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The Obligations that Giving Entails: Europe’s Infrastructure, Haiti’s Disaster, Sticky-Fingered “NGO”s, Reining-In Israel, and My Own Misguided Contribution to the Perpetuation of Stalinism

Posted by Stephen Lewis on January 26, 2011

Some year-end notes that I have just gotten around to posting …

Christmas — or at least so says the advertising business — is the season of giving.  Thus, in the spirit of the season, a blog post about giving, not about the obligation to give but rather about the obligations that giving entails.   To start, I’ll jump from a Christian holiday to a Jewish text. In the two-millenia-old book of aphorisms, Pirkei Avos, a sage is quoted as saying that the highest form of giving is that in which “the giver does not know the recipient nor the recipient the giver.”  While this might work as a prescription against hubris on one side and embarrassment on the other, I’d suggest there is an even higher form of giving, one in which the giver takes responsibility for all that his/her generosity enables and entails.

Europe’s Infrastructure

By chance, the obligations of giving became clearer to me in my recent work for a European-Commission-sponsored lending institution, a funder of infrastructural development within the EU and adjacent lands.  The institution is divided into two main divisions, one with the mission to dish money out and the second with the mission to ensure the integrity and intended outcomes of the projects it funds.  Not infrequently, the politically-driven mission and budgets of the lending side outpace the real-world tasks of the project side, thus giving primacy to the act and volume of lending rather than to the effective realization of the objectives thereof.  Once politics are pandered to and bureaucrats fulfill their mandates, real world impact is an afterthought.

Haiti’s Disaster

Last year’s disaster in Haiti underscored the dangers of giving without taking responsibility for outcomes.  Over the years, foreign aid to Haiti, and the presence in the country of foreign-funded NGOs (“Non-Governmental Organizations”), created much work for foreign-aid- and NGO-types but contributed far less to the development of physical and service delivery infrastructure within Haiti that could  survive and mitigate the effects of natural disasters.  During the hellish weeks that followed the earthquake, an estimated 10,000 NGOs were active in Haiti, adding little and squandering much on small, overlapping, and, in the end, uncompleted projects.  The presence of NGOs served their own consciences, organizational agendas, project designs, and pocketbooks but little more.  Last May, the NPR radio program “This American Life” dug into the ineffectiveness of aid before and after the disaster in a special broadcast entitled Island Time.

Sticky-Fingered NGOs

I was first exposed to NGOs in the Balkans following the collapse of Soviet Bloc regimes.  At the time, American and European embassies, government agencies, and foundations tripped over one another in their haste to fund “non-governmental organizations” in order to kick-start “civil society” and/or “minority rights”  (the latter something that, in belief and practice, I usually am far from cynical about).  The name “NGO” itself seemed a misnomer in that most of such organizations were directly funded by agencies of foreign governments, invariably to propagate their country’s interests, ideologies, and visions of what formerly-Communist societies should now be.  Many NGOs lacked any semblance of grass-roots constituencies but provided launch-pads for political, business, and overseas careers of local privileged English-speaking academics and administrative types who founded and ran them.  Indeed, no small number of NGOs were set up and run by the savvy children of parents well-positioned under Communist regimes specifically to mirror the objectives and criteria to which the cornucopia of donors were linked.  In turn, foreign institutions that funded NGOs often were evaluated by their own financers according to the quantities of money they gave out rather than by what their beneficiaries achieved.  Even when productive and successful, the impact of NGOs backfired by taking pressure off of governments and elected officials in the region to govern comprehensively, openly, and effectively.

My favorite NGO of the period, the recipient of multiple “NGO of The Year” awards from foreign embassies, was founded by a relatively dark-complected ethnic-Bulgarian who spuriously passed herself off as a Gypsy so as to cash in on European and American funding for minorities.  As often as not, the failed well-funded projects of this particular NGO were followed-up by equally lucrative grants for evaluation studies.  Thus, the NGO was covered, their funders were covered, but society-at-large and, in this case, Gypsies in particular, were no better off than before. Like many NGOs of that time, almost half of this one’s revenues went to “administrative functions”, i.e. salaries, equipment, travel, pin money, and perquisites for its management and staff, a figure absurdly out of line with international guidelines.  Eventually, the NGO was exposed and taken to task by a European parliamentarian with the rare courage and integrity to see through the NGO game.

Reining-In Israel

The State of Israel is supported in large part by subventions from the US government and from private Jewish organizations in the US.  Increasingly, a fair proportion of American Jews have grown tired of Israel’s rightward drift, heavy-handed military misadventures, and waffling on the peace process.  This trend and the increasing decline in identification with Israel amongst America’s younger secular Jews were documented in May in Peter Beinert’s now influential article The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment, a compulsory read for anyone with an interest in Jewish or Middle Eastern affairs.  Organizations like J-Street or far smaller ones such as Jewish Voice for Peace are trying to harness the clout of those who give to and do business with Israel in order to bring the country’s actions in line with politics and morality rooted in Jewish history and ethics rather than in revanchism, braggadocio, and messianism of the Israeli right.  As such, J-Street and its like pose frontal challenges to big lobbying organizations such as AIPAC that push unquestioning loyalty to the politics and actions of the present Israeli government.  The responses of the Israeli government and major Jewish organizations to such upstart attempts have been confrontational, acrimonious, and ad hominem.  Jews who attempt to tighten the reins on Israel are labelled “self-hating Jews”, “not really Jews”, or “agents of Hamas and Hezbollah.”  The strategy of the Israeli government and mainstream US Jewish organizations is to push their new opponents outside of the pale.  And, in the case of this writer, they are having exactly the effect they desire … and it’s their loss.

