The Times, They Are a’Changin

The Times of Israel was launched in February by David Horowitz, former editor of the Jerusalem Post. It’s an English-language news and comment site for Israel and Jewish-related news. About the same time as it launched, Haaretz’s English-language site began putting most of its content behind a paywall. This left a gap which the ToI immediately started filling.

The ToI seems to be modelled on the Huffington Post, the US news and megablog site founded by Arianna Huffington. The HuffPo was sold to AOL $315 million in early 2011, which provoked some controversy: many of the hundreds of unpaid bloggers felt that Arianna had taken their work and basically profited from it. Of course, 18 months later, the Huffington Post is still doing fine and has no problem attracting bloggers to write for it.

A similar debate was sparked about the Times of Israel’s bloggers after the President’s Conference, when Naomi Elbinger wrote a blog on her own site about whether ToI’s bloggers should primarily identify with their own platforms and outlets or with the ToI itself:

In a very short time, The Times of Israel has attracted over 100 bloggers that regularly publish on their site for free, using the Huffington Post-esque assumption that the very fact that your name appears on their site is payment enough….

…what struck me as most strange about the Times of Israel blogger crowd at the President’s Conference is that they introduced themselves as “My Name is X and I blog for the Times of Israel.”

Heck, they even got up in front of Alana Newhouse, a major personality in online Jewish publishing, and instead of promoting their own identity and brand, instead of letting her know about their own blog, business or cause, they promoted the Times of Israel.

All of this is my way of saying that last week I had a blog published on the Times of Israel. It’s about Israel and the Olympic Games, a subject relevant to the ToI’s readership. You can read it there.

I hope to write the occasional blog there. It has a large and increasing audience, and comment editor Elie Leshem has helped build a supportive bloggers’ community. But, to answer Naomi above, it’s not going to be my only platform. I’ll post blogs there when it’s relevant, and when I feel that they would benefit from the wider audience. In this case, for example, the subject was related to my day-job and so, though I wasn’t getting paid for writing it, neither was I doing it completely for nothing.

This blog will carry on as normal. I might sometimes write for other publications. I also ghost pieces pretty regularly (reasonable rates, email me for details). And I’ll also occasionally blog for the Times of Israel. It’s a big Internet out there.

The Burgas Bombing

Israeli tourists were killed today in a bomb attack on a bus in Burgas, Bulgaria. We don’t know how many were killed yet – at least three, but there are reports of up to seven fatalities with 20 wounded. We don’t know for sure how the bombing was carried out, though initial reports suggest that either a suicide bomber carrying a backpack boarded the bus and exploded, or there was a bomb placed in the luggage compartment.

And, of course, we don’t know who was responsible. It could be far-Rightists, though they don’t usually use suicide bombers. It could be an al Qaeda-linked bomber or a home-grown Salafi-Jihadi.

But the biggest suspicion has to be on Hezbollah and Iran. Iran has, in recent weeks, launched or almost launched terrorist attacks against Israelis in India, Thailand, GeorgiaAzerbaijan and Kenya. A Hezbollah operative was stopped planning an attack in Cyprus earlier this week. Today is the 18th anniversary of the AMIA bombing, a Hezbollah operation jointly organised by Iran.

The thing is, Hezbollah is a member of the Government of Lebanon. Iran is a sovereign state. These aren’t guys hiding in caves in Afghanistan. We know where they are and who they are.

Bulgaria is a member of the European Union. An attack on tourists – teenagers – like this is an Act of War. It’s not 1994 any more. All countries, and especially EU countries, will have to take real steps against Iran, Hezbollah and possibly even Lebanon if there is good evidence that they’re behind it. Can Bulgarian athletes just compete against Iranians in the Olympics a couple of weeks after they bombed their country? Can EU Governments sit in international forums like it’s business as usual? Can they allow Iranian and Lebanese embassies to remain anywhere in the Western world?

Enough. No country can ignore this anymore. Yes, this was an attack on Jews and Israelis and Jews and Israelis should respond to it. I’m sure the Israeli Government will find ways of responding, whether we find out about them or not. But we shouldn’t forget that it was also an attack on Bulgaria, Europe and the West as a whole. We shouldn’t give anyone a free pass for an act of war just because they were aiming for Jews.

Get the picture?

