Category Archives: Commentary

Let’s Play The Embassy Polka!

Did anyone catch the news that the British embassy has pulled out of Tehran? The UK has withdrawn its entire staff and closed the embassy. The Iranians responded by promptly passing a bill that expelled the British ambassador, but that’s largely to save face at home, eh? *lol* The UK then threw the Iranian ambassador out of the country. Why wait until the British staff were out of the country? Easy: the long shadow of the 1979 hostage crisis.

This tit-for-tat embassy shuffle was sparked by an attack on the British compound by an unruly mob which appeared to contain Basij elements. Those are the street militia that the state use for routine thuggery when uniforms are inappropriate on the front pages. I would surmise that elements within the state almost certainly approved the attack, even if only tacitly. The crowd’s animus came from the latest round of sanctions levelled at the Islamic Republic for the nuclear weapons programme it is widely presumed to have going. (I, for one, think the intelligence is credible; the mullahs have a very good strategic reason for wanting one, and the wide dispersal and burial of facilities is kinda suspicious…)

What this leaves us is the biggest diplomatic spat the Iranians have had for a while. Not only have the Brits pulled out, but the French and German ambassadors have been recalled for ‘consultations’, and the EU foreign ministers are meeting in Brussels to discuss joint statements or action. The Iranians and Brits not getting along is old news — think back to the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company monopoly and the 1953 coup; and hell, they only reestablished diplomatic relations in 1999 — but the rest of Europe getting behind the Brits in this is interesting to me. There’s a lot of money at stake, after all.

Think about it: What’s the one thing preventing much stronger action against Iran, specifically an oil embargo that would cut off their cash supply? It might drive the economy further into the ditch. A lot of countries depend on Iranian oil, and they are a huge contributor to the OPEC cartel. Getting enough countries to go along would be tough, since places like China and Russia could step in (China with more oil purchases, the Russians with cheap credit). This means that if Europe or Japan closed the spigot on Iranian oil it would likely only hurt them. And if you don’t know how messed up the European and Japanese economies are right now you’ve been asleep for way too long…

This makes it striking to me that the British foreign minister has said that the UK is behind the idea of oil sanctions, and would be willing to impose them unilaterally if the EU as a whole demurs (which is likely). Given the much more hawkish foreign policy of Sarkozy’s France I would not be surprised if he went along; the French don’t need the oil the way a lot of southern European countries do anyhow. The risk of damage is much lower for these two giants, so this would be more of a symbolic power-play, part of a steady ratcheting-up of pressure on Tehran.

Will it work? That is, will is stop the nuclear programme? Not in my opinion, but it will be interesting to watch this latest chapter in the long Iranian melodrama play out.

Zombie Journalism!

I am at present trying to shake off the rigor mortis in my fingers and spring back to life, my loyal droogs! Oh, how you all can’t wait to see my latest ramblings, I’m sure. *grin*

But I do indeed, kidding aside, have some things to say this week on Iran and Syria. I’ve carved out a writing time; now let’s see if I can prevent anything from flooding into it and knocking me off course! So place your bets now: Am I a zombie journalist, or am I still dead? We shall soon find out….

Tahrir Square

On the evening of 12 August I went out to Tahrir Square for the Friday protest. So much of the impressions I have are feelings that it is difficult to know how to put things, but I will stick to the events as I saw them and hopefully convey some of those impressions in the process.

I had see the square a couple of times before this, and each time there were rows of police and army vehicles in the streets leading to it. The presence seems to be constant these days, though they (the individual troops) were not always out in formation. I did see (and posted previously) a tight ring of riot police in the centre of the square on the first evening that I went down to see it. The same sight greeted me this time, along with an already-large and growing body of Cairenes.

The press that morning was filled with finally-confirmed stories of the evening’s changes. Where originally it was to be some larger event with dozens of groups in attendance, this about 20 organisations had pulled out after the government asked them to do so, and the event was rescheduled for the following Friday. The remaining groups, along with a promised huge contingent of Sufis, still planned to go. It was also announced that the evening would be essentially a huge iftar — the evening meal that Muslims take at the end of a Ramadan fast — and that large rallies would not be taking place at all. I was a bit taken aback by this, but it turned out to be largely untrue.

In the end, it turned out to be a rally for a civil state, i.e., against the idea of religion being written into the governing institutions. This is a contentious issue in Egypt to-day, with many long-suppressed groups like the Muslim Brothers hoping to have Islamic principles woven into the fabric of the new Egypt. A few weeks ago the square was taken over by a massive and partisan rally of bearded Salafists demanding a Shari’a state, which was the first time that the protesters’ unity was seriously disrupted — a tacit agreement had kept divisive issues out of the square for most of the previous months.

This undoubtedly emboldened secularists to rally against the idea. Egyptian secularists and the ecumenically-minded have wisely chosen not to brand their idea as a ‘secular democracy’, but rather as a ‘civil democracy’. It is purely a semantic distinction, but it is symbolically significant as many Egyptians (and Muslims in general) view secularism as godless and therefore threateningly heretical.

One of the first things I noted on coming into Tahrir that night, aside from the military vehicles and ring of cops, was the number of vendors scattered around the periphery, particularly on the east side. This I had noted on the previous, non-Friday evening visit, but their numbers were considerably greater on this night. One stand-out was the large number of tee-shirt vendors, and before the night was up I would purchase four of these to bring back with me. (I had needed some thinner shirts anyhow, and these were astonishingly cheap — about 3$ — and would both provide memories and express support.) Other vendors were less interesting, selling a profusion of buttons and ribbons and flags, as well as those who were providing refreshment to the protesters. The prices here were surprisingly reasonable — one might expect price-gouging in a similar event in the USA.

Lousy photo of a tee-shirt vendor. I bought a few and love them -- very comfy. Should have bought more. Heh.

Slightly clearer, with blurry walking dood.

But I did see one amusing ‘fight’ between rival vendors. The carts were mobile, and a new guy set up his drink stand immediately beside one that was already in operation. The original seller exploded in rage and started threatening the new guy, who maintained an unimpressed expression while setting up his own business. Since his rival was unwilling to turn to physical violence in the presence of so many cops, he was forced to back down and acquiesce to the competition. Hot-tempered exchanges like this are apparently common in Cairo from what I have heard, and I saw two others before leaving — one of which was quite wild and I will write about that in my last from-Cairo post.

The protesters themselves were a motley bunch representing plenty of distinct interests and parties. One common sign — visible in the square for months — shows Mubarak with a noose hanging in front of his face. It was hard not to smile at the courage it takes to express sentiments like this in a police state. (I call it still a police state since, while there are promises of reforms and the lifting of emergency laws, Egypt is still governed by the military, and many protesters have been arrested and put on trial by the government.)

Huh-huh, huh-huh, uhhhh, he said "hung".

How to capture a sense of what it was like to move through that crowd… I was not the only non-Egyptian there, though there were few of us. I felt at ease the whole time, though, and moved freely about taking photos and videos. At one point a poet burst into action spontaneously and I managed to capture a large chunk of his performance. It was comically intense, with him sweating and gesticulating dramatically, his voice rising and falling with an infectious rhythm. I would post a photo but I didn’t take one, though I did video tape more than two minutes of his performance. Maybe I can embed a video here…? Hm. Nope. I can, but only tiny ones. Ah, well. I will find a way to upload it and link to it later.

