The Politics of Measurement: Drugs and Fences

To continue a conversation with Haim about politics and physics: Faux pas, shmaux pas. In physics, action and reaction refer to motion. In Israeli-Palestinian relations, actions and reactions raise the temperature but, to our sorrow, usually produce absolutely no political movement. Hence the rule that for every action there is an opposite and unequal reaction is indeed the First Law of Political Thermodynamics.

Then again, maybe I should have avoided using a scientific metaphor for politics. Scientists can be touchy about metaphor. They prefer metaphors with a strict one-to-one relation between the symbol and the reality. Political metaphors are more likely to be suggestive than precise.

On the other hand, I do suggest applying some political analysis to science. For instance, random controlled testing of new drugs as a way of determining the best way to do medicine. On the surface, nothing could appear more objective.

But ever since Thomas Kuhn‘s 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, it’s been clear that science involves more than objective gathering information. There are subjective choices about the nature of the problem to be solved, and what constitutes evidence in solving it. The debate about Kuhn is vast. But I don’t think his genie can be forced back in the bottle.

If science includes subjectivity, it is also influenced by society, politics, and economics.

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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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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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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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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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Purim security alert – one-sided or two?

The Israel Defense Forces spokesperson’s office has sent out this notice:

In accordance with the decision made by the Minister of Defense and as part of the security measures adopted by the defense establishment, a general closure will be implemented in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip. The closure will begin today, Tuesday, March 18th at 12:00 am and will be lifted on Saturday, March 23rd, 2008 at 12:00 am.

The reason for the closure, the notice says, is that

“The IDF regards the Purim holiday as a highly sensitive period in terms of the security risk.”

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McCain: Uh, Sunni? Er, Shi’ite?

John McCain, running for US president on his security credentials, showed in Amman on Tuesday that he does not attention to the difference between Shi’a and Sunni extremists in Iraq. This isn’t flunking Iraq 101, it’s flunking the entrance quiz to get into the course.

Earlier, the three candidates for president sent their proxy fighters to meet with Jewish leaders. McCain’s man,

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The Look of the Lynch Mob

Nadia Matar, leader of the extremist Women in Green, has performed a certain service for feminism, I realized Sunday as I watched her give a series of quickie TV interviews at sunset on the promenade leading to Jabel Mukaber. Until I’d watched her talk, I still harbored the assumption that loud, threatening, bigoted rants – the jaw out, the tone nervous with excess adrenaline – were a male thing, especially a young male thing.

My mistake. An older woman can also don a baseball cap, push her jaw out, and describe an entire ethnic group – in this case, Israeli Arabs – as threatening to good people. Her rap was the same for each camera crew. The strangest part was when she insisted that if a Muslim in America had killed Christians, “they would confiscate the whole family’s American ID cards.” But then, it doesn’t matter that America doesn’t have government-issue ID cards. It has had lynch mobs,

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The republic of Tel Aviv v. the other Israel: Kulturkampf or class warfare?

A standard portrayal of Israel today – especially from educated, well off secularists – is one of a cultural battle between forward-looking Tel Aviv and the sundry backward forces elsewhere in the land. Tel Aviv, in this description, is the secular Hebrew city that the most liberal of Zionists wanted to build; the rest of the country is haunted by primal faith and tribal loyalties. (Alternatively, Tel Aviv is the land of debased Israelis; Jews loyal to tradition live elsewhere.) In 1996, after the Rabin assassination and Netanyahu’s victory, there were a spate of suggestions in the punditsphere to divide the country into Israel and Judea, an idea revived after the Gaza pullout.

I’ve never liked that neat division between secular and religious identities – it doesn’t fit me, and it doesn’t fit most people I know. Would I have to live on the border of Israel and Judea, with a bookshelf on one side of the house for Kant and Sophocles and a shelf on the other side for Talmud?

But a conversation I had today with Shlomo Swirski, the academic director of the Adva Center for social research in Tel Aviv, gave me a very different view of the geographic split.

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