Monday, October 30, 2006

Everyone wins

The news today in Israel is the result of the Labor Party Central Committee meeting held in Tel Aviv last night. The Committee voted to support the leader of the Party Amir Peretz by a 2:1 margin to stay in the coalition Government of Ehud Olmert with the addition of Avigdor Lieberman and his Israel Beiteinu Party. This was a strong endorsement of Peretz, who fended off the opposition of some Party rebels, led by Ofir Pines-Paz, who is a Minister, and who now will probably resign to become a major rivel to Peretz.
At first glance it might be surprising that Labor would agree to be in a coalition with Lieberman, who is considered to be very right wing, and has advocated changing the borders of Israel so as to exclude majority Arab populations as well as "transferring" some of them. He argues that most of the Arabs are not loyal to Israel, and that their demographic expansion endangers the Jewish nature of the State, and that if Israel can remove Jewish Israelis from their homes for security and national reasons, as was done in the Gaza disengagement,they can also do this to Israeli Arabs.
Whatever one might consider the merits of this argument, the fact is that Lieberman is right wing and that the Labor Party voted to go along with him in the same Government. This is another victory of pragmatiism over principles. They in effect voted to remain in power rather than uphold their traditional policies. Peretz said that he intends to fight Lieberman from within the Government rather than from without, a convenient rationalization.
Since Peretz is Defence Minister and Lieberman has been appointed "Minister in charge of security threats," it is clear that there will be clashes between them. However, today the Cabinet votes on the entry of Lieberman and Israel Beiteinu, and it is now a sure thing. So Lieberman wins because he will be added to the coalition, Peretz wins, because he got what he wants, to remain Defense Miister, and Olmert wins because he strengthes his Coalition with not only the19 seats of Labor but also the 11 of Israel Beiteinu, giving him a majority of 75.
Even Netanyahu wins in a way, because he is now the clear Head of the opposition without any challenge from other right wing parties. So although this move strengthens Lieberman, certainly in the eyes of his mainly Russian supporters, in a way it weakens his right wing credentials, because he has now compromised himself to be in with Olmert and Peretz.
No doubt Netanyahu will make use of this when the next elections come around, because he needs to fend off Lieberman's threat from the right. Polls show that there has been a strong move to the right in Israeli opinion since the recent war in Lebanon and the situation in the PA. However, while it looks as if the Olmert Coalition is strengthened for now, many Labor members voted for Peretz with strong reservations, and this may come back to haunt him in the not too distant future.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Education vs. security

There has been international media attention on the case of Sawsan Salameh, a 29 year old Palestinian woman who lives in Anata a small village on the West Bank near Jerusalem. She applied for and was granted a full scholarship from Hebrew University to do a doctorate in theoretical chemistry. However, in order to do this she requires permission from the Israeli military authorities that control entry from the West Bank of the Palestine Authority into Israel. Of course, the general attitude of the media is that this is an open-and-shut-case of Israeli discrimination. But, one must examine the situation more closely to see that it is not.
First, there are literally thousands of Israeli Arabs studying at Hebrew University and many hundreds of them have scholarships. In my own group we now have a young Arab woman from central Israel who is doing a PhD in Pharmacology, and she is indistinguishable in her dress from other secular Israeli women. However, there are very many Muslim women in the Medical School and University who wear head scarves and long dresses, but very few if any who cover their faces. So there is no case of simple discrimination against Arabs/Muslims. In fact, while there are thousands of Israeli Arabs studying at Israeli Universities, there are no Jews studying at Palestinian Unviersities (Bit Zeit in Ramallah for example) because if they set foot in there they would be killed. Such is the difference between them and us.
Sawsan Salameh wears a head scarf, but the difference between her and the majority of Muslim women at HU is that she is not an Israeli citizen, she is a Palestinian citizen of the PA. Therefore, the Israeli authorities are under no obligation to grant her automatic entry into Israel, particularly since there have been many security cases in which Palestinians entering Israel using legitimate visas have carried out activities against the State, including some that have ended in tragedy. One should remember that about 2 years ago a cafeteria on the Mount Scopus campus of HU was blown up by two Palestinians who had permission to work in the University (although they were not students). This resulted in 5 deaths and many injuries.
I personally knew a young Palestinian man who obtained his doctorate at the Medical School and was engaged in post-doctoral research, who seemed very nice and friendly, but who was recruited by Hamas on a visit to his family in Jordan. He sent coded letters to his family, but they were intercepted and decoded, and he was tried and jailed for three years for providing security information to the enemy.
Would the US automatically allow the entry of someone from a hostile country, even if it was close by, to take up a private scholarship given by an educational institution. Of course, not. In fact, due to the difficulty of terrorists to infiltrate Israel (due partly to the Security Fence) there is a greater reliance of the terrorists on people with entry visas and particularly women. So it is well within the current blanket denial of visas for the Israeli authorities to bar Sawsan Salameh entry.
Nevertheless, a case can be made that since she has no known connection to any terrorist organization or any security activity, why should she personally be denied entry? An Israel civil rights group called Gisha is appealing to the Israeli Supreme Court to allow her entry. However, because they are using her case to oppose the blanket security denial of visas to Palestinians for educational purposes (this as a political cause), the Israeli Army is opposing this appeal, since they are prepared to consider appeals on a case-by-case basis, but not a blanket reversal of their authority.
There are in fact currently 14 Palestinians who enter Israel daily to study at HU, and none of them have had any problems. Many Israelis think that allowing more Palestinians to enter Israel to study could in the long run lead to better relations between Israelis and Palestinians. But, there is no doubt that a balance between such considerations and security must be found, and where this balance lies is not an easy matter to determine.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Jews from Arab Lands

