Egypt’s leap off the cliff

February 11, 2011

Legitimacy in any state derives from the willingness of the vast bulk of the people to cooperate with or at least tolerate the regime. Now we get a view of what happens when that breaks down.

We in the West have become accustomed for centuries to a functioning civil society, voting, political parties, and various other mechanisms of accountability and feedback between people and government. Even if a government collapses, the residual structure is still there to keep things going.

In Egypt, and in Arab countries and much of the third world, there is limited or corrupt or zero intermediary levels of structure. That has been by design: the kings or dictators have systematically prevented or actively destroyed any other independent centers of stability or power. That’s the situation in Egypt–without Mubarak and the army, there is little meaningful or legitimate structure.

We tend to forget, the institution of Kingship (with its attendant ‘divine right’) derives originally from the sheer ability of one person, via his charisma and ability to orchestrate (usually an army), to bring order where there was chaos.

The Egyptian people rightly want to destroy the existing regime, not just musical chairs at the top. But there is no reliable structure if it falls–and unlike in the West where even protest movements have strong traditions and agreed-upon morals and implicit structures, Egypt’s mass protests only have inchoate rage and a provisional so-far-so-good nonviolence. Which is not something that can be counted on, in an age where gov’t provocateurs and media can easily make the protesters look violent even when they’re not. Egypt now is giving us a taste of what kind of pure chaos might look like– and I will be curious if someone’s charisma rises to channel the ‘will of the people’ and bring order to the chaos that’s developing.

The Site is up!

October 22, 2010

The beta site is up!

You are invited to check it out, register, login, and comment!

Please send feedback to or post your feedback here on this blog!

This is really exciting for us and we’re looking forward to seeing what you all think.

Media reaction to Flotilla raid reveals everyone’s racist against Muslims

June 6, 2010

like so many of Israel’s critics–right and left– of the Mavi Marmara mess, or the Shalit kidnapping, or the Lebanon war, there’s in Michael Chabon’s op-ed an implicit anti-Arab racism. (What?? me leftist progressive, a racist against Arabs? no can be!!!)

Yes, if your whole thing is about how stupid Israel is, you are patronizingly ignoring the fact that Israel’s enemies–the Turkish IHH who prepared the thugs on the Marmara, the leaders and soldiers of Hezbollah, for example–can actually be smart! Can figure out how to outsmart Israel! And everyone is falling into this trap. Right-wing critics are furious at Israel for not outsmarting the IHH and the Mavi Marmara thugs. Left-wing critics claim Israel was stupidly and murderously lashing out. Even dispassionate observers agree that Israel was manipulated into killing several club-wielding activists, taking a big PR hit worldwide. But the emphasis, from all sides, is on Israel’s action only.

It’s not a simple equation, as Israel is far stronger than any current enemy (including non-‘peace’ groups like the ISM and IHH), but Israel is usually not simply trying to destroy them. Israel has many, many weaknesses, as an actual nation-state with an address, civilians it actually cares about protecting, accountability, and moral and human rights standards. Finding weakness and forcing Israel to uncomfortably fail to balance those many needs is not necessarily so difficult, but it takes strategic thinking. Let’s actually give some credit to the IHH and Hezbollah et al. Smarts plus willingness to die can win them some victories. In this case it did.

Israel was NOT necessarily so stupid–it tried to use non-lethal force to ensure ships were searched (NOT to stop aid shipments, which all reached Gaza in the end anyway). It had worked 40 times before. It finally failed. Sure, Israel should have prepared better etc.– but remember, defense is harder than offense: thinking creatively about every of thousands of weak spots is tough, while attackers can put all their effort into the one place they know they’re attacking, as the IHH could. Why can’t Muslims ever be smart? Let’s give some credit. They won a battle, not necessarily because Israel was stupid or brutal, but because they found a weakness and a creative way to surprise Israel.

