Monday, March 19, 2018

The counter French revolution

In the eyes of many historians, the French Revolution of 1789 was the trigger for the most powerful ideological agent of change in recent centuries, nationalism.  It spread from Europe reaching Asia in the mid-20th century and created massive change throughout the world. Before it, people identified with their region, religion or social class.  After it, people gradually began to identify and be loyal to a nation, which included others of different regions, religions or social classes.  In other words, nationalism at its source was an inclusive force. Traditional nationalism aimed to welcome people to its large fold as much as local tensions and geography allowed.

In the last 20 years, nationalism has not disappeared but seemingly taken on an inverse direction: it defines nations by rejecting others, especially their culture and values. Whether as a reaction to countries becoming ethnically heterogenic or the need of politicians to attain and hold on to power, today’s nationalism is extremely xenophobic, rejecting anybody or any value considering alien. Trump openly espouses “America First” and wants to deport the largest immigrant group in the country, regardless of their contribution to the country.  Putin rejects any Western political values and oppresses and discriminates against minorities. Erdogan promotes a Turkish and religious agenda, openly crushing any laic or European-oriented opposition. These are only the most prominent of the new populist leaders. What is significant is not their existence but their popularity.  While for support these and similar leaders is far from 100%, they have all been elected with respectable majorities.  In other words, their restrictive world view reflects that of their voters.  It is an “us against them” world.

While traditional nationalism also divided the world into friends and enemies, these were geographical distinctions created by borders and history.  The enmity between France and Germany or Viet Nam and China are examples.  Still, any person willing to adopt the nationality and accept loyalty to the nation was welcome.  Today, in too many places, if you don’t fit the exclusive definition of the right citizen, whether in terms of race, philosophy or religion, you are a potential fifth column. That point of view, in my eyes, is an attempt to rewind the clock, generally a violent and ultimately ineffective act. 

I believe that the words of the Marseillaise are still relevant:

Allons enfants de la Patrie,
Le jour de gloire est arrivé!
Contre nous de la tyrannie,
L'étendard sanglant est levé, (bis)

Or in English:
Arise, children of the Country,
The day of glory has arrived!
Against us tyranny's
Bloody banner is raised, (repeat)

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Executive order

Words can sound good or bad not just in the sense of their auditory quality but also in their associational impact. By the latter I mean the emotional feeling created by that word, or at least one meaning of the word.  Of course, most words are neutral in themselves but life experiences shade the word. For example, a book is stack of papers bound together but a person’s experience may make render the association either positive, a wonderful tranquil experience, or negative, the objects that made my life at school miserable.  In some cases, even without first experience, the mere picturing of the word creates negative impressions. For instance, almost none of us have witnessed an amputation but the image of saw and lots of blood makes the process rather scary and unpleasant.

An interesting example of the associational complexity is the word execute.  For the average person, this word brings up the image of person standing against the wall or sitting in an electric chair, reinforced by repeated images in movies and TV documentaries (Woody Allen’s Love and Death and The Green Mile immediately come to mind). Even the most unsophisticated understand that execution is a once in a lifetime experience of a particularly bad type. Thus, execution has gotten itself a bad name.

Law has reinforced this attitude, at least for some people.  To execute a judgment means to carry it out, as in placing a lien on a bank account or repossessing a car or house.  For the recipient, it is clearly a traumatic experience even if not entirely unexpected at the time. Combined with the word’s first context, execution of a court order sounds like a death sentence.  For that reason, in England and the United States but not France, it is called enforcement. As Hannah Arendt explained in With Eichmann in Jerusalem, it was psychologically much easier to carry out the final settlement than murder.

Curiously, if the context is clear enough and other words are added, execution becomes much more palatable: Sports teams must execute the coach’s plan to succeed; it is the job of the President to execute the law; all persons are entitled to execute their right of attorney.  Most people do not grimace when hearing such phrases since death is far from their thoughts when hearing them.

So, alas, a rose is not always a rose; sometimes it is a thorn bush either due to a bee sting or possibly an allergy to roses. The why of our emotional associations to words is complex but nobody can deny their existence.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Fear of flying

Having just returned from a family visit abroad, I had plenty of time, some 24 hours door to door, to reflect on the modern flying experience. While at one time, apparently, travel was exiting and almost magical, it has become unpleasant, even borderline insufferable.

The anxiety begins even before the trip.  Despite the plethora of options available to order airplane tickets, the sheer number of options in terms of airlines, types of connections, layover times and prices can be very daunting.  I have to admit that while for simple trips I use Expedia, for most trips I call the airline directly so I can compare the difference in price for specific days. It is far more time efficient. Unfortunately, the mere possession of the reservation guarantees no peace of mind. My flight paranoid has been justified on numerous occasions.  I have had flights delayed, cancelled and “disappeared” (never existed according to the airline, from Miami, of course). I have had to sit hours at the airport, been sent home from the airport and, just recently, even had to take a cab to another airport in order to make the connection.

