Mecca: You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone

Today is Eid al-Adha, culmination of the pilgrimage to Mecca, now marred by yet another tragedy that has left hundreds dead in a stampede. (Earlier, it was a crane collapse.) In a new photo gallery, I offer some commentary on the stupendous transformation of Mecca in our time. If you haven’t followed it closely, and (like me) you don’t have any plans to visit Mecca anytime soon, the images (and the numbers) may astound you. The effect on Islam? Unpredictable. Follow this link.

Mecca photo gallery

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The original truck people

This post first appeared at the Commentary blog on August 31.

Austrian authorities on Thursday discovered an abandoned truck on a highway near the Hungarian border, packed with the decomposed bodies of 71 dead migrants, including four children. While migrants have perished at sea in the multitudes, this tragedy has put Europe on notice: The horrors from which the migrants flee, and that regularly play themselves out in the middle of the Mediterranean, will soon become commonplace in the heart of the continent unless something changes.

Now how addled and obsessed must one be, to use this event as a stick to beat Israel? About as addled and obsessed as Juan Cole, professor at the University of Michigan and popular blogger on the edge of the left. See as evidence this post: “Austrian Truck Tragedy echoes Palestinian Story, reminding us of 7 million still stateless [Palestinians].”

What is that Palestinian story? It is a 1962 novella by the Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani entitled Men in the Sun. The allegorical storyline is about three Palestinians who flee the misery of Lebanon’s refugee camps to Iraq, in the hope of reaching the Xanadu of Kuwait. They are smuggled across the desert from Basra in the empty barrel of a water tanker truck. But because of a delay at the Kuwaiti border, the three suffocate to death. (The novella was made into a film in 1972.)

I won’t make an issue of the “seven million still stateless” Palestinians. (The upper-end estimate is closer to five million.) And far be it from me to quibble with anyone’s free associations. But Cole tops off his with this statement, which purports to be historical: the Palestinians’ “home has been stolen from them by the Israelis and they were unceremoniously dumped on the neighbors or in the West Bank or in the Gaza Strip. They are stateless. They are the original truck people.” (My emphasis.)

This concluding dramatic flourish, identifying the Palestinians as “the original truck people,” jolted me. The first people made stateless, dispossessed, stripped of their humanity, and packed into sealed trucks where they died horribly, all in the very heart of Europe, were many thousands of Jewish victims of the Nazi extermination machine.

As anyone who has read even one history of the Holocaust knows, before there were gas chambers there were mobile gas vans. These were air-tight trucks which could be packed with as many as sixty persons, who would be killed by cycling the carbon monoxide exhaust back into the cargo area. Himmler ordered the invention of the method to spare the Germans in SS killing squads the damaging psychological effects of shooting thousands of victims, one at a time. The trucks were deployed primarily to kill Jews, who were loaded into them without separation by gender or age. I will spare readers the horrific testimonies of the operators of these trucks, and the documentary evidence of how technicians worked to perfect them. I’ll only quote this argument, made by a technician, for keeping the cargo area lit:

When the back door is closed and it gets dark inside, the load pushes hard against the door. The reason for this is that when it becomes dark inside the load rushes toward what little light is left. This hampers the locking of the door. It has also been noticed that the noise [i.e., screams] provoked by the locking of the door is linked to the fear aroused by the darkness. It is therefore expedient to keep the lights on before the operation and during the first few minutes of its duration. Lighting is often useful for night work and for the cleaning of the interior of the van.

Hundreds of thousands died in these trucks, at least 150,000 in Chelmno alone. According to that same technician, three vehicles succeeded in killing 97,000 persons in the six months prior to June 1942. However, it turned out that the mobile gas vans were subject to breakdown on the back roads where they operated away from sight, and even then they proved impossible to keep secret. (Passersby could hear the screams.) Gas chambers located in extermination camps finally replaced the vans.

Of course, one mustn’t confuse botched human trafficking with planned genocide. But part of what is so shocking about the Austrian truck tragedy is the earlier precedent of men, women, and children packed into trucks and asphyxiated to death in the heart of Europe. If the horror on the Austrian motorway should evoke anyone’s fate, it is that of six million exterminated Jews, not five million living Palestinians. To anyone who knows history, death trucks on European highways recall why the “original truck people,” the Jews, needed the refuge finally secured by the creation of Israel.

Deportation of Jews from Wloclawek, Poland to the Chelmno Death Camp, April 1942.

