Sunday, July 31, 2005

Update: Michael Graham suspended over Islam remarks

Washington, D.C., talk show host Michael Graham has been suspended without pay from radio station WMAL in the wake of a campaign by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), who protested Graham's description of Islam as a terrorist organization.

The Washington Post's version, and Michael Graham's perspective. Oh, and CAIR's press release.

(For the record, I think Michael went too far in calling Islam a terrorist organization, though neither is it a "religion of peace". But I remain an avid Michael Graham listener, and hope the Post is right that "Graham is unlikely to be fired and will be back on the air after the current controversy cools down.")

"Not one inch" - British intrasigence!

Prime Minister Tony Blair:
I want to make one thing very clear to you. Whatever excuse or justification these people use I do not believe we should give one inch to them, not in this country and the way we live our lives here, not in Iraq, not in Afghanistan, not in our support for two States, Israel and Palestine, not in our support for the alliances we choose, including with America, not one inch should we give to these people.

Surely he should at least negotiate with them, find out what their legitimate grievances are, maybe offer them limited self-government in Finsbury Park. Otherwise, can UN condemnations be far behind?

Shmuel Katz dredges up the Altalena

Shmuel Katz, one of the top leaders of Etzel (Irgun) during the 1948 Altalena affair, sets the record straight about the tragic episode.

Ben-Gurion and the Labor Zionist leadership have consistently portrayed the Altalena arms ship as a subversive initiative on Begin's part to undermine the unified Zionist military and ultimately execute a coup against the government of the fledgling state. Ben-Gurion, goes the story, saved Israeli democracy by sinking the vessel, thus demonstrating that the state would allow no underground militias.

In fact, as Katz explains, there was nothing subversive about the shipment; the delivery of desperately-needed weapons had long been coordinated with Ben-Gurion and the assault on it was premeditated. Its purpose: To discredit Begin and his supporters as an illegitimate political force, and - if possible - to kill him on the spot.

To this day, the Israeli left speak of the Altalena affair with reverence, proud of Ben-Gurion's crushing of his political opponents.

Allow me to shudder whenever I hear talk of the need for "a new Altalena".

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Englishe Yiddishe vorts

I can't remember where I first came across this idea, but I still find it funny. Pronounce with a Yiddish accent for best effect.

English words which sound like they should be Yiddish:

Your suggestions are welcome.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Roadkill myths I: It just keeps getting worse

Everyone in Israel seems to have an opinion about road accidents and how to reduce them. Unfortunately, most people's opinions seem to be disconnected from the facts. With a new legislative proposal on the subject before the Knesset, I thought I'd finally launch my long-planned series.

Before I get into my opinions, I'd like to start by dispelling some of the widespread misconceptions about the facts.


Myth I: It just keeps getting worse

You hear this every time there's a major traffic accident. "It just keeps getting worse, doesn't it? Every year more people are killed!"

Fortunately, this myth is easily dispelled. Annual traffic fatalities are not on an upward trend; far from it.

Anyone care to guess in which year the most Israelis were killed in traffic accidents? (Data is available from 1949-2004.)

Would you believe 1974? And it's not even close.

Here's the raw data (available from Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics):



As you can see, it's not getting worse from year to year. But, you may insist, neither is it getting any better. Annual fatalities have been stuck at 450-550 for over fifteen years now. With all the money and effort invested in road safety, why don't we see any improvement?


Actually, there's been plenty of improvement. The above graph ignores a crucial factor: The increase in population. Israel has the fastest population growth of any developed country, due to high birth rates and immigration. If the number of fatalities stays constant while the population grows, that means the per capita fatality rate is improving!

The population graph - note especially the sharp growth since 1990, the start of the Soviet aliyah:



So in 2004, there were almost as many traffic deaths as in 1987 - but the population was about 55% higher! That means the per capita fatality rate has fallen by 38% since then.


Dividing the first graph by the second graph, let's graph the per-capita fatality rate:

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

As you can see, there is a clear downtrend since the peak in the 1970s, though the improvement has been gradual since 1980.

Why is it so slow, though? We need to do better!


