Sunday, January 31, 2016

Coal: A Human History by Barbara Freese (Book Review #4 of 2016)

Coal: A Human History
I read this book after reading Jeff Goodell's Big Coal, which was written later. I find Freese's work to be much better, much more comprehensive, and overall better-written. It ranges from the discovery of coal burning in England by the Romans to the development of coal in Pennsylvania and Virginia in the US Colonies to the modern Chinese state's mass consumption of coal at the price of thousands of lives lost a year. Freese is an environmental lawyer and assistant Attorney General in Minnesota who became disturbed when she saw coal industry push-back against a study produced by the Minnesota legislature examining the environmental implications of its energy consumption. It surprises me that it is not rated more highly; the negative reviews seem to dislike either the scope or the environmentalist bent. Climate change was more controversial when this book was published (2004) than today.

In 1306, English coal was first burned by blacksmiths and artisans. The Romans had actually discovered that coal could make fires, but this knowledge was lost to the Dark Ages before being rediscovered. Interestingly, the Chinese were burning coal centuries before and had invented smelting by the 11th century, but the dynastic rulers' turning inward and barring foreign trade caused innovation to diminish and development was stunted. When King Henry broke from the Roman Catholic church he dissolved the monasteries on whose land coal deposits were found. When he sold them off, entrepreneurs developed the mines and competition pushed innovation. The author thoughtfully ponders the alternative history-- if coal hadn't been developed, England would have likely been deforested. It was already importing iron from abroad because it did not have enough necessary firewood to do the smelting. Foliage actually increased during the Industrial Revolution as coal replaced wood as the primary fuel. But with coal burning came the stench in London, which was increasingly distateful-- and coal was banned until the 1500s, when it then began to be justified both in rational terms and religious. The author quotes several British and American religious personalities who argued that coal was God's gift to the Anglo-Saxon to subdue the earth.

The air quality in London was terrible and there was growing concern and recorded fear that half of deaths were resulting from lung issues. Meanwhile, coal miners were developing their own culture of isolation and ruggedness that seems to be common among miners around the world. The author chronicles the importance of the invention of coke to smelt iron. Manchester became the first factory town where the plight of workers and the rise of labor movements would be found. Friedrich Engles penned his influential The Plight of the Working Class in England in 1845 after observing the factories in Machester for two years. Freese surmises that it was a mix of economic justification and willful ignorance that kept coal burning at great loss of life.
She quotes a Puritan pamphlet touting the wood fires, abundant trees, and fresh air as an incentive to move to the New World.

The first mine in the Colonies was probably 1750 in Virginia. It was too difficult to transport coal over land to the coast, but discoveries of anthracite coal deposits in Eastern Pennsylvania in the 1760s sparked an American industry. Canals were built, followed by railroads, followed by battles among the railroad barons. By 1860, Pennsylvania coal was fueling the industry of the North against the South, another "what if?"

Freese them moves quickly to modern issues both with mine safety and health, citing many studies on coal-related illnesses. She tours an American coal-fired plant and couments the processes and potential green technologies. Like Goodell's Big Coal, she chronicles the industry's campaign against global warming and education. Her statements on global warming were probably considered alarmist at the time, but in light of the 2016 Paris Accords they seem mainstream. She admirably visits both a coal-fired power plant in China, allowed in because they thought maybe she was a western investor, as well as coal mining areas where people actually live in caves (apparently tens of thousands of Chinese still live in caves with little development and uder threat of earthquake). In 1991, 10,000 Chinese allegedly died in coal mining. The Chinese have been pushing the smaller mines to consolidate, hoping to create an oligopoly that is easier to manage and keep from cheating on price controls.
Freese pens a brief but fascinating history of China's industrial revolution through the frame of coal. The last chapter in the book ponders an alternate history of the world without coal-- one in which there might be vast deforestation, maybe no labor movement, maybe no Union victory against slavery in the US, etc.

I found the book to be very educational and widely correct in its broad lens of development. Freese shows the benefits of coal better than Goodell, even though her pen is perhaps sharper in looking at its impact on global health. I give the book 4.5 stars out of 5, I recommend it. I would put it next to Daniel Yergin's The Quest (which looks at the global history of oil) on a bookshelf of someone interested in energy policy.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Big Coal by Jeff Goodell (Book Review #3 of 2016)

Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future
This is one author's attempt to frame the modern American coal industry explain where it has come from and ask where it is going. I read Barbara Freese's Coal: A Human History after this book and I highly recommend Freese's work over Goodell's. Freese is a better writer and also takes the time to look at the broader worldwide history of coal, beginning in England, and looks at the development of the entire U.S. economy touching coal. Both books have a strong bent of environmental concern.

Is there such a thing as clean coal or should we relegate coal to the dustbin of history? The "dirty secret" seems to be "no," or maybe the dirty secret is that the figures on coal abundance in America are misleading in that only 20-30% of what is within our borders is economically viable to mine. The "War on Coal" and environmental regulations are not the main reason for the industry's decline, they simply speed up what is already projected. Goodell writes that companies like Georgia Power spend a lot of money on material and seminars casting doubt on climate change in small, rural, red state areas to help portray any coal-bashing as mythological. I recently read Sen. Rand Paul's book where he makes the statement "The coal industry is not destroying the natural beauty of Kentucky." Even miners who rely on the mines for a living wouldn't go that far.

Big Coal's weakness is that it focuses solely on America and ignores the wider history of coal and its relationship to other energy markets. Some of the reviews on Amazon by environmentalists suggest that the author's optimism on geological CO2 storage and Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle is misplaced or that he caved somehow to special interests. It is not a really hard-hitting expose, most of what is discussed is already common knowledge. There is criticism of Bush-Cheney energy policy and a retelling of the disappointment of Christine Todd Whitman. (Also claims the war in Iraq was good for the little energy companies in the US because of a greater desire for energy independence.) While the future may be in clean technologies, the author ignores any waste or untoward activity regarding taxpayer subsidies to green energy.

Goodell examines various ideas like carbon sequestration and integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) power plants. Goodell writes that IGCC plants cost only 20% more than a normal plant, so he chafes at industry complaints and lobbying over cost concerns and points to one in Tennessee which turned a profit without federal subsidy. However, others argue that the cost estimates are higher than what Goodell thought reliable, so the debate continues. There is not a great deal of depth is given to solar or other advancements; reading a magazine article could get you about as much.

For me, the most interesting chapter in the book focused on the role the monopolist railroad BNSF has in helping determine the price of coal. Transportation costs via BNSF are a major factor keeping Wyoming coal from having an even larger advantage over Appalachian coal. The railroad has a reputation for retaliating if coal companies sue or complain. The author also records the difficult life of railroad engineers and safety issues-- how many work long shifts and get little sleep; think of the horror stories you've heard of airlines and then increase it by a factor. Instead of carrying passengers, they carry toxic freight that can poison a community if it derails in the right spot.

The average American burns 20 pounds of coal a day. I'm writing just after 2015, when Americans finally got more electricity from natural gas than coal in the last several months (according to the US Energy Information Agency). Appalachian coal is less marketable as the glut of oil and natural gas have put downward pressure on prices. Coal in Montana, while dirtier and harder to remove mercury from, is much cheaper (and easier in terms of productivity) to mine than the bituminous Appalachian variety. The boom-bust cycle of coal mining here in Kentucky is currently in a bust, and unemployment rates in these regions are well above the national average; many are migrating West to find jobs in automobile plants in Kentucky which are, ironically, experiencing a boom due to low gasoline prices.