It has been announced that Justice Minister Meir Sheetrit has re-established a unit in his Ministry to work for the compensation of Jews from Arab countries and today a conference was held in Jerusalem by several organizations with official Government support to work for the "rights and redress" for this group.
This is an area where the State of Israel has been totally deficient in its responsibilities. Partly because the State was founded and run mostly by Ashkenazi Jews from Central and Eastern Europe, the mizrachi (Eastern) Jews were ignored by them and usually constituted the poorest elements of society, many having come here with nothing from relatively primitive backgrounds.
This included Jews from north Africa (Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya) and other backwaters, like Yemen and Aden. However, some came from sophisticated and affluent societies, like the Jews of Iraq and Egypt. But, many of them were unable to deal with Israeli society and left for the west, particularly France and the US. The total number of Jewish refugees from Arab Lands was estimated to have been ca. 850,000, a pitiful number considering that they had been resident in this huge expanse for over 2,000 years, long before the advent of Islam! It is believed that there are now ca. 10,000 Jews left in the whole Arab world. Of those who left ca. 650,000 are known to have settled in Israel. Most were either expelled (as in Iraq) with nothing, or were chased out in fear for their lives after the establishment of Israel in 1948, and an unknown number were killed. It is believed that the total value of assets stolen from them was of the order of b$100! However, while noone thinks it is likely that much of this can be recouped, the State of Israel never made an effort to make their case, preferring not to treat them like refugees, but to integrate them into Israeli society, in theory. In that repect Israel lost a great opportunity not only to help these people, but also to make a good PR case!
This should be compared with the total number of Palestinian refugees in 1948 of ca. 650,000, whose case has been made so effectively that most people are totally unaware of the fact that there were an equal number of Jewish refugees from Arab Lands who entered Israel at the same time as the Palestinians left it, a true population exchange! Certainly the value of the assets of these Jews had been far greater than those of the Palestinians. Because the Israeli Govt. did nothing for these refugees outside Israel, their case was forgotten and they received no attention from the world, the UN or international agencies.
Israel also failed to raise the fate of these people in any negotiations with the Arabs, and had let their case die by default. One reason for the change now is that several organizations have been established to work for their cause. One is the World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries (WOJAC) that was established here and I heard about it when we came here for a sabbatical year in 1976-7. I met the Executive Director then, Maurice Roumani from Libya, and I invited him to talk at the Weizmann Inst. But, they made few inroads in Israel because of official indifference.
Another organization is the American based Justice for Jews from Arab Countries. It is partly because descendents of Jews from Arab countries are now prominent in Israeli society, for example Sheetrit's parents were from Morocco, and because of American Jewish organizations, that there has been this belated turnaround in Israel. Also, there are now many Jews from France emigrating to Israel, whose families originally came from north Africa. Hopefully it is not too late, because these Jews have a genuine case of "ethnic cleansing" and human rights abuses.
Now if you ask Arabs about this they will tell you two things. First, "the Jews in Arab countries were treated very well, they were our friends and they chose to leave for Israel because they were traitors." This is definitely untrue, since even though there were good relations between individual Jews and Arabs, in general Arab society was extremely hostile to Jews, and throughout Arab history Jews were over-taxed and murdered. Secondly the Arabs will tell you that Jews were rich at Arab expense, that they exploited the Arabs, and this is another case of classic anti-Semitism, often copied from Europe, through the French influence in Lebanon that spread to other Arab countries. Even today when some Arab countries are undergoing changes to more "democratic" and tolerant norms, there is a strong antagonism and even hatred of Jews that is expressed in disgusting and common cartoons in newspapers. Certainly Arabs hardly distinguish between Jews living in the diaspora and Israelis, they hate us all.
Let us hope that the destiny of the Jews who fled or were expelled from Arab Lands can finally be redresssed.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

The IDF in Gaza

On the front page of the Jerusalem Post on Friday their reporter Anshel Pfeffer writes of finding 17 unguarded Armed Fighting Vehicles (AFVs), including troop carriers and an armed bulldozer, left abandoned in a field half a mile from the Gaza border, presumably after being used in the current incursion by the IDF into Gaza. The reporter was able to enter one of the AVF's, turn it on (no key is needed) and drive it a short distance, without being challenged. Inside the vehicles, although their radios had been removed, there was other electronic equipment, including jamming devices, and ammunition. Anyone could have entered the vehicles, driven them into Gaza, and/or Israel and shot at any target. This is a serious breach of security that unfortunately seems to have become commonplace in today's IDF.
During the latest incursion into southern Gaza (there was also a separate incursion into northern Gaza) the elite Samur ("weasel") unit discovered 13 tunnels dug along the Palestinian side of the Philadelphi corridor separating Gaza from Egypt. This unit uses ground radar devices that show the presence of tunnels. These devices were rejected by IDF commanders in Gaza before the capture of Cpl. Gilad Shalit by a group of Hamas gunmen, who used a long tunnel to infiltrate behind IDF lines and attack unguarded vehicles in which several soldiers, including Shalit, were sleeping.
Although the Samur could not traverse these tunnels into Egyptian territory, they found supplies of anti-tank shells and a car full of ammunition nearby. The tunnels were destroyed. It has been clear for some time to Israeli intelligence that the Egyptians are not keeping their side of the agreement whereby Israel allowed Egyptian forces to guard and protect the Egyptian side of the Philadelphi corridor. In view of this lack of action and the flooding of Gaza with large quantities of advanced ammunition and guns, there is a possibility that the IDF will take back the responsibility of guarding the Gaza side of the border, although this is contrary to previous Israeli statements that the IDF will not stay in Gaza. But, something has to be done because the terrorists are being armed and trained, and Hamas is reputed to have formed an "army" similar to Hizbollah. After this Israeli action the Egyptians belatedly arrested a group of Beduin with a truck full of shells and ammunition that they were driving near the border. Without this action you can be sure all that materiel would have ended up in Palestinian guns.
If Hizbollah had success in Lebanon fighting the IDF, why not Hamas in Gaza? Of course, they have funds to do this, presumably from Iran. Although their people are rioting because they have not been paid for 6 months, nevertheless they don't have to worry, the EU has poured m$813 into Gaza to pay salaries and for other "humanitarian" projects. Since money is fungible, this has allowed Hamas to secretly pay for the development of its new army.
The US has been pushing PA Pres. Abbas as a "moderate," and as usual their policy is to force Israel to take steps to "empower" him, just as they did previously with Arafat, until Pres. Bush finally accepted the evidence of his duplicity and called a halt to that ridiculous policy. Now PM Olmert had agreed to meet Pres. Abbas without any conditions, but then Abbas turned around and made his own condition, that Israel release Palestinian prisoners before the meeting. What chutzpah, when the PA is supposed to release Cpl. Shalit unconditionally. So Olmert was forced to postpone the meeting. Kassam rockets continue to rain down on the western Negev and once again we are back to square one.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Is Iraq Vietnam?