{insert poet here} 😉

The crowd was filled with large Egyptian flags, some with slogans written on them. A few children were there with their faces painted in the colours of the flag, which was quite precious in an annoyingly patriotic way. *lol* There were plenty of people holding up signs, some professionally printed, others hand-drawn on poster-board. A few of these really stood out for me, including one with large cross and crescent and an appeal to ecumenical solidarity, and one which seemed to be attacking Israel, though I will have to translate its contents later (it was very long).

Flags, flags, everywhere.

Christians and Muslims together in one state, no shari'a for me, thanks...

Not all patriots are young secular folk.

Speaking of controversial ideals, one vendor had set up a table in the square to sell photographs of political figures past and present. There were shots of Nasser and Che and Sadat and Fidel, of course, but also of Saddam Hussein and Usama Bin Laden. This is not surprising, of course, but it was interesting.

Usama, Che, Saddam, Nasser... Choose your own hero.

Another thing you might find interesting was the attitude of the soldiers and police. I was able to walk right up to armed soldiers and take photos. Some seemed to enjoy the touristic attention, smiling for the camera and returning friendly waves. Others tried to look away or simply ignored me. But on a few occasions I walked right up to their formation, stood maybe a metre away, and examined the line-up.

'Pretty maids all in a row..'

Toy soldiers... with real guns.

Smiling for the camera.

Other times I repeated this with soldiers and police down by the transport vans and paddy-wagons, or on the armoured personnel carriers. Even the guys manning the machine guns had no problem smiling for the camera. It was all pretty surreal. You know that, on the one hand, these guys won’t mess around if given the order to clear the square. On the other, it all seemed somewhat comical, as if there were merely a part of the show, boys playing at soldier.

These things filled almost all the side streets.

Riot police donning their gear.

Armoured personnel carrier with machine gunner.

As the night wore on a platform stage that had been erected on one of the sidewalks was filled with speaker after speaker. Loud and rousing music would pour through the PA system, then someone would take their turn on the mic and speak their piece. The speeches were pretty impassioned and often got a powerful response from the crowd. After the speeches a hip-hop act came on, which has to have struck many of the middle-aged attendees as a bit odd. Aside from Eurodance stuff, Western music forms don’t seem to have much penetration in Egyptian popular culture. Every cab but one was playing either recordings of the Qur’an or sermons, or more traditional Arab balladry. There is an English-language rock station in Cairo, though — Nile FM — which I only discovered on my last day in town.

Crowded platform of speakers, rousing the crowd and jeering the soldiers.

Distance shot of the platform with some of the crowd.

Cheering on speakers, singing, call-and-response... it was an amazing thing, being there.

On the periphery I was struck by a curious graffito: an Israel flag shaped like a heart. Someone here loves Israel and is not afraid to say so! It seemed a little odd, given the anti-Israel sentiment that predominates in Egyptian culture. I wonder if this is a more common youth sentiment, or a philosophical outlier.


Things grew steadily more tense as the evening wore on, and I received a few warnings that the police would attack soon. I did see movement in the formations that was unlike the routine shuffling of earlier, and I did see one abortive charge a little earlier in the night. Either way, the scene was growing a bit intense. I wanted to stay until the crowd was dispersed, honestly, though I knew this was a bit riskier that it was worth. I decided that the folks back home would be a bit angry with me if I got myself trampled or arrested, so I followed a chunk of the crowd which was already seeing the signals and headed into the metro tunnel. As the roads around the square were choked with police and army, the metro station below the square seemed the safest and most practical escape.

If you ever visit Cairo, definitely check out their subway system! For one pound Egyptian, the equivalent of 16 US cents right now, you can ride anywhere on the system, hopping multiple trains as you like. It was crowded but very efficient and has a pretty wide coverage area. I used it a few times while there and was very impressed by the value. *lol* Anyway, this has nothing to do with the excitement in Tahrir but I figured it was interesting enough to tack on here. I split before things got really nasty, but I got enough of a sense of what these events have been like. It was definitely one of my more fascinating Egyptian experiences and I am glad I stayed there longer to do it.

Responding To The Terror Attacks Near Eilat

What can I say about the terror attacks in Israel a couple of days ago? (Thursday, 18 August.) Obviously, I condemn violence in general, and these kind of things are no exception. Sure, Palestinians are oppressed and they have their right to resist that, but not like this. Indiscriminately killing innocents is always wrong, and firing machine guns at buses and launching anti-tank rockets at cars is the very definition of indiscriminate. Let no-one suggest otherwise: I condemn this action in the harshest terms possible, and I think its perpetrators and planners are boorish thugs.

Israel’s response, too, has moral problems. Sure, they say that they managed to kill those who ordered the attacks in Eilat, but they also killed a nine year old boy. Further, those men deserved a day in court like any other criminal. What Israel did is assassination, and assassination is murder by another name. Call a spade a spade, I say: this was murder for murder, a revenge-killing that’s simply easier than the alternatives. And now the Egyptian ambassador has been recalled from Israel because the Israelis shot over the border at some of these guys and managed to kill five Egyptian cops. Those guys were there to help secure the border because of the recent rise in violence in Sinai, and now some of them have been killed by Israeli troops in an ‘accident’.

I put that in scare quotes, not because I think the deaths were deliberate, but because of the arrogance that allowed firing over the border in the first place. This is not the only place it happened, that helicopter shooting. Two of the fleeing men from the scene of the violence in southern Israel were shot by Israeli troops while on the other side of the border. The last two were killed by Egyptian troops, so why did the Israelis need to do anything? They didn’t; this is what security deals are for. Power and ease in dealing death go hand in hand. Israel feels it has the right to act in its defence, regardless of what the neighbours think (witness the response to Turkey’s year-old request for an apology for the Mavi Marmara incident). And Israel feels it has ultimate power over the Palestinians.

But does it? Non-violent resistance is the one force that Israel could not counter. I read a comment in The Jerusalem Report where the IDF was said to be ready to fire on unarmed crowds of Palestinians if they approach settlements and do not respond to tear gas, etc. Since the settlements are eating up agricultural land and blocking the natural way to neighbouring villages, going near them is hard to avoid. I think they should test this. Sure, people will die — perhaps many people will die. We’ve seen an extreme version of this in Syria, yet Assad’s rule grows shakier every week in the face of the revolution’s perseverance. But the international outcry will force a change on a government in Israel that otherwise has no incentive to change. The occupation costs very little and it appeases extreme elements within Israel. So what if the cost went up? What if instead of being welcomed into more international organisations Israel was shunned by those it already trades with? What it the EU slapped sanctions on Israeli manufactures?

The Knesset recently passed a law forbidding Israeli citizens from taking part in any drive for boycotting, divestment, or sanctions against the state. This is a tremendous blow to free speech and a subversion of Israeli democracy. Well, since the Israelis can no long say it themselves, I will say it: International pressure is the only way things will change. The occupation costs between two and four dollars per day per Israeli citizen, depending on the figures you use. This sum is not enough to bring the majority of Israeli into the streets on the issue, so the insane minority who want to bring the messiah back through ethnic cleansing need to be stopped from outside Israel. The USA is not going to do it, certainly; the rapturous response to Netanyahu’s speech before Congress recently was shameful. So the rest of the world needs to step up. Europe is a major trading partner for Israel. Many European nations are doubtless set to vote for recognition of Palestine as an independent state in September. If the Palestinians follow that up with mass protests, and are greeted with a forceful Israeli response, what might be the next step? Time will tell.

