Sunday, March 23, 2008

From time to time, people ask me why so many math types are socially-awkward geeks. I suppose I ought to take this as a back-handed compliment, the unstated implication being that I'm at least savvy enough to appreciate the question.

So, first let me say that most of my colleagues are perfectly charming and witty. But I do appreciate the question: even a few decades in the business have not completely inured me to geekiness and the high incidence of space cadets in the math world is undeniable.

It would be a mistake, however, to seek some social-graces toggle gene that is either set to ON or to MATH. To understand how the correlation emerges, let's think about a vaguely analogous situation. Why are so many short-order cooks in New York immigrants from poor countries? Are poor immigrants naturally more skilled at short-order cooking? Of course not. The simple truth is that if you arrive in New York without capital, education and English language skills, your opportunities are limited. If you're a poor immigrant and you know how to cook, cooking is something you can do.

The analogy is this: people who remind you of Poindexter (for those who remember Felix the Cat) are not, on average, more skilled at math than anybody else. But if you have poor social skills, your opportunities are very limited. If you happen to know how to do math, math is something you can do. The result is that, even if social skills and math skills are distributed completely independently of each other, people with both math skills and social skills will choose from a wide variety of opportunities, while those with only math skills are limited to being math types.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Update Wednesday March 19, 7:00 PM: I have just received a detailed and convincing message from the director of Kolech reiterating that they have no connection with Mossawa and will demand that their name be removed from the list of partners in the initiative. I regard this matter as closed as far as Kolech is concerned. The behavior of those who signed the mendacious letter (Jafar Farah of Mossawa, Francis Radai of Hemdat and Gilad Kariv of the Reform movement) bears further investigation.

The economist Harold Hotelling once observed that the rational course of action for a political party that is the most left (or right or whatever) among those competing would be to move to the point just left (or whatever) of its nearest competitor. As a result political parties will all inevitably drift towards the center.

What Hotelling doesn't take into account is that parties don't always seek to maximize their voter base. Here's another dynamic I have seen. The party that is most left (or right or whatever) necessarily becomes home to all the moonbats who have nowhere more extreme to go. The moonbats then either take over or become the audience to which those in charge need to appeal. Moonbats are not pulled by gravity towards the center; they are driven outward by centrifugal psychic needs.

Here's an interesting example. In my previous post, I discussed the constitutional proposal of the IDI and the extent to which it is pareve on the Jewish character of the state. As you might have surmised, however, even this proposal is way too Jewish for some. The "Future Vision" document, published by a group of Israeli Arab intellectuals calls for completely removing any Jewish character the State of Israel might have. This includes changing all state symbols, revoking the Law of Return and much more. In addition, Israel must atone for its colonial roots by granting special privileges to Israeli Arabs. (Of course, all this in Israel proper; Arabs in Judea, Samaria and Gaza get their own state in addition.) It's worthwhile to read the full document; if you can't, here's the NYT coverage.

(I haven't gotten to the example yet; bear with me.) One of the organizations that participated in preparing that document (and the source of the above link to it) is Mossawa. The head of Mossawa, Jafer Farah, was also a member of the steering committee that produced the "Future Vision" document. Jafer Farah and Mossawa are now leading an effort to either change or abort the Knesset's effort to produce a constitution. They refer to the influence of the IDI (not mentioned by name) as pulling the process too far rightward and note with dismay the participation of "religious and haredi" MKs in the committee meetings.

Mossawa is not working alone. The letter they sent out seeking support for their initiative notes that a number of organizations are working with them. Here's the critical paragraph in full:

את המהלך מובילים, מרכז מוסאוא לזכויות האזרחים הערבים בישראל, המרכז לפלורליזם יהודי של התנועה ליהדות מתקדמת וחמד"ת – האגודה למען חופש מדע דת ותרבות. הארגונים החברים ביוזמה זו: האגודה לזכויות האזרח, מוסאוא, המרכז לפלורליזם יהודי, חמד"ת – האגודה לחופש מדת ותרבות, נעמת, הקשת הדמוקרטית המזרחית, שדולת הנשים, יוזמות קרן אברהם, אג'נדה, ויצו, ידיד, טבקה, אדווה, האגודה להגנהעל משפחות מעורבות, אגודת להט"ב, קולך.

