Monday, December 18, 2006

A salty tale of intellectual property ferment

The life of brine
I haven't made pickles in a long time. I'm crazy about half-sours and garlic dills, and when I'm visiting the States I consume an inordinate quantity of Ba-Tamptes. But, to my constant sorrow, such delicacies are almost unheard of in Israel. Most pickles are canned, and even the fresh refrigerated ones can't compare with the ones I grew up on.

There are a handful of small delis that make their own American-style pickles, and I stock up when I can, but none of them are near my home. So the only choice is to make my own, like my grandmother used to do when I was little.

In fact, it's not hard and not much work either. I have a few cookbooks with suitable recipes, including two which specialize in pickling and preserving. I'm always afraid I'm doing something wrong, but they almost always come out terrific.

The main problem is finding the cucumbers. To make a good batch of pickles, you have to start with the freshest, firmest possible cucumbers. Since I don't find perfect cukes in the supermarket every day, my pickle making is always an on-the-spot thing, dependent on a confluence of circumstances: A good supply of cucumbers on a day when I expect to have the time to make a batch of pickles.

(The worst was when I found perfect pickles towards the end of Chol Hamoed. On Chol Hamoed, you can only prepare food you need for the current festival, but the pickles wouldn't be ready until afterwards. Bummer.)

So it's an all-too-rare pleasure when I'm in the produce section and I find myself face to face with perfect cucumbers. I load up a couple of sacks, add some garlic and fresh dill, and shlep them home, eager to find the time to brine them.

This week, for the first time in ages, the cukes were gorgeous, and I got to work. But it had been so long since my last batch that I did a bit of recipe googling first, to refresh my memory and inspire my imagination.

The case of the modified recipe
Along the way, I discovered this recipe for dill pickles on I don't do vinegar pickles, so I'm not planning to use it, but what caught my eye was this comment by the original submitter of the recipe, one Sharon Howard:
This is my recipe and it has recently been changed by the All Recipes site. I do not use a water bath, that's what causes them to lose their crispness. I think All Recipes added that step when they chose this recipe as one of the top ten recipes. I imagine they added it to comply with USDA recomendations. I have emailed All Recipes asking that they either change back to the original recipe or remove my name. I am so sorry that you had the results you did.

Outrageous, no? apparently took Sharon's submission, changed it in a significant way that harmed the resulting product, and kept it up on their site, continuing to identify her as the submitter. Can they do it? Is it legal? Is it consistent with their terms of use?

I accept!
Like most of us, I routinely click-approve Terms of Use forms for Internet services without bothering to read them. This time for a change, I clicked on "Legal" at the bottom of the page and was treated to the site's Terms and Conditions of Use Notice. The more I read, the more outraged I became. Only a lawyer could come up with this stuff. A delusionary lawyer, for that matter.

Take the opening:
Welcome to (the "Website"). Please read this Terms and Conditions of Use Notice ("Notice") carefully before using the Website. By viewing or otherwise using this Website, you agree to the terms and conditions in this Notice.

By viewing the website, I agree to the terms and conditions in the notice? Seriously! I can't even find the notice without viewing the website. Guess it's too late by then. I've already agreed to it, whether or not I've found it or read it. I don't even have to click to accept it. How can the mere viewing of a website be tantamount to agreeing to its terms of use? (Answer: It can't. I'm not a lawyer, but I'm not stupid either.)

It continues:
We reserve the right in our sole discretion to change, modify, add or delete portions of this Notice at any time. We will provide notice of such changes only by posting the updated notice on our Website and changing the "last updated" date listed above.... We encourage you to review our Notice each time you visit our Site to see if it has been updated since your last visit.

What a pleasure! Every time I visit the site, I must review the terms and conditions notice to see if it has been updated. Otherwise, for all I know, I may be agreeing to sacrifice my first-born to the sun goddess. (Note to self: Before reading pickle recipes, check to see if terms of use have changed since yesterday.)

Positive comments only, please
Then there's the bit about hyperlinks:
You are granted a limited, nonexclusive right to create a hyperlink to the homepage of this Website only, provided such link does not portray or any of its products and services in a false, misleading, derogatory or otherwise defamatory manner. This limited right may be revoked at any time.

How considerate of them. They grant me the right to link to their site! Well, provided I don't make fun of them. Oops! Better remove that link... it's only legal to denigrate if you don't link to them!

Finally, we get to submissions:
By submitting, disclosing or offering any recipe, review, photograph, image, "favorites" list, comments, feedback, postcards, suggestions, ideas, notes, drawings, concepts and other information, content or material, or other item... you hereby grant to an irrevocable, nonexclusive, perpetual, worldwide, royalty-free right and license to use, display, publicly perform, modify, reproduce, publish, distribute, make derivative works of, sublicense and otherwise commercially and non-commercially exploit your Submitted Items and all copyright, trade secret, trademark or other intellectual property rights therein, in any manner or medium now existing or hereafter developed (including but not limited to print, film or electronic storage devices), without compensation of any kind to you or any third party.

Translation: Anything you send us belongs to us. We can do anything we like with it. We owe you nothing in return. Forever! Har, har, har!

And they claim the right to modify user submissions in any way. If this "agreement" holds legal water, the site was within its claimed rights to change Sharon's recipe without consulting her and while continuing to represent it as her original submission.

I'm passing this story on to some law-bloggers in the hopes of more enlightening comments. Stay tuned.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Finding pshat

It happens every time. I'm reading the weekly parasha, and I'm intrigued by some questions of pshat, the literal interpretation of the text. Naturally, I peruse the classical commentators for some insight. But nothing.

Generally, the mepharshim focus on the micro level: Explaining an unfamiliar term or grammatical construction, or citing a midrashic approach to explain an odd turn of phrase. But rarely do they seem to ask or answer the story-level questions that any thoughtful reader might pose.

Take yesterday's reading. So many questions are raised by the interactions between Yaakov and Esav.

Take, for example, the birthright. Is it possible to sell one's birthright? Presumably, you could sell the property after you inherited it, but can you sell the right to it ahead of time? If so, was this even a valid sale? Yaakov exploited Esav's hunger to force him to sell; is that not a sale under duress? And surely the price (apparently, the food he served) was far from sufficient. Clearly, Esav would have strong grounds to contest this sale when the time came to inherit his father - why doesn't he?

Then there are the blessings. Why did Yitzhak have to have a meal before he could bless Esav? Why did he ask for game rather than any other kind of food? Is that really how a blessing works: A great man lays his hands on your head and blesses you, and whatever he pronounces comes true? If so, does the blessing irrevocably apply to whoever happens to be under those hands, even if he lied and cheated and deceived to get there? (One could ask the same question about Yaakov's subsequent marriage to Leah, an episode with parallels to this one.) Yaakov was worried that when his deception was found out, his father might curse him - why didn't he? His mother promised to bear his curse for him - is that even possible? And if Rivka could have borne the curse due to Yaakov, that means curses are portable. Why aren't blessings? (So Yitzhak could correct the misplaced one.) Was this whole series of deceptions appropriate behavior for the father of a nation? And was the result worth the long-term provocation of Esav's wrath?

I could go on. And on. And I could suggest plausible answers for most of these questions. But most of them, as obvious as they seem, are not even alluded to by the classical Torah commentators.

Reading the commentaries, one gets the impression of a series of disjointed comments, somehow or other tied to the text of a given verse, but with little effort to explicate the narrative as a story. This is, in large part, why the teaching of Chumash in day schools is generally so poor: There's no coherent message, just a choppy collection of mini-interpretations and selections of midrash.