Fascism And The Debt Crisis

There is a class war in American to-day. But despite what you hear on Fox, America is in no danger of becoming ‘socialist’; it’s in danger of becoming a fascist state. This budget argument, and the ideologues in the House, exemplify this overall trend exceedingly well. I have tried to stay out of this mess because it’s so tangential to what I’m focussing on this summer, but I’m a bit angry to-day so I’m going to rant and vent. (And yes, I’m aware that I just linked to Glenn Beck above; the man is such a raving moron that I can’t believe anyone takes a thing he says seriously. When he says “do your homework”, it’s more than apparent than no-one in his audience does.)

The United States has been drifting steadily rightward since the 1960s; earlier if you count the massive post-war military build-up as a right-wing nationalist project and, incidentally, I would. The Cold War had nothing to do with democracy — the US did more to crush democracy in the Global South than the Soviets could have dreamt of doing. The whole ideological framework of the post-war period is a contest between capital, and specifically American corporations on the global stage, and the command economies that tried to escape this system. Their solutions, of course, were idiotic; the Leninist-Marxist and Maoist governments were deluding themselves. But I’m drifting from the point, so let’s get back to fascism.

We can define this ideology of government pretty easily by noting that it always contains the following elements: it is nationalistic, in that it espouses a chauvinistic attitude towards the world and waves the flag, so to speak; it is militaristic, in that it argues for national strength and uses jingoism to maintain virility and authority in the world; it is collectivistic, in that it seeks to mobilize the whole nation, or at least, the ‘authentic’ parts; it is eugenicist, in that it favours specific policies regarding birth and death in service of a higher cause; it is populist, in that it appeals to class-conflict and conspiracy theories; and it is authoritarian, in that it aims to indoctrinate everyone with a uniform message and denies the principle of loyal opposition, so vital to democratic systems.

All of these features are in ample display in the American right, and I should not have to provide examples for that to be quite obvious. Republicans, and frequently Democrats as well, wrap themselves in the flag, worship the military and military spending, push a uniform political/social message via propagandistic media, force the government into your reproductive lives, issue divisive statements and rally people around economic issues, and frequently defy the right of an informed citizenry to criticize the government. And, wow, for populist conspiracy theories look no further than Glenn Beck; I was appalled to hear my grandmother repeat his bizarre argument that financier George Soros is a “puppetmaster”. Try to remember how the Nazis used the Jews and repeat after me: scapegoating is populist manipulation! Anyway, looking at this stuff it becomes apparent that the only common elements of fascism missing in the United States are the anti-clericalism and anti-capitalism that emerged with Italian fascism.

The most threatening aspect of this political project, and clear evidence that it is working, lies in the media. 80% of our news sources are controlled by a half-dozen large corporations, and most of the rest are trying to get big or be purchased by one. These companies are often nakedly partisan and slant the news to suit their political or financial interests. Some of this is the simple effect of market forces — capitalism dictates that any profitable enterprise find a market, and why should the purveyors of news be immune? This is why public news broadcasters exist in the first place, from BBC to NPR (which explains why Republicans would love to destroy the latter; its lack of an agenda allows it to aim for accuracy first).

The whole media edifice, and in particular the News Corp brands like Fox, exemplify that great principle of authoritarian propaganda from Goebbels to Stalin: Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth. Turning the news into entertainment, as Fox has, makes for a successful business model, but it eviscerates reality in the process. We no longer hear of the world as it is, but rather, as certain ideologues wish it was or conspiracy theorists think it is. The success of right-wing punditry in the United States would make any authoritarian state envious.

Now, as regards this current budget and debt argument in Congress … What.The.Fuck?! The Republican brand seems to have been thoroughly coöpted by slavering imbeciles, competing with each other to show how much drool they can spill from their crooked mouths. Who are these freshman “tea party” fools? It’s bad enough that so many of them are proud creationists — I mean, what century is this? The material evidence for evolution is unassailable, and it takes a wilful ignorance to pass this over in favour of bronze-age mythology that is poorly translated or understood. But again, I’m off topic: What about their economics?

The issue these Republicans have over the debt ceiling revolves around a total resistance to tax increases, when this is absolutely the way to approach closing the deficit. Austerity measures enacted swiftly in other countries have all contained a mixture of spending cuts and new revenue, and while we fall closer to default like the insolvent southern European nations, those thrifty northern Europeans have been addressing their budget issues effectively. For cryin’ out loud, check out some of the coverage of this in The Economist, a free trade-supporting publication if ever there was one. But all we hear from those “tea party” lunatics is the same old rhetoric about supply-side economics that has been debunked by practical experience again and again and again.

Even a cursory examination of economic history will show you that the closer one gets to unregulated laissez-faire the greater the risk of economic melt-down, not to mention the accumulation of wealth at the top while the bottom 90% suffer. The notion that cutting taxes leads to greater investment, and hence job growth, is complete bullshit. Why not do your homework, America, and note that every significant tax decrease (including the gargantuan one Bush passed in 2001) has been followed by a decline in investment. No kidding. Why bother with risky investments when you can sit back and rake it in? Conversely, if a smaller slice of the profit will reach their own wallets, the wealthy have usually been driven to greater investment, since rapid growth in overall income is the only way to grow their own share. Logical, no? So why is it so damned hard to understand?

As to the tax rates themselves, this is another piece of ideological crap pedalled by class-warriors who want to expropriate more wealth to themselves. You want to see higher growth? Enact sensible taxation and investment. Why do you think that the Scandinavian countries are routinely classed amongst the most economically competitive and successful on the planet, despite having some of the highest tax rates?

Let’s take a look at the top tax brackets during the greatest period of economic growth in American history, the post-war 1950s and 1960s. For taxable wages over $400,000: 1951, 91%; 1952–1953, 92%; 1954–1963, 87%; 1964, 77%. And for taxable wages over $200,000: 1965–1967, 70%. The richest individuals are taxed at less than half that last figure now, and one-third the upper brackets from this period. Yet this is when the American middle class came into existence in the first place! This is the period that created our consumer culture, gave everyone a car and a teevee and a refrigerator, and moved millions into clean suburban neighbourhoods. Where was all that wealth coming from? High corporate investment and substantial government investment in infrastructure!

Now, remind me why cutting taxes on the top earners is necessary for economic growth. Oh, wait: you can’t. Taxing the wealthy has not led to any statistically-significant drop in economic growth, and the periods of highest taxation for the wealthiest have usually been in periods of rapid overall economic growth. America, you are being lied to in the name of a class war stoked by the wealthiest and playing on your ignorance. Wake the hell up! The middle class is disappearing, real wages have stagnated since the 1970s, fewer people can actually afford their lifestyles or homes, and the infrastructure that made this country a post-war powerhouse is crumbling into dust (collapsing bridges, anyone? *sheesh*).

Take a quick look at the periods of peak unemployment and poverty through 2001. Pay attention to the years in which these recessions take place. November 1948–October 1949; July 1953–May 1954; August 1957–April 1958; April 1960–February 1961; December 1969–November 1970; November 1973–March 1975; January 1980–July 1980; July 1981–November 1982; July 1990–March 1991; March 2001–November 2001. And need I remind you that George W. Bush began his presidency with a budgetary surplus, before plunging the country into its greatest peace-time deficit spending and a massive recession — more than one, technically.

