Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Victory, Defeat and the Middle East

The Middle East is truly difficult for the Western World to understand.  It seems familiar and similar,  but peculiar and annoying differences keep on popping up.  For example, there are two words existing in all languages (to the best of my knowledge) with clear meanings: victory and defeat.   In regards to war, if your armed forces can or do take over the enemy’s territory, you win.  If you have to ask for mercy, you lose.  Every kid who ever had a fight in the schoolyard understands that.

However, in the Middle East, the words have become confused.  In 1948, 1956, and 1967, both Israelis and Arabs agree that the former won and the latter lost. Since then, Lewis Caroll has taken over, i.e. a word means what I intend it to mean.  In 1973, Egypt and Syria had to run to Russia and the UN and ask for a ceasefire because Israel had wide open roads to Cairo and Damascus.   Curiously enough, Israelis view the Yom Kippur War as a great defeat while the Egyptians regularly celebrate the anniversary of the great victory.  In the first and second Lebanese wars (the former officially known as Peace in the Galilee Campaign), the Palestinians and Hezbollah were forced to retreat, to the sea in the former case, granted while causing quite a few casualties for the Israelis.   Again, the sides seem to view the matter inversely, with the Israelis very uncomfortable with the memory of the conflict and the former two groups proud of their resistance. 

The latest of chapter of  this Go reversal game is the most recent tit-for-tat exchange in Gaza, otherwise known as the Pillar of Cloud operation, which ended some two weeks ago.  The Palestinians objectively were extremely unsuccessful in their goal of killing civilians while the Israeli air force destroyed most of their planned targets with minimum collateral damage, as civilian casualties are euphemistically called.  Predictably, Israelis are uneasy with the result while the Palestinians are celebrating their phantom victory, i.e. the vague promise to talk about opening borders.

Clausewitz wrote that war is another means of diplomacy.  I suppose that the claimed victories and defeats are actual if you taken into account the political goals of the parties.  Still, as Orwell suggested, the complete misuse of words eventually strips them of all of their meaning, especially in the Middle East.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

National Streets

Street names are culturally specific.  Some countries treat their streets as long strips of asphalt while others give them much more historical significance.

The United States as a rule shows little imagination but some practicality in naming its streets.  The most common names are trees (oak, elm, pin, etc), numbers, and letters.  The city of Portland, Oregon in its downtown area has all of its streets going north/south (to the best of my memory) named in alphabetical order according to the first letter, i.e. words beginning of a, b, c, etc.  It makes finding addresses much simpler.  The only real bit of history in most U.S. cities is the use of presidents, but it doesn’t go much farther than the founding fathers and a few exceptional ones, specifically Washington, Madison, Adams, Lincoln, Jefferson, and Roosevelt. 

A French city map is a history lesson, especially Paris.  Anybody who is anybody in French history has a street, however small it may be, named after him or her.  There is almost always a small plaque stating a few biographical bits and pieces about the person.  The older city has medieval names whose origins are often completely lost, such as Rue de Mauvais Fils (The street of bad boys).  The distinction between ancient and modern Paris is sometimesmarked by the word “Faubourg” added  to a street name somewhere along its length, as in Rue St. Denis and Rue Faubourg St. Denis. All in all, for the interested explorer, its turns every stroll in Paris into a wonderful look into the past.

Modern Israel tends to name streets after history and nature.  No Israeli municipality is complete without a Rehov Ben Gurion, Jabotinsky, Herzl, and Trumpeldor.  I live in a neighborhood whose streets are all military campaigns (most of which the younger generation has never hear of).  Ironically, it is bordered by a street called Derech Hashalom, meaning “The Way of Peace.” Fortunately, most residential streets are given the sweet sounding names of trees, birds, and flowers, such as Alon (Oak), Dukifat (hoopoe), and Harzit (chrysanthemum).  In many cities, such as Jerusalem and Zefat, the names of various rabbis and righteous people are noted.  By contrast, in many Arab villages, there are many “anonymous” streets, which I suppose adds challenge to the postal carrier’s job.

Of course, there is a joke about the high regard that Americans have for the late Israeli Prime Minister, Menachem Begin.  Almost every freeway in the United States is named Begin freeway.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Inverse Proportions – (Politically proportional or not)

An inverse proportion can describe a relation where the scales of effort and results are opposite, i.e. greater effort is used for less consequence.  It applies to the 80/20 rule, which states that 20% of the work attains 80% of the results while the last 20% requires 80% of the effort. 

This rule has a curious parallel in politics, specifically the actual voting process in general elections.  In the United States, voting during a presidential year can take great time and effort.  Voters place their booklet in the holder and then punch holes for the choice for the following positions, depending on the year, of course: president of the United States, senator  and representative for the U.S. Congress, senator and representative for the state legislature, representative for city legislature, governor, mayor, judge, police chief, local prosecutor,  sheriff, and board of education members, not to mention countless state propositions where allowed in that state (California, for example).  Voting truly demands concentration and several minutes of concentration.  U.S. citizens are naturally expected, even around half of them fail to do so, to find time during their working day to get to the voting stations. 

By contrast, the Israeli voters go their voting stations, generally a school within walking distance, show their ID to five people, who mark off their name on a list.  That is the hard part.  Then they walk into a curtain covered booth, take out an envelope, choose a piece of paper identifying the party of their choice, place that paper in the envelope, seal the envelope, exit the booth, and place the envelope in the appropriate box.  In fact, it took more time to write that description than to actually do it.  Ironically, Israelis get a day off to accomplish that complicated task.  Even then, a significant percentage of Israelis do not vote.
In short, Americans have to work hard to vote and don’t get any time off for fulfilling their civic duty.  By contrast, Israelis have almost nothing to do, aside from getting to the voting station, to pick their Knesset members.  However, as illogical as it sounds, Israelis get a day off.  It is truly inverse.