Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Who knew? Harry Potter's Jewish

Here's a funny take on an up-country wedding, Orthodox-style, from a friend named Nate,who has been visiting from Manhattan.

Adam Melech is from California, but his temporal home, today, is the Galilee town of Safed, home to stoners and Sufis and people like himself—somewhat ecstatic Hasidic mystics. Separating himself from the whisky-fueled merriment all around, he takes me aside to share something important: "See this wedding?" says Adam, gesturing to the gathered crowd. "This is like Bill and Fleur's wedding."

Bill and Fleur? From Harry Potter?

"That's right. Almost anything you need to know about Jews, you can learn from Harry Potter."

It might have been the jet lag, or the Bushmills, or the fact that I don't sing and can't dance, but my cousin's wedding, in an artists' colony in western Galilee, had left me feeling a little disjointed. Like most clean-shaven agnostic half-Jews, I get slightly nervous around Hasidim, perhaps because we can't both be right about life. And though my cousin is of mixed-blood, like me, and was never particularly religious, his wedding guests included real-deal Hasids: Ultra-Orthodox men chanting and praying and rocking back and forth, in their fedora hats and tzitzit strings hanging around their waist.

Most of them, it turns out, are Americans who weren't even born into Hasidic families. (They call themselves bal-chuva— "those who return" to the faith.) Emboldened by drink and by their warmth, I take the opportunity to ask the questions I'd always wanted to ask about Hasidism: What is it like? Why the clothes? I don't quite understand some of the more thoughtful answers about the second coming of Moses and Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. But I know Harry Potter, even if I never saw its Jewish significance.

Adam moves to enlighten me, offering an amazingly complete dual cosmology of Harry Potter and the Chosen People. Jews, he explains, are the wizards. The non-Jews are the muggles. And Israel's wizards are engaged in a kind of invisible spiritual warfare (just like in Rowling's books) that most muggles can't even see, much less understand. Rowling may be a muggle, says Adam, but she knew what she was doing. Why else would a yeshiva like Hogwart's be so central to their lives? Why would the power of naming and names be so important to both Jews and wizards? He offers further corollaries: Harry's spells are talmudic prayers; Hizballah are the Death-eaters; converts to Judaism are muggle-born wizards; and so on. He breaks the news that I'm actually just a mudblood — a muggle, not a wizard, because my muggle mother had converted to Reform Judaism, not Orthodox. But I shouldn't despair, he says. There are good muggles and bad muggles, just as there are good and bad wizards. I could still play a (somewhat diminished) role in fighting evil.

"Jesus," I answer. "This is all pretty heavy."

He winces. "Whoah! You said it."

"Said what?"

"That name. Him"

"Oh, I get it. Jesus: he who must not be named."

Adam winces again, but nods. I'm getting the hang of this. We have another drink.

A couple of days later, I called Rabbi Dr. Chaim Pollock, Dean of Foreign Students at the Michlalah Jerusalem College, whom I had read had also used the Harry Potter analogy. He seemed somewhat embarrassed that I was asking him about the topic. "Harry Potter is fiction," he said. He had never suggested that it spoke to the Jewish experience specifically. He had just defended its emphasis on good and evil back when a lot of religious leaders were denouncing the books as occult. "The following, I think I can tell you," he said, warming slightly to the topic. "Rowling is an astute observer of society. [Hasidim] have their inner truth, and inner logic," just as Rowling's world does.

Rabbi Pollock was cautious, of course — likening an ancient religion to children's fiction may not be particularly prudent in a country that is home to more holy sites and razor wire than anywhere on earth.

But here in Galilee — where Druze and Arab villages perch on the same scrubby ridgelines as Jewish towns, all within easy reach of Hizballah rockets, and the region's peoples continue to squabble over the mantle of historic victimhood — young Americans committed to God and Zion may find comfort in a world of Death-eaters and wizards.

Bill and Fleur's wedding, you may recall, was attacked by deatheaters. But this wedding night was uneventful — even the lights of the Druze and Arab villages twinkled benignly in the hills. At one point in the evening, a gregarious Lubavitcher named Shalom Pasternak, who sings in a band he created with my cousin called Kabbalah Dream Orchestra, was helping my cousin dispense shots of whisky and blessings to his friends and family. With his beautiful bride, and — let's face it — some fascinating friends, he was every bit the Half-Blood Prince. We were all glad to see it, wizard and muggle alike.