Okay, now note the conspicuous absence of Democratic presidencies in most of these periods. Where are the Kennedy-Johnson years? Carter? Clinton? Not that their policies are necessarily the issue here, since they often observed the same economic principles. My point is that there is no correlation between the so-called “tax-and-spend Democrats” and recession or unemployment — quite the opposite, in fact. If you want an economic collapse, vote Republican and your chances probably go up, statistically-speaking.

My underlying reason for delving into this is that Americans are being effectively manipulated into supporting policies that are not in their best interest and which are founded on lies. Even that patron saint of the “tea party” crowd, Ronald Reagan, raised taxes when it became apparent that his tax cuts had led directly to an economic downturn. Meaning, he was actually pragmatic and smart enough to recognize when he was wrong. Somehow the modern Republican party has missed this pragmatism and embraced a kind of mediaeval dogmatism which allows of no deviation from the sacred gospel of low taxes.

Frankly, it’s disgusting, and insulting to the many Republicans I have called friends through the years. Conservatism is an honourable political stance, no matter what you think of it personally. Propaganda and deception on the current scale is anything but honourable. The extraordinary facility which the American right has demonstrated in crafting and disseminating a message is rightly the envy of would-be dictators everywhere. And while the Global South has, since the end of the Cold War, been shaking off the authoritarian régimes often imposed in the name of American strategic interests and embracing democracy, the land of its birth is steadily shrinking from it.

What happened to the public interest? Or to integrity? We elect whores to Washington, and then wonder why everything is so jacked up for us. If you want to fix the debt issues, get the damned lobbyists off of Capitol Hill; the ghost-written legislation their servile congressmen have been passing is a big part of the problem. Next, revisit the facts about progressive tax systems and their place in economic growth. Finally, stop listening to the damned lies purveyed by corporate media!

A long time ago the World War II journalist William Shirer predicted that one day the United States might go fascist by popular vote. With each passing year I grow more convinced that it will happen in my lifetime. And I am not happy.

Israel Hits A New Low

The Bedouin of Israel’s Negev desert are its poorest citizens. On Tuesday the state had the chutzpah to file a lawsuit for 1.8 million NIS against 34 families … for the cost of bulldozing and destroying their village repeatedly.

Think about that for a minute. The state came in 27 times and destroyed their village. Each time the Bedouin returned to claim their land and rebuilt. And the state wants to hit them with the bill for this!

The Bedouin have lived in this area and had claim to the land long before the State of Israel came into existence — since the time of the Ottoman Empire. Israel has been struggling to ‘settle’ them on land of its own choosing for decades, with only moderate success. Many Bedouin live in dire poverty in neglected villages with few services and no investment. The rest live in ‘illegal’ settlements they constructed for themselves, which have no services — no water, no electricity, nothing at all. And this for having the gall to build without permits, which the state is notorious for denying to Arabs, whether citizens or not.

At issue is a village seven kilometres north of Be’er Sheva (Be’er a-Saba) called al-Araqib, whose story is repeated in places all across the Negev where Bedouin live. The IDF evicted the residents from it in 1951, promising they would be allowed to return later. On the contrary, the state declared this stretch of desert to be land reserved for agricultural use, and therefore unsuitable for zoning permits! Since the state will not issue them permits to build on their land, they have gone in repeatedly and done it anyway — since to walk away, as they state requests, and settle in one of the sanctioned ‘development towns’ would be to renounce their ancestral claim to the land.

This they will not do.

So here’s how this plays out. Al-Araqib has been destroyed now 27 times. Locals estimate that the first, most substantial demolition cost them 4.5 million NIS, and included the uprooting of all the trees! Each subsequent demolition set them back about 150,000 NIS in lost construction costs. They keep going back because they have been fighting in the courts for years trying to secure legal right to the land they lived on before they were evicted in the first place.

The state is afraid of a precedent if the courts rule in favour of the Bedouin. Since bulldozing houses and uprooting trees, repeatedly, has failed to cow them, the state has decided to try a financial squeeze. The lawsuit was filed against 34 families for, as noted above, 1.8 million NIS. This works out to about $500,000 being sought from the poorest people in Israel. So, in addition to having to pay to rebuild their homes next time, they may need to raise a small fortune in order to pay for the bulldozers that will level them. Interesting, no?

Note well that the Bedouin are loyal citizens of Israel. Unlike other Arab Muslims they serve with the IDF and assisted in the birth of the state. They try to follow the laws and request permits to build but are repeatedly denied them while Jewish settlers move into the area and make use of the land. The state repays Bedouin honour and service with racism and persecution. Keep that in mind the next time someone tells you that Israel is the only “democracy” in the Middle East.

The Lior Affair, Part III: Incitement To Violence?

Note: This article continues from this one and this one.

It is permitted to kill non-Jewish children, since they will grow up to pose a threat to Jews. That is the assertion at the heart of the outrage and arrests of several rabbis, and the subsequent uproar in the traditional community to defend them. The idea appears in a recent book, Torat HaMelekh, which aims to present a legal (halakhic) consensus on relations between Jews and Gentiles in peace and war. In this piece I will be pointing to the sources of the ruling above, and to the deep strains of racism and chauvinism that exist in corners of the Jewish world.

Now, I am not saying that Judaism is a racist religion, nor that all traditional Jews are racists. Like all faiths, Judaism exists in countless shapes and sizes, and has shifted and grown through each historical epoch. But it cannot be denied that there is a scriptural basis for extreme xenophobia and racism provided one chooses to interpret it as such. One could do the same thing for Christianity quite easily, as we saw in the Deep South during the slavery and segregation periods, when good Bible-believing whites just knew that blacks were inferior. Now the opposite is held, and rightly so, and it is defended with the same Bible — so remember that the passages and ideas I will cite here do not implicate Judaism itself as a faith or the Jewish people as a whole, but only those who choose to follow these teachings in this manner. And I would cite rabbi Lior as one such individual.

Jews and Gentiles, Race and Chauvinism

The arrests of Lior and Yosef were spurred by the publication of a book, Torat HaMelekh (The King’s Torah) by rabbi Yitzhak Shapira, which allegedly justifies the killing of non-Jews. Rabbi Lior was one of four well-regarded rabbinical authorities to have added his seal of approval to the book. The arrest was for possible incitement to violence as a result of endorsing such ideas. Given the strained situation on the West Bank, a theological justification for murder is hardly helpful. This makes an exploration of its position useful.

The central argument I will make, which I understand will be inflammatory in some circles, is that a particular strand of Jewish thinking has always contained a dangerous core of disdain for the rest of the world. One can see this lack of regard or interest in the way that very traditional (Haredi) Jews continue to remain within their own communities in every way that matters, refusing all secular education for example. That’s right — Haredi children have no exposure to history, politics, literature, etc., except that produced within their own religious tradition. And Haredi groups do not even agree on religious issues, of course, and follow different teachers. But I am off the subject; my point is that the extremely selective engagement Haredim have with the world is born, in my opinion, of a view of that world which implies that anything non-Jewish is unimportant, or even vile. This will be echoed in some of the quotes I will use below.

This view of the non-Jewish world was rather unimportant while Jews were a small minority living in other peoples’ lands. They kept to themselves, passed judgement on each other, and tried to avoid trouble with the outside world — even breaking their own restrictions when necessary in order to do so. An example of that might be Maimonides, the great philosopher and physician who welded a Platonic sensibility into mediaeval Judaism.