Kolech?! An organization that identifies itself, on its website, as apolitical?! If you donate to Kolech but don't wish to be party to Mossawa's initiative, you might want to ask them what this is all about. Their email address and phone number are on their website.

Update Wednesday 4:30 PM: Since a number of people asked, both here and at My Obiter Dicta, the facts are these. The letter from Mossawa clearly states that Kolech is a partner in this initiative. This letter, with a request for clarification and a warning that it would be publicized, was brought to the attention of the Kolech office on Friday March 7 and acknowledged on Sunday March 9. After further pestering, Kolech promised a response "at the beginning of next [= this --BC] week". After a further nudge on Tuesday went unanswered, I posted the above. I quoted the paragraph in full so that I could not be accused of misinterpreting or quoting out of context.

I am active in several organizations and I can tell you one thing: If some other organization circulated a letter that misrepresented me, I'd be on their backs immediately and I'd certainly try to get the truth out as quickly as possible, especially if someone specifically inquired about the matter and expressed an intention to publicize it.

In any case, after posting the above, I received email from Channah Pasternak, director of Kolech, informing me that Kolech has never had any connection to Mossawa. She adds that her response was delayed due to illness.

That should close the matter as far as Kolech is concerned. Now, who wants to follow up with Mossawa and the others who put out a mendacious letter? The letter was signed by Jafar Farah of Mossawa, Francis Radai of Hemdat and Gilad Kariv of the Reform movement.

Friday, March 14, 2008

This is a continuation of my review of the IDI's constitution. The review begins in the previous post.

The elimination of all the usual safeguards against judicial hyper-activism, with the exception of the unusual appointments process, was carried out by the Court itself. The Court is well aware, however, that many of these safeguards could easily be put back in place by legislation. The threat of such legislation is the last remaining constraint on the Court.

The most effective way to eliminate this threat would be to enshrine the Court’s self-assigned powers in a constitution that would be almost impossible to amend. The Israel Democracy Institute, in coordination with the Court, has invested a great deal of effort and resources to achieve precisely this goal.

The constitution proposed by the IDI covers the standard three central areas generally covered by constitutions: basic principles, rights and structure of government. Overall, the document breaks little new ground and is surprisingly flabby, generally failing to distinguish between genuine constitutional material and niggling details best left to statute. The general thrust of the particularist (Jewish) elements in the principles section is (as we shall see below) reflective of a secular-left semi-Zionist mindset, with a few bones tossed in the direction of the religious and the Arabs.

But all that is beside the point; it is merely an exercise in jumping through the hoops without arousing the rabble. The core of the proposal, indeed its purpose, is the power it grants to the judiciary. It does so in five ways:

  1. The existing appointments process is enshrined in the constitution.
  2. The Supreme Court is explicitly authorized to disqualify laws as unconstitutional, with no restrictions.
  3. The Supreme Court is explicitly authorized to issue writs against any public body, with no restrictions.
  4. A long list of rights, many of them amorphous and poorly defined, is enshrined in the constitution and serves as a basis for the above two court powers.
  5. The constitution can be amended only with the support of 80 MKs.

In short, the IDI constitution gives a self-appointing court broad powers of unchecked judicial review of both legislation and executive action based on an infinitely malleable set of rights and with no mechanism for amending this system.


One of the positive effects a constitution can have is to establish consensual guidelines on certain very contentious issues in order to limit the divisive impact of public debate regarding those issues. This is especially important with regard to issues best settled through compromise rather than judicial fiat.

