Category Archives: History

The Egyptian Museum

Note: This post will contain links to graphics in the public domain, as I was unable to take my own photographs this day.

All right, we left off with my recounting of the Giza trip, right? Sorry for the slow updates lately — I have been busy as hell both in Egypt and since I got back to Israel/Palestine. I was just up in the Nablus area for a few days and will have some stories to tell there when I reach it chronologically, hehe! I will work hard to get caught up when I get home. Anyroad, back to Egypt…

The day after Giza I set out early in the morning to do what I had wanted to do the previous day: visit the Egyptian museum. First, however, I needed to make a detour all the way back to Giza to retrieve my ATM card! The bastard machine in the Banque Misr branch across from the Sphinx had eaten it, much to my chagrin. This, therefore, was a titanic waste of time and cab far, but whatever — the day at the pyramids was still worth it.

I had the cab drop me off at the museum once back in Cairo. I had remembered to leave my camera back in the hostel, as the museum no longer allows photos inside and will hold your camera for the length of your visit if you bring one (and I am not particularly trusting). The outside of the museum is a huge garden space with various hunks of antiquity just lying around. This is as good an introduction as any to the way this museum works. There are relatively few signs or notes of any kind on the works inside, with even important pieces often going unlabelled. I pity anyone who wanders through here without a good grasp of ancient Egyptian history, as they will get only a half-assed appreciation of it from wandering. A bit of awe at the pieces, sure, but without the context how do you know what you’re looking at or why you should care?

Egyptian Museum, aerial

Egyptian Museum, façade

A good case in point is the first major piece I encountered inside. Well, the first to really jump out at me and make me smile like an idiot schoolboy. *lol* plopped into one corner near the end of the first big gallery, partly in shadow, is a gigantic dark granite stele. For anyone who doesn’t know what a stele is, it’s just a monolithic slab, usually quite large, that is inscribed with something. Technically a gravestone could be called a stele, but it’s more appropriate to the sort of commemorative signs that Pharaohs liked to scatter about to glorify themselves.

This one was more historically meaningful to me than most things in the room, since it is the only one to mention the ancient Israelites. In fact, the Merneptah Stele may be the only reference to Israel that will ever be found in ancient Egyptian documents, and one of the few pieces of corroborating evidence that such a people existed. Tellingly, it does not use the sign that Egyptian writers used to denote a state or kingdom, but rather a people, suggesting that what was encountered was a kind of tribal confederation. This matches the archaeological evidence in the land of Israel which, contrary to what Bible-believing nudniks would have you thinking, shows no evidence of large-scale migration a-la the Exodus story, nor of a large and unified kingdom of David and Solomon. These things are highly embellished myths used to justify later political positions. But I’m off-topic; the point is that I was able to touch, that is, run my hands over the lettered surface, the only truly ancient document that mentions the Israelites. (The Torah is not, per se, an ancient -document- since it has been copied countless times by hand.)

The Merneptah Stele

The early rooms were filled with humongous statuary and fragments of same, and these I could pass through pretty quickly while making few mental notes. It was impressive, sure, but most of it was so big that its story was either easy to see or not even very interesting. *lol* There were several pyramidion, which are the polished caps that fit atop pyramids. Very few pyramids still possess these, and none of those at Giza do (those are lost). The ones in the museum are from much smaller, lesser known pyramids (there are a damned lot of these scattered around in Egypt).

Museum statuary


The next thing to really take my breath away was a large display case of cuneiform tablets. If anyone doesn’t know what cuneiform is you fail my world history class! It is perhaps the first human writing system, and certainly the oldest we have found. Its origin lies with the temple hierarchies of ancient Sumeria in southern Iraq more than 5,000 years ago. It was produced by pressing a wedge-shaped stylus into wet clay and then baking the stuff. Cuneiform tablets are found all over the Middle East, betraying the extent of early trade networks and the long influence of the system itself, which was the source of inspiration for many later ones. Anyway, what strikes one on looking at cuneiform tablets is just how small they are, with nearly any of them fitting into the palm of your hand. I have told classes this but I have seen very few in person.

Cuneiform letter

The last exhibit on the ground floor that I will mention (the cool stuff is mostly upstairs) is an alcove filled with things from the reign of Akhenaton. This is another figure y’all ought to be familiar with, and if you’re not I will now bore you… Akhenaton was born and coronated as Amenhotep IV in the 18th Dynasty, somewhere around the 14th c. BCE. He is famous for dissing the gods of Egypt, including Amun-Re, in favour of a new god called Aten. This is considered by scholars to be perhaps the first example of a monotheistic or henotheistic faith. Over the course of his reign he gradually restricted the worship of Egypt’s other gods, promoting the cult of Aten, the sun-disc, as their only replacement.

We know a lot about this almost-forgotten Pharaoh (his successors were not keen to preserve his memory!) because of a massive cache of cuneiform documents uncovered in Akhetaten, now called Amarna, the city he built to honour Aten. (Incidentally, the cuneiform tablet pictured above is from the Amarna cache.) Anyway, this alcove had his coffin, statues of him and his mother and queen, and other nifty things. Oh, last bits of cool trivia. Ever heard of Nefertiti? A bust of her is one of the more iconic images of ancient Egypt and that was his wife. And Tutankhamen was his son. Yes, that Tutankhamen — the one with all the gold. *lol*

Akhenaten and Family



Heading upstairs I first stopped off in the rest room. Given the huge foreign crowds this place gets I was pretty sure I would find ‘normal’ facilities… I was mistaken. Egyptians do not use toilet paper. Think about that for a second while I go on… *lol* Many Egyptian toilet facilities, particularly the older ‘squatting’ variety, have hoses or bucket-and-faucet combinations so that you can wash yourself with water. But Western-style toilets seem to lack even this functionality, so that you have a choice between using a squat toilet or not being able to wash your arse at all. Fortunately I am a clever traveller and choose a third option — I always have a roll of TP in my backpack!