Following on the distinction between Jews and Gentiles founded on an interpretation of “fellows” in many of the Torah’s commandments (I will comment on this below), Maimonides wrote that for physicians “it is forbidden to heal a Gentile even for payment”. But, since this is hardly likely to make for neighbourly relations, he continues by saying “if you fear him or his hostility, cure him for payment, though you are forbidden to do so without payment.” Maimonides was the personal physician to the great Islamic conqueror Salah ad-Din, clearly a non-Jew. But could he really demand payment of Salah ad-Din?! In another passage he worms out of this, saying that treatment could be provided “even gratis, if it is unavoidable”. I point this out, not to show the flexibility of enforcement when there are threats to Jewish life, but because of the sharp distinction made between Jew and Gentile which these intellectual gymnastics sustain.

And yet Jewish writers down the centuries have tried to obscure this fact, since it was bound to incite even greater hatred for the Jews — and we all know how popular the Jews were in mediaeval Europe, right? This deception continues, as witnessed in an article I will quote a few times written by Tzipora Pinner and originally published in the Jerusalem Post on 7 July. The author, a settler in the West Bank, states flatly that “In Jewish religious law, the concept of race doesn’t exist. Any non-Jew can become a Jew through conversion. Many, including myself, have.” This may be true in one sense, but it is anachronistic — no-one had a conception of ‘race’ prior to the eighteenth century. Physical differences were noted, of course, but no-one had ‘scientifically’ divided the world into different groupings and made value judgements on their basis.

This has nothing to do with chauvinism, which has always existed in human populations and cultures. It is this which I am identifying with racism, though it necessitates we use a somewhat more flexible definition of ‘race’ as it is possible to convert to Judaism though obviously impossible to convert to being ‘white’. Now, I have been told before that, when I use the word ‘chauvinism’, I ought to define it as people seem not to use it any more, or use it accurately. I may have a technical usage in mind for my research project, but an off-the-shelf dictionary definition will do here: aggressive or fanatical patriotism, blind devotion or enthusiasm for one’s own side (as in war or sport), irrational devotion to — and belief in the superiority of — one particular group, be it race, party, sex, etc. That last is what gives rise to the most common expression including this word: ‘male chauvinist pig’. But as the definition shows, this is but one possible expression of the phenomenon.

The halakhah, Jewish religious law, is the source of the chauvinistic distinction between Jew and Gentile. One of the bases for this is the traditional interpretation of all places where the Torah refers to ‘brothers’, ‘neighbours’, ‘fellows’, ‘Man’, etc., wherein it is argued that only Jews are meant. Translations of the Bible in English do not reflect this distinction — it is why ‘brotherly love’ is taken to be a Judeo-Christian shared value, and why liberal American Jews can preach tradition and global consciousness simultaneously. It is also why Haredi Jews can scoff at such ‘un-Jewish’ notions.

Take these two pieces from Leviticus as emblematic. In 19:18 it says: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord.” Your neighbour here is a fellow Jew, and “your people” is probably the tip-off. From the same book, in 19:10, we have: “You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.” Here again, only the Jewish poor are meant. Liberal Jews can point to lines like this to support charity in general, but this is not the traditional interpretation, and it is that tradition which animates the fundamentalists, of course.

Let’s move gradually forward in time with a few more examples. This first is particularly egregious, and comes to us again from Maimonides, from his Guide for the Perplexed (book III, chapter 51). This passage is commonly omitted in English, incidentally (care to guess why?). “Some of the Turks and the nomads in the North, and the Blacks and the nomads in the South, and those who resemble them in our climates. …their nature is like the nature of mute animals, and according to my opinion they are not on the level of human beings, and their level among existing things is below that of a man and above that of a monkey, because they have the image and the resemblance of a man more than a monkey does.”

The sixteenth-century Prague rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel (known as the MaHaRaL) gives the standard interpretation of the Torah’s words about human beings, with a proto-nationalistic twist: “The perfection of creation, which relates to the human in particular, applies to Israel and not to the nations.” He goes on to indicate that comparing Israel to other nations is like comparing humans to lower animals. Hm, okay.

Israel Shahak points to the Hatanya, a fundamental Habbad text, for another good example. You know the Chabbad people, right? Some of them — the Lubavitchers in particular — have a reputation for being very welcoming of non-Jews and unusually moderate for Haredim. This book suggests that the existence of non-Jews is “non-essential” in the world (it was created for the Jews, remember?), and says that Gentiles are ‘satanic creatures’ “in whom there is absolutely nothing good”.

Taking us into the twentieth century, Avraham Yitzhak Kook was the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of the British Mandate in Palestine, and the founder of the Religious Zionist tradition to which Lior is an heir. He noted that: “The difference between the Israeli soul, its independence, its inner yearning, its aspiration, its characteristics and disposition, and the soul of all the other nations, is greater and deeper than the difference between the soul of a human being and the soul of a beast.” You can see how this builds on the Maharal’s statement above, yes? This kind of Israeli-specific nationalist chauvinism is simply an updated rendering of a traditional view.

Let’s come forward a few decades to a near-contemporary book — Leo Rosten’s The Joys of Yiddish, first published in the 1960s. The book gives terms in Yiddish and provides a helpful etymology noting the language of origin and its meaning in that language. There are two entries, however, that are blatantly falsified or misleading. The entry for shaygets, whose main meaning in Yiddish is a young Gentile male, says only “Hebrew origin”. Okay… meaning what? The entry for shiksa, the complementary term for a young Gentile female, states that the Hebrew meaning is “blemish”. That sounds bad enough, right? It is also false. He does note the correct Hebrew source word (which he writes as “sheques” showing the influence of Yiddish on his Hebrew) but is better rendered as “sheketz” in my opinion), so let’s look it up. The New Bantam-Megiddo Hebrew and English Dictionary defines sheketz (שקץ, page 240) as “unclean animal; loathsome creature”. Ouch.

This final example I will give comes from last year, in a weekly sermon of Shas spiritual leader Ovediah Yosef from October. The “Goyim [the Yiddish for non-Jews] were born only to serve us. Without that, they have no place in the world – only to serve the People of Israel… With Gentiles, it will be like any person – they need to die, but [God] will give them longevity. Why? Imagine that one’s donkey would die, he’d lose his money. This is his servant… That’s why [the non-Jew] gets a long life, to work well for this Jew.” Holy shit! And this is a widely-respected religious teacher, with hundreds of thousands of admirers. He continues: “Why are Gentiles needed? They will work, they will plow, they will reap. We will sit like an effendi and eat. That is why Gentiles were created.”

On the basis of these and many more examples I would argue that traditional Jewish teachings are deeply chauvinistic, and therefore that in a modern context in which Jews are considered a national grouping again, it is effectively racist. Sure, one can convert to Judaism, but does that do anything to mitigate the extraordinary bias against non-Jews? In traditional interpretations of the Torah, the world was created for the Jews, period. The fact that Jews have not been at the centre of everything reflects their fall from God’s favour, which the messiah will rectify when he makes the whole world ‘right’ again… right? This is the ultimate source of rabbi Lior’s racism, pointed to in my previous article.