Clearly the most divisive issue in the public sphere is the Jewish character of the State – both in the national sense and the religious sense. The very fundamentals of Zionism – that Israel is the national homeland of the Jewish people, that Israel strives for the welfare of Jews everywhere and for the preservation and advancement of Jewish culture, that Israel encourages Jewish settlement – should be enshrined in the constitution as a matter of principle and education. But more than that: these values are directly threatened by provisions of the constitution and by the wide berth given to the Court to interpret those provisions. The only way to protect these values from constitutional attack is to confer upon them explicit constitutional protection. They do not appear in the IDI’s proposal, either explicitly or implicitly. (One issue regarding which the IDI’s constitution does take a firm stand is that of citizenship. It establishes that spouses of citizens (ineligible for the Law of Return) must be granted citizenship, a provision that explicitly contradicts both recent Knesset legislation designed to prevent hostile immigration and recently established policies of many European countries.)

With regard to religious matters, the IDI proposes an interesting arrangement in which a small number of core issues are partially immune from constitutional review – the Court may not rule certain laws unconstitutional and “is not obligated” to interpret them in light of the constitution. Ostensibly, the idea is to remove the Court from intervention in these sensitive matters so that the legislature could find solutions. The sentiment is a good one but the execution is lacking. First of all, it presumes the good will of the Court in respecting the spirit of the provision. The Court does not need to use the constitution to disqualify legislation on these matters since it can still use existing Basic Laws for that purpose if it so desires. And, of course, the mealy-mouthed phrase “is not obligated” does not in any way restrain a Court that does not seek to restrain itself.

Moreover, in exchange for this toothless provision, regarded by the IDI as a major concession to the religious camp, the IDI constitution provides for a complete ban on religious legislation. Regardless of what one thinks of the dubious merits of religious legislation, the chilling effect of such a provision on public discourse must be appreciated. Every item of legislation will need to be defended against the charge that it is religiously motivated; it will have to be defended on grounds of socialism, feminism or any other quasi-religion, just so long as it isn’t an actual religion.


In conclusion, a constitution can serve a useful purpose in a fractured society. It can establish consensual ground rules and unifying principles that can blunt the acrimoniousness of public debates. This technique can only work effectively if the constitution creates mechanisms that encourage compromise and mutual trust and that encourage citizens to assume the burden of self-government rather than fobbing this responsibility off on self-styled experts happy to infantilize them.

Legislatures, not courts, are designed to reach compromises. Legislatures, not courts, are answerable to the people. A constitution that amplifies the power of the court, without including appropriate safeguards, discourages compromises and weakens public trust. Courts play a vital role in democratic society but if they assume authorities best vested in elected branches, they will break under the burden.

Each of the branches of government must assume authority in a manner that maximizes the effectiveness of checks and balances at achieving fair and sustainable arrangements. Those who wish to enhance the power of one branch of government at the expense of another branch simply because they believe that such a maneuver is likely to advance some particular political or ideological vision will neither achieve their goal nor strengthen democracy.

Democracy must be protected not only from tyrants but also from those who take its name in vain.

In this post and the next, I'll give a review of the IDI's proposed constitution. In the first post, I'll introduce the central problem any Israeli constitution must address and in the following post, I'll explain how the IDI does exactly the opposite of what is necessary. In the post after that, I'll tell you about some ostensibly dati organizations that have joined forces with radical Arab NGOs to attack the IDI proposal from the left(!).

A constitution provides the answer to one question: who decides what. All the rest is commentary.

In a democracy, ultimately the people – through their representatives – decide. Of course, the people’s representatives are liable to make unjust decisions. Thus constitutions set rules in place that establish certain basic principles that may not be violated. However, this merely begs the question: who will decide when these principles have been violated. If it is anyone other than the very majority against whom we seek protection, the problem becomes more acute. Who will protect us from them?

There is no solution to this problem. Ultimately, every question will need to be decided by somebody and that somebody, whoever he might be, is capable of injustice. The best that democratic societies have managed is to establish balancing mechanisms that distribute decision-making among varied interdependent bodies. In this way, it is likely that self-interested parties among them will at least need to find some modus vivendi with others with competing interests.

Thus, since ancient times, government has typically been divided among three separate but interdependent branches: the legislative, executive and judiciary. The judiciary, in addition to adjudicating disputes between individuals, is entrusted with adjudicating disputes between individuals and the state and hence effectively oversees the other branches of government. This returns us to our predicament: who shall oversee the courts?