Exhibits upstairs are broken into tonnes of smaller rooms, all partly open to the main space so that you can easily flow in and out of them from a number of directions. I will mention here some of the things that stood out to me in a list-format so that we can move along more quickly!
— Poison-tipped arrows of wood and bone. Cool!
— Lots of small artefacts from Menes’ tomb and the First Dynasty! (Menes is the first Pharaoh, the guy who unified Upper and Lower Egypt.)
— Intricately carved alabaster fragments from Zozer’s pyramid.
— A Huge collection bowls, plates, etc from Saqqara.
— An extraordinary number of painted wooden mummy cases.
— Models of Egyptian infantry and Nubian archers.
— Massive collections of papyri in hieroglyphics, hieratic script, demotic script, and Greek. Some of this stuff was just awesome to look at, including the world’s oldest medical manuscripts, and some hymns to Jesus!
— Carved pieces of ivory from lower down in Africa.
— Bronze and iron daggers and swords and tools, wow!
— A huge 3000-yr-old wooden ladder?!
— Three nested coffins and a sarcophagus for Yuya, some noblewoman that I couldn’t remember.
— A mummified woman from the 2nd c CE with Roman-style portrait painted on the wrappings, showing a nifty kind of cultural syncretism.
— Gilded mummy case of a girl, also painted and from the 2nd c CE.
— In fact, an entire rooms full of various mummies and mummy cases!

Several separate rooms exist upstairs along the walls. One of these was filled with jewellery and I must say, it was indescribable. The collection includes two of of Rameses II’s bracelets and some massive gold collars. There was also an animal-mummy room and a room of treasures from the royal tombs of Tanis. These may well be the only things I didn’t get to! I was moving quickly since I read and grasp what I’m seeing quickly enough that I was more interested in seeing as much as I could than in sitting to reflect on individual exhibits.

Another room that I found amazing required a separate admission fee, which makes sense given what it must take to preserve these things indefinitely. This was the royal mummy chamber. The corpses of some of the most famous rulers in Egyptian history have survived, despite their tombs being looted in antiquity. The collection included Rameses II, Seti I, Amenhotep I, Tuthmosis IV, Tuthmosis II, Amenhotep II (trivia: he was 1.83 metres tall), Merenptah, Tuthmosis III, and Hatshepsut!!! Anyone recognise the first and last in this list? The first is one of the greatest builders, responsible for the massive temple at Karnak and that huge monument at Abu Simbel that was carved out of a hillside.

Rameses II’s mummy

Giant Rameses II statue

Abu Simbel

The last exhibit in the museum, and one of the last things I saw, was the collection of Tutankhamun artefacts. As above I will format this as a list to save time, and I will refrain for posting links to photos since, well, if you haven’t seen images of Tutankhamun’s treasures you have been living in a deep well underground since the 1930s. *lol*
— The three huge nested boxes for his sarcophagus.
— Three gilt ceremonial beds.
— Lots of toy little boats — an afterlife navy or a child’s things?
— The alabaster and gold canopic jars (holding his innards after mummification).
— Two mummified foetuses, so I guess his kids were miscarried or stillborn? Too much inbreeding…
— An amazingly intricately painted throne in gilded wood.
— Various crooks, bows, and flails.
— Several chariots, so he could kick ass in the afterlife.
— Tonnes of fancy necklaces and collars to impress the dead ladies.
— Both gilt and jewelled coffins to hold his mummy (this guy had six layers of stuff surrounding his body inside the tomb.
— And, of course, that iconic gold funerary mask that everyone and his uncle has seen. Interestingly, there’s writing on the back of it, both inside and out, which I had never seen photographed.

All right, I am tired. *phew* So I’m gonna wrap this up with a few last observations. Strangely, the museum gift shop at the exit was completely empty — just shelves. Dunno if it was new or what. There was one truly huge Asian tour group that moved in rapid single file and I have no idea how the people in the back heard a damn thing, or if they cared! Finally, there were a large number of European or American tourists walking around in very immodest clothing. Come on, people — it’s a Muslim country, show a little more respect than cleavage! Not that I mind seeing what you want to share, but it’s not really nice to trample on other peoples’ cultural values so forcefully.

That night I went out to a Sufi concert with a couple of people and then for beers at the Greek consulate, but I am tired and will have to write that up another time. I will post this and the story from Tahrir, and if there’s time before I fly out I will back up and tell you about that night.


The Giza Plateau, Part Two

This is a continuation of the previous post. It was broken in two because of the number of photographs.

We then moved down the remains of an ancient roadway between Khafre’s pyramid and the Sphinx, which appeared to be made of huge blocks of granite worn down and rounded by millennia of sand and feet. I was as impressed at this road as at anything else, which seemed to perplex my guide. Hey, I like both civil engineering and the ancient world — sue me. The approach to the Sphinx was quite lengthy but scenic. Coming up behind it was unforgettable, though.

Movin' on down the line... Look there in the distance: can you see our goal?

But first, another extraordinary piece of ancient engineering that doesn’t usually grace the covers of books and posters. We came up a giant hole! That’s right, a hole — actually there were three of them but two were genuinely astonishing. These things were dug deep, deep down into solid bedrock in order to create an underground channel from the Nile river, which is not close by! It was an aqueduct, intended to channel fresh water to the building sites for the workers, which is quite clever as well as practical. Just as with the pyramids, it is difficult to express just how big this hole was unless you’re standing there, but here are a couple of photos all the same.

What's this? A giant hole in the ground?

