donderdag 27 november 2014


I do know Israel - for travel - and that pleased me. I do not know the country as a resident, and I wonder how I would like that.

At this time that question is triggered by my rereading passages from the book My promised land by Ari Shavit about which I previously reported. Especially tickling are the passages referring to the Israeli food giant Strauss, by the twinkling intensity of Israeli society that resounds in it.

Shavit: “Israel is a country that is quickly excited; Israelis therefore have need for more and more incentives. The Strauss-team understood that this also applies to the taste of food. They realized that the Israeli savory snacks had to be much saltier than American snacks and confectionery much sweeter than the European. Chocolate was to be much more chocolate-esque and vanilla much more vanilla-esque. Nuances in Israel were not appreciated: everything had to be powerful and extreme and caress the palate with strong aromas. For an example, the Israeli Milky contained twice as much cream as the German example. But the Israelis do not want just more, they also want continuously something new. They are quickly tired of something. For that reason, Strauss replaces its products much faster than its European sister companies”.

That this lust for excitement does not necessarily have to lead to flatness and insipidity, appears from the development of Israeli dance. Which also is largely driven by basic physical stimuli, but at the same time manages to achieve a high level of artistry. Israeli dance is not so much focused on beauty, it is more about gouge: impulses from the body, and bare feet instead of spitze.

Intuition and feeling, these are according to experts the basis of Israeli dance. The drive of the dancers, their great technique, the inner need that expresses the choreography – they are constants in Israel’s young dance history, which make Israeli dance at present internationally into a success story.

The choreographer Guy Behar explains the strength of this dance tradition from the social situation in Israel. “The context in which we operate is dynamic, turbulent”, he says. “You never know what will happen. Every moment the situation can change. If you have something to say, you should say it now. That inner necessity and immediacy can be seen in almost all the work”.

Yes, this artistic and communicative dynamics definitely does have something stimulating and that appeals to me. But at the same time I would find all that a bit too raw. Furthermore, I doubt whether I’m not too stress-sensitive to live permanently in a war situation. I actually think I cannot manage that. Rather, to me applies what the former CIDI Chairman John Manheim once said of himself: that his nervous system did not allow him to live in Israel.

But as great a problem for me would be that the provocative dynamics of cultural and economic life in Israel stands out quite shrill against the lukewarmness and indifference exhibited by the majority of the Israeli population when it comes to a peace settlement and the treatment of the Palestinians. An attitude that so perfectly, and not coincidentally, is embodied by the absolute-non-dancer Netanyahu. Actually incomprehensible.

woensdag 12 november 2014

'Moderate' is abusive language

Whoever tries, amidst gruesome images from the Middle East and Islam debates in ones own country, to get some grip on the phenomenon of ‘Islam’, may easily get discouraged. Because the conclusion is swiftly made that Islam is what ones interlocutor from that moment wants it to mean.

Do you speak with IS-supporters, or read their statements in the newspaper, then you hear that ‘Islam’ means Sharia in its most severe form, slavery and death to infidels. Do you speak with indigenous Muslims, you hear that ‘Islam’ means peace. And then you hear all the variations somewhere in between.

So, in the end you don’t get a fixed story, no clear picture of this religious tradition, but perhaps that’s too much to ask. Probably people like Nuweira Youskine are right, who say the Quran is not an Ikea instruction. There is no single interpretation of Islam which is thé right one, just as there are different views on Judaism and Christianity.

On the other hand, in the images that Muslims sketch of their tradition is quite a number of elements that keep returning. So that one could decide that these things belong inseparably together. Two of them I pick out here: first the idea that the Quran is the literal text of God and, secondly, that the word ‘moderate’ in broad Islamic circles seems to have a negative connotation.

According to tradition, the Quran came word by word and letter by letter directly from Allah and has been recorded by Muhammed without any modification or addition. That makes the idea unthinkable for Muslims that there could be several different versions of one described event comparable to the four Gospels in Christianity or the two creation stories in Judaism. It also makes, in Muslim eyes, the Quran superior to those other texts and explains why the Jewish and Christian traditions are burdened by revisions, reforms and dilution of their own doctrines. In them there’s noise on the line because of the ambiguity of their texts, and the Quran is free from them.

The second observation refers to the word ‘moderate’. Remarkably often I hear that word, which to me is known as having a fairly positive connotation, be used by Muslims in a negative sense. For example, in a letter to the editor in which Nabeel Siddiqie discusses the usual rejection by correct newsmedia of fundamentalists, extremists and jihadists. “Conversely”, he says, “ordinary, in my eyes real, Muslims are dismissed as moderate Muslims. As if you need to be moderate in your faith in order to fit into Dutch society. I cannot but conclude, given the definition of the word Islam, the conduct of the Prophet Muhammed and the teachings in the Quran, that I belong to the group of fundamentalists, extremists and jihadists”.