My Own Misguided Contribution to the Perpetuation of Stalinism

My own misadventures in the realm of Jewish philanthropy helped prolong the legacy of Stalinism (or, maybe better said, Lazar-Kaganovich-ism).  In 1990, in Sofia, I attended a meeting on the future of a Jewish community newspaper inherited from the Communist period.  I was impressed by the debate. A few hundred local Jews (and people of part-Jewish origin) of all stripe — secular and religious, pro-Communist and anti-, young and old, influential and powerless, reasonable and apoplectic — hammered together compromises in order to keep the newspaper going.  In the end, all they needed was funds for paper, printing, and distribution.  I took it upon myself to make contact with and push their case amongst Jewish charitable organizations in the West and, in the end, got them a grant large enough to keep the paper going for three years.

The grant opened a trickle of funding from the US Jewish organizations that eventually turned into a river of support that financed social services, community activities, educational and health programs, and junkets to Israel that few American Jews have access to or can afford.  Worse, the control of community institutions and the control of incoming funds were placed the hands of a very few unelected communal officials who, as long as their books were balanced and foreign visitors were treated personably, could solidify their positions, run their own shows, vet community membership, and grant or deny services and “pieces of the pie” as they wished.  Nepotism became rife and, as per the NGO mentioned above, “administrative” budgets rose far above international norms. If a person spoke out against the community’s powers-that-be the price could be denial of a patronage job, healthcare, or even a future place in the community’s old age home.  Independent rabbis, home-grown and foreign, who gained the loyalty of young people were chased out of town; fledgeling competing organizations were crushed.  Innuendo, denunciations to the police and the country’s office of religious affairs, and even fisticuffs were and continued to be the order of the day in maintaining a monopoly over incoming funds.

Some members of this now-monolithic community grumble about the state of affairs but none do more than complain.  Sadly, they’ve chosen a free-ride over self-determination and self-reliance, in no small part out of fear of having to support their community our of their own pockets.  The tragedy is that flamboyant fulfillment by foreign donors of the obligation to give but side-stepping of the less-glamorous obligations that giving entails brought into being what is at best old-school club-house cronyism and at worse neo-Stalinist totalitarianism.  And, it has also deprived members of the community in question of the richness of experiencing and fulfilling the obligation of selfless giving that is the core of righteousness not only for Jews but for Muslims and many Christians alike.  I apologize, thus, for my part in depriving them of the opportunity to give and to take responsibility for their own affairs.

(Note:  It was recently reported to me that in Serbia, a former bonz of the Jewish communal organization in Bulgaria now charged with distributing American Jewish funds to Serbian Jews, threatens local Jews who patronize competing Jewish institutions with cancellation of whatever social services they receive through the budgets he controls.)

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Europe’s Babel, America’s Moral Divide

Posted by Stephen Lewis on January 16, 2011

Coverage of European economic news in The Wall Street Journal is usually tinged with schadenfreude and tinted by its right-of-center ideology.  Crises in Greece, Spain, and Ireland, pressures on the banking systems of France and Germany, and the lose administration of the Euro are portrayed by the Journal as signs of the naivete of Europe’s commitment to community and the inappropriateness of its ongoing adherence to social democracy.  Yet a quick look at the daily lives of ordinary Europeans — in terms of health care, housing, education, and even vacations — reveals living standards and levels of security and opportunity beyond the horizons of most people living in the inequitable neo-liberal society America has become. More important, the Journal and other critics of the European Union always overlook the most obvious of all successes of Europe’s seemingly bumbling policies and jerry-built institutions. For 66 years, there have been no violent confrontations between France and Germany nor between any other EU member states — a revolutionary change in a continent whose history was one of near continuous warfare between its major powers.

Occasionally, however, the Wall Street Journal does “get it right.”  In an article entitled Better Communications tops Europe’s 2011 Resolutions, the Journal pointed to a tendency of European politicians to say one thing in their native languages when speaking to their local and national constituencies and another in English when speaking within the context of the EU at large.  This may involve duplicity and the balancing of local and collective interests, but it is also in part linguistic.

Transcending Babel

Over the course of 2010, I took on a series of small assignments aimed at improving operational processes at a major EU institution through bettering the articulation and communication of organizational know-how and experience.  European institutions are managed and staffed by people drawn from all of the EU’s member states.  Increasingly, the only language this diverse bunch share is English — of a sort.  While many EU functionaries speak English extremely well, others speak it more as re-lexified versions of their native tongues. (Admission: I confess to doing the same in at least three of the languages I speak).  Adding to the confusion, very few people (including native speakers) write English as well as they speak it.  This subverts organizational memory and causes policies and projects to wobble on foundations of imprecise language and resultant degrees of misunderstanding.  Such dangers are relatively easy to rectify when working face to face, but in interactions between departments and institutions and over the course of projects the impact of linguistic ambiguity is magnified.