If all– left, right, Israeli or western– continue to deny the agency and accountability of Israel’s enemies, there is no hope for peace (or, for that matter, victory). Let’s give them understanding and, in a sense, respect. The Mavi Marmara club-wielding assailants prepared to die and some probably chose to die, to win a PR battle with Israel, with no hope of defeating the blockade– only hoping Israel would kill them so she would look bad. They succeeded. Can’t we give credit? And blame? Also, can’t we hold Turkey accountable for allowing this armed, provocative flotilla to launch? (Greece and Cyprus notably refused.)

The Site is UP!!!

April 8, 2010

NJT website is up!

February 23, 2010

The preliminary website is available for viewing at

Enjoy, let me know what you think!

New Jerusalem Talmud Introduction

January 28, 2010

Video of the Introduction to a NJT event discussion

Climate Change: Global Warming?

January 24, 2010

Daf Climate Change

What’s special about the New Jerusalem Talmud?

December 27, 2009

The Greek method of discourse, usually credited as the ‘Socratic Method’, generally structures as follows: it’s set up as two sides of an argument, each piece of the argument is examined and attacked or eliminated until one answer remains, and that must be the ‘right’ answer (which can then be abstracted to a putatively universal principle.)

The problem with that setup is, it’s often actually a setup. A straw man, and a wise man… it’s inherently dualistic (dialogue, the ‘dialectic’, etc.) and it presupposes a polarizing emphasis on ‘winning’ the argument. The premise, at bottom, is that there is only one right answer– that contradiction is untenable.

The Jewish methodology embodied by the Talmud starts with a challenging framing statement: two or three or even four apparently contradictory opinions on the same issue. The discussion then examines all of the issue, from the premise that MORE than one of these contradictory opinions– maybe ALL of them– can actually be simultaneously be true. That each is really approaching the problem from a different angle, level, or perspective, from which that opinion is actually correct–and that many more truths will emerge from such an open-minded, engaged, logically rigorous, but NOT polarizing approach. The underlying premise is that each person, if speaking from a sincere and genuine desire for the good, is revealing a facet of truth.

Today’s controversies, and the discussions around them, almost all tend to fall into the Greek model, with an almost magnetic pull towards polarizing, choose-sides dynamics. Politics, Evolution, Global Warming, Abortion, Health Care, you name it, the debates are impoverished and stunted by this tendency– if you’re not with us you’re against us, and we’re not going to hear a word you’re saying (or even our own words!)

The New Jerusalem Talmud offers a way out of this conundrum. We welcome nuance and ambiguity, that one can admit the truths or claims from ‘both’ sides or many sides of an issue, and an approach that reveals the underlying logics or values that drive these controversies. We propose that literally bringing this approach into the graphic format, as the original talmud did, is exactly the best way to illustrate the many-sidedness of these issues, where the ‘Four Directions’ can each be different approaches, or lines or threads of argument, stemming from any of the fundamental controversies of our time. A rigorous ‘wiki’ of debate, which rather than watering down and diminishing the rich passions of debate (as encyclopedias tend to do), embraces the possibility of presenting side-by-side, on their own terms, everyone’s different approach to an issue– so that the underlying values can be made clear and deeper truths can emerge.

Climate Change: What’s up? Maybe not temperature?

November 25, 2009

We had a wonderful discussion on Nov. 23rd about the implications and ways of conceiving of global climate change. While we work on editing the Daf, here are some of the links to data and sides of the controversy for readers to see and comment upon.

A scandal that leading climate change scientists hid or falsified data: Is it true? Even if it is, does that affect how we should think about climate change?

Apparently, while land temperatures have risen, sea (70% of the earth) temperatures have not, according to
Satellite-derived temperature graphs . Everyone knows that asphalt or rock is hotter than grass or forest. So urbanization, desertification, and deforestation for sure make it locally hotter, but actual global temperatures–moderated by the sea–may not be rising all that quick.

Glaciers and polar ice are certainly receding though: Graphs of sea ice extent in Arctic.

An online debate sponsored by ‘Monk’ (not the tv show, alas) on climate change:

Yaakov’s vote for best blog on global climate change
Blog representing the establishment view on climate change

First super-high-resolution model projection that the ancient
“Fertile Crescent” will disappear in this century

Dr. Roger Pielke’s position statements on climate change:

Landcover Changes may Rival Greenhouse Gases as Cause of Climate Change.

