Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Challenge of a Hopeful Future

It’s Such a Beautiful Day by Lee Vladislavsky – Tel Aviv, Israel
Forty years later and I can still remember how profoundly I was affected by the Isaac Asimov short story, “It’s Such a Beautiful Day.”

A young boy, a few hundred years in the future, is sent to a psychiatrist because he won’t use a “Door,” a ubiquitous teleportation device, preferring to walk outside. By the end of the tale, the psychiatrist, Dr. Sloane, agrees with our young hero’s viewpoint himself bypassing “the Door” saying, “You know, it’s such a beautiful day that I think I’ll walk.” It’s a brilliant tale on many levels, not least of which the examination of our relationship with technology, a debate that currently rages over wearable devices like Google Glass.

I was also struck by the concept of the challenge of a hopeful future. You read that right. The central challenge of the story is a character’s conflict with technology that actually makes life easier.

It doesn’t take much to disrupt the status quo. Consider the Kalahari villagers in the 1980 comedy, “The Gods Must Be Crazy.” The plot revolves around the consequences of a Coke bottle being dropped from an airplane into the remote African village. The locals had never seen glass, let alone a pop bottle. Inshort time, the bottle becomes indispensable, but its usefulness quickly leads to arguments and fist-fights over its ownership and use. The film raises a number of important issues: how does new technology affect a culture; and is all new technology necessarily inevitable?

To be sure, these aren’t new debates. Similar disputes raged 150 years ago over both steam-engines and experiments to harness electrical power, both of which survived the debates and have transformed the human experience.

These concerns about technology understandably diffuse into popular culture. Early science-fiction literature engaged in many cautionary tales about technology and societal change, in works likeNineteen Eighty-Four and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (in which television has replaced literature, intellectualism, and basic human interaction.)

Interestingly, modern mainstream science-fiction, on the other hand, seems overly preoccupied, if not infatuated, with self-destruction. We seem to be seeing more depictions of a future world that is both dystopian and apocalyptic. In films like the Hunger Games and TV shows like Revolution and The Walking Dead, we predict the worst to come. And it’s usually the fault of science.

Is it possible that we’ve reached a stage where simple trepidation has been replaced by an outright fear of science? A recent Pew Research Center study tried to determine public opinion about rapidly advancing science and technology. The study found that many technological advances are welcomed but, people are “concerned about developments that have the potential to upend long-standing social norms around things like personal privacy, surveillance, and the nature of social relationships.”
It’s Such a Beautiful Day by Lee Vladislavsky – Tel Aviv, Israel

In other words, we may love our gadgets, but we are beginning to ask the right questions about where it will all lead. Along with these modern devices that have certainly improved our lives, have come some important questions worth debating. We should be talking about privacy, for example, whether it’s in relation to ongoing surveillance or information available on the Internet. We should be concerned with intellectual property ownership in the digital age. We also need to find ways to diffuse technology across socioeconomic lines.

And if we accept that more mind-boggling technology is coming, it doesn’t mean the Terminator androids are going to take over.
It does mean that we should vigorously consider how technologies like artificial intelligence will affect, and even, alter us as individuals and societies.

The problem with the apocalyptic prophesies is that they tend to discount some truly alarming possibilities. Frankly, I’m not worried about pandemics and zombies; I am thinking about human beings augmented by nanotechnology and genetic engineering. I am wondering about artificial meat and driverless cars. I am, years later, still thinking about the challenges of a hopeful future.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s such a beautiful day, I’m going for a walk outside.

Originally published on the Blonde 2.0 blog. 

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Wrecking Season

It's been hard to avoid seeing, if not following, the recent debate over pop singer and actress Miley Cyrus and her media antics. Citing Sinead O'Connor as an influence dragged the Irish singer, who enjoyed her own 15-minutes of controversial fame in the past, into the fray. O'Connor publicly warned Ms. Cyrus that she was simply being exploited by a misogynistic music industry that cares not for the rights and well-being of artists. That exchange has set off a flurry of debate on female sexuality. For example, Sociologist Dr Lisa Wade, on her blog, shares her 'two cents' on the issue, saying Cyrus and O'Connor are "both right, but only half right."

