Is There an Obama Effect?

Gershom Gorenberg

Is this all coincidence? Or is part of what’s been happening in the Middle East for the past two weeks a result of the U.S. president declaring that the conflict of civilizations is over? My new article in The American Prospect examines the evidence.

Barack Obama spoke in Cairo two weeks ago. The Middle East has been roiling since. The street scenes in Iran have pushed the surprise pro-Western victory in Lebanon’s elections out of the headlines, along with Benjamin Netanyahu’s pained, precondition-crippled acceptance of a two-state solution and the enraged Palestinian response. Two top Israeli intelligence figures scaling down the Iranian nuclear threat from looming Holocaust to mid-range risk — a major story for a calm week — has gone almost unnoticed.

So did Obama set this off, or was he like the king in The Little Prince who ordered the sun to rise at the precise moment when it would have done so anyway? With that come two more questions: Will the crisis in Iran shake up the region even more? And what should Obama do in response?

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The Scene At Cinema South I: “Afghan Star” and “A Love During The War”

Haim Watzman

Cinema South International Film Festival, June 8, 2009One presents an American Idol spinoff in Afghanistan as a training ground for democracy and the other how the decay of society under years of guerilla war has made rape the common fate of millions of women in central Africa. Havana Marking’s Afghan Star and Osvalde Lewat-Hallade’s A Love During the War, screened yesterday and today at Sapir College’s Cinema South International Film Festival in Sderot, southern Israel, offer glimpses of margins of the world that we hear of only when there is a genocide, or an earthshaking natural disaster, or a war so bloody that it briefly jars us out of our apathy. Tyranny, war, poverty, and distance from the West weaken and silence people, but the women who suffer them are often doubly silenced. Here some of them speak out.

Afghan Star follows an instance of that most insipid of modern entertainment genres, the televised popular song competition, and shows us how it has played an important role in building democracy and human rights in a society split by ethnic and religious conflict. Following the fall of the Taliban, Afghans are allowed to sing again—music and dancing having been banned by the fundamentalist regime, along, of course, with television, film, and freedom for women. An enterprising producer on one a new private television station decides to produce a song contest on a shoestring, and the film follows several of the contestants—including two women—from the program’s first airing to the night on which the winner is declared.

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Interview with the Science Minister

Haim Watzman

My interview with Israel’s new minister of science, Daniel Hershkowitz, now up on the Nature website, offers food for thought on two fronts, one a matter of policy implementation and one a matter of policy principle.

If you have trouble understanding the arcane details of how the state of Israel funds basic research (why do we have a science ministry when the lion’s share of research funds are handled by another agency?), then you’re not alone. A high-level source in the ranks of science policy makers told me in frustration a few days before my talk with the minister that he doesn’t have reliable data on how Israeli scientists fund their work—there is a welter of agencies and funding sources and no one who tracks them all. How can the nation formulate a rational basic research program without accurate information?

As Hershkowitz notes, free, untrammeled, and well-funded basic research is vital to the development of Israel’s human resources. The country is a scientific powerhouse compared to its size, but it’s slipping quickly, largely because scientists have difficulty finding money to pay the costs of their work. Many Israeli scientists now do most of their actual research on holidays and sabbaticals overseas, where grants are easier to obtain and laboratories better-equipped.

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Bibi’s Taxes–Value Subtracted

Haim Watzman

Gershom and I had an argument back in 1996, when Binyamin Netanyahu was elected to his first term as prime minister. Gershom claimed that Bibi was, at core, a radical right-wing ideologue, whereas I argued that he was an opportunistic hack.

In that term, Bibi went on to prove himself a devout Republican-style capitalist on the economic front and a territorial maximalist on the diplomatic front. But, in the wake of the government’s approval of the national budget yesterday, I think I might win the argument this time around. Over the past week, Bibi has swayed, bent, and ended up breaking most of his principles. The result is a budget that is a mishmash. It’s not the tax-cutting, small-government budget he promised, nor is it an Obama-style Keynesian economic recovery budget. It’s the worst of both.

One of its weirdest provisions is the hike of one percent in the value added tax, to 16.5 percent, and the decision to levy the tax, for the first time ever, on fresh produce. No one likes tax hikes, nor do people like filing their tax returns for the year. Luckily, software exists to help people do this and you may even find TurboTax deals online too. If you are running a business, you may want to try professional tax services similar to those from somewhere like Dave Burton, that may be able to provide you with a tax accountant nyc who might be able to help manage or sort the taxes for your business.

