31 August 2008

01 September 2008 - On Arabic textbook, the facts still stand

Emily McGinnis, writing for The Hoya, Georgetown University's student newspaper, sought reactions to my critique of Al-Kitaab, the standard Arabic textbook published by the university and used all over the country.

Interestingly, the publisher does not attempt to refute my factual claims, or my critique of the book's generally morose tone. But the article does reveal that the National Endowment for the Humanities, which contributed to the costs of producting the book's first edition, "did not review the text for sources of bias." The director of Georgetown University Press also admits that "he has received some objections from students in regard to their maps."

The chair of the university's Arabic department claims: "Our authors are very careful not to politicize their books when writing." However, there are several political aspects of the text, including the final chapter of the book, which focuses on Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees.

America's students of Arabic deserve better.

30 August 2008

30 August 2008 - David Axelrod: Reform is not "desirable"

In 2005, Obama strategist David Axelrod wrote an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune defending corruption in Chicago politics, describing it as "a well-oiled machine" and arguing that trading earmarks for votes "has worked reasonably well."

The article is an astounding and revealing look at the cynicism at the heart of Obama's empty promises of "change." And it's a reminder of why America needs leaders like McCain and Palin, who reject the corrupt system of earmarks that Axelrod champions.

The article seems to have been "disappeared" from the Tribune website, so in the public interest I have posted it below, in full.

A WELL-OILED MACHINE: A system that works?

By David Axelrod, a Democratic political consultant whose clients include Mayor Richard Daley

Chicago Tribune

August 21, 2005

Many years ago, when I was a City Hall reporter at the Tribune, I flopped down in a chair across from an editor I greatly respected to complain about the tawdry state of politics in Chicago.

Disgusted by the excesses I had seen, I argued vehemently, with all the surety of youth, that the best thing for the city would be the complete abolition of political patronage.

The editor, who was no stranger to government, listened respectfully to my fulminations. But when I was through, he surprised me with another view.

"The egregious abuses of the system should go," he said. "But to some degree, patronage is the grease that makes government work.

"The ability of a mayor, a governor, a president to do favors is one of the political levers through which they get things done. Political organizations provide a discipline that allows you to pass your program. You take politics completely out of the process and you may not like what you see."

I left the editor's office shaking my head, shocked that a man of his depth and experience would have kind words for a system I regarded as corrupt and contemptible.

I found myself thinking about that conversation after the tsunami created by U.S. Atty. Patrick Fitzgerald's recent indictments of some mid-level city workers, who were paraded before the cameras as executors of a "conspiracy" to place political workers in city jobs.

No one can or should defend the test rigging, document shredding or some of the other acts alleged in Fitzgerald's complaint. If proven, they are crimes and deserve to be treated as such, reflecting a system in need of reform.

Better-qualified applicants should not be passed over for lesser, politically-sponsored appointees. Public promotions should not be conditioned on political work. (Nor should well-qualified applicants be excluded because they come recommended by a political figure.)

Indeed, the decades-old Shakman federal consent decree proscribes hiring and firing for political reasons. But as I listened to Fitzgerald's news conference after the government brought charges against the city workers, I realized he was saying something much more.

Fitzgerald proclaimed his vision of a day when the recommendations of elected officials, business, labor and community leaders will no longer count--a day when we entirely remove politics from government. And he seemed to be declaring his intention to use the criminal code to enforce that vision.

It is this system, free of political influence, I had envisioned as a young man. But after a lifetime of observing government and participating in politics, I wonder if such radical "reform" is really desirable.

The democratic process is often messy. Diverse constituencies fight fiercely for their priorities. Their elected representatives use the influence they have to meet those needs, including sometimes the exchange of favors--consideration for jobs being just one.

When a congressman responds to the president's request for support for a judicial nominee or a trade deal by replying that he'd like the president's backing for a new bridge in his district, he's fighting for his constituents. If the money for that bridge is approved over a worthier project elsewhere, should the deal between the two officials become a crime?