Democracies have a variety of mechanisms at their disposal to prevent the courts from assuming too much power. Since the courts must adjudicate independently, the limitations involve the determination of who will do the judging and the issues regarding which their judgment is rendered.

  • Judges with the authority to decide constitutional matters are appointed by the other branches of government, so that ultimately judicial appointees reflect the sentiments of the people.
  • Rules of standing limit the court to resolving specific grievances rather than selectively addressing abstract questions of principle.
  • Rules of justiciability limit the cases the court can hear and, in particular, deny the court the power of the purse and the sword.
  • The standard of unreasonableness required to permit court intervention in acts of the other branches are extremely high in order to prevent the Court from simply substituting its judgment for that of the other branches.
  • The rights that the court can invoke as the basis for intervention are well-defined.
  • The court has no influence over the state prosecution and attorney general’s office, which decide which cases to pursue.
  • The authority to overturn laws is often limited in a variety of ways. Ruling that a law is unconstitutional: is limited to an advisory opinion (England), can be done only during the legislative process by a parliamentary body (France), can be overturned or pre-empted by parliament (Canada), or can be done only by special constitutional courts with openly political character (most European countries).

In Israel not a single one of these safeguards against judicial over-reaching remains in place.
  • Judges are appointed by a nine-person committee, dominated by sitting justices acting in collusion, with no public accountability.
  • The Court intervenes in administrative matters by selectively hearing petitions by public interest groups with no actual standing.
  • The Court hears petitions in matters involving the budget, national defense, foreign policy and other political questions within the legitimate authority of the elected branches.
  • The Court has invented doctrines of “reasonableness” and “proportionality” that are no more than elegant means of substituting its own judgment for that of the elected branches.
  • The court uses amorphous rights such as that to “dignity” to uphold any imaginable right, including the right to import a spouse from enemy territory, the right of children not to be spanked by their parents and the right to have one’s roof reinforced against rockets.
  • The Attorney General, who is meant to be the government’s appointed lawyer, has become the Court’s representative in the government: he is appointed by a committee headed by a judge himself appointed by the Chief Justice, he is inevitably beholden to the Court if he wishes to be appointed to the Court himself, he has been told by the court (Pinchasi) that he is not obliged to defend the government and his decisions are now subject to second-guessing by the Court (Katzav).
  • Finally, the Court has assumed the right to overturn laws without any mechanism in place for determining the conditions under which this is possible.

You will hear from the Court's defenders that judicial activism serves to strengthen rights and to buttress democracy. This claim is not even coherent enough to be wrong. It responds to a question about structure – “what mechanisms of checks and balances are most likely to prevent any branch doing excessive harm?” – with an essentialist answer – “judges are more likely to be zealous in the pursuit of justice and democracy”.

The hallmark of a true democracy is that it does not confuse structural issues with essentialist ones. Essentialist claims of this sort can be made – and frequently have been made – in defense of enlightened despots just as well as in the name of hyper-active courts. In democratic thought, claims that checks and balances be damned, we’re more likely to get a satisfactory result by empowering so-and-so, are rightly understood as naked attempts to privilege so-and-so and its fellow travelers.

Thus, in the specific case of Israeli courts, I leave it to the reader’s judgment whether the courts are more reliable and impartial arbiters of the right and the good than others. The point is entirely irrelevant. The question that needs to be addressed is who should decide matters of public policy: unelected judges or elected officials.

Kids who choose to attend Yeshiva LeTzeirim (Yashlatz) are those interested in devoting themselves very seriously to learning. Those among them who headed for the library to learn during a gap in the schedule last Thursday were among the most devoted. Each one of the victims of last Thursday's massacre was a unique tzaddik. One of them, the son of friends in our neighborhood, woke up every day for vasikin and knew at least two sedarim of mishnayos by heart. Everyone who knew him describes him as a "malach".

The families of the korbanos have behaved during this whole horrible period with quiet dignity and fortitude. One visitor after another has commented that they came to the shiva to give strength and instead received strength.

