Sunday, August 17, 2014
Eyeless, Clueless and Senseless in Gaza
The Jewish people in general and Israel in particular are the canaries in the world coal mine. Most of the world found it easy to dismiss Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party during the 1930s when Hitler's rhetoric and actions focused on demonizing and dehumanizing Jews. By the time the world realized the full extent of Hitler's evil and the true nature of his goals, Hitler had plunged the world into war--a war that the Nazis nearly won.
Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East, is fighting for her very survival, battling against a well-trained and well-equipped Hamas terrorist organization that is funded and supported by Iran. Iran's cold-blooded attempt to destroy Israel foreshadows the fate in store for the United States and other Western democracies if those countries do not rally behind Israel. It is important to understand the historical dimensions and future implications of Israel's war against Hamas.
Forget the false message disseminated by perhaps the most successful propaganda campaign in world history; there is no such thing as a Palestinian Arab people and there has never been an Arab country named Palestine or indeed any independent Arab country where the State of Israel now exists. The Roman Empire, after subduing the Judean Revolt nearly 2000 years ago, renamed Judea "Syria Palestina" and renamed Jerusalem "Aelia Capitolina." The former term, shortened to "Palestine," refers to the geographical areas known in modern times as the State of Israel, Jordan, Gaza and Judea/Samaria. It cannot be emphasized enough that Palestine is a geographical term; it does not refer to a nation nor is there such a thing as a Palestinian language or a distinct Palestinian culture. After the Roman Conquest, various empires conquered Palestine but no one established an independent country there. Jews prayed for and dreamed about reestablishing a Jewish State in their ancestral homeland but this did not become a practical idea until the 1800s, after the birth of modern nationalist movements. The Jewish modern nationalist movement, Zionism, turned the ancient Jewish dream into a reality as Jewish people who lived in Palestine, plus Jews who returned home to Palestine after fleeing persecution in Europe, built up Palestine from a desolate and sparsely inhabited wasteland into a place where the desert bloomed. That in turn attracted Arab immigration to Palestine from throughout the region. During the early 20th century there were various nascent Arab nationalist movements but there was no such thing as a Palestinian national movement (other than the Jewish Palestinian national movement); indeed, before the founding of the modern State of Israel, the terms "Palestine" and "Palestinians" almost exclusively referred to Jewish organizations and Jews: the major Jewish newspaper in pre-state Israel was the Palestine Post (now known as the Jerusalem Post) and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra was founded as the Palestine Symphony Orchestra.
The term Palestine was not understood to mean a separate Arab nation until an anti-Israel propaganda campaign transmogrified the meaning of that word after the founding of the modern State of Israel. Indeed, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was founded in 1964 in Cairo as an Egyptian puppet at a time when Jordan controlled Judea and Samaria and Egypt controlled Gaza. The PLO, sponsored at that time by the Soviet Union and other totalitarian countries, was not trying to "liberate" land from Israel, because the land that the PLO was supposedly trying to "liberate" was at that time under Arab control; the PLO was founded to destabilize and destroy Israel as part of the Soviet Union's Mideast designs during the Cold War. The PLO never represented the interests of an underdog, oppressed people; the PLO has always been a well-funded tool of various totalitarian regimes and the PLO's goals have always focused on destroying Israel, not on "liberation."
During Israel's War of Independence, several hundred thousand Arabs fled from Israel, exhorted by Arab military leaders to temporarily evacuate in order to make way for the planned massacre of Israel's Jewish residents. These Arabs expected to triumphantly return to a land with no Jews but instead Israel defeated the combined armies of her Arab neighbors. In most wars, the losing side is responsible for resettling its refugees or else a de facto population exchange occurs (few people talk about the fact that, at the same time that hundreds of thousands of Arabs voluntarily left Israel, hundreds of thousands of Jews were expelled from Arab countries, with most of those Jews fleeing to Israel). Not only did the Arab countries refuse to resettle their Arab brethren who they had exhorted to leave Israel but the so-called Palestinian Arabs are the only group in the world that has an entire UN organization devoted exclusively to their particular concerns: the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). All other refugee crises in the world are dealt with by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. At the end of 2012, the UNHCR listed listed 45.2 million displaced people worldwide, the largest such number since 1994. The biggest single displaced person crisis in the world is focused in Pakistan, a result of decades of war, tyranny and instability in that region. The disproportionate attention paid to a fictional Palestinian nation and a real--but eminently solvable--Arab refugee problem not only does injustice to both Israel and the refugees in question (who have been exploited as political pawns by Israel's enemies for decades) but it also hinders efforts to solve other more severe refugee crises.