Now this is impressive -- right into the bedrock to pipe water from the Nile. This would still be difficult now!

After the aqueduct I stopped at one of the well-preserved buildings from the funerary complex and workers’ sites. Many of these are closed off by iron grills and gates, but this one was wide open and beckoning… so do you really think I hesitated for a second? *lol* My guide seemed perplexed, but I pulled the MAG light out of my backpack and in I went. After a while it’s too choked full of garbage to proceed without great risk of snake-bites, so I crawled back out and went back to exploring things that wouldn’t get my killed!

Who can resist an open door? Not me.

"Snakes... Why did it have to be snakes?"

Looking back up the causeway to Khafre's Pyramid.

And then… I came upon the Great Sphinx of Giza. *miaow*!

The main body of the Sphinx is carved from the bedrock, putting it at a much lower level than the other objects on the Giza plateau. This also had the effect of burying it in sand once the Old Kingdom civilization had faded, leaving only the head and upper back exposed for most of the last four millennia. These are, as a consequence, noticeably more eroded. The sections that have only been unearthed in the contemporary period are astonishingly well preserved, and casing stones that cover the kitty’s tail and hind quarters look brand new.

Sneaking up on kitty from behind...

Kitty's curling tail. There's a small hole on the bottom left, possibly from one of the lunatic attempts to 'prove' this monolith has hidden chambers inside.

From the side both degrees of preservation are clearly displayed. I don’t know what the guide book I saw was talking about when it said most travellers were surprised and thought the Sphinx was smaller than they’d imagined — this thing is massive, and an extraordinary feat of carving and decoration for the time. I was in awe of it, personally.

Pushing my camera through the bars to get a side view of the Great Sphinx.

Great Sphinx, Great Pyramid... Isn't this great?!

Coming around the front I was disappointed to see the view blocked by a bunch of new construction designed to protect the site. There is a large stele in between the great kitty’s paws that I was hoping to see but could not. I did, however, have to turn away scads of hawkers selling fake scarabs and wooden pyramids and other nonsense tchotchke. We moved a little way down the slope and turned back to look. Amazing.

Kitty, Khafre, Menkaure, and Me!

'Hey, check it out!' Liam standing on a broken stone, striking a deliberately-stupid pose.

More of the same... Liam and his equally-arrogant camel.

One last shot of father and son -- Khufu and Khafre's Pyramids, with kitty in the shadows.

At this my tour was over. We rode back into town and stopped at a Banque Misr location for me to withdraw cash. The damned machine ate my card! This apparently happens if you do not immediately yank it out. As the bank was closed, this was a real pickle. I would need to return the next day to retrieve it (which I did), but it definitely put me in a foul mood which was pretty obvious to everyone. We returned the mounts and entered the shop so that I could pay for my tour.

It was another perfumery and I was encouraged to go and see the jasmine process and how perfumes were made, etc., in their ‘museum’, but I politely declined several times. Their clear objective was to entice sales, but I was both irritable and was developing a fierce headache from the powerful scents in the shop. I finished the water they offered (“Arab hospitality”, though the beverage choice was mine) and paid the bill — which was reduced still further given my obvious unease over having to return and the added expense of the car to do it.

Following this I allowed myself to be talked into visiting the papyrus ‘museum’. The whole network of separate businesses that collaborate to milk tourists was pretty impressive in itself, and anyway I was curious enough to go and see what they had. It was predictably a big shop full of massively over-priced paintings on papyrus. I endured a demonstration of how papyrus was made, identified, taken apart, and stained darker. It was actually kinda nifty. After that the haggling began.

I made it clear repeatedly that I had very little money left, was a poor student, had already dropped a wad of cash for a camel ride, etc. This was all part of the game for them and they played along. I did end up buying two things, but I named my own price in the end. It was clearly more than they were worth material & labour-wise, but less than a quarter of the opening offer (which was already a lot lower than the marked price). I’ve never been comfortable with the art of haggling, but I can get into the spirit of it when I want something badly enough.

With gift in bag I headed back to my waiting car. It is not unusual in Egypt to hire a taxi for the day or for hours at a time, and while you do whatever they just wait around. Life’s somewhat slower pace probably makes this bearable but to me it seems a miserable way to spend the day, and for very little cash. My ride out cost me about a hundred pounds, which paid for two 30-minute drives in traffic, several hours of waiting around, finding a restaurant for me afterwards, helping with my order in an unfamiliar setting (vegetarian, after all), and then waiting for that, all before finally bringing me home. Go ahead and look up the conversion rate from LE to USD. I’ll wait.

Got it? Okay, now can you believe that guy spent the entire day working for me to take home 17 bucks? And seemed happy to do it; I didn’t hardly push him on the price at all. To drive home the point I will give you a small taste of the filth and poverty in Cairo…

A slice of modern Giza, shot earlier in the day.

Speaking of that dinner, though. We drove around for a while talking about possibilities before finally taking me to a fish-boat: one of many permanently-moored ships along the Nile bank that served as classy restaurants. This place was really quite nice. I had a hunk of fish, rice, Egyptian salads, several bread rolls, two sodas, and paid a whopping 12$.

The fish-boat upper deck (I ate in the dining room below).

Sunset on the Nile, from the upper deck of the restaurant.

I got home, paid the cabby, made arrangements to meet there at 0900 the next morning, and went upstairs. Later that night I noticed a nice-sized bruise on my right shin which I must have picked up somewhere during the day — I have no memory of it at all. But over the nine days from then ’til now it has done some interesting things! I will finish with a shot of my short-term souvenir from the Giza plateau. This one will fade and be forgotten, but the photos and memories of those ancient wonders will last a long, long time.

Right shin with haematoma and yellowing bruise. Hrm. Damned camels and pyramids.