I don't want to cheapen the honor I wish to give these families by discussing those among us who so glaringly lack precisely the qualities these families have. Just go read Daniel Gordis's post.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Last week, a brief but violent flu kept me in the U.S. long enough to hear the Clinton-Obama debate. Supporters of Israel are wary of Obama for a number of reasons, some fair and some unfair.

1. Obama sounds like an evangelist selling pie-in-the-sky. This is true, at least at rallies, but irrelevant. Obama does what any candidate would like to do; he's just better at it. It should be noted that a person doesn't vote for the candidate that they imagine will do the best job. There is no reason they should: the chances of any individual's vote being decisive is zero. People vote to make a statement to themselves about themselves. Therefore, a candidate needs to sell himself/herself as the kind of person voting for whom makes a voter feel good about themselves. Besides, in the debates, where grandstanding doesn't work, Obama came off as way more authentic and substantive than Hillary.

2. Obama has insufficient political experience. This is pure demagoguery. I'd sooner rely on a politician with a bit of experience and the intelligence to learn from it than on one with vast experience bumbling through. One of the things that was painfully obvious in the debate is that Obama is way smarter than Clinton.

3. Obama is indulgent of radical anti-semitic Blacks. And I'm indulgent of racist Jews. They're my people. But this would in no way affect my policies. In the debate, Hillary attacked him for only "denouncing" Farrakhan, but not rejecting his endorsement. To which he correctly responded that Farrakhan hadn't offered anything for him to reject, but if she thinks "reject" is a stronger word than "denounce", then he rejects as well. I personally would like to do a lot more than just "reject" Farrakhan, but I couldn't help but feel that Obama made her sound like a cliche-monger.

4. Obama doesn't get the whole Middle East thing. This one is probably true. There are two views of the Middle East. According to one, radical Muslims want to murder infidels and conquer the world, with Israel at the top of their list. According to the other, Muslims have grievances and the key to peace in the Middle East is addressing these grievances. The former is the truth and the second is liberal dogma. This disconnect is common to all but the most hard-nosed Scoop Jackson democrats and Obama is certainly no exception. By the time he and his liberal friends are done engaging and dialoguing, we could be under the mushroom cloud.

5. Obama keeps some really bad company. This one is true, too. But I don't mean the pastor of his church (see 3) or Zbigniew Brzezinski or Rob Malley, with whom he doesn't have a substantive relationship. But I am worried about Samantha Power, whom Obama says is a leading advisor and who is definitely bad news for Israel; Antoin Rezko, a Syrian makher in Chicago politics with whom Obama has done some shady deals; and the Palestinians at the Arab American Action Network, for whom Obama was instrumental in raising money. One of the AAAN guys, Ali Abu Nimah, writes the following at the Electronic Intifada site:

Over the years since I first saw Obama speak I met him about half a dozen times, often at Palestinian and Arab-American community events in Chicago including a May 1998 community fundraiser at which Edward Said was the keynote speaker. In 2000, when Obama unsuccessfully ran for Congress I heard him speak at a campaign fundraiser hosted by a University of Chicago professor. On that occasion and others Obama was forthright in his criticism of US policy and his call for an even-handed approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The last time I spoke to Obama was in the winter of 2004 at a gathering in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood. He was in the midst of a primary campaign to secure the Democratic nomination for the United States Senate seat he now occupies. But at that time polls showed him trailing.

As he came in from the cold and took off his coat, I went up to greet him. He responded warmly, and volunteered, "Hey, I'm sorry I haven't said more about Palestine right now, but we are in a tough primary race. I'm hoping when things calm down I can be more up front." He referred to my activism, including columns I was contributing to the The Chicago Tribune critical of Israeli and US policy, "Keep up the good work!"

And in a recent interview, Abu Nimah says:

I knew Barack Obama for many years as my state senator -- when he used to attend events in the Palestinian community in Chicago all the time. I remember personally introducing him onstage in 1999, when we had a major community fundraiser for the community center in Deheisha refugee camp in the occupied West Bank. And that's just one example of how Barack Obama used to be very comfortable speaking up for and being associated with Palestinian rights and opposing the Israeli occupation.