It is bad enough that there is an entire UN organization focusing on refugees of a fictional nation, people who share a common language, culture and religion with most of the other Arab countries in the Mideast and who should have been accepted by those countries decades ago, much like Israel welcomed Jewish refugees from Arab countries--but what really makes the UNRWA completely disgusting is that the UNRWA is complicit in war crimes committed against Israel. Three times in the past month, Hamas rockets have been found at UNRWA facilities. The first time that rockets were discovered in a UNRWA facility during the current conflict, the UNRWA handed over the rockets to Hamas, a flagrant violation of the UNRWA's purported neutrality. Michael Curtis makes a strong case that Hamas should be indicted for war crimes:
In its behavior towards Israel, Hamas is guilty of both crimes against humanity and war crimes according to Article 7(1) of the Rome Statute, which applies to murder and extermination. Hamas is guilty of a government policy in which those two crimes are part of a widespread or systematic practice. Its actions are more than isolated inhumane acts and constitute a consistent pattern of behavior. The stated aim of Hamas is not simply to harm Israeli civilians, but rather a policy of genocide, the killing of Jews, and the elimination of the State of Israel. Hamas has really only one grievance: the existence of Israel.
Article 8(2)(b) of the Rome Statute deals with the war crime of using protected persons as shields. Hamas has been guilty on numerous occasions of this crime--the intention to shield a military objective from attack or shield, favor, or impede military operations. The major war crime of Hamas is to use children for this purpose. Golda Meir, in her straightforward manner, once commented, "We will only have peace with the Arabs when they love their children more than they hate us." In contrast, Hamas has stated that preserving the capacity to bomb civilians in Israel is more valued than the loss of Palestinian children.
Those children have been used not only as human shields to protect the terrorists. They have also been used for actions such as being messengers and couriers for the terrorists, for digging tunnels into Israel, and for smuggling. Hamas has used them for military activities, including throwing grenades and rocks, and even for suicide bomber missions. Schools and kindergartens have been used to store missiles and mortars and as launching sites, in the same way as hospitals, mosques, and public places have been used. The sad reality is that Gaza children do not dream of becoming rocket scientists; they dream of firing rockets and becoming holy martyrs.
There is ample evidence to present to the International Criminal Court, including the outspoken statement of the U.N. secretary-general, the discovery that tunnels used for aggression are located under hospitals and private property, and the videos of Hamas actions. One video clearly shows rockets being fired next to civilian buildings. Another shows a demonstration of human shields as civilians were forced to gather on top of the home of a known Hamas terrorist to prevent an attack by Israel. Ban Ki-moon has spoken of the need to address the "root causes" of instability in Gaza. A case brought against Hamas before the International Criminal Court would find that the basis of instability in Gaza is the crimes against humanity and the war crimes committed by Hamas.
In "Hamas has win-win tactic," UK colonel tells ‘Post,’ UK Col. (ret.) Richard Kemp tells Seth J. Frantzman, "I have thirty years of experience in exactly this type of conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Balkans, where the tactics were similar. I find a great deal of media reporting outside of Israel is grossly distorted and doesn't comprehend the reality of what’s happening."
Kemp argues that Israel has persevered very well despite being at a "natural disadvantage" in the media and international spotlight, saying that "Hamas used this tactic of human shields. It is win-win for them. The first win is if they can stop the IDF from attacking a target, whether it is a headquarters or ammunition point. Equally, if the IDF does attack the target and there are civilian casualties, they also win, because it means they scored a propaganda victory."
In meetings with pilots, soldiers and naval personnel, he related stories where they had frequently refrained from attacking targets where civilian casualties might have resulted.
Although the perception is that the IDF is harming civilians, he argues that many armies actually look to Israel to learn how the country minimizes casualties while fighting in an urban environment.
"I don't know of any method used in this kind of scenario to [further] reduce civilian casualties. When [US President Barack] Obama and [British Prime Minister David] Cameron say that [there is], then they should [say] how to," he said.
He sees international criticism of Israel's actions as encouraging terrorists to copy the Hamas strategy of using human shields and undermining Israel's ability to defeat the group.
It is not difficult to ascertain both the historical truth about Israel and the truth about Israel's current war with Hamas, but that does not stop the mainstream media from covering these issues mendaciously. In Why Do People Hate Israel?, Dennis Prager declares that there are only two possible reasons that this is the only time in history that "in a war between a free state and a police state, the free state was deemed the aggressor. That’s because it never happened before Israel and its enemies." Prager explains the reasons for this "moral anomaly":
One is the nearly worldwide embrace of leftist thought and values. According to this way of thinking, Westerners are almost always wrong when they fight Third World countries or groups; and the weaker party, especially if non-Western, is almost always deemed the victim when fighting a stronger, especially Western, group or country. Leftism has replaced “good and evil” with “rich and poor,” “strong and weak,” and “Western (or white) and non-Western (or non-white).” Israel is rich, strong and Western; the Palestinians are poor, weak and non-Western.
The only other possible explanation is that Israel is Jewish.
There is no other rational explanation because the fixation with, and the hatred of, Israel are not rational. Israel is a particularly decent country. It is tiny--about the size of New Jersey and smaller than El Salvador; and while there are more than 50 Muslim countries, there is only one Jewish one. She should be admired and supported, not hated to the extent that there are dozens of countries whose populations would like to see Israel annihilated--again, a unique phenomenon. No other country in the world is targeted for extermination.
As hard as it is for modern, rational and irreligious people to accept, Israel’s Jewishness is a primary reason for the hatred of it.
