All posts by subir

What happened to Ben-Gurion’s Oasis in the Desert?

After reading Mark Levine’s response to Jon Voigt’s open letter, I had to write about why many people like think as Jon Voigt does, and how political trends in Israel make his views rather quaint.

Sunset in the Negev
Sunset in the Negev

A desert in bloom

There is a lot to admire in the words, and many of the deeds, of Israeli leaders in the early years. Mapai/Labor were in charge and the kibbutz movement was ascendant. Ben-Gurion’s oft-quoted dream of making the “Negev desert bloom” is what people are thinking of when they see Israel as a project to create an oasis in the desert. The residual goodwill from that period are part of the reason an earlier generation sees the whole period with rose colored glasses and that is where Voigt is coming from (and Woody Allen as well).

Ben-Gurion’s powerful image of the desert oasis suggested a barren, sparsely populated land. This is part of the reason so many people still believe that all of Palestine was populated by nomadic tribes prior to 1948. This may have been true about the Negev Bedouin, but even they alone were over a 100,000 in 1948. In comparison, the entire Jewish population in then Palestine was around 600,000.

Of course, the West Bank is not the Negev, and neither was much of the coast with its heavily populated Palestinian villages and towns. They were both parts of a thriving Mediterranean culture that had traded with and influenced the entire area for millenia. In Palestine, there was a mixed community of Muslims and Christians, along with some Jews who had lived side by side for centuries. In 1948, that community was torn asunder in what they call the Nakba. Some 700,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes by the Jewish militia, or fled in fear. Many of their villages were razed to the ground. It was this that moved Golda Meir to say, after a visit to Arab Haifa in 1948:

It is a dreadful thing to see the dead city. Next to the port I found children, women, the old, waiting for a way to leave. I entered the houses, there were houses where the coffee and pita bread were left on the table, and I could not avoid [thinking] that this, indeed, had been the picture in many Jewish towns [i.e., in Europe, during World War II]‘.

To come back to the desert though. The Negev Bedouin had a way of life which deserves respect. They had lived and survived on that unforgiving land for centuries. After 1948, they were forced into settlements, and thousands expelled into Jordan or Egypt. This has diminished their culture (not to mention dispossessed them of their lands). So even that ostensibly inoffensive project is more questionable than many claim. In some ways, the treatment of the Bedouin parallels our own country’s treatment of the Native American tribes living on the Great Plains.

“I have heard you intend to settle us on a reservation near the mountains. I don’t want to settle. I love to roam over the prairies. There I feel free and happy, but when we settle down we grow pale and die. A long time ago this land belonged to our fathers, but when I go up to the river I see camps of soldiers on its banks. These soldiers cut down my timber, they kill my buffalo and when I see that, my heart feels like bursting.” — Satanta, Kiowa Chief 

Continue reading What happened to Ben-Gurion’s Oasis in the Desert?

A Person’s A Person, No Matter How Small.

A Person’s A Person, No Matter How Small.

How Dr. Seuss taught me everything I need to know about Ferguson, Syria, Iraq and Gaza.


Tonight, I was putting my daughter to bed and reading her a book. I happened to pick up Horton Hears a Who! and it fit the news I’ve been thinking about for the past week or two. The shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, the persecution and murder of minorities in Iraq and Syria, and the bombing of homes and towns in Gaza that caused the deaths of four hundred and thirty children and at least a thousand adult civilians.

There’s no way to improve his words, so I’ll just turn it over to Dr. Seuss.

“I’ve never heard tell

Of a small speck of dust that is able to yell.

So you know what I think?… Why I think that there must

Be someone on top of that small speck of dust!

Some sort of a creature of very small size,

Too small to be seen by an elephant’s eye

some poor little person who’s shaking with fear

That he’ll blow in the pool! He has no way to steer!

I’ll just have to save him. Because, after all,

A person’s a person, no matter how small.”


I can’t let my very small persons get drowned!

I’ve got to protect them. I’m bigger than they.

“Should I put this speck down?…” Horton though with alarm.

“If I do, these small persons may come to great harm.

I can’t put it down. And I won’t! After all

A person’s a person. No matter how small.”


“… a family, for all that we know!

A family with children just starting to grow.

So, please,” Horton said, “as a favor to me,

Try not to disturb them. Just please let them be.”