How do presidents, governors and mayors govern without the ability to help those upon whom they are counting to support their programs? Is this a prescription for reform, or gridlock?

It is the meshing of often-conflicting interests through the political process, using the levers of power afforded to elected officials, that has characterized our experiment in democracy for the last 229 years. And, it has worked reasonably well.

Fraudulent acts such as test-rigging are one thing. But if hiring of a qualified worker who comes recommended by a politician is treated as evidence of a criminal act, then Fitzgerald's approach will ensure that only applicants without political involvement are considered.

No mayor would subject his or her appointees to possible indictment for accepting the recommendation of prospective workers by political, business, labor or community leaders. Unless those workers--even those seeking the most menial of jobs--scored the highest on objective tests, the city would be subject to the charge of political hiring. Even those who did well in subjective interviews or offered some other, compelling qualification would be suspect if they had political ties.

That reality will lead in coming months to radical change. Although the nature of that change will be defined by the city and the courts, the effect will be the same: no recommendations, no favors, no politics.

Now, hiring likely will be up to independent bureaucrats armed with computers who, through some arithmetic equation, will determine the best potential laborers and librarians.

Will that produce a better and more responsive bureaucracy? Will it improve basic services like trash and snow removal?

I hold no brief for politically-connected workers who coast on their public jobs. But there are many others who go the extra mile because they know the quality of services they provide citizens reflects on their political sponsors.

We have an idea of what the alternative looks like. The federal bureaucracy, sheltered from politics by law, has not always been known for its responsiveness and efficiency. Yet that seems to be where we're headed in Chicago.

A quarter century after my conversation with that editor, we are about to achieve the government I longed for.

Why am I not thrilled?

29 August 2008

29 August 2008 - Al Sharpton calls Osama bin Laden "Obama"

At the Democratic National Convention in Denver this week, the Obama campaign rolled out a not-so-new attack on Senator John McCain: that he lacks the "temperament" to lead. Or, to put it the way I've heard it on the street: that he's "crazy."

The MSM has parroted this line, most recently in reaction to McCain's surprise--and totally awesome--choice of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate.

This is how totalitarian regimes dismiss political dissidents: by declaring them insane. It is also how losing campaigns behave when they run out of ideas.

The "temperament" line was repeated last night by the Rev. Al Sharpton, who was interviewed during CNN International's coverage of Obama's acceptance speech in Denver.

Then Sharpton let this one slip:

"To all of those that have been saying, he needs to not, uh, just be lofty, he needs to bring the fight to McCain--well, he brought him there tonight. He challenged him to debate on temperament, and on his judgment, he laid out specifically his energy renewal plan, his tax cut plan, his ending tax cuts for the rich, his plan on dealing with foriegn policy, challenging why they didn't go after Obama..."

Check out the video at CNN (from 0:15 to about 0:42).

Fight the smears, right?

29 August 2008 - McCain/Palin Will Win in November

The next President and Vice President of the United States!

20 August 2008

20 August 2008 - Another reason why I'm not a Democrat

Back in 2000-2001, many of my fellow Jews on the left began to feel profoundly uncomfortable about the antisemitism that leapt to the fore after the start of the second intifadaand again after 9/11.

It seemed to be mostly a fringe phenomenon, but there was always the worry that some of the crazy conspiracy theories and such would move into the mainstream.

That appears to have happened now, with the Democratic National Committee's attack on Republican Congressman Eric Cantor of Virginia, a potential McCain Vice-Presidential pick. The DNC's hit job mentions Cantor's religion in nearly every paragraph.

Read it for yourself here.

Or, once the DNC takes the page down, visit Dan MacLaughlin's excellent post (with screenshot) here.