(Note that although the Galilee is definitely within Katyusha range, there have not been rocket firings in this region since the 2nd Lebanon War in 2006, so this is a bit of bogus bravery on the part of young Nate, a Time magazine whizkid.) Mazel Tov

The Shift Toward an Israeli-Syrian Agreement

The Middle East, already monstrously complex, grew more complex last week.
George Friedman, the Strategic Forecast analyst, pens a guest column while Izzy Bee is briefly out of the world's hottest and holiest region.

First, there were strong indications that both Israel and Syria were prepared to engage in discussions on peace. That alone is startling enough. But with the indicators arising in the same week that the United States decided to reveal that the purpose behind Israel’s raid on Syria in September 2007 was to destroy a North Korean-supplied nuclear reactor, the situation becomes even more baffling.

But before we dive into the what-will-be, let us first explain how truly bizarre things have gotten. On April 8 we wrote about how a number of seemingly unconnected events were piecing themselves into a pattern that might indicate an imminent war, a sequel to the summer 2006 Lebanon conflict. This mystery in the Middle East has since matured greatly, but in an unexpected direction. Israeli-Syrian peace talks — serious Israeli-Syrian peace talks — are occurring.

First, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the Israeli media that Israel had been talking to the Syrians, and then that “Very clearly we want peace with the Syrians and are taking all manners of action to this end. They know what we want from them, and I know full well what they want from us.” Then Syrian President Bashar al Assad publicly acknowledged that negotiations with Syria were taking place. Later, a Syrian minister appeared on Al Jazeera and said that, “Olmert is ready for peace with Syria on the grounds of international conditions, on the grounds of the return of the Golan Heights to Syria.” At almost exactly the same moment, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said that, “If Israel is serious and wants peace, nothing will stop the renewal of peace talks. What made this statement really interesting was that it was made in Tehran, standing next to Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, an ally of Syria whose government rejects the very concept of peace with Israel.

We would have expected the Syrians to choose another venue to make this statement, and we would have expected the Iranians to object. It didn’t happen. We waited for a blistering denial from Israel. Nothing came; all that happened was that Israeli spokesmen referred journalists to Olmert’s previous statement. Clearly something was on the table. The Turks had been pressing the Israelis to negotiate with the Syrians, and the Israelis might have been making a gesture to placate them, but the public exchanges clearly went beyond that point. This process could well fail, but it gave every appearance of being serious.

According to the existing understanding of the region’s geopolitical structure, an Israeli-Syrian peace deal is impossible.
The United States and Iran are locked into talks over the future of Iraq, and both regularly use their respective allies in Israel and Syria to shape those negotiations. An Israeli-Syrian peace would at the very least inconvenience American and Iranian plans.
Any peace deal would require defanging Hezbollah. But Hezbollah is not simply a Syrian proxy with an independent streak, it is also an Iranian proxy. So long as Iran is Syria’s only real ally in the Muslim world, such a step seems inimical to Syrian interests.
Hezbollah is also deeply entwined into the economic life of Lebanon — and in Lebanon’s drug production and distribution network — and threatening the relationship with Hezbollah would massively impact Damascus’ bottom line.
From the other side, Syria cannot accept a peace that does not restore its control over the Golan Heights, captured during the 1967 war. Since this patch of ground overlooks some of Israel’s most densely populated regions, it seems unnatural that Israel ever would even consider such a trade.
Forget issues of Zionism or jihadism, or even simple bad blood; the reality is that any deal between Israel and Syria clashes with the strategic interests of both sides, making peace is impossible. Or is it? Talks are happening nonetheless, meaning one of two things is true: Either Olmert and Assad have lost it, or this view of reality is wrong.

Let’s reground this discussion away from what everyone — ourselves included — thinks they know and go back to the basics, namely, the geopolitical realities in which Israel and Syria exist.

Peace with Egypt and Jordan means Israel is secure on its eastern and southern frontiers. Its fundamental problem is counterinsurgency in Gaza and at times in the West Bank. Its ability to impose a military solution to this problem is limited, so it has settled for separating itself from the Palestinians and on efforts to break up the Palestinian movement into different factions. The split in the Palestinian community between Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza helped this strategy immensely, dividing the Palestinians geographically, ideologically, economically and politically. The deeper the intra-Palestinian conflict is, the less of a strategic threat to Israel the Palestinians can be. It is hardly a beautiful solution — and dividing the Palestinians does not reduce the security burden on Israel — but it is manageable.

Israel does not perceive Syria as a serious threat. Not only is the Syrian military a pale shadow of Israeli capability, Israel does not even consider sacrificing the Golan Heights to weakening the Israeli military meaningfully. The territory has become the pivot of public discussions, but losing it hasn’t been a real problem for Israel since the 1970s. In today’s battlefield environment, artillery on the heights would rapidly be destroyed by counter-battery fire, helicopter gunships or aircraft. Indeed, the main threat to Israel from Syria is missiles. Damascus now has one of the largest Scud missile and surface-to-surface missile arsenals in the region — and those can reach Israel from far beyond the Golan Heights regardless of where the Israeli-Syrian political border is located. Technological advances — even those from just the last decade — have minimized the need for a physical presence on that territory that was essential militarily decades ago .