The airport itself has become an obstacle course. Some airlines have self-checking in stands that easily confuse the easily confused. After checking in, US rules require a security process that is not far from a strip search and create long lines as each traveler gets his/her five minutes of unwanted attention. After that obstacle, in many airports, travelers of all ages can begin the long distance sprint.  Many airports, including San Francisco and Frankfurt, have kilometers of halls to pass to reach the golden gate of departure.  I have done it with an irregular heartbeat, a humbling experience.  I can imagine how older and less fit travelers feel.

The reward for having successfully reached the plane is sit in cramped seats like sardines in a can with generally efficient but not exactly friendly stewardesses and stewards, overworked themselves to be fair. Airplane food is rather infamous, justifiably. As for scheduling, officially, a half an hour late is on-time.  Try telling that to your boss. Some airports then play lottery with our luggage. Smart travelers try to avoid checking in luggage not just because of the cost.

Thus, traveling by plane involves stress to the third power.  Once upon a time, people were scared of flying because they were worried that the plane would crash.  The vast majority of Western flyers (not including Russian ones, I imagine) are now more concerned about what kind of physical and mental shape they will arrive at the destination.  That is the current meaning of the title of Erica Jong’s book.

Monday, February 19, 2018

English interference

Hebrew is not a difficult language to learn.  Due to several thousand years of forced stagnation, it failed to develop new roots and became quite regular.  The result is that each “root” learned allows the learned to understand countless new words.  To demonstrate, the root katav כתב  is used in many words, write, letter, address and dictate, to name just a few. Furthermore, there are only three tenses, past, present and future, simplifying grammar use.  The number of exceptions is rather limited and carefully organized into categories. Thus, despite its initial impression, learning Hebrew is not an especially difficult task.
That said, native languages always interfere in one way or another  with foreign languages. I have lived in Israel some 28 years and am quite fluent in both speaking and reading.  Yet, I continue to repeat certain errors despite all of my wife’s corrections. It is as if my brain insists on certain ways of doing things.

In my case, this inability to adjust to Hebrew comes out in three areas: letter pronunciation, syntax and gender chaos. Regarding the first, the transition from one language always involves some problematic sounds and letters.  For example, the French truly struggle with the English th sound. In the case of Hebrew, I pronounce the voiced and unvoiced h sounds, as represented by the letter heh ה, het ח and hof  כ almost without any distinction even though they are three different sounds in fact. Likewise, I massacre the difference between the sounds of the letters alef א  and ayin ע although I am cognizant of it.

Every language has its own syntax, its own way of framing the sentence, which can lead to misunderstandings when applied to another language. A nice example is the American expressing her frigidity instead of lack of body heat in the classic direct translation of English to French: Je suis froide when it should be J’ai froid. Regarding to Hebrew, since English sentences require a subject and verb, it is common and acceptable to add “it is” before adjectives to arrange the grammar while in Hebrew there is no need in some cases.  So, I constantly say זה קר בחוץ, literally it is cold outside, instead of just קר בחוץ , cold outside. It just does not seem natural.

Finally, the whole genderification of pronouns is a constant trap.  All pronouns, 1st, 2nd and 3rd person, have a male and female form in both singular and plural.  By contrast, English has he and she, with all other pronouns being neutral, such as I and they.  Not only that, the Hebrew verb must agree with the gender and number of the noun, unlike the non-gender specific forms of English verbs. The result is the constant need to consider the gender and adjust the grammar.  When speaking quickly or under pressure, these details can get lost.  In my case, everybody else in my house, i.e., my wife and daughter, is female, leading me to always use the female forms.  Unfortunately, quite often that rule does not apply out of the house, leading to people  to think “what a stupid American.”

In summary, language interference is a part of the learning process.  To a large extent, it can be overcome most of the time.  Still, no matter how long I will live her and how well I know the language, English will interfere from time to time.  Ultimately, it is not that important.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Bunker living?

Watching TV today is a bewildering experience.  With the formal choice of hundreds of channels and programs in multiple languages, both new series and reruns, recorded versions of missed programs and multiple means of viewing them, from 88” television screens to tiny telephones, deciding what to watch on a given evening can be a daunting decision. It almost is too much for a person tired from a long day of work and simply desiring to switch off the brain.

On a collective scale, aside from a few events, such as the Super Bowl or Academy Awards ceremony, it is impossible to guess what a coworker or friends watched the previous night.  It literally could be anything. The viewing experience has become extremely personal.  Before I can share my experience, I have to inquire what the other person’s choice was.
I remember of the days of limited choice, 1960’s and 1970’s. The United States had 3 channels (CBS, NBC and ABC), not including the rerun channels, which did not count. Israel had one while France had two. Cable and Internet streaming did not exist. The only alternative to TV was radio, not exactly a visual experience, and movie theatres, which required getting dressed and leaving the house.

