First-time reflections on Israel

I visited a new country the other week, and I didn’t even get a stamp in my passport in return.

Tel Aviv constructionIsrael had been on my list of places to visit for a long time. It’s scenery we’ve read about in the Bible, it’s a state that’s constantly in the headlines (not always in a good way), I’ve heard great things about it from friends who have traveled there, and it’s the home of a thriving tech industry.

My overdue introduction to Israel came courtesy of a trip arranged by the America-Israel Friendship League with help from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. That New York- and Tel Aviv-based non-profit invited a group of U.S. journalists and analysts to get a close-up look at Israel’s cybersecurity sector, and my editors at Yahoo Tech thought its invitation worth accepting.

My report from the trip should finally be up in a few days. Meanwhile, here are some first impressions of the nation I took too long to visit; please bear in mind that if I were terribly confident in all of these judgments, I would have tried to sell this post to a paying client.

MezzeThe food is great. A friend mentioned that he puts on a few pounds every time he visits Israel, and I must admit that I did too. Shakshuka for breakfast, the 20 different mezze at The Old Man & The Sea in Tel Aviv, the stews at Azura in Jerusalem… it was all delicious, and I didn’t even get around to sampling any of the street food.

Tel Aviv has neat architecture: I’d read that before about this city’s stock of Bauhaus buildings and believe it now. I wish I’d had more time to wander around (see also my comment on street food).

Ideological violence is not a far-off thing. Here, many politicians compete to show who can be more freaked out over the specter of terrorists showing up at their front door. In Israel, attacks on civilians are not a hypothetical risk–one happened at a grocery store in a West Bank settlement the week I was there, and the newspapers also carried numerous stories about the recent surge of stabbings of Israelis by Palestinians.

Israel is more diverse than it gets credit for. After a meeting with a cybersecurity professor at Tel Aviv University, we came downstairs to find the building’s lobby crowded with Muslim students wearing headscarves (which, it later hit me, would have been illegal in France). The next day, a quick tour of Jerusalem brought us to the Western Wall plaza as new soldiers in the Israeli Defense Forces prepared for their swearing-in ceremony there, and I was struck by how many of them were the product of the Ethiopian aliyah.

Western WallJerusalem is humbling and unsettling. Thousands of years of history intersect with the Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths in the Old City of Jerusalem, and standing in the middle of it left me feeling profoundly humbled. I expected that, but I did not expect to see so many IDF soldiers and police walking around with automatic weapons. It wasn’t just me who found that unsettling; one U.S. veteran in our group did not appreciate seeing one man casually hold a rifle pointed outward at a crowd. Another uneasy sight: the bomb-disposal containers we spotted.

 

I still think Israel is creating an existential problem for itself. A week in Israel left me as unconvinced as ever that the country’s continued habit of building settlements in the West Bank does it any long-term good. As the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg has eloquently observed, Israel cannot annex the West Bank without either betraying its own democratic principles or losing its identity as a Jewish state, and a permanent military occupation is not a solution either. The murder of civilians by Palestinians is horrible but does not justify Israel going out of its way to make any eventual peace more difficult.

 

Donald Trump supporters have some opinions

Thursday’s post at Yahoo Tech critiquing Donald Trump’s notion of “maybe, in certain areas, closing the Internet up in some way” did not go over well among Trump fans.

Trump-supporter messagesI expected as much, but I did not quite expect to see quite their rage so poorly expressed–like, for example, the fellow whose entire message consisted of a one-word subject header, “Bull,” and the “Sent from my iPhone” signature. Another disgruntled individual closed with “Your a Complete ASSHOLE.”

A few less spittle-flecked messages expressed disdain for my calling The Donald a blowhard or a loudmouth. My response: If Trump isn’t one, then those words no longer have any meaning in the English language.

Several asked why we couldn’t cut the terrorists off from the Internet when North Korea, China or Cuba maintain an iron grip on their citizens’ online access. Well, if we could exercise that level of control over Iraq and Syria, wouldn’t we already have rounded up the Daesh death cultists by now?

Finally, a few led with “you’re just a member of the liberal media.” Hoo boy, I’ve never heard that one before. I will have to warn my colleagues about this novel insult they may come across on the Internet.

On the other hand, a couple of people wrote in to say they appreciated the story. So I’ve got that going for me.

 

I would like to buy an argument: debating Syrian-refugee paranoia

I’ve spent too much time over the last five days arguing with people who have suddenly decided that Syrian refugees represent such a threat to the United States that we cannot risk admitting any of them, and it’s been wearying work on multiple levels.