18 August 2008

18 August 2008 - Obama endorses Durban II conference?

The Saddleback Civic Forum transcript continues to provide food for thought--and to provoke further questions. (We really do need more presidential debates than Senator Barack Obama has been willing to allow. They are the only way to truly discover each candidate's views as well as his instinctive responses to tough questions.)

At one point, Obama was asked about what he would do about religious persecution around the world. He answered:

"Having an administration that's speaking out, joining in international forums where we can point out human rights abuses and the absence of religious freedom, that I think is absolutely critical."

Now, it is not entirely clear what Obama means by "joining in international forums." The only international human rights forum in recent memory that the U.S. chose not to join--or, more precisely, to leave--was the U.N. World Conference Against Racism in Durban in 2001. That conference descended into a carnival of antisemitic hatred, and the U.S. and Israel both pulled out.

The decision to leave was sharply criticized at the time by the American left. I know, because I was at the conference at the time, working as a journalist for the left-wing magazine Colorlines, whose editors were in complete denial about the anti-Jewish propaganda being paraded in front of our faces.

One editor later wrote that the Bush administration had used the "red herring" of antisemitism "to control the Durban debate and set the stage for a racist resurgence in foreign and domestic policy." This type of rhetoric was fairly typical on the left.

One of those who joined in the criticism of the Bush administration's decision was none other than Jeremiah Wright, Obama's pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ. It is unfair to ascribe Wright's views to Obama, but Wright was merely repeating a view that was fairly common in left-wing circles--particularly among those interested in racial politics--when he said:

"...last year's conference in Africa on racism which the United States would not participate in because somebody dared to point out the racism which it still supports, both here and in Israel..."

Obama would not have agreed with Wright's follow-up comment that 9/11 was caused by the U.S.-Israel relationship, but he has certainly done nothing to stop the left-wing from endorsing the next Durban racism conference, which Nancy Pelosi's Democratic Congress officially endorsed last month in House Resolution 1361, despite the likelihood that it will be a repeat of the 2001 debacle.

Did Obama suggest at Saddleback that the U.S. participate in Durban II as a way of confronting religious persecution?

It's hard to avoid that conclusion--though his comment was typically vague.

One other possibility is that Obama was referring to the U.N. Human Rights Council, which has also become an obsessive anti-Israel hate-fest (for more on this see UN Watch).

Regardless, there is hardly a single major international human rights forum that has lived up to its mandate. They have been hijacked by dictatorial regimes and twisted by radical anti-Israel activists.

That Obama would suggest the U.S. defend victims of religious persecution through these perverted forums--whether Durban II or any other--is simply outrageous. If anything, those forums have been abused to protect and promote hatred--religious and otherwise.

17 August 2008

17 August 2008 - Obama claims credit for campaign finance reform - that he ignored

The Jeremiah Wright Award for Audacity goes to Senator Barack Obama who, at the Saddleback Civil Forum last night, claimed credit for passing campaign finance reform legislation in Washington.



(The quote appears at 2:47 in the video segment below)

But McCain's major finance reform bill became law in 2002, more than two years before Obama showed up in the Senate.

And, of course, Obama then rejected federal financing for his campaign, breaking his promise to adhere to the system and trashing the very reforms he is now trying to take moral and political credit for.

16 August 2008

17 August 2008 - Obama gets facts wrong on Bosnia


Anyone interested in the difference between John McCain and Barack Obama on key issues of conscience should watch the Saddleback Civil Forum, which has just concluded and will hopefully be available in replay mode soon.

The forum was not a debate, but back-to-back interviews with Obama and McCain in front of a church congregation. Each candidate was asked the same questions.

And though Obama was expected to do well, McCain cleaned his clock.

Obama made a number of gaffes, including this shocker:

When asked by host Pastor Rick Warren about whether he would ever commit American troops to stop a genocide without the approval of the United Nations, Obama said yes--and cited Bosnia as an example in which America acted alone.

Er... wrong.