All that late afternoon and far into the night

That black-bottomed bird flapped his wings in fast flight,

While Horton chased after, with groans, over stones

That tattered his toenails and battered his bones,

And begged, “Please don’t harm all my little folks, who

Have as much right to live as us bigger folks do!”


They beat him! They mauled him! They started to haul

Him into the cage! But he managed to call

To the mayor: “Don’t give up! I believe in you all!

A person’s a person, no matter how small!

And you very small persons will not have to die

If you make yourselves heard! So come on, now and TRY!”


And that Yopp…

That one small, extra Yopp put it over!

Finally at last! From that speck on that clover

Their voices were heard! They rang out clear and clean.

And the elephant smiled. “Do you see what I mean? …

They proved they ARE persons, no matter how small.

And their whole world was saved by the Smallest of All!”


Theodor Seuss Geisel wrote Horton Hears a Who! after a visit to post-war Japan that changed his mind on how the US should treat Japanese reconstruction.

I wish all our kids aspire to be Hortons when they get big and the lad who said Yopp while they are little.

Henk Zanoli 91, helped save a 12 year old child from the Nazis

Yad Vashem and the Israeli government gave him a “Righteous among the Nations” medal. And then Israeli forces went ahead and killed six members of his extended family in Gaza by bombing their home.

So he gave the medal back along with this heart-breaking letter explaining his reasons. He concludes by saying:

If your state would be willing and able to transform itself along the lines of that set out above and there would still be an interest at that time in granting an honor to my family for the actions of my mother during the second world war, be sure to contact me or my descendants.

For most, this would be the appropriate moment to reflect on whether Netanyahu and Likud are alienating Israel’s best friends. But that must be because you don’t have the mindset of our friends on the right and you’re not with us on everything, so you must be against us.

This is how various newspapers are covering the story:

The Economist does a really good job of summarizing the story:

HENK ZANOLI (pictured) is a 91-year-old retired Dutch lawyer whose personal history encapsulates the reasons why the Netherlands and Israel have had such friendly relations since the foundation of the Jewish state in the wake of the second world war. Mr Zanoli’s family was, as the Dutch put it, “right in the war”—i.e. members of the resistance. In 1943, Mr Zanoli escorted an 11-year-old Jewish boy from Amsterdam, Elchanan Pinto, back to the family home in the village of Eemnes, where he and his mother Johanna hid him for the rest of the war. (His father, Henk Senior, had already been sent to a concentration camp for his resistance activities; he would die at Mauthausen.) Mr Pinto subsequently emigrated to Israel. Three years ago, the Israeli Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem awarded its “Righteous Among the Nations” medal, given to non-Jews who rescued Jews from the Nazis, to Mr Zanoli and (posthumously) his mother.

On August 11th, Haaretz’s Amira Hass reports, Mr Zanoli sent Yad Vashem its medal back. Mr Zanoli’s great-niece, Angelique Eijpe, is a Dutch diplomat, deputy head of the country’s mission in Oman, and her husband, Ismail Zi’adah, is a Palestinian economist who was born in Gaza’s al-Bureij refugee camp. On July 20, the Zi’adah family house in al-Bureij was hit by an Israeli bomb, killing six members of the extended family, including the family matriarch, three of her sons, and a 12-year-old grandson. In an elegant and sorrowful letter to Israel’s ambassador in The Hague, Mr Zanoli explained that he could not in good conscience keep the Israeli medal.

Continue reading Henk Zanoli 91, helped save a 12 year old child from the Nazis

A tale of two boys shot: St. Louis and Hebron

Michael Brown , 18 was killed Saturday, in St. Louis, apparently shot by a bullet from a police officer’s gun. The FBI will investigate this as a possible civil rights violation. It is front-page news across the country.

A few hours later, Khalil Al-Anati was killed in Hebron, apparently shot by a bullet from an Israeli soldier’s gun who may have been shooting into a crowd of protesters throwing stones. The Israeli military police is investigating. The story is buried in the inner pages of the newspapers that bother to cover it.

The human rights organization B’Tselem requested inquiries for over 300 killings of Palestinians by Israeli forces between 2000 and 2011. This has resulted in 9 indictments. The vast majority of military inquiries are closed years later with no action taken and no comment on why they were closed.