So what’s going on? Do you even care? Are we all doomed, or are there bigger problems in the world? Is Al Gore a prophet or is he full of hot air?

Saving indigenous cultures, Multiculturalism, and evil

September 22, 2009

We’re facing a great extinction of human indigenous cultures and languages and peoples and wisdoms.  More than most people I’m focused on this subject, and on learning what we can and what we must from the great variety of traditional, hunter-gatherer, ‘close(r) to nature’ tribes and nations and wisdoms that are threatened or that have disappeared.

(we, the world mono-culture, as well as we, the Jewish/Israeli subculture I most identify with.)

But among those who are also highlighting this issue and fighting for indigenous rights–I’m right now thinking of Wade Davis’ lecture on TED on behalf of his role as National Geographic photographer, but it applies in general to most people who write on this subject– is an unexamined belief that we should preserve as many, or all, of these remaining cultures as we can.  That we should embrace a certain kind of radical equality of cultures, at least of all of those who didn’t fall into the generally congruent sets of ‘sins’ that encompass the Agricultural Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, colonization.

Usually I’m the one making an argument along these lines– that some of these cultures were superior in many ways to civilizational or modern or our cultures, that we all should consider those values as alternatives, etc.

I want to agree, passionately, with the plea to stop destroying the world’s remaining indigenous cultures and habitats, yes, to stop wrecking the ethnic diversity as well as the biodiversity of the planet.

But there’s a caveat. I found in Davis, as with others who make the multiculturalism argument, a dangerous presumption of moral relativity.  Study the following statement carefully: All Cultures Are Not Created Equal.

There are some values, some practices, some ideas, some moralities that SHOULD be destroyed, that are NOT ok.

From cannibals in the Ecuadorian Amazon (see Schneebaum’s “Keep the River on your Right”) to the New Guinea tribe where initiation for teenage boys includes brutal homosexual violation (mentioned in Gladwell’s “Blink”) to honor killings of girls by Muslims in a number of locales, we must remember that human cultures do have distortions that are not mere relative and arbitrary distinctions.

Certain customs should not be allowed to continue, even if we don’t fully understand the meaning and context of how and why they do what they do, even if certain rituals or wisdoms will be lost forever. I’m quite happy that the Aztec mass-sacrifice-cannibalism ceremonies will never happen again, even if I have to thank a conquistador for that. It is often forgotten that the British Empire, certainly guilty of great disruption and devastation to more of the world’s land, peoples, and cultures, than just about any other people or entity, was also almost single-handedly responsible for ending slavery on almost all the Earth.

What this does imply is that there is a universal standard of morality. This is different from a universal morality, such as the Christian missionaries or crusaders, or today’s al Qaeda or Ayatollahs, would impose.

In a world of globalization and global awareness and global ecological interdependence, all of us are now at least minimally interested in all others. Rather than being dictated by a Pope or by the pathetically ineffectual UN, this standard needs to be more like the communal, consensual standards of behavior that govern (or used to govern) most indigenous polities around the world. Plenty of room for each to do his or her own thing, but with limits… when one culture is out of line, there needs to be a real mechanism for the consensus of peoples to change it, to not accept it, to provide safe havens and alternatives for victims. In the worst cases, let’s face it, there does need to be conquest and de-Nazification of errant cultures. The world has become too small for us each to ignore the other’s dirty laundry.

Many nation-states are corrupt dictatorships or worse, therefore the UN is doomed to failure, as it is only a representative body of those particular nations’ regimes and their interests. Many peoples and nations– particularly indigenous– are not represented, and can’t be effectively empowered without destabilizing a great many nation-states. (That might need to happen…)

We need to think out of the current boxes– but not with mere platitudes and an uncritical belief in equality of cultures, values, and moralities. And we need to have this conversation soon– because the world’s ecological crises are inextricably bound up with these issues of power and land-based wisdom. Maybe we need to solve this first before worrying about carbon footprints…