19 January 2009

they throw on us tilim, so we come with metosim / but remember who started to shoot on ezrachim!

One of the best reasons to learn a second language is that different languages carve different conceptual spaces. When you learn more than one language, you start to see that the concept-bundles expressed in your lexicon aren't as natural and inevitable as they might have otherwise seemed.

For example, Hebrew has two words that fill the space of the English "independent":
  1. "עצמאי" is derived from the root ע.צ.מ. (which means self or essence). This is the word you'd use for "independent research" or "Independence Day." And then there's...
  2. "בלתי תלוי," i.e. non-dependent — which is the word you'd use for "independent variable" and the like.
When your language forces you to make this distinction, you learn to track a conceptual difference between the sense of "independent" that contrasts with "dependent," and the sense that connotes self-reliance or autonomy.

Here's another one I often mess up. There are four words that do the job of the English word "class" (in the educational context):
  1. "כיתה" ≈ classroom ("The blackboard's at the front of the class.")
  2. "קורס" ≈ course ("I'm going to sign up for this class.")
  3. "שיעור" ≈ lesson ("I have to get to class.")
  4. "שכבה" ≈ level ("She's in my graduating class.")
A decent English dictionary would distinguish these four senses of the word "class," but judging by how often I choose the wrong word in Hebrew, my English lexicon doesn't give me a sturdy handle on the distinctions. It's not as if I think in terms of class-1, class-2, class-3 and class-4. I've been bundling them together, and when I speak Hebrew, I have to make a special effort to tease them apart.

If you know me, you can guess where I'm headed: Sometimes languages make conceptual distinctions that encourage Bad Framing. Handy example: English doesn't have a one-word label for a promiscuous person, or an unmarried person. In both of these cases, it divides the concept into a male category (pimp, bachelor) and a female category (slut, spinster). And our patriarchal notions about gender performance infect these gendered terms with contrasting connotations, clouding our moral vision, et cetera.

Moral cataracts are easier to spot when they're not on your eyes. So when Hebrew's problematic conceptual distinctions glare out at me, I try to remember that I live in a glass house. With that disclaimer out of the way, let me just throw this one stone...

Hebrew distinguishes between propaganda (תעמולה) and "explanation"/Hasbara (הסברה‎). Propaganda is what Arabs do when they use skewed political analysis and gruesome images to rally the world to against us. Explanation is what Israel does when it publishes sympathetic political analysis and powerful images to help the world understand what we're feeling? Deep down inside? (... What?)

I mean, how would you feel, if someone throws on you טיל [a rocket]?

Hebrish rap from Israel's fantastic sketch comedy show, Eretz Nehederet
To watch it with English subtitles: click on the triangle
icon at the bottom right corner of the viewer, and select "CC."

There's been a lot of talk about Hasbara on the news. How'd we do this time? Could we do better? How will we confront the Hasbara challenges of the coming weeks? (Hasbara challenges are soon-to-be-published facts, like death counts in Gaza. We'll address that one by painting Israel's soldiers as the true victims: "Hamas forced them to kill civilians! Our boys shed a tear as they pulled the trigger!")

I don't know if the discourse would be any different without this absurdly transparent euphemism. I like to think it would.

18 January 2009

This war zone

The main emotion I remember feeling on September 11th was confusion. It was obvious that a significant event had occurred, and I floundered for cues about its precise significance for me (my family, the country, etc). The first few days of Cast Lead were much the same. And at this point, this war has changed my life in about the same way that the war on terror (or the war on Iraq) changed my life. It's something to talk about.

[I should note, for the sake of completeness, that the war has hit much closer to home for my male friends, many of whom have been in and out of reserve service over the past three weeks. Niv's in uniform for 24 hours out of every 72 and Sarel's been at the border for over a week.]