The remaining threat to Israel is posed by Lebanon, where Hezbollah has a sufficient military capability to pose a limited threat to northern Israel, as was seen in the summer of 2006. Israel can engage and destroy a force in Lebanon, but the 1982-2002 Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon vividly demonstrated that the cost-benefit ratio to justify an ongoing presence simply does not make sense.

At the current time, Israel’s strategic interests are twofold. First, maintain and encourage the incipient civil war between Hamas and Fatah. The key to this is to leverage tensions between neighboring Arab states and the Palestinians. And this is easy. The Hashemite government of Jordan detests the West Bank Palestinians because more than three-quarters of the population of Jordan is Palestinian, but the Hashemite king rather likes being king. Egypt equally hates the Gaza Palestinians as Hamas’ ideological roots lie in the Muslim Brotherhood — a group whose ideology not only contributed to al Qaeda’s formation, but also that of groups who have exhibited a nasty habit of assassinating Egyptian presidents.

The second Israeli strategic interest is finding a means of neutralizing any threat from Lebanon without Israel being forced into war — or worse yet, into an occupation of Lebanon. The key to this strategy lies with the other player in this game.

Ultimately Syria only has its western border to worry about. To the east is the vast desert border with Iraq, an excellent barrier to attack for both nations. To the north are the Turks who, if they chose, could swallow Syria in a hard day’s work and be home in time for coffee. Managing that border is a political matter, not a military one.

That leaves the west. Syria does not worry too much about an Israeli invasion. It is not that Damascus thinks that Israel is incapable of such an operation — Israel would face only a slightly more complicated task of eliminating Syria than Turkey would — but that the al Assads know full well that Israel is happy with them in power. The al Assads and their fellow elites hail from the Alawite sect of Islam, an offshoot of Shiite Islam that the Sunnis consider apostate. Alawite rule in Syria essentially is secular, and the government has a historic fear of an uprising by the majority Sunnis.

The Israelis know that any overthrow of the al Assads would probably land Israel with a radical Sunni government on its northeastern frontier. From Israel’s point of view, it is far better to deal with a terrified and insecure Syrian government more concerned with maintaining internal control than a confident and popular Syrian government with the freedom to look outward.

Just as Syria’s defensive issues vis-à-vis Israel are not what they seem, neither are Syrian tools for dealing with Israel in an offensive manner as robust as most think.

Syria is not particularly comfortable with the entities that pose the largest security threats to Israel, namely, the main Palestinian factions. Damascus has never been friendly to the secular Fatah movement, with which it fought many battles in Lebanon; nor is it comfortable with the more fundamentalist Sunni Hamas. (Syria massacred its own fundamentalists during the 1980s.) So while the Syrians have dabbled in Palestinian politics, they have never favored a Palestinian state. In fact, it should be recalled that when Syria first invaded Lebanon in 1975, it was against the Palestinians and in support of Lebanese Christians.

That invasion — as well as most Syrian operations in Lebanon — was not about security, but about money. Lebanon, the descendent of Phoenicia, has always been a vibrant economic region (save when there is war). It is the terminus of trade routes from the east and south and the door to the Mediterranean basin. It is a trading and banking hub, with Beirut in particular as the economic engine of the region. Without Beirut and Lebanon, Syria is an isolated backwater. With it, Damascus is a major player.

As such, Syria’s closest ties among Israel’s foes are not with the two major indigenous Palestinian factions, but with the Shiite group Hezbollah. The Syrians have a somewhat tighter religious affinity with Hezbollah, as well as a generation of complex business dealings with the group’s leaders. But its support for Hezbollah is multifaceted, and anti-Israeli tendencies are only one aspect of the relationship. And Hezbollah is much more important to Syria as a tool for managing Damascus’ affairs in Lebanon.

The Basis of a Deal
Israel and Syria’s geopolitical interests diverge less than it might appear. By itself, Syria poses no conventional threat to Israel. Syria is dangerous only in the context of a coalition with Egypt. In 1973, fighting on two fronts, the Syrians were a threat. With Egypt neutralized now and behind the buffer in the Sinai, Syria poses no threat. As for unconventional weapons, the Israelis indicated with their bombing of the Syrian research facility in September 2007 that they know full well how — and are perfectly willing unilaterally — to take that option off Damascus’ table.