While certainly lacking today’s choice and abundance of program options, the TV of yesteryear had a bit of a unifying effect.  Everybody knew who killed JR. In Israel, no weddings were scheduled on Sunday or Thursday night because of Dallas and Maccabi Tel Aviv European basketball games. Colleagues could begin a conversation by mentioning their impression of the last MASH with reasonable certainty that the other person had seen it.  A life basketball or baseball game (Saturday morning, PST) on TV was special. TV was not gourmet but most people shared the same taste, albeit not by choice.

It is not my intention to want to regress to the age of limited choice. I enjoy today’s luxury of being able to watch all 162 games of my beloved Pirates (although I am not that masochistic to actually do so). I would even argue that nothing has really changed in terms of content.  The Gershwin song was and still is relevant: we got plenty of nothing.  Yet, with this blossoming of media forms, society has lost of a bit of its cohesiveness, a shared experience linking young and old, rich and poor.  We did really care to know who killed JR, even in today most of us can no longer remember. In a certain sense, to quote Archie Bunker, “those were the days.”

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Greek Samarian tragedy

Judea and Samaria, the Occupied Territories and the West Bank are three names that describe the complex reality of almost 6,000 square meters of rolling hills punctuated by gentle slopes.  Of all issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is the true Gordian knot, almost irresolvable.

The names reflect the strong emotions attached to this area.  For religious Jews and fervent Zionists, it an integral part of Israel and a homeland, inhabited by Jews as early as there were Jews.  Israel without it is a shadow of itself. For Palestinians, it is their land slowly and unremittingly being usurped by Israeli colonists.  As much as Jerusalem, it is the core of Palestine as they see it. Geographically, it is a beautiful landscape matched by its gentle climate, warm during the day and cool and night. In short, it is a beautiful place prized by conflicting parties.

A naïve person would say that there is plenty of land for everybody.  95% of the population there (and everywhere) simply want to make a living, raise their family and live in peace. With such a preference for pacifism, it would seem obvious that neighbors of different faiths could live in reasonable harmony as they do in the Galilee.

Alas, each side fundamentally wants the other side to disappear, one way or another. This hope for total victory, however improbable, opens the field to extremists among Moslems and Jews to call for hate and violence. The result is absurd: Jewish settlements and Palestinian villages adjoining each other but without relations of any kind due to the heavy distrust of each other. Not only that, a mythical return to the pre-1967 borders is as realistic as a return to pre-Cromwell borders in Ireland.

In my view it is a human tragedy above all. As is generally true in the Middle East, there are no angels and devils in this story, merely two groups of people justifiably insisting on their right to reside in the land of their forefathers. As for the solution, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, the answer is blowing in the wind of those beautiful but contested hills.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Camels and Israel

One of the strangest tourist purchases in Israel is a wooden camel with the word “Jerusalem” printed on it.  First of all, there are and were no camels in Jerusalem.  Secondly, its continued sales suggest that tourists view Israel as a great desert, a smaller version of the Sahara if you will. The reality is that Israel is a small country with a rather wide variety of landscapes, flora, fauna and climates.

The coastal region is flat and humid, albeit with some sand dunes where developers have not yet received building permits. Inland, north and south are very different. The Galilee gently rises from coast, reaching its peak at Mount Hermon, some 9,000 feet above sea level and dropping to the Sea of the Galilee, some 700 feet below sea level.  Rain is plentiful by local standards, meaning that flora thrives most of the year. The summers can be hot, but are far less humid.

Continuing eastwards, the Golan Heights, barely an hour’s drive from the Galilee, is a high volcanic plain, punctuated by gorges and flowing rivers (streams in other countries).  Hot in the summer and cold, even snowing, in the winter, it is a place rich with plants, including wineries, and animals with few human inhabitants.  My wife and I recently spend a weekend there and enjoyed the view and noise, specifically the tweets of all the birds at our window unaccompanied by rumble of vehicle motors.

In the center of the country, a steep road leads to Jerusalem, some 2000 feet above sea level, surrounded by mountain forests. Eastwards, the rolling hills of Judea and Samaria reflect a somewhat dry climate, green in the winter and brown in the summer but attractive in any case.

Traveling southwards, somewhere past Gadera, the Negev desert begins, reaching its arid peak at the Dead Sea. Yet, even here, the landscape is not uniform.  The northern part does receive some rain, creating incredible but short lived fields of flowers. The horizon is broken by protruding rocks, dry steam beds and crevices.  The closer to Eilat, the Southern tip of Israel, the drier and sandy the view becomes. However, at various oases, such as Ein Gedi, date palms flourish.

Of all the places I mentioned, the only real place you will find camels is in the Negev, where you can actually ride a camel, a surprisingly pleasant experience. That is why the Jerusalem camel is so absurd. On the other hand, a wooden rock hyrax, a much more common site, would be much harder to explain.