It's not that I don't care. (I care! a lot!) But if you were to make a movie about my life over the past month, you wouldn't need special effects. I ride the bus to class, I work on application essays, I go to plays and concerts, and I cook dinner with a very handsome dude. Last weekend, I visited ʇɥbıɹq1nɟ friends in Rehovot. We went to a campfire cookout with Rotem's crew on Friday night and drove to Giv'at Brenner for hummus on Saturday. Yesterday, Rotem and I joined up with a youth group for a day-long orienteering trip. My philosophy class has been reading about religious conscientious objections from military service, and today we'll review excerpts from a book called "Terror in the Balance." There have been a lot of war conversations, and lots of regular conversations too.

All this talking haven't given me much clarity. War conversations are usually thick with rhetoric and implicit premises. But there's one thing that I almost always find myself saying:

I don't have accurate information about what exactly we're doing in Gaza (or exactly how, or exactly-exactly why) — and even if I did, I wouldn't have the tools to evaluate whether it is an effective component of a just, peace-seeking strategy. But from what I do know about the government/military institutions charged with making these decisions, I have serious doubts both about the war's effectiveness and its legitimacy.

These articles have also helped to clarify my thoughts. (Hans sent me the first and the third; the second article was mentioned in Leiter's blog.)

A perfect definition of "terrorism" by Glenn Greenwald.
Who the perpetrators and victims are of "terrorism" is almost always a function of who is wielding the term rather than some objective assessment. Aimlessly shooting rockets towards civilians (as Hamas and Hezbollah do) and dropping bombs from 35,000 feet that you know will slaughter many civilians while viewing that slaughter as a strategic benefit (as Friedman advocates) are acts that have far more in common with each other than differences.
Another War, Another Defeat by John J. Mearsheimer.

Israel’s leaders remain determined to control all of what used to be known as Mandate Palestine, which includes Gaza and the West Bank. The Palestinians would have limited autonomy in a handful of disconnected and economically crippled enclaves, one of which is Gaza. Israel would control the borders around them, movement between them, the air above and the water below them. The key to achieving this is to inflict massive pain on the Palestinians so that they come to accept the fact that they are a defeated people and that Israel will be largely responsible for controlling their future.

Is the Gaza War Legal? by David Luban.
I can't answer the question of proportionality. The fact is, nobody has ever proposed an operational test of how you weigh a military objective against "collateral damage"— our antiseptic euphemism for dead and maimed civilians who were at the wrong place at the wrong time.... But let's be clear about this: proportionality only comes in when the targets are legitimate.... If Israel is targeting all the institutions of Hamas's civil government of Gaza, including all those who work in those targets, it seems to be going after civilians ... according to the law of war as Israel's own Supreme Court understands it. If that's right, the attacks are illegal even without reaching the question of proportionality.

One more thing. Some twelve-or-so years ago, a Gazan gynecologist named Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish considered pursuing a medical fellowship in St. Louis. He was in contact with my dad then, and even though he didn't wind up coming, he sent our family "happy and peaceful New Years" greetings for years. On Friday, the Israeli army shelled Dr. Abuelaish's building and killed his three daughters.

This all happened about 60 miles from my house. You know you're in the first world when the earth breaks open at your doorstep and your carpeted floor doesn't even shake.

07 January 2009

On the way to the bus stop this morning

This chocolate is too sweet. Do you want it?
No, it's nauseating.
Then I'm throwing it away.
You mustn't throw away food!
Do you want it? No.
So what am I supposed to do?
Donate it to...
       ...hungry children in      ... Gaza!
                                                ... Sderot!

Between the two, I think the kids in Gaza have a more serious shortage of chocolate.
Sure, but they're busy serving Hamas as human shields.
Maybe if we gave them more chocolate they'd busy themselves with something else.
This sucks.

02 January 2009

גשמים כאלה

Sarel and Ariela drove me and Rotem to school on Wednesday. We arrived shivering, blinking at the rain and squishing through soft orange mud in the unpaved parking lot. Sarel announced that this is his favorite weather: cold, wet and gray. "If it were up to me, I'd keep the weather just like this all year!"