Postscript to the mosquito article below. The problem continued unabated despite all efforts, and by the time I left I had long since quite counting them. If you look at just the foot/calf in the photo above, now the entire ankle is covered in bites — more than twenty clustered right there — and I counted 69 bites now visible in the region photographed two posts prior to this one. I would update the shot but … I LOST MY CAMERA ON THE WAY BACK TO ISRAEL. *lol*

The Giza Plateau, Part One

This post is broken into two parts to accommodate a larger number of photographs.

I did not set out to go to Giza last Tuesday. I had not even bothered with sunblock initially, as I was planning to go to the Egyptian Museum. On arriving, however, I discovered that they have special Ramadan hours and close very early. I had no interest in paying for a ticket and spending one hour in the museum, so scratch that.

But I met outside the museum an older gentleman who worked with some people in Giza to sucker people in for tours. It was all kind of obvious, but this seemed a good part of the ‘tourist experience’, so I was game. We hopped in his car, which, I discovered to my chagrin, was the worst p.o.s. car in the world, and headed off to Giza, about half an hour’s drive.

Western Cairo is filled with endless towers of red brick that are perpetually unfinished and being expanded upward. This is where the poorest resident live, including a large number of Bedouin. It was fascinating to shoot down the highway past building after building like this. Much of this highway stretch actually had us crossing the Nile, which was truly amazing to see. We paused once on the side of the highway to let me take a photo, which was a cute idea (not mine).

It's me! On a freeway! Above the Nile!

If you think you've got it rough...

El Giza itself is pretty much one gigantic slum which, given the nature and value of the treasures behind it, faintly surprised me. The streams I saw were full of garbage, the streets were bad even by Cairene standards, the houses were crumbling and awful… It should come as no surprise that many people here make their living bilking the tourists — it’s hard to imagine being able to make a comparable wage doing anything else.

Speaking of bilking tourists… So we arrived at this business with which my driver apparently has some arrangement and I am immediately set upon by several persons with varying degrees of weak English. I proceeded to negotiate a deal to see the pyramids by camel — I was offered a choice of camel or horse, but who would pick a horse over the camel? *lol*. There were three packages and I worked on the middle one, taking its price down by more than a third before guilt set in.

Hopping onto a camel is an interesting experience. Given their prodigious height you do not mount with them standing, but they do not stand with all four legs together so you have to lean back while it is getting up or down, which feels odd the first time it happens. We rode out through the town and into the Western Desert, past the slave tombs, and up onto the Giza Plateau. The ride was uncomfortable for a while but I made my peace with the camel and got into it. And the view was amazing.

Peeking over a wall at backhoe-archaeology.

I am about to ride a camel through that gate. And yes, it is as low as it looks... *blink*

If I understand correctly there are slaves entombed beneath that hill.

Oh, to be lost out there.... *yikes* From here on it's desert all the way to the Libyan border and beyond.

We came up in between the pyramids of Menkaure and Khafre. The former is the youngest and at 66m by far the smallest of these three ancient marvels. It retains a good bit of the original casing stones along the bottom edges, which surprised me since it would seem this was the easiest of the pyramids to strip. (For those unaware, the pyramids did not look like they do now until the Islamic period. They were originally encased in polished limestone such that they were totally smooth and would sparkle in the sun. This was stripped away over the centuries to build palaces and mosques. Bastards.)

The latter looks to be the tallest but is not. Khafre’s pyramid sits higher on the bedrock and it still retains a bit of its casing at the top — the only pyramid to do so. This makes it look higher than the Great Pyramid of Khufu, but that monster stood 146m while his son Khafre’s was 136m. (It should be noted that the heights I’m giving are original; all are smaller due to the lost casing stones and erosion on the softer stone that’s now exposed.)

The Pyramid of Menkaure in the distance.

Cheesy camel shot 1: Liam in front of the Great Pyramid of Khufu, trying to look casual.

Cheesy camel shot 2: Liam close-up with Khafre and Khufu's pyramids visible.

A shot of the Great Pyramid. Look in the bottom right and see if you can tell why I picked this one.

Something struck me on seeing these in person. Has anyone else seen pictures of Khafre’s pyramid used as the Great Pyramid? The cap on top is a dead give-away. I had forgotten that it wasn’t on Khufu’s, honestly, and I could swear I’ve seen this mistake made in films or suchlike. Perhaps the illusion of greater height fools even modern man? *lol* Anyway, Khafre’s pyramid was awesome to see up close. And I got to climb up on it, though they wouldn’t let me go further than the third block.

Coming up on Khafre's Pyramid. Note the limestone casing that is still present near the top.

Rubble at the base of Khafre's pyramid.

Liam, having climbed up to the third level of Khafre's Pyramid. This was fun; wish I could have kept going...

Close-up of Menkaure's Pyramid showing the large entrance aperture.

Gazing at the Great Pyramid across the rubble field.

Hopping down, I was confronted by the first cluster of people hawking cheap souvenirs to rip off the tourists. I declined each with a carefully put ‘la shukran’ and moved on. But more interestingly, I ran into two soldiers on camelback. One of them indicated that I should take a picture of them as a souvenir, and I thought, why not? No sooner had I done so but they had approached me insistently demanding payment. I refused, as the notion was silly in the extreme.

Their response was to use physical intimidation, pushing their mounts ever closer to my body, nearly knocking me over at one point (I was on foot at the time). This attempt to extort money through the threat of violence must work with most people. In this case it led to a shouting match with my guide and relentless stonewalling on my part. Eventually they left, glaring the whole time. Assholes. In joking vengeance, here is the photograph I refused to pay for!

Steal this photo!