Ah, but even this graph omits a crucial factor: The increase in road use. Israel has a rapidly developing economy, with the standard of living improving at a fast pace. This is partly reflected in the burgeoning use of private vehicles. Twenty-five years ago, few Israelis owned cars; now, many families own two or more.

You can't assess road safety without taking into account road usage. All else being equal, the more people drive the more accidents there will be.

Road use has increased much faster than population (data available only since 1963, with annual data only since 1984):



So Israelis drove 2.6 times as far in 2004 as they did in 1987, but with about the same number of fatalities. In that time, the fatality rate per kilometer driven fell by 63%, or nearly two-thirds!

Here's the fatality rate per kilometer driven:



As this graph demonstrates, the death rate per kilometer driven improves nearly every year, sometimes significantly. This makes sense, since the roads are improved from year to year, and car safety features also improve over time.

(NOTE: I've updated these last two graphs since first posting to remove misleading interpolated data points.)


Now we can put the first graph, the raw numbers of annual fatalities, in context. Two long-term trends are at work: The year-on-year growth in vehicle use, driven by population growth and economic improvement; versus the year-on-year safety improvements to roads and vehicles, which lower the per-kilometer fatality rate. When the fatality rate drops by more than the increase in kilometers driven, the overall number of fatalities falls; when road use increases more than safety improves, the raw number of fatalities rises.

Either way, however, road safety - as measured by fatalities per capita or fatalities per distance driven - improves over time. Contrary to the myth, it just keeps getting better!


In future installments in this series, I hope to address international comparisons of Israel's road safety record.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Editorless in Gaza

I don't care where you stand on "disengagement" - can we at least agree on a moratorium on the hackneyed phrase "Eyeless in Gaza"?

This means you, too.

Michael Graham: Islam is a terrorist organization

Michael Graham, talk radio host for Washington DC's WMAL-630, is under fire for making the shocking allegation that "Islam is a terror organization." Islamic activists are calling for his head. Figuratively, of course (whew!).

I'm currently listening to Graham's show over the Internet, as I usually do each afternoon (Israel time), and Michael is currently explaining that clearly he was mistaken. Terrorism is actually the fault of the Amish. After all, all religions are equivalent, and equally dangerous - right? Unfortunately, Amish atrocities don't get nearly the attention of those attributed to Muslims. Must be because the media are controlled by the you-know-who...

Later this morning (Washington time), he's expecting to speak with Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Click here to listen live.

I'm not wild about Harry

Potter, that is.

With nearly everyone kvelling about the latest installment, I feel increasingly on the margin.

Out of the six books published so far, I've read none of them.

This comes as a surprise even to me. HP would seem to be a natural fit for me, a fan of Tolkien, Narnia and Dungeons and Dragons. A couple of years ago, I even reread The Phantom Tollbooth, with hours of pleasure. Naturally, as soon as a copy of HP and the Philosopher's Stone (that's the original British title, before it was corrupted by the American publisher) reached my hands, I opened it in anticipation and started to read.

I managed to plow through the first dozen pages or so before giving up.

Sure, it was clever, though not nearly as clever as its literary predecessors. But one characteristic of the book was so blatant I couldn't get past it to enjoy the story: It read like a children's book.

The language was oversimplified, with short sentences and simple vocabulary. However clever the story, the writing was unchallenging, as if it were targeted several years below the appropriate reading level. It was like a translation of television into print. Can't make kids work too hard or they'll turn on the Nintendo instead.

The American edition, aside from simplifying the title, even "translated" a host of British expressions unfamiliar to American children, lest the listless tykes be forced to use a dictionary, or Google.

When I read J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis as a kid, I had to stretch my mind to do it. I'm clearly not a kid anymore, but when I read HP as an adult, I felt Rowling was writing down to the level of her young fans, rather than challenging them to hone their reading skills.

Incidentally, I did see the film of the first book, and I got the same impression. It was styled as a children's movie, with all the subtlety and sophistication of a Disney cartoon. Less, even. How many times did we see the same shot of Harry, mouth agape and eyes popping in wonder at some new magical encounter?

