Colleges in Crisis

My children are reaching college age at an inauspicious time. My oldest daughter, Mizmor, matriculated last fall. My son, Asor, will start his studies in three years or so, when he completes his army service and, most likely, spends the usual year traveling overseas. I recently read an article on how to invest in student property as I’d like to be able to provide with them some decent accommodation that I can make a profit on later down the line, it’s a win win if you have the capital.

Higher education is one of those issues that Israeli governments like to procrastinate about. Put out fires and fix leaks but don’t make any long-term policy commitments—that, in the big picture, has been the approach for the last decade. And, as with our sharply dwindling water supply, a disaster is about to happen that will be difficult to reverse.

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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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Israel’s Separation Barrier: The Best of the Worst

Pretty much everything the critics say about Israel’s separation barrier is true. It causes incredible hardship to the Palestinians; it has been used in many places as a means of annexing Palestinian territory to Israel; and it has caused much environmental damage.

For all that, however, it has achieved its purpose. Since construction of the barrier commenced, deaths in terrorist attacks emanating from the West Bank have dropped precipitously. As I note in my article in the current issue of Orion Magazine,

According to figures provided by Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, between 2000 and 2003, Palestinian terrorists carried out 73 attacks, killing 293 Israelis and wounding 1,950. From 2003 to 2006, the period in which the fence was gradually erected, there were 12 attacks, killing 64 Israelis and wounding 445.

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The Demolition Drug: Does Destroying Terrorists’ Homes Work?

A large photograph on the front page of today’s Ha’aretz shows border police holding back a few dozen young Jewish right-wing extremists who wanted to march into the village of Jabel Mukaber. That’s the home town of the terrorist who murdered eight students at the Merkaz HaRav Yeshiva a week and a half ago. The demonstrators were demanding that the army demolish the home where the terrorist’s family lives.

Immediately after the bloody attack, Minister of Defense Ehud Barak promised to check to see whether the army could legally demolish the terrorist’s house. The implication was that, if the lawyers okayed it, that’s what Barak would do.

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Getting the Treatment Right: Conventional and Alternative Medicine

What makes a medical procedure scientific? What makes it quackery?

Unlike many of my friends, I’m a conventional medicine guy. I don’t have any patience for homeopathy and reflexology and the like because they have no scientific backing. And as a writer about science, I’m convinced that the scientific method—which in the case of medicine centers on random controlled testing of therapies, drugs, and procedures—is the best tool we have for determining what treatments are effective and what are not. There’s really no rational argument you can make that would lead to any other conclusion.

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More On Stories and Histories

The need to combine storytelling and historical inquiry that I discussed in my previous post obviously has implications for modern history as well. When we teach kids about Jewish and Israeli history, we can’t teach just the narrative and ignore the facts. But neither can we teach only the facts and ignore the narrative. In practice, it’s hard to find the right balance.

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Good Arabs, Bad Arabs

It’s such a pain when reality proves to be too complex to fit our favorite theories. A new book, Hillel Cohen’s Army of Shadows: Palestinian Collaboration with Zionism, 1917-1948 (University of California Press 2008), shows how varied the Palestinian Arab response to Zionism was, by investigating those Arabs who chose to collaborate with the Jews. As he demonstrates, the negative connotations we attach to the label “collaborator” can be misleading.

(I translated this book into English. I have not discussed these issues with Cohen and the view I offer here is mine alone.)

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