Sunday, May 20, 2007

While off in the Dead Sea for the last six days of Pesach, I kept myself occupied with two books: Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon and Teshuvos Minchas Usher on Hilchos Pesach (in the back of the hagadah). I read Dennett mostly while lounging poolside and Rav Usher on Shabbos and Yomtov and as chazan insurance in shul.

This caused extreme frumkeit swings in the expected directions. But these swings had nothing to do with venue. On the contrary, poolside lounging often evokes in me a certain, um, harchavas hada’as, while interminable davening usually leads to hirhurei kefira.

No, it was the reading material, but not for the obvious reasons.

Dennett’s book is a broadside against religion, the main point of which is that there are good evolutionary reasons for the emergence of proto-religious phenomena. The argument itself is debatable (and deserves its own post) but in any case is irrelevant to the truth claims of any given religion. That isn’t what did it. And Minchas Usher (at least the teshuvos section) is dry halacha, not intended as inspirational literature.

Yet, the impact of each was powerful and undeniable. This deserves explanation.

Let me give a mashal. Think of being Jewish as being in a play that lasts for centuries and has a cast of millions. It’s an avant-garde production in which the members of the audience are also participants. There’s a very old script but the actors get to ad lib a lot and, although the original printed script itself is unaltered, it is overwhelmed by the ongoing accretion of hand-written interpolations. New actors join the show and are instructed by older actors who eventually leave the show. The director is never seen.

Now when I say that my frumkeit swings upward I don’t mean that I’m reading my lines from the script more precisely. I mean that I’m into the play. This happens when the play “works”, when one can read one’s lines with a sense of authenticity, when one can sense the director’s invisible guiding hand. Often, though, this is not the case because the stars who have mastered the script and get the best lines seem to lack the subtlety of character to grasp the plot’s meaning.

Rav Usher’s teshuvos are so masterful and so attuned to the underlying meaning that my sense of identification with the play is restored. In teshuva after teshuva, he responds to questioners looking for idiotic chumrahs extending the definition of chametz (all the water in the Kineret, cigarettes, soft Sefardi matza). In each case, he goes through all the relevant sources dispassionately marshaling proofs for and against. And in each case, in the end he says the equivalent of “Oh come off it, that’s perfectly idiotic.” (BTW, although he says the “cigarettes are chametz” claim is completely without foundation, he repeats his oft-stated view that smoking is generally forbidden and certainly so on yomtov.) In other cases, he is machmir with exactly the same degree of brilliance and common sense.

As for Dennett, his book is effective not because of any argument he makes but rather because he makes you change perspective. He focuses your attention not on the stage but on the scaffolding behind the stage. That scaffolding is indeed the same for the Greatest Show on Earth and for an amateur off-off-off Broadway production. Which is exactly why it’s not where you want to be looking if you want to get into the play. It is this misdirection on Dennett’s part that really does “break the spell”.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

From time to time the daughter of an old friend or relative who is studying in some seminary for the year will come to spend shabbos with us, generally with a friend in tow. Some of them turn out to be bright and witty but most of them are so vapid that their presence sucks the vitality right out of the room.

I kind of hoped that I’d seen an unrepresentative small sample but others seem to be having similar experiences. (Recently, when I mentioned to two seminary girls that the anti-hitnatkut demonstration in Kfar Maimon reminded me of Woodstock, I got a separate blank stare for each noun in the sentence.)

I have some half-baked thoughts about what might be going on.

What is it that makes some people interesting? I think it’s a combination of two things: a well-defined sense of identity together with a degree of self-awareness that makes it possible to connect with other people and other ideas. When I was still young enough to choose my friends, the most interesting people to hang out with (and go out with) were the ones who were solidly anchored in the heimish world but were out and about soaking up experiences not available in yeshiva.

The need to reconcile disparate worlds seems to be good for developing personality. To be sure, people who grow up in irredeemably liberal environments and are never forced to deal with alternatives are generally every bit as tedious as chnyoks.

So what has changed? Once, mechankhim were hopelessly out of touch with the modern world; they were able to impart intensity but their students were left with the work of reconciling this intense insular experience with the modern world on their own. The results varied but some interesting people turned up.