Isi Liebler spoke truth to power in Candidly Speaking: Obama is abandoning Israel:
The Western media’s sympathy for Hamas, inciting hatred against Israel by its excessive display of gruesome images of dead children, was completely out of context. That Israel possesses the firepower to level Gaza, if it intended to do so, was ignored. Rarely did it acknowledge that Israel had accepted cease-fires which Hamas had rejected. Or that Israel maintained a flow of humanitarian aid, electricity and water to Gaza and that terrorist casualties were treated in Israeli hospitals. In fact, Israel even established a field hospital for the sole purpose of treating Gazan civilians.
The media behaved unconscionably in failing to highlight the fact that most of the civilian casualties in Gaza were incurred because Hamas had ordered women and children to ignore Israeli early warnings to evacuate, obliging them to act as human shields at rocket launching sites and command posts. Schools, hospitals, mosques, and UNRWA headquarters were used to stockpile armaments and launch missiles. By this behavior, Hamas is responsible for every civilian casualty, and is unquestionably guilty of war crimes.
As (Israeli Prime Minister) Netanyahu stated, "Israel employs missile defense to protect its citizens; Hamas uses its civilians to protect missiles."
Whereas no army in history has ever gone to the extremes of the IDF to minimize civilian casualties, the obscene UN Human Rights Commission, dominated by dictatorships and rogue states, has launched an investigation of what it has already defined as "Israeli war crimes." In what is clearly intended to be a repeat of the notorious Goldstone Commission, there is not even the pretense of objectivity and no call to investigate Hamas.
Caroline Glick bluntly explained why Hamas violated the August 1 ceasefire:
Hamas acted as it did, because it thinks it can get away with it. And Hamas thinks that it can get away with it because Hamas is convinced that it will win this war.
And as long as Hamas is convinced that it will win this war, it will continue to attack, no matter what its situation is on the ground in Gaza. It will continue to attack Israel no matter what Israel does.
As a consequence, there is no way for Israel to disengage. There can never be a ceasefire with Hamas for as long as Hamas is convinced that it will win this war.
To understand why Hamas is convinced that it will win, it is necessary to understand first why Hamas is fighting in the first place.
Hamas went to war with one goal, to reopen Gaza to the world.
Hamas is fighting to open Gaza’s border with Egypt, to end Israel’s maritime blockade of the Gaza coast, and to reinstate its lines of finance.
Today Hamas’s leadership, snug in their multi-million dollar villas in Qatar and well-equipped bunkers under Shifa Hospital in Gaza City are that they will achieve their goal. They will win.
Glick notes that the UNRWA is at best powerless and ineffectual and at worst actively collaborating with Hamas, who she rightly calls "a genocidal terrorist organization dedicated to the annihilation of the Jewish people and our state as a first step towards Islamic world domination":
During this war--and in previous Hamas campaigns against Israel--we have seen Hamas use UNWRA schools as missile storage sites and missile launching pads. This week three soldiers were killed trying to seal a tunnel whose entry shaft was located in an UNWRA clinic booby trapped with over a ton of explosives built into one of the walls.
At a minimum, this tells us that UNWRA is subservient to Hamas. All UNWRA installations and personnel are controlled by Hamas. As a result, UNWRA is a subsidiary--willing or unwilling--of Hamas and all funds to UNWRA must be suspended until Hamas is no longer in control of Gaza.
Again, the central point is that for as long as Hamas exercises control over Gaza, everyone in Gaza and every entity operating in Gaza is controlled by Hamas. All assistance to Gaza assists Hamas and communicates the message that Hamas will win the war.
Israel's enemies often cite the casualty disparity in the current war, noting that Israel has suffered far fewer deaths and injuries than her enemies--but, as indicated by the Golda Meir quote cited above, the reason for this is that Israel's enemies hate the Jews more than they value their own lives. Furthermore, Israel's effectiveness at minimizing her own casualties should not be held against her. The important point to remember is that Hamas is a state-sponsored terrorist organization whose sworn goal is to destroy Israel, a peaceful and democratic country. According to a July 25, 2014 article published by YNetnews, if Israel had not dealt with Hamas' underground network of tunnels now then the Jewish State would soon have been confronted with a massacre on the scale of the 9/11 attacks:
Hamas had been preparing a murderous massive assault on Israeli civilian targets during the upcoming Jewish New Year holiday, Rosh Hashanah--this according to anonymous sources in the Israeli security services cited by the Israeli daily Maariv.
Hamas had been planning a surprise attack where 200 fighters would have been dispatched through the dozens of tunnels dug by Hamas under the border from Gaza to Israel. The terror organization aimed to seize kibbutzim and other communities while killing and kidnapping Israeli civilians.
In total, thousands of Hamas terrorists would have been swarming across Israel, wearing IDF uniforms, which would have further complicated an Israeli response. Reports further indicate that Hezbollah may have planned to join the attack as well, opening another front in the north.
The source stressed that the current unplanned war with Hamas inadvertently thwarted a catastrophic event on an apocalyptic magnitude such as the Yom Kippur War, which would have ‘brought the State of Israel to its knees.’ The destruction of these tunnels takes away from Hamas a strategic weapon it has been working on and investing in heavily for years according to the source.