Deportation of Jews from Wloclawek, Poland to the Chelmno Death Camp, April 1942. Photo: Yad Vashem.

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Does Israeli intelligence favor the Iran deal?

This post first appeared at the Commentary blog on August 24.

J.J. Goldberg at the Forward has been running a campaign to persuade Americans that Israel’s intelligence community is at odds with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the Iran deal. Not only the preponderance of retired professionals, but also currently serving ones, dissent from Netanyahu’s read of the deal. Netanyahu can’t silence the former, but he’s given a “gag order” to the latter—to no avail. Military intelligence has even produced a “surprising,” “game-changing” assessment that undermines him completely, according to which the “upsides [of the deal] aren’t perfect,” but “the downsides aren’t unmanageable…. The disadvantages are not too calamitous for anyone to cope with them.” Military intelligence sees “an imperfect but real opening in Iran. It believes that opportunities are being lost.” Netanyahu’s own “diagnosis doesn’t match his own intelligence.”

It’s all polemical and politicized nonsense.

A real expert, Emily Landau (at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv) has already taken Goldberg to the woodshed about the retired professionals (Goldberg has a weird predilection for calling them “spooks”). Landau, without naming the names of these “experts,” points out that Iranian politics and nuclear issues are well beyond the expertise of most of them. Not everyone with a pension and an opinion is equal. And most of those who think that Israel should back off a fight over the deal still think it’s a bad one. They just argue that it’s inevitable anyway, so why provoke Barack Obama? This isn’t support for the deal, it’s resigned acquiescence. (The military correspondent of The Times of Israel did a parallel debunking, after the White House began to tweet similar claims.)

But what about the “game-changing” assessment by those who serve now? Goldberg is referring to an analysis prepared by Israel’s military intelligence branch (Aman), which was presented to Netanyahu and the political echelon. The main points of the analysis appeared immediately in the Israeli press. To read Goldberg, you’d think that this document is an endorsement of the Iran deal, and that the deal’s flaws are equally balanced by its advantages. Neither Goldberg nor I has seen this document. But even a cursory reading of the press reports (here, here, and here) shows that it’s not what Goldberg claims it is.

Yes, the intelligence assessment is that Iran won’t be able to build a bomb under the terms of the agreement. (That is, if Iran doesn’t cheat—the assessment says the mechanisms for inspection are flawed.) Iran might even show short-term restraint over support for terror, to consolidate its gains from sanctions relief. But the estimate also holds that when the agreement expires, Iran will be only weeks away from a nuclear breakout. In the meantime, Iran gains undeserved legitimacy from the deal, which provokes Arab states to stock up on conventional weapons and accelerate their own nuclear programs. Some of these programs could be militarized over time. The bottom line of the assessment, as reported in the press, is that the risks of the deal outweigh the opportunities. (This formula appears in more than one press report. Goldberg omits it.)

The reason that this “game-changing” assessment isn’t turning the world upside-down is simple. It isn’t “game-changing.” Goldberg’s headline announces that it’s the report “That Bibi Fears,” for “defying the gag order.” But I doubt that Netanyahu experienced even a moment’s discomfort upon hearing it, and it hasn’t been “game-changing” or even especially noteworthy in Israel. Leave it to Goldberg to cherry-pick a few bullet points from the assessment and inflate the whole thing into some sort of insurgency. He’s counting on readers of the Forward not to know any better.

Generals Herzl Halevi (r) and Eli Ben-MeirHe also elides an important point about the authors of the brief. At one point, Goldberg writes that earlier Israeli press reports flagged “trepidation within the military” among officers who “feared retribution.” The link at “press reports” leads to just one, a piece by Ha’aretz military correspondent Amir Oren. In that piece, Oren attacks the head of military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Herzl Halevi (pictured, far right), and the chief of the research division, Brig. Gen. Eli Ben-Meir, for backing Netanyahu. Oren accuses the two generals of “falling into line toward the right. Eating with their mouths closed, in unison. Hiding any disturbing thoughts.” (Oren doesn’t explain how he’s accessed these thoughts.) Oren claims that “there are those in the Intelligence Corps, including those in the research division dealing with Iran, who have a very positive view of the nuclear agreement.” But Halevi and Ben-Meir have “concealed them from the public,” and in doing so, are “in breach of their national duty.”