Many – definitely not all – so-called “frum” schools today have no aspiration to impart intensity. Their sole aspiration is to prevent their charges from dealing with conflict. The most alluring (and most deadly) aspects of American materialism have simply been co-opted. Pseudo-colleges have been established to avoid confrontation with any genuine intellectual challenge. Seminaries for girls, and more than a few “yeshivos”, have replaced actual learning with every manner of fluff: “hashkafa”, “mussar”, “midos”. If the bar gets any lower, the limbo dancers are gonna be out of business.

I don’t know if these institutions are simply filling a need by catering to hopelessly dumb kids or if they’re taking bright curious kids and turning them into mindless deadbeats.

And yes, Richie Havens was in Kfar Maimon. I saw him myself.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Last week a group of about 100 Palestinians and other anti-Israel agitators attacked a roadblock in the southern Hebron hills. The roadblock was manned by seven reserve soldiers. Over the course of two hours the soldiers called for backup which was denied. Ultimately the sole officer in charge, Yair Amihai, had to bash one of the agitators with the butt of his gun and was filmed doing so. He has been suspended. Here is the letter he wrote in response (hat tip to

ב-3 למאי 2007 הייתה הפגנה בצומת דהאריה של 100 פלשתינים מונהגים על-ידי פלשתיני בוגר ומתון, שדאג לא להפוך את האירוע לאלים וכ-15 אנרכיסטים ופעילי שמאל רדיקאלי, שהביאו צלמים ויצרו פרובוקציות מתוך כוונה להניע את ההמון הפלשתיני. פועָלִי באירוע זה היה לזַמן את היחידה החטיבתית לפיזור הפגנות ואת המשטרה. מנעתי חיכוך וחילצתי את הכוח לאחור ואיפשרתי להמון לפתוח את חסימת הציר. מיד אח"כ ההמון התפזר ללא אירוע אלים. אולם היחידה החטיבתית משום מה לא הגיעה מעולם, והגיע שוטר יחיד ללא כל אמצעים.

בתחקיר שלאחר האירוע העליתי את המסקנה, כי היה והאירוע היה מתלקח לידֵי אירוע אלים, לא היה בידי את ההכשרה והיכולת להשתלט עליו, ללא פגיעות רבות בנפש.

בישיבת סיכום התעסוקה המבצעית שנערכה ב-8 במאי, יום לפני סיום התעסוקה, בראשותו של המח"ט, העליתי את פרטי האירוע ואת חוסר האונים בו אהיה נתון באם הסיטואציה תישנה, ונעניתי על-ידי המח"ט כי פעלתי כראוי כיוון שמנעתי חיכוך, ואיפשרתי להמון לפתוח את החסימה. שאלתי לסיבת אי הגעת היחידה למקום ונעניתי בביטול: "אל תתעסק עם זה..."

למחרת, בתאריך ה-9 במאי, היום האחרון לקו השני באותה שנה, התלקח האירוע מחדש, ופעלתי באותו האופן, וחילצתי את הכוחות לאחור, ובשנית ביקשתי את היחידה החטיבתית. אולם המח"ט ראה לנכון לא להסב אותה לסיוע לי. האירוע נמשך בפיקוח רחוק שלי, ללא מגע, כשעתיים, עד שההמון מובל על-ידי האנרכיסטים, שכנראה תחקרו את הסיבה לכך שהארוע לא הגיע לידי חיכוך בשבוע הקודם, החל נע לכיוון כביש ירושלים באר שבע.

יש לציין שהגנה על כביש זה ומניעת הפרת סדר על עורק תנועה זה הינם משימתי העיקרית. הפעם עליתי מול הגדוד ודרשתי את היחידה באופן מיידי אולם נעניתי בשלילה. המנהיג המקומי ניסה להרגיע ולהסיג לאחור את ההמון, אולם האנרכיסטים משכו והסיטו אותם אל הציר ואל בין כוחותי, שחצצו בגופם על-מנת לקיים את הסדר והתנועה הסדירה על הציר. תחת האיום של הימצאות 7 חיילים בין המון פלשתיני מוסט נאלצתי להדוף את הפרובוקטורים לאחור. נחיתותו של צה"ל אל מול הפרת סדר שכזו נחשפה ברבים.