Avi Mayer called it first, when he asked if the photo below was genuine.

Photo tweeted by @KhuloodBadawi

He guessed it wasn’t.

Over the last few days, hundreds of increasingly sophisticated rockets have been fired into Israel by Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees in Gaza. The rockets have been able to reach large cities like Ashdod, Beer Sheva and even Gedera, only 25 miles south of Tel Aviv proper. Most of those have been shot down by the Iron Dome system, an anti-missile defence system that actually works. Some, inevitably, have got through. A rocket hit a school yesterday, but luckily it was empty, all students in south-central Israel told to stay home to keep them safe.

Israel’s response has actually been pretty restrained – hitting the small rocket crews from Islamic Jihad and the PRC and operational leaders. There had been no reports of a girl being killed.

Avi found some websites using the picture in 2009, which was enough to prove that it didn’t happen yesterday.

I put the photo into Google Image Search, which brought up a lot of 2008 sites claiming that the girl was Iraqi, a victim of a white phosphorus attack by the US on Fallujah in 2004. I tweeted this:

So I kept digging. Playing with the time-window, I could find no record of the photo before 2006, and several in August 2006, which suggested that this might the time it was taken. Eventually I found an left-wing Israeli website called Mahsom. The photo was captioned:

הילדה רג’א אבו שעבאן בת ה-3 נהרגה בידי הצבא ב-9 באוגוסט. צילום: סוכנות ופא

which translates as:

The girl Raja Abu Shaban, aged 3, killed by the [Israeli] army on the 9th of August. Photo: WAFA

This was the only source that named the girl, so it seemed to be genuine. But to double-check, I googled “Raja Abu Shaban” in English to see what came up. One of the first hits was this Little Green Footballs post, from August 2006, which revealed that AP and Reuters had retracted their stories about the poor girl.

AP published the following note:

EDS NOTE GRAPHIC CONTENT ** A Relative carries the body of Rajaa Abu Shaban, 5, into Shifa hospital in Gaza City, Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2006. On Thursday, doctors said that the 5-year-old Palestinian girl initially believed to have been killed by an Israeli military strike Wednesday apparently died after sustaining head injuries during a fall from a swing in the same area shortly before the strike.(AP Photo/Adel Hana)

I passed on my info to Avi

He found a similar note from Reuters, including their photo recall note. And then he spread the word to his 4000 followers. He forced Twitter user @ManaraRam, who had spread the photo into admitting it was false. And then the blogs picked up on it – the IDF’s official blog and the Times of Israel. Honest Reporting traced the original tweet to a UN employee.

Some thoughts on the Twitterstorm:

First, perhaps I’m naive, but I try to follow the advice of the sage Yehoshua ben Prachia, who used to say:

“הוי דן את כל האדם לכף זכות”

“Judge every person favourably”

Or perhaps I’m ultra-cynical, because I also do my best to live by Hanlon’s razor:

“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”

My point is that I don’t assume the people who used these incorrect photos were deliberately lying. Maybe they made a mistake with their image searches, or didn’t check dates properly. That doesn’t mean I rule out malice absolutely, but I don’t assume it. People are generally quite capable of screwing up.

That said, no doubt there are some anti-Israel campaigners who would say “Well, this might not be an actual photo, but I’m sure it reflects the essential truth about what’s going on”. Or something. In fact, a load of them have answered in just such a predictable way. This article by Lynette Nusbacher wisely notes:

The IDF Spokesman blog says that the photos have been proven false.  False is, in context, irrelevant.  The picture has spoken its thousand words, and the one word “false” is not an adequate response.

Dr Nusbacher is partly wrong; “false” is not irrelevant, and it’s important to expose distortions when they appear. Bur she’s also right to note that the damage is done, and the wider narrative that the picture re-enforces is already well-established. Despite hundreds of rockets, the international media narrative has been “Israel hits Gaza”.

Knocking down false photos isn’t nearly enough. But it’s a start.

Yvonne Ridley, peanut allergies and the truth

Cross-posted from the Fair Play Campaign Group.

I’ve been having a Twitter argument with Yvonne Ridley. I know I shouldn’t.

