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.