Sunday, July 31, 2005

Big Jewish Studies shebang happening on Har Hatzofim this week. I don't usually go to these things, but I went today and discovered there's quite a culture gap between Jewish Studies conferences and artificial intelligence conferences (my usual haunt).

Every speaker (without exception) at an AI conference has a really zippy powerpoint presentation which is accompanied (with occasional exceptions) by utterly incomprehensible explanations, preferably in an unintelligible Outer Mongolian accent.

At Jewish Studies conferences, I discovered today, fireworks are frowned upon. I used overhead transparencies for my lecture, which must have marked me as some kind of technogeek. Apparently, you're supposed to sit and read your text in a monotone word-for-word from a written text. Looking up from time to time is permissible but not obligatory. The accents were intelligible and the talks might have been comprehensible but I wouldn't know since I can't listen to lectures while in an induced catatonic state.

Liars pay a price.

A few days ago I sat in another one of those committee meetings where students who get caught cheating get tortured and/or expelled. It's excruciating for them but also for me. Most of them are really good kids who suffered a momentary lapse and who are getting seriously messed up. Ouch.

Later that day the head of the Shabak announced that the Shabak doesn't use agent-provocateurs posing as settlers and doing outrageous things to make the right-wing look bad. Having seen the depth of Shabak corruption in the Avishai Raviv fiasco, pretty much the whole country just shrugged and heaved a collective "yeah, sure".

Yet another example of liars paying a price is the Likud Opportunists (LOs), those Likud MKs who campaigned on a platform opposed to unilateral withdrawal from Azza and then supported it in exchange for goodies dispensed by Sharon. They also totally dissed their voter base by ignoring a Likud referendum that went against withdrawal by a 60-40 margin. They're all likely to get thrown out of office by the people who vote on the Likud's Knesset list, namely, the Likud Central Committee.

Apparently, the LOs smell impending primaries and have begun testing out their campaign spins. A few days ago, the Deputy Something Minister (DDM), who is a major LO, asked me to come in for some face-to-face. We both understood the game.
DDM: Wussup?
BC: Just do the shpiel.
DDM: let's-put-the-past-behind-us-and-look-to-the-future-bla-bla-bla
(This kind of reminded me of Woody Allen in Bananas: "I hope I wasn't out of line with that crack about the beady eyes.")
BC: That hitnatkut thing is a bit a hard to overlook. Where I come from politicians who change course are kind of expected to explain themselves to the public, not just say "I got elected so I decide."
DDM: Oh-you-know-that-Arik-ain't-he-a-number-bla-bla-bla
BC: So what merit do you see in the withdrawal?
DDM: We-get-to-pull-the-troops-out-of-Azza-and-we-get-international-legitimacy-bla-bla-bla (I'm skipping some details here but I was astounded to discover that he was even better informed than some bloggers who are experts on every topic.)
BC: The troops will be back in Azza in two weeks and the international legitimacy will be gone in two days.
DDM: We're-still-a-whole-lot better-than-those-creepy-lefties-you-don't-want-to-see-them-in-power-do-you-bla-bla-bla
BC: Ignoring the referendum wasn't so nice on your part.
DDM: our-lawyers-said-the-referendum-wasn't-binding-bla-bla-bla
BC: Not lying to your voters isn't binding either but those voters tend to be unforgiving.
DDM: we're-going-to-be-tough-as-nails-from-now-on-just-you-watch-bla-bla-bla
BC: You've got a bit of a credibility issue, you know.
DDM: judge-us-by-our-actions-bla-bla-bla
BC: OK, what about E1?
(E1 is the undeveloped area between Maalei Adumim and Jerusalem which is crucial if Israel wants to hold on to the settlement blocs of which Sharon often speaks)
DDM: You-betcha-we're-gonna-be-building-there-like-crazy-we-will-bla-bla-bla
BC: But I'm judging you by your actions which are that you haven't moved a single grain of sand there.
DDM: united-we-stand-in-the-government-divided-we-fall-into-the-opposition-bla-bla-bla
BC: Or possibly you won't stand in the government or fall into the opposition, you'll be looking for a job.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

On Tuesday afternoon I headed down to Kfar Maimon to join the protest. The roads were blocked from Netivot, which is about five miles away. We headed into the local streets of Netivot in the direction of the kever of the Baba Sali, which was rumored to be a good launching spot. As we got there a convoy formed behind two guys in orange shirts on a moped. These guys led us through miles of dirt roads through groves, fields and dunes until the police stopped us about half a mile from Kfar Maimon. We parked in a lemon grove and walked from there.