Going on “Mission” and “Subtracting Added Value-Added”

One European organization for which I have worked has seen the rise of two Towers of Babels in its near-60-year history.  From its founding early in the post-war period until the accelerated enlargement of the EU that began a decade ago, the official and defacto language of the institution was French.  To accommodate new member states, however, at the turn of the present millennium the institution switched its language from French to English.  At its worse, this created and perpetuates operational inefficiencies and crises in project implementation.  At its most innocuous, it is the source of an occasional chuckle.  My own favorite is the carry-over  from the organization’s francophone past into its anglophone present of the word “mission” (assignment in the field).  This lends a James Bond-like cachet of adventure to the dispatch of accountants to the offices of grant recipients and 1930s-cinema-like imagery of European friars navigating crocodile infested African or South American rivers to routine inspection visits at project sites.  In the same organization, linguistic imprecision creates referents that have no existence and  infuses work processes with an atmosphere reminsicent of Andersen’s tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes.  A misuse of the tired back-formation “value-added” is an example.  Employees at the institution are routinely evaluated according to whether and to what degree they contribute to the achievement of the organization’s objectives.  In the parlance of the organization such contribution is mis-labled as “value-added,” thus turning monthly and quarterly evaluation sessions into discussions of whether an individual has “added value-added” or “subtracted value-added” or “added negative value-added” rather than “adding positive value-added.”  The result is confusion as to how objectives are achieved and what the roles and efficacy of individuals are in expediting the processes their work supposedly comprises parts of.

Me vs. Us

The Wall Street Journal dislikes Europe as much because of what it accomplishes as for its inefficiencies.  America mumbles about improving infrastructure, Europe invests in it massively and redevelops infrastructure to transcend (and remove as sources of discord) national and regional boundaries.  America turns to off-shore drilling to ensure energy security, Europe turns to energy efficiency.  America talks about being a land of opportunity, Europe ensures equal access to education, housing, and health, the real basis for meritocracy.  The US bails out banks, Europe bails out entire countries so as not to abandon the security of multi-national community.

Fortunately there are other voices in the US mainstream press than the Wall Street Journal.  In A Tale of Two Moralities, Paul Krugman sketches the lines of a chasm that divides America — and, by extension, articulates a societal chasm between America and Europe that the Wall Street Journal overlooks — i.e. the divide between those who willingly invest in the societies that sustain them and those who see their gains as theirs and theirs alone and to be defended even with violence. In the wake of the attempted assassination and murders in Arizona last week, Krugman promises to continue on this theme: “I will no doubt spend a lot of time pointing out the hypocrisy and logical fallacies of the ‘I earned it and I have the right to keep it’ crowd. And I’ll also have a lot to say about how far we really are from being a society of equal opportunity, in which success depends solely on one’s own efforts.”  In my own way, I hope to explore in subsequent posts manifestations and implications of this theme in the realms of cities and infrastructure.

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Long-Copy Blues … and Reds and Yellows

Posted by Stephen Lewis on June 3, 2009

A note to those who periodically visit this site …

I have not posted new entries since late in April, in part due to a heavy load of medium- and long-copy writing.  In addition to a backlog of project proposals and two still-overdue articles, I have been working on translations from Dutch to English of a series essays that will constitute the text of an illustrated book that will accompany an upcoming exhibition at a Parisian museum of the works of a minor 19th-century Dutch artist, who, for a time, was a correspondent of Van Gogh and a pupil of Gauguin.  More in detail when the exhibition opens and the book appears.  Regular postings to this site will resume later this month.

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“Humbergers” and Ecclesiastes, Orwell and Strunk, Articulation and a Dollop of Self-Promotion

Posted by Stephen Lewis on March 13, 2009


Mimas Foods: Flafel, Humberger, Shaourma, Ships Pataos, All Kind Of, Meats

A recent article in the New York Times reported on the opening of a time capsule of early-20th-century recordings of arias found sealed away in the basement of the Paris Opera.  My own time capsules are more prosaic — the surfaces of my desks in Sofia, Istanbul, and Brooklyn.

While tidying up papers during a recent visit to Bulgaria, I found the treasure portrayed above, a mid-1990’s plastic take-away bag from Mimas Foods in Sofia.  The bag is a relic of a turning point in the economic and social history of Bulgaria and much of Eastern Europe. It is also a snapshot of a moment in  the transformation of English from the spoken and literary language of the United Kingdom, North America, India, Australasia, and parts of Africa into the awkward amalgam of  English-language vocabulary and the grammar and styles of a score of languages that has emerged as the lingua franca of trade, administration, news, scholarship, and socializing in the European Union and contiguous lands.


Popular enthusiasm for the collapse of Soviet-communist rule in Eastern Europe twenty-years ago was fueled as much by a hunger for the imagined jujus of western life as by political visions or ideals.  Dreams of big cars, big spending, and fast food — the same mix that now sinks the economies and clogs the arteries of much of the world — were among the drivers.  Not that there was no fast food in Bulgaria under communism.  But the pleasures of local shkembe corba (tripe soup), Bira-Skara (beer halls serving bread- and lard-laden ground meat patties), and breakfast- and lunch-time princessa (open-faced grilled cheese sandwiches strewn with ground pork ) were dimmed by a simmering Balkan sense of  resentment at something missed.

The first generation of Western-inspired fast-food to sweep free-market Bulgaria was based on the hamburger … of sorts.  Local entrepreneurs operating from apartment-house ground-floor garages and from sidewalk-level basement windows sold thick fried slices of domestic mortadella served on chalky white rolls.  The next generation came in the early-1990s with the arrival in Bulgaria of Syrians, Lebanese, and North Africans and the opening of shwarma (döner kebab) stands. Mimas Foods was among the first.  Its location was premier– on a downtown multi-thoroughfare intersection diagonally across from Popa (the priest), a popular meeting place named after a nearby statue of Patriarch Eftimi, an iconic creator of modern Bulgarian language and, through it, Bulgarian national identity.