By the time the United States intervened in the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR)--established by UN Security Council Resolution 743--had been involved (rather dismally) for three years. In 1994 and again in 1995, the UN Security council authorized the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to intervene--and the U.S., working within NATO, did so. The UN effectively transferred its authority to NATO via the multinational military implementation force (IFOR) in Security Council Resolution 1031.

Some might consider this a minor mistake, but it underlines Obama's ignorance about history--even recent history, during a time when he had already begun his public political career. And it is increasingly relevant as Russian aggression continues against Georgia.

The next time Obama falsely claims that McCain once confused Sunni and Shia in Iraq (he didn't), perhaps he should be reminded of this glaring factual error.

15 August 2008

15 August 2008 - Is Jordan an apartheid state?

Jordan, Israel´s neighbor to the east, made peace with the Jewish state in 1994 but has never revoked its laws banning Jews from becoming citizens of the Hashemite kingdom. On top of that apartheid-style law, a recent survey revealed that Jordanians are bottom of the world in Jew-hatred.

So perhaps this latest story should come as no surprise. A bus full of Israeli tourists was stopped at the border and told to hand over any Jewish religious objects in their possession--i.e. the ordinary books and shawls required for daily prayers--or they would be denied entry. They even confiscated a book by Nobel literature laureate S. Y. Agnon.

Is Jordan an apartheid state? Will the international human rights community protest? Will angry Jews spill into the streets after Friday prayers? Hmmm...

13 August 2008

14 August 2008 - Keep Iran out of the Olympics

(UPDATE: IOC lets Iranian swimmer off the hook with bogus excuse - history repeating itself.)

Sporting competition is not the best way to settle international conflict; it may sometimes make it worse. Last night I was at a European Champions League match In Prague where the Russian referee made several questionable calls. The home crowd broke out into chants of "Russian swine!" and, eventually, "Georgia!" I was nearly dragged into the wrong end of a soccer riot when the drunk hooligans sitting behind me mistook my foreign chatter for Russian rather than English.

Still, it has been amazing to watch the sportsmanship and even camaraderie between the Russian and Georgian competitors at the Olympic games. First, the Russian silver medalist and Georgian bronze medalist in the 10-meter air pistol competition (of all things) embraced on the podium. Then the women's beach volleyball teams shared a hug before the Georgians won an emotional match.

Contrast that to the behavior of the Iranian competitors who continue to pull out of contests in which they will have to face Israelis. An Iranian swimmer withdrew from the 100-meter breaststroke simply because an Israeli would also be in the pool. It's not the first time this has happened--an Iranian forfeited a judo match in Athens in 2004 for the same reason.

Perhaps Iranians are afraid of losing--after all, it was "two Jews and a black man" (to quote Ha'aretz) on the U.S. men's swimming team that helped Michael Phelps win gold in the 4 x 100m relay, the one race he was not a shoo-in to win. All kidding aside, the Iranian behavior is certainly the fault of Iran's regime and not the competitors themselves. They have put years of their lives into qualifying for the Olympics and are probably heartbroken to go home without even competing. The coach of the Iranian basketball team shook the hand of an Israeli who happens to be the coach of the Russian team. When asked about what he had done, he replied: "I'm here to play and not to speak about politics."

That's probably how most Iranian participants feel. But the regime's policy is bigotry at its absolute worst, reminiscent of apartheid South Africa, in which blacks and whites were not permitted to participate in sport together. The International Olympic Committee keeps letting Iran off the hook, accepting its lame excuses (the judo fighter, for example, claimed he was overweight). It is time to pressure Iran as apartheid South Africa was once pressured, and deny Iran the right to participate in the Olympics until it allows Iranians to compete against Israelis.

12 August 2008

13 August 2008 - Today, we are all Georgians

12 August 2008 - Binational versus single state: is there a difference?

Earlier this week, Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qurei warned that if present negotiations toward a two-state solution fail, then the Palestinians would seek "the alternative solution...that is a single binationalist state."

