The Head Heeb : Knocking Down 4000 Years of Icons
Saturday, June 21, 2003
Nobody but Douglas Rushkoff writes things like this:
Judaism boils down to a 3500-year-old debate about what happened on Mount Sinai and what we're supposed to do about it. Judaism is not set in stone; it is to be reinterpreted by each generation. All that's required is a continual smashing of your false idols (iconoclasm), a refusal to pretend you know who or what God is (abstract monotheism) and being nice to people (social justice). In a sense, Judaism isn't a religion at all, but a way human beings can get over religion and into caring about one another.
Two millennia of being treated as a despised race might convince any people that it's true. Ironically, Jews were being persecuted, at least in part, for their very refusal to accept such false boundaries. Local gods, ethnic purity and national religions meant nothing to this amalgamation of formerly disparate tribes. Moses' wife was black, for God's sake. How much clearer can the story get about race not being the issue here?
The Reform movement was a great idea when it arose in the 1800s in Germany. Judaism was built to be reformed. Problem is, some of the reforms were designed for little purpose other than to make Jewish worship look less weird to any Christians who might happen to drop by. So a spirited, participatory free-for-all was turned into Jewish church: Rabbis put on robes, stood on a stage in front of the room and engaged in boring, monotone responsive readings with the congregation. All the atrophied dullness of Christianity, only without the salvation.
No matter what your views, you'll find plenty to agree and disagree with in his article, and all of it is provocative. Go read it.
Vote early and often
It's not too late to give Allison your support in NZ Bear's weekly New Blog Showcase. She's currently in the lead by four links, but the polls don't close until tomorrow night. All you have to do to vote for her is link to travelogue of the Golan, which is well worth reading anyway.
Friday, June 20, 2003
Amr Elchoubaki in Al-Ahram gives his take on the demonstrations in Iran. I don't agree with much of what he writes; for one thing, democratization in Iran has often gone backward during the Khatami administration, and for another, the institutional powers of the President and the Majlis have proven insufficient to enact real reforms over Khamene'i's opposition. He does, however, put forward a resolution to the Iranian constitutional crisis that I haven't seen before:
Should Iran be left to its own devices, it is possible to predict that in the foreseeable future the Spiritual Guide will assume a role similar to that of the British monarch or the president of a country ruled by an elected prime minister. Ultimately his authority will be transformed to one of a purely moral and symbolic nature while effective rule is assumed by the popularly elected institutions of government.
The idea of Khamene'i playing the role of the Queen of England or Mary Robinson is an amusing one, but I can't see this arrangement working as long as he is in power. Before Iran can appoint a figurehead velayat e-faghih, it will have to replace the Assembly of Experts, who have the power to appoint and dismiss the supreme leader. The Experts are elected, but the next election is not until 2006, and the Council of Guardians tends to filter candidates for this assembly much more strictly than parliamentary candidates. The Assembly of Experts will continue to be dominated by hard-liners for the foreseeable future, which means that fundamental change in the role of the velayat e-faghih through constitutional means is at least a decade away. It is likely that matters will come to a head long before that.
Quote of the day
From the Forward, via Moorishgirl:
It's likely that some of the Satmar chasidim with whom [Orthodox Jewish poet Matthue Roth] prays wouldn't take kindly to linking tefillin and sadomasochism.
More Law 84 fallout
Egypt's controversial new law on non-governmental associations, which made the news last week when the Egyptian judges' association voted not to comply, is again raising concern after two NGOs' registrations were rejected by the Ministry of Social Affairs. The two organizations, the New Woman Research Centre and the Land Centre for Human Rights, were apparently rejected for unspecified reasons by security agencies, to whom the ministry is required to defer. They can appeal the decision in a specialized court, but their cases might take a long time to be heard; one NGO appeal has been pending since 1985.
Both organizations intend to continue operating as regular corporations or law firms, and the Land Centre has also filed a constitutional challenge to the law. A similar challenge to Egypt's previous law was successful, and the Court of Cassation might throw out the current one as well. Until that happens, though, "human rights organisations that are registered as civic associations are likely to face extensive administrative intervention on the part of the Ministry of Social Affairs."