If there is a villain in the book, it's Massey Energy Chairman Don Blankenship. Even before the 2010 Big Branch disaster that killed 29 miners in West Virginia, Blankenship's firm had a reputation for cutting corners and being the "biggest bully in the sandbox" when it came to lobbying and litigation. Blankenship lived in the region where Massey operated and just miles from where groundwater became polluted by his company's coal slurry. Massey apparently paid to build his own water line to a neighboring town than rely on the local well water; he declined to help his neighbors do likewise. 

There are not actually very many secrets in this book. A decent primer on the state of the American coal industry circa 2007. 3 stars.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Kentucky Fried Pensions by Chris Tobe (Book Review #2 of 2016)

Kentucky Fried Pensions: Worse Than Detroit Edition

This book is the most important work of non-fiction that has never been edited. The horrible quality is why some don't take Tobe seriously, even though he is a CFA with a long record as a pension consultant. It is like reading a pre-release draft. There are paragraphs that are copied and pasted again in various locations and very little logical flow. There are misspellings, grammar mistakes, font changes, etc. Tobe claims his son worked on the book with him, I guess that makes him the editor; that is just sad-- is there not a serious publisher who would take on this work?

That this book has few reviews either on Amazon or Goodreads is disturbing. This book spells out the pension disaster that is the Kentucky Employees' Retirement System, of which few people outside of KY are even aware. Matt Taibbi with Rolling Stone and some other journalists have cited the work, but few others-- even locally. Tobe signed books in 2014 at my local library but it didn't even bother to shelve a copy.

At 17 percent (as of late 2015, probably worse now), Kentucky may have the worst-funded pension system in the U.S. and be the first to be unable to pay current obligations. Even if the KY General Assembly makes the actuarial required contributions (ARC) in the next few years, it will still face a cash-only position in a short time; it needs more than ARC. No one knows what will happen once it reaches that point. I write this about a week before newly-elected Governor Matt Bevin submits his first biennium budget, hopefully with a full-fledged plan toward funding the pensions and supporting efforts toward transparency.

This book explains how KERS got that way, how it is dragging the Counties' and Kentucky Teachers' pensions down with it, and what happened when people like Tobe tried to shine a light as disinfectant. It is a story of greed, corruption, stupidity, and complicity (complicity in that hundreds of thousands who rely on the KERS pension have never actually read what this book says or know how unlikely it is they will ever see the benefit they were promised).

In 2008, Tobe became the first person with investment experience or financial certification ever to serve on the investments committee of KERS. He was secretly voted out in 2009 when he started poking around, only to be reinstated by legislative mandate in 2010. He witnessed ad vocally opposed KERS' hiring of a currency manager with no large-scale investment experience and a non-sensical strategy (which lost the system $125 million) and a start-up hedge fund, both under shady pretenses, without consulting the independent investment consultants that KERS pays for, and with large payouts to placement agents. The use of placement agents and their cost to the system are what Tobe is the most angry about. Crit Luallen, the State Auditor, defended KERS' use of placement agents even while other retirement systems have been banning their use. Key members of the Board were given vacations and trips to England all while retirees' money was being poorly invested in an untransparent manner.

"The KRS culture has even corrupted something as basic as custodial services. The lack of competitive bidding through RFP's is a major cause. KRS has investment policies in place to prevent corruption, but they break them whenever they want. I pointed out a number of investment policy violations...but they have been totally ignored by KRS--enabled by an auditor and attorney general who refuse to enforce them" (p. 99).

Whenever competent people, such as future State Budget Director Jane Driskell, get elected to board positions where they can ask questions, KRS cites or stretches rules to send them packing. Where there are rules, or even laws, limiting the terms of board members, KRS finds a way to keep them on.

For example, a law preventing KERS board members to run for a fourth or fifth turn was nullified by an opinion by Attorney General Jack Conway in 2009. Those board members were friendly with a particular hedge fund, which also employed a Conway campaign advisor (he was running for Senate against Rand Paul). Two months after the AG's decision, $100,000 from a Wall Street fundraiser featuring various pension fund vendors was deposited in his campaign fund (p. 111). Tobe expresses his frustration at informing the Attorney General of various violations only to be ignored or rebuffed. Draw your own conclusions. 

Judging from statements made about Detroit's ailing retirement system, and Puerto Rico's bond default, Republicans controlling Congress are vocally unwilling to bail out states, territories, or localities. (Detroit's pension was a problem not because it hadn't been fully funded, unlike Kentucky, but because the city could no longer afford to make the full ARC.) Future Governor Bevin (misspelled "Beavin") only makes a cameo in the book as Sen. Mitch McConnell's more conservative Senate primary opponent who would seemingly put pressure on McConnell not to bail out the KERS.

The Kentucky Teachers are in better shape, but have also suffered from the chronic underfunding as the Kentucky legislature found away against its constitutional requirement to pass a balanced budget by borrowing from its pension. But KTRS has not made the same unwise investment decisions or hired as many shady characters. "If KRS had allowed their neighbours at KTRS to manage its portfolio, the system would have been more than $420 million richer in the 2013 fiscal year alone....KTRS uses low-cost index funds while KRS sends $50 millio in fees from no-bid contracts to its Wall Street hedge fund and private equity pals."

The actuarially assumed 7.75% rate of return seems fantasy. Even when the fund sees high returns and the General Assembly makes the full ARC (as in 2014) it goes backwards because the drain on its assets from the increasing number of retirees is so great. I'm told the assets are being sold at firesale prices in order to have enough cash on hand. Now that the current Governor has put a hiring freeze in place, there are few new hires to pay into the system to counter the recent increase in retirees with the exit of the previous Governor's administration. I'm sure the next analysis will show it further on the brink and risk further downgrades of Kentucky's debt, especially as legislators are still floating the idea of issuing bonds to make ARC payments. Anything under 80% funded is considered a "death spiral," and Kentucky is well past that. What happens next?

Tobe offers a couple solutions, both of which are unlikely. The first would be for a court to rule that the pension must adhere to the same laws as private pensions, which would bring much more transparency and discipline. Even then, Kentucky would still have to pony up the money for the full ARC. The other solution is just to pay the full ARC for the next 30 years. This would require $1 billion in additional contributions each year and likely $1 billion in tax increases to fund it. Add a slighly less amount for the Kentucky Teachers and you have Kentucky's current fiscal picture.

In a week's time, the newly elected Republican Governor will drop his budget likely filled with dramatic austerity measures into the General Assembly. Given the debts incurred by decades of mismanagement, this should not surprise anyone, but it will because very few people have read this book. There is vague outrage, but few pitchforks in Frankfort demanding change at KRS. The KY Senate just passed a bill that would bring greater transparency to the system, but it stands little chance of passage in the House. People are afraid of the light. As illustrated in the book on Kentucky feuds that I reviewed just prior to this one, evil prevails when the majority stays silent.

3 stars due to the unedited quality.

Kentucky's Famous Feuds & Tragedies by Charles G. Mutzenberg (Book Review #1 of 2016)

Kentucky's Famous Feuds and Tragedies
by Charles G. Mutzenberg

This book was a second edition published in 1916 and is public domain now. I am glad Roger Melin at librivox discovered it and read it for a free audio download.