Why is this? Why the apparent lack of interest in basic pshat?

Any ideas?

(And if you're curious, I haven't been blogging because I've been busy, not becuase I haven't had anything worth writing.)

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Gmar chatima tov?

Dave the language guy at Balashon writes about the seasonal greeting Gmar Chatima Tova, approvingly citing Passing Phrase, which translates it as meaning "Literally: A good final sealing".

There's just one problem. The grammar of the phrase doesn't support that translation.

"A final sealing" is "gmar chatima". This is a compound phrase (semikhut for Hebrew grammar mavens), in which the base word is "gmar", meaning "sealing". (Correction - I meant to say: "gmar", meaning "finalization".) The gender of the phrase should therefore be the gender of "gmar", which is masculine. But that would demand a masculine form of the adjective "good", yielding "gmar chatima tov"! (Fast talkers sometimes correctly shorten the phrase to "gmar tov", "a good finalization". Adding "chatima" doesn't change the gender of "tov".)

To maintain grammatical correctness, the phrase should be translated a bit differently, as wishing "A final good sealing". As if the "good sealing" is presumed already to exist, and one is wishing for that to be finalized. This is a plausible interpretation after Yom Kippur, when one's fate has already been sealed. But during the preceding ten days of penitence, it is hard to justify. In any case, it is not the common way the phrase is understood.

Rather, I would stick with the original translation, and assume the phrase is simply grammatically incorrect. As a folk greeting which developed over time, either it was originally formed incorrectly ("gmar chatima tova" just sounds right; "gmar chatima tov" doesn't) or grammarians were simply less pedantic about such details as noun-adjective agreement.

Evidence for this understanding is provided, conveniently, by the common pre-Rosh Hashana greeting: "K'tiva Vachatima Tova", "A good inscription and sealing". Since the noun here is compound, the adjective should be plural: "K'tiva Vachatima Tovot"! The singular form properly translates as wishing "An inscription and a good sealing" - an unlikely interpretation, to say the least.

Perhaps "K'tiva Vachatima Tova" just rolled off the tongue (it rhymes!), and "K'tiva Vachatima Tovot" didn't. Or the phrase began as "K'tiva Tova" and the "Vachatima" was added later, inserted with blatant disregard to grammatical technicalities.

I find this all a bit ironic, since I remember as a youngster being very careful to pronounce the precise greeting specified in the Machzor for each type of recipient: "L'shana Tova Tikatev V'techatem" to a man, "...Tikatevi V'techatemi" to a woman, and so on for plural groups. Today I casually rattle off a holiday greeting which is just grammatically wrong. Oh, well.

However you say it, I wish you a final sealing for good. On Yom Kippur we're sealed, but sometimes God has been known to sneak open the envelope for a last minute adjustment on Hoshana Raba, the last day of Sukkot. Or so I'm told. So we continue to wish a "Gmar Chatima Tova" until then.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Of the blogging of many books there is no end

Am Echad has tagged me with the book meme. What could be more appropriate for Jewish bloggers?

(I know, it peaked in mid-August and he tagged me a month ago. So I'm late. Again. So what?)

There's only one problem: How can I name just one? On the assumption that no one reads long blog posts anyway (since they're all busy reading books!), I'll limit myself to the "one book" requested, even though most of the questions have many possible answers. No added commentary, either. If you have questions, just ask!

1. Name one book that changed your life:

Horeb, by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch

2. One book you've read more than once:

The Foundation Trilogy, by Isaac Asimov

3. One book you'd want on a desert island:

SAS Survival Handbook: How to Survive in the Wild, in Any Climate, on Land or at Sea, by John 'Lofty' Wiseman

4. One book that made you laugh:

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams

5. One book that made you cry:

Probably Cyrano De Bergerac, by Edmond Rostand. Made me laugh, too.

6. One book you wish you'd written:

The Dawn: Political Teachings of the Book of Esther, by Yoram Hazony.

7. One book you wish had never been written:

The Invention of Ancient Israel, by Keith Whitelam

8. One book you're currently reading:

Education and the State: A Study in Political Economy, by E. G. West

9. One book you've been meaning to read:

Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Whom to tag? Everyone else has probably already done it. So if you're reading this and you blog, consider this an invitation. A personal, warm and sincere one.

Oh, and gmar hatima tova.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Government by the brambles, for the brambles

Writes Hillel Halkin (hat tip: Am Echad):
For years now, fewer talented young Israelis have been going into both politics and military life as the attraction and glamour have declined along with the ideal of public service in general.

The Israeli political system has been increasingly dominated by self-serving careerists. A new, up-and-coming generation of capable future leaders with a true sense of national responsibility is hard to discern.

Etcetera, etcetera. "For years now"? Try "For thousands of years now". The People of the Book need to open it more often. In particular, Judges 9:7-20, commonly known as the Parable of Yotam (Jotham):
The trees went forth on a time to anoint a king over them; and they said unto the olive-tree: Reign thou over us. But the olive-tree said unto them: Should I leave my fatness, seeing that by me they honour God and man, and go to hold sway over the trees?

And the trees said to the fig-tree: Come thou, and reign over us. But the fig-tree said unto them: Should I leave my sweetness, and my good fruitage, and go to hold sway over the trees?

And the trees said unto the vine: Come thou, and reign over us. And the vine said unto them: Should I leave my wine, which cheereth God and man, and go to hold sway over the trees?

Then said all the trees unto the bramble: Come thou, and reign over us. And the bramble said unto the trees: If in truth ye anoint me king over you, then come and take refuge in my shadow; and if not, let fire come out of the bramble, and devour the cedars of Lebanon.

The eternal truth: People with genuine skills, talents, creativity and productive ability generally don't go into politics. They have better things to do with their lives. This leaves the political realm dominated by unclever, self-important, self-serving seekers of power and glory. (Hence the overrepresentation of military careerists in Israeli politics.)

This is the way of the world. In Yotam's terms, most politicians have been, are now, and will be brambles. Fortunately, most of them don't do too much damage beyond scratching your ankles. The good ones even manage to provide a bit of shade. Unfortunately, some of them catch on fire and "devour the cedars of Lebanon". Metaphorically speaking, of course.

Any plan to save Israel which depends on the arrival of a selfless, capable and responsible generation of leaders is not a plan, it's a prayer. The appearance of such a leader is a supernatural event, in the sense that it contravenes the way the world normally works.

That's why we pray for the arrival of Mashiach - because it's not possible to plan it and we can't realistically expect it.

Until then, we'll have to manage with the leaders we have to choose from in the real world. However brambly they may be. (Though I agree that our current crop is even more brambly than usual.)

Heads up - new cheesemaking comment

A thoughtful new comment has appeared to my two-year-old post on making cheese from non-kosher animals.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Time to Boogie?

Anyone touting former Chief of Staff Moshe "Boogie" Yaalon as Israel's Next Great Hope should pay close attention to this story from the Washington Post.

It was a fateful day. The entire Hamas leadership, according to Israeli intelligence, had gathered in a single home in Gaza:
The air force chief was on the line, assessing the likely impact of the bomb. He said there was a problem.

A half-ton bomb wouldn't finish the job, the air force chief said. A one-ton bomb would blow out the neighboring apartment building, which was filled with dozens of families.

Immediately, Dichter and Yaalon began to argue. Dichter favored the heavy bomb; Yaalon wanted to abort the operation. They both had worked for decades in counter-terrorism, had served in the same secret commando unit and had, as Dichter put it, "traveled together without passports deep into Arab lands."