Liam, with Khufu's Pyramid rising behind. Note the structure in front, which contains one of Khufu's excavated funerary barges -- perhaps the oldest surviving boat in the world.

Liam on the funeral causeway, with Khafre's Pyramid towering behind.

This story is continued in the next post.

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.

Visiting Bethlehem And Al-Aroub Camp

On Sunday I took off to Jerusalem in the early afternoon, though I was considerably delayed and had expected to leave in the morning. I got to the central bus station in J’lem in decent time, then made my way to the street and looked for the right bus to take to East Jerusalem. I ended up getting help in Hebrew from a Filipino immigrant; this is an increasingly common sight in Israel. That bus dropped me at Jaffa Gate instead of Damascus Gate, but that was fortuitous as I wanted to wander into the souq and buy a few tee-shirts anyhow (some of the ones I brought turned out to be poor choices).

Now, my intent was to take a bus down to Bethlehem and there meet Jared, but he ended up cancelling at the last minute — i.e., when I called to let him know I was in J’lem and on my way to Damascus Gate to pick up the Bethlehem bus! This turned out not to be a big problem, as the fella I was to meet the following day, Jamil, was gracious enough to meet me a day earlier. I made my way to East Jerusalem, passing first through the shops in the Old City to pick up those tee-shirts (which plan failed by the way — these have necks that are too small! Ah, well.) I picked up the Bethlehem bus in the small station near Salad ad-Din street and off we went.

The bus ride was pretty quick, and I got to see a little more of the settlements in the southern part of the Jerusalem municipality (I had seen some of this area last year). To get out of Jerusalem we passed through two tunnels, and past miles of razor wire and stretches of the “separation fence”, AKA the wall. We stopped once only briefly on the way into the West Bank so that Palestinian guards could take a look. I shared the bus into Bethlehem with a bunch of locals (i.e., Arabs, not Jews *lol*) and a large group of American Christian missionaries in identical purple tee-shirts. The bus dropped us at the wrong location, but Jamil managed to find me very quickly (he saw the bus stopping). As I telephoned him he came up behind me and said “you are calling me”, which caught me off guard for a moment!

A shot of the fence running along the side of the road.

Since I was in central Bethlehem for the first time, Jamil offered to show me around a little. We walked for a while through the streets and towards the Basilica of the Nativity, i.e., the church on the spot where Jesus was born. You know how these things are determined, right? The first church was built on the site in the fourth century, and obviously no-one kept records of Jesus’ birth, so if you’re generous you can say people remembered and it became a tradition, or more likely someone made it up later for the sake of exploiting Christian pilgrims. In a further curiosity, all of the oldest recorded tales of the birth outside the gospels note that it took place in a cave outside town, and this church is built over a grotto, so why is it that all those nativity sets people put up in America have it looking like a stable? *grin*

Coming up on the Church of the Nativity

The basilica itself is an impressive edifice, and its foundations go back to the fourth century making it perhaps the oldest continuously-used church in the world. The first structure was built by order of Constantine’s mother Helena in 327, but it was burnt down in a revolt in the early sixth century. Justinian ordered the construction of the current church in 565, and that building has survived more-or-less until the present. It was expanded and altered by the Crusaders, and also subsequently, which is why the current flooring is about a foot higher than the Byzantine one. They have opened a few sections of the floor to reveal the startlingly-beautiful mosaics still buried underneath (one expects the Crusaders just didn’t like Greek designs, hehe).

One of those stunning, 1500-year-old Hellenistic mosaics buried beneath the floor.

Of course I went down into the grotto below the church to see the traditional birth place. In fact, I had a photo taken of myself there, which is a very unusual choice. (I generally get only one or two photos taken of myself on these trips out of the many thousands of other shots taken.) Jamil suggested one inside the church, I think on the assumption that I cared more about the religious significance than I obviously do. *grin* But the folks will be happy to see it, no doubt. The star on the birth spot was donated by France in 1717, though it was stolen and the replica there now (dishonestly still showing only the original date) is from the mid-nineteenth century. At any rate, I’ve now had my hands on the places where Jesus was supposedly foretold, born, worked, bathed, executed, and buried. (If I get up to the eastern Galil again I’ll see where he taught as an adult.)

Ugly, huh? I didn't take the shot but I will take credit for being that ugly. You can see the star marking the birth-spot in the bottom right.

After the church Jamil and I caught a service taxi back to his home, which is in the refugee camp al-Aroub. About the camp itself I will have more to say in a later post, since I would like to include photos and discuss the peculiar nature of these towns. The main entrance has been roadblocked by Israel for ten years, which has to suck for Jamil since his place is very close to it and he now needs a long detour in if he drives (the family shares one car). His home was lovely inside, though I saw only the courtyard, foyer, and den. It being a Muslim household and there being women within, getting to wander was never likely. The décor in the den was interesting in that all the art pieces within were made by Jamil’s brother (I have linked to a Web site of his work here.) The stone pieces was more impressive to me than the paintings in the room, though two of them were quite striking; Jamil showed me a large photo collection on his computer of the other stone work, as well as a few very evocative paintings with political themes.

Speaking of political themes… Jamil had two friends over that night to have a discussion with me, though as usual I cannot remember their names. The conversation was interesting in that we had one speaker with almost no Arabic (me), one with almost no English, one who could understand a bit of English but not speak a word, and poor Jamil trapped in the middle. We talked for several hours it seems, and my throat was constantly parched! We used my research topic to launch into a chat about “the situation” in Palestine. I laid out my own work carefully, and found much approval unsurprisingly, since any work that seems to undermine the settlers is a benefit to Palestinians. We then talked a bit about how the cultural shift complicated resolution of the conflict, as it gave the settlers a powerful incentive to stay and fight indefinitely. As it happens, Jamil’s friends are also maximalists — they think there will be peace when all of the Jews leave. I had delicately to note that this is about as likely as an elephant being born from my left ear.