Wades conciliatory contention is interesting, but I think ultimately wrong. Her entire thesis hinges on one line, one postulation: "Is Miley Cyrus a pawn of industry patriarchs?" Wade says no. But, she offers no evidence that Cyrus has not been manipulated, either overtly or subconsciously. Indeed, based on everything we've seen, she lacks the maturity and depth to be making the sort of long-term decisions that would infer that her behaviour is a valid of expression of feminist power and privilege in the 21st century. What she appears to be doing is selling her body for money. As Occam's Razor suggests, sometimes the simplest answer is the truth.

More important, in my opinion, is the disturbing lack of debate on the infantilism of sexuality. We've accepted as a norm that forty year-old women wish to look twenty-five, as an affirmation of beauty and fertility. Now, we're seeing 20 year-old women looking - right down to the Brazilian wax - and dressing like 12 year-olds, in order to be, in their minds, arousing. But are they?

Cyrus's appearance in her music video 'Wrecking Ball' is not remotely sexy. What she presents is a puerile caricature of sexiness: there's nothing provocative or enchanting; no sense of feminine mystique or sensuality. Cyrus comes across as a little girl play-acting, not a mature woman seducing. The fact that so many men, and more importantly, women buy into this reduction of sexuality to children's theatre is, frankly, very disconcerting.

There's been a sense that feminism, as a movement and ideology, has taken (at least) two steps backward the past few years; whether true or not, this is an issue worth open discussion. I suppose we can at least thank Cyrus for invigorating a debate on feminism and female sexuality that has needed to enter the mainstream for a long time.

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Music Man

The new Star Trek film wasn't great but it did at least include a very brief cameo of one of my favourite people: Leonard Nimoy.

Although greatly admired as an actor and director, the role of his Jewish background in his work isn't always appreciated. In the book “Stars of David” by Abigail Pogrebin, Nimoy talks about his experiences dealing with anti-Semitism growing up in Boston. “Jews were always to keep a low profile,” he explains, “so as not to become targets.”

Fortunately, Nimoy learned to incorporate his Jewishness into his career. One of his first parts was in a play that featured a Jewish family. “I was seventeen years old...playing this Jewish kid in this Jewish family just like mine; it was amazing.” That role led to several performances in Yiddish-language theatre. Yes, Nimoy was fluent at a young age because his grandmother only spoke Yiddish. 

His portrayal of Spock, an alien, has always moved me because of the depth with which he played the part. To a large degree, he used his background as a Jewish-American to create a character that both wants to fit in and retain its own cultural identity.

As an adult, he’s continued to explore his Judaism and the Jewish-American experience.  After a discussion with a rabbi cousin of his on the feminine presence of G-d, he decided to explore the subject in pictures.  In October 2002, Nimoy published “Shekhina”, a photographic study of women, which provoked some controversy because of his use of nude models wearing traditionally male Jewish garments. 

Recently, he’s joined forces with the Milken Archive, (which I mentioned in a previous post) as the host of American Jewish Music from the Milken Archive with Leonard Nimoy.  The online series covers a wide-range of Jewish music from religious works to songs of Yiddish stage and film. Information on streaming the series is available here.

Incidentally, the Milken Archive website contains all sorts of current and never-before-released content and information on Jewish music and culture in America. It’s well worth checking out.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

We Can Be Heroes

Time and again, as I've studied various aspects of the Holocaust  and its callous and most permanent effects on my family in Eastern Europe, I've been struck by small astonishing stories of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.

The Holocaust wasn't simply some unexpected event, like a freak hailstorm. It was the desired result of cynical actions by real people against other people, in many cases neighbours and colleagues. Which is why it's so vital to seek out and reflect upon individual stories rather than view the Holocaust in terms of numbers and dates.

There are no shortage of tragic stories, tales of horror and sad, heart-rending cruelty. There are far fewer tales of heroism, but there were heroes; undoubtedly  many met the same fate as the Holocaust's primary victims. But make no mistake about it, the Holocaust's engineers understood that they could beat populations into submission, just as they reduced other populations to ashes. Who among us would risk our lives for strangers? Who would risk the welfare of their own family for nameless children?