“The Best of the Gentiles — Kill Him”

Rabbi Lior tells is: “Our law has passed every test throughout our generations”. Okay… but it is the interpretation of it throughout the generations that is now failing the test of modern statehood. Author Israel Shahak passes on an anecdote about an Israeli soldier who asks his rabbi if it is okay to kill Arab women and children in the conflict. His rabbi answers by quoting Talmud: “The best of the Gentiles — kill him; the best of snakes — dash out its brains.”

Clearly, this is not a view commonly held by Israelis, who on the whole are very good, moral people, and no more likely to delve into atrocities than anyone else. But the fringe elements who take these things both literally and arguably out of context in order to justify extreme repression, dispossession, or outright slaughter, are a problem that needs to be recognized more generally.

Consider a booklet published in 1973 by the Central Region Command of the Israeli Army and written by its then-chief chaplain Col. Avidan. He writes: “When our forces come across civilians during a war or in hot pursuit or in a raid, so long as there is no certainty that those civilians are incapable of harming our forces, then according to the Halakhah they may and even should be killed … Under no circumstances should an Arab be trusted, even if he makes an impression of being civilized … In war, when our forces storm the enemy, they are allowed and even enjoined by the Halakhah to kill even good civilians, that is, civilians who are ostensibly good.” The booklet was later withdrawn from circulation, but the rabbi was never properly disciplined for urging soldiers to disobey orders and participate in atrocities.

Israel makes much of the military’s principle of “purity of arms”, by which it means that its soldiers are held to a high moral standard. And this may be the case for the secular soldiers, but the rabbis have a different interpretation of that principle. In Tractate Sanhedrin of the Talmud there is the rule “whoever comes to kill you, kill him first”, which suggests a very active defensive posture but it still requires someone to be attacking you. Broadened into a general rule, this makes for a good principle in warfare. But the rabbis will tell you that this precept applies only to Jews, and that in wartime Gentiles may be presumed to have evil intent, almost regardless of their actions.

This is interpretation not an isolated case. In fact, there are a great many like it. Rabbi Shimon Weiser argued in the yearbook of Midrashiyyat No’am, a prestigious religious school, that: “According to the commentators of the Tosafot, a distinction must be made between wartime and peace, so that although during peace time it is forbidden to kill Gentiles, in a case that occurs in wartime it is a mitzvah [a religious duty] to kill them…” Do you see how these examples relate to the charge levelled at Torah HaMelech, that it justifies the killing of innocents, including children?

Sometimes this killing can be, um, accidental. According to halakhah the saving of a Jewish life is of supreme importance. It supersedes all other laws and restrictions save only those of murder, adultery, and idolatry. But the Gentiles are another matter entirely. For them, the Talmud essentially argues that while it is forbidden to kill them at random, their lives should not be saved, either. The most famous formulation of this occurs in Tractate Avodah Zarah: “Gentiles are neither to be lifted [out of a well] nor hauled down [into it].” That is, should you pass by a suffering person, feel free to ignore him if he is not a Jew.

I am reminded of an anecdote about a man who was hit by a car on the sabbath. Someone on the scene asked a Haredi man to call an ambulance. The man in question first enquired if the victim was a Jew. Since he was not, the man refused to break the sabbath law that keeps him from using a telephone. What does that sound like to you? Maimonides, that great mediaeval interpreter of the Talmud, put it like this: “As for Gentiles with whom we are not at war… their death must not be caused, but it is forbidden to save them if they are at the point of death; if, for example, one of them is seen falling into the sea, he should not be rescued, for it is written: ‘neither shalt thou stand against the blood of thy fellow’ – but [a Gentile] is not thy fellow.” So much for mercy and charity.

Some would go further than this. Some interpreters of the Shulhan Arukh (a commentary on Talmud) have argued that so far as Gentiles go, “one must not lift one’s hand to harm him, but one may harm him indirectly, for instance by removing a ladder after he had fallen into a crevice… there is no prohibition here, because it was not done directly.” It is perfectly permissible to remove the ladder?! So they could justify the murder of this one because they were not the direct cause, i.e., did not push him into the crevice. How they mistook removing the ladder for an indirect cause of death is a mystery I am not qualified to unravel.

The lives of Jews and non-Jews simply have different values. As mentioned above, saving the life of a Jew is a paramount duty; likewise, the murder of a Jew is one of the three most heinous sins one can commit. The Jewish authorities back in the ghetto days had the obligation to punish the Jewish murderer of a Jew most severely. But the murder of a non-Jew was not addressed by the courts at all, since it was a sin only in the sense of the Noahide Laws (those applied to all humans after the flood) and not the Mosaic (that is, the Torah). Furthermore, indirectly causing the death of non-Jews was considered no sin at all. Consider that troubling notion along with the paragraph above.

This gets worse, though. If a Gentile was under Jewish jurisdiction and murdered anyone, Jewish or not, capital punishment was called for. But if the victim and murderer were both Gentiles and the murder converted to Judaism, he was not to be punished at all! How’s that for differing values on human life?

For most of Jewish history this kind of chauvinism was largely irrelevant. Jews did not have the power to harm anyone, and in fact were the frequent victims of extreme persecution and violence. But the victims of such treatment might be expected better to resist visiting it on others. These latent strains of violent chauvinism in Jewish religious thought may be one factor among many that helps us to see why it has been so easy to rationalize the condition of Palestinians.

Returning to the book at the centre of last month’s firestorm, the points within it may be common knowledge among Haredim and many Religious Zionists, but clearly not to seculars, and certainly not to America’s Reform Jews. Tzipora Pinner tries valiantly to minimize the importance of its imflammatory content. “The fourth chapter deals with situations in which there is a conflict between saving the life of a Jew versus saving the life of a non-Jew. In the fifth chapter, we find explanations of laws pertaining to times of war, and the sixth and last chapter tackles harm to innocent people. It becomes clear that the religious laws examined mostly pertain to extraordinary circumstances of conflict involving danger to life.”

But this is precisely my point. For many, the conflict in the West Bank is an existential one, and some Religious Zionist rabbis tell their flock that the Jews have been at continuous war with the Palestinians since 1967. Extraordinary circumstances? Not to these people. And perhaps not to you or your friends, Ms Pinner, since you choose to live in a West Bank settlement.

This book might conceivably be taken as harmless, since the points it raises were already in circulation in many schools of Orthodox thinking and are well-grounded in Halakhah. What can you do about ideas that actually are a part of the Jewish tradition? (Well, I suppose you do the same as in any branch of the monotheistic, Abrahamic faiths — you adapt your interpretations to fit a more enlightened society than the bronze-age civilization that originated that tradition. *grin*)

The problem and the danger of this book lies, however, in popularising these notions in conjunction with certain ideological currents of Religious Zionism. In the most obvious formulation, consider this sequence.

A) This book argues that in wartime it is permissible to kill children as they will grow up to be enemies.
B) Some Religious Zionists argue that the Jews have been in a constant state of war with the Arabs since before the State existed.
C) Therefore, an easy halakhic defence of genocide emerges.
D) If it becomes widely accepted, it presents a moral justification — perhaps even an imperative — for immoral acts.
(I use moral in the first instance of this last point the way the religious do — following god’s law is morality, period. I use it in the second in the philosophical, secular sense.)

I should be clear: I do not think this will lead them to perpetrate mass murder in the near term, but it lays the groundwork for it when the opportunity presents itself. If someone believes that it is desirable and permissible to do the unthinkable, well.. Let’s say that I think it becomes a question of whether, and not when. And this simply… Must. Be. Stopped. That great slogan of the post-Holocaust world, “Never again”, should apply to all human beings, not just to the Jews.