First, there’s the bankruptcy of the entire argument that boiled over after the Paris attacks. All of the attackers identified so far were EU nationals, not Syrian refugees; there’s no evidence the craven death cult that has no right to call itself Islamic is even trying to hide itself among refugees fleeing it (none of the 2,200-odd Syrian refugees admitted since Sept. 11, 2001 have been arrested for plotting violent acts); getting into the U.S. as a refugee is a tedious, years-long process; getting in as a Syrian refugee involves even more screening; and said craven death cult wants us to fear Muslim foreigners, so this entire demonization of Syrian refugees fits right into their playbook.

Japanese internment memorial(Before you brush off the previous paragraph as a product of the liberal media conspiracy, please read this debunking of refugee myths by longtime Virginia Republican Brian Schoeneman.)

Then there’s trying to grasp the logic of politicians who were for Syrian refugees before they were against it and now refuse to admit any unless we can guarantee that 100 percent of them don’t embody a threat that appears to be fictional. This devotion to security at all costs would be touching if so many of these same individuals didn’t shrug away such better-documented risks as America’s current gun policy, the death toll on our roads, and global warming.

Lest the last paragraph look like a jab at Republicans, remember that this fear-mongering is a bipartisan sport: The single worst statement on the subject may have come from Roanoke, Virginia’s Democratic mayor David Bowers, who cited the 1940s imprisonment of Japanese-Americans as a reasonable precedent before apologizing two days later.

The second-most trying part of this conversation is what happens when you ask strangers how they came to this reasoning. One conversation on Twitter ended with the fellow in question asserting that “I trust 10,000 Jews before I trust 10 Muslims.” A friend of a friend on Facebook declared that “Any restrictions in Muslims would be based on the fact that they have earned it.”

It would be easy to brush off this hysteria as the product of garden-variety xenophobia and Islamophobia, but then there’s the most difficult part of the deal: Hearing from friends I know to be educated and open-minded who still think we can’t let in any Syrian refugees.

I try not to be a jerk when talking politics with pals, but I probably haven’t lived up to that standard this week. All I can say is this: If I didn’t care what you thought, I wouldn’t waste so many processor cycles trying to convince you otherwise. But I wish I did know where you’re coming from, because you’ve totally lost me on this one.

Oh, and this: If you really do want to hold up the citizens of one country or the adherents of one religion as uniquely suspect, can you please first go to D.C. and spend a few minutes contemplating the Memorial to Japanese-American Patriotism in World War II that commemorates the fear-driven imprisonment of 110,000 to 120,000 people who came from or had ancestors in the wrong country? Then ask yourself: Are you willing to make that same statement in front of this monument to our surrender to bigotry 73 years ago?

History moves fast sometimes

I spent four years studying history in college, and the big takeaway was that progress is a slow game that requires the ability to get up after getting knocked down, over and over.

A slightly worn American flag flutters in a spring breeze.

The exceptions to that rule are rare and delightful. My freshman year, we watched Communism crumble across Eastern Europe so fast that one professor told us to put aside the assigned textbooks and instead read the paper each morning and come prepared to discuss the latest news from Berlin, Warsaw, Prague, Budapest and beyond.

The past week in America has felt like that. Within a few days, the vile cruelty of the Charleston shootings finally awakened many Southern whites to the reality that the Confederate battle flag is far too stained by hate to deserve a place of honor on the people’s property. It and other salutes to the Confederacy’s war against the United States now look set to vanish from government facilities as fast as statues of Lenin in the Warsaw Pact’s client states.

(Note to Virginia: Now would be a swell time to rename the Jefferson Davis Highway. I’ve already e-mailed my state senator and delegate to say as much.)

And then on Friday, less than two years after throwing out the insultingly ill-named “Defense of Marriage Act,” the Supreme Court ruled that marriage equality was the law. This case of justice arriving like a thunderbolt, as President Obama said, could not have happened without decades of effort.

And yet: It came less than 11 years after Karl Rove made ballot initiatives against gay marriage part of a winning Republican strategy. It was nine years since a Virginia constitutional amendment banning any state recognition of same-sex unions passed the commonwealth by a large margin. It happened seven years after Obama stated his opposition to gay marriage during the 2008 campaign, and people like me didn’t think that was a huge problem. Not even a year and a half ago, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring (who refused to defend the gay-marriage ban he’d voted for in 2006) defeated his opponent Mark Obenshain (who had not changed his mind about that now-defunct law) by only 907 votes.

Thinking about all that, I sent a celebratory e-mail to my wife with a single-character subject line: “=”

The NFL is so hard to like these days

There’s a football game happening tomorrow night, and like many of you I plan to watch it mainly for the commercials.

Part of that is my scant emotional investment in either team (that said, I’m unquestionably more tired of reading about the Patriots). But the real reason is that the National Football League has become such a difficult corporate entity to support.

I’m not talking about the sport of football overall. It’s a fun game to watch on TV, and I’ve enjoyed the few games I’ve seen in person–some here, courtesy of tickets the Post would occasionally hand out, a few in Charlottesville on pre-parenthood trips with my wife to her alma mater.