In a recent TV interview Pres. Bush was asked if the situation of the US in Iraq today resembles the situation in Vietnam in the 1970s, and he agreed that in some respects it does. This is an amazing admission coming from a President who has maintained and presumably will continue to maintain a hard-line position on Iraq. No doubt the stakes are high but he does not intend to "cut and run."
But, is there really any comparison between these two situations? Of course, Iraq is not Vietnam, and there are many differences. But, is it "a Vietnam," metaphorically speaking, is it a "war" that cannot be won, a situation where the continued and increasing cost of US lives and treasure eventually cause a turnaround in US public opinion to the extent that continued US presence is untenable.
The answer to this question is not yet known, but one can see the gradual turning away of the American public from the commitment made to "rescue" Iraq and change it into a model democracy. The realization has dawned in America that this is never going to happen. In a sense the illusion of a clear victory and then an easy peace has disillusioned Americans with the unpleasant business of the continued slog of reality and insurrection. The fundamental violent schisms that are common in the Middle East have thwarted the idealism of American illusions, just as they did in Vietnam.
But, Iraq objectively is not Vietnam. The sheer scale of the conflict is a degree of magnitude smaller. In Vietnam over 50,000 Americans lost their lives, in Iraq that number stands at less than 3,000! In Vietnam at its height there were ca. 650,000 American troops there, while in Iraq it is ca. 120,000! In Vietnam the fight was against the Communist enemy of North Vietnam, while in Iraq it is against...whom? There are a mixture of assailants, former pro-Saddam regime elements, the Iraqi Sunni militias, the Iraqi Shi'ite militias (notably that of Muktadah al Sadr), the Iranians and al Qaeda terrorists. And they are all killing Iraqis with abandon, as well as American troops. The toll today was over 40 Iraqis and 9 US servicemen killed. As much as anything else it was the daily toll of American deaths that lead to the anti-war demonstrations that were a feature of the 70's and the eventual decision to quit Vietnam.
Its not that the American public is fickle, its more that they get bored after a certain period of time seeing the same old news, seeing their men being killed and not winning. Perhaps they are right, this is getting predictable, so "let's get out from between these crazy Arabs and let them kill each other instead. Let's face it, they don't want us there and we don't want to be there, so let's call it a victory and get the damn out of that quagmire." Well, that's the "Vietnam syndrome" talking, as well as a lot of Democrats. It would be so nice if it were that easy. But, the big bad wolf isn't going to go away. Maybe if we huff and puff enough, they won't notice us sneaking off and they'll get back to their traditional roles, which is killing each other. Now that's what I call a good strategy.
But to be realistic, the US should retain a military presence in the region to thwart the possibility of an Iranian - Iraqi Shia merger and the hosting of terrorist centers and training camps there, much as there was in Afghanistan under the Taliban. Its a no-win situation for the US, but they should try to salvage what is in their own best interests.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Katsav's problem

President Katsav is on the verge of being indicted by the police for sexual offences. After months of collecting evidence and then the Attorney General Meni Mazuz reviewing the evidence, he finally declared that there is a case to answer, and Pres. Katsav is being charged. The offences occured before he was elected President, but should have been detected in any pre-election investigation. Until now 10 women have come forward and accused him of sexual offences while they worked for him or were in the same offices. But, of course, he is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.
Five of the cases cannot be considered because they were before the statute of limitations ran out on them. But, the five other cases are apparently enough to charge him. The latest of the cases is the most serious since it involves a charge of rape. However, there is some question about one of the women, who had a previous case of extortion and apparently tried to blackmail Katsav. This is how the case became known, because Katsav recorded her threats, and then gave them to the police. However, they had to investigate her accusations too, and the whole case was revealed. There may be a case against this woman, who is known as "aleph" since her identity cannot yet be revealed.
Because of this situation, Katsav is in a very embarrassing position. He declares his innocence, but some (female) lawmakers have threatened to introduce a bill to impeach him. This was retracted when Katsav decided not to attend the opening of the winter session of the Knesset that he usually presides over. However, he will not resign until he is actually indicted.
As far as replacements go, the following have been mentioned: Dep. PM Peres, who was beaten last time by Katsav and will probably not run again, MK Reuven Rivlin of Likud, Amnon Rubinstein, former Atty. Gen. and Head of the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center, who has said he is not interested, MK Colette Avital of Labor, who wants to be the first female President, former Chief Rabbi Menachem Lau, who is quite popular, but many do not want an Orthodox President, Elie Weisel, who is an outsider, Natan Sharansky, who just (conveniently) resigned his place in the Knesset, but is now Head of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, a right wing think tank. There may be others hiding in the wings. PM Olmert has not declared his favorite candidate yet.
It's unfortunate that such embarrasing things happen to such apparently nice and modest politicians. But, we saw it with Pres. Bill Clinton and many others. It is a feature of the job. Let's hope they find someone trustworthy next time, and investigate them thoroughly to make sure there are no skeletons hiding in the closet.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Sri Lanka