There's nothing wrong with children's books or children's movies, to be sure. But with all the hype about Harry, I was expecting something a few steps beyond standard children's fare. Instead, I got the lowest common denominator of children's entertainment.

Am I being too harsh? I expect I might feel different if I had a 10-year-old to read it with.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Jewish tuition just doesn't add up

Everyone's talking about the high cost of Jewish education in the United States. I confess I don't know much about the economics of Jewish schooling, but as a self-appointed Jewish blogger that shouldn't stop me from discussing it.

Reliable sources tell me of Jewish day schools charging $12,000 a student - for first grade! Try as I might, I can't understand how it can be so expensive to teach children.

A thought experiment: Imagine 25 families with first-graders. Say they hire a full-time teacher for a generous $50,000 a year. Add a teacher's aide at $25,000. Including benefits, payroll costs should be around $100K, or $4,000 per student. Add to that the cost of renting a classroom, books, crayons, photocopying and some administrative overhead. Oh, and a playground for recess. It would be hard to get to $6,000 a student, let alone $12,000.

What am I missing here? I admit I've never run a school, but I don't see where all that money can be going. State accreditation inspections? Chocolate milk? Mountain retreats for curriculum development?

It's no wonder more and more Orthodox families are homeschooling - or just having fewer children. It's either that or make aliyah, nebekh!

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Suppressing my appetites

The Fast of the 17th of Tamuz. No food, no water, from dawn until nightfall. The start of an annual three-week period of mourning for the destruction of the ancient Jewish Temples in Jerusalem.

On my way to work this morning I listened to a BBC World Service feature about hoodia (listen here), a natural appetite suppressant derived from the leaves of a cactus which grows in South Africa's Kalahari Desert. The program focused on intellectual property issues (calling Ron Coleman!): Are the San Bushmen, who have known about the medicinal properties of hoodia for generations, entitled to a share of any profits derived from its commercial production?

Given the state of my stomach, I was less interested in patent rights and more focused on appetite. Logically, one would assume that Orthodox Jews should find dieting easy. Everything we eat must conform to the regulations of kosher food, requiring us to control our appetites constantly. I don't eat cheese with meat, or for six hours thereafter. I can't go out to eat except at kosher restaurants. No matter how hungry I am, I won't scarf down crabcakes or bread baked with lard. And to top it off, on a handful of days of the year we fast entirely, not a drop of food or drink passing our lips.

So why, oh why, is it so hard to stick to a diet?

I am convinced intellectually that sugars and starchy carbohydrates (bread, pasta, rice, etc.) are bad for my health. A couple of years ago I tried the Atkins program, more or less, and lost nearly 30 pounds while slashing my cholesterol and triglyceride levels.. But after a while I got fed up with artificial sweeteners, and my sweet tooth never lost its potency. I've regained nearly half of my weight loss.

I want to eat healthy food. I know it's good for me, and I feel good when I do it. But I just can't stick with it.

Yet I can easily shun all forms of non-kosher food without a single slip, and I can go a whole day without a sip of water on fast days like today.

A related question: Is it easier for Orthodox Jews to give up smoking, since we are always forbidden from smoking for one day each week?

Or is it always easier for us to abstain from violating Shabbat or kashrut than to take care of our health?

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Tearing for the purpose of mending?

In his zeal to push forward the "disengagement" plan, it seems at times as if Sharon is going out of his way to tear Israeli society apart.

Every step of the way, he has avoided working gently to build a consensus behind the program. He has rarely expounded on the plan's rationale. He has scoffed at opposition in his own Likud party, even though the plan is the opposite of Likud's platform from the last elections. He has fired or threatened to fire anyone opposing the program. He even turned down a proposal to hold a referendum on disengagement in exchange for an opposition promise to accept the verdict quietly if it passed.

He has contributed to the venomous rhetoric against the plan's opponents, accusing them of destroying Israeli democracy and threatening his life and those of his allies. He and his advisers have apparently unleashed the full fury of the state's police power to suppress demonstrations against the plan, brutally at times. He has rejected calls for the IDF to be sensitive to reassign soldiers conscientiously opposed to the plan, forcing them to choose between their principles and their uniforms.

