Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Archive for November, 2013

November’s top deportation stories

I don’t mean to make light of the plight of the ordinary immigrants caught in the slow-grinding mills of the UKBA, but faced with a political climate where parties are competing to outflank each other to the right on immigration — If you want to join our government, you’d have to REALLY hate foreigners — they’ve managed to produce a year’s worth of absurd deportation stories in just a few days.

It’s hard to pick a favourite. First there was the American head teacher of a school in rural Scotland, married to a UK citizen, who was issued with a 28-day deportation order when he tried to replace his temporary visa with an application for permanent residency. (That one got resolved in his favour when the case provoked a crisis in relations between Westminster and the Scottish government, owing to the enormous difficulty of finding any qualified people who want to be head teachers in rural Scotland.)

Then there was another valuable worker, an Australian NHS therapist for children and adolescents who has been living and working in the UK for 9 years, also issued with a 28-day deportation order. And to round off a great week’s work undermining children’s education and welfare, the UKBA went right for the children themselves, sending a letter to a 7-year-old boy (whose mother is a British citizen), informing him that “you should now make arrangements to leave [the UK]. If you fail to do so voluntarily your departure may be enforced.”

Just yesterday, there was news that an asylum seeker who was nearly dead, after three months on hunger strike, had been summarily deported back to Nigeria on a private plane at great expense in order to make the point that the Home Office won’t be pushed around. Maybe they won’t, but they could at least have taken advice from the Foreign Office. Today, the news is that the plane and its passenger are back in Britain after 20 hours, having been denied entry to Nigerian airspace.

Well, at least they don’t assign their immigration agents with quotas to find sufficient numbers of harmless long-term legal residents who they can deport on a technicality, the way some countries do.

Who is allowed to spy?

A common response to the revelations of unbridled electronic surveillance by the NSA and its anglophone Five Eyes compadres (don’t they have two each? Is this some Graeae thing, where Obama keeps all the eyes locked up in the Oval Office and shares them out as needed? He certainly keeps charge of the tooth…) has been that those who are shocked were simply naïve, and those who weren’t naïve are only pretending to be shocked, for political show, to fool the rubes who are shocked. After all, they say, everyone knows that it’s just the job of spy agencies to suck up all the information they can. Political leaders like Angela Merkel know perfectly well the extent of electronic surveillance, even if some details — like the fact that they themselves were targets — escaped their notice.

So, what are the ethics of espionage?

I understand that appeals to naked power and self-interest are perfectly conventional in international relations*; if Obama and Cameron want to say, we’re big and tough, we have nuclear bombs and world-shaking economies (except for Cameron), so we get to listen in on your phone calls just because we want to, and you should return our runaway spy who revealed what we were doing because you don’t want to face our wrath, we could consider that argument on its own terms.

But Obama and Cameron and their lickspittles claim to be making a moral case: NSA and GCHQ are law-bound agencies, protecting decent people from the forces of darkness, and Edward Snowden is an outlaw, and a dirty traitor to boot.

But imagine a different Edward Snowden. This one was born to Ivan Snowdinsky, who changed his name to John Snowden when he came to the US in the 1970s as a KGB spy. Young Edward pretended to be an ordinary American, but secretly he burned with love for Mother Russia. He directed his career to develop the skills that he could use to infiltrate the dastardly American espionage services. Finally, at age 29, he got the job he wanted. He took all the files he could find and fled for Russia, turning all of  his thumb drives over to Vladimir Putin personally in a secret GRU award ceremony. All of them. Not just the public-interest stuff that our pusillanimous journalists have published. Operations. Methods. Technical data. Everything.

Do we suppose that David Cameron would have said, “Good on you. That’s great espionage you did there.” And would have mocked anyone who said it was unethical to lie to putative allies, violate their laws, and steal their confidential information, all for the purpose of attaining a military or commercial advantage? “Everyone does it,” our alternative-world David Cameron would say, in a joint press conference with the US president. At which Obama would add. “The good ones don’t get caught. Those Russians are the best. We need to learn from their methods.”

Just as the moral case for free access of medical personal to troubled regions is undermined when the CIA smuggles in agents disguised as doctors dispensing vaccines, so the moral case for international cooperation in law enforcement — incredibly important as it is for our security — is powerfully undermined when international power politics masquerades as law enforcement.

