu picked Michael Oren (b. 1955) as Israel's next ambassador to the United States. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has endorsed the appointment, and it will now have to be approved by the cabinet.

Oren, a professor with a Ph.D. from Princeton's Near Eastern Studies department, is a brilliant pick. An American Jew who immigrated to Israel in 1979 and served in the Paratroopers Brigade during the Lebanon war, and in numerous positions of leadership in the army thereafter, is truly at home in both Israel and the United States. He is the author of the definitive account of the Six-Day War that we have today (it will be definitive until Arab archives are opened up), and of another book on American conceptions of the Middle East. Oren is also a fantastic communicator who knows how to speak to different audiences. Having just finished a term as a visiting professor at Georgetown's School of Foreign Service, he is primed to go. 

There are few Israeli prime ministers who would have been able to pull off such an appointment. So many of Israel's ambassadors these days, even to important posts, are mediocre political appointees. American Jews, in the past two decades, have been shut out of such postings. In choosing Oren, Netanyahu showed his ability to think outside of the box and that he is not afraid to be challenged. Oren, though affiliated with the right-of-center Shalem Center, is a pragmatist who knows that Israel cannot indefinitely occupy the West Bank. He is someone who understands what is going on in the White House these days. 

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman

It is still not clear to me what the Foreign Minister himself is doing these days. Ha'aretz has a somewhat disturbing review of Lieberman's activities so far. 

Here are a few highlights:
Lieberman's schedule has become one of the Foreign Ministry's best-kept secrets. Aside from [...] a select few, no one - including very senior officials in his ministry - is privy to what Lieberman does with his time.

This secrecy has led to several embarrassing faux pas, such as when a meeting with a foreign counterpart had to be rescheduled and none of the participants were notified.
Okay, that happens. But:
Lieberman has made other contentious procedural changes within the realm of his public relations. Although the ministry has an entire publicity department comprising some 20 expert diplomats, Lieberman made the unprecedented decision to appoint newcomer Sivan Raviv - who has no prior experience - as his spokesman.
Is that wise?

And speaking of appointments:
He has named Bedouin diplomat Ishmael Khaldi as his ministerial adviser on the Arab world. The appointment was leaked to the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth under the headline "Lieberman's Arab advisor", hinting that it was an attempt to gloss over Lieberman's alleged racism.

Since then it has emerged that Khaldi has next to no Foreign Ministry experience in dealing with the Middle East, having never served as a representative in an Arab state or in a relevant branch.

Associates of Lieberman have stressed that despite Khaldi's lack experience in the region, the motive behind his appointment was "promotion of minorities in the Foreign Ministry."
I don't know what is worse, the pick or the statement, thereafter, that it was an "affirmative action" appointment. But who knows, maybe Khaldi will perform admirably in this job.

Is this a luke-warm endorsement or what?
Sources present at Lieberman's meetings with foreign officials have testified that his level of English is "good" and that he "succeeds in getting across his message."

There are many more anecdotes in the article itself. The last paragraph, which explains that Lieberman's office refused to answer a list of 12 questions submitted by Ha'aretz, testifies to a worrying break in relations with the media. It sounds as if Lieberman has written off Ha'aretz as irrelevant.

Here's Ha'aretz's take on the Kleine Zeitung interview discussed in my earlier post:
Foreign Ministry officials heard of [Lieberman's interview with the Austrian daily Kleiner Zeitoung [sic] last month, in which he declared his opposition to negotiations with Syria.] only when it was leaked to Israeli media. Only after an in-depth investigation did it become clear that this unknown newspaper was actually a local tabloid
It's pretty funny that it took an "in-depth investigation" to figure out that this "unknown newspaper" was a "local tabloid." I think the latter description is not entirely accurate; "small regional newspaper" would do it more justice. Also, as an Austrian friend of Noah K., L.E., has pointed out and as I also emphasized in my post, Christian Wehrschutz, who conducted the interview, is a respected journalist with extensive experience. L.E. adds, however, that
The question is only why he chose to put the interview [in the Kleine Zeitung] and not in the Presse, Standard or even NZZ (Swiss), with which he also has regular connections.
L.E.'s conclusions:
This interview appears where it does due to personal or newspaper politics. The [other] question would then be why he got that interview in the first place.
The last question is important indeed. If Wehrschutz presented himself as a freelancer, why was this one of the first interviews granted by Lieberman's office, specifically by his personal secretary Sigalit Levi, to a foreign journalist?

I'm really wondering in what language this interview was conducted - whether a translator was used or not.

Friday, May 01, 2009

AIPAC Case to be Dropped

The JTA is reporting that the charges against former American Israel Public Affairs (AIPAC) staffers Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman have been dropped. The espionage accusation against the two have been a gift to the self-appointed regulators of the "Israel Lobby." When you read someone like Juan Cole, you'd think the case against them was air-tight the moment the indictments were first announced. But for Cole and his gang, this will be just another piece of evidence for the suffocating power of AIPAC over American foreign policy. One hopes that they might be a tad less gleeful though.