The iconography of the vintage Mimas take-out bag reveals the aspirations of consumers and proprietors both.  Note the vertical spit overflowing with tidily arranged thick slabs of meat, the dagger-like knife raised ready to carve, and the stereotyped middle-eastern features of the professionally garbed chef.  But it is the use of international English that catapulted the fare of Mimas from the improvised and local into the realm of coveted, truly international, fast-food:








Ecclesiastes, Orwell and Strunk

When I left Sofia two weeks ago, I put the Mimas bag into my computer case next to two books I had brought along to read on the journey: a collection of essays by George Orwell (“Why I Write,” also mentioned in this post, below) and Strunk and White’s famed “Elements of Style,” which I make a point of rereading every several years.  Coincidentally, one of the classic examples of powerful and direct writing style in the latter book is drawn from one of the essays in the former.*  In it, Orwell compares the evocative power of a passage from the King James rendering of  the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes with the substance of the very same passage as it is likely to be expressed in  present-day English as written by international commercial, bureaucratic, and academic types:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill, but time and chance happeneth to them all.


Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must inevitably be taken into account.

Articulation and a Dollop of Self-Promotion

Wrıtıng is articulatıon.  Not even meticulous attention to style or choice of words can dısguise incomplete thoughts, lack of clear meaning or intent, or absence of honesty and passion.  In Orwell’s words:

The great enemy of clear language is insıncerity.  When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as ıt were instinctively to long words and exhaustive idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.

So, let me clear away the ink and get down to a very direct attempt at self-promotion …

As of April 1, I will be back in (forgive me the word) the market-place offering companies, institutions, and individuals the world over — in the private and public sectors and in the sciences, education, broadcasting and the arts — communications consultancy, project support, and writing and editorial services (including selected translation projects from Dutch to English).  I also will be on-call as a personal and organizational advisor specialized in articulating goals, analyzing strategies, charting paths, and achieving change.

Am I mad to be offering such services as we enter “the worst crisis since the Great Depression?”  Not at all.  It is exactly at such times that ideas must be reexamined and refined, operating environments clearly described, and messages communicated clearly and incisively.  To do otherwise courts failure.  Had companies, governments, and “the media” done so over the last years, we might not be in the mess we are now.

For further information, write to me at hak.pak.sak@gmail.com.  For information on related visual and photographic services, contact: bubkes.org@gmail.com

–    –     –

*An additional coincidence:  An article on Orwell and his essays — Such, Such Was Eric Blair — appears in a recent edition of the New York Review of Books.

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Non-Violence, The Struggle Against Oppression, and the Passing of Time

Posted by Stephen Lewis on March 12, 2009

Via the weblog of Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker, these links to Eric Etheridge’s “Breach of Peace” a portrayal of the Freedom Rıders of the Cıvıl Rıghts Movement of the 1960s and  a magnificent exercise in photographıc portraiture and historical documentation:

http://breachofpeace.com/blog/ and http://issuu.com/hudsoneric/docs/small3

The civil rights and economic rıghts struggles of the 1960s seem like yesterday, not least because both struggles still continue and because — for some of us — the exhilaration and dissonances of the period and the prices paid by those who were willıng to go-to-the-lıne in pursuit of social justice and personal ideals still resonate.

The online previews of “Breach of Peace”  are overwhelming, in part due to “hard cutting” between Etheridge’s  respectful and technically excellent portraits of former Freedom Riders as they are today with the unexpected precision and neutrality of mug-shots taken of them following their arrests a half-century ago.  We see Freedom Riders at the beginnings and twilights of their lives, the decades between become abstractions.

The timing of the publication of the book is significant.  Now that the Obama victory has given the impression that the anti-egalitarian so-called “values” of decades of Republican rule in the U.S. are on the wane, many of us who have always believed in and oft-times struggled for racial, social, and economic justice can come out of the shadows.  Doing so, however, can cause a moment of disorientation and disbelief.  Can one really now gıve voice to one’s political and social beliefs in the worlds of work, government, and public and personal discourse wıthout risks of penalties or opprobrium?  The faces and words of former Freedom Riders as portrayed in “Breach of Peace” give this writer, for one,  added courage and commitment to continue doing so.

Tech Note: The  on-line pdf hosting and display service issuu used in the second link above is well worth “taking for a spin.”

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Paradoxes: The Serpent and the Eagle, Newspapers and Weblogs, and the Unintelligence of Intelligence

Posted by Stephen Lewis on March 4, 2009

There is an image from Nietzsche that sometimes comes to my mind when I think of paradoxes of mutual dependency and mutual destruction: A soaring eagle devouring a poisonous snake that it has plucked from the ground just as the snake entwines itself around and sinks its fangs into the eagle.  A unlikely way of thinking about the relationship of electronic and print media but a useful one, possibly …

One of the best and most succinct statements of the paradoxical relationship between weblogs and newspapers I have encountered recently is My Year of Blogging by Haim Watzman written on the occasion of the first anniversary of his and Gershom Gorenberg’s highly professional South Jerusalem.  The paradox: If blogs erode the readership and economic viability of newspapers and magazines they destroy the very media and institutions that almost all blogs depend on for identification of issues and sources of information.  Indeed, most weblogs, this one included, for the most part rehash and re-serve the news, sometimes adding value and sometimes not.