On the practicalities, he has given residents of 30-plus years a bare few months to shut down their old lives and organize anew. He has, at least initially, offered utterly inadequate compensation for people's homes and businesses, and apparently considered it a concession to postpone the decree's implementation until after Tisha B'Av.

Sharon is no fool. He has decades of experience in Israel politics, and has an insider's knowledge of the right wing factions. Surely he could have herded disengagement along more gently? Is he suddenly such a novice that he makes every possible political mistake? Is he so caught up with the zeal of conviction that he is oblivious to the damage he's causing, so long as the program moves forward? Is he the hapless victim of bad advice from political advisers who care only about tactical success, not long-term societal harm? Is he so convinced the right will never back down willingly that he feels severe confrontation is inevitable, and there is no gain to be had from dealing more tenderly with them? Is this just Sharon the Bulldozer, letting nothing get in his way?


An explanation
All these explanations are plausible, some more than others, but I'd like to propose another, more charitable one.

Sharon's moves to aggravate Israeli social unrest could be deliberate.

I hear you ask: This is a charitable explanation?

I suggest that Sharon may be implementing a conscious strategy to protect Israel's long-term interests.

Sharon believes - as do many on the Israeli right - that in the long run it is not tenable for Israel to maintain control of Gaza. The demographics are against it, the cost in military deployment is way too high, and the long-term social friction involved in defending a few thousand Israelis surrounded by millions of hostile neighbors is debilitating. Sooner or later we'll have to withdraw, and the sooner the better, all else being equal. (I won't try to rebut these arguments here.)

The same is not true for the "West Bank". Judea and Samaria are far more heavily settled by Jews, and less densely settled by Arabs, especially outside the six main towns. They are the historic heartland of the Jewish nation, and bear an emotional attachment Gaza cannot compare with. They are the strategic backyard of all of Israel's major cities, and are directly contiguous with Jerusalem. Sharon has never even suggested withdrawing from them, beyond perhaps some minor adjustments (such as the current handful of small villages in northern Samaria, a sop to the Americans).


No pain, no gain
How do you withdraw from Gaza without leaving the clear impression that the natural next step is to withdraw from Judea and Samaria? Isn't that the greatest risk of disengagement - that it will naturally be perceived as phase one in a unilateral Israeli Plan of Phases?

The answer: You make the withdrawal from Gaza as painful as possible. You goad your opponents into radical acts of civil disobedience and refusal of military orders. You know some hotheads on the margins will even get violent. You plant - or at least tacitly support others who plant - phony accusations of assassination plots. You let the police preemptively board buses of protestors headed to a demonstration declared illegal. And so on and so on.

And you ask the Americans for a couple billion dollars in aid to finance the massive cost of redeployments, reconstruction and compensation. Let them feel the pain too.

And when, a year or two down the line, the Arabs or the Europeans or the Americans call on Israel to take the next logical step and pull out of Hebron, or central Samaria, you can point to the social devastation left in the wake of the Gaza "disengagement". Impossible, you say. Look what Gaza did to us. We can't take any more, and no government will dare even try.

Is that really Sharon's thinking? I hope so, since otherwise I can't conceive of a rational explanation for his behavior.

Will it work? No, not in the least. At most, it might give us a reprieve for no more than a decade.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Monday, July 11, 2005

What blue ribbons might really signify

After months of the orange ribbon campaign against disengagement, supporters of Sharon's plan have finally responded in recent weeks, adopting blue ribbons (or, alternatively, blue and white) for themselves.

Let's overlook the self-righteousness implicit in this effort to arrogate Israel's national colors in support of a particular political program; they certainly are not the first political movement to wrap themselves in the flag. No, the blue ribbon brigades have a far more substantial cause for concern.

"Blue ribbons" in Hebrew are s'ratim k'hulim. That phrase is in common usage in modern Hebrew, but it usually means something very different: "blue films" - that is, what is euphemistically known as "adult entertainment cinema". Tell an Israeli, "Ra'iti seret kahol etmol", and they will understand not that you saw a ribbon flying from a car antenna, but that you rented a triple-X video.

No doubt Freud would find great significance in this unfortunate verbal coincidence.

Sunday, July 10, 2005