The Lior Affair, Part II: The State And The Rabbis

Note: This article continues from this one.

The future of Israel is in the hands of the fundamentalists. Given the relative size of the religious population to-day this might seem absurd, but not only is their power disproportionate to numbers, those numbers are growing at a phenomenal rate. The Israeli government has long kowtowed to the rabbis and the religious in order to gain their approval — and votes — on other issues. This has been going on for as long as the state has existed, since Ben Gurion, its founding prime minister, made a deal with the religious parties in order to avoid dealing with the secular right. But that agreement, inaugurating the Status Quo, could well be the state’s undoing.

The recent arrest of a handful of prominent right-wing rabbis has exposed this fault-line clearly, but once again most of the public averts their eyes while the politicians do damage-control in order to keep the religious happy. This sad cycle plays out again and again, and the secular population throws up its hands and says, there’s nothing we can do. But in politics inaction is also an action.

Is it sacrilege to arrest rabbis? The last time I checked, Judaism did not have a priesthood any more and the rabbis were teachers, not divine agents, but it is in the nature of fundamentalism to grant extraordinary power to leaders. It is worth observing that the Shabak, Israel’s internal security service, had wanted to arrest and question Lior long before now. Until this arrest he has always been shielded by cowardly prime ministers, too dependent on the votes of the religious to risk their ire. This is a losing strategy in the long run, as it only increases their boldness and puts the state increasingly in the pocket of a fast-growing radical population that seeks to destroy its democratic ideals. The respect the Israeli government shows to a group which does not in turn respect state institutions is patently absurd.

Binyamin Netanyahu, current prime minister of Israel, responded to the arrest of rabbi Lior by noting that “Israel is a law-abiding state” where “the law includes everyone”. Would that this were true! But Netanyahu refrained from commenting on any of the more salient parts of the arrest, like the fact that Lior evaded questioning for two months out of contempt for the law. Netanyahu may make some noise right now that the law should be applied equally, while the spotlight is on and foreign media might be watching, but he will go right on with the old deferential treatment as soon as the cameras are gone.

Much more honest are the Knesset members for the National Union — the most right-wing party list in the Knesset. Its leader, Yaakov Katz, responded to the arrests by threatening revenge! This from a member of parliament, mind you. “We will get back at whoever is responsible”, by which he means not only the state prosecutor Shai Nitzan, but the prime minister as well. “Netanyahu and those under his command will be remembered forever in disgrace for the arrest of this genius of Israel,” Katz said referring to Lior.

“All those who speak morning and night about the destruction of the State of Israel, informing on our soldiers to the United Nations and to our enemies, extremist left-wing writers who say explicitly that the settlers must be harmed, they have immunity. The prosecutor’s office would never issue an arrest warrant against them. I say that it will ultimately even be clear to Shai Nitzan that the strong people of all the generations are the loyal Maccabees of God and Torah and we will win, big time. All of those committing those criminal acts ostensibly in the name of the law will be brought to justice.”

Wow. So, anyone who doesn’t agree with radical settler policy and the desire to impose Halakha (religious law) on the nation are traitors who will be punished when these “real Jews” have control of the country. Another MK from National Union, Michael Ben Ari, told a crowd of demonstrators that “the Torah will not bow before any law” and that anyone “who does not understand that is igniting an inferno. There is no supertanker that can put out the fire that will start.” Do you see yet why I think that a two-state solution would push Israel towards civil war?

Contempt for the law is an increasingly loud refrain from the rabbinate, and hundreds of them espouse views that line up with the politics of National Union. These men are on the public payroll and their salaries are paid by ordinary Israelis who are often disgusted by the racist and homicidal comments that come from them. Is it too impertinent of me to ask why?

Chief rabbis Yona Metzger and Shlomo Amar condemned the arrest of Lior as a “grave offense to an important rabbi’s honor.” No respect for the rule of law there, eh? Looking beyond the current situation, the rabbi of Tsfat ruled that it is strictly forbidden to rent apartments to Arabs and twenty other town rabbis publically supported this obviously illegal decree. Half a year later the state’s attorney general has still done nothing to protect the rights of Arab citizens. Deference. Other rabbis have prohibited the employment of Arabs, which has also gone unprosecuted. Deference. It seems that if it comes from the mouth of a rabbi the state is unwilling to enforce the law.

The second rabbi who had refused to turn up for questioning, Yaakon Yosef, the son of Shas spiritual leader Ovediah Yosef, was arrested shortly after Lior. Like Lior, Yosef was questioned for less than an hour, then released. In response there were demonstrations in Jerusalem on the 3rd and 4th; hundreds attended the first, thousands came out the next day. Some of these people were a bit, um, unhinged. Two passing cars carrying Arabs were attacked and one of the passengers needed medical attention. Was anyone arrested? No. Police simply pushed the protesters back onto the sidewalks, for which they were called Nazis. Methinks this crowd forgets who it was that inspired the riots on Kristallnacht; if anyone is mirroring Nazi tactics it is their own leadership.

At the protest the next day Dov Lior reminded the crowd that “the role of rabbis is to guide and instruct the public.” Indeed, sir, which is why your comments are considered an incitement to violence! Consider what these men were arrested for — endorsing a book which argued that it was permissible to murder non-Jewish children. “The role of Israel’s rabbis is to explain the Torah,” Lior told the crowd. “The words of the Torah must not be distorted. Israel’s rabbis must express their views without fearing that some may not like it. The people of Israel’s power is its spiritual basis.” Ah, yes; it’s okay to argue for racism and genocide when you have the Torah to back you up!

At the same demonstration Knesset member Katz warned that the settlers were strong and multiplying, and that they were a threat to the state prosecutor and his secular allies. He said that one day the settlers would run the state, at which point they would find out who besmirched the good names of their rabbis and take revenge. And this is precisely my point: One day the settlers will run the state if their power is not curbed now, while their numbers are manageable. If Israel cannot reign in the religious right in time, they will destroy the liberal democracy that Ben Gurion built and substitute a religious tyranny that will make Iran’s look tame.

To Be Continued…

Someone’s Full Of Gas

A border conflict between Israel and Lebanon is heating up, with Moshe Ya’alon, the vice premier of Israel, now claiming that Lebanese border proposals are a deliberate plot by Iran and Hezbollah to stir up trouble with Israel. This despite the Lebanese maritime border proposal being sent to the UN last August and approved by the United States after an expert review, whereas the Israeli proposal is only being put together now. I don’t know about you, but to an outsider it almost looks like Israel might be stirring up trouble. The jury is out on this one, but it’s a curious issue.

At stake are undersea gas fields worth potentially billions of dollars. The border area at stake does not include the Leviathan and Tamar fields already being developed by Israel, but exploration is underway in the area Lebanon has claimed and Israel seems determined to hold onto as much of that gas as possible. I say this in part because of the circumstances, since it is entirely possible that the proposal submitted last year was intended to provoke Israel, despite the aforementioned review and approval.

What tickles my brain is that Israel is rejecting the possibility of third-party negotiations over the border dispute (Lebanon and Israel do not have diplomatic relations). The Israelis are instead calling on the Lebanese to sit down and discuss all of their border issues, which would include the contentious Sheba Farms in the Golan Heights. This is a condition that Lebanon cannot possibly agree to with Hezbollah in the government.