Watzman also points out that weblogs are even less economically viable than print media, which leads me to a second link, this to an article that has been read and discussed by newspaper people and newspaper readers worldwide over the past month: Steve Coll’s recent piece (Non-Profit Newspapers) in the New Yorker calling for the end of business-models as the bases of newspapers and magazines and the institution of private and public endowments in their place — in my own words, the leveraging of print media from enterprises to elements of the infrastructure of information gathering and exchange, processes that are necessary underpinnings of economic activity, social stability, scientific and cultural advance, and democracy.

Also via South Jerusalem, this succinct critique of Israel’s recent misadventure in Gaza, aptly titled The Futility of Operation Cast Lead, by Stuart A. Cohen of the Begin-Sadat Institute for Strategic Studies.  For decades, I have marveled at the paradox of beliefs held in common by uncritical supporters of Israel and by neanderthal antisemites of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion / International Jewish Conspiracies stripe, in this case that the State of Israel is unique or superior to others in its intelligence gathering, military efficacy, and manipulation of world opinion.  Israel might have come close to this for a brief moment in the late 1960s but it has been a sad slide downhill since then.  “Operation Cast Lead” (the very name shows contempt for public and world opinion and  Jewish ethos) may have displayed something of Israel’s supposed  flair for short-range military tactics (however, Cohen’s piece casts doubt on this as well) but it also demonstrated an inability to think in terms of the human suffering it would create and the compromising of Israel’s image, policy objectives, and own security it would occasion.  Not least, in its hubris, Israel’s misadventure in Gaze showed an immense disregard for the security, status, and opinions of Jews worldwide, especially in the Muslim world and throughout Europe (I have alluded to this in a recent post and will explore it anecdotally in a future piece on Bubkes.Org).

In closing, my apologies for not giving the precise quotation and reference to the image from Neitzsche as recalled above.  Accept it as another proof of the time and capabilities limitations of single-person, part-time blogging.

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And a Final Half-Step: More Mid-East Related (and Other) Links, Photo Resources, and Muckraking

Posted by Stephen Lewis on February 24, 2009

Further to my last two posts, some additional Mid-East related (and other) links I have relied on these past two months, some but not all referring to Jewish affairs …


For those who read Turkish (or are willing to flip through Turkish-English dictionaries and grammars at high speed) there is KeHaber Turkish Media Watch, which also offer occasional entries in English. KeHaber features reports from the Turkish press indicative of attitudes toward Jews, Israel, and the Middle East. The negative side of KeHaber is that it disregards the weblogging convention of offering an “about” page identifying its authors and thus compromises its objectivity accordingly. My take is that the site is put together in Israel, but whether as an informative or propaganda site I do not know. If anyone from KeHaber reads this, my compliments on your fine work but please come out of the shadows and explain yourself.

Turkey and the Price of Magnanimity

For the moment, I am trying to avoid writing about the ambiguous situation of Jews in Turkey and the game played by Turkey’s leadership of speaking out against Antisemitism when abroad but manipulating it to solidify their support at home and their image in the Middle East. I am also avoiding writing about the increasingly common conflation of anti-Israeli policy sentiments and anti-Jewish sentiments and deeds. Having spent the last months in Istanbul, I feel too close to and momentarily too overwhelmed by these issues, as well as a bit overloaded by my recent readings on the late- and post-Ottoman history of Jews in Turkey and the Balkans. More on these subjects another time, thus – either here or at Bubkes.Org – and at length. As a temporary surrogate, see this report on the stance taken in the Turkish press last month by Turkish-Jewish psychologist and academic Layla Navaro. In an article in the Turkish newspaper Radikal, Navaro took a courageous stance against government and popular insinuations that Turkey’s Jews should realize that they are guests — albeit of more than 500-years duration — whose presence depends on their country’s magnanimity alone. “The Act of Magnanimity,” by the way, is the working title of a paper I hope to deliver on parallel phenomena in the Netherlands and in Bulgaria.

Point of No Return

Also worth looking at is the generally well-researched but also anonymously-issued site Point of No Return. This site is dedicated to the stance that the Jews of Middle Eastern and North African origin who comprise more than a third of the total population of the State of Israel – and who also constitute a substantial diaspora elsewhere in the world – are the mirror image of the Palestinian diaspora and the Palestinian naqba of 1948. I recently posted a comment on Point of No Return re: the derogatory Turkish-language term for Jews Çıfıt and its present-day use in Turkey and neighboring Bulgaria but I’ll refrain from further comments or contributions until the site adds a suitable “about” page. For those interested, the site’s thread on Turkey is worth perusing — with the exception of a recent PR-release-sounding profile of Turkish-Jewish construction magnate Ishak Alaton.

The Heart of the Enemy

On a related theme, Max Hartmuth of Balkan Cities brought to my attention this German-language review of Iraqi exile Najem Wali’s new book Reise in das Herz des Feindes (Journey Into the Heart of the Enemy), in which the author discovers in Israel, amongst other surprises, that Iraqi Jewish refugees and their descendents still preserve the language and ethos of Baghdadis of a past age.

Joods Actueel

For those who read Nederlands (i.e. Dutch/Flemish) I recommend the independent, courageous, and balanced voice of Joods Actueel (tr. Jewish Currents) — which I only became aware of in January through its coverage of attempts of crowds of local North African, Turkish, and Middle Eastern immigrants demonstrating against Israel’s Gaza fiasco and in support of Hamas to run amok through Orthodox Jewish quarter in the city of Antwerp.


