Uri Avnery and the Israeli Haredim

Uri Avnery is one of the main voices of the Israeli political left. Especially for people abroad – his English blog is frequently quoted in foreign blogs by people who are interested in Israel.

The opinions that Avnery expresses are strong and often unpleasant, but they are legitimate and they are usually have at least some basis in fact.

His latest column, Israeli Mustard, is about the ultra-orthodox Jews, also known as Haredim. It was quoted in Richard Stallman’s blog, for example. And it’s problematic. It’s mostly factual, but it has some imprecisions in details. They may seem unimportant, but they may be quoted and they may form people’s opinions, so I want to correct them. I don’t really care whether it’s intentional disinformation or neglect on Avnery’s side; I just want the corrections to be written down somewhere.

“Haredim […] are not part of the Israeli state. They don’t want to be.” – Well, not quite. It’s very open to interpretation, of course, but the situation goes more or less like this: There are Haredi leaders and ideologists, who express strong opposition to the existence of a Jewish Zionist state. What is important, however, is what people do and not what ideologists say.

For most purposes they are a part of the Israeli state and that’s how they want it. They mostly speak the same language (more on that later), they mostly vote in the same elections, they mostly have the same identity cards, they mostly ride the same buses. Despite the common rumors, many of them work in the same workplaces, although it’s true that many don’t work and instead spend all of their life in religious studies, earning much of their living from donations and from working Israelis’ taxes.

The Haredim are somewhat comparable in this regard to Jehovah’s Witnesses, although for many reasons they would, of course, hate the comparison. The Witnesses’ ideology is opposed to the modern idea of states, elections, conscription and so on, but in practice they are mostly integrated in the civil life of the states in which they live. From what I heard, the Witnesses don’t vote, and the Haredim actually do. And as far as I know, the Witnesses’ are not funded by taxpayers’ money, and the Haredim are.

“Actually, the Orthodox will never allow their children to join the army, because of the justified fear that they will be contaminated by ordinary Israelis” – again, not quite. Many Orthodox serve already. Patriotism is human, Haredim are human, serving in an army is an expression of patriotism – hence, some of them simply want to serve. Some do this not so much because of patriotism, but because they think that it is a good career move. Some do this with their parents’ agreement and some without. That’s fact. As for my opinion on the matter – well, my feeling is that their number is likely to grow, because it’s simply impossible for them to avoid this completely.

“The separation between the Orthodox and others – between Jews and Israelis, so to speak – is almost complete” – no. It exists, because at least some of them want it, or are pressured into it by their communal leadership. The separation is strongest in the education system: They definitely study in very different schools, and very few of them study in Israeli universities. But elsewhere the separation is weak: They often shop in different stores, but not exclusively. They often live in Haredim-only neighborhoods, but again, not exclusively. There is some separation in transportation, but despite the buzz that this topic generates, it’s actually quite small.

“The orthodox speak another language (Yiddish, meaning “Jewish”)” – no, and this is very important. Some Israeli Haredim speak Yiddish in some social contexts, but all of them know Hebrew. Not just the Hebrew of religious books, but the spoken Hebrew of the streets, the government, the newspapers and the shopping malls. They write with pretty much the same spelling inconsistencies that are characteristic to all Israelis. Of course, being a special and tightly-knit social group, they use some unique expression in their Hebrew, but you could say the same about computer programmers, too. For the most part, the Hebrew of Israeli Haredim is the same language as the Hebrew of the other Israelis. (I’m actually happy that Haredim keep Yiddish alive, but that’s a topic for a different post.)

The last paragraph of Avnery’s post made me particularly angry:

BY THE WAY: when an Israeli Jew is asked by a stranger anywhere in the world “what are you?” he always answers: “I am an Israeli”. He will never, ever, say: “I am a Jew”. Except the Orthodox

Well, this is not even wrong. “What are you”? What kind of a question is that? People don’t ask each other “what are you”, people ask “where are you from”. The answer to that is “Israel”, of course; both religious and secular Israelis say that. In the rare case that I’m asked what is my ethnicity, I say that I am a Jew, even though I’m not religious. So that’s definitely not a “never, ever” situation, as Avnery claims.