The only way into (or out of) Kfar Maimon was through a hole in the fence next to the main gate. There were about a thousand soldiers guarding that hole but people were for the most part allowed to pass in and out freely. There is one main drag in Kfar Maimon from the gate straight to the shul, a distance of about a quarter mile. Along the sides there are some small streets and some large empty lots. Thousands and thousands of people were camped out on every empty piece of land. Along the way various entrepeneurs were hawking corn, french fries, sandwiches and drinks.

The shul was constantly packed with people sitting and learning or participating in rolling minyanim and shiurim. Outside the shul, there were makeshift musical performances. Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix didn't show. It didn't rain. Nobody took their clothes off to slide in the mud. No drugs, no sex.

Oh yeah. It was hot as hell. My older son was there and I crashed in his tent. I finally fell asleep at about 1:00 and about half an hour later I was woken by loud marching and singing heading in the direction of the gate. Rumors spread through the camp that we were moving out in the direction of Azza. I dutifully got dressed (my son wisely stayed put) only to discover that this was an independent shevet-Efraim operation launched by a few hundred Chabad meshichistim. (I was extremely impressed with the crowd down there with the single exception of these meshichistim, who are completely insane.) The gate was locked, nobody got anywhere and eventually everybody went back to sleep.

In the morning, there were minyanim in every direction as far as the eye could see. Local farmers brought vegetables to the hordes. At about 9:00, I headed out to my car and drove back home. My son stuck around until at night when it was announced that another attempt would be made to head out in the direction of Azza. Many hundreds continued to arrive even at night but there was no hope of any organized exit towards Azza. The whole village was surrounded by a fence, makeshift barbed wire and over 10,000 soldiers and police. Eventually, everyone went to sleep and in the morning they went home and headed straight for the shower.

Did all this do any good? Think of it this way: When someone says tehillim for a sick person, it might or might not help the sick person, but it is surely good for the soul of the zogger.

Yesterday the Jerusalem Post carried an op-ed by a conservative rabbi who troubled himself all the way from Massachusetts to bring us natives the message of inclusiveness and tolerance.

He is troubled by the fact that the slogan "A Jew does not expel a Jew" suggest that "only one opinion ... is really legitimate" and does not take into account how "Israeli Arabs feel about this slogan". He is, of course, absolutely right. We really need to clean that nasty slogan up a bit. How about something like this:

"It is our opinion -- but we respect your right to disagree -- that no person of any race, creed or sexual orientation shall evict from their homes any person (or other species), especially women and persons of color, and hand these homes to militants and/or freedom fighters who have exercised their natural right to murder and mayhem."

I'd like to point out that "Make love, not war" is offensive to asexuals and does seem to deligitimize the views of war-mongers. Copywriters take note!

P.S. An unrelated note: There's a fascinating dialogue almost, but not quite, taking place between the troubled Eliyahu Zecharia Rabinovich and R' M. Eisemann (and some of his fans) in the comments section of EZR's blog.

Friday, July 15, 2005

My Eishes Chaver and I spent the last 24 hours on a mini-vacation. We were at the kind of getaway place where you go to do nothing and the biggest decision you need to make is dry shvitz or wet shvitz. No kids, no cellphones. After one day there I'm so mellow I'm in danger of lapsing into a coma. The greatness of the place is that you eat like a pig but they also serve a lot of lettuce so you feel virtuous doing it.

Anyway, it's the kind of place where a bunch of strangers, some frum and most not frum, are thrown in together for an extended period. This doesn't really happen that often outside of an airplane. So everyone needs to send subtle bonding signals that identify them with their own species.

Apparently, some people's affiliations require that they expose more flesh than the state of their bodies would seem to call for. Now, I'm no tzenius nanny. In fact, I have no quarrel with a pulchritudinous nekeivah who wishes to be mezakeh the tzibbur with an opportunity to make a boruch shekachah lo beolamo. But when we start edging into meshaneh habriyos territory, I just wish I had a big sign that said: DEK DICH TZI.

Their opposite number, of course, are the women bopping around in robes and snoods, as if they were sitting down for shalashides in Luxor Manor. Let me be clear about this. I'm not crazy about any of the head-covering options. Sheitlach, berets, tichels tied in whatever funky or Hungarian-shviger fashion, stylish and not-so-stylish hats, each have their own advantages and disadvantages. But as for snoods, listen up head-covering-women because if your husbands haven't told you this it's a sure sign they're scared of you: SNOODS ARE VERY VERY UGLY. Unless you're French or Belgian and have learned the art of applying makeup and other fashion accessories directly from Coco Chanel herself, you should never ever wear a snood.