Yesterday it was announced that over 100 sailors of the Sri Lankan navy going on leave were were killed by a suicide bomber in an explosives-laden truck. Sri Lanka, that used to be known as Ceylon, is an island nation, beset by an insurgency that has cost many thousands of lives. The northern tip of the island closest to India is inhabited by the minority Hindu Tamils, who crossed the straits to the island hundreds of years ago. The majority (75%) of Sri Lankans are Singhalese and are Buddhists. The conflict is fueled by the differences between these two groups in language, religion, and culture.
The Tamil Tigers of the Tamil Eelam separatist movement are quite vicious and effective fighters. They were the first to introduce suicide bombing in modern times. The son of Indian PM Indira Gandhi was murdered in a suicide bombing by a woman in Madras, the capital of the Indian state of Tamil Nadhu in the 1980’s. There have also been suicide attacks on Sri Lankan Government Ministers in Colombo.
What is the Mid-East connection? The IDF has in the past advised and trained the Sri Lankan forces to deal with this terrorist insurgency. The Tamils supposedly get most of their money and supplies from their fellow Tamils in India. But, the Indian Government supports the Sri Lankan Government, and in the 1990s when the Tamil Tigers appeared to be winning and they had occupied the northern tip of the island, the Jaffna Peninsula, the Indian Army was sent in to help the Sri Lankans. However, once the main town of the north, Trincomalee, and the Jaffna Peninsula were recaptured, internal politics inside India caused the Government to withdraw its forces and the war resumed.
Several years ago the Norwegians established a peace process that lead to a draft treaty and a ceasefire. But that did not stop the conflict which has escalated in recent months. This is one of the more intractable conflicts in the world, but it does not have strategic significance, so the Tamils and the Singhalese are generally left to kill each other without too much external interference.

Monday, October 16, 2006

US elections

What issues are important in the upcoming Nov 7 US elections? In general, the Middle East is important mainly as it affects the question of Iraq. Only Jews and some right wing Christians feel that Israel itself is a significant issue. Otherwise the usual issues are to the fore, corruption in Congress, the economy, the war on terror and the related domestic legislation (the "Patriot Act", etc.). It is these issues that will determine the outcome. With Pres. Bush at a low of ca. 33% approval rating, and a 2:1 majority against him, many are predicting that the Republicans will lose big, and the Democrats will gain. This is especially true since most of the recent scandals, including those of Reps. Mark Foley and Bob Ney, have involved Republicans.
However, two recent events may cause Americans to pause before "throwing out the rascals." The first one is the crisis over the atomic weapons test announced by North Korea. Although the UN Security Council has enacted sanctions against N. Korea tonight, noone really thinks they will have much effect, particularly since communist dictator Kim Jong-Il has allowed his people to starve in large numbers without any apparent concern while pushing forward with his nuclear program. It is noteworthy that the N. Korean delegate to the UN declared these sanctions "an act of war." Would you prefer to have this very dangerous situation presided over by a Democrat or a Republican?
The other truly treacherous situation is Iraq. Pres. Bush has made it clear that he will not "cut and run" as he describes the Democratic attitude towards the ongoing war in Iraq. But, even if Iraq is on the verge of breaking up and separating into Sunni, Shia and Kurdish regions, which might be better in the long run anyway, that doesn't mean that US forces should not remain stationed there. The fact of Iraq is inextricably related to the situation in Iran. Not only the question of the nuclear weapons program of Iran, that is also soon coming up for consideration in the UN Security Council, but also the future of the regime itself. If a Shia Arab region of Iraq were to join together with Iran, this would be a major danger to the future stability of the Middle East and of the world, particularly as far as oil supplies and atomic weapons threats are concerned. Having US forces on hand to play a role in preventing this may become crucial. Certainly it is preferable, all other things being equal, not to have US forces in danger and taking casualties, but what are the forces for, to protect and defend the USA, and they can do that a lot better being close to where the action is than being withdrawn into safe havens in the US. I agree with Pres. Bush, that if the US and the West do not fight the terrorists there, then their main benefactors, Syria and Iran, will send them over to the US. It's your choice!