Another accused war criminal
The latest victim of the Belgian war crimes law is Belgium's foreign minister, Louis Michel:
Michel, Belgium's outspoken foreign minister who sharply criticized the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, stands accused by a small opposition party for approving arms shipments to Nepal.
The accusation against Michel highlights one of the key weaknesses of the Belgian statute. By allowing private prosecutions, it permits the criminal justice system to be hijacked for purposes of political harassment, and the arena now appears to have expanded from international to domestic politics. If the charges against Michel stand, then it will be open season for parties that lose at the polls to file nuisance complaints against government ministers with whom they disagree. Moreover, since these cases actually involve Belgians, the government will not have the option of transferring the proceedings to the defendant's home country as it did with the complaint against retired Israeli general Amos Yaron.
Despite the reforms that the Belgian parliament has made to the controversial war-crimes law, it has not made the most critical one. Something as serious as charges of crimes against humanity should be brought by a publicly accountable prosecutor after investigation and deliberation rather than being open to trivialization by any fringe group with an agenda.
Imshin has been blogging for a year. As usual, her anniversary post is much more eloquent than anything I've written to mark one of my own milestones. Go over there now and read it.
The Europeanization of Israel continues
Israel has been accepted as a participating member to the European Space Agency. This status "will allow Israel to participate in European space projects and to submit proposals for joint development projects." Israel is not yet a full member of the ESA - a status that would require the approval of 15 European Union member nations - but it intends to pursue full membership.
Will nobody rid me of idiots who make Nazi analogies? Anyone who equates Gaza to the Warsaw Ghetto obviously has no idea what life was like in the Warsaw Ghetto.
Thursday, June 19, 2003
One step forward
The bad news is that West Bank settlers used violence to resist the IDF troops sent to dismantle the Yitzhar outpost, hiding Molotov cocktails in buildings and creating a diversion by setting fire to Palestinian fields. There's a word for people who do things like that, and that word is "terrorist."
The good news is that the operation ended the way it should - with Yitzhar demolished, 21 settlers under arrest and 19 more outposts slated for eviction. The IDF's willingness to take on the settlers despite continuing terror attacks is a good sign; hopefully the Palestinian Authority will soon take similar action against suicide bombers and people who kill seven-year-old girls on the highway.
UPDATE: In response to issues raised in the comment thread, I do not consider the settlers at Yitzhar morally equivalent to people who shoot seven-year-old girls. Suicide bombers or highway assassins intend to kill, whereas the settlers acted recklessly in creating a risk of death. If anyone had died at Yitzhar, it would have been manslaughter rather than murder. Therefore, the settlers practiced a less morally repugnant form of terrorism than the Palestinian suicide bombers.
Nevertheless, although the two are not morally equivalent, the goal of both the Palestinian terrorists and the hilltop youth is to prevent peace through violence and fear. As such, the extremists on each side pose a challenge to their respective governments. The Israeli government, to its credit, is rising to the challenge. The Palestinian Authority, thus far, has not. What everyone seems to be missing is that this is a pro-Sharon post - the point is not so much the similarities between the hilltop youth and Palestinian terrorists as the differences between the way that the IDF and PA are currently dealing with extremists. The IDF isn't fighting extremists with promises and excuses, and the PA needs to start following that example.
UPDATE 2: I have partially reconsidered my use of the T-word in this context.
The rich don't ride buses
Allison discusses the effect of social class on vulnerability to terror attacks.
Kesher Talk links to an article about the Jews and Muslims of Malta. Malta is a nation of 390,000 people, about 96 percent of whom are Catholic. The constitution stipulates that Catholicism is the country's official religion, but religious freedom is guaranteed and the Catholic majority coexists with diverse communities of about 3000 Muslims and 100 Jews. Like many small communities, the Maltese Jews do without a rabbi, but the community owns a private apartment that serves as a synagogue:
About four years ago, the community purchased a flat in Ta’ Xbiex, which could be converted into a synagogue.
