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.