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Mowing the lawn

"Mowing the lawn" is the phrase the IDF gives to its occasional incursions into Gaza, in order to reduce the number of terrorists and interrupt any plans for attacks into Israel. Since the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit on June 28, IDF incursions into Gaza have killed 220 Palestinians, injured many and destroyed numerous facilities and tunnels. However, while this has prevented any suicide bombings from Gaza, the Kassam rockets keep coming into Israel at a rate of roughly 5 a day. If they have no money to pay their employees where do Hamas get the money for the rockets?
Yesterday three Israelis were injured in Sderot and the day before the electricity supply was interrupted there by a hit. So far the IDF have not found a way to stop the firing of these very mobile short range rockets, but they have gotten better at it. Now they know that most of the lauchings are done with timers, so noone is present at the time, but they go back to retrieve the launchers to use them again, and that's when a lot of the terrorists are caught red-handed and killed. Also, groups of men preparing to leave a location with launchers and rockets in their cars/vans are often hit by missiles, leading to secondary explosions. This weekend in one incursion with tanks and infantry the IDF was engaged by Hamas gunmen and 15 were killed while the IDF suffered no casualties itself. So "mowing the lawn" keeps the enemy off balance and punishes them, but does not stop hostilties. Neither has it helped in getting Shalit back, although the IDF has announced that these punishing incursions will stop once he is released.
The international media almost ignores the continued fighting in Gaza, as if after the war in Lebanon the Middle East has had its moment of fame, its share of media attention for a while. The Palestinians are, of course, angry that no one seems to show them sympathy, but they are still holding Shalit, and the Hamas Government, both PM Haniyeh in Gaza and Khaled Mashaal in Damascus, have announced over and over again that it will not recognize Israel's right to exist. Maybe even the international media are fed up with them.
There are also confliciting statements of whether or not a "Unity Government" is possible in the PA. Hamas seems to want to keep the illusion alive, so that they can hold out hope of international or European funding, even without accepting the three conditions of the Quartet. But, Pres. Abbas and Fatah are now generally pessimistic about the possibility. However, as soon as he moves to dissolve the current Hamas Government or does anything else it could result in an expansion of the current clashes into a civil war. On the other hand, Abbas has said in Arabic (not reported in the West) that as far as he is concerned, Hamas and Fatah don't need to accept the Quartet conditions, only appear to do so. So he is saying to Hamas, let's pretend to accept the conditions, form a Unity Government, and then we'll get the money. But, so far Hamas won't even buy that.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Communities Minister

The Blair Government recently established a new Minister for local government called the Communities Minister. Without going into details this was obviously in response to the problems that have arisen in the UK specifically with the Muslim community, and in particular the "home-grown" extremists who detoneated bombs on London Transport last July 7, killed 65 innocent civilians. The new incumbent in this position is Ruth Kelly, a former Minister of Education, who gave a speech today that is perhaps revolutionary in its implications, a watershed in the dealings between the Government and the Muslim minority.
Although she praised the Muslim community for its contributions to British society, she stated that from now on the British Government will not deal exclusively with the British Muslim Council, that is the umbrella organization of that community, as it has done in the past. This is because the BMC has shown that it is hardline on many issues, for example, issuing a letter that threatened repercussions unless the British Govt. changes its foreign policy (towards Israel and Iraq), boycotting a Holocaust Memorial service sanctioned by the British Government, harshly criticizing police for their methods in dealing with Muslims, supporting the rights of Imams being investigated or charged with incitement, etc. In fact, it has been pointed out that some of the leaders of this organization came to prominence originally as leaders of the demonstrations against Salman Rushdie when he published "Sacred Verses" and they were then demagogues calling for banning of the book.
Kelly said that from now on the British Govt. will deal only with Muslim organizations that emphasize "shared values," in other words those that fit within the definition of British organizations and are not Muslim to the exclusion of everything else. She also said that Government money will only be spent on such organizations that are seen to be cooperative and not exclusionary. She also called for Muslim women to adopt a more open attire, avoiding the use of scarves or veils that completely cover the face. She agreed with Jack Straw, that such coverings hinder communication and are a sign of separation of Muslims from the rest of society.
Also today two other politicians made similar statements. Higher Education Minister Bill Rammell said he supported the ban on the wearing of face coverings by women at Imperial College, London, one of the top technical universities in the UK. Although it is still optional elesewhere, and although he did not say that the Govt. would ban such face coverings in higher education, his statement did indicate a direction for other Universities to consider in the period ahead. This is seen as a part of a Govt. move against Islamic extremist groups that require their women to be totally covered. Another Government lawyer also said that such coverings impede the freedom of Muslim women in Britain. However, all these statements do not yet represent a specific shift in Govt. policy, which would need a statement by the PM and at this point it is unlikely that a specific Bill would be passed in Parliament banning such face coverings in British educational institutions. But, things are definitely changing.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Yisrael Beiteinu

Yisrael Beiteinu is a relatively new party, founded during the previous Knesset by Avigdor Lieberman and a few others as an offshoot of Natan Sharansky's Yisrael b'aliyah party. Lieberman is either a very shrewd or a very ambitious politician, depending on your outlook. He was to the right of Sharansky and wanted to be independent, so he set up Yisrael Beteinu, which means "Israel our home."
He successfully obtained 11 mandates during the last election by capturing a lot of the Russian vote. He has shown the usual politician's tendency of wanting to be in government, irrespective of political considerations. However, he refused to join the government of Ehud Olmert because he is against any form of disengagement or realignment. Now that the realignment plan has been shelved by Olmert due to the wars in Gaza and Lebanon, discussions between Olmert and Lieberman have suddenly been resumed. Ironically at the same time Sharansky has announced that he is going to resign from the Knesset, thus bringing to an end his political career. So while Lieberman goes up, Sharansky goes out.
Olmert is in a difficult situation, since he does not hold a clear majority on many votes, and having YB in his coaltion would make his Government more secure. But, his agreement with Lieberman will contradict some of his agreements with the other coalition partners, and might trigger them to quit, causing his government to collapse.
Naturally the possibility of Lieberman joining the Olmert coaltion has upset Olmert's Labor allies, since Lieberman is also against removing any of the settlements from the West Bank, including the so-called "outposts" which are small, unauthorized settlements. This is contrary to Labor policy, and Defense Minister Peretz, leader of the Labor Party faces a difficult situation, either leaving his exalted position over a matter of principle, or losing his place as effective leader of his Party.
But, it is not as simple as that. Since Lieberman is conscious of representing the Russians, who are predominantly secular (i.e. non-religious) he insists on introducing secular marriage into Israel. This has the religious parties, and especially Shas, the sephardic religious party, very much concerned about his joining the coalition. Yesterday, Lieberman met with Eli Yishai the leader of Shas while both were holidaying in the north, and apparently the meeting went well. They both have the distinction of having small right wing parties based on ethnic support, and are not competing for the same voters.
Another of Lieberman's conditions for joing the coalition is electoral reform. Many agree with him that this is necessary, because the current proportional representation system copied from the French does not give direct representation to citizens, but makes the parties predominant. However, Lieberman's preference for a Presidential system may be unrealistic, sicne it was tried before in Israel and failed. Nevertheless, Olmert may well go along with Lieberman in order to get him into the coalition.
So if the circle can be squared, all members of the coalition will bite their tongues, make the best of it, and go on to a stronger, stabler Olmert Government. Or it may be a cobbled together coalition of left and right that might not last very long, and might soon give Likud and Benjamin Netanyahu the opening he is waiting for.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The last Straw