I work for the Commonwealth of Kentucky and much of what I do revolves around the January-April period where the General Assembly comes to Frankfort to do business. I read books related to Kentucky and its governance during this period to help me put historical context on the milieu before me. (Sadly, most of the legislators and staff do not seem to engage in the same practice.) Night Comes to the Cumberlands is still the must-read when it comes to Appalachia, and this book can only provide supporting evidence of what Harry Caudill gave his own history about. I recommend Kentucky's Famous Feuds as further reading into the unique culture that is Appalachia-- the second edition had to be written because feuds were still going on and needed updating less than a century ago. Despite having a relatively small population and contributing among the least of the regions to economic output, Appalachia has continued to maintain an outsized influence on the state and its politics. I live in a county that sees a lot of migration from Eastern Kentucky and it also helps to understand the culture my neighbors are coming from.

Mutzenberg begins his retelling of feud stories by giving credit to the "culture of fighting the Indians" in the late 1700s for toughening up frontiersmen and making them quick to go to arms. I disagree. Having read one good biography of Daniel Boone, I would note that endemic to that period of Kentucky was the fear of being called a "coward" or "yellow," and many good men were lost to Shawnee warriors by doing something stupid to prove they were not cowards-- but blood feuds seem rare among the earliest settlers. Boone and company were not really mountain men, most settled far away from the mountains where they could farm-- mountain territories were settled a bit later by those who had no means to go elsewhere.

I find it interesting that Mutzenberg writes that psychologists would have to determine the causes that feuds turning into wars are more common in Appalachia than elsewhere; psychology was still a relatively young field at the time, and psychologists are still writing about the phenomenon. Caudill would write later about the dearth of churches in the Appalachian counties, it seems to me that there may have been little to bind the community together under a common ethic. Yo'av Karny wrote a book called The Highlanders which focuses on the hundreds of ethnicities in the Caucasus mountains. Karny notes, however, that the culture he describes is not dissimilar from the culture described by other authors in the Alps, the Balkans, the mountains of Spain, or of Appalachia. Having lived in such places, I agree, mountain people are very similar-- particularly in the area of family/tribalism and blood feuds.

It is interesting, however, that these particular feuds took place at a similar time, in the late 1880s. There is not much speculation on that point, other than coal interests suddenly allowing some to profit at the expense of others; perhaps that was enough. Perhaps it was a perfect storm of Civil War grievances, coal interests, nationwide economic depression, etc. Or perhaps the author simply leaves other feuds out and has better records on these.

I agree with Mutzenberg's assessment that it is largely the failure of law enforcement that bears the blame for violence growing to such a state as no one was safe. The failure of justice by the state caused people to take matters into their own hands, exactly what J.S. Mill argued in regards to capital punishment. Multiple times, Governor Buckner (who has an incredible biography) refuses to send state troops to enforce the law because it is on the locals to show the backbone to enforce it. It helps to understand that Kentucky's counties are small-- there are 120 of them. Most of the feuds remarkably did not spill across county lines, even though a short distance away. This suggests something about the difference in laws or enforcement between those counties mattered.

Mutzenberg also thinks like an economist, noting that there is no correlation between wet and dry counties and their feudal tendencies. One county where feuds are common may be dry in order to prevent disturbances believed to be caused by drunkenness whereas the neighboring county might be "wet" and see no such feuds. Alcohol, however, did play a major role in local elections; the candidate who gave or promised the most booze to those who voted for him would win. (This is why many Kentucky localities still have laws about alcohol sales on election day.)

Most of the feuds are, at their heart, very uninteresting. An unpaid debt, a drunken mistake, etc. that simply spirals out of control as others are enlisted into the fight-- often with money. These get complicated when an aggrieved party is a relative of a judge or a sheriff, or maybe the judge and sheriff are on opposing sides of the feud.

The first feud covered is the Hatfield-McCoy war between Pike Co. and West Virginia. The second is the lesser-known "Rowan County War," or the Tolliver-Martin-Logan vendetta, from 1884-1887 but the roots of which were Civil War-related. In Rowan, the battle lines were drawn Republican-Democrat, and the state militia had to be dispatched to maintain order on court days. 20 people died and the county was almost dissolved. 

The third feud is the French-Eversole War in Perry County from 1887-1894, which killed several dozen people. The root of the particular feud lay in the land-grab of coal interests and concern by the locals; although Metzenberg also gives the romantic version of the story. But the law in Perry Co. appeared to be weak before the feud. Governor Buckner, a Confederate veteran, declined to authorize state troops when he received a letter from the County Judge that it was impossible to hold court. Buckner put the onus on the locals to organize law and order and did not want to set precedents. However, the list of untried crimes was growing and eventually the Adjutant General sent troops in as it became clear locals had lost control. Mutzenberg cites sources that the state troops witnessed both poverty and incest among their mountain fellow Kentuckians. The "Battle of Hazard" took place during court days in 1889 and the court house was burned down. After a sort of martial law allowed court proceedings in 1890, the feud appeared to die until certain actors returned to the county in 1894 and were summarily killed. The feud kept existing under the surface and the final murder was committed in 1913.

The last feuds covered are that of Breathitt County which gave it its nickname "Bloody Breathitt." These feuds lasted for 40 years. In Breathitt, as in Perry County, Governor Buckner again declined to send troops even though it was impossible to hold court; the terse correspondence between judge and Governor are reprinted by Mutzenberg. Again, troops are eventually sent to Jackson.

Mutzenberg concludes with thoughts about patriotism-- those who don't obey the law are not loyal and not patriots. The ultimate cause of feuds in these counties, Mutzenberg concludes, is an unwillingness of the majority of people to stand up and do something-- a tyranny of a minority. This, Mutzenberg concludes, is un-American and "unpatriotic." I think there is a good lesson here about the importance of the rule of law in property right enforcement. I give this work 3 stars out of 5.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Inside a U.S. Embassy by Shawn Dorman (Book Review #105 of 2015)

Inside a U.S. Embassy: Diplomacy at Work, All-New Third Edition of the Essential Guide to the Foreign Service
This is my final review of books from 2015.

The State Department helps produce this book with the American Foreign Service Association as a marketing/recruitment piece for those interested in becoming Foreign Service Officers. It contains stories by FSOs in the different "cones" - Consular, Economic, Management, Political, or Public Diplomacy. Something like 25,000 people apply annually to join the 14,000 member FSO workforce around the world; last year the State Department had money or need to hire fewer than 300. For many aspirants, reading this book is as close as they will come to achieving their dream.

The book begins with an introduction to the Foreign Service and a bit of its history. Part I is a collection of profiles of specific people in embassies around the world, including Ambassadors, USAID reps, entry-level FSOs, and even locally-hired employees. Part II explains the process of becoming an FSO and being deployed, and features some day-in-the-life profiles giving examples of work. Part III is a collection of "one day journals, "day-in-the-life" stories written by FSOs highlighting their everyday routines including problems they've solve, challenges they face, and routine boredom they deal with. It gives details about their family life (many spouses work or volunteer for the embassy), workout routines, deployment history, etc. Part IV contains tales from the field -- interesting stories written by FSOs highlighting stresses (disasters and terrorist attacks), problems they solve, and people they meet.