Heroes come in many forms. I recently stumbled on a book about one such story. "Life in a Jar: The Irena Sendler Project", tells the story of Polish gentile Irena Sendler who smuggled around 2500 Jewish children single-handed from the Warsaw Ghetto. She was recognized in 1965 by Yad Vashem as one of the Polish Righteous among the Nations but her story largely forgotten for decades.

But as I've said, heroes come in many forms. The book describes the efforts of three grade 9 girls, Megan Stewart, Elizabeth Cambers, and Jessica Shelton, and an 11th grade girl, Sabrina Coons, who discovered the story of  Irena Sendler and made it their mission to learn more about this remarkable woman and, more importantly, share it with as many people as possible.

Irena Sendler died in 2008. The girls had an opportunity to meet her in 2001. Since then they've continued to tell the story, presenting a performance on Sendler before hundreds of audiences. The project is now being supported by the Lowell Milken Center, a sponsor of similar projects on the power of "unsung heroes."

While the heroics of Sendler's amazing feat goes without saying, it's also worth recognizing the merit of schoolchildren who saw a story that must be told, and ensured that it was.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Magic Carpet Ride

Although most Israeli sources say “Operation Magic Carpet” began in June 1949, in fact, the first phase began during the early months of 1948 War of Independence. The plan was launched by the Jewish Distribution Committee (“The Joint”), which chartered aircraft to rescue 4500 Jews from Yemen’s capital Aden, the site of a bloody pogrom in 1947 in which 82 Jews were murdered and synagogues, homes and shops destroyed.
JDC, and the Jewish Agency, which facilitated resettlement for the Yemenites in Israel, revealed the operation 64 years ago this week. The operation would continue throughout 1949 until over 40,000 Yemenite Jews had been brought to Israel. 
Incidentally, one of the most active airlines during this phase was Alaska AirlinesRead all about it here.                                                                        

And listen to a rare interview with James Wooten, who was President of Alaska Airlines (and a pilot) back in 1949. 

Thursday, June 07, 2012


Turning fifty gives a person a new perspective on life, a deeper insight, I think. I’m willing now to concede, for example, that both versions of “Our Lips are Sealed” are just fine, even if the Go-Go’s was a cover. And although it’s true that you shouldn’t judge a wine by the bottle, you can tell a lot about a man by his Facebook friends. And his shoes. I’m also convinced empathy is overrated. The world is filled with people who feel bad for the suffering of others. I blame Oprah’s Book Club. Now get off your ass and do something about it, even if all you can do is write a few cheques. Those $5 donations add up when a million people send them.

As for regrets, of course I have a few. But being an adult means sometimes living with remorse and shame, not spilling your guts on a talk show or fessing up for something you did 25 years ago that can only possibly make someone else feel like crap just so you can assuage your guilt a little. Grow up. I should add, if I have any admirable qualities at all, they’re due to the women in my life, especially my Grandmother, my Mother and my Wife. My faults are my own. I blame television for nothing!

 And forget all this nonsense about living each day like it’s your last; that sort of morose, fatalistic thinking is liable to make you do something stupid and reckless. Rather, live each day like it’s your first, full of joy and wonder at the revelation of ordinary things, praising yourself for every accomplishment, great and small, remembering that the simple fact you’re around at all, is a miracle in itself. Thanks Mom. I’m sorry I don’t say that often enough.


Thursday, November 17, 2011

They Who Dig Pits

[The following article was written for The Jerusalem Report a few months ago but not published.]

On February 22, 2010, archaeologist Dr. Eilat Mazar, working under the aegis of Hebrew University, announced the discovery of a massive stone wall that she attributes to King Solomon. The wall, approximately 70 meters (220 feet) long and six meters (20 feet) high, is located on the eastern side of an area called the Ophel, a Biblical term meaning “tower” which came to be associated with an area of Jerusalem between the southern wall of the Temple Mount and the City of David (Ir David).