* Lewis Thomas’s essay ‘The Iks”, in his book The Lives of a Cell, is an intriguing meditation on the differences between conceptions of morality in the interpersonal and international contexts.

What is it about pirates?

The Daily Telegraph quotes our mild-mannered PM, speaking at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet in the City, saying he wants Britain to show an “entrepreneurial buccaneering spirit”. Why are comparisons to pirates seen as favourable*? Indeed, if he had commented on the City’s “piratical spirit” they would have evicted him from the square mile. Even if you think that 17th century pirates set a remarkable example of untrammelled human spirit of liberty, or something, suppose you asked, what sectors of our society suffer from too much respect for propriety, social norms, and the law? Is there anyone (Mr Cameron excepted) who would spontaneously reply, “You must be talking about the finance industry”?
Do you want to know who showed an entrepreneurial buccaneering spirit that Blackbeard would have been proud of? The young people who plundered London shops in 2011 and set several of them ablaze. I don’t recall any expressions of admiration from Mr Cameron then.

* There are multiple traditions of the use of the word “piracy”. As I discussed here, Internet piracy, pirate radio, and European political pirate parties, all draw on an old tradition of  “pirate” as an opposition to overreaching restraints on free exchange of ideas. But “buccaneering” is clearly meant to refer to the real guys with ships and guns.

Remind me to choose a different lawyer…

The Guardian published an article on the organised crime war in the Israeli city of Ashkelon, and the reputed mob boss Shalom Domrani. Speaking in his defence were “a mother and her daughter whose family provide legal services to Domrani”: “He helps the poorer people.” His people bring vegetables, she said.

Fair enough. But then the report asked why the police were investigating him.

“Well, he is a criminal,” the mother said. “He’s just not responsible for everything that people say he is.”

You just can’t put a price on that kind of advocacy…

The demography of evil…

… or the evils of demography?

I wrote a while back about my concern, as a sometime demographer, about how the word “demographic” had been transmuted, by some offbeat associations, in the language of US electoral politics, into a euphemism for what might more plainly be called “ethnic or religious minorities”.

Max Blumenthal’s book Goliath, which I wrote about here and here, reminded me of another, even more disturbing abuse of the name of a perfectly respectable academic subject: Israel’s obsession with its “demographic time bomb”, what other people might call “Arab citizens”.

I just checked Google’s completions for a snapshot of the mass mind: Indeed, if you type “Israel demograph”, the first two completions that Google offers are “Israel demographic time bomb” and “Israel demographic threat”. (I’m not blaming anyone for this directly. There’s no way to know who did all those searches. But obviously they were inspired, directly or indirectly, by official Israeli messaging on the issue. “Demographic time bomb” is not a form of words that one would expect to arise spontaneously.)

But the third most popular search term alludes to the point that I would want to make: “Israel demographic transition”. If Blumenthal is to be believed — and while his account is certainly consistent with other reports I have read, I do not consider myself to be sufficiently informed to judge — respectable debate in Israel on the Arab question runs the gamut from “expel them all” to “pressure them to leave the country voluntarily”, with the reasonable compromise being to expel some, and pressure most of the rest to leave voluntarily. Only the radical fringe pushes extremist ideas like “kill them all” and “leave them in peace and allow them equality as citizens”.

Anyone with even a passing familiarity with demography knows that the best way to get a population to stop growing is… to make them prosperous. That’s the “demographic transition”, and there don’t seem to be any exceptions. So, if Israeli Jews were really worried that higher Arab birthrates will eventually make the Jews a minority, they might have chosen to desist from their policies of trying to impede Arab economic activity and make Arab life in Israel a misery — something I first learned about from the fascinating book Separate and Unequal: The Inside Story of Israeli Rule in East Jerusalem, by former insiders in the Jerusalem municipal government — and instead shower them with economic subsidies.

I suspect that there is some willful ignorance behind this promotion of the “demographic threat”. The Palestinians, in this view, aren’t like normal people, who would respond to prosperity with lowered birthrates.

Kristallnacht 75th anniversary edition anti-Israel smackdown

I want to follow up my critique of Eric Alterman’s critique of Max Blumenthal’s Goliath by posing the question: What would a useful critique of the book look like? 