And here is where Israel feels able to make a case about the gas fields, since Lebanon is clearly in the wrong on the matter of Sheba Farms. Within Syrian territory at the time of the 1967 War, Israel conquered the area along with the rest of the Golan. Many years later Hezbollah fabricated a claim that Sheba Farms was actually Lebanese territory, thereby giving Nasrallah a pretext to continue his pig-headed and pointless war with Israel.

After initially denying the claim, Syria later accepted the Lebanese position for the same dirty reasons as Hezbollah. The United Nations, however, has firmly ruled that the region was Syrian in 1967 and that Israel was not required to pull out of it during the evacuation of southern Lebanon in 2000. Hezbollah’s position on Sheba Farms is a self-serving load of crap, and now that they play a big rôle in government, it is a Lebanese piece of crap, too.

This is why it’s entirely possible that Israel is right about the border claim that Lebanon submitted last year. Hezbollah may be looking for an excuse to attack Israeli gas exploration assets, and justify its continuing war for Lebanese “honour” against the nonexistent Israeli “occupation”. We might never know, however, since Israel’s position on negotiation is going to make agreement impossible. Sitting down to discuss all of the border issues could undermine Hezbollah’s reason for being, and how many militant groups have ever found it easy to hang up the guns? ETA and the IRA both carried on long, long after they had lost most public sympathy even among their own people.

Any way you slice it, this maritime border issue smells fishy…

The Lior Affair, Part I: Lior And Religious Zionism

Several prominent rabbis were recently questioned (briefly) in Israel, and two of them arrested (also briefly) as they had contemptuously refused to show up for said questioning. The topic was their endorsement of a recent book which discussed the differences between Jews and non-Jews, and which was taken as an incitement to violence against Arabs. The story is complicated but highlights the sharp divide between the growing religious right and any semblance of civil democracy.

This is a hard article for me to write, not least because it directly impacts my own work. You might think that would make it easier, but in fact it is difficult to sum up my views on these arrests in a way that will not seem unduly prejudicial — and as much as I despise what these radical rabbis represent, I want my comments to be somewhat measured. (Though as you, dear reader, may know by now, I am not one to hold back my anger at chronically stupid and dangerous persons.)

Three aspects of this affair interest me. The first is the brevity of questioning by the government, showing an overall spinelessness when dealing with these figures, even as what little action was taken is castigated in some quarters as overreaching the state’s prerogative. The second is the foundation of that criticism, which suggests that rabbis are not subject to human law because of their rôle in the interpretation of God’s law — the Torah. And finally there is the content of the accusation itself which the state has leveled, and seemingly abandoned: Are these rabbis guilty of incitement to violence or not?

In this introduction, and the first of four articles I will put up on the subject, I am going to talk mainly about Dov Lior, the powerful rabbi at the centre of this mess. A brief second piece will talk about the responses, or lack of response, of the Israeli government to violent rhetoric in general, and the deference shown to Lior in particular. A third will dig into the content of the book that Lior endorsed, trying to determine why the government decided to act this time. A fourth and final article will look at the complex nature of Israeli democracy and the rôle of free speech in all of this.

Among his many positions, Lior is the chief rabbi of Hebron and Kiryat Arba in the southern West Bank. That deserves some explication right away, for Kiryat Arba is the most theologically radical of the West Bank settlements and has produced its most notorious terrorists, and the Jewish community of Hebron is a tiny enclave of fascists and racists surrounded by tens of thousands of Arabs and protected by the Israeli taxpayer. This is not a charitable way for me to describe these people, and certainly they are moved by a deep sense of Jewish commitment and piety; but they are also pigs whose devotion to their own superiority ought to free us from some of our liberal obligation to respect their views.

(I fully support freedom of speech, incidentally, including their right to believe or say what they wish. What I do not condone is the violent and terroristic tactics these thinkers encourage and their followers engage in, nor their reliance on the state and military to defend them, which implicates all of Israel in their hatred.)

Lior is what we call a Religious Zionist and was a student of Zvi Yehuda Kook, son of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, founder of the Merkaz HaRav seminary in Jerusalem. That site is the incubator for Religious Zionism, a movement which melded the pioneering ethos of Zionism with the messianic spirit of traditional Judaism. The settler movement was born directly out of this synthesis. In a nutshell, the followers of the Ravs Kook do not consider themselves to be ‘stealing’ land from Palestinians; they feel that they are ‘sanctifying’ and ‘redeeming’ it, because the more land that is settled by Jews, the more likely is the messiah to come. (Or so they teach.)

As a spiritual light of the settler movement, Lior has been at the forefront of numerous controversies in the past thirty years, not least of which is directly inspiring (and potentially encouraging) the Goldstein massacre of 29 worshipers in Hebron in 1994, and the Rabin assassination in 1995.

Indeed, he considers the perpetrators of those crimes to be heroes of the Jewish people. Other rabbis have testified that Lior was the source of rabbinical rulings calling Rabin a traitor who endangers Jewish lives (for which the punishment is death). After Goldstein slaughtered 29 Muslims at prayer and wounded over a hundred others Lior decreed that he was “holier than all the martyrs of the Holocaust”. Both the assassin and the mass-murderer were regular visitors to Hebron to see the rabbi, but not only has Lior never been brought to account for his likely part in driving these men to commit murder, he continues to draw a salary from the state.

Worse still, I have read statements from convicted murderer Menachem Livni that directly tied Lior to the “Jewish Underground”, a terrorist organisation once run by Livni. According to Livni, Lior was more than a spiritual inspiration, though his rabbinical rulings justifying the killing of innocents certainly helped. Livni stated that Lior was involved in the operational details of the organisation, helping to decide when and how they would act. In most countries this would be enough to arrest Lior and investigate the charges.

Dov Lior is a demonstrable and vicious racist. He has argued many times for “ethnic cleansing” of the West Bank, suggesting that the Arabs simply be herded over the border, and conflating Arab civilians with terrorists on a regular basis. He has also ruled that Jewish women could not use donated non-Jewish sperm in artificial insemination (despite Jewishness stemming solely from the mother under Jewish law). He claimed that any resultant child would have the “negative genetic traits that characterize non-Jews” and that “Gentile sperm leads to barbaric offspring”. Lovely, eh? He’s a ripe old Nazi, all right.

And, like the Nazis of old, he has no respect for democratic institutions. Consider this delicious quote, where he calls democracy the “idol worship of our time. Once there was Baal and Ashera, now there is democracy. Instead of being a form of government, it’s become a value in itself. This is fine for people who live a life of licentiousness, because they want no limit on themselves or their appetites.” In my third article on this topic we will have occasion to explore the religious roots of this racism and lack of respect for democracy.

But these are the views at the heart of the settler enterprise. This is not one crazy old man; he is an inspiration to countless current and potential terrorists, and there are many other rabbis out there as twisted as Lior. Worse, he is a hero to members of the Likud party and government, not to mention some of the minor parties in the current coalition, who have never let go of their vision of Greater Israel. Whether we like it or not, he is a face of contemporary Israel, and if there is to be peace it will have to come with a cultural reckoning. Given their contempt for the state and civil society, be under no illusions that these people would strike out at any government who dared surrender the West Bank to a Palestinian state.

This article is continued here: The Lior Affair, Part II: The State And The Rabbis