This is not to say that there is no discussion about the existence of an Israeli ethnic identity. It exists, and it’s old and passionate. Avnery just describes it very badly. I even agree that an Israeli ethnic identity exists, or, more precisely, co-exists with a Jewish ethnic identity. And despite their lifestyle and the claims of their leadership, the Haredim definitely belong to it. Israeli Haredim are Israeli, much like American Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are definitely American – whether they like it or not.


Eight Taking a Rest

I was reading Time Magazine’s list of 100 most influential people and then time.com asked me to fill out “a short online survey”.

I love filling out short online surveys. They usually have silly questions about the experience with the website – “Did you find the information you were looking for?”, “Was the information easy to find?”, “How often do you visit ourstupidsite.com?”, etc. The kind of questions that clueless marketing departments and web design studios live by. In the end i am usually presented with a field where i can add personal comments. I always add personal comments and get the warm fuzzy feeling that nobody will read them. I only received a reply to a personal comment once. Guess from which site (the answer is at the end of this post).

Well, i was wrong. This survey is not about time.com. It’s about the financial crisis:

  • Please write three brands of car brands, in particular luxury car brands. (I wrote Lexus, Lincoln and Mercedes. How do you know that this survey was written by an idiot? Any website style guide will tell you to use underlining only for links.)
  • Next time you are looking to lease or purchase a vehicle, how likely are you to consider each of the following luxury automotive brands? [ ] Infiniti [ ] BMW [ ] Mercedes Benz
  • Please indicate how strongly you agree or disagree with the following statements about Infiniti:
    1. Makes vehicles with inspiring performance
    2. Makes vehicles people feel inspired by
    3. Makes vehicles with exhilarating performance
    4. Is inspired about the way they design and engineer their vehicles
    5. Is for people who enjoy doing their own thing
    6. Is a brand I aspire to own
    7. (Well, none of the above, but it inspired me to do my own thing and write this blog post, and i sure hope that it’s exhilarating!)
  • Which of the following websites have you visited in the last 4 weeks? Partial list: Amex.com, CNN.com, Food&Wine.com, MyRecipes.com, SI.com, SouthernAccents.com. (I totally had to visit SouthernAccents.com after i saw its URL, but was disappointed to find that it’s not a linguistics site. Plus, how do you know that this survey was written by an idiot, part II? Food&Wine.com cannot be a URL.)

And, damn it, they didn’t have a field in which i could put a personal comment in the end. This puts them at the bad end on the scale of websites that care about their visitors. On the good end there is scientology.com – the only website that ever sent me a reply to my personal comment at the end of a “short online survey”. What’s even stranger is that they didn’t offer me to take a personality test. They just said: “Thank you for your comments, they were very well-received!”. And i had a feeling that it was written by a human being. That was scary thought number 1.

Scary thought number 2: A degree in Sociology was probably required to get a job writing these surveys.

A friend of mine told me that he came from a small-town Yemenite family. “They didn’t teach us a lot in the school there,” he said, “the math teacher, for example, called the infinity symbol ‘Eight Taking a Rest'”.


What do you know—my persona is being discussed and lied about in Spanish. And it doesn’t even have anything to do with my Catalan studies, but with my being an “Ashkenazi Jew”. It’s been a long time since anybody called me an “Ashkenazi Jew”, so it’s quite funny.

Small Blue Thing, i really welcome you to be my friend —and even sister if you want—, because i am happy about having friends around the world—i have friends from Belarus, USA, Serbia, UAE, Iran, Lebanon, Argentina, Catalonia, Valencia, Mallorca and a whole lot of other places. I am especially happy about any opportunity to practice my very poor Spanish. But please don’t quote me incorrectly.

It’s decreed the people rule

What do you know – my little campaign for free-as-in-freedom hardware bears its first fruits.