Jack Straw, former British Foreign Secretary, and now ordinary Member of Parliament, has caused a stir in the UK media by admitting that he asks Muslim women constituents who are visiting his office to remove their veil. He only does this if the veil is over their face or if they are wearing an all-encomapssing cover such as a burka or chador, that only leaves the eyes visible (although often thru a lattice). He quite rightly says that such a face covering impedes communication, he often cannot hear their voices (and they often have accents) and he cannot see their reaction to his replies. He also says that he always has another woman present when he interviews Muslim women and if the woman refuses to remove the veil or garment he does not insist. This seems like a very reasonable and gentlemanly way to proceed.
I remember, the first time I encountered this phenomenon of women completely covered was in India, when we arrived at Bombay airport with a crowd of tribesmen returning from the Hajj in Arabia, and how all the women were dressed completely in black, like large crows. Then in Hyderabad, a largely Muslim city, I saw many women wearing strange metal contraptions on their faces, that covered most of their features, with eye-holes, like masks that made them look like robots. Some of these contraptions were made of gold, so it was very strange. I was later told that many of these young women were being sent to Arabia to be wives of older Saudi men, in effect they were sold as second or third wives, a kind of legal slavery.
I totally reject the concept that this is some kind of religious belief. Certainly female modesty can be included in religious beliefs, but the wearing of these all-encompassing coverings and scarves can only be understood as a means of social control. In fact, as Straw mentions, many Islamic scholars do not attribute the covering of women to a religious requirement laid down by Mohammed in the Koran, but rather to tradition (hadith) that has grown over the centuries. Similarly the cruel clitoridecomy practiced on girls in many Islamic countries is not truly Islamic, but is based on local and tribal cultural practices.
For example, blacks in the south of the US were not allowed to mix with whites, they were kept on the back of the bus and not allowed to bathe in the same pools and drink from the same faucets. Were these religious beliefs? No, they were means to keep blacks segregated and inferior. Similarly the means used by men in Muslim societies to control women have the same goals, and in fact most other societies worked this way in the past. But the emncipation of women in the West, just as the emancipation of blacks, made these social practices obsolete. So let's not be taken in by the so-called religious aspects of these cruel cultural controls.
Straw was right in taking this stand and publicizing it. But, he is up against a lot of opposition, amid a welter of criticisms that he is a racist to just plain non-PC. That is the last straw. We must all support his stand and expand upon it. There needs to be a back-swell of reaction that it is perfectly proper to tell Muslims that to have their women in "purdah" is not acceptable in western society, and if they want to do that then they will have to go back to where they came from to practice it there. In France they have banned scarves in schools as being against the tradition of secular society, that seeks equality for all. In the UK, they have tended to be more tolerant of religious differences, but that is a multi-cultural trap. Certain cultural traditions that are incompatible with the free society, such as forced marriages of underage girls, are considered legally unacceptable. The total covering of women should be another of these culturally unacceptable practices. It should not be allowed in progressive western societies, where all women should be emancipated!

Saturday, October 07, 2006


In Germany they have found a massacre site containing over 50 bodies dating from WWII. What is unique about these bodies is that they were mostly German children! They were killed under Nazi regulations, allowing doctors to murder children that they deemed inferior, namely disabled, mentally retarded and/or violent children. This was an attempt to improve the Aryan race by "weeding out" inferior elements. In essence, it was a racially motivated program, that resulted in approximately 70-100,000 German children being murdered, without the knowledge or permission of their parents! The secret program was called T4 after the location at Tiergarten 4, where is was conceived in Berlin, and was personally signed for by Adolf Hitler, Chancellor of Germany (hence no saying he didn't know about it).
This program was conceived by a group of bureaucrats, much like the Jewish extermination program was at the Wansee conference held in Berlin, where representatives of various ministries met to decide and to organize the program of extermination. The T4 program was conceived as a means to improve the Aryan race by the Center for Hygiene and as such it had the enthusiastic support of the Nazi regime. Five locations were selected around Germany, where children who fit into the various categories defined were sent for medical evaluation. If they were deemed to be "inferior" (which usually meant disabled and/or retarded) the doctor in charge (at first three doctors were supposed to decide, but in practice that soon became one) could by a signature have the child killed. Usually the killing was done by injection by the doctor and/or nurses, and the children were cremated on the premises. At no point was there any interaction with the parents. Afterwards the parents were told that their child had died of natural causes while in a medical facility.
Each of these medical facilties had crematoria connected to them, and there were complaints by the neighbors of the terrible smoke and smell. However, no-one did anything about it, because it was Nazi Germany during WWII. Because the bulk of the children killed were cremated, there was, until now, little tangible evidence of the T4 program. Now the discovery of this massacre site, where children's bodies were dumped, has produced a stark reminder of the criminal sickness of the Nazi regime.
Until now successive German Governments have avoided giving out details of this program because they argued that it was a medical program and that the records were covered by patient confidentiality rules. However, that is manifestly ridiculous, since it was actually a killing program, and the doctors were breaking their hippocratic oaths ("first, do no harm") and murdering their patients.
Incidentally, there is no scientific evidence that such euthenasia programs in any way "improve" the genetic status of the "race," since the proportion of naturally disabled and mentally retarded people is relatively constant throughout all societies. The British had a big program to rid the Isles of persons with "criminal tendencies" during the 18th and 19th centuries, hence they shipped many thousands of criminals to Georgia in the American colonies, and later Australia. However, statistics show that even after this incredible expulsion, there was no significant change in the level of criminality in Great Britain.
The T4 program was only one of a series of such programs adopted by the Nazi regime that was racially motivated. By considering disabled children inferior, as they considered Jews, Gypsies, Blacks and homosexuals, it was easily possible to bureaucratically remove them from society. However the murder of millions of human beings, mostly Jews, was a very messy business that could not be covered up once the war was over.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Primitive societies