Thousands of children as young as 9 have been arrested and harshly interrogated, often for no reason other than a relative of theirs is wanted.

In St. Louis there have been vigils and protests, and the entire country is riveted. Everyone is wondering whether Michael’s only mistake was being born black.

In the West Bank, hundreds attended the funeral, but there is no major protest. Perhaps because this is the 17th shooting of an unarmed civilian in the West Bank this month. This month has been particularly difficult. On average Israeli soldiers kill only one or two unarmed civilians in the West Bank. A pace has been steady for years except for the years where protests are thick. Some are killed because they stray too close to a fence, around a settlement or border with Israel. Some are killed because young Israeli soldiers in armored Hum-vees panic and shoot into or around a crowd of Palestinian teenagers throwing stones.

Maybe the Palestinians have run out of rage, because four hundred and thirty children have been killed in Gaza over the past four weeks.

Khalil Al-Anati was 12 years old. His mistake was playing outside his house while an Israeli military convoy drove past and someone else threw stones at them. Just another “human shield” meant to be smashed to smithereens.

Perhaps his real mistake was being born Palestinian.

Why Do I Criticize The Israeli Government? My Response to Sam Harris

Bombardment of Gaza

Sam Harris has a transcript of a podcast on his website titled “Why Don’t I Criticize Israel“. It’s thought-provoking and cogent, but in the end unpersuasive.

You should read or listen to Harris’s podcast in it’s entirety. What I’m going to do here is evaluate and examine many of Sam’s arguments and others you may have heard. Sam makes as good a case as you can possibly make for the Israeli government while hewing as close as possible to a secular, humanist point of view. I’ll quote liberally, but the podcast must be heard in it’s entirety for it’s full effect.

A note on philosophical inclinations towards justice. If you’re a utilitarian, the case is quite clear.  Israeli action has caused the deaths of close to 2,000 people in this latest attack on Gaza in summer 2014.  Most sources agree that 65-80% of these are civilians (the Israeli government claims over half were not civilians).  Over 400 children have been killed.  At the other end, Hamas has managed to kill over 60 Israeli soldiers, two Israeli civilian and one Thai civilian in addition to damaging some buildings and setting off sirens all across Israel generally disrupting everyone’s day. Israeli forces have destroyed key infrastructure in Gaza, leaving most of the population without water or power and around 500,000 without access to their homes, a great number of which have been destroyed.  In utilitarian terms, the case is clear, the democratically elected government of Israel is by far the worse offender and it’s actions are disproportionate. Even in terms of rocket strikes, the numbers are disproportionate.  Hamas has launched a little over 2,900 rockets, the IDF has struck over 3,800 targets, often multiple times.  In some ways, it feels like heavily armed US cavalry running down entire Native American villages because they’ve attacked a white settlement.

But I am not a utilitarian in the strict sense of the word, as I suspect few of us are. In my view, for an action to be above reproach, you must utilize just means to achieve just ends. It is impossible to argue the Israeli government’s means are completely just (in this instance or in past actions), and I would say the ends are not either. Kant’s categorical imperative is that you cannot use rational beings as a means to an end. So you cannot kill 25 civilians to assassinate a single Hamas leader. Even if your goal of assassination is just.  [This in itself is questionable. Israel’s government feels differently about assassinations when its own officials are targeted. Begin started the ’82 Lebanese war over an assassination attempt (by a rogue faction of the PLO which was not in Lebanon).]

As Americans we understand all this is true, and we actually live these principles in some instances.  Bill Clinton recently said about Osama Bin Laden “I nearly got him. And I could have killed him, but I would have to destroy a little town called Kandahar in Afghanistan and kill 300 innocent women and children, and then I would have been no better than him. And so I didn’t do it.”  When Barack Obama finally had an opportunity to take out Osama Bin Laden, he sent 24 US commandos and support staff 200 miles from their base to do the job. They did not kill his two wives, who were shielding Osama Bin Laden when he was found.

In stark contrast, Israelis forces in the past month alone have bombed numerous homes over the past few weeks, killing hundreds of people, whole families and over a hundred children. In one instance, 17 civilian members of the Hamas police chief’s extended family were killed by a bomb targeting his aunt’s home while he was visiting it.  The demolition of homes, via bomb or bulldozer have been part of Israel’s strategy to bring “quiet” for quite some time.