Each tunnel has arteries, veins, offshoots as well as offshoots of offshoots designed in intricate and complex arrangements. As one Israeli spokesman said, "There are two Gazas, one above ground and one below ground: an underground terrorist city."
The materials used by Hamas to manufacture these tunnels of death were ostensibly imported for civilian construction and could have been used to build hospitals, schools and homes. Keep that in mind the next time you hear anti-Israel commentators spewing nonsense about Israel's responsibility for Arab living conditions in Gaza.
Despite the vicious attacks launched against Israel--both physical and psychological--Zionism is a great success story, as noted in Michael Oren's In Defense of Zionism:
Elsewhere in the world, indigenous languages are dying out, forests are being decimated, and the populations of industrialized nations are plummeting. Yet Zionism revived the Hebrew language, which is now more widely spoken than Danish and Finnish and will soon surpass Swedish. Zionist organizations planted hundreds of forests, enabling the land of Israel to enter the 21st century with more trees than it had at the end of the 19th. And the family values that Zionism fostered have produced the fastest natural growth rate in the modernized world and history's largest Jewish community. The average secular couple in Israel has at least three children, each a reaffirmation of confidence in Zionism's future.
Indeed, by just about any international criteria, Israel is not only successful but flourishing. The population is annually rated among the happiest, healthiest and most educated in the world. Life expectancy in Israel, reflecting its superb universal health-care system, significantly exceeds America's and that of most European countries. Unemployment is low, the economy robust. A global leader in innovation, Israel is home to R&D centers of some 300 high-tech companies, including Apple, Intel and Motorola. The beaches are teeming, the rock music is awesome, and the food is off the Zagat charts.
The democratic ideals integral to Zionist thought have withstood pressures that have precipitated coups and revolutions in numerous other nations. Today, Israel is one of the few states—along with Great Britain, Canada, New Zealand and the U.S.—that has never known a second of nondemocratic governance.
These accomplishments would be sufficiently astonishing if attained in North America or Northern Europe. But Zionism has prospered in the supremely inhospitable—indeed, lethal—environment of the Middle East. Two hours' drive east of the bustling nightclubs of Tel Aviv—less than the distance between New York and Philadelphia—is Jordan, home to more than a half million refugees from Syria's civil war. Traveling north from Tel Aviv for four hours would bring that driver to war-ravaged Damascus or, heading east, to the carnage in western Iraq. Turning south, in the time it takes to reach San Francisco from Los Angeles, the traveler would find himself in Cairo's Tahrir Square.
In a region reeling with ethnic strife and religious bloodshed, Zionism has engendered a multiethnic, multiracial and religiously diverse society. Arabs serve in the Israel Defense Forces, in the Knesset and on the Supreme Court. While Christian communities of the Middle East are steadily eradicated, Israel's continues to grow. Israeli Arab Christians are, in fact, on average better educated and more affluent than Israeli Jews.
Eyeless in Gaza, Clueless in India: Why We Shouldn't Care refutes the idea that India (and other non-Western countries) should reflexively vote against Israel in international forums like the UN:
At its root, the problem is the Arab refusal to grant Israel the very right to exist, and their insistence that Israel and Jews must vacate the land. This stand does not allow for any compromise, and causes all the bloodshed and violence. Clearly, Israel is the aggrieved party on this front.
It is also easy to forget what caused the current round of bloodletting. It was the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers by the militant Palestinian group Hamas. They could have anticipated that this would lead to harsh Israeli reprisals (that is Israel’s habit); and, in fact, they probably did. They wanted large civilian casualties in Gaza as a stick to beat Israel with, and presumably a means to generate more jihadis against Israel.
Moreover, it is evident that Hamas intended to cause as many civilian casualties as possible. To this end, they hid rocket batteries in civilian areas, using civilians as a human shield and daring the Israelis to shoot back; which the Israelis did, in the interest of protecting Israeli civilians.
That article's author, Rajeev Srinivasan, is not impressed by the anti-Israel, pro-Arab propaganda that is so popular in the West. Although he does not acknowledge that a distinct Palestinian nationality is a myth, he recognizes that the refugees who are called "Palestinians" could have and should have been resettled by their Arab brethren a long time ago:
The entire issue of Palestinian victimhood is a travesty in that Palestinians, traditionally the best-educated of the Arabs, could easily have been absorbed into the empty and rich oil kingdoms of West Asia without much trouble. Indeed, much of the original Palestine is now in the kingdom of Jordan (which admittedly doesn’t have any oil, but is fairly peaceful, as the Alawite monarchs keep a leash on Palestinians). If the Saudis, Qataris, Kuwaitis, et al had wanted to emancipate the Palestinians, they could have resettled them in their own countries and helped them to prosper.
Incidentally, that is exactly what has been expected of Kashmiri Pandits ethnically cleansed from Jammu and Kashmir. It is assumed that over time they will get absorbed into Indian territory where they are living in refugee camps--despite noises being made about sending them back, Muslim militants and even the government of J&K suggest that it may be difficult for the Pandits to return. So why is there some sacrosanct right to return only for Palestinians?
