The Israeli Foreign Ministry Goes to YouTube and I Respond Here

Shocked and saddened by the horror in Norway? Sick and tired of the debt-limit morass in Washington? Allow me to distract you with some opinions about another of the world's well-worn trouble spots.

Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs has posted a nice educational/PR/propaganda -- your choice -- video on YouTube. It's just a six minutes long, done in a light style, and well worth watching for the educational value of the too-little known facts it presents.

You'll find it here:

However, my posting it here does NOT mean I endorse everything it says. As I'll explain below, much as I like it, I think it's flawed, and I have some serious problems with the underlying attitude it stems from.

While it's generally very informative and convincing, I do think there are a couple of weak points in its argument.

The first is its appeal for justification to the unilateral decision of the British Empire in 1917. Imperialism doesn't have much legitimacy these days.

The second is the further basis of its argument in that British decision's later affirmation by the League of Nations. The League is a long-defunct body only history buffs remember, that no one much respected even when it was still around.

It's hard to see anyone, even someone neutral toward Israel, let alone someone hostile to it, being very impressed by those two points.

But let's grant the argument that these historical facts give Israel legal justification for its current activities beyond the green line, and therefore for its negotiating position. Even so, this film still suffers from the failing I see, and am exasperated by, in both parties to the conflict.

That failing is what I call wishfulness.

The Arabs don't want to deal with the reality of a long-established, successful Jewish state with a deep-rooted history in the region that predates their own arrival. Instead, they've actively tried to drive us out, and when they're not doing that, they negotiate, or pretend to, as if they could unwrite our long history and wish us away. But we're not going to disappear.

The Jews don't want to deal with the reality that in the process of restoring the Jewish state they displaced thousands of people who were not themselves guilty of usurping us, and radically disrupted their lives.

They don't want to deal with the fact that those people (and, increasingly, their descendants) aren't going to stop being angry about that because Israel waves a piece of paper from 1917, nor if a deal is made that doesn't have some semblance of justice. Instead, we Jews just wish those troublesome people would please emigrate elsewhere. But that's not going to happen, and they're not going to disappear.

The Jews also don't want to deal with the fact that they are eventually going to be outnumbered in their own country, making the perpetuation of Israel as a democracy and a Jewish state impossible. Instead, they wish the Arab citizens of Israel, the descendants of those people who chose _not_ to run away from the Jews in 1948, would just stop having kids or somehow just politely leave. But that's not going to happen, and they're not going to disappear either.

In other words, both sides base their actions on wish fulfillment fantasy rather than practical facts and actual people in the real world.

Until those facts are acknowledged, until each side admits that the other side is just as stubborn and determined as they are, and that they are not going to just conveniently disappear, the middle east mess will continue. All the clever PR the Ministry of Foreign Affairs cares to post to YouTube isn't going to change that.

It's recently occurred to me that the story of Israel and its neighbors can be summed up by the two most famous quotations attributed to the revered sage, Hillel.

After the horrors of the Shoa, we Jews justifiably told ourselves "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?" On that basis, we took back our homeland, restored Jewish sovereignty for the first time in 2,000 years, and created a modern, prosperous, enlightened state we have a right to be proud of.

But six decades later, basking in our success, I think it's time to recall that Hillel also said, "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.''

No reasonable person can deny that we've treated the people (I'm talking about the individuals here, not their rulers) in the territories and Gaza in a way we'd find hateful if it were done to us. Yes, some of that was done for reasons of national survival and to save Jewish lives, but there comes a point to recognize that if circumstances repeatedly force you to behave hatefully, it's time to make a deeper change, so you can behave like a mensch instead.

That's why I think Jewish history obligates us to preserve, protect, and defend Israel, and also why I think Jewish values (and, ironically, hard-nosed realism too) obligate us to do so in the most humane and generous way.


Hugo Reminder - two week warning!


If you're a supporting or attending member of Renovation, you are eligible to vote in the 2011 Hugo Awards. As a nominee, I naturally hope you will. The voting deadline is now just two weeks away.

To help you cast an informed vote, the nominees and their publishers have graciously made nominated works, art and excerpts available electronically to Renovation members at no charge. After the voting closes on July 31, 2011, this electronic package will no longer be available. Even if you aren't interested in or able to vote in all the categories, this is a great chance to get good stuff for free that you can enjoy later.

As I've been doing for literally decades, please allow me to remind you NOT to vote in any category in which you have not seen all the nominees. and to freely vote for "No Award" in any category where you feel no nominee has met the standard of excellence the Hugo Awards should embody.

