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Archive for November, 2009

Henry Siegman, former executive director of the American Jewish Congress and of the Synagogue Council of America, is an ordained Orthodox rabbi, and currently president of the US Middle East Project; he has authored numerous articles on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (see, for example, his noted 2007 critique of peace negotiations under President George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, “The Great Middle East Peace Process Scam”). I want to comment briefly on Siegman’s response yesterday to Ha’aretz columnist Bradley Burston’s recent charges that Siegman’s views make him an Israel-hater.

Settlements_Map_EngSiegman’s offense, in Burston’s view, was to have claimed recently in the New York Times that Israelis dislike President Barack Obama because they fear he “is serious about ending Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.” More fundamentally, Siegman asserted in the Times article, Israelis’ refusal to support ending the occupation and removing illegal settlements demonstrates that they are unable “to adjust to the Jewish people’s reentry into history with a state of their own following 2,000 years of powerlessness and victimhood.” In light of such commentary, Burston claims that Siegman inexcusably must consider the Israeli people “fundamentally defective.”

In his response, published in Ha’aretz, Siegman counters that Ha’aretz’s Burston himself has repeatedly made similar points about Israel’s dysfunctional approach to negotiations: Israelis are resorting to their “aging instincts” in defining the conflict with the Palestinians in terms of the Holocaust, Burston has argued in the past, and Israeli politicians are willing to portray any compromise as a potentially mortal sacrifice, thereby negating the need to ease the suffering of others. Siegman reminds us that this sense of victimhood is called “galut [diaspora] mentality” in Israel; I say it should really be called “bunker mentality”—or perhaps “Hummer mentality”—to indicate the hypermilitarized doctrine that has arisen in tandem with the messianic territorial claims of Greater Israel ideology. For just as, in recent American military conflicts like Iraq and Afghanistan, the Humvee (a kind of moving bunker) is a synecdoche for the problem that external strength is never sufficient to protect human military cargo from a determined resistance, likewise the Israeli “Hummer approach” to territorial control relies on brute force but exposes the country to the hazards of unjust occupation and international condemnation, ultimately weakening national existence. And like the Hummer’s American socio-economic trajectory from restricted military equipment to gas-guzzling consumer status item, the Israeli occupation has gone from being a relatively discreet project of the extreme right to one that now orients social values and dictates national policy.

“Hummer mentality” indicates the hypermilitarized doctrine that has arisen in tandem with the messianic territorial claims of Greater Israel ideology.

Siegman reiterates, most crucially, the extent to which Israeli negotiations have relied on public declarations of sincerity accompanied by duplicitous state-supported expansion of settlements. Regarding Gaza, Siegman excoriates American and Israeli leaders for having disputed the veracity of the Goldstone fact-finding report, given that the deteriorating conditions Israel imposed on Gaza during the preceding ceasefire render hollow its claim to have launched the assault defensively. This, too, Burston himself had affirmed earlier—against the spin emanating from the Israeli government and media—when he reported the accusations of Israeli Brigadier-General Shmuel Zakai. Zakai, who commanded the IDF’s Gaza division, minced no words: Israel had stoked Palestinian outrage during the period of truce. As Zakai put it clearly, “You cannot just land blows, leave the Palestinians in Gaza in the economic distress they’re in, and expect that Hamas will just sit around and do nothing.”

The current Israeli government has refused to consider anything like a viable state for Palestinians, and has rejected even the minimal compromises previous governments had considered, while settlement construction continues at a torrid pace. This is evidence that Israel is not committed to a realistic peace settlement, despite its soothing public pronouncements. “If Israeli policy had truly aimed at a two-state solution,” Siegman remarks, “it could and would have happened long ago. Nothing would have more encouraged Palestinian efforts to overcome their many shortcomings, or to oppose their rejectionist groups, than a credible Israeli commitment to such a state.” In light of what actually has occurred on the ground, “blaming Palestinians for their misery,” as Burston spuriously recommends, “is nothing more than a pretext for the continuation of a colonialist enterprise.”

If Israeli policy had truly aimed at a two-state solution, it could and would have happened long ago. Nothing would have more encouraged Palestinian efforts to overcome their many shortcomings, or to oppose their rejectionist groups, than a credible Israeli commitment to such a state.

Siegman, who is known internationally as one of the most well-informed commentators on the Middle East, has not “gone off the rails,” as Burston claims. He has spoken honestly at a time when, as Judge Richard Goldstone also knows, truthfulness and objectivity are not politically desirable qualities.

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I went to my colleague Ray Siemens’s talk on his research Tuesday afternoon, where he was presented with the UVic Faculty of Humanities annual research award. I had been somewhat unsure about the scope of the Digital Humanities field, as he and his research team conceive of it. Was it a matter of coding or editing texts in some thicker digital way that would permit hyperlinks and the intercollation of multiple manuscript versions? Was it a flashy way of dragging traditional humanistic teaching into the online world?