Tuesday, April 15, 2014
Tyler Perry Follows His Personal Vision
If someone presented Tyler Perry's life story to a Hollywood studio as a script with the names changed, it would be rejected as ludicrously implausible. Perry, the son of an alcoholic carpenter from New Orleans, was sexually abused by two different neighbors and he twice attempted suicide in his early teens. When he was 22, an episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show about the therapeutic value of writing inspired him to draft a play titled I Know I've Been Changed. Perry spent his life savings at the time--$12,000--to stage the play. "It ran for four days," Perry told Empire's Dorian Lynskey. "I expected 1200 and 30 came." Perry clarified that the attendance was not even 30 per showing: "Thirty, that's it. Over the whole thing."
Perry worked dozens of different jobs before he was able to support himself via his theater work. Finally, in 1998 he again staged I Know I've Been Changed but this time he used a converted church as the venue instead of a theater. The tremendous success that ensued proved that he had connected with an audience yearning to hear stories of hope and redemption. Perry believed in his vision even when times were rough: "Every time I wanted to give up I could see it in my mind--I could see it being successful. And I knew this was the God voice in my mind. I knew it was God because there's not one person I can look back on and say helped me get to this place. Not one."
Perry honed his skills by staging roughly 300 shows a year on the Chitlin' Circuit from 1998-2005. In 2005, he produced his first movie, Diary of a Mad Blackwoman. He has since produced more than a dozen movies that have grossed more than $500 million. The popularity of Perry's work results from the combination of humor and inspiration that Perry conveys to the audience. Lynskey comments, "Christianity is part of the moral furniture of his movies, but the message stems more from the church of Oprah: do the right thing, respect yourself and others, follow your dreams, etc."
Perry often dresses in drag in his movies and his brand of slapstick comedy is not universally appreciated. Spike Lee sniped that Perry's depictions of black characters are similar to the "coonery and buffoonery" displayed decades ago in old Hollywood movies. Perry said to Lynskey, "I'm speaking to the masses in a way they understand and not speaking down to them and not saying, 'You're a coon or a buffoon because you enjoy this.' That's insulting on so many levels."
Tuesday, April 1, 2014
The Wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh
The Pocket Thich Nhat Hanh is a small book that contains a large amount of insight. One of the main ideas is that it is very important to be actively engaged in whatever one is doing at a particular moment, as opposed to worrying about the future or fretting about the past. Hanh explains:
It is of no use to sit in a peaceful forest if our mind is lost in the city. When we live with a child or a friend, their freshness and warmth can relax us. But if our heart is not with them, their precious presence is neglected, and they no longer exist. We must be aware of them to appreciate their value, to allow them to be our happiness. If through carelessness and forgetfulness we become dissatisfied with them, and begin asking too much of them or reprimanding them, we will lose them. Only after they are gone will we realize their preciousness and feel regret. But once they are gone, all of our regrets are in vain.
Hanh's writing style can seem almost childishly simple but do not be misled; his way of thinking and his way of living are pure and profound:
Have a look at the apple tree in your yard. Look at it with complete attention. It is truly a miracle. If you notice it, you will take good care of it, and you too are part of its miraculousness. Even after you have cared for it for only a week, its leaves are already greener and shinier. It is exactly the same with the people who are around you. Under the influence of awareness, you become more attentive, understanding, and loving, and your presence not only nourishes you and makes you lovelier, it enhances them as well. Our entire society can be changed by one person's peaceful presence.
Hanh explains that peacefulness should not be confused with passivity and/or weakness:
Understanding and compassion are very powerful sources of energy. They are the opposite of stupidity and passivity. If you think that compassion is passive, weak, or cowardly, then you don't know what real understanding or compassion is. If you think that compassionate people do not resist and challenge injustice, you are wrong. They are warriors, heroes, and heroines who have gained many victories...
Human beings are not our enemy. Our enemy is not the other person. Our enemy is the violence, ignorance, and injustice in us and in the other person. When we are armed with compassion and understanding, we fight not against other people, but against the tendency to invade, to dominate, and to exploit. We don't want to kill others, but we will not let them dominate and exploit us or other people. You have to protect yourself. You are not stupid. You are very intelligent and you have insight. Being compassionate does not mean allowing other people to do violence to themselves or to you. Being compassionate means being intelligent. Nonviolent action that springs from love can only be intelligent action.
John Wooden urged his players to "never mistake activity with achievement." It is tempting to think that every situation, encounter and confrontation demands immediate action/activity but often the best response is to stay calm and look at things in a larger context before making any bold statements or moves. Instantly lashing out in response to every real and perceived injustice can provoke other people to lash out in return. The best chess players excel at what I call "the art of doing nothing while accomplishing something," meaning that they subtly and relentlessly improve their positions very patiently without taking unnecessary risks; it is difficult to do this in chess and even more difficult to do this in life but mastery of this quiet approach leads to many victories.