Since neither side wants a war with the other — Israel does not want to replace the Alawites, and the Alawites are not enamored of being replaced — the issue boils down to whether Israel and Syria can coordinate their interests in Lebanon. Israel has no real economic interests in Lebanon. Its primary interest is security — to make certain that forces hostile to Israel cannot use Lebanon as a base for launching attacks. Syria has no real security interests so long its economic primacy is guaranteed. And neither country wants to see an independent Palestinian state.

The issue boils down to Lebanon. In a sense, the Israelis had an accommodation with Syria over Lebanon when Israel withdrew. It ceded economic pre-eminence in Lebanon to the Syrians. In return, the Syrians controlled Hezbollah and in effect took responsibility for Israeli security in return for economic power. It was only after Syria withdrew from Lebanon under U.S. pressure that Hezbollah evolved into a threat to Israel, precipitating the 2006 conflict.

This was a point on which Israel and the United States didn’t agree. The United States, fighting in Iraq, wanted an additional lever with which to try to control Syrian support for militants fighting in Iraq. They saw Lebanon as a way to punish Syria for actions in Iraq. But the Israelis saw themselves as having to live with the consequences of that withdrawal. Israel understood that Syria’s withdrawal shifted the burden of controlling Hezbollah to Israel — something that could not be achieved without an occupation.

What appears to be under consideration between the supposed archrivals, therefore, is the restoration of the 2005 status quo in Lebanon. The Syrians would reclaim their position in Lebanon, unopposed by Israel. In return, the Syrians would control Hezbollah. For the Syrians, this has the added benefit that by controlling Hezbollah and restraining it in the south, Syria would have both additional strength on the ground in Lebanon, as well as closer economic collaboration — on more favorable terms — with Hezbollah. For Syria, Hezbollah is worth more as a puppet than as a heroic anti-Israeli force.

This is something Israel understands. In the last fight between Israel and Syria in Lebanon, there were different local allies: Israel had the South Lebanese Army. The Syrians were allied with the Christian Franjieh clan. In the end, both countries dumped their allies. Syria and Israel have permanent interests in Lebanon. They do not have permanent allies.

The Other Players
The big loser in this game, of course, would be the Lebanese. But that is more complicated than it appears. Many of the Lebanese factions — including most of the Christian clans — have close relations with the Syrians. Moreover, the period of informal Syrian occupation was a prosperous time. Lebanon is a country of businessmen and militia, sometimes the same. The stability the Syrians imposed was good for business.

The one faction that would clearly oppose this would be Hezbollah. It would be squeezed on all sides. Ideologically speaking, constrained from confronting Israel, its place in the Islamic sun would be undermined. Economically speaking, Hezbollah would be forced into less favorable economic relations with the Syrians than it enjoyed on its own. And politically speaking, Hezbollah would have the choice of fighting the Syrians (not an attractive option) or of becoming a Syrian tool. Either way, Hezbollah would have to do something in response to any rumors floating about of a Syrian deal with the Israelis. And given the quality of Syrian intelligence in these matters, key Hezbollah operatives opposed to such a deal might find themselves blown up. Perhaps they already have.

Iran will not be happy about all this. Tehran has invested a fair amount of resources in bulking up Hezbollah, and will not be pleased to see the militia shift from Syrian management to Syrian control. But in the end, what can Iran do? It cannot support Hezbollah directly, and even if it were to attempt to undermine Damascus, those Syrians most susceptible to Tehran’s Shiite-flavored entreaties are the Alawites themselves.

The other player that at the very least would be uneasy about all of this is the United States. The American view of Syria remains extremely negative, still driven by the sense that the Syrians continue to empower militants in Iraq. Certainly that aid — and that negative U.S. feeling — is not as intense as it was two years ago, but the Americans might not feel that this is the right time for such a deal. Thus, the release of the information on the Syrian reactor might well have been an attempt to throw a spoke in the wheel of the Israeli-Syrian negotiations.

That might not be necessary. Nothing disappears faster than Syrian-Israeli negotiations. In this case, however, both countries have fundamental geopolitical interests at stake. Israel wants to secure its northern frontier without committing its troops into Lebanon. The Syrians want to guarantee their access to the economic possibilities in Lebanon. Neither care about the Golan Heights. The Israelis don’t care what happens in Lebanon so long as it doesn’t explode in Israel. The Syrians don’t care what happens to the Palestinians so long as it doesn’t spread onto their turf.