The most interesting story is by an FSO in Macedonia in 1999, serving under Christopher Hill (later a negotiator with North Korea and Ambassador to Iraq).
"One summer midnight in the Balkans, an American ambassador walked into a (Kosovar Albanian) refugee camp to try to quell a riot and save the lives of Roma (gypsy) refugees under attack. He succeeded, and went home to bed. It wasn’t diplomacy around big tables in grand rooms. The U.S. embassy had no responsibility to intervene, and few who were not there ever heard about it. But the actions of Ambassador Christopher Hill highlight the power of the individual Foreign Service officer’s moral and physical courage...We never talked much about that night again—each day at Embassy Skopje brought too many new problems and issues connected with the Kosovo crisis. But I’ve come to realize that night was characteristic of much of our work in the Foreign Service: We confront so many unknowns, we have so little time, and— on scales large and small—the consequences of our actions and inactions can be so extraordinarily profound."

I give the book 4.5 stars out of 5. A must-read if you're interested in the Foreign Service. The individual day-in-the-life stories get a bit repetitive or dry, as they should-- this is real life.  

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Six Days of War by Michael B. Oren (Book Review #104 of 2015)

Six Days of War
I read this book after reading Ari Shavit's My Promised Land and Izuddin' Abuelaish's I Shall Not Hate, as well as Paul Johnson's A History of the Jews. 1967 seems to be such a pivotal moment both in Israeli and Arab psyche and had wider implications in the perspective of the Cold War. I agree with those who call "lazy" the pundits who claim the rise of Islamic fundamentalism finds its roots in the disappointment of 1967. As usual, reality is more complicated than that. One  resource website I found while writing this review is, a good place to go for the quick Israeli-leaning narrative; Oren's work simply adds the military and political details and personalities. It's one of the highest-rated books I've read on any topic, especially one as widely covered as the Six Day War.

I'm 36, and it's not uncommon to hear people younger than me (and maybe some older) think gloom and doom about the world today, particularly the situation in the Middle East. "What has the world come to?" "Surely this is the end times." Nuclear Iran, ISIL in Iraq and Syria, Syrian civil war, Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Saudi and Iranian proxy war in Yemen, etc. But let's examine 1967:
The world divided between communism and markets, both armed with nuclear weapons and just a few years away from various almost blowing up the world. America in the midst of a liberal social revolution while being increasingly mired in its own proxy war called Vietnam. Every nation surrounding Israel refusing to recognize any right to existence, armed and eager to invade. Much more of the world in poverty and under despotism than today.

The first half of the book is the long spring build-up to the 1967 war, which is dominated by actions by Abdul Nasser's Egypt. We forget (or are ignorant) today that Haffez Al Assad and Nasser forged an alliance unifying Egypt and Syria into one nation. Egypt had been fighting battles in Yemen. The Arab League was bent mostly on the destruction of Israel and if they had dreams of a pan-Arab region it was always at risk from internal squabbles. Nasser held contempt for Jordan after Jordanian troops refused to help his battalion, leading to a glorious defeat and his elevation as a national hero. Nasser held Jordan's King Hussein in disdain, and Jordan seriously feared (as Nasser threatened) Egyptian troops pushing through Israel straight into Amman. Hussein had already survived multiple coup attempts he saw Nasser's hand behind.

Oren does a good job helping the reader feel the building tension. The Israelis were genuinely concerned about being wiped off the map by the overwhelming 500,000-strong Arab force, and Prime Minister / Defense Minister Levi Eshkol walked a fine line between hawks calling for pre-emptive strikes and a desire for Western support by not being the belligerent. The Jewish diaspora held protest rallies at universities and raised funds and other support for the besieged country, increasingly cut off from trade after the Egyptians blockaded the Straits of Tiran. Meanwhile, the Soviets helped the Syrians design a battle plan (shades of 2014-2015) and were eagerly shadowing any US ships in the region; tensions were high. Lyndon Johnson advised the Israelis to be patient and not be the ones to strike first-- at least not until they absolutely had to. This would give the US some clout in the UN, Israel had to be recognized as the non-belligerent, something Soviet propaganda would contradict. Johnson, while now known as a complex figure and often racist in conversation, had many Jewish advisors in his White House. "They consider the war to be like the Alamo and I don't aspire to be like Santa Anna." The US proposed the "Regatta Plan" to sail a convoy of international ships through the Straits of Tiran (at the Gulf of Aqaba) which would demonstrate if Egyptian belligerence if prevented, but could also risk a much wider war if a NATO ship was fired upon. Johnson was not prepared to come to Israel's aid in anything other than diplomacy, hoping a wider war could be avoided or, at the least, that the Arabs would fire first and the UN could intervene quickly. 

Egypt poured troops into the Sinai while Syria did likewise on the Golan Heights, both expelling UN observers or preventing their access to locations where they could observe the buildup. Iraq and Jordan began mobilizing their own forces sensing the impending attack. Chief of Staff (and future Prime Minister) Yitzhak Rabin had to take a temporary leave of absence after exhaustion from stress. As Israel finally activated reservists, they were condemned by the USSR as war-mongerers. On May 30, the Jordanians signed a defense pact that gave the Egyptian army command of Jordanian forces while reopening PLO offices, the PLO would also play a part in the battle. Moshe Dayan was named Israeli Defense Minister and folk hero Menachem Begin was also brought into the Cabinet. Arab propaganda across all nations prepared their people for a glorious retaking of Palestine.

On June 4, the Israeli cabinet voted to launch a pre-emptive strike to end any Arab hopes of victory and force a quick UN resolution. The greatest emphasis in Israeli strategy was given to the Egyptian front in the hopes of crippling their military and convincing the Jordanians to the fight was futile. Air superiority is the key to any modern war. The most telling statistic in the book was that Israel had trained to develop an eight minute turnaround between a jet's landing and its refueling, rearming, and being back in the sky. Compare that to the reported eight hour turnaround for the Egyptian Air Force and it's not hard to do the math. Israel also had scouted any gaps in the Egyptian radar system.

On the morning of June 5, after dawn patrols and when Egyptian leaders were stuck in traffic, Israel flew almost its entire air force over the Mediterranean then back behind Egyptian lines from the west to strike Egyptian air bases. Jordan had cabled Egypt warning of the approaching planes but a remarkable miscommunication about the channel or updating the Jordanian codes to be used between the forces Egypt to entirely miss the warning. The Israelis were able to fly 144 sorties in 100 minutes in a strategy where waves of jets would be able to attack in a non-stop rotation.  

Israeli tanks and paratroopers poured into Sinai simultaneously, a costly but successful campaign. Some Israeli mistakes led to casualties, but the Israeli forces were able to push through to the Suez Canal where Israeli commanders had forbidden anyone to cross. Egypt lied via its state-run media about dramatic Israeli defeat and Egyptian forces pressing on to Jerusalem, which sowed greater confusion both among Egyptian army and the other Arab states. The author writes of pledges from around the world of volunteers to the Egyptian cause that came pouring in after June 5. The Egyptians ordered Jordanian forces to begin attacking while claiming they had destroyed 75% of the Israeli air force in the opening hours, when the opposite was true!

Given the information by the Egyptians, including a claim that Egypt was launching its ground invasion of Israel, the Jordanians rebuffed Israeli attempts to push a cease-fire with its sometimes amiable neighbor Jordan, Israel was promising no attacks on Jordan if Jordan would do likewise. Israel initially held off counterattacking the Jordanian forces who were inflicting casualties on the Israeli side. Suddenly, Jordan's army, weak compared to Egypt's, began fighting the most fiercely and took up positions formerly held by UN peacekeepers. Meanwhile, the Iraqi air force seemed lax and uneager to join the fray and moved slowly before mobilizing-- remarkable given the long buildup and knowledge that the war was imminent.