According to the official press release from Hebrew University, Mazar asserts that the 10th c. BCE structure she has uncovered is part of "an inner gatehouse for access into the royal quarter of the city,a royal structure adjacent to the gatehouse, and a corner tower that overlooks a substantial section of the adjacent Kidron valley."

The implication of the claim is that a strong central government having the resources to build such a substantial fortification, as described in Hebrew Scriptures, existed in Jerusalem during the era of King Solomon. Mazar cites, as an example, the Books of Kings (I Kings 3:1) which says Solomon "finished building his house, and the house of Hashem, and the wall of Jerusalem all around." But her interpretations of the wall’s function and age immediately renewed longstanding disputes with some leading members of the archaeological world who claim she is subverting science in the service of an ideological agenda that seeks to substantiate the Biblical narrative for nationalist purposes. "Dr. Eilat Mazar is at it again– running to the press before properly submitting her finds to serious archaeological scrutiny,” writes Neal Asher Silberman, an historian and archaeologist with the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Since the announcement, Silberman and others of Mazar's peers have been critical in their reviews.

Israel Finkelstein, a Professor of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University is no stranger to controversy himself. His book, "The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts," co-authored with Silberman, which all but reduces Hebrew Scriptures to ancient ideological propaganda, set off a firestorm of its own when it was released in 2002.

"The biblical story of David and Solomon was put into writing not before the late 8th century BCE; much of it was written in the late 7th century," Finkelstein tells The Report. "The texts are layered, and depict the realities and ideology of the time of the authors. As such, even if they have an ancient memory here and there, they cannot be read as a guide to 10th century BCE Jerusalem."

Eilat Mazar readily concedes the use of Scripture as a guide but acknowledges the limitations of the Bible as an historical document. "The fact is all historical documents are biased because they are written by people."

But she’s also critical of those who too readily dismiss the use of the Bible as a reference tool. "You don’t want to go the other extreme and ignore a document that’s potentially helpful. Information at hand, whether we’re talking about the Bible or historical documents, may direct us a certain way, but the minute you start excavating, you are obliged by very high scientific standards," she maintains. "We can use the Bible as a starting point, just as archaeologists working in the Near East have always done," she tells The Report. "People investigated what they knew, and they knew the Bible."

Nevertheless, Finkelstein’s concerns go beyond the validity of Scripture. "It is not clear whether the wall was an outer wall or an inner wall within the city," he tells The Report. "And in any event, no 10th century BCE city-wall has ever been found in Jerusalem."

The dating of the structure is a particularly contentious issue. In 2006, Mazar wrote that "based on the finds sealed below the floors of Buildings C and D, the construction of the fortification complex in the Ophel should be dated to the 10th century BCE. This date corresponds to the biblical passage announcing that King Solomon built a defensive wall around Jerusalem. There is no reason to assume that someone other than Solomon constructed or reconstructed the Ophel fortification line at some time during the 10th-9th centuries BCE." (Mazar, Eilat, "The Solomonic Wall in Jerusalem." Pp. 775-786 in "I Will Speak the Riddles of Ancient Times, 2006)

In response to her claims, an article in Tel Aviv journal by Archaeologists Finkelstein, Lily Singer-Avitz, Ze'ev Herzog, and David Ussishkin, was particularly brutal. "Beyond archaeology, one wonders about the interpretation of the finds," they wrote. "The biblical text dominates this field operation, not archaeology. Had it not been for Mazar’s literal reading of the biblical text, she never would have dated the remains to the 10th century BCE with such confidence. This is an excellent example of the weakness of the traditional, highly literal, biblical archaeology — a discipline that dominated research until the 1960s, that was weakened and almost disappeared from the scene in the later years of the 20th century, and that reemerged with all its attributes in the City of David in 2005."

Some have even accused Mazar and other archaeologists of allowing themselves to be funded by religiously or ideologically conservative groups. For her part, Mazar doesn’t deny this possibility but claims to have little involvement in the solicitation of private donations which goes through Hebrew University. While recent work has been conducted with private funding, provided by Jewish-American philanthropists Daniel Mintz and Meredith Berkman, the Ophel dig is actually a project of Hebrew University, in cooperation with the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, although volunteers at the dig did include students at Herbert W. Armstrong College, an Evangelical Christian school in the US.