But they had emerged with different conclusions. For Dichter, "the barrel of terrorism has a bottom." If you captured or killed enough terrorists, Dichter believed, the problem would be solved. "They deserved a bomb that would send the dream team to hell," Dichter said. "I said, 'If we miss this opportunity, more Israelis will die.' "

Yaalon disagreed: "We won't get to the bottom of the barrel by killing terrorists. We'll get there through education. Dichter thinks we'll kill, kill, kill, kill, kill. That's it -- we've won. I don't accept that."

While Yaalon said the army had to consider the support of the Israeli public -- unlikely to favor civilian deaths -- and international legitimacy, Dichter said that from an operational point of view, a one-ton bomb made sense. "There is no fair fight against terrorists," Dichter said. "Never has been. Never will be."

The debate lasted for hours, observers said, and grew louder and larger. The prime minister's adviser, Gallant, sided with Dichter. The defense minister, Mofaz, sided with Yaalon. Dichter recalled: "If you didn't have a strong heart, you'd have a heart attack."

"How can we look in the eyes of our pilots if they kill innocent people?" Yaalon argued.

"And if the terrorists walk out alive, and tomorrow another bus explodes, how do we explain it to our people?" Dichter said.


Only once, Yaalon said, did he knowingly authorize a hit that would also kill a noncombatant, the wife of Salah Shehada. Shehada helped found Hamas's military wing, which had asserted responsibility for killing 16 soldiers and 220 Israeli civilians. In 2002, the air force dropped a one-ton bomb on his home. The blast also destroyed a neighboring house, which Yaalon said he had thought was empty. Fifteen civilians were killed, including nine children. It felt, Yaalon said, "like something heavy fell on my head."

When Yaalon makes this kind of decision, he said, it must pass "the mirror test": At the end of the day, will he be able to look at himself in the mirror?

There's more. It's a fascinating article. But the inescapable conclusion, if the report is accurate, is that Yaalon consistently favored the enemy's civilians over our own, however critical the terrorist being targeted.

He may have opposed disengagement (at least behind closed doors), but that doesn't make him a hawk. And neither does it qualify him to join the ranks of Israel's leadership.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Israelis are furiously debating...

...exactly which of the country's political and military leaders must resign or be dismissed.

In the government: Just Olmert? Olmert and Peretz? Olmert, Peretz and Livni? What about Hirschson and Bar-On?

In the IDF: Halutz? Kaplinsky? Adam? Hirsch?

How low should we go?

I have yet to meet an Israeli who believes we won this war. I have yet to find anyone who thinks this government should stay in office any longer than is necessary to replace it. It's not about left or right. This was a war of national consensus, and it has left us with a new national consensus: They must go.

We just have to work out exactly who, and how to get rid of them.

Then we have to figure out who should take their places.

And we have to do it fast, since in the wake of our glorious victory Syria, Iran and the Palestinians are already issuing new threats against us.

There's no time to lose.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Time to mourn

Last week, I attended my first military funeral in Israel.

This week, I attended my second.

The first was in Jerusalem, the second in Tel Aviv. The first family was religious, the second was secular.

The first was for a young soldier in his regular, mandatory army service, barely out of school. I know his father.

The second was for a man my age, an officer in the reserves called up for this war, a father of young children. He was a colleague of mine at work.

There is nothing more heartbreaking than hearing a father say Kaddish for his son.

Except hearing a young wife and mother who faces raising her kids without their father.

There is no war without casualties. Still, Israel's wars have a way of cutting down too many of our best and brightest young men.

There will be other opportunities to discuss the management of this campaign, including the errors made by our political and military leaders. There will be plenty of time to assess its outcome and debate its ramifications.

First of all, we must not forget to take the time to mourn.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Bunker busting or mosque deconstruction?

Last week, Israel bombed a claimed Hezbullah command bunker in southern Beirut, with dozens of warplanes dropping some 23 ton of explosives on the building. Hezbullah, for its part, said the building was nothing more than a mosque under construction, and not a military target of any sort.

As a civilian and a layman, I have no way of assessing these claims. They may both be true: the mosque construction site may serve as cover for the bunker. Or Hezbullah may be lying. Or Israeli intelligence may have been wrong.

Fortunately, the Middle East is blessed with a plethora of objective journalists to help us sort truth from fiction. (Yes, that was sarcasm.) So I watched eagerly a few days later as a CNN reporter was allowed to visit the site of the attack.

To be fair, he noted that Hezbullah had refused access to journalists for the first day or so after the bombing, so the area seemed to be sensitive. And he couldn't know what may have been removed from the scene before he arrived.

But the pictures he broadcast showed, very clearly, a mosque under construction. Somewhat damaged, but substantially intact. And, he noted, there didn't seem to be much more than a basement underneath it. There was damage to the surrounding buildings, as well. But no bunkers in sight.

Case closed?

Not quite.

I've never seen a building which had been bombarded with 23 tons of explosives, so I can't tell you what it would look like. But I'm pretty sure it wouldn't look like a mosque under construction. Whatever it had looked like the day before.

Going after Hamas terrorists in Gaza, Israel can typically destroy a building with a quarter-ton to one-ton bomb. This attack was supposedly 20-100 times more powerful than that. Granted, a mosque may be larger and stronger than a typical residential building, but remember Israel was aiming to destroy a complex of reinforced bunkers underneath the building. After an assault like that, is it conceivable that the half-built mosque on the site was still recognizable as such?

There are only two possible explanations. Either Israel didn't really drop 23 tons of bombs on the building (Could most of them have missed? Unlikely) - or Hezbullah took the journalists to the wrong site.

Guess which I think is more likely.

Monday, July 24, 2006

You know you haven't been blogging lately when...

...your blog's URL doesn't show up among your browser's auto-completion options!

Really. It's been that long since I've even opened my own homepage.

Meanwhile, a few things have happened:
  • I've actually gotten things done at work.
  • Josh in The Styx has returned from a year-long blogging hiatus with a rapid-fire burst of energetic blogging.
  • Leiah from Letters from Israel has returned from a nearly two-year hiatus with new letters, and a new blog site.
  • At least two more people have discovered who I am. Serves me right for dropping too many hints.
  • My learning progressed, then stalled again.
  • The baby started talking and walking, and continues to daily amaze her worn-out parents.
  • Israel went to war against Lebanon. You may have heard about it.

I'm not going to say much about the war, since there's too much to say and everyone else is saying it. Overall, I think Israel's leaders have been doing a good job so far, with God's help. I didn't vote for Ehud Olmert or Amir Peretz, and I oppose their long-term visions for Israel, but I have to give them credit for the way they've handled the current crisis so far. I only hope and pray they succeed in achieving as many as possible of Israel's strategic objectives with the minimum possible casualties.

The best analyses I've seen of Israel's military and diplomatic strategy have been from Stratfor. The site features free daily podcasts, and you can subscribe to their free commentaries. Their main error has been in underappreciating how reluctant Israel is to launch a major ground invasion of Lebanon, due to our painful experiences in the past.

Military tactics aside, I suspect one of the reasons the IDF has focused on air attacks and minor ground incursions has been to demonstrate to the Israeli public that Hezbullah can't be defeated that way, thus gradually accustoming the public to accept the need for a ground campaign. Also, while going in on the ground may yield the best results, it also carries the greatest risk. Too many casualties and we could turn our current modest success into a perceived defeat, ending worse off than we started.

It's all so complicated, the interplay between the military, diplomatic and domestic fronts. I said I wouldn't say much, so I won't unless people really want to hear it. Enough for now.