Qurei managed to confuse--deliberately, perhaps--these two concepts. To students of the history of the binational idea, they are two distinct ideas. The binational idea, which was popular among some Zionists prior to 1948, involved power-sharing between Jews and Arabs, where each would enjoy some form of autonomy--something similar, perhaps, to the Czechoslvakian arrangement.

The single-state solution is something else entirely. Palestinians have long wanted a single state--and not just a unitary state of all Jews and Arabs between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, which is a somewhat recent idea, but a single Arab state, which was the Arab position at the UN in 1947 and remains the position for Hamas (plus Islamic law) and other Palestinian factions as well.

The binational state has resurfaced in recent years on the academic left as a possible solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it reflects a decline of the political fortunes of Zionism in the West rather than a practical answer for the two nations. That is especially true when one considers the shallow roots of binationalism on the Arab side--it had little support even prior to 1948--and the casual way in which Qurei elides the binational idea into the single-state solution.

The only tenable form of the binational idea is for each side to recognize the special minority rights of Arabs within Israel and Jews within Palestine. This would be a reciprocal recognition not just of each side's national legitimacy, but of a reciprocal duty to honor the rights of minorities. Those tempted by the binational idea should not fall for Qurei's strategically clever but ultimately empty formulation.

11 August 2008

11 August 2008 - The facts stand unchallenged

Richard Greenberg of the Washington Jewish Week has a piece following up on the article I wrote a month ago in the Washington Post about Arabic instruction at American universities, and the Al-Kitaab textbook in particular.

Greenberg focuses on the maps in the textbook. I didn't think this was the main point of my article, but to each his own. What stands out for me in this article--and in the many comments out there attacking my position--is that hardly anyone is willing to contest the basic factual claims of my article:

"Richard Brown, the director of GUP [Georgetown University Press], disputed Pollak's contention that Al-Kitaab has an anti-Western and anti-Israel agenda, but declined to evaluate the factuality of Pollak's claims."

I think the following comment on my article over at the Post, posted by "rabbidanny," says it best:

"I am taking Arabic over the summer at a major university and we are using the same textbook. Disclosure: I, like Mr. Pollak, am a Jew, which may admittedly color my views. My objective in taking the course is to learn the Arabic language so that I can study medieval Arabic philosophical texts that influenced Jewish thought in the middle ages. Accordingly, I find the political commentary in the textbook gratuitous and distracting. While Maha may accurately depict Egyptian sentiments, the language AND the culture could have effectively been conveyed without touching on sensitive current events and without fomenting political sentiments. My two professors - two delightful people who happen to be Muslims - do this quite effectively. To clarify some past mistaken commentators: The Alif Baa book does identify Israel as 'Israel and Palestine.' The Al-Kitaab book (the second in the series), which is the main textbook for the course, comes with DVD's. In the first DVD, Israel is identified simply as 'Palestine,' and I, too, was disturbed by this. Finally, I used to teach Hebrew language at another college. I would never have dreamed of conveying - nor did my textbook convey - my political views about the Middle East and Zionism to my students. In fairness, though, cultural and political indoctrination is rampant on college campuses, not only in Arabic language classes. English Lit. professors espouse their own political doctrines, as do law school professors and physics professors. I worry for our children and the next generation of Americans."

10 August 2008

10 August 2008 - Russia, repeating history?

Russia invaded Georgia late last week in a premeditated invasion that combined diplomatic and military tactics against a pro-western democracy. Things are getting worse for the Georgians amidst preposterous claims of "genocide" by Vladimir Putin. From where I sit at the moment, in the Czech Republic, this is a sadly familiar scenario--as is the weakness of the world's democracies.

Much has been written about the difference between John McCain's determined response and Barack Obama's wishy-washy statement, which surprisingly echoed the lame-duck Bush statement, and which Obama is now backtracking from. He wants to sound hawkish and conciliatory at once. And, yes, the issue has its complexities. But to borrow from Hillary Clinton: that 3 a.m. call actually happened, but when the red phone rang Obama was on vacation. Was force really Russia's only option? Across an internationally recognized border? Ignoring the UN Security Council? History has had enough appeasement already.