One thing that really goads Alterman is when Blumenthal draws analogies between present-day Israel and Germany in the 1930s. I understand his vexation. The Nazis did lots of things: They ran food drives for hungry citizens in the winter. They built highways. They promoted groundbreaking research proving the link between smoking and cancer. They banned interracial marriage. They invaded neighbouring (and not-so-neighbouring) countries. They set up a vast industry devoted to systematically murder of the Jews of Europe. The first were acts of responsible government. Those in the middle are serious offences against common morality and international order, but in no way unique to that regime. The last is sui generis, and among the most heinous crimes ever committed.  While “acting like Nazis” could, logically, refer to food relief or cancer research, people who apply the term to their political enemies are generally referring to the middle crimes — sadly commonplace as they are — but hoping to imply guilt by association to the uniquely heinous crimes of the Nazis. As applied to Israel, it started as a tool for German leftists in the 1960s to process their inherited sense of guilt without actually having to abandon old habits of antisemitism. If the Jews are the real Nazis, that solves all the problems at one stroke: They could hate their fascist parents and the Jews. The overtones are slightly different in other countries, but it is generally noxious.

Blumenthal titles one of his chapters “The Night of Broken Glass”, in reference to the night 75 years ago today, when a nationwide wave of anti-Jewish pogroms was partly instigated and partly tolerated by the German state. He is quoting one of the victims, an African asylum-seeker, who uses this analogy not out of some anti-Jewish animus, but because he learned about Kristallnacht in the Israeli school that he attended.

So, what would have been a useful critique of Blumenthal? Rather than simply announcing his outrage, Alterman might have provided some evidence that, whereas the German pogroms were a step toward direct state-sponsorship of violence against Jews, the anti-African riots were just riots, just race riots like those that happen in many different countries at different times. Blumenthal quotes a member of the ruling Likud party egging on the mob by declaring “The Sudanese are a cancer in our body.” That sounds pretty bad, as does the result of a poll finding that 52% of Jewish Israelis agree with the sentiment, and the small number of members of the Israeli parliament who were willing to criticise the violence. So, what’s the context? Maybe the small number was really a large number. Or maybe the real official crackdown on racist violence occurred in a different forum, something that outsiders don’t quite understand. At a pinch, maybe Alterman could find some establishment Israelis not identified with the extreme left who publicly oppose violence against non-Jews.

For example, he might have come up with the incident where the Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Israel Yona Metzger, not one of the usual “bleeding hearts”, who visited a Palestinian village where a mosque had been burned down by Jewish militants. “I came here to expression my revulsion at this wretched act of burning a place holy to the Muslim people,” he said. But this might have been uncomfortable for Ackerman to cite, because the Rabbi goes on to compare the arson to… Kristallnacht: “This is how the Holocaust began, the tragedy of the Jewish people of Europe.” So it turns out, he’s just another one of those crazy leftists making outrageous comparisons between Jews and Nazis.

I think Alterman’s core of his criticism of Blumenthal is contained in this statement:

 He is, apparently, unfamiliar with the concept of “context.” It might be technically accurate, for instance, to say that an individual who fatally shoots a crazed killer while said killer is mowing down schoolchildren with an assault-weapon is a “murderer.” But it would also be profoundly misleading, given the context.

I agree! I’d even be willing to wager that Blumenthal agrees. He then wants to apply this homily to the case at hand: “And this is the problem with Blumenthal’s facts. He tells us only the facts he wishes us to know and withholds crucial ones that undermine his relentlessly anti-Israel narrative.”

So now’s where we get the context, the real proof of what Blumenthal has been deceiving us with, and it is… something about the unreliability of the guy who said Mossad agents sometimes pose as El Al employees. With all the racist incitement, police-statism, political abuse, and wanton violence that runs through this book, this is the incident that Alterman thinks really cries out for context? It almost makes you think… maybe Blumenthal isn’t so off-the-wall after all. If Alterman spends thousands of words, but can’t “contextualise” any of the really grave accusations, maybe Goliath is essentially accurate.

Or maybe Alterman is a sleeper agent for the Fatah propaganda ministry. Certainly I’d say Alterman’s essay itself belongs right at the front of the “I Hate Israel” handbook he raves about — at least, the postmodern edition. By throwing himself into the fray as Israel’s supposed defender, and then offering a nearly content-free rant — lots of material about how no one is reading Goliath, so really it’s an act of charity that he even deigns to spit on it, no explanation of what the significant errors or deceptions are — he conveys the impression that Israel really has no rational defence.