Israel had remarkable luck or skill in destroying Jordan's small air force while it was on the ground refueling. The late-mobilizing Syrians and Iraqis also quickly lost any air superiority to Israeli jets. But Jordanian and Syrian artillery poised a threat, particularly to the airbases and civilian settlements. Jewish portions of Jerusalem that were surrounded by Arabs were also threatened. Having advantage in the air, the Israelis had success counterattacking near Jerusalem with a small, outnumbered infantry force on the ground while their air force punished any incoming reinforcements. The Israeli cabinet was ecstatic to learn that by the morning of June 6, recapturing the Temple Mount with the rest of Jerusalem was now a distinct possibility before a UN ceasefire could be imposed. Oren retells the story of the ecstasy of Israeli troops able to again pray at their holiest site. After heavy fighting against other Jordanian forces, Jordan was out of the fight on June 7 and a UN-brokered truce was signed.

By now, the Arab media spread false rumors of British and US planes and involvement, with Egypt blaming their embarrassment on intervention by Western imperialist forces backing the zionists. Despite no actual US involvement, 34 Americans on the USS Liberty died when Israeli forces mistook it for an Egyptian destroyer on June 8 (for which Israel later paid reparations to victims). With their Arab allies losing badly, the US feared Soviet involvement in order to avoid the humiliation of their supported allies' defeat.

Syrian troops were well-trained and with a Syrian advantage as most of Israel's army and air force was focused on the Sinai. But as Egypt retreated and Jordan dropped out, forces were quickly shifted to the Syrian front. Israel gained air superiority over Syrian on June 6, and after Syria violated a cease-fire on June 8, Israel mobilized its forces for the attack. After a fierce tank battle, Israel captured more territory, including Masada, while the Syrians tried to get the USSR more directly involved. A decision to announce the impending fall of Damascus in the media in order to ensure Soviet protection (again, think Russia moving to protect Assad in 2015) had the reverse effect of Syrian retreat and surrender, giving the Golan Heights to Israeli forces. Fighting officially ended on June 10. Some of the best fighting, interestingly, seemed to have been done by PLO operatives in already-occupied territories.

One of the bizarre effects of the war was to cause Abdul Nasser to withdraw from all contact for three days after June 5 when he learned his army had been humiliated. After he appeared on national television to announce the truth of the defeat, blaming US and British armed intervention and Israel for attacking "from the West," he resigned. People took to the streets in a panic, calling for Nasser to return (which of course he did).

As documented well by Ari Shavit, in the aftermath of the war Jews were rapidly expelled from all over the Arab territories. Confidence in Arab regimes was perhaps tainted, but not shattered. In 1973 everyone would again make a go at it before suffering similar humiliation and no liberation of occupied territories. Meanwhile, Israel would be left with a long legacy of occupation and abuse of Palestinians. Interestingly, the author does not mention much about the nuclear question. As Shavit points out, the Israelis had long since completed a nuclear reactor with the aid of France, and likely had nuclear arms by 1967. If Tel Aviv had been in danger of falling, might Israel have started a nuclear war?

An aftermath not mentioned is the increasing religiosity around the Israeli victory, which Shavit writes came soon after the insecurity 1973 Yom Kippur war. Zionism began in the late 1800s as a secular movement and most remained that way through the 1950s. But the capture of Jerusalem and a determination through archaeology and religious history to show historic claims to land began to justify continued occupation of the Arab territories, despite international condemnation. The UN passed Resolution 242 in 1968, which basically left Jewish ownership of now-occupied Jerusalem in question, but it increasingly became central to Jewish nation-state identity. It was vague enough to be interpreted a dozen different ways as in a "yet to be determined." In the West, many evangelicals see Israel's victories in 1948 and 1967 as miraculous fulfilment of biblical prophecy. The Six Day War seems to be straight out of the Hebrew Bible-- impossible victory with few casualties despite overwhelming odds. While there is widespread theological disagreement about Israel's claim to the land, given their rejection of the Messiah, many influential evangelical politicians (Michelle Bachmann, Mike Huckabee, etc.) point to 1967 as divine intervention that America would be wise not to ignore. As I read this book, I was reminded that there were always many fortunate coincidences that a much more organized military is able to take advantage of in all of Israel's wars (from what I've read regarding the Maccabean revolution, 1948, the Yom Kippur War, etc.). 500,000 troops, 5,000 tanks, 1,000 fighter planes from seven different countries, plus the pledge of support from the USSR was able to bring nothing but humiliating defense and further loss of Arab territory. The Israelis lost hundreds while the Arabs officially lost thousands. Relevant or not, I'm still exploring covenentalist theology versus dispensationalist in an attempt to understand events in my own mind.

I would like to read King Hussein's personal memoir of the war which he published later.
I give this book 4 stars out of 5. Highly readable, great with details. However, it makes me wonder what the author missed.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Superforecasting (Podcasts of the Week 1/10 - 1/16, 2016)

I just finished the book Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction (it will be at least a month before I get a review up because I'm that far behind). That book is basically the application of insights found in other books that influenced me greatly -- Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow and Nassim Taleb's Fooled by Randomness (and The Black Swan and Antifragile), as well as Benoit Mandelbroit's work the Misbehavior of Markets, and some works on chaos theory. This book basically describes my thinking process and how I try to approach my job (as a forecaster). As such, I found it very satisfying-- I try to be a "superforecaster." How you make decisions and how you view the world is important. How aware you are of your own and others' luck (ie: not mistaking randomness for actual skill) is also important.

Co-author Dr. Phillip Tetlock was on a couple economics podcasts discussing the book. The Freakonomics interview gives a good summary of the book's main points. The Econtalk interview pushes a bit deeper as Russ Roberts tries to ask tough questions. Both Freakonomics and Russ Roberts also pick bad examples, like NFL games, where n=1 and variance is huge. (I can't even talk to people about March Madness anymore.)

Tetlock and Gardner admit that it's hard to determine "super" from randomness. Bill Miller beat the S&P 500 for 15 consecutive years, but there are tens of thousands out there so you'd expect someone to do that by chance. But their experiments to see what happen when you form groups of superforecasters together and then analyze the results (they got even better) suggest they might be onto something.

One key finding is that those who chalk up events to God or fate tend to make worse forecasters; perhaps partly because they are trying to find a "why?" for every event that occurs. How you think about randomness and time are huge for your theology. Much of the debate in cosmology and philosophy, for example, revolves around time. I've gotten to where I won't even discuss Gen. 1-2 with someone if they've never gotten a handle on whether they have an A theory or B theory of time. Several books on time and chance written by theologians and philosophers like William Lane Craig and RC Sproul that I would love to get to this year.

Anyway, the podcasts and book are not that deep, so enjoy.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

I Shall Not Hate (Book Review #103 of 2015)

I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor's Journey on the Road to Peace and Human Dignity
I read this book immediately after Ari Shavit's My Promised Land. While Shavit's work tells the history of 20th century Zionism with a guilty conscience, he largely ignores Palestinian politics, including the election of Hamas to power in 2006. While Shavit brings to light massacres that occurred in 1948, the Palestinian struggle is mostly evident in the background.  I highly recommend reading both books successively.

Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish is a contemporary of Shavit, so much of the writing covers the same periods. Abuelaish shows us what it's like to grow up in a Gaza refugee camp-- far from the colonialist ideas of the Zionists, they are without electricity, radio, television. Abuelaish had never seen the bright lights of the city until taken on a smuggling trip to Cairo as a boy. He was a driven entrepreneur and an even more motivated student, devoting his life to obstetrics when he saw he could save lives and improve the lives of others through simple means. As a boy he spent time with an Israeli family and it was in a hospital that he witnessed men and women working together for the first time. He deals with Arab superstitions about women and infertility, that the "unfruitful tree should be cut." His research endears him to Israelis and he is able to bridge major divides. Being a Palestinian doctor who delivers Israeli babies sometimes makes him enemies on both sides.

Abuelaish was able to travel abroad and get a sense of the world most Palestinians do not. Just before the 1991 Gulf War he finished a residency in Saudi Arabia where he witnessed Palestinians being laid off and discriminated against. Being a voice for peace and reconciliation, he attended a dialog after 9/11, using the platform of health care as a way to bridge the gap. He earned a health policy management degree from Harvard in 2003. He eventually worked in Afghanistan for the WHO. After attempting to run for a Palestinian parliamentary position with the PLA, against Hamas, he eventually ran independently after the threats and intimidation from the PLA became a burden; he lost the race and suffered humiliation of going into debt and having others steal money from his campaign.

This makes him quite a bit different than the Palestinians we in the US might see on the news queing up at an Israeli border checkpoint, where they work to weed out smugglers, angry partisan, illegal migrant workers, etc. But Abuelaish documents the cruelty of the checkpoints. A Fulbright scholar denied an exit visa to study abroad, critical medicine and food kept from reaching the occupied territories, loved ones unable to reach others in need on the other side, opportunities and dignity lost.
He remembers a day as a boy when Ariel Sharon bulldozed homes in the Gaza refugee to make the streets wide enough to be easily navigable by tanks. Any expression of outrage or anger is constantly met with arrest, or worse.

The frustration with the Israeli checkpoints reaches a head when he was leaving for a job interview in Kenya and Europe in 2008; suddenly, all Palestinians were banned from traveling and, despite assurances from authorities, Abuelaish is caught up in Israeli red tape. While he is away, his wife is diagnosed with cancer and fades quickly. While re-entering Gaza from Jordan, the distance of a few miles again becomes hours waiting at checkpoints while Israeli computer glitches hold him for screening and his wife lays dying. This is just maddeningly frustrating for a reader, mental torture for the good doctor. When she dies in an Israeli hospital, he needs paperwork to bring his wife's coffin back to be buried-- more red tape and more frustration.

Just four months later, in 2008, Israeli troops invade Gaza. His family is holed up in their apartment watching Israeli bombs and tanks obliterate their neighborhood. His daughters jury-rig a cellphone charger which provides them a lifeline both to friends abroad and eventually the larger Palestinian diaspora calling for information. Most importantly, he provides nightly updates to an Israeli news broadcast. The connection saves their lives once when an Israeli commander mistakenly had a tank outside their door about to blow it apart. Toward the end of the siege, the Israelis mistakenly target his house and his three daughters and niece are obliterated, just after speaking on the evening news. Israeli news carried the aftermath live on air, and his tragedy brought the war home to many Israeli households and government ministers for the first time. He later started the Daughters for Life foundation to provide scholarships for women to study abroad. His family had already resolved to move to Canada during the siege, and his daughters were never allowed to fulfill their dreams.

The Israelis later admitted the bombing was a mistake before then making a host of insulting excuses. Ultimately there were no apologies or compensation. But Abuelaish explains why he does not seek revenge-- it could not bring his daughters back and would simply make the situation work. Instead, he works for peace. He compares himself both to the biblical Job and to Martin Luther King, Jr. He is deeply religious. He has a dream of peaceful coexistence in Palestine and using health care and education to bridge the divide. He admits that he chooses to see the world through rose-colored glasses. He bemoans the increasing culture of death on both sides, the disregard for or indifference to life he sees among young people today. He chooses to remain an optimist, to make the world a better place where he can.

The book is the remarkable autobiography of a remarkable Palestinian. The human tragedy is really missing from many other books over the same period. It really paints the picture of life under occupation well. The downside is that he seems to avoid some of the talk of the PLA-Hamas rivaly and some of the terrorist acts actually committed against Israel that draw the army into places like Gaza to end missile strikes, tunneling, and more. The book closes with thoughts on his daughters and Dr. Abuelaish's own advice for life and wisdom. That could have been left out and been made a better book. 4 stars out of 5.

Saturday, January 09, 2016

John Kasich at the Council on Foreign Relations; Podcast of the Week (1/3/2016 - 1/9/2016)

Ohio Governor and Republican presidential candidate John Kasich gave his views on foreign policy to CFR and I thought it was decent. You can watch, listen, or read the transcript. He admits he could never imagine living in another country, but talks very knowledgeably about foreign policy; having served many years on the Senate Armed Forces Committee and generally just seems interested (he mentions he has friends in Ohio who just opened a business in Turkey, I like that.) This is a favorite bit in response to a question about Turkey and Israel, context is the Russian violation of Turkish airspace. Emphasis is mine:

I think the economics of Turkey may be a way to be able to get there. We’re going to have to deal with Turkey when it comes to a long-term resolution of the Kurdish issue. You know—as you all know, the Turks live in total fear of an independent Kurdistan. But the reality is that the Kurds are going to have to have someplace, maybe a confederation. I don’t know. But we have to think about it. And we’re going to have to work with Erdogan. And frankly, we’re going to have to spend a lot of time with him and understand what we can do to move them our way. I think it’s vital.
Now, there was, you know, a long history of Turkish and Israeli good, positive relationships. I don’t think one precludes the other, and I don’t think—I think we need to work on this. I think public diplomacy has been at an all-time low. And I kind of believe around the world not only should we have a military presence—and General Jones, a former commander of NATO and former head of the Marine Corps, has said that, look, we need military. We need diplomatic. And let me tell you—you’re an investor from Texas—we need to—we need to have our business friends and partners around the world having something to say also.
You know, I know somebody that runs a major oil company that I think knows more about Putin than the entire State Department. So we need to be able to listen to—and we understand they have a bias. They have a self—we know that. But they’re also Americans, and they have a lot to say. So public diplomacy—I just have friends in Columbus, Ohio who actually have opened a company in Turkey; be interesting to hear what they have to say. But we don’t want to lose the Turks. We want to bring them towards the West, in my opinion. And I would work aggressively to try to do that.

I've heard Chris Christie and Hillary Clinton speak at CFR, didn't do as good at job, in my opinion. (Rubio spoke a while back, I'm not sure I listened to it; will need to dig it up.)

I wish Kasich were young and handsome so he'd be somewhere further up in polls.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

My Promised Land by Ari Shavit (Book Review #102 of 2015)

My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel

This book is the expression of Israeli pride in the tone of a guilty conscience.
It helps to know the author's biography, what little he shares, to get his point of view. Shavit grew up in the 1960s as the great grandchild of some of the first immigrant settlers at the turn of the 20th century, so he feels a connection to the original Zionist aspirations. He later became an IDF paratrooper before moving on to philosophy, progressive politics, and journalism as a reporter for the newspaper Haaretz. It also helps to have read something like Paul Johnson's A History of the Jews to get a more complete picture. Immediately following this book, I read (Palestinian) Izzeldin Abdulaish's I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor's Journey on the Road to Peace and Human Dignity which gives a different perspective over much of the same time period. From Abdulaish you can see things that Shavit omits. I recommend reading both in tandem. Oren's Six Days of War added further context for me.  This book zooms in on the 20th century and adds details, commentary, and emotion that Johnson could never have honestly done.