Deals have been made on less. Israel and Syria are moving toward a deal that would leave a lot of players in the region — including Iran — quite unhappy. Given this deal has lots of uneasy observers, including Iran, the United States, Hezbollah, the Palestinians and others, it could blow apart with the best will in the world. And given that this is Syria and Israel, the best will isn’t exactly in abundant supply.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Jewish burqa that failed to cover up Ultra-Orthodox child and sex abuse

Ramat Beit Shemesh (which, a former Jerusalem city councilwoman tells me, translates as ‘House of the Rising Sun’,) is an oddly appropriate name for a troubled suburb of Jerusalem. Remember?

Oh mother tell your children
Not to do what I have done
Spend your lives in sin and misery
In the House of the Rising Sun

In the narrow lanes of Beit Shemesh, a suburb where cloistered ultra-Orthodox families vie for space with Israeli Arabs, there evolved a cult of radically modest Jewish women who insist on cloaking their faces and bodies under seven layers of fabric, refraining from speaking to any males who are not their husbands (including their own sons)and rarely leaving their homes.

It was odd how the Israeli press labeled the cult leader as "that Taleban woman" -- even though she was not remotely Islamic, but a member of the tribe. The group seemed like cranks and people preferred not to be associated with them. "The women of Israel are lessening in God's eyes because the Arabs are more modest in dress. If the Jews want to conquer the Arabs in this land they must enhance their modesty,” her followers had asserted.

Click here for the Times of London take on the cult.

So what does one call a “Jewish Burqa”?-- no, jokers, not a Berkowitz, but a “sai”. As the odd group gained momentum almost 100 of the female cultist's followers began dressing like ambient sacks. The lumpy ladies were dismissed as a quirky curiosity, until it became tragically apparent that Keren, their self-styled leader, had something more than her face to hide. The mother was arrested for neglecting and abusing her brood of a dozen children and even tolerating incest amongst the teenagers. Her own sister admitted her concern that this sibling was mad and needed help. But going to the authorities for help is viewed akin to treason; problems are expected to be dealt with inside the group. One doesn't air dirty laundry and taint the name of the religion. For G*d's sake shut up, is accepted practice.

(Finally this month Keren was charged with at least 25 counts of aggravated assault on six of her 12 children. The High Court ordered her to remain in custody, and overturned a lower court ruling which would have seen the woman placed under house arrest.)

But then an even more horrifying case, if possible, was unearthed inside the secretive world of Jerusalem's ultra-orthodox community. A mother of eight, following tips from the charismatic Rabbi Elior Chen, sought help for "correcting" her naughtiest pre-school age children, a few months after separating from her husband. The adults had attempted to purge demons from the boys with cigarette burns, hammer blows that broke bones, by locking them inside suitcases for days on end, then forcing the lads to eat feces and drink water from the toilet. The four-year-old ultimately was admitted to hospital in a coma, and his father sought permission to pray at his bedside in intensive care. Rabbi Chen fled to Canada when the case broke.
Tragic as they are, these haredi child abuse cases do shine a light into dark family corners and indicate what can happen inside a hermetic world, where youngsters are not taught words to describe abuse and outsiders rarely dare to interfere.

Israelity bites.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Reuters Cameraman killed by tank shell

Fadal Shana, a 23-year-old TV cameraman with the Reuters news agency, was among 20 Palestinians killed in fighting Wednesday — the bloodiest day in Gaza in more than a month. Shana was struck, along with two bystanders, as he filmed Israeli tank movements off in the distance. Three Israeli soldiers had been ambushed and killed earlier that day.

Thousands of Palestinians, including journalists and members of rival political movements, marched Thursday through the streets of Gaza City at the funeral procession of a cameraman killed covering an Israeli-Palestinian battle.

Shana’s body was wrapped in a bloodied Palestinian flag as fellow journalists marched alongside carrying his broken camera and bloodstained flak jacket. The marchers waved Palestinian flags and carried small posters of Shana posing with his camera.

“Fadal Shana, goodbye, the victim of the truth,” the posters said.

Click here to see Fadal's final footage. It's sobering.

Footage released by Reuters shows Mr Shana filming a tank positioned a few hundred yards away in the distance, over the Israeli border.

The film shows a tank firing its shell, which explodes causing the picture to go blank as the camera is thrown from Mr Shana's hand.

It then cuts away to a film made by another cameraman positioned nearby, which shows the devastation left by the shell, including two youths who had been passing the scene lying dead in the road. The IDF has not confirmed that they were resonsible for the young journalist's death. The foreign press association in Jerualem is pressing for an investigation.