NFL ball and ticketBut the NFL itself, that’s another thing. Even by the standards of pro sports in America, there’s so much not to like.

It would be easy to start with the league’s lax responses to the domestic violence committed by some players. Or I could lead off with the player concussions and the league’s decades-long denial of that problem; the more I mull over that, the more I start wondering if (as Tim Carmody wrote persuasively on Friday) football might be the new boxing and on the same path out of the mainstream.

I could begin with the hapless local franchise and everything wrong there: the name, the crummy stadium, the losing records, the abysmal personnel decisions, the deepening despair among a beaten-down fan base, the owner who seems convinced that his own actions bear no relation to all these problems… but that would be too easy.

The NFL’s vaingloriousness also irritates me. We’ll get no end of it tomorrow, but I also see this inflated sense of self-worth on display in things like security-theater rules about what you can bring into an NFL stadium that are to ballpark-access rules what TSA airport security is to boarding Amtrak.

But what really sticks in my craw is how the NFL is the gift that keeps on taking.

Its teams play in enormous stadiums funded at colossal taxpayer expense–$4.7 billion on the 20 new facilities opened since 1997–that usually sit empty except when these largely car-centric properties create massive traffic jams on game day.

On those days, it’s to the NFL’s credit that you can watch on free broadcast TV. But then the league insists on blackout rules that keep games off the air if the team doesn’t sell enough of what are on average the most expensive tickets in pro sports. And it wants the government to back up this business model. A decade ago, the NFL wanted veto power over a new TiVo sharing feature to protect its blackouts, and it only recently lost the Federal Communications Commission’s enforcement of them.

The runup to the Super Bowl has once again shown the effectiveness of the NFL’s control-freak trademark enforcement. Even though it’s legal for advertisers to refer to the Super Bowl in an ad in the same way they might name-check the local franchise, they all call it the “Big Game” lest the NFL’s lawyers send a nastygram. Good thing the NFL gave on trying to trademark the term “Big Game”!

And as the NFL continues to print money, it benefits from non-profit status and the modest tax breaks that entails–something MLB gave up in 2007 and the NBA has never claimed.

So, sure, I’ll watch tomorrow night if for no other reason than maintaining my cultural literacy. But I’ll also be thinking that 18 days later, pitchers and catchers report for spring training.

I voted. You should too. Will this help?

 

(Why? See this post from 2012. Sample quote: “Because if you don’t vote, you invite the stupidest voter in your precinct to cast a ballot on your behalf.”)

A modest proposal: How Google can weigh “right to be forgotten” requests

I took part in a panel discussion of the European Union’s “right to be forgotten” privacy directive earlier today, and it didn’t take long for the conversation to turn to one of the thornier aspects of that rule: How is any one company, even one with the resources of Google, going to adjudicate all of those requests?

Google RtbF searchThat’s turned out to be a much bigger problem than I’d feared when I covered this issue in a Yahoo Tech column in May. At the end of July, Google reported that it had received more than 91,000 requests from EU citizens asking to have particular links not shown in response to searches for their names. And many were sketchy in a way that wasn’t immediately obvious:

… we may not become aware of relevant context that would speak in favour of preserving the accessibility of a search result. An example would be a request to remove an old article about a person being convicted of a number of crimes in their teenage years, which omits that the old article has its relevance renewed due to a recent article about that person being convicted for similar crimes as an adult. Or a requester may not disclose a role they play in public life, for which their previous reported activities or political positions are highly relevant.

At the panel, I suggested there was only one fair way to resolve this, and I’ll expand on it here.

It’s clear that Google will have to research each “RtbF” request carefully to see if it falls under the EU’s exceptions for people in public life or whose activities would otherwise involve the public’s right to know. The history of search-engine abuse shows you can’t count on everybody to act ethically about their image online–and when that kind of manipulation goes uncaught by unscrupulous individuals, innocent people suffer.

But that’s not enough. Lest Google inadvertently hide material from somebody about to launch a business or a political campaign, it would be wise to check for evidence of any upcoming ventures into the public sphere by an individual. The history of “RtbF” abuse so far leaves little other choice.

EU citizens, in turn, deserve a timely response to their right-to-be-forgotten queries. The simplest way to do that for a company with Google’s search traffic and computing capabilities would be to do some advance work: It could merge its own records with other sources to determine which EU citizens clearly qualify as being in public life, which ones rank as private citizens and which ones seem likely to cross that threshold either way. To avoid unduly burdening smaller search sites also subject to the “right to be forgotten” directive, Google could allow them access to these records as well.

And so Google would come to protect the privacy of EU citizens by maintaining a massive database about them.

An extreme solution for a problem that can be solved by easier, simpler means in the real world? Yes, that’s my point.