Monday, October 13, 2008


On Yom Kippur Eve, an Arab resident of Akko (Acre), a mixed city on the coast of Israel, drove his car to visit relatives. He was attacked and nearly lynched by Jewish residents, who called his driving on the holiest day of the Jewish year a "provocation". This led to several nights of riots between Jewish and Arab residents, who attacked each other and damaged property.

Let us consider the concept of "provocation". The idea is that the behaviour of the "provoker" forced someone to react in a particular way, in this case, with violence. This removes the responsibility from the perpetrator of violence, and blames someone else.

This sort of argument is sometimes used by rapists ("She was asking for it, the way she was dressed") and parents who physically abuse their young children ("He wouldn't stop crying, I couldn't take it any more").

The idea that other people's behaviour is responsible for our actions can lead to repression. For example, in some societies, women are expected to completely cover their bodies. One of the reasons given for this is that "men can't control themselves" and would be forced into immodest thoughts and behaviour by the sight of any uncovered female flesh.

I find this sort of thinking both irrational and dangerous. If we remove individual responsibility for actions, humans become automata capable only of reacting predictably to certain stimuli. As a believer in free will and individual responsibility, I shudder to think what would happen in a society that took this concept of "provocation" to its logical conclusion.

It is interesting that many cases of claimed "provocation" come from religious people incapable of accepting that what they see as the absolute truth may not be considered so by other people. They often call for society to be "sensitive" about their religious beliefs and practices, and the toleration always has to go in one direction - the secular population has to "respect" the religion of the believers, while the religious seem not to be obliged to accept that other people are entitled to a life not dictated by religious doctrine.

So, in the case cited above, I do not consider that the behaviour of the Arab driver, insensitive or impolite though it may have been, in any way justified the violence that resulted. People who are unwilling to become violent cannot be "provoked", and those inclined to violence tend to find a pretext, and, if possible, to blame their own irrational and destructive behaviour on others.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Repentance and Atonement

As the Jewish Day of Atonement approaches, people are asking each other, and praying to God, for forgiveness. This provides an opportunity to consider the terms "repentance" and "atonement".

If you do something wrong, this is either something you knew was wrong and still did anyway, or something you did by mistake or without realizing the consequences. In both cases, it is possible to learn from this wrong action.

Repentance seems to me like an easy option. It makes you feel better, without obliging you to change. People can get into cycles of doing wrong and then repenting, like an alcoholic who keeps promising to quit, or a wife-beater who keeps apologizing and declaring his love for his victim. People also tend to forgive quite easily, as this also feels good and righteous.

It is not enough to say you are sorry, or even feel genuine repentance for what you have done. The past cannot be changed, even by having a different perspective on it. What can be changed is the present and the future. If you become aware of something you have done wrong, the most important thing is never to do it again, and to try to make up for it in some way. This is where atonement comes in.

The process of atonement is part of the general process of self-improvement we should all be undertaking continuously throughout our lives. If being a good person is not top of your list of life targets, perhaps it is time to reconsider! What could be more important than being good? I believe that happiness stems from goodness, and that if everyone was good, everyone would be a lot happier. We would live in a better society. Every good action contributes to the general good, and every bad action detracts from it.

When people do wrong, they do so because they see some advantage to themselves in the wrong action. This is often a very selfish and short-sighted approach, and they fail to see the greater advantage in doing the right thing.

In order to become a better person, it is necessary to think about what is good, and to want to do good. We have to consider ourselves within the context of our society, and not do to others what we wouldn't want done to us. We have to overcome weakness and temptation. We have to find good role models to imitate, whose actions can become an internal guide for our behaviour.

None of this is new. It is fundamental in every system of ethics and every religion. My message to the world is: Don't just say you're sorry, become a better person.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

William Gibson - Spook Country

William Gibson, Spook Country, Berkeley International Edition, 2008 (first published 2007).

This story follows several interesting characters who become involved in tracking a shipping container. Why is the container being tracked, by whom, and what do they want with it? All is revealed in a surprising and satisfying ending.

Many of Gibson's usual themes are explored here, notably technology, drug addiction and the nature of celebrity. The present day background is believably painted, and makes the story and characters easy to identify with.

Hollis Henry is a former rock star who has become a journalist and is hired by a forthcoming magazine to investigate locative art, a form of art viewed with a GPS-linked VR helmet in particular locations, so the art is superimposed upon the visible reality. The owner of the magazine, Hubertus Bigend (a character familiar from Pattern Recognition), has received information about the container, since the computer genius behind the GPS links for the locative art has also been hired to track the container. He gets Hollis to exploit her celebrity status to investigate.

Tito is a young Cuban-Chinese "illegal facilitator" from a minor, but well-trained, crime/espionage family in NY. He starts wondering about his recent task, delivering iPods full of data to an old man, who turns out to be a former intelligence officer. He will soon have a more important role to play.

Milgrim is a former Russian translator and interpreter who has become a drug addict. He is kidnapped by Brown, who may be from the police or another agency, to help interpret the Russian-transcript text messages used by Tito and his family. Brown is after the container, but other parties always seem to be one step ahead of him.

These characters move through various cultural settings - the locative art world of LA, the crime and drug world of NY, the territory of secret agents (the "spook country" of the title), and the technological world of GPS tracking, phone scrambling and viewing art through VR. This creates a rich and vivid arena for the tense game to play out upon.

The book is well-written and subtle, as Gibson's work always is. Reading it for the first time was a thrilling experience, as all the threads connect, and reading it again, with the knowledge of the ending made it a lesson in plot construction. The characters are mostly sympathetic, and their inner worlds enriching.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008


It has just been reported that Israel is buying 25 advanced F35 Joint Strike Fighter jets from the USA, at a cost of $15.2 billion, to be delivered in five years' time. This is the first time these planes have been sold to another country, and this sale is understood as expressing the US Administration's support for Israel and dedication to its security.

I would like to question the wisdom of this move. I'm no military expert, but it seems to me that the IDF (Israel Defence Force) relies too much on its Air Force. During the Second Lebanon War (2006), there were air strikes on a Hezbollah controlled neighbourhood of Beirut, which killed many civilians and missed the Hezbollah leadership that was the supposed target. The use of air strikes against enemies lacking an Air Force makes Israel appear the aggressor in an unbalanced fight (although the fight is unbalanced in several ways, not all of them to Israel's advantage). It is also not effective in preventing the sort of rocket attacks we in Haifa were suffering every day for over a month (for this reason, Israel is investing in anti-rocket missiles).

It seems to me that more should be invested in the ground forces. The IDF seems reluctant to send in ground forces due to the greater risk of casualties, but the nature of the conflicts we are involved in seems to require this sort of action.

The planes would presumably be useful in the sort of attack carried out against Syria's reactor, or that being considered against Iran's nuclear program. However, these attacks are in the interest of the whole world, and it seems that the US is sending Israel to do the world's dirty work, instead of acting as the world's policeman, in this particular case...

Apart from that, the cost of these planes for a small country is immense. You can't help thinking what else could be done with even a fraction of this expense. Taking a subject close to my heart, the Israeli university system is close to collapse, with the Finance Ministry refusing to give the universities certain funds unless they raise tuition fees. The amount mentioned, about $640 million over five years, is so much less than $15 billion, and preventing the total collapse of Israeli's higher education system, once a source of great pride, should be a higher priority than acquiring more weapons of destruction, perhaps even weapons inappropriate for the country's needs.

As long as this country continues to worship the military and ignore important civilian aspects such as education, health and welfare, it is perpetuating the state of war and weakening the foundation of its existence.