(cross posted on Feral Beast)

Sunday, April 13, 2008

New Yorker digs up Biblical archaeology controversy which rankled academia

Here's an abstract from the current New Yorker magazine, about academic politics and old-fashioned blacklisting. Jane Kramer, in "The Petition,"recaps

the controversy over anthropologist Nadia Abu El-Haj of Barnard College. Writer discusses Abu El-Haj’s doctoral dissertation, which was revised and published in 2001 under the title “Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society.” The book looked at the role of archeology in what was essentially a political project: the Biblical validation for Jewish claims to what is now Israel. After teaching at the University of Chicago and spending a year at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, Abu El-Haj moved to New York and joined the faculty of Barnard College. In April of 2006, she came up for tenure there. No one in her department doubted she would get it. Over the next year, her tenure file passed the scrutiny of three committees, which recommended her for tenure. By the spring of 2007, all that remained was the approval of a fourth committee.
In August of 2007, a petition entitled “Deny Nadia Abu El-Haj tenure” was posted on the Internet. It found its way onto a number of email lists and Web sites. The author of the petition was a Barnard alumna named Paula Stern. Writer notes that Stern’s complaints against Abu El-Haj’s work were inaccurate. Stern later predicted that Barnard and Columbia were going to lose a lot of alumni money if Abu El-Haj got tenure. Writer discusses the legacy of the late Columbia professor Edward Said. Many of the attacks on Abu El-Haj made pointed reference to his influence. Tells about Rashid Khalidi, who came under attack for accepting the chair named after Said. Mentions Columbia president Lee Bollinger’s stinging introduction of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who spoke at the university last year. Gives biographical information about Abu El-Haj, who was born in New York and raised in Iran and Lebanon. She attended Bryn Mawr and later Duke, where her dissertation adviser, Virginia Dominguez, helped her focus her research on how Israel’s Jewish national “self” came to be constructed. Discusses Abu El-Haj’s work on the subject. Tells about “Columbia Unbecoming,” a film about the alleged intimidation of Jewish students by three Middle Eastern professors. A university committee that investigated the claims found no evidence of harassment, but two professors were cited for “episodes” three years earlier. One of these men, Joseph Massad, is currently awaiting word on tenure. Mentions the activities of pro-Israel advocacy groups led by David Horowitz, Daniel Pipes, and Charles Jacobs. Tells about criticism of Abu El-Haj by Professor Alan Segal and others during her tenure process. On November 1, 2007, Abu El-Haj was informed that she had received tenure.
“What happened last year—it wasn’t about me. I was a cog in the big wheel of the issue of the Middle East and Israel,” she says.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Jewish mother's burdens and a talent for multi-tasking with a grin

Talk about grin and bear it. The sweet smile is astonishing under the circumstances! This powerful young mother in the snapshot above had just mounted a long steep hill in Jerusalem's Liberty Bell Park on a sunny Saturday. There's a baby strapped on her front, another strapped on her back, while a curly-haired toddler grasps her left hand, and she holds a plastic bag bulging with 'necessities' in her right. Her friend pushes a pram with all the spare sweaters and the like. Oy vey. She didn't even break a sweat. Surely it's a sign of the superb frontierswomen's genes leftover from the folks who founded this country.

That strange ridged citrus fruit that she's holding beneath is a delectable Jericho orange, which some claim to be the tastiest fruit in the whole Middle East. An admiring mom in the park wanted to share it with her. It resembles a California Navel orange, but has more unpredictable bumps on its thick skin. It appears thick skins are something that come with the territory. Israelity Bites.

Blair's Middle-East muddling and double standards

Chris Patten, co-chairman of International Crisis Group and chancellor of Oxford U, is no slouch on international affairs. His recent comments on the distracted performance of Middle East envoy Tony Blair in the performance of his "initial day job" are frank and cut close to the bone. The goal is "a peaceful Palestinian state next door to a secure Israel in a region united in prosperity and stability." How to achieve this remains a conundrum, and Blair's own brand of shuttle diplomacy, spending only a few days a month on this daunting task, will not yield any Northern Ireland-style breakthroughs. An excerpt follows:

... Blair has just made a useful comment on Palestine and Israel, which deserves to be taken seriously. Throughout the long years of this bloody tragedy, we have tried to inch our way to a settlement through confidence-building measures or, in the case of the long dead "road map," through pushing both parties to take parallel steps toward an agreement. Some observers, not least hard-headed Israeli peace campaigners, have suggested a different approach.

You will never succeed, they say, if you try to bob and weave your way slowly toward an end game. Instead, you should jump straight into a final deal. And, since you won't get the two sides to agree to it, you'll have to impose it from the outside.

But that ambitious outcome is easier described than achieved. While Israeli public opinion has usually appeared to run well ahead of its political leaders in the approach to peace, it is difficult to see how one could act over their heads. They need to be pushed and shoved into a successful negotiation. What would it mean to go straight to Palestinian statehood?