Labels: Thich Nhat Hanh
Friday, March 21, 2014
Douglas Hofstadter's Lonely Quest to Create Artificial Intelligence that is Truly Intelligent
Somers begins by noting that Hofstadter, whose book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid won the 1980 Pulitzer Prize and is considered to be, in Somers' words, the "bible of artificial intelligence," is not impressed by Watson, Deep Blue or other highly publicized supercomputers; Hofstadter views Watson and Deep Blue as nothing more than very sophisticated calculators: they are not intelligent, nor do they provide any insight about the nature of intelligence.
Hofstadter wanted to ask: Why conquer a task if there's no insight to be had from the victory? "Okay," he says, "Deep Blue plays very good chess--so what? Does that tell you something about how we play chess? No. Does it tell you about how Kasparov envisions, understands a chessboard?" A brand of AI that didn't try to answer such questions--however impressive it might have been--was, in Hofstadter's mind, a diversion. He distanced himself from the field almost as soon as he became a part of it. "To me, as a fledgling AI person," he says, "it was self-evident that I did not want to get involved in that trickery. It was obvious: I don't want to be involved in passing off some fancy program's behavior for intelligence when I know that it has nothing to do with intelligence. And I don't know why more people aren't that way."
Dave Ferrucci, who led the IBM team that built Watson, explained his mindset to Somers:
"I have mixed feelings about this," Ferrucci told me when I put the question to him last year. "There's a limited number of things you can do as an individual, and I think when you dedicate your life to something, you've got to ask yourself the question: To what end? And I think at some point I asked myself that question, and what it came out to was, I'm fascinated by how the human mind works, it would be fantastic to understand cognition, I love to read books on it, I love to get a grip on it"--he called Hofstadter's work inspiring--"but where am I going to go with it? Really what I want to do is build computer systems that do something. And I don't think the short path to that is theories of cognition."
Not long after Hofstadter wrote GEB, he went his own way, avoiding contact with other artificial intelligence researchers: "There's no communication between me and these people," he told Somers. "None. Zero. I don't want to talk to colleagues that I find very, very intransigent and hard to convince of anything. You know, I call them colleagues, but they're almost not colleagues--we can't speak to each other.”
Hofstadter and the graduate students under his guidance conduct their own independent experiments. Somers describes the fruits of their labors as "almost ostentatiously impractical. Because they operate in tiny, seemingly childish 'microdomains.' Because there is no task they perform better than a human." Hofstadter is not trying to build a computer that can beat World Champion Magnus Carlsen at chess; he is trying to understand a much more fundamental question: how does Carlsen think when he plays chess and how can one program a machine to think that way, to truly display intelligence as opposed to brute force calculation?
Hofstadter lives a life of the mind and there is a wonderful purity to his vision: Life is short, so pursue the truth as you see it without worrying about what the mainstream scientific community thinks. That approach would not work for everyone but a genius who has tremendous confidence in his ideas can do wonderful things. Somers concludes:
Hofstadter never much wanted to fight, and the double-edged sword of his career, if there is one, is that he never really had to. He won the Pulitzer Prize when he was 35, and instantly became valuable property to his university. He was awarded tenure. He didn't have to submit articles to journals; he didn't have to have them reviewed, or reply to reviews. He had a publisher, Basic Books, that would underwrite anything he sent them.
Stuart Russell puts it bluntly. "Academia is not an environment where you just sit in your bath and have ideas and expect everyone to run around getting excited. It's possible that in 50 years' time we'll say, 'We really should have listened more to Doug Hofstadter.' But it's incumbent on every scientist to at least think about what is needed to get people to understand the ideas."
"Ars longa, vita brevis," Hofstadter likes to say. "I just figure that life is short. I work, I don't try to publicize. I don't try to fight."
There's an analogy he made for me once. Einstein, he said, had come up with the light-quantum hypothesis in 1905. But nobody accepted it until 1923. "Not a soul," Hofstadter says. "Einstein was completely alone in his belief in the existence of light as particles--for 18 years.
"That must have been very lonely."
Friday, March 7, 2014
The Misunderstood Menachem Begin
In 1977, Time magazine dismissed newly elected Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin with this snide explanation of how to pronounce his name: "Begin, rhymes with Fagin." That one liner drips with contempt, if not outright antisemitism, but it is sadly typical of how the media treats Begin--and that is a shame, because Begin is the greatest Prime Minister in Israeli history, a Holocaust survivor, a freedom fighter and a peace-loving statesman who understood that peace-seeking democracies must be ever vigilant and ever strong when confronting tyrannical and despotic regimes.
In "Menachem Begin: His legacy a century after his birth," Daniel Gordis describes the gap between perception and reality regarding Begin:
...Begin is still disparaged by many of the very same Jews who see in the American revolution a cause for genuine pride.
Begin himself seemed to sense the irony, so he spoke time and again about the American revolution. In an article commemorating the 35th anniversary of Ze'ev Jabotinsky's death, he combined two passages from Thomas Jefferson's letters to fellow statesmen--one to James Madison and another to William Stephens Smith. "I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical," Begin quoted Jefferson, adding the American revolutionary's sobering observation that "the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants."