With Israel, like the rest of the world, facing recession, national economic policy needs to encourage consumption. Raising this consumption tax does the opposite. Goods and services will cost more, and people will buy less. Economic activity will slow, jobs will be lost, and people will buy even less.

Furthermore, the VAT is a regressive tax. It’s paid by all Israelis, and since the poor and middle class (this includes the authors of the South Jerusalem blog) spend nearly all their income and have little to save, they pay a higher proportion of their income in VAT than do rich people. Imposing it on basic goods like produce makes it even more regressive.

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Deduct the Kids: The Israeli Supreme Court Gives The Nod to Child Care

Haim Watzman

When I read in Friday’s newspaper that a Israel’s Supreme Court had ruled that the country’s tax authorities must allow tax deductions for child care costs, my feelings were mixed. As the holder of a B.A. in public policy sciences, I winced. Wasn’t the Court inserting itself into a policy detail better left to planners in the executive branch and to the legislature? As the husband of a long-time child care provider, I was gratified. The highest court in the land had recognized the essential nature of Ilana’s work.

In today’s Ha’aretz, the newspaper’s legal commentator, Ze’ev Segal, offers a cogent explanation and defense of the Supreme Court decision. According to Segal,

The ruling admittedly overturned a well-entrenched norm that had been accepted by the tax authorities for years—namely, that such expenses should not be recognized for tax purposes. But a careful reading shows that the court was not seeking to assume the role of the “great reformer” who overturns the established order in cases where the legislator has refrained from taking action.

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Harms and the Man–“Necessary Stories” Column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

    <em>Such fifid language,” Dr. Tchernikovsky observed.</em>
Such fifid language,” Dr. Tchernikovsky observed.

“I haf seen dis before,” the psychiatrist sighed, “und I know its name. ILSS – Inter-Literary Stress Syntrome.”

I’d sought out Dr. Tchernikovsky after a nearly sleepless week of a recurring nightmare in which I’d reverted to my army days. Except that instead of being dressed in my IDF fatigues, I had on a scratchy bronze helmet and a cuirass a size too big for me. Something heavy, large, and uncomfortable was strapped to my left arm, and my right hand gripped something long and hard.

Yes, that’s what I thought, too, but when, in the morning, I pieced together the other details of this nocturnal horror show it didn’t seem to fit the standard Freudian typology. It was very dark, I was thirsty and horribly cramped, and the meager air smelt of timber mixed with flatulence.

“Inter-Literary Stress Syndrome?” I asked. “This deathly panic and paranoia, the self-loathing that segues into macho elation and bloodlust? Are you sure a rugby-playing dybbuk hasn’t possessed my body?”

Dr. Tchernikovsky placed his elbow on the armrest of his overstuffed chair and stroked his soup-strainer mustache, staring hard at me, as I lay stiffly on his analyst’s couch.

“I haf encountered some rugby-playing tybbuks in my time,” he said after a long pause, “und dey haf more sense dan dat.”

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The Cream of the Drop: Shamenet as an Economic Indicator

Haim Watzman

Shamenet 055Forget economic indicators, price indexes, and production figures. Here’s the most salient sign that Israel’s economy is plunging from exuberance into recession: today’s issue of Shamenet (in English the name would be Cream), Ha’aretz’s monthly supplement for conspicuous consumers, runs only 66 pages rather than the usual 80-100. But don’t be depressed—an economy where Shamenet is reduced to skim milk is just what Israel needs.

Once a month I pick up my copy of Ha’aretz from my doorstep and this heavy, glossy magazine falls out. There’s never anything in it for a guy with my limited line of credit, but I leaf through it as an anthropological exercise. What can I discern about the lives of Israel’s top socioeconomic decile from the ads for imported organic Provencal deodorants, diamond-inlaid watches, and high art auction houses? Here I can discover what the simple folk of the garden suburbs north of Tel Aviv do. What they do, it seems, is agonize over what brandy to display in the glass-fronted liquor cabinets in living rooms into which my entire apartment could comfortably fit.

It’s clear this month that times are tough. The article about choosing the right brandy focuses, gasp, on domestic brands. “Herod’s Palace Will Always Be In Fashion,” proclaims the headline over an interview with one of the owners of the swankiest hotel in Eilat. The article reassures us that we need not be embarrassed to show our face there; after all, even Bernie Madoff won’t be making it to San Remo this season.

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The Soldiers’ Testimonies–Another View

Haim Watzman

Have Israeli soldiers’ values-and the moral choices they make in combat-changed? Do the soldiers’ testimonies from the Rabin pre-military academy show that the IDF and its soldiers have adopted values different from those of earlier decades and earlier wars?