07 August 2008

08 August 2008 - Criticizing Jews is not the way to reach out to Muslims

It's Almost Supernatural has a great post on the South African human rights delegation to Israel and the Palestinian territories.

I'm not saying this because they link my article on the subject, but because it has two very important pieces of analysis.

The first debunks the claim that criticism of Israel is stifled in the South African Jewish Community. The second debunks the idea that criticizing Jews is a way to reach out to the Muslim community:

"Most absurd, however, is that Geffen also claims that the delegation set out to try and improve the ties between the Jewish and Muslim communities in South Africa. I don’t buy it.

They blame only Israel for the problems; they lecture only the Jewish community about softening their positions; they investigate only Israeli abuses of Palestinian human rights. Everyone knows about the importance of the perception of fairness in conflict resolution. Geffen knows this. Yet, without any attempt to appear fair, he has the audacity to claim that they wanted to improve relations between South African Jews and Muslims. Who is he trying to kid?

Currying favour with one community and lecturing the other does not bring the two sides closer. It polarises the communities. It presses only the Jewish community to change its views, - not through debate but through public pressure! He calls on the Jewish community to better understand the suffering of the Palestinians (here I have to agree) but makes no similar demands of the Muslim community!

Furthermore, Geffen’s comparison between the positions adopted by the organs of the Muslim community and the organs of the Jewish community reflects complete naiveté and ignorance. In fact, he describes the failures of the Jewish community as far worse than those of the Muslim community. I challenge Geffen to actually read what the organs of both communities say. (Here Nathan, read this rhetoric from the Muslim Judicial Council and then find me similar utterances from a local Jewish communal institution)."

The best way to build relationships with the Muslim community is to build relationships with the Muslim community. Dialogue goes both ways, and one-way dialogue just encourages contempt on the receiving end--contempt that leads to more hatred.

I mean--seriously, this delegation went all the way to Hebron just to bash the local Jewish community back home?

06 August 2008

06 August 2008 - Obama silent on antisemitism in Democratic Party

UPDATE: Cohen wins by a landslide. Thank you to the voters of the Tennessee Ninth for rejecting hatred.

Steve Cohen is a Democrat who serves as the representative for the Ninth District of Tennessee. He happens to be a Jewish politician in a heavily black district. This year, he's being challenged in the Democratic primary by Nikki Turner. Turner has refused to distance herself from a campaign circulating this piece of trash:

She is also running ridiculous ads linking Cohen to the Ku Klux Klan. And now this beauty:

Barack Obama has intervened in local races before, but he's silent on this one.

Will he oppose this anti-Jewish Democrat? After 20 years of silence at Trinity, I don't think so.

H/T: Post Politics

07 August 2008 - Breaking the Silence: Send Money

Three times in the past several days I have received emails from Breaking the Silence, an Israeli group that leads tours through Hebron and spreads tales of Israeli atrocities far and wide.

The emails, which were evidently sent to the group's open mailing list, report that the Israel Defence Force has blocked the group for several weeks from entering Hebron by issuing a military decree. They go on to add that the organization has appealed the decree to the Israeli Supreme Court, and asks recipients "for your support in this important struggle."

What kind of support, you might ask? Signatures on a petition? Protests or public demonstrations? Letters to the Israeli government or Israel's overseas representatives?

No, none of these--only money:

"This moral struggle is also a legal one and as such demands great resources....

"Donations can be by checks made out to "Breaking the Silence"..."

Now, this kind of appeal is the kind of thing advocacy groups do all the time in the constant and necessary hunt for cash. And Breaking the Silence is not running some kind of racket--they don't charge for their tours. (They didn't for mine, anyway.)