The Hugo Voter Packet (nominated works, art, and excerpts) is available here: You will need your Renovation membership number and Hugo PIN code.

The online ballot is available here:

All ballots must be received by July 31, 2011, 11:59pm PDT. Ballots may be revised by resubmitting before the deadline. For more information on the Hugo Awards, please visit Renovation's website at:

and thanks for your consideration!

[Much of the above is borrowed from the reminder email the worldcon just sent out.]


[Adapted from]

Neil deGrasse Tyson, the director of the Hayden Planetarium in the Department of Astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History. has been called the grand priest of Manhattanhenge, since he’s the one who discovered the uniquely New York phenomenon, named it, and each year calculates the dates the sun will set in perfect alignment with the street grid.

The 2011 Manhattanhenge dates:

Half-sun on the grid:
Monday, May 30 at 8:17 p.m.
Tuesday, July 12 at 8:25 p.m.

Full-sun on the grid:
Tuesday, May 31 at 8:17 p.m.
Monday, July 11 at 8:25 p.m.

For best views of the Stonehenge-like sunset, deGrasse Tyson suggests showing up half an hour before the times listed. “For Manhattan, a place where evening matters more than morning, that special day comes twice a year,” he writes on the museum’s website. “For 2011 they fall on May 30th, and July 12th, when the setting Sun aligns precisely with the Manhattan street grid, creating a radiant glow of light across Manhattan’s brick and steel canyons, simultaneously illuminating both the north and south sides of every cross street of the borough’s grid. A rare and beautiful sight." 

He also jokes that "These two days happen to correspond with Memorial Day and Baseball’s All Star break. Future anthropologists might conclude that, via the Sun, the people who called themselves New Yorkers worshiped War and Baseball.”

The Manhattanhenge dates don’t align with the equinox because Manhattan’s street grid is rotated 30 degrees east from geographic north.

Handy Tips for Mac Users (with links for the rest of you)

David Pogue's column in the Times is devoted to tips and tricks for gadgets and software that many people don't know.

He followed up it with a bunch more on the Times website, which in turn is trailed by a host (159 right now) of suggestions from readers. 
A number of the tricks are Mac-specific. Here's one from a reader that I've never seen documented anywhere:

On the Mac, I use Cmd-i if I want to email the contents of a web page (such as a Pogue column). And then if I want to convert it all to text, strip out graphics and ads, etc., use Shift-Cmd-t. This trick only works with Safari and Apple Mail, AFAIK. It is a major reason why I keep Safari around as my default browser.


Here are a couple more from readers that use Mac features I was aware of in a way I hadn't previously thought of:

A useful trick on the Mac is to use Control-Command-Shift-4 to get the crosshair cursor to draw across a portion of the screen you want to copy to the clipboard, then open Preview and select Command N to open a new window from the contents of the clipboard (the image). Then do a Mail Selected Image from the File menu. While in Preview, you can annotate the screenshot with arrows, text, rectangles, etc. For example, you could copy part of a Google Earth image and then add directions to your home with the annotation features. Preview automatically reduces the size of the image before sending as an email. Works like a charm.


On any Mac system...When a website has a black background, I like the ease of flipping it to white (and back to black afterwards) by holding the Control-Option-Command keys, then tapping the "8" key on the top row.

I hope these prove useful to some of you.

In Which I Am Interviewed by the Paper of Record

As those of you on Facebook know, there's a story in today's New York Times about the special Coca-Cola (made with sucrose as all Coke once was, rather than high fructose corn syrup) that is specially manufactured in the US for the benefit of observant Jewish consumers at Passover.

This isn't necessary in the rest of the world, where sugar prices aren't artificially kept high and Coke is always made with real sugar. The interesting and amusing result here is that a lot of the special Coke is sold to non-Jews who appreciate Coke's original flavor.

As it happens, I was interviewed for this article, and you'll find me mentioned at the end:
  • Current Mood
    cheerful cheerful

Borders and the Future of Publishing

Over on Facebook, I posted a link to an interesting short article on Quora by Mark Evans (Borders' former Director of Merchandise Planning & Analysis) in answer to the question, "Why is Barnes & Noble performing well as a business while Borders is near or has even reached bankruptcy?" [Everything on Quora is organized in terms of questions and answers.] You can read it here. The comments are worth reading too, since they raise some good additional points, and Evans responds to them.

This led to quite a long discussion thread in the course of which Steve Stiles asked me "How much of an impact will Borders' shrinkage have on publishers?"

Here's what I wrote in response:

It's going to depend on a number of factors we can't judge yet.