Here are some of the topics I have tentatively lined up, time permitting. Let me know what interests you, and I'll bump it forward. (Though the first one will presumably be first, for obvious reasons.)
  • Remember Israel's assault last week on a supposed Hezbullah bunker in Beirut? I've got some thoughts about it.
  • Was the withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 a mistake?
  • Did you know children's cartoons in Israel employ linguistic advisors? Really!
  • Some questions about food and drink in the Talmud
  • Simchat Bat - How do/should religious families celebrate the birth of a daughter?
  • More about road accident statistics ("A leading cause of death in Israel?")

Or maybe you didn't miss me in the first place, and wish I'd crawl back into my hole. Whatever you say. You're the audience.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Israel and the Palestinians playing the game of Hex

Has anyone ever played the game of Hex? Quoth Wikipedia (ellipses are mine):
Players have two colors, say "Red" and "Blue".... They take turns placing a piece of their own color on a hexagon. Red's goal is to form a red path connecting two opposite sides of the parallelogram, and Blue aims to connect the other two sides....

The game can never end in a tie, a fact found by Nash: the only way to prevent your opponent from forming a connecting path is to form a path yourself.

I was reminded of Hex when I saw the headline on this report from Ha'aretz and AP:
Olmert: Israel ready to create 'contiguous' Palestinian state
LONDON - Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Monday that Israel is "prepared to pull out from most" of the West Bank and create a "contiguous" Palestinian state.

Either Olmert didn't say that, or he doesn't know what he's talking about (or he's being deliberately obfuscatory). As even the New York Times has finally realized (hat tip: Soccer Dad), Gaza and the West Bank are not contiguous. The only way to create a contiguous Palestinian state is by splitting Israel in two, granting the Palestinians a sovereign corridor between the mountains and the sea (as they have consistently demanded).

As in Hex, "the only way to prevent your opponent from forming a connecting path is to form a path yourself." Only one state can be contiguous. All the talk about "two states, living side by side" (Bush) or "a Palestinian state alongside Israel" (the "road map") is meaningless. The choice is between a Palestinian state sandwiching Israel, a Palestinian state bisecting Israel, or a Palestinian state partly encircled by Israel. There is no other way to make a Palestinian state. (Veteran readers know I don't believe there will ever be one, but that's beside the point.)

So what did Olmert mean? The Jerusalem Post has a more extensive quote in its version of the story. It quotes Olmert as saying, "...we will have to move forward... to separate from the Palestinians, pull out from areas of the West Bank to realign Israelis to other parts of Israel to leave a very large contiguous territories for a state to be formed by the Palestinians."

That's different, isn't it? It doesn't specify that the Palestinian state will be contiguous, only that it will comprise "very large contiguous territories." Now, I'm not pleased with that prospect, and furthermore I don't believe that the Palestinians will create a sovereign state no matter how much contiguous territory Israel evacuates. But at least it's geographically possible.

Unfortunately, Olmert wasn't nearly so coherent last month in Washington. He spoke before Congress about "a Palestinian state, side by side in peace and security with Israel." At the White House, he referred to "a contiguous territory that will allow the Palestinians to establish their own Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel." Whether "side by side" or "alongside", it's still physically impossible.

So, which will it be? Will the Palestinian state be contiguous, or will Israel remain in one piece?

I hope our leaders are good at Hex.

(Incidentally, the game of Hex is also an apt analogy for the strategies of Jewish and Arab settlement in the West Bank, as well as land development in the Negev and Galilee. But I don't have time to go into that here.)

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Cryptic comments

Every blogger no doubt gets the occasional strange comment. But suddenly I've had three in the same week, all sent by anonymous e-mail without any identifying information. All have been a single line of text in poorly-written English, indicating to me that the author(s) is/are not native English speaker(s).

I understand that some may resort to my e-mail form rather than comment directly using Blogger, which requires registration (an anti-spam measure on my part). But please: If you comment on the form, let me know what the heck you're talking about! At least mention which post you're responding to.

Since last Wednesday, I've received the following three e-mails:

Best of the text i read about a problem.

We are wellocme to it's configuration.

Wellcome to the real world.

The similarities in style and spelling hint to me that these are all from the same reader. I don't really care who it is. I'd just like to know what on earth he/she is referring to.

Any ideas?

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The answer is...

Only one taker for the Hebrew calendar quiz?

Well, if you want to work on it yourself don't read past this point. Spoilers follow.

Start with the axioms, as the mathematicians call them. Each month in the Hebrew calendar is either 29 or 30 days long, usually alternating between them, since the lunar month averages about 29.5 days. The first day of each month is Rosh Chodesh, and the 30th day of each 30-day month is also Rosh Chodesh for the following month. So a 29-day month has one day of Rosh Chodesh, while a 30-day month has two.

Consequently, between the end of one Rosh Chodesh and the start of the next, there are always exactly 28 days: days 2 through 29 of each month. That's four whole weeks. As a result, the next Rosh Chodesh always starts on the succeeding day of the week from the end of the previous Rosh Chodesh.

If Rosh Chodesh for month m ends on Tuesday, Rosh Chodesh for month m+1 must start on Wednesday. It may or may not extend to Thursday, depending on the length of month m.

How many days of Rosh Chodesh are there in a year? Twelve months, half of which have 30 days, should yield an average of 18 days of Rosh Chodesh. A couple of days either way don't affect the answer, though, since whether there are 15 days or 21 days, the number is more than two weeks' worth and no more than three weeks.

No matter what day you start, 18 successive days of the week (or 15 or 21) must include at least two Shabbatot, and no more than three. That's the answer to the first question: Either two or three.

The precise answer for a given year will depend primarily on which day Rosh Hashana starts. If it starts on Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh Heshvan starts on Sunday and the remaining days of Rosh Chodesh for the year will include only two Shabbatot (note that Rosh Hashana itself is not generally considered to be Rosh Chodesh, even though it technically is). If R"H starts on Friday, Heshvan will start on Shabbat, and three Shabbatot will fall on Rosh Chodesh that year. And so on.

The bonus question is indeed more difficult, and I'll leave it open for now. Partly to give you something to think about over Shavuot, partly because I haven't worked it out completely myself yet.

Chag Sameach!

Monday, May 29, 2006

Hebrew calendar quiz questions

Without looking at a calendar, how many times a year can Rosh Chodesh fall on Shabbat? Give the minimum and maximum possible in a single Hebrew year (Tishrei through Elul). I'm looking for the reasoning here, not primarily whether or not you have the right answer.

Bonus question: How many times a year is the "Machar Chodesh" haftarah recited?

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Lag Ba'Omer is based on a typo!

Every Israeli schoolchild knows that Lag Ba'Omer celebrates Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (Rashbi), the Mishnaic sage who died on that day. The schoolchildren, it turns out, have been misled by an ancient typo.

Reporting in last Friday's Makor Rishon, Hagai Segal describes the research of Rabbi Avraham Kosman of Jerusalem. Having finally gained access to fascimiles of original manuscripts, Rabbi Kosman discovered that the day which was originally described in the writings of the Ari, R' Yitzhak Luria, as "Rashbi's celebration" was transformed via scribal error to "Rashbi's death".

This goes some way towards explaining the odd phenomenon of a Jewish festival celebrating the death of a sage.

Furthermore, he has uncovered evidence that Lag Ba'Omer may have originally been a fast day associated with an aborted attempt to build the third Beit Hamikdash - and that it may have even earlier roots back to King Solomon's day.

The article, available only in Hebrew, is here.