I have just finished reading three books about Muslim societies, two about Afghanistan and one about Iran. They are "The Bookseller of Kabul" by Asne Seierstad, "The Kite runner" by Khaled Hosseini, and "Reading Lolita in Tehran" by Azar Nafisi. Why lump them together, why try to review them in one go? The reasons are perhaps obvious, they each represent an attempt to provide a glimpse into the Muslim societies of Afghanistan and Iran by either a Westerner or by natives who have moved to the West and who have taken up residence in America.
Asne Seierstad is a Norwegian writer who lived with the family of Sultan Khan, "the Bookseller of Kabul," in order to tell their story. What was most remarkable about this book was the intimate detail she managed to glean about the lives of the women of the family, their hopes, fears and loves. That Asne is a feminist was clear at the start of the book and colors her view, but it is essential in order to appreciate the primitive way that women are treated in Afghan Muslim society. She creates a positive image of Sultan Khan by showing him as a constant book lover, whose books were burned in turn by the Communists, the mujaheddin, the zealous Muslims who overthrew the Communists, and then the Taliban, the extremist fundamentalists who overthrew the mujaheddin, except for the Northern Alliance. The Taliban were in turn defeated by the US allied with the NA following the attack of 9/11/01 and the discovery that al Qaeda were being supported and fostered by the Taliban. So Sultan Khan comes across as a kind of liberal hero. But, as one sees the way of life of this family, that he took a 16 year old second wife and sent his first wife into exile in Pakistan, how he lords it over his family like a Victorian paterfamilias, one realizes that such a view is skewed. Facts, such as that women are not allowed to go out in public alone, and are not allowed to talk to any man they are not related to, show how primitive is the basis of Afghan society, remaining constant thru all the different political regimes. In one case a young woman was beaten and whipped with wire and kept locked in her room for 2 months because she met a young man in a park and talked to him (nothing else). So although in the Afghan context Khan is a "liberal", he remains consistent to the conservative and backward mores of Afghan society.
The "Kite runner" is a best selling book and many may have read it. It has a touching novelistic story about family secrets, betrayal, and human interactions. But, it tells us less about Afghan life than the "Bookseller," because the main character is wrapped up in his own privileged life, and the outside world only intervenes when the Communists take over and his family have to flee to America. We see a more detailed picture of the vicious depredations of the Taliban when he goes back to Kabul to try to rescue his nephew, including their vicious racial attitudes in their massacres of the Hazaris, a minority Shia tribe. The overthrow of the Taliban regime was one of the best things the US did, both for itself and for the Afghanis, and now with a resurgence of Taliban in the south of Afghanistan the Western military response is both necessary and good.
Azar Nafisi was a westernised young woman teaching literature at Tehran University when the Khomeini revolution took place in 1989. When regulations regarding wearing scarves and chadors for women in public were introduced she opposed them. But, the vicious enforcement gave her no choice and so she resigned from her job at the University. She then started teaching a private class of 8 girls, and the description of this class takes up the bulk of the book "Reading Lolita in Teheran." As things got worse in Iran she took another teaching job, but her opinions and the books she chose made her suspect to the authorities and eventually she was forced to leave Iran for America, where she now teaches at Johns Hopkins University. This book is self-consciously literary and is well written, showing the actions of young women in English novels, such as "Pride and Prejudice" or "The Great Gatsby" or "Lolita," against the background of the happenings in Iran, as things close in. The distinctions of the choices facing Western women, even a hundred years ago, and those in Iran now are stark.
All three books give factual narratives of Afghanistan and Iran, and as such give a graphic picture of the primitive manner in which these Muslim societies treat women. This is one thing that makes Muslim societies backward, keeping women essentially in bondage instead of allowing them freedom and equality. In that respect Muslim societies are at least 100 years behind Western society. We can never go backwards, but can they go forwards. However, even less fundamentalist Muslim societies, such as Egypt and Algeria, still have a long way to go in their treatment of women.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Fatah-Hamas clashes