Gordis, whose book Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel's Soul will be published this month, explains the prominent role that David Ben-Gurion--Israel's first Prime Minister--had in smearing Begin's good name:
...Begin's reputation was also scarred by David Ben-Gurion's refusal to acknowledge his own participation in some of the events for which Begin is vilified. Ben-Gurion consistently denied having had anything to do with operations that did not go as planned, while Begin stood ready to take responsibility. The Hagana's David Shaltiel had approved the now infamous Deir Yassin operation, but when it went tragically and horribly awry and many innocent people died, Ben-Gurion painted Begin as a violent thug, pretending that his organization had had nothing to do with it. The Hagana was also intimately involved in the approval and planning of the King David bombing (for Ben-Gurion had come to see that Begin was right, that the British needed to be dislodged), but when civilians were killed because the British refused to heed the Irgun's warnings to leave the building, Ben-Gurion assailed Begin, pretending that he and his men had known nothing of the plan.
Ben-Gurion was one of the greatest Jewish leaders ever to have lived, and the Jewish state might well not have come to be were it not for him. But his greatness notwithstanding, he was unfair to Begin-- consistently and mercilessly.
Gordis is correct that Ben-Gurion played a pivotal role in Israel's creation but an honest reading of the historical record shows that it was more important to Ben-Gurion to win his political/ideological struggle with Begin than it was to save Jewish lives and create a Jewish State. The deplorable Altalena Affair, during which Ben-Gurion's forces opened fire on Begin's forces (including Begin himself) on the Altalena ship in the middle of Israel's War of Independence, illustrates the vast difference in character between Begin and Ben-Gurion; Ben-Gurion declared, "Blessed be the cannon that bombed that ship"--a cannon fired at Ben-Gurion's orders and that killed his fellow Jewish freedom fighters, albeit freedom fighters who had different political views than his--but Begin would not permit his forces to fight against fellow Jews. Begin prevented the outbreak of a civil war that could have destroyed the young Jewish State. Shmuel Katz later wrote that Ben-Gurion ordered the attack knowing full well that Begin was aboard the ship because Ben-Gurion wanted to kill Begin, who was a potential rival for leadership of the young state. Remarkably, the two men formed a rapprochement near the end of Ben-Gurion's life. One can question Begin's policies but one can never question that his motives were always pure and that his foremost concern was the safety and well being of the Jewish people--if only the same could be truthfully said of most of the other Israeli Prime Ministers!
In an article titled "Menachem Begin Will Live Again," Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveitchik described the "familial loyalty to the people of Israel" that Begin consistently displayed:
He was the first prime minister to truly bridge the social gap between Sephardim and Ashkenazim in the Jewish state, famously declaring yehudim anachnu, we are all Jews. It was he who first set in motion the return of the Ethiopian Jews to the land for which they had longed. It was he who left as his last will and testament that he be buried not on Mount Herzl, in the manner of some of his predecessors, but rather on the Mount of Olives, near the graves of Meir Feinstein and Moshe Barazani, one Ashkenazi and the other Sephardi, who had died in a British prison in each other's arms, and who together embodied for Begin the bond between all Jews that made the State of Israel possible after two thousand years of Exile. It was he who, unlike any other Israeli leader before him, made the case for the public Jewish character of Israel, drawing not on Jewish law, but on familial love. Honoring the values of Jewish generations past, he told the Knesset, was incumbent on all Israelis who believed in the ethical obligation declared at Sinai: "honor your father and mother." This commandment, he further suggested, was all the more potent when those parents were no longer among the living. Heim einam od, he said, our parents are here no longer. It is we, their children, who must honor the beliefs for which they bled and perished.
Jewish sovereignty did not happen by chance, nor simply through negotiation. It came about through determination, grit, courage and blood. It was wrought not only by Ben-Gurion and those he invited to that memorable afternoon in Tel Aviv when he declared independence, but also, to paraphrase Moses, by "those standing there that day, and those not standing there that day." Despite the venomous animosity that divided them almost all their working lives, Ben-Gurion and Begin were both necessary elements of the creation of a Jewish state. Without either one, Israel might well not have come into being...
...Begin's life had, at its core, an unwavering constant, a guiding principle that shaped everything. It was a life of selfless devotion to his people. That devotion fashioned a life in which determination eradicated fear, hope overcame despondency, love overcame hate, and devotion to both Jews and human beings everywhere coexisted with ease and grace. It was a life of great loyalty--to the people into which he was born, to the woman he loved from the moment he met her, and to the state that he helped create.
That is a legacy infinitely greater than most are able to bequeath. In an era in which many Jews are increasingly dubious about the legitimacy of love for a specific people or devotion to its ancestral homeland, the life and commitments of Begin urge us to look again at what he did and what he stood for, and to imagine--if we dare--the glory of a Jewish people recommitted to the principles that shaped his very being.