By and large, the Jewish community, which dates to the 1790s in its modern incarnation, maintains good relations with the government and the Catholic clergy. The article, however, fails to mention Malta's most controversial Jew: Simone Zammit Endrich.
Endrich is a freelance journalist and op-ed writer known for her over-the-top comments on political issues. On April 22, 2002, at the height of Israeli military operations in the West Bank, she wrote an op-ed piece in the Malta Independent, entitled Bitter Harvest, which criticized Maltese political leaders for participating in a pro-Palestinian demonstration:
By whose authority do our three political leaders – the President, Prime Minister and Opposition leader – give a public display of support to the Palestinian cause? How dare they – our representatives – take the liberty on behalf of the Maltese people, in ways that are decidedly undemocratic, unethical, and uncalled for? Are they aware that, aside from the political class and the usual small but noisy peace-screaming groups, the rest of the country is howling in protest?
She followed this argument with a denunciation of Palestinian suicide bombing. If she had stopped there, the article might have been a matter of momentary controversy only. However, in addition to arguing against Palestinian terrorism, she issued a slur against Arabs as a group:
As a matter of fact, the typical Jew is clever, quick, perceptive, industrious, able in all economic and financial affairs, in short – successful. On the flipside, the typical Arab is lazy and confined to religious idiosyncrasies, with violence and intolerance at the hub of his culture. Arabs loathe the Israelis in very much the same manner they harbour anti-American sentiments. They are the embodiment of all they would have liked to be.
This paragraph angered the Arab community of Malta, and shortly after it ran, criminal charges were brought against her under Article 3 of Chapter 248 of the Press Law of Malta. This law provides that "whosoever, by any means, shall threaten, insult, or expose to hatred, persecution or contempt, a person or group of persons because of their race, creed, colour, nationality, sex, disability as defined in article 2 of the Equal Opportunities (Persons with Disability) Act, or national or ethnic origin shall be liable on conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three months and to a fine."
Overnight, Endrich became the center of an argument over the boundaries of free speech in Malta. Some Maltese columnists denounced the prosecution as being the result of Arab diplomatic pressure and a violation of Malta's neutrality. Endrich herself, in a July interview, denied being a racist and stated that her motivation was only to bring balance to media coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:
"I do not know whether I am living in a democratic country anymore. Everyone can speak freely against the Israelis, against the European Union, against the government but one can't dare to speak against the Palestinians.
Maltese journalist Sammy Vella, however, opposed the filing of criminal charges but insisted that Endrich had been properly accused of racism:
Simone Zammit Endrich is too intelligent to actually believe that there exists a typical Arab or a typical Jew or a typical Maltese. In the same measure I believe that she cannot be so banal as to imagine that Arabs can be characterised by " laziness and a confinement to religious idiosyncrasies." This is simply her aversion to Arabs and to Arab culture seeping out of her pores. It may also be a genuine form of phobia. It certainly is not grounded in fact or even in common perception or experience. Although, come to think of it, I have come across Englishmen who believed that the Maltese were all whoremongers similar to the dozen or so they had met around Greek Street in Soho!
Vella's criticism was somewhat undermined by his "suggest[ion] that [Endrich's] Jewish origins have a great deal to do with her clumsy prejudice and selective racism."
In September, with criminal charges still pending, the Malta Press Club submitted a detailed legal analysis of the controversy, outlining the two models underlying modern conceptions of free speech:
The "Anglo-Saxon" model promoted in particular in the United States and the UK and advocated by many freedom of expression organisations, is that only the narrowest restrictions which are absolutely necessary should be imposed. Restrictions should only be imposed when there is a clear danger of imminent violence arising from the speech and there is no other reasonable means of preventing that violence. Otherwise, it is strongly argued that the best antidote to speech is more speech; intolerant speech can be countered, ridiculed and shunned by tolerant speech. Since it is improbable that expression in the media, particularly the print media, could directly incite violence, such expression should be excluded from hate speech laws.