The way Ray explained it made much more sense. In his view, what the humanities needs is a more robust understanding of how knowledge is, or will be, created and transmitted in the digital age. He describes his work as a search to explore and help create “new knowledge environments.” I understand this term to refer to a range of conceptual approaches to scholarship in the digital era, including the future shape and function of the historic archive or library, the new possibilities for collaboration among colleagues in real or virtual time, the proliferation of new modes of textual study that would take advantage of the expanding nodes of knowledge available in the cloud, and the complete rethinking of the most basic units of our collective knowledge trust—among them, the book itself. Ray understands this project as one that must be informed by the past as much as it is motivated and propagated by exciting new technologies now in development in the academic and corporate worlds. (Ray is apparently ecumenical about designating those he calls project “stakeholders,” who include academics, students, government, and corporations.)

cosmonaut_poster

Pizdetz! Where did I leave my reading glasses?

As he was talking, I formed a mental image of a virtual world, not so far from examples such as the online virtual reality game Second Life, in which students, scholars, and anyone else interested in knowledge creation and exchange could collaborate using innovative (yet familiar) modes of virtual interaction. This is not a distant reality; it’s already happening in a myriad of ways on the ‘Net—via computers, app phones, social networking sites, online text databases, and even stodgy old email—but we’ve barely begun to take account of how all these changes have affected our institutional or informal modes of knowledge creation.

I mentioned to Ray that I hoped his ideas about digital humanities would proliferate even more quickly into hoary scholarly redoubts like the academic conference. I was unable to attend a recent series of roundtables on Edouard Glissant taking place at NYU, for example, and frustratingly, there was no obvious way to hook into the ideas this series generated if you weren’t in New York at the time. Such a lack of technologically supported interactivity seems like a throwback, or worse, to another era. Back as far as the mid-1990s I attended a conference in San Francisco that really felt like a groundbreaking event in the emergence of a digital scholarly culture; notably, for instance, there were videos made of major sessions that were then distributed online. My fellow grad students and I at the time thought this was marvelous, despite the slow loading speed with which archived videos could be downloaded back in those early days of Internet 1.0. Now this kind of one-way dissemination of information seems rather quaint: it’s hard to imagine putting digital media online these days without offering a user-comments section to make communication (at least) bi-directional. We’ve come a long way, baby.

In the heart of Manhattan this year, where creolizing knowledge is ironically at stake, even the most basic level of interactivity is not guaranteed.

Yet, look, in the heart of Manhattan this year, at the NYU roundtables on Glissant, where creolizing knowledge in the broadest sense is ironically at stake, even that most basic level of interactivity entailed in publishing a recording over the Internet is not guaranteed. And I was at a Caribbean Studies Association conference in Jamaica last summer for which the only part of the conference that was available online was the conference program. This has to make it unreasonably difficult for scholars and students to participate from far away, or after-the-fact. It also speaks to another challenge for Digital Humanities: dealing with vastly uneven distribution of resources in the digital haves/have-nots global dispensation of the present.

As I understand it, Ray’s work portends or simply reflects the (hopefully) coming changes to older offline modes of scholarly activity. Of course, there is no promise that scholarship will improve with a more technologically informed consideration of what we as scholars are doing now, or will be doing soon. (And as my colleague Michael Best reminded us on Tuesday, there is no guarantee that new forms of the archive will be less volatile and fragile than older ones.) Yet the pace of technological change continues to outstrip our thinking about it, and the question concerning technology, to riff on Heidegger, is whether and how we recognize it.

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Seriously

I’ve just arrived at Serious Coffee, the oddly named chain of local British Columbia cafés, where I’m settling in to finish reading Edouard Glissant’s most recent novel, Ormerod. That novel, too, is oddly named, after the Caribbean literary critic Beverley Ormerod who now lives in Australia, although Glissant makes clear in his own inimitably recursive way that she’s only the inspiration for the title indirectly, since it was her poet ex-husband (or so it seems, the narrative is convoluted), who introduced Glissant to an elderly character named Hortense who served as inspiration for Glissant’s fictional account of the 1983 US invasion of Grenada. It’s a very long, Serious Story, so almost needless to say I am well situated here in this oxymoronically named café where people come to do all the serious things they do in a café.

Caren and I took a walk earlier today and then had a lunch of last night’s dinner leftovers—baked acorn squash, celeriac gratin, and roasted chicken. It was an absolutely gorgeous fall Sunday, crisp and sunny, dogs playing, crows perched on people’s hats, office colleagues and work clients out blinking in the bright uncertainty of this first day back to Standard Time. Caren and I had some difficulty getting our minds off work and other responsibilities, but finally we both relaxed and enjoyed our few hours together before burrowing in, building our modular redoubts of duty and necessity, as Kafka’s memorable short-story character does.

And now, reluctantly, I have to get to work, much as I’d like to do nothing but blog and fiddle and otherwise procrastinate now.

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