I don't suppose it will have any effect on the volume of smoke released into Israel's atmosphere tomorrow night. Close the windows! Cough, cough

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The problem of celebrating a national-religious Yom Ha'atzmaut

As a "national-religious" Jew, I celebrate Yom Ha'atzmaut in a twofold manner: As a national holiday of the State of Israel, and as a religious holiday of the Jewish people. Like all Zionist Jews, I celebrate the founding of the state and its accomplishments over the years, while as a religious Jew I also thank God for bestowing on us such a precious gift and for the salvation the Jews have enjoyed through it.

The problem is that the modes of these two celebrations do not always coincide.

As a national holiday, Yom Ha'atzmaut is celebrated with public concerts and fireworks, with music and dance in the evening and barbecues in the afternoon. As a religious holiday, Yom Ha'atzmaut is celebrated with festive prayers, featuring additional psalms and songs of praise to God, and, at most Zionist synagogues, the recitation of Hallel in the morning, and at some in the evening as well.

I've lived in Israel for about ten years, but I have yet to find a pragmatic balance between these modes of celebration, particularly in the evening when the festival begins.

Consider the schedule. The sun sets. The synagogue fills up for the festive Maariv prayer, which lasts about half an hour. As we disperse, crowds are gathering in the city's central park for the main event, with performances and fireworks. But with a religious holiday beginning, I feel the need for a festive family meal. Granted, there is no obligatory religious feast for Yom Ha'atzmaut, but this is how Jews celebrate, with festive meals.

If we go to the public party, what will we eat? We'll crowd in with other families trying to get the attention of an overworked fast food vendor, and end up chowing down on pizza or burgers in the park, while hyperactive kids dash back and forth spraying silly string and shaving cream on each other to the amplified boom of the music from the stage. This is hardly civilized, and is certainly far from traditional Jewish modes of religious celebration.

Alternatively, we can go home first and sit down for a proper holiday meal. (Some even hold what they call a "Yom Ha'atzmaut seder", at which they recount the history of the State of Israel and the miracles with which God has blessed us through it.) But by the time we get home, eat, and go out again, we've missed most of the concerts and most of the fireworks. The kids (at least once they're older) are disappointed, and even the adults feel they've missed the big event, as if by having a family meal we haven't shared in the communal celebration of this national holiday.

With a child in the house, I'm more acutely aware of this dilemma than before, and more eager to find a pragmatic solution for coming years. What do other national-religious families do? What is the "tradition" for celebrating Erev Yom Ha'atzmaut, as both a national and a religious festival?

Help me out, folks. Thanks!

Monday, May 08, 2006

The same blatt gemara?

I just received the following e-mail (with typos corrected):
Am I mistaken, or have you always been learning the same blatt gemara? Anyway, I enjoy your comments.

In the absence of a return address, I'll respond here.

First, kol hakavod on noticing! As far as I can remember, you're the first reader ever to comment on my "What I'm learning" sidebar.

Second: No, I haven't always been learning the same page. If you go back to last June, for example, you'll see I've made some progress since then.

Since July, though, my learning time has been severely curtailed by the demands of a small but frenetic individual, who brings joy to every day of my life.

Furthermore, between my intermittent learning and intermittent blogging, I've forgotten to update the learning sidebar lately. So you'll be pleased to hear that I've actually finally finished Mesechet Megilla (at least at the level of depth on which I was learning it) and held a siyum on it (hadran alach v'hadrach alan!).

I've also started moving on in Berachot, currently holding at Daf 43a. And I've started a new masekhet, Shevuot, in which I've already finished the mishnayot and I'm just starting the gemara (Daf 3a). I'm currently prioritizing Berachot, so I might not make much progress in Shevuot for a while. (For the uninitiated, Shevuot is about oaths, not the festival of Shavuot.)

I'll update the sidebar soon to reflect my progress. Meanwhile, you can click on some old posts to see how stagnant I've been lately!

Finally: Thanks for the kind words. Anonymous blogs deserve anonymous fans.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

More followups

As long as I'm following up on old postings...

1. Roadkill myths
Final numbers for 2005 (see the official statistics - PDF) indicate that road fatalities fell significantly in Israel (448, down from 480 in 2004), to the lowest absolute level in the last 14 years. Taking into account the continued population growth, the fatality rate per capita fell to its lowest level ever, at 6.5 per 100,000. Fatalities per distance driven, the most meaningful way to assess road safety, fell below 11 per billion kilometers for the first time (previous low: 11.6 in 2003).

My series on road accidents in Israel can be found here: I, II, III

2. Women and Torah reading
As noted earlier by Shira (Leibowitz) Schmidt, the respected Prof. Eliav Shochetman has published a rebuttal of those who claim that halacha allows women to be given aliyot (Sinai journal, vol. 135-136, 5755/2005). It has also been published separately as a 78-page pamphlet.

I haven't seen the article, but a summary can be found (in Hebrew) by columnist Shaul Schiff of the religious newspaper Hatzofeh.

My series on women reading the Torah can be found here: 0, I, II, III, IV, V, VI

I hate to say I told you so...

1. Biur Chametz, Wednesday, September 28, 2005:
But it's hopelessly naive to think that Israel has the power to unilaterally determine its permanent border. A border by definition has (at least) two sides. So long as the Arabs refuse to accept our self-declared border, it will remain up for grabs.

Take the Golan Heights, for example. Or eastern Jerusalem. No country recognizes Israel's sovereignty over them, despite decades of formal annexation to Israel. And no country will until our enemies do. Until such time, they're on the negotiating table, whether we like it or not.

Unilateral withdrawals, aside from destroying Israel's military deterrence and undermining those among the Arabs who support a negotiated agreement, simply cannot achieve the objective of finalizing Israel's borders. The Arabs do not recognize the Israel-Gaza boundary as an international border, and, following them, neither does the United Nations or any individual nation.

2. Haaretz, Wednesday, April 26, 2006:
Sources: U.S. won't view pullout line as final Israel-PA border
By Shmuel Rosner, Haaretz Correspondent

WASHINGTON - The United States will not recognize a border created after a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank as Israel's permanent frontier, senior U.S. administration members said in unofficial conversations.


However, a number of sources said unofficially that they believed the administration would probably support such a withdrawal, but would not recognize it as one "after which there would be no more need for negotiation," according to one source.

One official said he believed the U.S. would agree to see the post-withdrawal line as a temporary border, "which would become permanent, obviously with slight changes, following future negotiations between Israel and the PA."


If the Israeli withdrawal receives the blessing of the international community, "it will be assuming that any reduction of the occupation is good for both sides, but it certainly won't be support for a new border," a source in Washington said.

Any reasonable interpretation of international law, a legal expert said Tuesday, "cannot allow recognition of a border that was determined unilaterally."

Indeed. A "unilateral border" is an oxymoron. "Following future negotiations between Israel and the PA" means the Arabs have a veto over any international recognition. Israel simply will not have "permanent borders" until our enemies agree to them. And there's no prospect of that happening without a major geopolitical upheaval.

If Olmert thinks we have a compelling national interest in destroying more Jewish communities, let him make that case. But don't try to sell us fantasies about "setting Israel's permanent borders".

Monday, April 17, 2006

That A-Z meme

Tagged by Soccer Dad, who brings me out of hibernation now that all my chametz has been biured.

Accent? What accent? Everyone else has an accent!

Okay, call it an Average American, national news anchor accent. Mild enough that Brits have thought I was Canadian (yuck!).