Monday, March 3, 2014
Struma's Fate Provides Chilling Reminder of What is at Stake for Israel
Sarah Honig's February 23, 2012 Jerusalem Post article about the Struma's demise is almost unbearably sad. Here are some heart-wrenching excerpts:
...Against the enormity of the then-unfolding Holocaust, the loss at sea of 768 Jewish lives (103 of them babies and children) was at most blithely overlooked as a marginal annotation.
Moreover, although these Jews fled the Nazis, in the pedantic literal sense they weren't executed by Third Reich henchmen.
This atrocity was the coldblooded handiwork of Great Britain (committed while it combated the Germans but remarkably without compassion for their Jewish victims), supposedly neutral Turkey (whose so-called nonalignment didn't extend to outcast Jewish refugees), by the Arabs (who were openly and unreservedly Nazism's avid collaborators and who pressured London into denying endangered Jews asylum in the Jewish homeland) and, finally, by the Russians (who targeted the immobilized sardine can that carried Jews to whom nobody would allow a toehold on terra firma).
The entire world seemed united in signaling Jews how utterly unwanted they were anywhere.
Such apathy-cum-enmity hasn't disappeared.
Only its form and context had mutated but the essence is still ultra-relevant to the Jewish state.
We're still threatened with annihilation. Nonetheless, unmistakable harangues from Tehran notwithstanding, the international community worries about an Israeli preemptive strike--not a genocidal strike against Israel.
The Struma was a barely seaworthy ship packed with Jewish refugees who escaped Nazi-occupied lands only to discover that they were unwelcome anywhere, a situation that emboldened the Nazis to accelerate their plan to kill every Jews on the face of the Earth: if the Jews were considered undesirable by every country in the world, then why should the Nazis think twice about annihilating them? Honig describes how this tragedy unfolded in front of the uncaring eyes of the entire world:
The Struma wasn't struck suddenly. It was slowly tortured, accentuating with demonic deliberation how disposable Jews were, just when genocide's monstrous machinery was switched into high gear. This 75-day shipboard melodrama underscored the total helplessness and humiliation of Jews without power.
Struma passengers gathered in the Romanian port of Constanza on December 8, 1941. For four days, Romanian customs officials "examined" their belongings. In fact, they pilfered all they saw--clothing, underwear, jewelry and most important, food.
The Struma was eventually destroyed by a torpedo blast from a Soviet submarine; everyone onboard perished except for 19 year old David Stoliar, who--in Honig's words--"was imprisoned by the Turks for six weeks for the crime of not drowning."
Oblivion is perhaps the greatest sin against the Struma but also against ourselves. If we forget the Struma, we forget why this country exists, why we struggle for its survival. We forget the justice of our cause.
Dimmed memory and self-destructive perverse morality hinder our ability to protect ourselves from the offspring and torchbearers of the very Arabs who doomed the Struma. They haven't amended their hostile agenda. We just don't care to be reminded.
The state the Jews created is threatened with destruction and its population with obliteration.
Yet there's negligible sympathy for Israel and even less practical support to avert tragedy. The Struma's story is seminal in understanding why the Holocaust was possible and why a second Holocaust cannot be ruled out. More than anything, the Struma powerfully illustrates what happens when Jews rely on others' goodwill.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be well advised to read Honig's article, draw the proper conclusions and act accordingly before Iran uses nuclear weapons to destroy the Jewish State. Netanyahu can be remembered by history as the man who saved Israel or as the man who presided over Israel's destruction.
Tuesday, February 25, 2014
Carl Sagan's Legacy
Joel Achenbach's Smithsonian article Why Carl Sagan is Truly Irreplaceable describes Sagan's influence as a science popularizer and explores his core beliefs, "including the sense that there is an order and logic to the universe, that it is fundamentally a benign place, congenial to life and even intelligent life. His cosmos was primed for self-awareness. He sensed that humanity was on the cusp of making a cosmic connection with advanced civilizations (and no doubt that a certain Brooklyn native would be in on the conversation!). In effect, he believed he was fortunate enough to live in a special moment."
Sagan did not think that evidence supported the notion that UFOs are spacecraft piloted by intelligent extraterrestrial beings but, like Fox Mulder from "The X-Files," it could be said that Sagan wanted to believe. Shortly before Sagan passed away, he told Achenbach, "I'd rather there be extraterrestrial life discovered in my lifetime than not. I'd hate to die and never know."
While Sagan spoke about "great demotions," David Grinspoon--son of Sagan's best friend Lester Grinspoon--promotes a concept called "Anthropocene," meaning that "human beings are changing the Earth so rapidly and dramatically that our presence is becoming part of the geological record. And we can't pretend it's not happening. We have to learn to manage this place. Grinspoon made an analogy: It's as though we've just awoken to the fact that we're at the wheel of a speeding bus on an unfamiliar road. And we realize we don't know how to drive."
Achenbach concludes that Sagan would not be disturbed by Grinspoon's ideas:
Would Sagan have been able to square his great demotions with this new Anthropocene concept? Of course. The universe isn’t about us. The Earth is but a grain of sand. But upon this humble rock we will make our stand. It’s a task that will require science and reason--but also courage and far-sightedness. So it is that Grinspoon says of his old "Uncle Carl": "Lord knows we need him now."
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