Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Israel and Christmas

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

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Sons of the Land at the Holiday of Holidays

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

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

"End the fake co-existence"

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

"We're all Gaza"

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

"Waiting for their return"

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

Schedule of movies to be screened that day

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

[Shaul] Mofaz is a war criminal

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

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Hasmoneans in the News

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

Monday, December 07, 2009

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

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

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

But the foreign media was the real focus.

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

1. Obsession

2. Prejudice

3. Ignorance

4. Condescension

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

Rosner's rules for readers of foreign reporting:

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. Arabs generally have a lot of patience.

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

9. Beware of predictions.

10. Beware of polls.

11. Beware of reporters with political biases.

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

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

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

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

Google Books Feature of Interest to Academics

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

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

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

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

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

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