Mostly wine: dry red, semi-dry white. Don't drink beer - never tried it. An occasional whiskey, though I'm not sure what the big deal is. Fruity liqueurs are nice.

Chore I Hate:
All of them. Mostly, though, cleaning the house. It never ends!

I can stand them when others take care of them. Won't pet them myself.

Essential Electronics:
The Internet. All of it. What did I ever do without it?

Favorite Perfume/Cologne:
They're all the same to me.

Gold & Silver:
Waste of money. Wife disagrees.

See Siblings.

Depends on my bladder.

Job Title:
Software Engineer. Maybe even "Senior" Software Engineer, for what that's worth.

One. Not including me and my wife.

Living Arrangements:
Apartment with unaffordable mortgage.

Most Admired Trait:
Ability to explain complex things clearly. And simple things obscurely.

Number of Sexual Partners:
I thought it usually involved two?

Overnight Hospital Stays:
None, thank God.

Opening bills and bank statements.

Kermit: Bear left.
Fozzie: Right, frog!

Jewish, Orthodox (Modern).

See Zodiac Sign.

Time I Usually Wake Up:
The word "usually" doesn't make sense in that context.

Unusual Talent:
Playing The William Tell Overture by tapping a ballpoint pen against my front teeth.

Vegetable I Refuse To Eat:

Worst Habit:
All of them.

Now and then. I like to see what's going on in there.

Yummy Foods I Make:

Zodiac Sign:
See Hometown.

I tag: Jack the Shack ("Jack not name - Jack job!"), Am Echad (the blogger, not the defunct political party), Trilcat (just married, and currently at a juggling convention?).

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Before you vote: Why not to trust the polls

The Israeli elections are over. Kadima has them locked up. Why are we even bothering to vote today?

That's the message Israelis have heard from their media for months now. So my message today is: Don't trust the polls. Anything could still happen.

Here's why.

1. Strategic voting

This year more than most, I get the sense that many Israelis are voting strategically. That is, they plan to cast their ballots not for the party which best represents their views, but for one which will either influence the structure of the Knesset in some direction, or will "send a message" of protest.

Strategic voting effectively relies on the accuracy of the opinion polls. That is, a voter who supports Kadima may assume that Kadima has the election locked up (as Olmert foolishly stated a few weeks ago), and thus feel free to vote for a different party to raise other issues of importance to him. Ironically, Kadima's success in the polls is probably responsible for the recent boost in support for Labor. No one wants to see Amir Peretz as prime minister, but if Olmert is prime minister, many voters (though not me!) would like to see Peretz have significant influence in the coalition.

The problem, of course, is that the strategic voter implicitly assumes that no one else is voting strategically, that all other Kadima supporters (for the sake of this example) will continue to vote Kadima, so he can safely vote Labor without affecting Kadima's victory. This is obviously absurd. If everyone tries to influence Olmert by voting for their second preference party, Kadima won't win in the first place.

It's what scientists call a feedback loop. People decide how to vote based on what yesterday's polls say other people decided. Solving those equations would tax the greatest practitioners of chaos theory.

Strategic voting, I suggest, explains much of Kadima's recent fall in the polls. Once voters take Kadima's victory for granted, more of them feel comfortable switching their votes to other parties. If Kadima slips too far, though, voters will shift back to it. How many will do each? We'll know that only on Wednesday morning.

2. Small parties

This year more than most, several small parties have been hovering near the threshold of votes needed to enter the Knesset. Strategic voting and feedback loops are at play here too. Many voters would like to support some small party or other, but they are reluctant to waste their votes on someone who will fail to pass the electoral threshold. If all the supporters of Green Leaf, or the Pensioners, or Baruch Marzel, were to vote for those parties, they would clearly succeed. But the chance of failure deters enough voters that "can't pass the threshold" is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Each small party which does or doesn't get in shifts at least 2-3 Knesset seats, possibly affecting the coalition balance.

The big unmentionable in this realm affects the Arab parties. Polls see three Arab parties getting 8-9 seats in total, meaning 2-3 seats per party. This is dangerously close to the threshold (which is higher than last time), and some detailed surveys have indicated that one or even two of them may fail to get in. This could crush the Arab factions to just 3-6 seats, enlarging all the other parties proportionally.

3. Voter turnout

All the indications are that turnout this year will be lower than ever. More and more voters are disillusioned with the parties (I know I am), and many of them apparently do not plan to vote, or will vote for parties guaranteed to fail. This is a new phenomenon in Israel, where until 2001 turnout had consistently been over 80%, effectively including nearly all able-bodied resident adults.

As a result, Israeli pollsters don't have much experience developing a turnout model, that is, a way to forecast who will actually cast a ballot. Turnout is likely to depend on one's political and religious orientation, one's ethnic background, and other unknown factors. The pollsters don't know enough about it to give meaningful results.

4. Undecideds

Another unusual factor this year is the high rate of undecided voters this late in the campaign. Though I've already stated my preference, I still toy with the alternatives and have reconsidered my choice several times over the last few days. (Though so far I've ended up in the same place.)

How will people actually vote? All the pollsters can say is that "the undecideds generally break down like the rest of the population". But will they? No one knows.

5. Kadima, etc.

It's the elephant in the room. Kadima is an unprecedented phenomenon, perhaps in any democracy. A popular prime minister breaks away from his own party a few months before the election and establishes a new one, in cooperation with leading members of the opposition. Then he falls ill and is succeeded by his unloved deputy.

And have we mentioned the rise of Hamas? And the aftershocks of disengagement, which undermined many people's faith in Israeli democracy in general, and the mainstream parties in particular?

Too much has changed in Israeli politics to rely on the usual determinants of voter behavior. Opinion polls ask people what they would do if elections were held today. No one can predict will people actually will do behind the curtain.

6. The polls don't agree

How many seats will Yisrael Beitenu get: 7 or 15? Depends on which poll you believe. Maagar Mochot said 15; Dialogue said 7. (Dahaf and Teleseker said 12.)

Will NU/NRP get 8 or 12? That's a big difference in influence, but just about 3% of the votes.

It's hard to get an accurate forecast of the Knesset, since small changes cause large effects. A typical survey of 500 participants has a sampling error of 4%, or 5 seats in the Knesset. And that's without considering all the other sources of error in election polling. How can small parties be meaningfully forecasted with such tools?

Ultimately, it comes down to the methodologies of the different polling companies. They can be more important than what people actually tell the pollsters.

7. The polls' record is poor

In Israel's last election, in January 2003, you probably remember the polls as being pretty accurate in forecasting a landslide for Sharon and Likud. But how accurate were they really?

In the following chart, the first column of numbers is the result of the 2003 elections (in Knesset seats); the second column is the range of results of opinion polls taken the week before the elections.


Am Ehad30-4
Israel BaAliyah23-5
Right/religious bloc6964-69
Left/Arab bloc3334-37

Notice that in most cases the polls underestimated support for the right - substantially in the case of Likud itself - and overestimated support for the left and the Arab parties. None of the polls gave Likud anywhere near 38 seats.

Likud had been slipping in the polls in the runup to the election; that may have induced supporters to vote Likud on Election Day. Kadima's recent slide may also be good for it at in the polling booth. Or it may reflect a genuine drop in support. The opinion polls don't distinguish between these effects.

And let's not mention that Shimon Peres is today the head of the Labor Party, having defeated Amir Peretz as the polls indicated. This came ten years after he was elected prime minister over Binyamin Netanyahu, as the polls indicated.


8. Message: Make your vote count

My point is this: Nothing is over until the votes are cast. Make yours count. Vote for the party you most wish to see represented in the Knesset.