This is the second argument I’ve had with Yvonne. The last one was in 2003 or 4, when I was at university. She came to speak at Bristol University as part of an official ‘response’ to a pro-Israel article in the student newspaper (another part of the same ‘response’ was a seven-page screed by Tim Llewellyn attacking the student journalist who wrote the article). I was a student in the mood for a good argument, so I challenged her from the audience with some of the more outrageous comments, like saying suicide bombers were martyrs. At the time I felt like I got the better of her, but perhaps that was just my student bravado.

Afterwards, one of her minders followed me out of the room. He addressed me by name, even though I hadn’t given it and he wasn’t a student. He made a couple of comments, smiling and friendly, but the thrust of them was that he knew exactly who I was. He never introduced himself.

Anyway, back to the present. Yesterday Yvonne suggested on Twitter that Israel was opening the Erez Crossing to plan a ““self-defense” pogrom, with as few outside witnesses as poss“. She also tweetedmore Israelis die from peanut allergies than are killed or injured by rockets from Gaza“. She’s been arguing with Jeremy Newmark, Joe Millis, CIF Watch and me about it.

The pogrom comment is clearly nonsense, and the peanut remark is disgusting and distasteful. It’s like responding to to domestic violence against women in by saying “more women die from breast cancer every year than are killed by their husbands“. It may be true, but it’s not to the point at all. Murder is different from accidental death.

It may be true. But is it true? Where has this claim come from in the first place?

When I challenged Yvonne on Twitter for her source, she responded that  “the answer lies within Lowkey’s lyrics“.

Lowkey is a rapper and a fan of 9/11 troofer conspiracy theories. He’s popular among Stop-the-War and anti-Israel groups and is often performs at their rallies. The lyrics which Ridley directed to me are in Lowkey’s “Terrorist“. As well including references to popular troofer tropes (“Building 7” and “nanothermite“) it has the following lyrics:

I know you were terrified when you saw the towers fall
It’s all terror but some forms are more powerful
It seems nuts, how could there be such agony
When more Israelis die from peanut allergies

Well, that doesn’t mean anything at all. More Israelis die than what? The song doesn’t say. Anyway, it’s just a song, not evidence or a statistic. I challenged Yvonne on this and she responded that she was quoting the “official stats” and had only mentioned the song in passing.

Where did these ‘statistics’ come from? My preliminary research didn’t turn up any official statistics on the number of peanut-allergy deaths in Israel, but it should be possible to make an educated guess based on other statistics.
Food allergies have become much more common in the last 30 years. Nobody knows why, though there are all sorts of theories. People with serious food allergies can go into anaphylaxis, which untreated can be fatal. Because of this, many allergic people carry epi-pens to inject chemicals that can stop the anaphylaxis.
According to a 2006 Department of Health study (pdf), anaphylaxis from allergens kills approximately 10-20 people a year in the UK, though it is not always recorded on the death certificate. Of these 10-20, not all will be the victims of food allergies; some might be allergic to chemicals, dust or other exotic allergens. Some certainly will be food allergy victims.

People can be allergic to all sorts of foods. In young children, milk and eggs are the most common allergies, though most children grow out of them. Other common trigger foods are celery, soya, shellfish, fish and citrus fruit, but one of the best-known allergies is the nut allergy (and the peanut allergy).

Peanuts aren’t nuts. They’re peas.

Peanuts are a legume, a bean that grows under the ground. True nuts grow on trees. Some people with nut allergies can eat peanuts, and vice versa, though many people who have one allergy have both.

Peanut allergies are common in much of the world, but in Israel they’re rarer. A 2008 study compared the incidence of peanut allergy between Jewish children in the UK and Jewish children in Israel. It found:

Jewish children in the UK have a prevalence of P[eanut] A[llergy] that is 10-fold higher than that of Jewish children in Israel.

Though nobody knows for sure, scientists note that in Israel, babies eat peanuts from a very young age in the form of Bamba, and that this might be one reason for the lower allergy rates. It’a not all good news though; Israel’s ‘version’ of the peanut allergy is sesame allergy, which is much more common than it is in Europe or America.

Reviewing what we know:

  • In the UK, 10-20 people die a year of all allergies
  • Some of these 10-20 are food allergies, and some of these are peanut allergies.
  • Israel has abut 10% of the population of the UK
  • Israel has 10% of the incidence of peanut allergy compared to the UK

Based on these statistics – even allowing for possible better acute care in the UK – you’d expect about one or two allergy deaths a year in Israel, of which only a few, say one every few years, was a peanut allergy death. A recent case in Israel involving a hazelnut allergy fatality (not peanuts) was a major national story. 