A final note. This is written for an American audience. Here in the US, we get a rather bland view of Israel-Palestine relations, heavily tilted in favor of the Israeli right-wing (which has been in power for about 20 years now). If you’re reading this in Europe, you should probably stop, the pendulum has likely swung the other way in your media. If you’re in France, you should probably try to get your elected representatives to do their best to stop the mobs that are threatening Jews and destroying their property.

Continue reading Why Do I Criticize The Israeli Government? My Response to Sam Harris

Quoting Golda Meir

There’s a quote of Golda Meir’s doing the rounds in many discussions of the Israeli government’s war on Gaza.  It is regularly misquoted as:

we will perhaps in time be able to forgive the Arabs for killing our children, but it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their children.

Bob Schieffer used this in a ridiculous closing segment on Face the Nation, after allowing Benjamin Netanyahu to make a number of un-challenged statements about fact and motive.  Perhaps Bob Schieffer wanted to join the  rush (check any internet discussion board) to use it as a sanctimonious  justification for the many children killed in the bombing of Gaza or to validate the Israeli government’s assertion that it’s all actually Hamas’ fault (or even that of the Palestinians). It is of course, the Israeli Defense Forces who are dropping the bombs and shells on Gaza.

Of course, Bob Schieffer had the Golda Meir quote wrong. The correct quote is easy to find.  It’s on the last page of her autobiography and it’s right there on Wikiquote.  It goes like this:

When peace comes, we will perhaps in time be able to forgive the Arabs for killing our sons, but it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their sons.

— Golda Meir at a Press conference in London (1969)

Sounds completely different doesn’t it?

This was said two years after Israel attacked Egypt, Jordan and Syria  in what’s known as the Six-Day war.  The Six-Day war was itself 10 years after a coordinated attack by Israel, Britian and France to take the Suez canal from Egypt (known as the Suez crisis). The Suez Crisis itself happened 10 years after the Nakba, when Israeli forces frightened perhaps two or three hundred thousand Palestinians enough that they fled their homes, sometimes at gunpoint. The Israeli state then passed laws to limit their ability to return. The Nakba happened shortly after the Second World War in which 6 million Jews and possibly 10 million other civilians were systematically murdered by the Nazis and their henchmen in addition to many millions more being dispossessed of their homes and property. Since the 1880s, Jews had been migrating to Palestine to escape European pogroms, growing anti-semitism and the Nazis. So that’s some of the context.

To come back to Golda Meir and whether or not it is right to use this quote in the current conflict.  She was not talking about bombing the homes of Palestinians who oppose Israeli occupation from F-16s flying high above them.  She was not talking about killing whole families with young children.  She was not talking about children. She was talking about sons recruited for Arab armies.  She was lamenting a dreadful waste of young men sent by older men to die for their glory and tribute.

Golda Meir was an astute politician, and she lived in a time when people did not talk about killing children.  Or make up sanctimonious justifications for it.

Continue reading Quoting Golda Meir

The fourth dimension isn’t time: Reality, iOS 7 and Google Glass

Most of us using computing devices have seen three interfaces to interact with computers:

  • Command Line Instructions: often cryptic, requiring expertise, prior knowledge of the task and perhaps even some programming experience.  Extremely efficient for many tasks, providing a useful shorthand.  In certain applications, a menu of commands might have been available.
  • Mouse-driven desktop: which gave us the still-familiar desktop computer with windows, object icons, pull-down menus and buttons. This is what many people still imagine when they think of computers.  It is an attempt to create a virtual world that mimics the real office environment. A 1970s office since the ubiquity of computers has long since relegated actual filing cabinets,files, folders, and indeed desktops to the junk yard.
  • Multi-touch: which is now ubiquitous on our phones and tablets, along with it’s own peculiar sensibility of swipes, pinches, apps and haptic feedback.

Some would say voice-driven commands are the fourth interface, but I would argue they are a throw-back to command line instructions and not an new revolutionary interface.

What strikes me is that all three of these interface revolutions were first successfully developed for the consumer marketplace by one company; Apple.  The Times today has a fascinating memoir about the development of the first iPhone prototypes and the initial demo. The fourth interface revolution is upon us, and much as the first three were, its early iterations have been mocked and derided.