Like many Palestinians and their sympathizers, Jamil’s friends took the position that the Jews should “go back to Europe where they came from” (this despite more than half the Israeli Jewish population having a non-European origin). I had to explain to them that the vast majority of the people in Israel were born there and had no-where else to go; they had not stolen the Palestinians’ land, their parents and grandparents had done so. I also made the case that returning land stolen more than 60 years ago was illogical, and made a couple of historical parallels, including the obvious and contemporaneous one — the reshuffling of borders and expulsion of populations after World War II in Europe. If the Poles don’t get Wilno/Vilnius back, and the Germans don’t get Königsberg/Kaliningrad back, why should the Palestinians think they will get Jaffa/Yafo back?

The conversation ended quite late at night and Jamil was visibly exhausted, though it took me a moment to realise this. He went off to sleep and I got on the computer briefly and was able to chat with Robin. I got to sleep somewhere around 0200, intending to be up around 0800 (and woke a little earlier, actually). A few months ago Jamil had fallen off a ladder and shattered his leg, leaving him with a limp which was much worse that day on account of some swelling. By the time we had gotten back I was getting concerned about him having overdone it just to show me around a little. As it happened, he was originally planning to see his doctor the next day anyhow, so I made sure that we were planning to do that first thing. I will pick up this story with our journey into Hebron in a subsequent post.

By-the-by, if anyone’s curious I am uploading the full Bethlehem photo set this evening to the gallery, and the Hebron photos will likely follow to-night or to-morrow.

Reflexions On Independence Day

It’s Independence Day in the United States and it seems a fitting time to reflect on the progress of the Arab Spring. Parallels between the aspirations of eighteenth-century American revolutionaries and the people on the streets of Arab cities are closer than one might guess given the differences in time and space.

Both peoples rebelled against corrupt and unrepresentative, tyrannical governments; had justifiable economic complaints (suffered through strangled economies, had taxes that enriched only the few, etc.); and had military forces that routinely invaded the lives of ordinary citizens. And both uprisings started small, with a handful of dedicated people spreading the word and encouraging others to join them. In the eighteenth century is was pamphlets and broadsheets, now it’s Twitter and Facebook, but the basic principles remain unchanged.

Across the Arab world a cry for freedom is ringing out. This should be their independence day as much as ours, and we in the free world should be doing everything we can to support and encourage these movements. This region is not “backwards” and it is not peopled solely with reactionary lunatics hell-bent on destroying the Western way of life. Quite the contrary: these revolutions are taking place because they want their share of the good life we have. Young Arabs want the freedom to play rock music, go to the mall, or heck — just have access to clean water and safe streets! A generation raised on satellite television and the Internet is coming of age, and they know that their governments have screwed them as much as the West did under colonialism.

The economies of the Middle East have lagged behind every other part of the world, yet there are tremendous human resources here. Most of these countries have invested heavily in education, particularly in technical subjects, but the economies have not generated enough jobs to put these graduates to work. This, you might recall, is the problem that sparked the uprising in the first place — a college-educated man in Tunisia could not even operate a fruit cart to support himself. Consider a useful parallel: Israel is now home to operations from many Western high-tech companies, taking advantage of the scientific brain-power that streamed in from the former Soviet Union.

The Arab world does not have this level of skill yet, to be sure, but they could offer multinationals a fantastic location for high-level manufacturing work, and who knows what the engineers they have been turning out could do if they had a corporation willing to move in and put them to work? It is worth recalling that before the disastrous Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, Iraq was well on its way to being a developed/industrial nation. There is not a single physical, cultural, or intellectual reason that this region could not develop into a powerful economic bloc if given the chance that good governance and effective investment would bring.

Yet to continue our analogy, the American colonists after 1776 had many advantages that most of these Arab uprisings lack. The colonies had a long history of self-government, with effective representative institutions and a vibrant press and civil society. They also had a powerful backer in France, without whose navy and guns it might have gone differently or been much harder. So far only one of the Arab revolutions has any serious foreign backing, and that is not going nearly as well as it could be.

Granted that most of these revolutions do not want foreign intervention, but in some ways they will need it regardless, whether it be through tactical assistance or cash loans. The successful changes of government in Tunisia and Egypt present a fantastic opportunity and real potential for a democratic opening, but it will be bumpy and expensive and slow. These states need foreign direct investment to save their economies, and they need it yesterday. They could also use technical assistance from the Europeans on setting up institutions and drafting stable constitutions. The region has little experience of representative government and most Arab socieies have had a strangled, heavily censored, and untrustworthy civil society.olice informers are a strong deterrent against forming effective political movements, and the chaos surrounding party creation in Egypt is a good example of the many lessons they have to learn.

Now, there is much that could be said about each of the revolutionary movements — whether those in full swing like in Yemen and Syria, or those on slow boil like Bahrain and Morocco — but I am going to focus here on a single revolution that shows very close affinity with our own American struggle for freedom. The Libyan people took heart from the successful uprisings in their North African neighbours, and rose up against more than 40 years of brutal dictatorship under Muamar Qaddafi.

But Tunisia and Egypt were lucky in that they had professional armies which held back from violent confrontation, and the movements stayed remarkably peaceful for the most part. Not so in Libya, where a disciplined core of loyalists began a vicious crack-down. Libya has a relatively small and ill-trained army, but in addition to those units of it which remained loyal Qaddafi has his own security services and large numbers of African mercenaries lured by oil money. Some units of the Libyan armed forces mutinied, but then chose to stay in their barracks, leaving the fight to new recruits from the streets of eastern cities or former soldiers who left the army outright. This rag-tag force has a weak command structure, few heavy weapons, and serious problems with communications.