But the interesting fact here is that they have been operating tours in the past several weeks despite the military decree.

This would explain the fact that some of the guides were arrested by the IDF during the recent tour of Hebron conducted for the South African human rights delegation--a fact that was reported without appropriate context by journalists at the time, as if the guides were being punished merely for trying to tell their story to the world.

If BTS knowingly led foreigners into a closed military area, they have themselves to blame for the arrests; if they deliberately courted arrest to make a political point, they should have said so. They also could have caused harm to their guests or to others.

Did the South Africans know they were breaking the law? They may not have cared anyway--some may have enjoyed it more if they knew they were--but there's no denying that the decree has legal force under the international law of occupation, as long as it has a valid security justification. Presumably this justification is what BTS is challenging, but it ought to have challenged the decree first before marching civilians into a conflict zone.

Unless, of course, they knew exactly what they were doing, and hoped the arrests would have the maximum propaganda effect on their visitors. Or their donors.

05 August 2008

05 August 2008 - South African human rights delegation ignores peace process, endorses "non-violent struggle"

The concluding statement of the South African human rights delegation that recently traveled to Israel and the Palestinian territories has been excerpted and published in the South African press today.

It makes absolutely no reference to the ongoing peace process, and says nothing about the two-state solution, which evidently the members of the group couldn't agree on. Instead, the declaration endorses the "small movement of Palestinian-Israeli joint non-violent struggle."

It is a rather forgettable document. But if nothing else, the recent South African "fact-finding" mission to Israel and the West Bank will be remembered for its astounding speed.

The participants arrived on a Sunday and left before the end of the week, having discovered the truth of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in just a few short days--a truth that has mysteriously eluded Israelis and Palestinians themselves for decades.

Their task was made easier by the fact that most of the participants had declared their conclusions well in advance.

Only a month before, for example, mission organizer Doron Isaacs had called on Nadine Gordimer to boycott a writers' conference in Israel. Mondli Makhanya, editor of the Sunday Times and fact-finding delegate, had previously declared Israel to be "one of the world's most oppressive regimes," though he had never been to the region and had little knowledge of it save for his own prejudices. Yet another participant, Nathan Geffen of the Treatment Action Campaign, had spoken out against Israel on several occasions. In 2006, for example, he co-signed a letter blaming Israel for the human tragedy of the Second Lebanon War--and saying nothing about Hezbollah, which started the war and shelled Israeli civilians throughout, with the intent of killing as many as possible.

The participants saw what they expected to see. Theirs was a fact-finding mission in the narrowest sense--a scavenger hunt, a propaganda pilgrimage on which the faithful ticked off stations on the Via Dolorosa of Palestinian suffering.

I know, because I have been to the same places, on the same tours, with many of the same guides. I have visited the security barrier in the West Bank near Bethlehem and in East Jerusalem. Last summer, I walked through the divided city of Hebron on a tour organized by Breaking the Silence, one of the groups that guided the South African mission. I even worked as a legal intern for the Association of Civil Rights in Israel, learning firsthand about the daily suffering of Palestinians and the positive role played by the Israeli judiciary in upholding human rights.

I saw many things that troubled me deeply--such as the home of a Palestinian man in Hebron who could not enter and leave through the front door because Israeli soldiers had set up a guard post on his street. I saw the terrible effects of conflict and extremism on both sides, and I witnessed suffering that cannot be explained away.

But I also saw how some guides carefully selected the "facts" they served up to gullible foreign visitors--translating anti-Arab graffiti in the Hebron market, for example, to show how hateful Israelis could be, while ignoring pro-peace slogans scrawled in Hebrew on the same walls.

I saw how some human rights activists found it convenient to forget that there are two sides to the conflict when they played to foreign audiences eager to experience righteous outrage against the Jewish state.