Speaking of running amok, the English-language word “amok” is taken directly from Malay, in which it means to run about in a frenzy. Malay, in turn, is the foundation of Bahasa Indonesia, the contrived official “national” language of the multi-ethnic, multi-language Republic of Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country.

One of the sadder and more absurd side-shows of the reactions to last month’s tragedy in Gaza was the storming of the sole remaining synagogue in all of Indonesia and the harassment of its members by a crowd of hundreds of locals eager to avenge the suffering of Palestinians. The synagogue, in the eastern Java port city of Surabaya, is maintained by a few elderly Jews of Iraqi and Indian origin and their dozen or so children and grandchildren, most of whom are part Javanese and part Muslim.

Long ago, I had personal links to Surabaya and its Jewish past. I also remember the vicious massacres of local Communists and ethnic-Chinese citizens in Indonesia as well as the country’s brutal takeovers of western New Guinea and East Timor. The words “Indonesia Jaya!” (Indonesia Victorious!) deflate into farce.

Vintage Photo Resources

Turning to the more distant history of the Middle East, I recently came across Mideastimage, an online album of vintage photographs of the region. I discovered the site through a footnote in “Empire, Architecture, and the City”, a new volume by Ottoman-era urban history scholar Zeynep Çelik treating, in part, the effects of 19th century political and infrastructural changes on the layouts and faces of late- and post-Ottoman cities in the Middle East and North Africa. I look forward to reading the book in full and citing it in my part-time work on the history and future of infrastructure and identity. (I met Zeynep Celik seven or eight years ago but I do not have her current email address; if anyone reading this post does, could you please entrust it to me?) While on the subject of photo archives, for several years I’ve maintained a link on my alter-ego site Bubkes.Org to the digitized contents of the famed Sultan Abdul Hamid II gift albums, available online via the US Library of Congress.

Plain Old-Fashioned Muckraking

To end on a totally different note, for some excellent “muckraking” coverage of the hazy terrain of corporate misdeeds in the Middle East and throughout the world check out CorpWatch.

In the next entry, back – via Bulgaria – to the usual subjects.

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And Another Half-Step: Israel’s Conscientious Objectors

Posted by Stephen Lewis on February 16, 2009

Further to my previous entry — a gingerly first attempt at posting on matters related to the Middle East — an additional link in a series of less common perspectives and sources:

WWW.DECEMBER18TH.ORG is a site in support of young Israeli conscientious objectors jailed for refusing to serve in their country’s military, many out of objection to the occupation of the West Bank and the encirclement of Gaza.  Israel excuses ultra-orthodox religious Jews from conscription as part of political “gentlemen’s agreements” with the country’s coalition-making-and-breaking religious right.  However, Israel does not provide for exemption from military service on the grounds of individual conscience.  A short video that strings together sound bites from young Israelis sentenced to jail  for refusing military service  into a cogent statement of the cases for their conscientious-objector-ship can be viewed on David Bellel’s Knickerbocker Village, a weblog dedicated to the Lower East Side housing project of the same name.  Bellel notes in his posting that long-ago Knickerbocker Village resident Robert  Meerepool — a son of executed alleged atom bomb spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and an adopted son of the late activist, teacher, and song-writer Abel Meerepool (click here) — is among the sponsors of the December 18th cause.  (As a coincidental  “bonus link,” click here for an excerpt from Philip Lopate’s book “Waterfront” describing Knickerbocker Village, the tenements it replaced, the Rosenbergs, and the old-school New York communist relatives many of us remember and remain proud of.)

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In Praise of Pocket Cameras and “Making the Iron Sing”

Posted by Stephen Lewis on October 31, 2008


A few days ago, I resumed posting to my alter-ego photographic and (art/urban) historical weblog, Bubkes.Org.  The title of the latest entry: In Praise of Pocket Cameras and “Making the Iron Sing.” Taking a photograph of a wrought-iron gate in Sofia, Bulgaria (above) as its point of departure, the new post considers the merits of a classic film-based pocket camera, the origins of the decorative iron work that was once characteristic of Balkan cities, and the changing circumstances of Balkan Roma (Gypsies).

Additional photograph-based postings treating small cameras, transformation of cities, and the urban experiences of Roma will follow on Bubkes.Org.  I hope to accompany them with parallel postings here on HakPakSak.  Indeed, In Praise of Pocket Cameras and “Making the Iron Sing” touches on matters of the sort treated within the present “pages.”  Consideration of contemporary small-camera digital photography raises issues as to whether companies’ marketing or users’ actual wants and needs are the drivers behind product design, manufacture, and distribution.  It aslo raises issues as to how technology and taste interact.  Examination of the history and circumstance of Roma in Balkan cities casts light on the interplay of infrastructural shifts and transformations of identity within the urban context.  (Much) more to follow, thus.

Posted in Architecture, Bulgaria, Change, Cities, Economy, History, Identity, Infrastructure, Markets, National Identity, Photography, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Infrastructure for Transcending Borders

Posted by Stephen Lewis on October 8, 2008

This week Kevin Barron (Institute for Theoretical Physics, University of California at Santa Barbara) and I continued our exchanges on the nature of the infrastructure of the Internet and on the Internet as the emergent infrastructure of the processes that drive the world.  Our current tack is to give urgency to issues critical to ensuring the future adequacy of the infrastructure of the Net by identifying and examining pressing world and regional issues that depend in part on the Net-as-infrastructure for their resolution.