Within the world of Biblical Archaeology, these are old debates. As the label suggests, Biblical archaeologists attempt to shed light on people and events of the Near East which are depicted in Biblical texts. Differences in opinion as to the accuracy of these texts have generated opposing schools of thought. ‘Minimalists’ apply strict scientific methodology, not allowing themselves to be influenced by the religious record. They find little evidence of the Kingdoms of David and Solomon and believe 10th C BCE Jerusalem was nothing but a small, hilltop village. ‘Maximalists,’ on the other hand, tend to approach their work from a religious perspective, adopting an acceptance of Biblical "truth." They regard David and Solomon as historical figures and their empires as fact. Most Biblical archaeologists put themselves in the middle of the dispute.

Jerusalem has been a significant attraction for Biblical archaeologists since the mid-19th century. Following a brief interlude of Egyptian rule (1831-1839) under Muhammed Ali, the Ottomans reasserted control over Palestine and the area underwent a welcome period of reform at the insistence of Western nations. By 1860, a number of European consulates had been established, and the country was being visited by missionaries, Biblical scholars and adventurers.

Motivated by Palestine’s religious and historical importance, the British established the Palestine Exploration Fund (PEF) in 1865, whose members included British Royal Engineers Major-General Sir Charles Wilson and General Sir Charles Warren. They engaged in survey work of Jerusalem as well as digs despite protestations from local Muslim clerics and the Pasha of Jerusalem, Nazif Pasha. It was Charles Warren who first discovered a large wall in Ophel, and an ancient gate along the Western Wall Tunnel which is still referred to as "Warren's Gate." [Interestingly, Warren went on to further fame as the head of the London Metropolitan Police, from 1886 to 1888, during the Jack the Ripper murders.]

A number of other archaeologists expanded upon their work over the next few decades, but it wasn’t until Kathleen Kenyon in the early 1960’s that more modern methodology was introduced. After the reunification of the city in 1967, Israeli archaeologists assumed authority over Jerusalem excavations. A number of digs were initiated in and around the Old City, including Benjamin Mazar’s work at the southwest corner of the Temple Mount. Benjamin Mazar (1906-1995) was a Professor of Biblical History and Archaeology of Palestine at Hebrew University from 1951 to 1977, and served as president of the university between 1953 and 1961. He was also Eilat Mazar’s grandfather.

Looking the part in Israeli canvas hiking boots, Eilat Mazar speaks with obvious affection when she describes her grandfather. As a young girl, Eilat accompanied Benjamin Mazar, whom she remembers as "charismatic and hard-working," to digs and began to take an interest in ancient history. After the Six-Day War, Israeli archaeologists had access to the walls of the Temple Mount for the first time, and Eilat, still a teenager, began to participate in her grandfather’s excavations in the Ophel area. After army service, she was eager to attend university and follow in her grandfather’s footsteps.

In 1986 and 1987, she joined him on an excavation, continuing work which he had begun in 1970. It was at this time that many of the basic discoveries first came to light. The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land (1993) describes what they found: "The quality of the construction is impressive, featuring thick walls founded on bedrock, sometimes preserved to a height of some 4m. The first stages of these buildings date to the ninth century BCE, at the earliest... The various building units combined to form a dense complex whose outer walls created a continuous line of fortifications along the eastern side of the Ophel, overlooking the Kidron Valley. The gate may be associated with the large tower."

The most recent announcement, then, seems to be a reiteration of previous declarations, with a few new pieces of supporting evidence revealed; in particular several LMLK pottery handles which have never been published before. LMLK (In Hebrew - Lamed-Mem-Lamed-Kaf - L'melech , meaning ‘to the King’) refers to royal seal impressions typically found on pottery fragments in and around Jerusalem.

However, Neal Asher Silberman suggests even these new finds don't mean much. "This is not careful, systematic archaeology, yielding a more sophisticated understanding of Iron Age Jerusalem," he writes on his blog. "It is secular shrine building and idolatrous historical idol worship– consciously or unwittingly serving contemporary religious and political agendas and helping to sabotage any hope of future compromise in Jerusalem."