Another example is provided by the The Hague shop assistant Jamal Saïdi who puts his biggest complaint as follows: “They want everyone to be moderate”. Or Montasser al De’emeh of the Research Group Middle East from the University of Antwerp, who twitters about someone accused of crimping for the Jihad: “He interprets his religion in a radical way. That’s it!”. So, nothing special. Finally there is the response to the Dutch version of my blog post Alcoholism and Jihad: “There is only one Islam and that is Islam as stated in the Quran, hadiths and sirat. There are no muslims who call themselves “MODERATE”, this is an invention of Western politics. If moderate Muslims would exist there should also be something to MODERATE. What could that be?”

Frankly, I think the negative load of the word ‘moderate’ in Muslim circles is problematic. If only notions like ‘purity’, ‘absolute surrender’ and ‘complete submission’ may indicate the orientation of a Muslim, what to do then with the grubbiness and compromises out of which a free society is built?

Also see Alcohol

woensdag 5 november 2014

Levinas and Kahneman

The psychologist Daniel Kahneman had just graduated when in 1955 as a conscript into the Israeli army he was commissioned to set up a new interview system for the entire army. The interviews were meant to produce a picture of the recruits and to judge whether these were suited for the officer training.

The existing system did no longer satisfy, because it gave the interviewers freedom to do what they found most interesting, which was to learn about the dynamics of the spiritual life of the interviewee. Ánd because the overall assessment of the recruit by the interviewers was decisive for the final decision, while scientific evidence indicated that such assessments were unreliable.

Kahneman attacked both objections. Instead of free interviews he opted for standardized, factual questions. And instead of interview summaries he preferred statistical summaries of seperately assessed characteristics of the recruit. The final score for fitness for combat tasks would be calculated using a standard formula, without further interference by the interviewers.

In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow Kahneman justifies his choices as follows. “By focusing on standardized, factual questions I hoped to fight the halo effect, whereby favorable first impressions affect judgments later on. I told the interviewers that they did not have to worry about the future adjustment of the recruit to life in military service. Their only task was to get the relevant facts about their past and to use that information to score each personality dimension. ‘It is your job to provide reliable data’, I told them. Just leave the predictive validity to me’, by which I was referring to the formula that I would draft to combine their specific scores”.

Then he continues: “Among the interviewers an uprising almost broke out. These intelligent young people found it hard to accept that they were instructed by someone who was barely older than they were, to turn off their intuition and to concentrate fully on dull factual questions. One of them protested by saying: “You make robots of us!” That’s why I came up with a compromise. “If you do the interview exactly as I have said, then I will satisfy  your desire: then close your eyes, try to imagine the recruit as a soldier and give him a score on a scale from 1 to 5.”

The new interview procedure proved to be a significant improvement with respect to the old one. The sum of the six ratings predicted performance of the soldiers much more accurately than the summary reviews of the previous interview method, although still far from perfect. They were advanced, says Kahneman, from ‘totally useless’ to ‘somewhat useful’.

At the same time Kahneman observed, to his surprise, that the intuitive judgment formed by the interviewers at the time of the closed eyes, also satisfied very well, even as well as the sum of the six specific scores. He tells: “A general lesson I took from this episode was that one should not just rely on intuitive judgments – either of yourself or of others – but also that one should not automatically reject them.”

The question I ask myself in this story of Kahneman is: does the blindfolded intuition actually  function as a sop? Doesn’t he actually believe it? Should employees just accept that formulas are used and that they can not develop their creative involvement?

Kahneman is skeptical indeed. He believes that we in general grossly overestimate our own intuitive skills and expertise and human knowledge. And that therefore sober observations and measurements which are laid down in algorithms and formulas are preferable. Regardless whether it comes to the assessment of recruits, the prediction of wine prices or valuation of a painting.

Such a view easily provokes the kind of resistance that we already encountered above: “We are made into robots!” What then remains of our highly personal individuality and creativity? Do not our lives become dull and impersonal?

I do understand the resistance, but yet I tend to share Kahneman’s view. The reason is that  I am sufficiently soaked in the skepticism which also Levinas displays opposite the euphoria of the highly personal thinking which is so pleased with itself but permanently produces illusions. However much the glorification of the creative individual fits into the romantic society we still are, Levinas’s and Kahneman’s skepticism thereabout is very much in place. So, let Kahneman use his sop, because we can do without a lot of our self-righteous euphoria.

What can nót miss is a different kind of vividness. Namely that of the authentic encounter with another human being or beings. I even think that fulfillment of that desire can make redundant a lot of overly focused attention on individuality in our society. When it comes to that deficit Kahneman leaves us, apart from the sop, empty-handed. Because he speaks little about such encounters between people.

Levinas even more.

Also see Levinas and Empathy