I sent a few messages similar to the one that i posted here recently to forums concerning Linux, gNewSense, Ubuntu etc. I have also posted a few comments* to the post on Mark Shuttleworth’s blog, where he announces the first developer release of Gobuntu, the “radically free” version of Ubuntu.

Surprisingly Mark himself replied to me in the comments of Bug #1. That’s nice, but not too notable on a global level.

But today something bigger happened: Mark announced that he sets up an initiative to pressure laptop manufacturers into building the perfect free-as-in-freedom GNU/Linux latpop – one that can be used with only purely Free Software drivers. He didn’t mention me by name, but i really don’t need this.

So there you go: One of the good things about Free Software projects is the openness of the development and the project management.

Most Free Software projects have open access to their mailing lists and bug tracking tools. Every user of the program can, nearly anonymously, enter a bug or a feature request into the database (Bugzilla, RT, Launchpad, SF.net etc.) and then track its investigation and fix.

It is not a requirement of any license; it just makes sense! For most users this is even more important than being able to read or modify the source code. Even a reply like “Duplicate bug” or “Works for me” is far better than nothing.

I’ve never seen anything like this in the proprietary software world.

Sure – you can send an email with a bug report to Microsoft, Oracle, CA, HP etc., but it is unlikely that you will know where did it go, unless you have a personal service agreement. It’s just “fire and forget”. And you surely won’t get a personal reply from Mr. Gates.

Yet in the Free Software community the user has the full power to influence the project planning of the core development team.

So – thank you, Mark, for this initiative.

* Some people that read them badly misundestood what i was trying to say. I have made some mistakes too; i really should have known that being sarcastic in writing is much harder and more dangerous than when speaking in person. Joshua Gay, Andrew Fenn, if you are reading this – please accept my apologies again for any misunderstandings.

Mother Tongue

HLA says on my new Hebrew blog: “It must be noted that it is much more fun for me to read in Hebrew.”

I’m glad to optimize for fun (PDF file).

But it must be noted, that it is not easier for me to read in Hebrew than it is in English. And it is not easier for me to read in Russian than in Hebrew or in English. I can read these three pretty much equally well. And it’s not necessarily good.

I hardly have a mother tongue.

Russian is probably still the best shot if i have to name my mother tongue. When i made my contribution to English Speech Accent Archive (requires QuickTime for audio), i was classified as a Russian speaker; it was academic, but rather artificial. When i speak Hebrew i sometimes makes funny mistakes, Russianisms; being a linguist i become aware of them, but a moment too late. The most common such mistake must be saying phrases such as “We went with my my friend to a movie.” It usually means “I went with a friend to a movie” – two people. In Russian it is perfectly correct to say it – Мы ходили с другом в кино, but in Hebrew and English it is weird. Occasionally i say “да, я, но” instead of “yes, i, but”.

But then i also have occasional Hebraisms slipping into my Russian and English speech and Anglicisms slipping into Hebrew and Russian.

When i read texts about politics and and news in Russian, it feels differently. I can say that it feels more lively and expressive, but i can’t say that it’s easier.

So i hardly have any mother tongue.

Which is probably not that good.

br23, part 2

Uładzimier Katkoŭski, a.k.a. Rydel23 and BR23, passed away yesterday after about a year in coma caused by a road accident. Katkoŭski was the webmaster of Radyjo Svaboda – the Belarusian branch of Radio Liberty, one of the editors of Pravapis – a site dedicated to Belarusian language, and a popular figure in Belarusian Internet culture. I knew him personally through the web and we exchanged some emails. While some people accused him of Belarusian nationalism and Russophobia, he was just a guy who wanted to speak his own language and tried to convince the world to give a little respect to the history of his country, which is considered by nearly everyone as just a bunch of counties in Western Russia.

May his soul rest in peace.

See also:

Oh (edit): The spelling of his name is inconsistent, because there are several contradicting spelling systems for Belarusian. -mier (-мер) is probably influenced by Polish, while -mir (-мір) leans more towards Russian. And of course i could just call him in the “simple” Russian-influenced form Vladimir Katkovski, but that would totally miss the point – he would certainly like the spelling of his name to be as Belarusian as possible.