Presumably, Blair is not proposing to the Palestinians the creation of a state before an agreement is reached on final borders. There cannot be a Palestinian state without dealing with West Bank settlements. If you don't believe me, just visit the West Bank and see, for example, how the proposed suburban Israeli development of East Jerusalem stabs through the heart of Palestinian territory toward the Dead Sea. How can you have a viable state carved up by fences, military roads, and barbed wire?

Any Palestinian state should be within the 1967 borders (as adjusted through negotiation). Peace activists on both sides solved that in the Geneva initiative. Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak came close to doing so at Camp David almost eight years ago.

Moreover, a Palestinian state would not only comprise the West Bank and Gaza, but presumably would also have to accommodate the principal political parties in each area. Attempts to destroy Hamas — whether politically or physically — have not worked and cannot work. The Americans and Europeans committed a major error in conspiring to destroy the Fatah-Hamas national unity government, which was created largely thanks to the diplomacy of Saudi Arabia and other Arab League countries.

I hope that Blair is saying that to his American friends. His greatest achievement was the peace deal in Northern Ireland. That historic triumph depended on bringing in Sinn Fein politicians — leaders of the Irish Republican movement who in many cases could not be distinguished from the IRA, which bombed, shot, and maimed civilians in pursuit of its political goals.

Why should what worked in Northern Ireland — indeed, what was pressed on Britain by the United States — be unthinkable in the Middle East? Are we in the West guilty of double standards yet again?

I abhor any and every terrorist act, by Hamas or anyone else. I have had friends killed by terrorists. But since when were sentiment and moral denunciation sufficient ingredients of a policy? And when did a disproportionate military response to terrorism ever work?

The third challenge in establishing a Palestinian state is to create the institutions of statehood: Hospitals, ports, airports, roads, courts, police stations, tax offices, and government archives. When I was a European commissioner, we provided funds from European taxpayers to pay for these things. Then we saw them systematically trashed by Israel's response to the second Intifada.

How did destroying driving licenses in Palestine preserve Israeli security? How was it preserved by digging up runways, uprooting olive trees, and fouling wells?

A Palestinian state will need to be built from the bottom up. And what is built should not be destroyed.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Gettin' on for Armageddon, Pastor Hagee says

The luxury coaches are crammed with White Bread Americans, and the name of Pastor John Hagee,of Texas mega-church fame, is emblazoned on the side like a multinational brand. The vehicles have been crisscrossing Israel in the past few days, basically following in the footsteps of Jesus-- except for the omission of Palestinian Bethlehem. The itinerary stops at Armageddon, as Time magazine reports:

An Evangelical at Armageddon

It's quiet at Armageddon, these days, with only the wind racing like invisible war chariots across its grassy plains. But lately, the northern Israeli site — also known as Tel Meggido — designated in the New Testament as the field of the final battle has become a popular tourist destination. Christians arrive by the busload eager to see the battleground where the world as we know it will end. At the souvenir shop, they flock to buy maps of where Jesus walked, and tiny vials of water from the Jordan River. The river may now be mostly a murky rivulet, but thousands of Evangelical Christians insist on being re-baptized in its waters.

Armageddon was a brief stopover a few days ago for a contingent of Christians led by the Texas televangelist Pastor John Hagee, who believes that doomsday is nigh. In his recent book Jerusalem Countdown, which sold 1.4 million copies, Hagee uses contemporary news events, such as the threat of a nuclear Iran, to describe the lead-up to a war in which the Russian and Arab armies invade Israel and are destroyed by God in a terrible battle on this very spot.

Hagee, whose views on Catholicism caused controversy for the presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain when he endorsed the Arizona senator, didn't charm many Palestinians, either — not even the Christians among them — when he said that "turning all or part of Jerusalem over to the Palestinians would be tantamount to turning it over to the Taliban." So much for the fate of Jerusalem being on the agenda of the Bush Administration's peace initiative.

Hagee's remarks, however, have certainly endeared him to Israel's hawks. Ex-Premier and Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu spoke at Hagee's rally in Jerusalem, calling the American Christian Zionists Israel's best friends.

Other Jews, in Israel and in the U.S., are less comfortable in the embrace of the American Evangelicals. They cite a verse from Revelations claiming that Jesus will return only after two-thirds of the Jews are killed and the rest are converted to Christianity. "They are not supporting us out of love," says one opponent, Rabbi Shalom Dov Lifshitz from the anti-missionary group Yad La'achim, "but because they believe that if we convert out of Judaism to Christianity, it will bring on the Apocalypse." And that, he says, is "a danger to the people of Israel."