If you give up and throw away your vote, you're letting the pollsters determine the election.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

How to let "chametz" pass your lips

Considering the season and the recent launch of Balashon, I thought I'd finally bite the bullet and address a Frequently Asked Question I've long been evading (unlike the Frequently Unasked Questions I addressed a while back). Judging from the search referrals to this site, a lot of people out there are wondering:

Q: How is the word "chametz" pronounced?

A: If only I knew....

Seriously, though, it depends on one's dialect of Hebrew. Like all languages, and especially 4000-year-old languages, Hebrew has many dialects and accents. This goes back at least to biblical times, and is the origin of the English word shibboleth.

To tell you how to pronounce "chametz" I'd have to know what Hebrew dialect you're speaking. Actually, there are even multiple ways to spell "chametz" using English letters, depending on what aspects of the original Hebrew (חמץ) you're trying to capture best. (See another way to spell "biur chametz" here.)

In fact, among common Hebrew dialects today, the only sound in the word "chametz" that everyone pronounces the same is the "m". The two syllables are even accented differently.

Without further ado, I'll try to describe how to pronounce the word in three different contemporary Hebrew dialects, including two of the most common. Since I'm not a linguist (and, chances are, neither are you), I won't bother with phonemes and pronunciation symbols and other technical jargon. Anyway, I couldn't do it if I tried.

1. Israeli Hebrew
The most common Hebrew dialect today is the one spoken by most Israelis.

The word "chametz" is pronounced with the accent on the second syllable: cha-METZ. Taking it one sound at a time:

ch - as in "Bach" - a rough guttural sound like when you clear your throat (but briefly)
a - as in "father", but briefer
m - as usual... how else can you pronounce m?
e - as in set, though perhaps with a bit of "ay as in say" mixed in
tz - like the "ts" in "pets"

Except for the first sound, it's similar to how a baseball fan says "the Mets".

2. American Ashkenazi Hebrew
This is the way most American Jews pronounce Hebrew (at least those who haven't adopted the Israeli accent).

The word "chametz" is pronounced with the accent on the first syllable: CHA-metz. This is actually a violation of the rules of Hebrew grammar, but it is common for Ashkenazim to change the accenting of Hebrew syllables.

Most of the sounds in the word are the same as for Israeli Hebrew.

ch - as above
a - like the "u" in "hug", or sometimes with more "o" in it, like the "o" in "more"
m - as above
e - a very short, indistinct vowel sound (shewa), like the "e" in "wallets"
tz - as above

Except for the first sound, it's similar to how an American says "summits".

3. Yemenite Hebrew
This is probably the closest contemporary dialect to the way Hebrew was spoken in ancient times. Other Sephardic dialects are similar to the Yemenite dialect in many ways. Even Yemenite Jews who have adopted Modern Israeli Hebrew for everyday speech usually maintain Yemenite pronunciation for prayer.

It's hard to describe some of these sounds to English speakers. I'm also less familiar with it, and I may be wrong on some of the subtleties.

The word "chametz" is pronounced with the accent on the second syllable: cha-METZ.

ch - as above, but much softer. Instead of a harsh, grating sound like clearing the throat, it's a gentle rush of air through the back of the throat. Like an "h" with a bit of sandpaper. I can't explain it better than that!
a - as in "father", but briefer
m - as above
e - as in set, more or less
tz - like an emphasized "s", with a bit of a hiss. No "t" sound or "z" sound in it at all.

No matter what you do, it isn't similar to the way an American pronounces anything. (An Arab, on the other hand...)

Now, don't get me started on the word "biur"!

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Tongue twisting

A big J-Blog welcome to Balashon, the "Hebrew language detective" (if you can't tell, that's a double pun in modern Hebrew).

Dave, an amateur linguist, covers a topic close to my heart: the origins of words and phrases in Hebrew and other Jewish tongues. Take a look at his great list of sidebar links! (He could use a blogroll, though. Hint, hint.)

I hope he joins the campaign to save Hebrew's vowels!

Monday, March 20, 2006

A floating voter settles down. Maybe.

In between not blogging, raising a baby, and actually getting things done at work, I've occasionally noticed that Israel is having elections next week.

(Meanwhile, I've usually been reading only Soccer Dad and Hirhurim. Before I continue: Make sure to learn some Nach Yomi for my friend Avraham Norin, may he get well soon.)

I'm still not sure who I'll vote for. Though I'm firmly on the Israeli right, the multiplicity of right-wing parties makes me a floating voter in general elections. Since making aliyah, I voted for the National Union in '99 and the National Religious Party in '03, and there were three or four other parties I considered along the way.

Still, my choice is usually final by a month or two ahead of Election Day. This time, I'm even less sure than usual.

For starters, none of Israel's political parties agrees (at least officially) with my fundamental analysis of our situation: That there are no feasible solutions to our conflict with our Arab neighbors.

  • Kadima (to start with the biggest fish) admits that Israel has no apparent negotiating partner among the Palestinian Arabs. So far so good. But they conclude from this that we should give the Arabs 95% of their perennial demands on us, gratis. Not only will this not solve anything (as even honest leftists agree!), it will only entrench the Arab view that there is no point in talking to us, since we'll ultimately give in if they wait long enough. Does anyone doubt that Sharon's "disengagement" was substantially responsible for the political success of Hamas?

  • There's not much point in discussing Labor and parties to its left. My political and economic sympathies are firmly on the right: I'm pro-settlement, skeptical of territorial compromise, and believe the only prospects for peace are in the very long term, through persistent Israeli military and economic strength and national steadfastness. Need I say more?

  • Likud has some points in its favor. Most of the pro-disengagement gang disengaged to Kadima, leaving the Likud mostly anti. "Mostly", though, still includes a good number of disengagistas. And the "antis" themselves didn't come through in the crunch. Self-declared opponents like Netanyahu, Livnat and Shalom actually voted for the disengagement bill in the Knesset, and backed down on their threat to collectively resign from the government over it. So why should I trust them in the future?

    At least Netanyahu can take some of the credit for Israel's economic recovery; I support his general outlook and most of his specific reforms. But his overall record as a leader of Israel has been mixed.

  • Taking another step to the right, we have the merged National Religious Party / National Union. On the surface, they are close to my position on diplomatic issues, though they don't quite come out and say that there are no real solutions. They are also my natural sectoral home as a nationalist-religious voter. And their candidates are generally decent, well-meaning people, untainted by scandal.

    Unfortunately, they haven't exactly been very successful at promoting their platform in government. They waste inordinate amounts of energy on ideological infighting - aside from the NRP and Moledet, the current merged list includes two separate factions which broke away from the NRP over recent years. They failed to stop or even slow down the disengagement, or even to force a referendum on it.

    Their economic program reeks of Labor socialism - not even a mention of tax cuts. And on one of their flagship issues - the Jewish character of the state - their voice has rarely been heard. Where were they when Shabbat shopping became the rage? The Likud has introduced more Jewish content into the secular schools than the NRP ever dreamed of. And where were they when the Ministry of Religion was dismantled, leaving thousands of mashgichim and burial workers emptyhanded, without anyone clearly responsible for paying their salaries? Oh, yeah - they were in the government, participating in the process.

    For this I should vote NRP/NU?

  • Is Yisrael Beiteinu still a right-wing party? Lieberman these days talks mostly about crime, and rarely mentions his controversial diplomatic statements. He's clearly positioning himself to be a junior coalition partner of Kadima, endorsing whatever diplomatic plan Olmert proposes. And he's adopted a secularist platform to boot. No thanks.