Near to the top of our list is the current and potential role of the Internet in transcending geopolitical and cultural barriers, not least those engendered by the artificial national boundaries stamped on the world map in the post-imperial, post-colonial era.  In academic circles outside of the United States, nationalism studies and the studies of nations vs. regions, as well as of submerged peoples, are now flourishing.  Cultural conflicts, by the way, includes religious ones, the timeliness of which need not be addressed.

The critical role of cross-border communication was underscored this week in the New Yorker Magazine’s excellent summing-up of the issues facing America and the world in their analytic and passionate endorsement of US presidential candidate Barrack Obama.  To quoite the article:

The next President must also restore American moral credibility. Closing Guantánamo, banning all torture, and ending the Iraq war as responsibly as possible will provide a start, but only that. The modern Presidency is as much a vehicle for communication as for decision-making, and the relevant audiences are global. Obama has inspired many Americans in part because he holds up a mirror to their own idealism. His election would do no less—and likely more—overseas.

I would add that the next president also has an obligation to surround himself with staff who can accurately articulate, analyze, and communicate events, trends, and moods outside of the US.  The US journalistic establishment has a similar obligations, i.e. to report rather than echo policy or entertain as increasingly has become its want.  Similarly, the Internet (read: the Web and Blogospher) should encourage exchange rather than jingoism or holding forth.  Every small step helps.  A step in the direction of exposing the US to the concerns and emotions of the rest of world is provided by intitiatives as modest as Words Without Borders.  I also regularly read Qantara, an initiative funded by the German government. Words Without Borders, by the way, came to my attention through a mailing from Idlewild Books, a new small bookstore in lower Manhattan specialized in travel books and travel literature.  As native New Yorkers will recognize, the store bears the original name of New York’s international airport prior to its redubbing as  JFK in memory of the late president.  The essential role of small bookstores in the intellectual and economic infrastructures of cities will be the subject of a future post at this site.

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An End to Summer Doldrums

Posted by Stephen Lewis on September 14, 2008

As the oppressive heat of July August in New York drops and the doldrums of an urban summer recede, a considered promise that postings on Hak Pak Sak will resume shortly.

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Patterns of Human Trajectories, the Essence of Cities, Jacobs vs. Mumford

Posted by Stephen Lewis on June 7, 2008

Via JP Rangaswami (Confused of Calcutta) this link to an article on the website of Nature Magazine, entitled Mobile phones demystify commuter rat race: Tracking study proves that humans are creatures of habit. The essence of the story:

“By monitoring the signals from 100,000 mobile-phone users sending and receiving calls and text messages, a team from Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, has worked out some apparently universal laws of human motion.

The results could help epidemiologists to predict how viruses will spread through populations, and help urban planners and traffic forecasters to allocate resources.

Albert-László Barabási and his colleagues show that most people, perhaps unsurprisingly, are creatures of habit. They make regular trips to the same few destinations such as work and home, and pepper these with occasional longer forays such as vacations.”

The article was especially interesting to me — in small part because I am a similar creature of habit, satisfied by, but also mildly embarrassed about, clinging to comfortable routine trajectories between and within New York, Sofia, and Istanbul, the three cities amongst which I divide my time — and in large part because of my interests in examining and clarifying the nature of cities and of the infrastructure of the exchange of knowledge.

As the decades pass, I continue to examine and debate the dichotomy best expressed by the polarity between Lewis Mumford’s epic “The City in History” and Jane Jacobs’s 1960s urban manifesto “The Life and Death of Great American Cities.” In essence: Are cities composed of great monuments and the products of ambitious physical plans or are they more a function of the aggregated trajectories, intentionality, and intersections of their inhabitants? To express this in terms of New York’s ambiguous struggle with the legacies of master builder and politico Robert Moses: Which view will triumph, the critiques of the displacements and damage to the human fabric of the city Moses’s grandiose road-building projects caused, this as expressed in Robert Caro’s epic biography of Moses “The Power Broker,” or the admiration for the art deco industrial styling of the great bridges and other infrastructural monuments Moses pushed through to realization, this as per the series of “revisionist” museum exhibitions and academic publications on Moses’s achievements that surfaced in New York two years ago?

At present, I am involved in writing and photography on the changing nature of the city of Istanbul and the bifurcation over the centuries between that city’s great monuments and the trajectories of its inhabitants. More on this if/when the project is authorized to proceed. In the meanwhile, though, in the context of Istanbul, I include this link back to a past posting the second half of which treats an Istanbul photocopy shop and how its function as a node of knowledge exchange is shaped by its location and the physical trajectories and intentionality of its patrons.

Posted in Architecture, Books, Cities, Infrastructure, Links, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Ancestors Up-the-River, Soundex Databases, and George Bernard Shaw Spells “Fish”

Posted by Stephen Lewis on June 6, 2008

Further to my post a few days ago on Meyer Lansky‘s slogan “keep your business under your hat,” I offer the following link (via researcher and writer Ron Arons): a Soundex-based database of Jewish inmates at New York State’s legendary Sing-Sing prison, the waterside location of which may have given to American slang the phrase “up-the-river” as a synonym for incarceration. The database can clear up family mysteries and dispel illusions of familial or ethno-religious rectitude. For me, it may have clarified a childhood memory of my mother confiding that one of my paternal uncles — who I remember as a gentle-faced, soft-spoken and hardworking Brooklyn “cabbie” — had been “sent-up-the-river” for burglary during the Great Depression.