In the worst clashes so far between armed Fatah and Hamas supporters in Gaza and the West Bank over the past two days 11 people have been killed, including 3 civilians. The clashes erupted into violence when PA Security Forces dominated by Fatah went on strike on Sunday to protest the fact that they haven't been paid by the Hamas Government in months. This results, of course, from the fact that the Hamas PA Government has not received foreign aid because it refuses to accept the conditions of the international community, including the Quartet, that it recognize Israel, stop terrorism and accept past PA agreements with Israel.
The Hamas Minister of Security, Siad Siam, called out his 3,000 Hamas security forces, and they clashed with the Fatah forces, that brought many other Fatah supporters onto the streets. In fierce gunfights, 11 were killed and many injured throughout the PA. As of today an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire is gradually coming into effect, and the Hamas Government has ordered its militia back to its bases. PM Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas has accused Pres. Abbas of Fatah of using the unrest as an excuse to carry out a coup against the legally-elected Hamas Government, while Abbas claims that the unrest and instability are cause for declaring a state of emergency and dismissing the Hamas-led Government and replacing it with a Government of "experts." This would enable him to claim that the PA Government now accepts the Quartet's conditions and the PA could then receive the foreign aid it desperately needs. However, it would likely spark a civil war between Hamas and Fatah.
This situation seems to be the belated fulfillment of the wishful policy of former PM Rabin, whose excuse for allowing Yasir Arafat to return to Gaza from exile in Tunisia in 1989 was the expectation that the PLO would "deal with" Hamas, i.e. eliminate them as a threat to its control over the Palestinians. Instead Arafat made common cause with them, allowing them to carry out their campaign of terrorism against Israel, while he pretended that he was a reliable peace partner. Many in the world bought this subterfuge, but eventually the evidence was overwhelming and both Israel and the US refused to deal with Arafat several years before his death. However, although Arafat used Hamas as a means of attacking Israel, he never allowed them to become so strong as to threaten his overall control of the PA.
The US pressure to allow democratic elections, and the splits within Fatah between the old guard and the young leaders, as well as the corruption within Fatah, allowed Hamas to win the elections. Ever since Abbas has been trying to find ways to limit the control of Hamas and/or change their policies, to no avail. Now maybe he is biting the bullet and facing them head on. However, more maneuvering is likely before an all-out civil war ensues. So it appears that Rabin's policy may finally be having its logical outcome, 17 years after it was promulgated, namely that since the Palestinians have no history of democracy, an armed clash between the Fatah/PLO and Hamas is inevitable, and in such a clash Fatah should win, especially in the West Bank where Hamas is weak. But, it is too early to say, and it might lead to a split in the PA, with Fatah controlling the West Bank and Hamas controlling Gaza. The diplomatic view from Israel is that this is an internal PA matter, but the common Israeli view is "let them kill each other."

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Atonement now

On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, Jews repeat a litany of sins that they might have committed that they now ask forgiveness for. Some of them are common sins, such as "committing false witness against a neighbor," others are more abstruse, and hardly apply in today's world. There are a few specific sins that Jews need to add to this list that they have in fact committed in the recent past.
For example, "God forgive me for the sin of leaving my family defenceless." If it were considered a major sin among religious Jews to leave their family defenceless, maybe more of them would have organized themselves and fought back when Jews were the object of hatred, murder and destruction in Europe in the 19th and first half of the 20th century. The fact is that, even though it may have been unavoidable, the Jews as a civilization and a people were utterly defenceless against the depredations of all the other tribes/countries of Europe. The fact is also that some Jews did fight back and did survive, so it was not impossible, although certainly very difficult. Since I was not there during WWII I cannot really say. But I was once told by a well-meaning German that the reason the Jews were massacred was because they never put up any resistance. If they had they would not have been such an easy target for extermination.
During the time of Stalin's Gulags in the 1930-40s there were many national groups imprisoned, including many Japanese in the far east. They were treated abominably, like everyone else. So they went on a hunger strike, they sat down en masse, thousands of them and refused to work until their conditions were improved. The Communists took 5 or 10 out at a time and executed them. But, the Japanese prisoners remained unbowed. Eventually the Camp Administration gave in and improved their conditions as long as they worked very hard. So they won, but it was a limited victory, because many of them were worked to death. Nevertheless their example stirred hope in all the prisoners (I believe I read this in Solzhenitsyn). I am not saying that if the Jews had done this it would have made any difference, but organized resistance can take many forms, and among the Jews it was almost nonexistent.
Another possible sin is: "the sin that I have committeed of naievete in the face of evil." There are many Jews in the Diaspora who being liberal in mind and spirit say "why can't you negotiate with Hamas and Hizbollah, since everyone knows that eventually there has to be a negotiated agreement, and one always negotiates with one's enemy." But, this ignores the fact that these terrorist groups do not want to negotiate with us, but rather they want to kill us (yes, actually all of us). Not only don't they recognize Israel's right to exist, but they hate Jews and accept the use of terrorism and violence against children, women and men as a legitimate means of achieving their goal. As an Egyptian journalist wrote recently in Al Ahram, "there is no way to negotiate with Hamas if it remains Hamas, if it ceases to be Hamas then maybe Israel could negotiate with them."
This sin also applies to the wildly inappropriate case of some American Jewish teens, who decided that rather than collect money simply to help the Jews of northern Israel who had been under attack from 4,000 Hizbollah rockets, to show how balanced they are, they would collect money for both sides and distribute it equally to Lebanese victims of the war. Now, most of the Lebanese victims of the war were Hizbollah gunmen, but even though there were many non-combatant victims, they too were mostly Shia, and they generally support Hizbollah and hate Israelis and Jews. What is the message being sent by this so-called "gesture," that these American Jewish teens are incredibly naieve and are giving money to the enemy of their own people. This would produce some chuckles in Nasrallah's underground bunker, and in Damascus and Teheran.
In order to survive the Jewish people need to take their plight very seriously and to take a sacred oath never to be defenceless and naieve in the face of evil again.