Where does this wrong statistic come from? I can’t be sure, but the best candidate is the earliest reference I can find: in late 2008, on a Youtube video made by Steve Johnson for the US-focused website stopfundingIsrael.com. This website calls YouTube “Jew-tube”,  and warns of the:

“zionist infiltraitors (sic) in Australia, Canada, UK and USA. They have infiltrated the Govt. They have infiltrated the media even popular culture…”

Steve Johnson co-wrote a ‘book’ called The Truth: Mossad did September 11th 2001. His speciality piece seems to be calling up those who he considers supporters of Israel, hassling them, and making them into
YouTube videos for the Stop Funding Israel youtube channel.

This channel is fascinating. Most of the videos are by Steve Johnson. The first one claims that the Norway massacres were a false flag operation done by Israel. The next is an interview with a climate-change-sceptic scientist who also seems to deny plate tectonics: earthquakes are caused because the Earth is getting bigger. Really. There’s also a video saying the Bali bombings were really the work of the Australians.

It is Steve Johnson who called up the International Fellowship of Christians & Jews to complain about their advertising campaign, which highlighted the threat of rockets from Gaza. He said:

“From 2000 to 2008, 458 have died from peanut allergies. That’s 24 times the amount that have died from Hamas rockets”

Note that unlike Yvonne Ridley, Steve Johnson doesn’t say more Israelis die from peanut allergies than are killed or injured by rockets from Gaza; only more than are killed. But even Steve Johnson can’t even back up this weaker claim. After being challenged on his peanut statistics, he added the following in the comments to that YouTube video:

Researching the Peanut Allergy I found surprisingly that because Israel feeds their young peanuts and peanut allergies have in fact the worlds LOWEST casulty rate.

The research statistics I was quoting were actually from SESAME ALLERGY REACTIONS within Israel..Which runs from 150-200 per year.

So, he wasn’t talking about peanut allergies, and he wasn’t talking about deaths. He was comparing Israelis killed by Hamas rockets with Israelis who had allergic reactions to sesame. If the original comparison was disgusting, this one is obscene.

Still, lies are persistent and lies about Israel – even accidental lies – find themselves being repeated year after year.

Rocket fire on civillian populations is a weapon of terror. The rockets don’t have to kill very often for people to be frightened of them crashing into their homes, their schools and their places of work and worship. Since this Thursday, an Israeli has been killed by a rocket and tens have been injured. The Israeli who died was in a synagogue which was hit. A school has been hit too, injuring children.

All this means that Yvonne Ridley is not only being offensive and insensitive when she says “more Israelis die from peanut allergies than are killed or injured by rockets from Gaza“.

She’s also wrong.

The real evidence on Circumcision and HIV

Writing in the Guardian, Neil Howard and Rebecca Steinfeld argue for a ban on circumcision. I disagree with them, but luckily so do many others and they’ve done a good job of responding. See this direct response from Adam Wagner, and this pre-emptive piece by Alex Stein.

I have an instant prejudice against the potluck buffet approach to advocacy. I feel people should pick a line of argument and stick with it, rather than offering all sort of different forms of case. Steinfeld and Howard’s article makes rights-based claims, offers ends-based and harm-based objections, even flirts with anthropolatry.

It’s the section on the medical argument that really bothers me though. Howard and Steinfeld, in their wish to make every argument they can, dismiss the good evidence for circumcision as an HIV-prevention method. They do this in two ways – using problematic sources, and using good sources but misinterpreting them. The offending paragraph in the Guardian article is:

What about the health argument, that male circumcision is “cleaner” and prevents HIV transmission? There is a body of research that claims a correlation between circumcision and reduced transmission rates, and this is not to be taken lightly, since it represents the strongest case for male genital cutting – at least in Aids-ravaged regions. But such research is heavily contested. A 2007 study by Dowsett and Couch asserted that insufficient evidence exists to believe that circumcision does reduce transmission, while Gregorio et al’s later analysis cast doubt on correlations between circumcision and transmission of HIV and STI’s more generally. Read More