Unlike the rest of the Arab nations in revolt, the Libyans have asked for help. In many ways they have received it: Western air power has severely limited Qaddafi’s ability to turn his army loose on the rebellious cities. But the punishing siege of Misurata continues, and at this point it is getting difficult for the rebels to advance without becoming targets of NATO airstrikes themselves. What they need there is help on the ground to coordinate movement.

But as urgent as the military situation is, what the Transitional Governing Council (TGC) needs now is legitimacy and the resources to begin organizing Libyan civil society in preparation for a democratic transition. Without direct assistance there is much less chance they will manage this successfully — it is harder than many people assume, and places like Egypt will probably take a decade to reach maturity as a liberal democracy, assuming the movement survives and continues to progress. And there are many things that irk me in the way the Obama administration is handling this whole affair.

First of all, the military situation is a mess partly because American help has been so inadequate. Obama was reluctant to act in the first place and had to be cajoled by France and Britain, which is humiliating enough (watching a massacre a few miles off the coast of Italy would have been more than pathetic). But after participating in the initial airstrikes, the US has largely held back, hiding behind French and British generals and avoiding the dirty work. This is infuriating given the relative inexperience of European militaries in these operations. The US has the know-how and the firepower to make this work, but there is no political will to use it.

Part of the reason is fear of another expensive foreign adventure that the American people do not want, but this is foolish for two reasons. The first is that a short-term but serious investment could topple Qaddafi outright, whereas the current slow burn is only creating a stalemate that — with his mercenary armies behind him — Qaddafi can simply wait out until he gets a good deal. The second is that this is a pro-democracy movement in a part of the world that desperately needs more of it. If we are serious about wanting democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan, why would we refuse the small effort needed to encourage it in a nation that has risen up and demanded it for themselves?

I, for one, do not like that we waste so much money on the military, but if the American taxpayers are willing to support this bloated monster called the Pentagon, then by gods I want my tax money to be used for something worthwhile! This military culture has allowed us to overthrow democratic governments, assassinate foreign leaders, intervene on the side of dictators and druglords, and countless other less-than-savoury acts. Since we have this overwhelming power to act on the world stage, why can’t we now flex our muscle for good?

Beyond the military situation, where I can at least understand the reticence to contribute, what possible reason do we have for withholding non-military support to the TGC? France quickly recognized it as the legitimate government of Libya, and other nations have slowly been following suit, most recently Turkey — the regional Muslim powerhouse — which has offered $200 million in assistance. Hillary Clinton has continued her rhetorical attacks on Qaddafi, telling him to step down and recognize the will of the Libyan people; so why has the US State Department not recognized the TGC as the new government, thus removing legitimacy from Qaddafi’s attempt to cling to power?

More infuriating is the fact that the US froze Libyan assets worth billions of dollars; that money could be turned over to the TGC in stages to support its efforts to rebuild Libyan society. In 1778 the French government recognized the United States and offered it a substantial loan to begin building institutions and waging our war for independence. It is clearly in the United States’ long-term interests to have a stable, prosperous, and democratic Middle East and North Africa. So why withhold even this meagre support for a fledgling democratic movement there?

The American Revolution and subsequent constitutional ideals have inspired countless popular movements since that time. Our successful independence set the whole world on the path to democratic governance. The Arab world has suffered far too long under inept and authoritarian governments, and it is their turn to raise the flag of freedom and claim their share of our liberal inheritance. This should be their independence day, too.

Oh My -Gods- Will You Shut -Up-!

I am listening to a loooong and rambling speech by Hasan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, that is being broadcast on Al-Jazeera. It is the most tedious and ridiculous load of shit I have heard in a while — at least since Bashar al-Assad’s last speech. He runs on and on and on without actually saying a damned thing that’s relevant.

He has come under pressure because of the investigation into the death of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated in office in 2005. The investigation has been long and slow, but now that it seems set to point the finger at Hezbollah, that group’s leader is determined to prove that the investigation is politicized and biased.

First, the charges that have his knickers in a twist. It seems increasingly likely that indictments will be issued for four men with connexions to Hezbollah. Nasrallah implicitly supported this association by calling them ‘brothers of the resistance’ in his speech. The stakes are high for Nasrallah. If Hezbollah killed another Lebanese figure it sacrifices its status as a legitimate resistance movement and becomes a mere terrorist group. Worse, if a Shia party killed the Sunni prime minister, it might spark yet another civil war in that perennial powder-keg called the Lebanese political scene.

Yet after six years to prepare for this eventuality, the best Nasrallah can come up with so far is to attack the tribunal’s credibility. He is doing this on two fronts. First, he is claiming that some of the investigators have a history of being opposed to Hezbollah. So far that seems to hold up on the evidence, but one has to wonder — so what? The party-cum-militia is a divisive and violent group that maintains an effective state-within-a-state in the south of Lebanon. If being biased against Hezbollah were sufficient grounds on its own for elimination it might he hard to populate a qualified investigative team!

More tediously still, he has chosen to attack the credibility of the tribunal by … implicating Israel! So far Israel has not been considered a suspect in the killing, and the tribunal has not taken seriously Hezbollah’s allegation that it had a rôle — probably because there is no real evidence of it. Nasrallah is taking exception to the fact that the tribunal has refused to consider its (Hezbollah’s) ‘evidence’ of Israeli complicity, and uses this as evidence of its biased nature!