Finally, there is the frum men bonding thing which usually consists of the single secret password: d'youdaven? This is closely related to the slightly accusing: D'you arrive today? Didn't see you at shacharis. Or the more polite: thinkwecangettogetheraminchah? Gentlemen: First of all, lomich tzuree. Second, you don't have to work so hard to label yourselves. You're the ones whose wives are wearing snoods.

Monday, July 11, 2005

It's hodgepodge day. Brief comments on a few unrelated items.

R. Aharon Feldman's revolting letter on Slifkin has actually provoked the response it deserves from someone calling himself Eliyahu Zecharia Rabinovich. Is he for real? (RAF may have hit a new low in intellectual dishonesty in arguing that chazal's science must have been inspired by ruach hakodesh since they anticipated the discovery that "hemophilia is transmitted by the mother’s DNA". In fact, chazal believed that all of a person's blood comes from the mother, a false claim in the name of which otherwise intelligent people are still making doofuses of themselves (see, e.g., Tzitz Eliezer 13:104) and, moreover, this claim is taken from Aristotle.)

Makor Rishon has revealed that Sharon's coordinator of the "disengagement" is also head of a venture capital fund with half a billion dollars earmarked for investment in the Palestinian-held territories. This obvious conflict of interests is the scandal of the decade and has received zero attention in the media.

We've hit the all-star break and the Mets remain a streaky and slightly interesting .500 team. Martinez has been superb, Floyd and Cameron streaky, Wright consistent at the plate and goofy in the field, Beltran the .270 hitter he has always been, Reyes might end up with more triples than walks and the rest of the team ain't worth discussing. (And I guess I should admit that so far Victor Zambrano's stats have been spookily similar to those of Scott Kazmir.)

The never-ending saga of my attempt to find justice in beis din has just taken an interesting turn which I intend to discuss if discretion permits.

My son just lost his glasses in the Kenneret. If anybody finds them, please leave them where they are and tell him that the next time his mother tells him to take glass guards he should listen to her instead of rolling his eyes (where did he get that nasty habit from?).

Friday, July 08, 2005

Political dreying is generally unrewarding and political dreying in Israel is especially unrewarding. Sometimes it seems like the only possible source of pleasure in this area is spite.

Yesterday, I got some spiteful pleasure. A prominent right-of-center research institute in Jerusalem assembled a gathering of jurists, academics and politicians to discuss the constitution. I got to speak after a baritone-voiced former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (BVFCJ). Although BVFCJ preceded the era of insane political intervention by the Court, he is an outspoken defender of the Court and the method by which it stacks itself. He is also exceedingly pompous and imperturbable.

I gave my drasha on the appointments process and the dangers of hyper-activism by the court. BVFCJ grew increasingly apoplectic. When he was given an opportunity to make closing remarks, he asked rhetorically and with evident disdain: Is the American system, in which the president appoints judges from his own ideological camp, more democratic? Is the German system, in which judges alternate between two parties, preferable? He was speaking so self-importantly slowly that I had ample time to interject: Yes. That is preferable to our system in which judges alternate between a single party.

He was, um, unhappy. But for me, it was pure spiteful pleasure. You can fargin me that much occasionally, no?

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Independently of my kibbitzing in the Knesset, I've been quite active in a particular radical political organization (RPO). Today I'll explain why I think that organization is important and what its prospects are.

While there always have been, and there still are, numerous organizations and parties devoted to infusing the notion of Jewish statehood with concrete meaning, most of these are of limited value because they have failed to understand the nature of Israel's problems and consequently have no hope of offering reasonable solutions.

Israel's problems are rooted in the fact that the self-appointing elite who run the country (police, army, prosecution, courts, press, academia etc.) suffer from a serious crisis of identity that leads to vindictive, destructive acts. I've discussed this in the past and won't go through the gory details again. (If you have the stomach, read Ozrad Lev's recent book about how Yossi Ginosar, a well-connected slimeball with huge financial interests in the Palestinian authority, was Ehud Barak's key negotiator and how the whole establishment was enlisted to let him get away with it.) The highest priority of anyone who cares about Israel's future is to throw the bums out and replace them with new leadership with a clear sense of Jewish identity. Unfortunately, among those playing the game here, RPO seems to be the only organization that has understood this basic truth.