אני נאלץ לסכם את האירוע, ולומר כי הוא היה מיותר לחלוטין ויכול היה להימנע בשלבים רבים לאורך הדרך - אילו היו מספקים לי ולכוחותי את ההכשרה לפיזור הפגנות דו-לאומיות שכאלה, אילו היה המח"ט מתייחס לדברי בישיבת סיכום התעסוקה בכובד-ראש ומספק תשובה קבילה או אם היה מנייד את הכוחות המוכשרים לביצוע המשימה ובכך מונע את התצלומים המביכים. או לסרוגין, אם הייתי נע בשנית אחור ומאפשר חסימה וזריקות אבנים על הציר המרכזי בו נעים רכבים ישראלים רבים. ללא כל ספק, אני והכוח שלי הועמדנו במצב בלתי אפשרי בו נדרשנו להגן על הציר ועל עצמנו, ובו-בזמן לא ניתנו לנו האמצעים לכך.

כולי תקווה, שהארוע לא ייצור את האפקט אותו אני חש ויפגע במוטיבציית השירות האמיצה של אנשי המילואים, וגם אני אמשיך להגיע לשרות המילואים למרות שבתחקיר לילה הדיח אותי המח"ט מתפקידי

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The organization I co-founded with YK has been investigating the Amona fiasco for over a year. YK took the police to court to get them to reveal film related to the event. As a result, the police gave him what they claimed was a video of the briefing given by the chief of the Judea and Samaria District ("machoz shai"), Yisrael Yitzhak, to the officers heading into Amona. In the video, he is shown telling the officers to be gentle and nice.

One problem. The film is staged. For starters, as can be seen in the clips, they forgot to remove the date from the video. The date shown is several weeks after the destruction of the houses in Amona. Also, the video jumps back and forth between crowd shots and shots of the speaker. But the crowd shots are actually the identical clip shown again and again. There are many differences between the crowd shots and the shots of the speaker that make it clear that the two were not shot on the same day. There is even a point at which one can hear the cameraman laughing. This is truly Keystone Kops stuff.

There are several public bodies in Israel that are corrupt and others that are incompetent. But the police lead the pack in both categories.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

The interim report of the Winograd Commission is available on the web and is worth reading. Here are a few salient points:

1. The key flaw in the running of the war was this: the attacks on Hizballah targets at the beginning of the war were likely to provoke rocket attacks on Israel, as indeed they did. The only way to deal with such attacks was through the use of ground troops. But the army was unprepared for a ground war and Olmert was unwilling to fight one. Hence Olmert and company had essentially created a mess they had no clue how to deal with.

2. On an administrative level, this happened because Halutz was an arrogant bastard who was convinced the war could be won from the air, ignored others' views and did not make them known to the government. Olmert and Peretz lacked the military experience to ask the right questions and lacked the administrative acumen to make sure that somebody else would. The rest of the ministers were useless as well and did as they were told.

3. The report is a serious piece of work that pays careful attention to methodological questions. It includes two learned discourses (obviously written by Ruth Gavison) - one on moral aspects of such investigations and the natural rights of those being investigated and another on the appropriateness of various types of recommendations the committee might choose to make. Gavison believes that in a democracy unelected bodies should interpret their mandates conservatively and allow the people, through their elected representatives, to make the necessary decisions. Thus, she is clearly reluctant for the commission to make specific recommendations regarding deposing senior officials. At the same time, she insists that the commission has the right to make such recommendations and hints that it might do so in the final report. In any event, the comments regarding Olmert, Peretz and Halutz are so damning that only a willful idiot needs for the recommendations to be spelled out.

4. The commission has been criticized for not dealing with the larger issues that played a role in Israel's slow decline over the past 15 years or so. This is not quite true. One has to know where to look. On page 21, tucked away in a subsection called "Change of Name of the Campaign to 'Second Lebanon War'", one finds this gem:

"The IDF was not ready for this war, inter alia, because among some of the political and military echelons the thought had taken hold that the age of wars had passed. That Israel and the IDF had sufficient deterrence to prevent an actual declaration of war against it. That when the need arose, it would be prepared to send a painful reminder to one who would appear as if undeterred. That Israel itself could determine if it would go to war -- and it would not go. That the military challenges would be mainly contending with ongoing conflicts of low intensity."

It is clear already that Olmert is finished. The only question is how quickly and in what manner this will play out. If he quits, Dalia Itzik, Knesset Chairwoman and Acting President (and Kadima MK), gets to select a candidate for Prime Minister, who will then have six weeks to put together a coalition. Tzippi Livni and Shimon Peres are the leading contenders. Which of the two is more scary?

The alternatives are that Bibi finds 61 MKs willing to support him (unlikely) or that the Knesset disbands itself and calls for elections or that Olmert disbands the Knesset and calls for elections just to spite Livni and Peres.