Soundex, by the way, is a venerable attempt to impose an overlay of logic on the wonderful non-standardized accretion that is English-language orthography. Not only does Soundex offer a way to conjoin disparate spellings and similar names (e.g. “Liebowitz” and “Leibowitz” and “Leibourtz,” as in the case on the paternal side of my own family), it also offers a way around George Bernard Shaw’s classic critique that in English “fish” could just as well be spelled “ghiti” (i.e. using the “gh” of “tough” and the “ti” of “condition”).

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The Costs of Bandwidth and an Appeal to Help Meet Them, Anti-Fascists and Proto-Fascists, Blues and Lenya

Posted by Stephen Lewis on June 3, 2008

Costs of Bandwidth and an Appeal

This week’s podcast (The Prosecutor) from listener-supported Chicago Public Radio’s This American Life begins with a soft-spoken and cogent fundraising appeal from the program’s chief commentator, Ira Glass. Glass reports that ever since the station began its experimental podcasting of weekly episodes of This American Life a year-and-a-half ago, weekly downloads of the program have risen to 400,000,, and in some weeks have even exceeded a half-million.

This successful podcasting service, Glass continues, is free to the program’s listeners but not to the station. In Glass’s words: “… the bandwidth itself to do that much internet traffic costs our home radio station $152,000 this year.” His appeal is for each subscriber to the program’s podcasts to donate a single dollar per year to offset these costs. Such a minuscule donation would cover the program’s bandwidth bill three-fold. Of course, Glass acknowledges the sad fact that most internet users are unwilling to pay for the value they receive and, so, he suggests that responsible listeners give $5.00 each thereby making up for the unfulfilled donations of four slackers.

I plan to respond to Glass’s appeal by putting my money where my podcast-listening ear is and donating $5.00 to support the free distribution of Glass and colleagues’ excellent show. I challenge all those involved with me in debates on the future of internet infrastructure and fellow followers of Doc Searls’s worthy Project VRM (an attempt to gear “markets” to the wants and needs of individuals) at Harvard Law to do the same. Dare to join me?

Anti-Fascists and Proto-Fascists

Recently, during a walk through the Garden of Tsar Boris III (in communist times the Garden of Freedom) in Sofia, Bulgaria. I encountered a gathering of “anti-fascists” commemorating the anniversary of the denouement of the Second War World in Europe. Bulgaria had been an enthusiastic ally of Nazi Germany during the Second World War but switched to the side of the Allies following the Soviet occupation of the country in September, 1944. Those Bulgarians who fought against the Nazis after the country changed sides have been relegated to a historical purgatory in the post-communist era in which the rhetoric of anti-communism has come to outweigh the memory of anti-fascism. There were fewer than 200 people, most of them quite old, at the anti-fascist gathering. On the other hand, rallies of Bulgaria’s antisemitic, anti-Gypsy, anti-Muslim Ataka party (which won 25% of the votes in Bulgaria’s last presidential election) still attract thousands.

Only hours before the stumbling across the gathering in the Sofia garden, I had heard the word “fascist” used in a more contemporary context. In an interview on the weekly podcast of the BBC’s Front Row, the 82-year-old American literary doyen (and eternal curmudgeon) Gore Vidal responded to a request to forecast the outcome of the upcoming US presidential election by saying that “… the likeliest outcome is that the Republican party, which is not a political party in any sense that Britain might know, (but which) is a mind set of crypto-fascists, will steal it from any Democrat who wins it, as they did with Albert Gore … they are quick to steal, look at the mess they’ve made.” And this is only the beginning of Vidal’s take on the party of Bush and McCain! The Front Line interview also includes Vidal’s recollections of fellow post-war literary giants Norman Mailer and Kurt Vonnegut. Bravo to Gore Vidal on all accounts!

Blues and Lenya

As an antidote to exposures to fascism, or to an excess of radio talk shows, two musical podcast suggestions: For a regular doses of the blues, try The Blues File. For background and anecdotes covering the all types of music and musical personalities, subscribe to Sarah Fishko’s excellent Fishko Files with, as a delightful, haunting, and anti-fascist starting point, this broadcast treating the great Lotte Lenya, wife of Kurt Weill and iconic interpreter of the music and lyrics of Weill, Bertolt Brecht, and others.

Posted in Bulgaria, Commentary, Infrastructure, Internet, Links, Literature, Media, Music, Podcasting, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

The Lower East Side, Meyer Lansky, and “Keep Your Business Under Your Hat”

Posted by Stephen Lewis on June 2, 2008

I grew up in the intimidating shadows of great Lower East Side New Yorkers, from communist novelist Mike Gold (“Jews Without Money”) to comic actor Zero Mostel (“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”), from socialist congressman Meyer London to gangster and math-whiz Meyer Lansky. For a prose- and cartoon-sketch biography of Lansky and a cautionary tale about his motto of “keep your business under your hat,” see this recent piece from the New York Times (note: if you are not up to registering for the Times Online, you can view the piece without registration here).

Part of the Lower East Side side of me admires the toughness and invulnerability of those who keep their business under their hats; the side of me that is involved in debates on the nature of knowledge and the future of the internet, however, agrees with the moral of the last plate of the cartoon sketch, i.e. that, in the end, keeping your business under your hat gets you nowhere.

(Any present or ex-, real or fantasy shtarkers viewing this post might also want to click through to Six for Five).

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