We look at him incredulously. "At least the rain is good," Ariela submits. (Israel's perpetual water shortage is especially severe this year, but as usual, the Territories are bearing the brunt.)

"Indeed!" Sarel continues, "the rain is not only good, but! Moreover! It is healthy for the plants!"

Rotem cites Arik Einstein: "צבי אומר שגשמים כאלה מזיקים לחקלאות / Tzvi says that rains like these impede the agriculture."

Sarel: "And who's Tzvi?"

Ariela and I giggle. "You need to work on your cultural knowledge," she says. (She's right. The song Rotem quoted is like Brown Eyed Girl — everyone knows it.)

ואני חושב עוד מעט זה עזה, ורק שלא יעוף איזה רימון, ונלך לעזאזל. סע לאט. סע לאט.0
And I'm thinking, soon enough it'll be Gaza, and just don't let some
grenade fly and send us all to hell. Drive slowly.
Drive slowly.

01 January 2009

Galgalatz, spaceheaters and tea in Niv's room.

(photos from Theatrum Belli's Flickr photostream)

Niv's programming; I'm applying to graduate school.

Today's Galgalatz1 playlist is a little different. In honor of Arik Einstein's seventieth birthday on Saturday, they're scattering some more of his songs through the playlist. Between tracks, the DJ wishes us a "Happy New Civil Year" and reminds us to obey the Home Front Command2 and get in a shelter within 15 seconds if we hear a siren. And there are these ads.

Since July, the National Road Safety Authority has sponsored a heavy radio campaign reminding drivers to stay focused. The ads have a roleplay structure: someone's describing the great day they're having, and then you hear a crash, and a dark voice says,
Even a dreamy day can end in tragedy. There is life in the streets. Pay attention when you drive. The National Road Safety Authority.
Today, the army's playing similar roleplay commercials. A young couple is having a telephone conversation. She asks what he's doing, and tells him she's worried. He says that he's not supposed to tell her.
"But I'm worried about you!"
"Okay, just so that you won't worry. My mission is to..."
Then there's static noise, and the familiar dark voice says,
Revealing military secrets is forbidden by law. Unprotected cellphone lines can threaten our soldiers. Do not expose secure information.
I raised an eyebrow at Niv. "It's a military radio station after all," he said.

A few minutes ago they interrupted "קח לך אישה" (the chorus is "find yourself a wife, and build her a home") to announce rocket threats in Ashdod. I joked about building her a bomb shelter. At the end of the song, they announced that Ashkelon is also under fire, and put on "All You Need is Love."

Ashkelon is a little town in the South, just 10 miles from Gaza strip. Niv grew up there. His parents still live there, and he calls their house home. The house is empty now; his parents have been staying with Niv's brother in Tel Aviv for the past five days. On the first day of the operation, Niv was home for Hannukah. Instead of doing doughnutty, candley Hannukah stuff, he watched his mother pack, sobbing. Then he got a call from a blocked number. The Navy was rousting him for emergency reserves service. "I just want my parents to be able to live in their home without being afraid of rockets, you know? When I saw my mom crying, I was ready to kill them all, I didn't care. It took me a while to get a grip on myself."

Two minutes ago, Niv's phone rang with an unidentified number. He asked me to answer for him, to make sure it's not the military. He just can't do reserves today. (He's already been scheduled for next week.)

Nitai is got called in today. Sarel has been warned that if they start a ground invasion, his unit will be among the first they deploy. Elad was in the infantry in Lebanon. He's afraid of answering his phone.

"Mr. Tamborine Man" was interrupted: alarms in Sderot.

1 GalGalaTz is one of two Israeli army radio stations. (The other military station is Galei Tzahal, aka GalaTz. Galgalatz is a play on words: "gal" means wave; "galgal" means wheel, as in traffic reports — the original telos of the secondary military station.)
2 In Hebrew, it's called פיקוד העורף — literally, "Nape Command."