Oren (and his newspaper) never stop grinding their axe against the prime minister, but even Oren admits that the top heads of military intelligence are on board with Netanyahu (“falling in line,” in his demeaning words). Indeed, they’re the ones (he alleges) who are silencing “those” analysts further down the chart. (Who or how many are “those,” if they exist? Anyone’s guess.) Yet Goldberg would have us believe that these same two generals have just delivered an assessment that blows away Netanyahu’s case against the deal.

Well, the “eruption of dissent” is imaginary, and so is the “gag order.” Debates in Israel’s intel community not only occur, they’re encouraged (there’s even an officer in military intelligence who’s a designated “devil’s advocate”). Likewise, it’s vital for Israeli planners to think about the day after a done deal on Iran, and how Israel can make the most of it. But that’s all it is. Goldberg’s latest job is a conspiracy theory for the gullible. You don’t have to be an intel officer to know that it’s a red herring.

Addendum: Yossi Melman, Israel’s best-regarded intelligence correspondent (and no admirer of Benjamin Netanyahu), has written this in response to Amir Oren, and it could just as well be taken for a reply to Goldberg:

There is almost no expert or researcher, junior or senior, serving in military intelligence, the Mossad, the general staff or the different branches of the IDF, the National Security Council, or the Ministry of Intelligence Affairs, who thinks that the agreement reached between the powers and Iran is positive. The grades they give to the agreement range from “awful” to “not good” to “bearable” to “we can live with it.” But there is no enchantment with the agreement, even if it has some positive clauses…. There is also almost total consensus that it was possible to achieve a better agreement…. In this respect, there is a convergence of opinion, with different emphases, among the political echelon led by the prime minister, the intelligence community, and retired senior officials, that a different agreement would have been preferable to the one that was signed.

Melman has heard criticism of Netanyahu’s tactics vis-à-vis Obama, but that’s already politics. On the agreement itself, according to Melman, the views cover a narrow range, and are close to unanimous.

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J.J. Goldberg has replied to me (and Emily Landau), and in so doing, beats a retreat. He’d been claiming that Israel’s…

Posted by Martin Kramer on Friday, August 28, 2015

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Grist for Israel’s defamers

This post first appeared at the Commentary blog on July 30.

Censored Voices posterFor those who have followed the discussion of my essay on the documentary film Censored Voices, I bring your attention to my “last word” on the subject at Mosaic Magazine. There I suggest that the film is fairly close on the spectrum to Ari Shavit’s treatment of the Lydda “massacre” (in his bestselling book My Promised Land and in The New Yorker), which I dissected at length a year ago, also at Mosaic Magazine. That’s a resemblance worth further elaboration, so here it is.

Shavit purports to reveal the details of a forgotten Israeli massacre of Palestinians in July 1948, which he rediscovered by interviewing Israeli veterans twenty years ago. For his account, he went back to his tapes. The director of Censored Voices, Mor Loushy, purports to reveal the censored details of Israeli war crimes committed in June 1967 against Palestinians and other Arabs—crimes she rediscovered in tapes of discussions among Israeli soldiers.

The notion of hidden war crimes preserved on privately-held tapes is almost irresistable. Is anyone bothered that no one else has access to these tapes, which (like all evidence) need to be scrutinized critically? Does anyone care if the case for war crimes rests on isolated quotes, summations, and soundbites? I’ve called on Shavit and Loushy to place all their material in a public archive where it can be examined by historians. It’s reprehensible to put these “crimes” on the public agenda, yet continue to monopolize the supposed evidence for them.

Both Shavit and Loushy use numbers—in fact, the same number—to embed their narratives in the minds of readers or viewers. Shavit claims that Israeli soldiers, in the course of a broader massacre, cut down seventy persons who had taken refuge in a mosque in Lydda—a number he repeats five times in his book. This is what I call a sticky statistic. When I told a friend that I would be looking closely at the mosque “massacre,” he replied: “Where seventy were killed, right?” I was taken aback: the statistic, through its repetition, had stuck. As I later showed, the “seventy” isn’t attested by any source except local Palestinian lore, and contemporary Israeli sources put the number at less than half of that. (They also totally contradict the “massacre” claim.)

Loushy (and her partner and producer Daniel Sivan) use the same number to describe the scale of the “brutal censorship” that kept the Six-Day War “crimes” secret for so long. They allege that seventy percent of the original testimonies of soldiers were cut by the Israeli military censor in 1967, and thus consigned to oblivion. (For example, Sivan repeats the figure twice in this one interview.) This statistic is also sticky, and it has surfaced in just about every review of the film, as well as in the Economist, where you expect statistics to have been vetted. As I show, this “seventy” is a fiction. The extent of official censorship of the original testimonies, according to a careful assessment by their foremost historian, was negligible.