It is precisely because of the weighty relationship between history, identity formation and politics that these ostensibly esoteric debates seem to take on a life of their own beyond scientific circles.

Regardless of intent, Mazar’s findings have been employed to substantiate a Jewish narrative that asserts a 3,000 year connection to Jerusalem. Jewish newspapers and magazines have emphasized nationalistic aspects of the story. Jonathan Tobin, Executive Editor of Commentary Magazine, for example, wrote that, "these new discoveries, along with those of a previous dig in a different area of the city of David, contradict contrary Palestinian claims that the Jews have no claim to the area. They also debunk the assertions of some Israeli archaeologists who have sought to portray the kingdom of David and Solomon as an insignificant tribal group and not the regional empire that the Bible speaks about."

Interestingly, the story immediately initiated a flurry of activity in the Christian Zionist world. Evangelical blogs and websites quickly seized on the Solomon story as "evidence that Bible prophecy will be fulfilled."

It's worth noting that the February 2010 announcement came just days after the Israeli government's own declaration of a "Heritage Plan" to invest millions of shekels in upgrading historical and archaeological sites. Not surprisingly, condemnation of the project was swift. Hamas big gun, Ismail Haniyeh, for example, denounced the Heritage plan as a scheme, "to erase our identity, alter our Islamic monuments and steal our history."

Palestinian writers and their supporters have been equally critical of allegedly religiously-motivated archaeology in Jerusalem and throughout the country. "Israel has used archaeology as an effective weapon not only to appropriate the land, but also to create a historical justification for the appropriation," writes Palestinian archaeologist Ghada Ziadeh, in an essay entitled "An Archaeology of Palestine: Mourning a Dream." (Selective Remembrances: Archaeology in the Construction, Commemoration, and Consecration of National Pasts, chapter 11, 2008).

Palestinian-American anthropologist Nadia Abu El-Haj was particularly accusatory in her controversial 2001 book, "Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society," in which she disparaged the "colonial-national historical imagination...of the so-called ‘new Hebrew’ nation." (Abu El-Haj, Facts on the Ground, pp. 2, 4.)

That's not say there's no meeting ground between the narratives. Palestinian archaeologists, because of their condemnation of Israel's annexation of east Jerusalem, will not request excavation licenses from Israel and will therefore not excavate in Jerusalem, neither alone nor in collaboration with their Israeli peers. But, at least one Israeli archaeologist, who declined to be identified, told the Report, "I have many contacts with Palestinian archaeologists. We talk about things, and there are beginnings of educational work in Palestinian communities in Jerusalem."

But Aren Maeir, a professor of Archaeology at Bar Ilan University, suggests it's still too early for true collaboration. "I know there have been a few attempts for Israeli/Palestinian cooperation in archaeology, but most have not gotten far," he tells the Report. "In fact, nowadays, based on my experience and that of several colleagues, Palestinian researchers are not interested in research collaborations with Israelis, since these are defined as ‘collaborating with the enemy’ in Palestinian eyes."

Maeir also acknowledges, "Politics get involved in just about every dig in Jerusalem, although there are those that get it more, particularly in the City of David, whether because they are in more politically contentious zones, or, because some of the excavators come out with rather bombastic statements."

Beyond the ideological criticism, Eilat Mazar actually spends much of her time dealing with Israeli bureaucracy. "Every day, I deal with paperwork. There are so many levels of government, the Antiquities Authority, various permissions which must be obtained. Everyone has something to say. I know that the politics and bureaucracy have driven some excellent scholars out of Jerusalem." But despite the challenges and ongoing battles, Eilat Mazar continues to be fascinated by the work, her youthful enthusiasm belying the fact that she's now a grandmother herself. "Archaeology is really about people, how they lived, their needs and abilities, and their visions."

As for her critics, she mischievously suggests there's still more to come. "Archaeology never stops surprising. And I have I secret...actually a few."

My thanks to Dr. Eilat Mazar, Prof. Aren Maeir, Prof. Israel Finkelstein and Neal Asher Silberman