I’m not convinced. They might, and the charges made in the testimonies certainly need to be thoroughly investigated (impartially, not by the brigade commander, who says he spoke to the soldiers involved and denied that the incidents took place). But I’m dubious about jumping to conclusions, as I think Gershom did in his post yesterday.

Gershom argues that Israel’s strategy in the Gaza war-which involved the use of intense fire power in densely-populated civilian areas, so as to ensure a minimum of Israeli casualties-gave soldiers the message that human life on the other side was of no value. Rules of engagement were eased up and soldiers were given the message that they should have few hesitations about killing ostensible non-combatants.

It’s certainly possible that the grand strategy made an impact on the actions of individual soldiers. But we don’t, at present, have any empirical evidence of that.

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Bad War, Bad Soldiers

Haim Watzman

One of our regular readers, Alon, comments (ungermanely) on my previous post:

i would like to know is how do you feel on the day that the testimonies of soldiers on the killing of civilians and vandalism in gaza — after saying in your
“Bad War, Good Soldiers” post that you were “happy to hear” a soldier telling you that “we had to show them we’re not suckers and beat the hell out of them”, and that soldiers should forget their scruples and just “do the job?”

I’m writing an op-ed for the Forward this week about these recent soldier testimonies, and I’m giving a talk on Tuesday at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies on Tuesday on the moral responsibilities of the individual soldier (sorry, the talk is not open to the public). Since the subject is a serious one, I intend to take the necessary time to research and think through the issues before commenting on these revelations in detail.

However, here are a few pointers for readers interested in the subject—food for thought until my substantive post:

1. Anyone who has Israel’s interests at heart should be outraged at the thought of IDF soldiers shooting women, children, and old people.

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In Praise of Hegemony: Mizrahi Culture in Israel

Haim Watzman

Is the cultural freedom of marginal and minority groups violated by the promotion of a standard central culture by a state or society? In contemporary sociology and cultural theory, “central” and “standard”—more often called “hegemonic”—are dirty words. Such scholarship, veering from the descriptive into the prescriptive, seeks to rescue the lost and oppressed voices of marginal groups and to defend them against the dictatorship of the official, mainstream culture.

     Erez Biton and the Andalusian Orchestra
Erez Biton and the Andalusian Orchestra
I encounter this view frequently in scholarly works that I translate. Right now I’m pondering it as I work on the introduction to a book on the poetry of Israel’s Mizrahim—that is, of Israeli Jews whose origins lie in the Arab world—by Yochai Oppenheimer, a poet and writer about poetry.

Indisputably, when Mizrahi Jews arrived in Israel in the great wave of immigration in the 1950s, they encountered a central Zionist culture that believed itself to represent the only viable future for the Jewish people. That culture rejected Jewish religious tradition, and drew considerable inspiration from modern Europe. It viewed the Orient, and its Jews in particular, as a backward and primitive place. Therefore, its leaders and doers were not, for the most part, interested in fostering or respecting the native culture of the new immigrants. Instead, it sought to assimilate the Arab Jews and make them into Hebrew-speaking moderns.

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My Day in Loyalty Court–“Necessary Stories” column, Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman “What number you got?” asked the puffy-eyed guy sitting in the metal chair next to me. He hadn’t shaved in two days, from the looks of it; his clothes were stained and his breath bad. Blue and white stripes flashed across the LCD screen hanging on the far wall of the Ministry of … Read more

Dueling Ethicists in Gaza

Haim Watzman

What was most surprising about the conference on Battle Ethics in the Cast Lead Operation held on Sunday by the Ethics Center at Mishkenot Sha’ananim in Jerusalem was how much agreement there was among speakers with ostensibly different points of view. Everyone from noted liberal Mordechai Kremnitzer to the IDF’s favorite ethicist Asa Kasher dissented from the simplistic extremes and sought to balance the conflicting demands of defense and respect for human life.

As Daniel Statman noted at the beginning of the conference, there’s no need for a discussion of Israel’s battlefield ethics if one’s position is either that either fighting in general or Israel’s fighting in particular is absolutely and utterly criminal. Or if you think that in war Israel can do whatever it pleases, without any constraints, in order to win.

That these two extreme positions play a prominent role both in Israel’s internal debate and in the international polemic about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has not, thankfully, deterred the philosophers, journalists, and legal scholars who spoke at the conference from thinking through the issues.

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