The work opens with childhood memories of the 1967 war and its aftermath. Occupying Arab territories was seen as noble colonialism -- bringing water and electricity to backward areas and then leaving when there was peace. Only when he was on house-to-house raids with the IDF did he get a very different view and learn a different truth. The author relives the memories of his ancestors and other figures he interviews as he tells their story, effectively making their stories his own, or all Israelis'.

Shavit relives the 1897 landing in Jaffa of one of his great grandfathers along with other British Zionists. His grandfather was both religious and a follower of Theodr Herzl who helped found the movement by arguing that the only escape from constant persecution was a Jewish state. Zionism was also seen by Herzl as necessary to preserve Jews from eminent assimilation as progressive Western countries opened doors for Jews to have more rights.

Shavit's other great grandfather was Dr. Yofik, who I imagine he was probably acquainted with agronomist Aaron Aaronsohn, whose Zionist story is chronicled in Scott Anderson's excellent Lawrence in Arabia.
There were maybe 500,000 Arabs and other peoples already living in Palestine at that time, but without property rights of land ownership, and largely in poverty. Shavit wonders if these people were even seen by the colonials, or if they were seen as just another Imperial British colonization project. Early Zionists didn't talk about conquering, they talked of rebuilding, farming, and being free. The irony is that as the Arab towns trading alongside the Jewish ones became more prosperous they were also later seen as more of a threat to the Zionist project.

The movement was largely secular as any religious sentiment was seen as jeopardizing the mission. The Jews had a homeland, they were returning home, and that was that. Long since forgotten to the Western mind, the Kishinev/Chi┼činau pogroms from 1903-1905, fueled by Russian antisemimism, were influential in convincing many Jews there was no future in Europe; Jews fled either to America or to Palestine.

Skip ahead to 1921 and you experience the building of the Meuhad/Ein Herod kibbutz by a group of young Jewish Socialists, determined to carve out a perfectly progressive commune in a valley with the spring of Gideon. This kibbutz would help spawn the wider movement as more Jews moved to Palestine to duplicate the project. The kibbutzim would eventually need to form armed forces to defend themselves against increasing Arab attacks and be the tip of the spear for the establishment of a Jewish state in 1948.

The kibbutz features an orange grove and experiments with Western technology. As more educated move from the West, all communities benefit from medicine and technology. By 1936 they have almost 10,000 inhabitants and are exporting over two million crates of citrus, numbers which would grow rapidly. But as Arab attacks grow more persistent and organized, the kibbutz has to build a standing army to defend its slice of this now-contested land. There are finally organized reprisals and revenge killings, a foretaste of things to come. By 1938 there are ideas of "transfers" of Arabs to "non-Jewish" territories. Throughout the 1930s there are Arab revolts against the British mandate and riots against the Jewish minority that is rapidly increasing despite British attempts to curb migration.

The formative moment in Jewish Israeli history comes when when Rommel's tanks move toward Africa in 1941 and Jewish settlers fear Hitler's clear annihilation strategy in Europe moving toward Palestine. Shavit recounts Commander Gutman's making would-be soldiers climb the clifs at Masada, the scene of massacre and mass suicide to end the Roman-Jewish War long ago. That act inspired the nation. "Within a few months the ethos of Masada becomes the formative ethos of the entire nation. Masada is now at the heart of the Zionist narrative, defining its now Palestine-born population." Here, they will make their stand.

Shavit tells the tragic story of the Ben Shemen Youth Village founded by Siegfried Lehmann in 1927 in the Lydda Valley and home to 600 students by 1946, largely orphans imported from Germany. Imagine being a German or Polish child who witnessed your whole family die in a death camp, and now you're going to be raised by strangers in a land far away; Shavit retells their stories of finding community quite vividly. Lehmann and his youth befriended local Arabs and worked together in community. After UN members toured the area in 1947, the UN offered partitioned land for both Jews and Arabs, a two-state solution, but the Arabs rejected this proposal. Egypt began bombing the night the UN declared Israel a state in 1948. The Arab Legion laid seige to this village and killed eleven youths, who were evacuated while the village became a military outpost in the valley. As Israeli forces captured territory, it eventually closed in on the town of Lydda, where many civilians were killed. During one panic, Israeli forces killed 250 Palestinians, opening fire on houses and a mosque in what Shavit calls a "massacre." 35,000 Arabs were then deported from the town.

"For decades, Jews succeeded in hiding from themselves the contradiction between their national movement and Lydda. For forty-five years, Zionism pretended to be the Atid factory and the olive groves and the Ben Shemen youth village living in peace with Lydda. Then, in three days in the cataclysmic summer of 1948, Lydda was no more."

In his post-mortem, Shavit interviews the Israeli brigade commander. War was inevitable since thriving Arab population centers in the area were an unacceptable obstacle to re-inhabiting Palestine. Arab attacks allowed Israelis to overreach in response. The erstwhile persecuted refugees now created long caravans of Arab refugees. The legendary commander Gutman sees the irony. "For one long moment, he who was their Nebuchadnezzar wished to be their Jeremiah."

It's not said by Shavit, but certainly PTSD plays some sort of role in the psyche of the Israelis carrying out atrocities. Having witnessed atrocities in the Nazi death camps and having felt the loss of their parents and loved ones their entire lives, certainly retribution against others who would exterminate them. Some may have felt the Arab attacks were not fair, they were offered a state in 1947, after all. I'm sure some argue that the Israelis were quite merciful, they let the majority of the population leave in peace and even gave them time to pack their bags. While many evangelical Christians in America interpret events in 1948 by to promises made by God to Israel millenia ago, never once in the book of Joshua or other aspects of Israelite history of brutal conquest in this land or religious memory invoked, other than the "gospel of Masada." Shavit rationalizes Lydda like this:

"Those events were a crucial phase of the Zionist revolution, and they laid the foundation for the Jewish state. Lydda is an integral and essential part of the story. And, when I try to be honest about it, I see that the choice is stark: either reject Zionism because of Lydda or accept Zionism along with Lydda...I’ll stand by the damned, because I know that if not for them the State of Israel would not have been born. If not for them, I would not have been born. They did the filthy work that enables my people, my nation, my daughter, my sons, and me to live. But, looking straight ahead at Lydda, I wonder if peace is possible."

Refugees from Europe poured in after WWII, especially after antisemitic pogroms in Poland. Reparations were few and far between, companies that profited off of Jewish slave labor did not offer much in return. (See Johnson's History of the Jews for more details on holocaust and post-holocaust activity.) After 1948, they began to pour in from Arab territories where they'd lived peacefully since the Babylonian and later Roman exiles and rather well since the British mandate. He interviews those who lived in places like Baghdad, where a thriving Jewish community was forced to leave.