By now you’ve gathered why the sub-title mentions Google Glass.  Augmented reality is indeed the fourth interface revolution for consumer computing devices. The ability to add context to the real world without requiring direction from the user is almost here. The building blocks have been with us for some time.  GPS enabled devices providing fine-grained location information, gyroscopes to provide direction and velocity, and object recognition algorithms to interpret visual context have been combined to tell a computer where and what you’re looking at.  Mobile data communication and access to the global internet in our pockets let us retrieve contextual information on where we are and what we’re looking for.  Lightweight, highly mobile displays and voice feedback allow information can be presented to us at the appropriate level of obtrusiveness.  Motion sensors (think Microsoft Kinect) let us interact with the machine.

Google Glass is a very early iteration of augmented reality. Google is probably best positioned to deliver high-quality contextual data to an augmented reality system. It’s right in line with their mission to organize the world’s data.  But they aren’t the best at designing interfaces, and that’s what will make or break augmented reality. They’ve mad ea product that excites first-adopters and leaves the average person cold. Google has built the Newton, not the Palm.

You’re probably all wondering what iOS7 has to do with this discussion. Well, there is a chance that Apple has one more trick up its sleeve.  Apple has learned something about mapping and contextualizing the physical world during the development of Apple maps, even if the product is less than perfect. Purely as conjecture, let’s say you were designing an augmented reality system, perhaps it takes the form of a visual display as in Robocop, or perhaps it’s a transparent tablet like the ones carried around by the scientists on Avatar.  You would want all the augmented information and objects to stand out from reality, in fact you would want the interface to look as machine-like as possible so as not to be confused with real objects.  This would require backing away from any skeumorphism and adopting a flat feel with unnatural colors.  Icons and controls would have to stand-out when the background is a real scene, for instance using a heads-up display.  iOS7 has this translucent feel, much as you would imagine an augmented reality interface to have. If Apple does have a augmented reality display in the works, perhaps one that relies on the iPhone to drive it, iOS 7’s design would be a good way to introduce users to the new feel this interface will have.

Whoever puts together a successful augmented reality product will open up an enormous market.  The industrial and military applications are obvious, what will be more valuable in the long run is the ability to give users information on places, people, products and services as they engage with them in the real world. Vendors can expect price comparing shoppers to become far more common. Restauranteurs can expect consumer reviews to pop up on heads-up displays as pedestrians walk past. Some things, like pulling up someone’s Facebook page inconspicuously on your heads-up display when you first meet them in a bar will be creepy at first, and then completely commonplace. The internet in your pocket is about to enter your peripheral vision, and stay there.

Turning our pockets into nodes on the global network

In an engaging review of the dramatic changes in the mobile telecommunications industry over the past decade (“Europe holds a losing hand in the high-stakes mobile game”, September 5), John Gapper identifies Linux as an also-ran in the mobile platform wars. This cannot be the case as Google’s Android is based on Linux and released under a similar open source licence.

Open-source, standards-based Unix operating systems (Apple’s iOS shares many of these traits) are the native environment for internet applications. The web is largely built on these efficient systems composed of building blocks that can be adapted for different purposes. From an engineer’s perspective, they were the path of least resistance for handsets when mobile networks were opened to internet connectivity, turning our pockets into nodes on the global network.

There is an even larger story here. The internet is based on open standards and protocols, and by its very nature it levels the playing field for systems built in collaborative environments outside of closed, commercial environments. Like Linux (which shares Nokia’s Finnish roots), many core internet development tools (Apache, Perl, PHP, Ruby, WordPress and so on) are developed by teams distributed all over the world. Network externalities, cost effectiveness and a generation of developers who have come of age in this environment propel the trend. This global collaboration makes it almost futile to evaluate trends in terms of national or continental champions.

Silicon Valley had become the destination of choice for much of this activity because it is the closest analogue in the physical world. California is a relatively new land of immigrants within a nation of immigrants. It is open, adaptable and welcoming of change, somewhat like the technology it creates. This is perhaps why companies housed there have best understood how to create value in this new environment for software tools and services.

Originally published as a Letter to the FT editor.

The case for FEMA and federal emergency management.