One pastor in Jerusalem from a mainstream church expressed skepticism about the motives of the Christian Zionists — and of the cynicism of Israelis who play along. "It's the worst kind of anti-Semitism," says the cleric, who asked to remain anonymous given the sensitivity of the issue. "At the end, these Evangelicals say that all the Jews will be dead except those who become Christians. But in the meantime, the Israelis are happy to fill their hotels with them and use their help to get American weapons."

Shortly before Hagee's tour, American Rabbi Eric Yoffie from the liberal Reform Jewish Movement denounced the friendship between Israel and Christian Evangelicals, not only because Hagee and his like-minded brethren reject the two-state solution (with East Jerusalem as capital of a future Palestinian state) but because they are often at odds with liberal Jews in the U.S. over such incendiary topics as abortion and gay rights.

America's Evangelical movement is vast and diverse, and so are the reasons why Evangelicals rally to Israel. They range from the simple Sunday school teaching — God loves the Jews and abhors their enemies — to a belief that the Jews' return to their ancestral lands, and the "miraculous" victory of the Israelis over the Arabs in the 1967 war, is a harbinger of the Apocalypse and the Messiah's return. In a 2006 poll conducted by Pew Research Center, 35% of all Americans say that the creation of Israel is a fulfillment of Biblical prophecy about Jesus' second coming. And also that Armageddon is just around the corner. But for now, the only legions arriving on the battlefield are those traveling on tour buses.

Izzy Bee has learned that the good Pastor spurned a scheduled Q & A with the American newsweekly last week. Was this perhaps because it featured Pope Benedict on the cover? (The pontiff, he has implied, plays Eliot Spitzer to the Whore of Babylon.) Meanwhile, Hagee's congregation sent a $6m donation to Israel (and West Bank Jewish settlers in Ariel, Samaria) which has assured an open-armed welcome.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Shell Shock. Gazans slaughter rare sea turtle for folk medicine remedies

Impoverished fishermen snared a rare leatherback sea turtle on the main beach at Gaza and slit its throat so its blood could be drunk as a tradiitonal treatment for asthma or back pains. Environmentalists may want to shield their eyes from this video, made by a Reuters crew inside the enclave. That's 600 kilos of meat!

Friday, April 04, 2008

No pay. No Sex. No Kvetching, guys.

The Jerusalem Post today reports on Israel's "Murky Waters" (a rather distasteful headline for a report on why an Orthodox feminist group urges wives to stop sex with their husbands unless state-employees at their ritual mikve purification baths get back pay.)

According to Jewish law, a woman must immerse herself in a mikve after menstruation before she can have sexual relations with her husband. Abstaining from going to the mikve is tantamount to abstinence from sex.

Attorney Batia Kahana-Dror, a leading member of Kolech, a feminist Orthodox organization, sent out a "no pay, no sex" message in an opinion piece on the organization's Web site this week calling on women to stop going to the mikve in protest against delays in paying salaries to hundreds of mikve attendants.

"Let's drive them crazy, all those who wait restlessly for the night that their woman to go to the mikve. All those who make up the majority in the religious councils, the Treasury, the Religious Services Ministry and the Knesset, the rabbis and the leaders. Stop. No more sex. Let's face it, no one is going to die from it."

However, rabbis and the mikve attendants said that it was forbidden by Jewish law for a married couple to refrain from sex as a means of protest....opponents of the call for celibacy said it was inappropriate and immodest for women to publicize the fact that they were not going to the mikve.

A mikve attendant in Jerusalem who preferred to remain anonymous said she had not been paid for two months. Nevertheless, she said she opposed striking in protest.
"We do sacred work and it cannot be interrupted," the attendant said."If we were to strike some of these women would be with their husbands without going to the mikve. I can't have that on my conscience.

...there are at least 400 mikve attendants and pensioners in Jerusalem who have not been paid for two to three months.Cash-strapped municipalities regularly default on their payments to the religious councils, which receive 40 percent of their budgets from the Religious Services Ministry and 60% from the local government.

As a result, mikve attendants, rabbis, kosher supervisors and clerks have suffered chronic salary payment delays. Kahana-Dror is hopeful that promises to pay salaries before Pessah will be honoured.

"But if attendants don't get paid, I'm not going to the mikve. And don't ask me what my husband thinks about that."

In the mikve's chest high water, a woman immerses until water covers every last hair and then recites the blessing after she emerges. An attendant watches carefully to ensure that each immersion is complete according to Halacha (Jewish law). She pronounces each immersion "Kosher", and a woman departs renewed and purified ritually, ready for marital relations.