How smart are they going to be about which stores they choose to close? Will surviving stores nearby pick up none, some, or a lot of sales previously made at the closed stores? What revisions to their merchandising methods will be implemented in the surviving stores? What innovations or promotions can they develop to rebuild their brand identity and recover market share? And so on.

There's certainly no question that losing Borders completely would be a very bad thing. Depending on the author and category, sales there can represent anywhere from a quarter to a half of a title's sales at traditional retail outlets.

Beyond that, there's the even harder to calculate but very real importance of every physical outlet's role (not just bookstores, but newsstands, drugstores, variety stores, etc.) as a place for people to encounter books and get in the habit of being book consumers. That's an area where we've already been hurt on the mass market side because of the demise of the small independent distributors.

I'm not saying that reading for pleasure or literacy in general go away without bookstores to sustain them, but they almost certainly would suffer at least in the short and medium term.

In the long term, who knows, maybe the tables will turn again.

It wasn't so long ago that the self-appointed guardians of our cultural heritage were worrying about film and video displacing written literature and making old-fashioned literacy obsolete. Text itself was alleged to be in danger.

Today, when young people spend more time reading and writing online, and yes, texting, than their parents and grandparents ever spent reading books, magazines, and newspapers, or writing letters, the idea of text becoming obsolete looks pretty darn ridiculous.

No doubt the current generation, and the ones to come, will find new ways of engaging with the pleasures of text in all its long and short forms, that today's writers, editors, publishers, and booksellers can't even imagine.

Investing in the Future

Today's release of the President's budget reminds me of something that's been nagging at me since his State of the Union address.

I've been a supporter of high speed rail and our need to match our foreign competitors in infrastructure investment for as long as I can remember. Yet I find myself uncomfortable with the President's repeated calls for prompt large investments in this area.

I'm not sure why. Maybe it's because I suspect most Americans have never ridden a train, except perhaps at Disneyworld. Maybe I'm just afraid it will all go wrong and spoil our chances in this area forever. These are certainly not the kind of projects that show quick results, and the voters are so shortsighted and impatient. (The Republicans have noticed, which is why some governors are pointedly turning down federal rail money they once would have seen as welcome pork.

I'm also concerned that here in the Northeast Corridor, there will be a misguided, half-assed attempt to further upgrade Acela rather than built the kind of new, dedicated line a true high-speed service (over 200 mph) would require. (Yes, I know it'll be difficult in such a densely built-up area. But Japan and Europe are dense too.)

Consider also one of the key facts cited in this recent New York Times article "Pitch for Rebuilding Infrastructure Carries Political Challenges": "The median Republican Congressional district now has a population density 11 times smaller than the median Democratic district . . ." [emphasis added] I think that's pretty stunning, and pretty telling. The Republicans are increasingly the party of outer suburbs and rural areas. The only kind of infrastructure they really understand or care about are roads and highways.

Maybe, rather than trying to start a bunch of projects at once, we should focus instead on doing just one quickly and really well. If we make its speed fast enough, its design cool enough, and its operation efficient enough, then everyone else will be enviously asking for one, instead of feeling that Washington is pushing something on them they never wanted.

This Magic Moment

Over on Facebook, I wrote about how thrilled I was by the news from Egypt.

In the long comment thread which followed, my friend Tim Kyger cited a famous story about Benjamin Franklin at the Constitutional Convention. I'll quote the first online version I found:

The deliberations of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 were held in strict secrecy. Consequently, anxious citizens gathered outside Independence Hall when the proceedings ended in order to learn what had been produced behind closed doors. The answer was provided immediately. A Mrs. Powel of Philadelphia asked Benjamin Franklin, "Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?" With no hesitation whatsoever, Franklin responded, "A republic, if you can keep it."

Tim went on to say:

I hate to be the Burke of all this, but I don't see anything
but trading one for another (and I dearly hope I'm wrong).

But my prediction? One man, one vote -- one time.

History does indeed offer a preponderance of evidence in favor of skepticism, pessimism, and cynicism. Yet somehow humanity still manages to advance. It does so by ignoring all that horrible evidence and choosing hope instead. (That is how _we_ met Franklin's challenge.)

I have hope now that the predominantly young population of Egypt -- knowing much better than their parents and grandparents did how we live in the West -- fiercely want what we have in terms of liberty and opportunity to prosper. They won't willingly give up their chance for those.

If someone tries to hijack this wonderful, epic moment in the way Tim fears, I doubt they'll stand idly by. They've learned a precious lesson in the last few weeks and they won't forget it.