  • Shas and Yahadut Hatorah are purely sectoral parties for the Sephardi and Ashkenazi haredi communities. While I have sympathy for some of their goals, they won't stand up for what I believe in. That's just the way it is.

  • Which leaves only the perennial cranks and assorted misfits who insist on founding parties that can't possibly make it into the Knesset. They can't even manage to join forces! The only attraction of such parties is that they afford a protest vote to those who can't bring themselves to support any of the mainstream parties, and who would otherwise stay home. But I'm not interested in wasting my vote - I'd rather help the pragmatic right wing than vote for a hopeless cause.

    Incidentally, I think you'll find that neither of these parties agrees with my no-solution analysis. Both claim to propose solutions to the Israel-Arab conflict. Both are hallucinating. I won't feel comfortable until my leaders are willing to speak the obvious truth. We can't solve our problems by expelling the Arabs, or by negotiating with them, or by supporting a Palestinian state (which won't be established anyway), or by unilaterally redrawing our borders, or by any other practical moves. Not until they change their attitudes towards us. And that's out of our hands.

So, who am I voting for?

My current inclination is towards the Likud. Not because I expect any great results from them. But I'm broadly in agreement with Netanyahu's free-market economic program (I know not all of the Likud supports it); I'm broadly sympathetic with their no-unilateral-concessions platform (I know they might not stick to it); I'm satisfied that they're the only major secular party which is sympathetic to Jewish tradition.

More important, though: The Likud is the only party which can conceivably lead a center-right governing coalition. If the Likud collapses, the political center-right will be leaderless. Kadima is (realistically speaking) center-left; Labor is clearly on the left. No religious party will be forming Israel's government for the foreseeable future. The Likud must be supported if we are ever to expect the right to return to power.

True, Kadima may collapse over the next four years. But I'm not willing to bet the country on that prospect. We need a strong Likud. The more I think about it, the more convinced I am.

You're welcome to try to persuade me otherwise.

Update (23 March): My friend Evie Gordon also makes the case for voting Likud, even more strongly than I do.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Honk if you enjoy personal guarding

Despite all my reservations about Ha'aretz (often described as "Israel's New York Times", but compared to Ha'aretz the NYT is a responsible, conservative publication), I must admit they put together a serious, quality newspaper.

At least in the original Hebrew edition. The English edition has been problematic since its founding about a decade ago. It's generally even more left-wing than the Hebrew original, often trimming inconvenient balancing material from the translated articles.

But more important than its bias slant, there is the minor matter of language. Ha'aretz in English reads like it's been translated by a team of trained monkeys. Native Israeli monkeys, at that.

Next to simultaneous translation, translating the web edition of a daily newspaper must be one of the most challenging jobs for a translator. But that's no excuse for publishing gibberish and calling it English.

Take today's short item about Netanyahu's new job as leader of the Knesset opposition. Writes the translator:
Netanyahu is replacing Peretz because he now heads the largest opposition faction, which counts 27 MKs. Labor only counts 21 MKS.

Funny. I didn't know parliamentary factions could count. Presumably the Likud numbers 27 MKs, etc. (I'll forgive them that pronoun/antecedent problem...)

Then we learn this tidbit, apparently about Netanyahu's hobbies:
...the opposition leader enjoys personal guarding...

Sounds fun! What on earth is "personal guarding"? A form of martial art?

Not quite. The whole sentence reads:
According to law, the opposition leader enjoys personal guarding, which Netanyahu already has as a former prime minister.

Aha! The opposition leader is entitled to personal bodyguards. Why didn't they just say so?

Sunday, January 15, 2006

If you sent me this e-mail, please write again!

A couple of weeks ago, I received an e-mail which read something like this:

Someone told me to link to your blog. Do I know you?

I intended to reply, but the terse correspondent neglected to leave a name, reply address, URL, or any other form of cyberidentification. So if it was you, please write again with a return address!

My answer, in any case, would be:

Please feel free to link to my blog. Whether or not you know me, of course, depends on who you are. I can't help you with that question.


Yep, I'm in Texas. Hard to believe sometimes, but it's the truth.

I've never been to Texas before, and I haven't seen much of it, but it's been a bit surprising (and disappointing) to discover that (so far, at least) it's not that different from anywhere else in the United States.

I suppose Texas is just like the rest of America, only more so. The roads are a bit wider, the cars a bit bigger, the landscape a bit flatter, the language a bit more Spanish. But you could wander through a suburb of this Texas city and not know what state you're in. At least not until you came across a patch of wild cactus, or a stray armadillo.

There's no way you could mistake it for anywhere in Europe, though, let alone Israel. Even though Israel has the same cactuses (the famous sabra cactus were originally imported from the American southwest), that's about the only similarity between the landscapes. That, and the absurdly mild winter. Both Israel and Texas are currently suffering drought conditions.

The longer I've lived outside the U.S., the more I feel like an outsider when I visit. Americans - most of whom have never left the continent - tend to envision the rest of the world in one of two ways: 1) It's just like here, but they speak funny, or 2) It's incomprehensibly different, quaint and primitive. They're both right and both wrong, but neither is terribly useful in understanding the world.

So what's different about America? Some odd thoughts and observations:
  • Where's the flavor? I think I've worked out why Mexican food is booming in the U.S. It's not because of all the Mexicans - though that surely helps. It's because American fruits and vegetables are utterly tasteless. Cucumbers, tomatoes, watermelons, lettuce - they all taste more or less the same. Like chewing on a water-soaked towel. No wonder Americans buy so much salad dressing and salsa. Come to Israel, where cucumbers taste like cucumbers!

  • Discount shopping. It's hard sometimes to appreciate that the land of wealth and opportunity is also the land of the big bargain. If you find cheap clothes in Israel, chances are there's a reason they're cheap. Israeli retailers seem to think 10-20% off is a low-low-price. Maybe it comes down to sheer economies of scale, but shoppers seem to have it much better in America.

  • Ice machines. What is it about Americans and ice makers? They're in refrigerators, hotels, drink machines. I'm all for ice, but how much do you need? How convenient does it have to be? What's so hard about putting an ice tray in the freezer?

  • Have a nice day! This annoys many Israelis - why should a total stranger in a shop care what kind of day I have? I disagree. I'd rather have an assistant with a phony smile than one with a genuine scowl, as too many Israeli shop clerks have.

    But it's not just a symbol of superficial American customer service; Americans are genuinely smiley. This is a nation of optimists, and popular culture simply reflects that: The cheery breakfast shows, the bookstores and infomercials brimming with guarantees of self-improvement. Americans expect every story to have a happy ending, and every problem to have a workable solution that people of good will can achieve through hard work and compromise. That's (in part) why they can't understand the Middle East.

    Or Europe. To oversimplify, Americans look around them and see boundless space and plentiful opportunity. Europeans look at life constantly aware that we will all eventually die.

    And Israelis? Israelis see threats all around them, never sure how long they as individuals or as a nation will survive in a hostile environment. But they also see how much they have accomplished over the years despite that. People grow up, marry, have kids, acquire property, see the world. Cities are built, and highways, and forests and farms and universities and yeshivas. Ultimately, there's nowhere else on earth a Jew can feel so comfortable being a Jew. So they soldier on, in every sense of the phrase.

Looking forward to getting back home soon!

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

More on camel coagulation

Following up on last year's posts on non-kosher milk and whether or not it coagulates, I recently came across this shiur by YU's Rabbi Shmuel Marcus, in which he addresses the subject in the course of discussing the question of Chalav Yisrael.