The author writes of the struggle to assimilate. Jewish immigrants arrived destitute, speaking various languages, unable to find work, and they were wards of the generous welfare state and caused economic collapse. But foreign aid and the influx of human capital eventually helped Israel roar back in the 1950s. Millions of immigrants founded 20 new cities and "could pretend Palestine wasn't there." 700,000 Palestinians "lost their homes and they were not yet united as a people."

Shavit then chronicles construction of the top-secret nuclear reactor beginning in 1957, with French knowledge, hidden from repeated American attempts to discover whether it existed. He writes that this chapter was cleared with Israeli censors and I am surprised at the details he gives about the facility, which supposedly created the first nuclear device in 1967. A country of only 2.5 million had created the "most egalitarian socialst democracy" and a nuclear arsenal.

Then came June, 1967, which began with existential fear of extermination and ended with more land but greater doubts about the government and the military's abilities. Shavit writes that this internal crisis worsened in the 1973 Yom Kippur war when the military was caught by surprise. This was when people lost faith in a purely secular Israel and began to turn to Judaism. Shavit rants against this tide as undermining Zionism altogether.

The temple mount, for example is about evidence of ownership; it's about the "Kingdom of Israel," and this creates an untenable position. The international community does not accept Israel's claim to all the land it occupies and likely never will. They certainly do not want to become South Africa where everyone boycotts them. Israel has now built prisons and tortures, Shavit writes of systematic brutality akin to what was seen in Nazi Germany when soldiers just obey their orders.

Shavit tells the story of modern progressive Jews, those who desire peace out of a desire for normalcy. But he admits that peace is an idea not based on the reality of Arab opposition. Arabs will always see the territory, even that granted in 1948, as occupied.

He writes in amused fashion about millenials and homosexuals who now parade openly in "straight" Tel Aviv. To them, Israel can now afford to have fun and be free. He tells about the split between the

The greater problem that Israel faces is demographic. There is still the problem of "oriental" Jews from elsewhere in the Middle East who come in with less education and higher poverty rates. Ashkinazi Jews of white, European backgrounds look down on others as of second-class. By 1990, 50% of the population was "oriental," and this group is more conservative Orthodox.

Shavit interviews central banker (currently the US Federal Reserve Vice Chairman) Stanley Fischer who complains that as the Orthodox grow in political power they legislate more favor toward Orthodoxy. These people tend to be less entrepreneurial and avoid many fields of work, so a greater tax burden is being thrust on the more secular Ashkinazi. Redistribution is tilted toward that 50% and growing population which now lack incentives to produce.

One entrepreneuring Ashkinazi that Shavit interviews is the founder of Strauss Dairy Products, and $82 billion conglomerate which now has over half the market share of ice cream. When asked "What does Israel contribute or make possible for your business?" entrepreneurs respond "People, scientists, and work ethic." Shavit, like Fischer, is worried that this is going away.

But Israel faces the same problem as most of the Western world. The 1950s-1970s privatization led to growth and income, but eventually there came an increase in inequality and greater pressure on the middle class. Productivity growth is now a real concern in Israel.

In Chapter 16, Shavit confronts the "existential threat of a nuclear Iran," recounting how Israel formerly bombed nuclear reactors in Iraq and Syria. Writing from 2012, he wonders if the world has woken up in time (he hints that he has inside information and that Iran is indeed a threat).

The author concludes that the great migration to Israel is the Zionists' triumph. But fewer Jews abroad mean less influence and less Jewish memory outside Israel. Still, 46% of territory currently occupied by Israelis is Palestinian Arab, and their population is growing faster than the Jewish one. He seems open to the idea of returning to the pre-1967 borders if it would save the Zionist project. The existential threat from Arab neighbors seems lessened now that the Arab Spring has exposed internal divisions and weakened pan-Arab nationalism.

Shavit concludes that Israel offers "life on the edge, life lived lustfully" and basically expresses hope that the Orthodox Jew will eventually become less Orthodox and we'll have a new more secular Israeli identity that is secure from within and honest with itself. This seems wishful thinking, contrary to the demographic issues he has described, and critics have pointed out that Shavit is one of many who pine for the glory days of the secular 1950s with its roaring economy and can-do ambition. This work at once takes pride in those days while also expressing guilt at what those days were built upon. I give it 4 stars out of 5 as a great peek into the secular Jewish psyche but with some notable omissions and a bias for his own political views.

Friday, January 01, 2016

Judas Maccabeus by E.H. Fortier (Book Review #101 of 2015)

Judas Maccabaeus: Jewish Leader (World Leaders Past and Present, Series I)

w/essay on leadership by Arthur Schleshinger

I picked this little book up at Goodwill for 50 cents. I read Maccabees for the first time a couple years ago and like to remember Judah Maccabee every Hanukkah. Most evangelicals have never read Maccabees and don't understand its important connection to the context of the Gospel accounts of Jesus life, especially his attending the Feast of Dedication in John 10. Not knowing the history of Palestine just prior to Jesus is a bit like learning about America today without learning about 1776-- it certainly helps in understanding why things are set up the way they are. Many evangelicals reject Maccabees since they were not part of the Jewish canon without understanding that their exclusion had much to do with the later politics of the Hashmoneans. Most evangelicals believe in the authority of Scripture but don't realize that Maccabees describes what most believe to be the fulfillment of several prophecies in the temple, when an abomination inhabits the temple and desecrates it-- what Antiochus IV precisely did. Fortier, like many critical scholars, claims Daniel was not written until around 165 BC, the time of the Maccabees, because the prophecies contained therein were too accurate a description of Antiochus IV to have been written centuries beforehand.

Hannukah is one of the few celebrations around the events that remains, and Fortier points out that it mostly revolves around the purported miracle (which he claims was added centuries later) rather than the military aspect and Zionism. The story now has importance as the more religious conservative governments of modern Israel "would point to the boundaries of Simon's justify in part the establishment of Jewish settlements in the West Bank." Braveheart was a popular movie and many don't realize it was based more on Maccabees than anything that happened in Scotland.

This book was published in 1988 as part of a much larger series on "world leaders" ranging from Kublai Khan to Mother Theresa to Kim Il Sung to Pierre Trudeau. I give the book three stars overall. It's a quick introduction to the history of the area from the Seleucid Empire's control from 321 BC to the Roman conquest of 63 BC. It has plenty of pictures of artifacts and renderings of characters. What it lacks are maps, that would have been helpful.

The book gives some historical background to Maccabees, retells the stories, offers some criticism of 2 Maccabees (which retells 1 Maccabees with more mythological flare of angels and more), and recounts the consequences of the Maccabee revolt and later Hashamonean rule. Judah Maccabee's family stood up to Antiochus' persecutions and blasphemies. Others joined them, eager to purify the country of Hellenism and regain independence. The irony is that after independence was finally won (after Judah's death) in 142 BC, the dynasty began to rule like the Greeks and the nation split between the Hashamoneans and Hasidic Jews who called for religious purification from Hellenistic ways. The memory of Judah Maccabee helped fuel several revolts resulting in the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD and forced removal in 130 AD. One can understand why certain people looked to Jesus to be a militant Messiah (any connection to the Gospels is not mentioned in the book).

This book helped me understand the events much better. The one thing that is really unclear to me is how the Seleucid troops could hold out in the Acra for so long, 20 years, cut off from Damascus after Judah and his band retook Jerusalem and the Temple (according to Wikipedia, it's only in 2015 that authorities are reasonably certain of its location. There is a basic bibliography included. If you know nothing, then this is a good enough place to start.