Journalism lesson: Avoid innumeracy

As Richard Silverstein points out at Tikkun Olam, a Jewish Telegraphic Agency report cites anonymous Israeli police sources asserting that:

…20 percent of Jerusalem’s 220,000 Palestinians have been involved directly or indirectly in terrorism…

Excuse me – 44,000 East Jerusalem Palestinians involved in terrorism? This is a classic example of innumeracy in journalism. Someone in the reporting or editing process wrote this sentence without thinking about whether the numbers made any sense. They don’t, and they constitute incitement

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Hagee v. Hagee

John Hagee, for those who have been vacationing, is a Texas mega-church pastor, founder of Christians United for Israel, and a man whose endorsement John McCain sought and won. A short interview with him appeared in The New York Times last weekend. The strict Q&A format did not allow the interviewer to point out where Hagee was, shall we say, disagreeing completely with Hagee, or at least with what Hagee tells his fundamentalist followers. A key section

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A liberal Israel lobby? If you will it, it is no dream

My cover story in Prospect Magazine on the need for a liberal, dovish Israel lobby in Washington is now up on the UK magazine’s site. I’m making a careful argument here: I reject the claims of Mearsheimer, Walt & groupies that a pro-Israel cabal controls American policy toward the Mideast. However, the key lobbying group, … Read more A liberal Israel lobby? If you will it, it is no dream

Refugees and the Jewish Question

My friend and colleague Ben Lynfield forwarded me a news report he wrote a couple of days ago on Prime Minister Olmert’s response to the continued flow of African asylum seekers from Egypt to Israel. In both the foreign and local press, Ben has done his best to make people aware of the refugees’ plight. Several months ago, when I wrote about the obtuseness to Jewish history that Olmert was demonstrating by turning back refugees from Darfur, Ben pointed out to me a flaw in my story: Refugees from elsewhere in the Sudan were fleeing similar dangers, and were equally desperate for asylum.

Since I haven’t seen Ben’s most recent story up yet on the Net, I’ll quote some of it here with his permission:

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Childe’s Play: Neolithic Revolution or Evolution?

I’ll forgive Gershom his faux pas in referring to the laws of thermodynamics when he meant Newton’s laws of motion; after all, I’ve the science beat on this blog. The slip-up shows, however, how important terminology is. Gershom wanted to make a point about how every action produces a reaction. The first law of thermodynamics says that the change in the internal energy of a closed system equals the heat inserted into the system plus the work done in the system. That produces a very different political metaphor.

A political word, “revolution,” gets used in a lot of scientific contexts without sufficient attention to the meanings it bears with it. In this post I want to address one of those contexts, the period in prehistory called the Neolithic revolution.

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Lies, Damn Lies, and Supreme Court briefs

The Israeli Supreme Court recently issued a temporary ruling on a petition brought by residents of six Palestinian villages who have been barred from using Highway 443. The highway is an Israeli-built road running from the Modi’in area near Tel Aviv, through the West Bank to the northern side of Jerusalem (actually, the north end of annexed East Jerusalem).

The petitioners, represented by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), asked the court to “repeal the IDF’s complete restriction on Palestinian movement on Route 443,” according to ACRI. Instead, the court gave the state six months to report on its efforts to built an alternative road for Palestinians only. Though this isn’t the final ruling, it looks like court approval for separate roads in the West Bank, segregated roads,

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Purim: Chance, Fate, and Choice

Purim is the Hebrew calendar’s brush with postmodernism. No other observance is so full of contradictions, alternative readings, ambiguities. Nahafokh hu, as the Book of Esther says—every character, event, and ritual comes along with its mirror image. We expunge the ultimate evil, Amalek, from our memories by remembering; we are commanded to recite a story we already know and listen to every single word, yet we may read it from a scroll in which many words are missing; we mark God’s miraculous intervention in Jewish history by reading a book in which God is not mentioned at all.

These contradictions are all emanations of the one great contradiction that every person who both thinks and believes must face. The problem presented by modern, scientific knowledge is not in the specifics. Belief in God can be squared with the assertions that the universe came to being in a big bang and that humans are just another kind of primate. The apparently unbridgeable gap is that between chance and purpose. The fundamental, irreducible principle of the world of the believer is that what happens in the world happens because of divine intent. The fundamental, irreducible principle of the scientist’s world is that it runs according to physical laws, with no purpose and no plan. God’s world can be judged; it can be good or evil. The scientist’s world can only be.

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First Law of Political Thermodynamics: For every action there is an unequal and opposite reaction

At a press conference a few weeks ago, Israeli Vice Premier Haim Ramon explained the government’s attempts to influence events in Gaza through both military action and pressure on the general population. “Palestinians in Gaza know the truth,” he asserted. They understood that the Hamas regime was responsible for their woes, and would act against it. “A combination of steps will bring an end to the Hamas regime in Gaza,” Ramon said.

Ramon was half right. Nothing affects Palestinian public opinion like Israel actions – just as nothing affects Israeli public opinion like Israeli actions. But as the latest Palestinian poll results show, the reaction is usually in the opposite direction

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The Dispossessed and the Manufacture of Fury

Amalek, according to the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy, is the name of the tribe that attacked the Israelites on their way out of Egypt, on the road from slavery to freedom. You can regard this as ancient history. But history is remembered as our story, and in Jewish mythic consciousness, Amalek became a name for hate embodied.

From there, it’s an easy jump – for the fearful and the angry, and for those embodying a fair amount of hatred themselves – to label a present-day enemy as Amalek. The formula “Amalek = ____” transforms a real-world conflict into a metaphysical one, and gives theological sanction to fury. Since Haman is described in the Book of Esther as a descendant of Amalek, and Esther is read on Purim, some misuse the carnival holiday to dress Judaism in a dark costume of rage.

And others remove that awful mask. Twenty-five years ago I heard an interpretation of the Amalek myth that transforms it into moral obligation. It was entirely rooted in rabbinic tradition – and served as proof that the meaning of the text is the responsibility of the interpreter. I remain uncertain that the man from which I heard it was really there. Here’s the story,

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The Family as Text: Tamar Yellin’s “The Genizah at the House of Shepher”

Tamar Yellin has constructed a novel around an ingenious premise: that families are like texts. Just as ancient manuscripts of sacred books contain the same basic text but show surprising, odd, or idiosyncratic variations, so the members of a family, over many generations, share the same fundamental content but display individual peculiarities.

The Genizah at the House of Shepher (Toby Press 2005) follows the Shepher family over several generations, as the family produces variants on itself, and as the family guards a biblical codex—a bound text of the Bible—that reputedly contains some surprising and significant deviations from the standard version. The story is told by Shula, an adamantly single, no longer young textual scholar from England. She’s come to Jerusalem to visit her aunts, uncles, and cousins and find out more about the codex.

(Yellin won the 2007 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature for this work. My book, A Crack in the Earth, was a finalist for the 2008 award and received an honorable mention. I’ll be writing about last year’s and this year’s finalists in the weeks to come—and I’ll be meeting the other authors this summer for a writers’ institute sponsored by the prize committee. I hope the authors will allow me the freedom to praise them when I think praise is due and criticize when I think that’s called for—and trust they’ll do the same for me.)

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