I have also been to places that the South Africa fact-finding mission did not go--the border communities near Gaza, for example, where Israeli civilians have suffered thousands of rocket attacks in the past several years, and where many struggle with post-traumatic stress as a result. I have been to the bomb shelters of the north, where Arab and Jewish children cowered together during the war as Hezbollah rockets rained down on their homes. I met a university official in the mixed Arab-Jewish town of Akko--a Jewish man, who wept as he recalled attending the funeral of an Arab student killed by a Hezbollah rocket. The mourners had scattered from the gravesite as the air raid sirens signaled yet another attack.

These were facts the mission did not find, because they were not looking for them. Would it have hurt to spend a morning with the shell-shocked residents of Sderot? Or to pay a visit to the Jerusalem yeshiva whose calm was shattered earlier this year by an Arab terrorist who killed eight students and wounded fifteen others as they read the Jewish holy books?

Or would such detours have forced the fact-finding mission to reconsider their prefabricated opinions, and to see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the complex phenomenon it is?

It may not matter, in the end, what the South African mission saw or did--fact-finding missions are shekel-a-dozen in Israel, anyway. It was a parliamentary fact-finding mission back in July 2001 that created the backdrop for Minister Ronnie Kasrils's "declaration of conscience." The debate in South Africa about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has not progressed much since then.

In the West Bank, I've found that what you conclude depends on the questions you dare to ask, as well as who you ask. The city of Hebron, for example, which the fact-finding mission visited, is split between Arabs and Jews, with the Palestinian Authority controlling most of the area. Did the fact-finding mission ask why this is so? Did the delegates bother to study the Hebron Agreement of 1997? Did they ask about the suicide bombing of 2003? The bloodshed of years before?

It is interesting to note the presence of a large contingent of Treatment Action Campaign activists on the mission. It reminds me of an episode during our breakaway visit to the West Bank with B'Tselem. On the drive back to Jerusalem, our Palestinian guide peppered us with questions about life in post-apartheid South Africa.

He seemed especially interested in the HIV/Aids pandemic, and as a committed human rights activist, he had a rather bizarre suggestion to offer: "You should put all the people with Aids in a separate city, all by themselves," he declared earnestly. "That way, they won't be able to infect everybody else." His Israeli counterparts were horrified: "A concentration camp?" one asked indignantly.

It was a stark reminder to us of how difficult it is for even human rights activists to see beyond their narrow, particular experiences and perspectives.

The reality that has emerged for me from my visits to the West Bank is that Israel is far from perfect, but at least it has human rights organizations that are able to operate freely. On the Palestinian side, there is no comparable human rights culture. Only a handful of activists--such as Bassem Eid, who left B'Tselem to become the first to document the Palestinian Authority's abuses against its own people--are brave enough to speak out and face the danger of arrest or violent reprisal by Palestinian groups.

Indeed, the handful of gay rights activists on the South African mission seem not to have bothered to inquire about the fact that there is no gay rights movement to speak of in the West Bank and Gaza. There, homosexuality is brutally repressed, as it is elsewhere in the Arab world. Gay and lesbian Palestinians move to Israel if they can--it is the one place in the Middle East where they can enjoy freedom.

Such realities were ignored by the fact-finding mission. Last month, Isaacs dismissed Nadine Gordimer's visit with Palestinians in Ramallah as "not an appropriate way to engage with the harsh reality of occupation." Apparently the only facts that count are those that can be manipulated to blame Israel for the conflict.

But as Eid told me in his office in East Jerusalem last year, Israel is not the problem. The real stumbling block is the failure of Palestinians to build a successful state and stable civil society institutions--a failure that has everything to do with political will, and little to do with Israeli occupation, since it has persisted even after full Israeli withdrawals.

Nation-building is where the South African mission could have offered some useful advice to Palestinians. But then, of course, there's plenty of trouble with nation-building back home--what with foreigners being burned in the streets and thousands pushed out of their homes into makeshift refugee camps. Perhaps Israel should send a fact-finding mission to South Africa.