A Big Storm requires Big Government: The Times editorial page is a bit shrill, but they do have a point. The federal government does have a crucial co-ordination role to play when organizing the response to big natural disasters that can overwhelm local resources. I look at FEMA as a cheap insurance policy. For about 13 billion dollars, FEMA coordinates disaster relief, trains local emergency response units, and funds the upgrade of equipment and infrastructure. For lower income states and communities (most in the south), this can make all the difference in a disaster. This was abundantly clear when Katrina hit.

The tacit belief that all civilian agencies within the federal government are inherently incompetent is ridiculous. There are fine, talented people working for the federal government, and it isn’t clear to me that privatizing those services would improve quality. Anyone who’s worked in a large company knows there’s ample waste and bureaucracy to be found there as well.

Contracting services out, doesn’t seem to do much except support a small group of large federal contractors. Most of these are large firms who’ve had defense businesses for a long time. It’s ironic that the largest of these (Halliburton/Brown & Root) was so closely connected to LBJ, and of all the post-war Democratic presidents, his legacy is what the right in the US has been trying to reverse ever since. One of the unintended consequences of business getting involved in politics.

Road-Trips: The cure for partisanship in Congress.

Another week, another lament for bi-partisanship in Congress. Red states, Blue states, Senators from Citibank (variously Delaware or South Dakota), special interests, earmarks, gridlock. There is no end to opinion pieces decrying the extreme narrow-mindedness among our current crop of representatives and candidates. None suggest a meaningful remedy. On the budget and longer-term fiscal challenges, it seems most members of congress have decided they will represent their own narrow interests as vigorously as they can. A desire for fairness and the courage to ask for shared sacrifice, are hard to find, and yet these are the essential ingredients for the tough financial decisions our large and diverse nation will have to make. Most continue to hold out for a solution that inflicts no pain on their team, one where the other side bears all the costs. Yet in their heart of hearts, everyone knows solving our immense challenges will require some sacrifice within their own camps.

I’ve driven across the US a total of seven times. That’s coast-to-coast, usually in excess of 7,000 miles over the course of a summer, generally taking a different route each time. Six of those seven trips were with my parents and brother, on break from school. We drove across Europe once, and the length of India over one 5-month long summer. But, this country was the default option, partly because driving in the USA is so much easier, and no doubt because it was so beautiful. No part of it has every seemed a fly-over state to me.

The very day I arrived in the US to attend university full time, I felt at home, largely due to those trips. When I’d run into a fellow student from Nebraska, I knew the land they were raised on and could say that I too had experienced it. The last of those seven drives across the country was on a motorcycle, solo, the summer after my green card came in the mail (pictures are at Every spring, without fail, as the weather gets warmer, I think of road-trips, and what they do for my imagination.

Those trips, though the last of them was six years ago, gave me a far better perspective on the country than my many years in New York would suggest. When I hear of South Dakota politics, I don’t think of “Senators from Citibank”. I remember stop-light to stop-light races on motor-bikes and Ford Probes along 41st Street in Sioux Falls, bales of hay drying in the morning dew outside of Mitchell. I think of whether South Dakota’s representatives are trying to do the best they can for the people who sent them to Washington.

Here’s my suggestion to reduce some of the rancor and divide in congress over the budget. Have each congressman or congresswoman pair up with a colleague, someone from a different part of the country, and preferably from the other party. Over the August Congressional break, have them take a 2 week road-trip out to each other’s district as a family vacation. It’ll be an amazing experience for their families, as they see the immense breadth and great beauty of this country and its people anew. They can stop off at a national park, and marvel at the grand vision and great collective financial commitment required to create and maintain our parks and highway system. And see, rather than hear about the differing needs and views of their fellow-countrymen.

The hope is, they’ll come back in September with a different receptiveness to the other side’s argument. Not to mention a new-found appreciation for this great country and a sense of responsibility towards all its people. Perhaps they’ll regain the courage, vision and internal fortitude to ask the American people for shared sacrifice. They might even begin to see merit in the other side’s argument. And maybe, just maybe, they might work diligently to produce a road-map that tackles the immediate and longer-term budget issues facing our country while being fair to all. The reward would be knowing that they had done their part to ensure future generations could see the USA, in all its variety, and furthering in a small way, that elusive goal of creating a more perfect union.