The agonized soldiers, the forgotten tapes, and the memorable numbers are all vehicles to deliver this message: Israel is guilty of crimes in the two wars that gave it independence and its current borders, 1948 and 1967. It is too late for individuals to be tried for these crimes, but there must be atonement. For Shavit and Loushy, that atonement is self-evident: Israel must end the “occupation.” Only thus can it cleanse itself of sins.

The ascendence of this argument in the Israeli mainstream left isn’t accidental. The Second Intifada, the debacle of Gaza, Palestinian refusal to talk—all of these have undercut the rationale for peace as a transaction between Israelis and Palestinians. How can Israelis and Jews be persuaded that a Palestinian state is still an urgent necessity—so much so that it might even justify unilateral withdrawal? Some invoke demography, but others instill guilt. Yes, a Palestinian state is a huge risk. Yes, there is no partner. Yes, the rockets may fall. Yes, the blood may flow. But if we end the “occupation,” we will cleanse ourselves of guilt. If this is the aim of such revelations, then the desired effect is only enhanced by exaggerating the “crimes,” ripping them out of context, and claiming they were somehow covered up.

This is the present-day purpose of these historical exposés. But that isn’t necessarily their present-day effect. Israel’s critics adduce the claims of Shavit and Loushy as evidence that Israel repeatedly commits and covers up the same crimes. Israel’s history, writes one defamer (while generously quoting from Shavit), is “a history of Lyddas piling up into a mountain, remembered or almost forgotten except by the survivors.” A reviewer of Loushy’s film insists that “year after year since 1967, including in recent weeks, Palestinians, with faces and names, are still expelled, imprisoned without trial and killed.”

Incredibly, both Shavit and Loushy are oblivious to this use of their work. Shavit: “Even the most difficult parts of my book were not used by Israel’s enemies because they were afraid to quote something that is written by a really devoted Zionist.” Loushy: “I find it difficult to believe that someone would attack Israel because of the film.” Shavit and Loushy grossly underestimate the resourcefulness of Israel’s enemies, who will mine any vein for historical evidence of Israeli misdeeds and then deploy it to condemn Israel in the present. This isn’t a reason to avoid research critical of Israel’s history. It is a reason to establish facts scrupulously, from a full range of sources, and put them in broader context. Famed journalists and beginning directors don’t get a pass on that.

Much of Israel’s self-critical output makes its way to discussions at American synagogues and Sabbath tables. Even sophisticated audiences often take too much of it at face value. As Censored Voices moves into Jewish film festivals and American theaters, I’ll be watching to see who passively accepts it and who reports the evidence that its very premise is fabricated. I’m guessing most viewers won’t question what they see on the screen. How many is “most”? Oh, probably around seventy percent.

(Again, my “last word” at Mosaic Magazine, here.)

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The war crimes industry

In an earlier post, I flagged my Mosaic Magazine essay on the film Censored Voices, an Israeli documentary that purports to expose Israeli war crimes during the Six-Day War. The filmmakers claim that the testimony of soldiers, published in 1968, had been subjected to “brutal” censorship by Israel’s military censor, who cut 70 percent of the original material. Censored Voices, we are told, restores those “silenced” voices. In my essay, I questioned whether there had been any censorship of this magnitude, and asked whether the cases highlighted in the film were true, representative, or added to our understanding of the war.

There have been three responses to the essay:

  • Military historian and analyst Max Boot provides some fascinating insights into why certain conflicts invite charges of war crimes and others don’t—regardless of the facts.
  • Journalist and author Matti Friedman analyzes what’s wrong with the flourishing Israeli genre of what he calls “moral striptease.” Among many nuggets: “The fact that the director of Censored Voices has earned complimentary coverage in Israel’s biggest women’s weekly and in El Al’s inflight magazine hardly suggests a society ‘crushing dissent.’ In fact, it suggests a society where dissent is celebrated even in the heart of the mainstream.”
  • Asa Kasher, philosopher and author of the Code of Ethics of the Israel Defense Forces, argues that you can’t judge the justice of a war by how soldiers wage it, and if you make vague charges of war crimes against Israel, you’re making it impossible for the IDF to investigate and ameliorate. That’s immoral.

My own summation is coming up next week. In the meantime, take in these interesting responses.