Adversaries “rubbing hands with glee”

… can’t they use moisturiser like everyone else? I’m sure I’ve seen this movie:

Sir John Sawers, head of MI6, said: “The leaks from Snowden have been very damaging… It is clear our adversaries are rubbing their hands with glee.”

In other reports, enemies of Britain are said by security experts to be “cackling maniacally”. And intelligence sources have reported that leading terrorist operatives have been heard gloating over our failure to stop their brilliantly contrived schemes for world domination.

With friends like this, Israel doesn’t need enemies

After reading Goliath, Max Blumenthal’s damning and highly disturbing account of racism and human rights abuses in Israel, I was eager to see what the other side was saying. Israel has many passionate defenders, and Blumenthal is a blatantly partisan writer (not that that’s necessarily a bad thing), and not a Middle East expert — except in that he spent years in Israel researching this book — and doesn’t even seem to speak either of the major languages of the region, so I assumed there would at least be plausible basis for charging Blumenthal with major distortions, errors of fact, or concealing important context.

What I found was this article in The Nation by Eric Alterman. (Followed by this response from Blumenthal, and this counter-response from Alterman.) Alterman is obviously a strong supporter of Israel, obviously smart and competent, and those very facts make his article effectively a defence of Blumenthal’s book. You have to think, if this is all an enraged and intelligent opponent can come up with, the book must be pretty solid.

Because what he comes up with is, essentially, nothing. There’s plenty of invective and playground insults. It’s a “dreadful book” that could have been published by the “Hamas Book-of-the-Month Club” (not just that — Alterman insists that this is “no exaggeration”). Again and again he ridicules the insignificance of the book: “I’m the only person in a print outlet anywhere in the world, as far as I can tell, who has even noticed the existence of Blumenthal’s book.” He rightly derides Blumenthal’s annoying Chomsky-esque tic of larding his descriptions with judgemental adjectives.

And yet, when he hauls out against the book’s substance, his attacks range from the trivial to the bizarrely false. He takes issue with Blumenthal introducing a quote from Burl Katznelson by describing him as Labour Zionism’s “chief ideologue”, saying that this characterisation exists “exclusively in the author’s imagination”. When Blumenthal cites several Labour party leaders using this term, Alterman replies that he’s sure this is a bad translation of whatever it is they said in Hebrew. Well, maybe, but that hardly sounds like a hanging offence. Similarly, they get into a tussle over whether Yeshayahu Leibowitz’s theological and philosophical writings are appropriately described as “talmudic exegesis”. On the other hand, Blumenthal accuses Israel in great detail of systematic harassment of activists, ongoing dispossession of non-Jews, failure to enforce the rule of law with regard to the murder of Arabs and migrants (not even to mention the theft of their property), and official winking at eliminationist racist propaganda. Again, amid all that, if the sharpest criticism he can think of is that some of the chapter titles are overly harsh… The only charge of Alterman’s that is both modestly serious and true is his criticism of Blumenthal’s comment that Mossad agents pose as El Al airline employees to collect information about passengers, which turns out to be based on accusations of a single fired employee. This is pretty thin stuff to do the work that Alterman wants it to, of discrediting the entire book.

Instead, Alterman manufactures quotes or rips them out of context to try to portray Blumenthal as foolish or deceptive. (When caught manipulating a quote, Alterman apologises, saying he “misread it”. Fair enough, if slightly hard to explain. But the fact that Alterman has managed to botch one quote in a 1000-word blog post should give him pause in bashing Blumenthal for his translation of the Hebrew word for “ideologue”.)

Above all, Alterman clearly doesn’t like the fact that Blumenthal isn’t showing proper deference to his elders — he describes Blumenthal as ‘lecturing’ both Ha’Aretz editor Aluf Benn and novelist David Grossman, exactly the kind of tiresome rhetoric that he chided Blumenthal for. He never engages with any of Blumenthal’s arguments, accounts, and accusations, and instead simply spews contempt for Blumenthal and all of his readers, as when he writes “If Blumenthal wishes to categorize Hamas as a group of “terrorists,” as his letter implies, this would be a shock to the readers of his book.” I’m not at all sure what Alterman means to say with this — something like that the only people who would read Goliath are Hamas sympathisers. Of course, Alterman himself has read the book (apparently) but he’s not one of his READERS. Presumably this is some leftist trope that outsiders can’t quite grok. Maybe if I’d been to Woodstock…

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