Take the Mafdal. (Henny Youngman reference here.) The Mafdal has been through various phases. Initially, they were apologists and spear-carriers for the Labor party to the point of inventing a whole theology of self-debasement. They imitated every secular Zionist meshugas but only just after it had gone out of style. In more recent phases, they've taken to sitting on the sidelines like Statler and Waldorf making cynical comments and criticizing every initiative without ever doing anything constructive. (They're useful for little budgeting arguments or getting some of their own people appointed as dayanim.) What has remained unchanged throughout is their mindset: they are strictly backseat drivers. Sometimes they flatter the driver and sometimes they berate him but one thing they will never presume to do is to actually take over the wheel. Mafdalnikim may be hacks but they won't drive the cab.

RPO has at least rejected this Mafdalian attitude. It has defined its objective as replacing the current leadership. It's tactic of infiltrating the Likud, in an entirely open and forthright manner, is precisely the right tactic. This is why I am involved with RPO.

I'm not oblivious to the fact that presumptuousness alone does not qualify somebody for leadership. To lead, you need to know what you want and you need to know what you can get away with. Any shlepper -- even the Mafdal -- can criticize others without offering a better alternative. Any adolescent can engage in dangerous political fantasies while taking for granted that some grown-up will put his foot down when matters threaten to unravel. If you want to sit at the desk where the buck stops, you have no such luxuries.

So then, does RPO have what it takes? To be honest, I'm skeptical. But they are doing some very good work in the trenches and they've reframed the objective. How it will all play out is an open question. But here are some of the seismic fault lines that will determine RPO's path:

1. Protest or revolution? Most of those involved in acts of civil disobedience or refusal to follow military orders do not view such activity as a threat to the regime. They take the continued functioning of the state and its institutions, especially the army, entirely for granted. Chalk it up to youthful exuberance and naivete. The leaders of RPO, however, are actually aware that these activities can spin out of control and lead to total anarchy. This is what some of them are hoping for because they think that somehow a state of anarchy will facilitate their own rise to power. I'm aware that getting corrupt people out of power can't be achieved without breaking some of the rules they make, but this is very dangerous thinking and I worry where it might lead. Some will know when to exercise self-restraint but many will not.

2. Tactics or principle? In the last internal Likud elections, there were three factions: Omri Sharon's thugs, Yisrael Katz's makhers and Uzi Landau's people of principle. The RPO deal-makers swung a deal with Katz rather than Landau because Katz has the votes and Landau could be taken for granted. The foot soldiers were quite pissed off. This is going to happen a lot. One thing that should be borne in mind is that every radical organization will attract lots of out and out lunatics to its ranks and I can attest that RPO is no exception. Such people operate in permanent anger mode and have no interest in deals that require restraint now in order to reap a payoff later. (In this particular case, I think they were actually right because Katz's people are not trustworthy.)

3. Yiddishkeit or Eretz Yisrael? One rift within RPO regards the question of who are closer allies, those who are firm on territory but soft on religion or those who are firm on religion but soft on territory. ("Soft on territory" is a relative term. Here I don't refer to Oslo supporters but rather to those who think retrenchment is simply usually a dumb idea rather than a misalignment of the cosmos.)

4. Political reformation or building the Beis Hamikdash? Most of the time, the makhers in RPO speak in political terms but there are some who are more preoccupied with reviving malchus Beis Dovid. I've had some highly amusing public debates with a particular colleague who wished to eliminate internal votes in RPO's committees ("demokratya shmemokratya") since he felt we ought to set an example by granting our chairman privileges of royalty. (When he had a falling out with our royal chairman over item 3, I accused him of being mored bemalchus.) We have people starting sanhedrins, preparing klei mikdash, and I-don't-want-to-know what else. The main makhers seem to me to mostly be humoring these people but I'm not sure.

5. Ego, ego, ego. All the above is small potatos compared to potential rifts revolving around who decides what. So far it has held together remarkably well even if the rhetoric often slides into demagoguery (or, on occasion, megalomania). Given all the above, opportunities for self-assertion on the part of internal dissidents should prove to be plentiful.

Not a pretty picture, I know, but organizational politics never is pretty. In the final analysis, RPO has truly grasped something fundamental. If they manage to stay the course and avoid the temptations of dechikas ha-ketz, good things might happen.