Here’s the thing. Both Nasrallah and al-Assad are dinosaurs of the anti-Israel band, and they don’t seem to know how to play any other tune. And like all dinosaur bands that have nothing worth saying (one thinks of Mike Love’s faux Beach Boys), it’s time to get off the damned stage. For years both leaders have gained support for their repressive agendas by pointing to the supposed ever-present danger of Israeli aggression. Yet the evidence for this is entirely lacking. The only reason Israel still has for interfering in Lebanon is Hezbollah’s continuing cross-border provocations. The IDF evacuated southern Lebanon, okay? Mission accomplished, Hezbollah, hang up your rifles and go home!

Doing so, however, would mean that Nasrallah would lose his own power and influence, not to mention Hezbollah’s raison d’être. The militia has therefore to keep tensions high on the border, so it can keep pointing to Israel as a threat. This refrain is getting old and the people are going to begin seeing through it.

Besides, it’s not as though the indictments will be able to go through. Hezbollah is a part of the ruling government in Beirut, and all indications are that Nasrallah will move to block the government actually arresting anyone. This is bound to raise suspicions of their guilt in the country, and Nasrallah seems to believe that his old Israel-bashing routine will distract everyone’s attention from the truth. I want to believe that he’s wrong in that. Hezbollah, unlike Hamas, has completely misunderstood the Arab Spring. With any luck, the rising tide of youth anger will find enough cause in these indictments and their fall-out to sweep this old dinosaur into an appropriately sticky tar pit…

Art And Archaeology Near Be’er Sheva

To pick up the story I hinted at in the post from earlier to-day… Yesterday Boaz invited me down to see where he works — in a small museum in the town of Omer, east of Be’er Sheva. Accordingly, after my morning walk and a quick lunch, Anat and I picked up the bus and headed out. Of course, not only did we miss the stop, Anat was not entirely sure where we were going! We had a nice long walk back to the right intersection, then we had to hike up the road into the business park section of town, then pass through some fields without a proper path to reach the area containing the museum. But it was an adventure, ho-ho, hee-hee! *grin* The photos below show a little of that walk, just for flavour.

Missed Our Exit! (Anat is on the phone with Boaz.)

If You've Seen One Industrial Park....

Lost But Not Lost

It's Somewhere Past This Guard Shack...

Once we had made it to the museum area we grabbed drinks and ice cream bars and met Boaz at the entrance. The museum is not in a separate complex, but rather is in two of the buildings in part of a high-tech industrial compound. In between the two is a brand new exhibit: a sculpture garden of contemporary works in metal. We may have been the first to see it, hehe.

First we went into the main gallery, which houses the work of a single artist — Noa Eshkol, daughter of Israel’s third prime minister. Better known as a dancer, Eshkol invented a new system of movement notation that has found many applications outside of choreography. Her dance work is extremely precise and mathematical, and she usually wrote works for performance without music — only a rhythm — as she felt the music was a distraction from the movements of the dancers, which should absorb all of the audience’s attention.

During the 1973 War one of her dancers was called up to active service. Lacking the ability to perform her pieces, she turned to another art form — producing artistic tapestries. The aesthetic was very important to her, and in more than 1000 works she produced in the next three decades, all followed the same basic principles. She took scraps of cloth from local textile factories and arranged them into an abstract pattern which evokes a particular mood. Critically, she would not allow herself to cut the pieces; they could be folded under one-another, but each scrap is as she received it. Held together with pins, her dancers and followers would then do the stitching without pay. (Anat described their devotion as basically cultic, hehe.)

The first work (pictured below and titled for the war) is a sombre piece in only two colours. Later works would be far more complex. Sometimes they have a recognizable form and present imagery the mind can readily grasp; other times they are pure mood and abstraction. I will show a few examples here since I found her work terribly interesting. The pictures I’m putting up are collages in order to show more in less ‘blog space. I photographed the entire exhibit, though of course the colours are fairly washed out in these shots. The actual pieces are often dazzlingly vibrant and eye-catching.

Three By Noa Eshkol


Three More By Noa Eshkol

Another Three By Eshkol

Dancing Into The Art

After touring the gallery we walked through the sculpture garden, which had only just been installed that weekend. The grass, normally bright green, was mostly brown as they needed to let it die in order to instal the pieces (I did not ask why). I will post a few photos below of only the most eye-catching pieces. Some of these are musical, by-the-by, and you can produce melodies by tapping them in different places.

Boaz Plays The Birdy

Look, It's The Swamp Thing!

Laser-Cut Horsies, Yee-Haw

The old car exhibit came next. This contained all vehicles that had actually once graced the roads of Israel, and it was truly an eclectic and interesting mix. Again, just a few photos are posted below to give a sense of what it was like. I had more fun looking around in here than I would have expected, and enjoyed in particular the 1970 MGB (my first car was a 1977 MGB) and the Messerschmidt car that looked a little too much like a fighter cockpit!

A Messerschmidt! Fucking Awesome!

Down Memory Lane, In A 1970 MGB

Nifty Wagon, Eh?

We hitched a ride from the museum to an archaeological park just up the road. Despite living in Omer all her life, the driver had never been there; neither had Anat or Boaz in their four years in Be’er Sheva. Seems I provided a good excuse for the occasion! *grin* We arrived at the park a hair before closing time, so we only had a bit over ten minutes to explore. I snapped photos like a madman so that I could look it all over again later. A few choice ones are included below.

The site itself is called Tel Be’er Sheva, which is kind of confusing but oddly appropriate since it is in between Be’er Sheva and Tel Sheva. *lol* ‘Tel’, in this case, means an artificial hill under which layers of human settlement can be uncovered. The site was occupied as late as the Byzantine period, during which a small fort existed here, but the main part exposed by the digs dates to the 8th century BCE. Its centrepiece is a well 70 metres deep — impressive, no?

Wandering Into Tel Be'er Sheva

What Can I Say? Sucker For Antiquities.

A Shot From The Observation Tower