The Press Club nevertheless examined decisions of a number of European courts - and, ironically, the Supreme Court of Israel - holding that restraints on journalistic speech should be avoided whenever possible and that free expression of unpopular opinions should be protected. Ultimately, the Press Club concluded that "a balancing exercise is required between... (i) freedom of expression and (ii) the protection of the rights of racial minorities," and that controversies involving this balance were better resolved through the club's mediation than through criminal charges.
The Endrich affair has never been fully resolved. In November 2002, she was convicted in a Maltese magistrate's court and fined approximately $22. Her conviction is presently on appeal, and she continues to write for local media. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, quite naturally, remains highly controversial in Malta.
I favor the American model of free speech, and I don't believe that mere words - even racist words - should ever be grounds for criminal prosecution. At the same time, free speech does not guarantee freedom from criticism, and it was legitimate to criticize Endrich for crossing the line from support of Israel to bigotry against Arabs. Was Endrich a martyr to free speech or a racist? It's very likely that she was both.
Wednesday, June 18, 2003
Jim Henley lets us know why we should be concerned about American courts' growing deference to the executive on national security matters.
There's a cease-fire in Liberia between the government and the two rebel factions that control approximately 80 percent of the country. The terms of the cease-fire reportedly call for President Charles Taylor to step down in favor of a transitional government and for multilateral talks on the country's future to begin within 30 days.
News of the cease-fire was greeted with celebration in Monrovia; if nothing else, peace will enable humanitarian organizations to deliver food to a countryside threatened by famine. As always, though, the follow- through will be the hard part. There have already been reports of continued fighting despite the cease-fire, and Taylor - who is under indictment by the Sierra Leone war crimes tribunal - may not step down without guarantees of his personal safety. Earlier today, a spokesman for Taylor backtracked on his promise to resign, stating that the cease-fire itself was "the only binding part of the accord." If Taylor stays, then the war will continue - and even if he leaves office, some analysts predict that he will return to his former career as a warlord. Liberia needs peace badly, but the odds appear against it for the moment.
UPDATE: Taylor has now officially reneged on his promise to step down.
Tuesday, June 17, 2003
Out of the frying pan...
The rumor mill is stirring again in Zimbabwe with reports that Mugabe is preparing to step down in favor of Parliament Speaker Emmerson Mnangagwa. According to the opposition Daily News, Mugabe has allegedly informed South African President Thabo Mbeki that he is "working out a transitional mechanism" and would leave office within 12 months.
This isn't the first time that Mnangagwa's name has been mentioned as a possible Mugabe successor. The government-owned Zimbabwe Herald has termed the latest rumor "an elaborate and hollow fib," and although the Herald is normally to be taken with a grain of salt, reports of Mugabe's political demise have a way of being exaggerated.
Even if the rumor proves true, Zimbabwe might not gain much by trading Mugabe for Mnangagwa. He is widely considered one of ZANU's hard-liners and, as the Minister of State Security during the Gukurahundi, he became known as the "Butcher of Matabeleland." He also featured prominently in a United Nations report released last year concerning the looting of mineral resources during the Congolese civil war. If the 56-year-old Mnangagwa takes over, Zimbabwe might find itself in the hands of a younger, more vigorous and equally ruthless version of Mugabe.
Judges against a bad law
Last year, the Egyptian parliament enacted the much-criticized Law 84, imposing drastic restrictions on non-governmental organizations. The law gives broad power to the Ministry of Social Affairs, including the ability to approve NGO board members and international affiliations and to dissolve organizations by administrative decree. NGOs are also forbidden from engaging in "political and union activities that are restricted to political parties and trade unions and professional syndicates" - a term that is left carefully undefined.
The law went into force last week, but is facing opposition from a surprising quarter - the nation's judges:
This time opposition came not from human rights and advocacy organisations but from the Judges' Club, whose membership includes approximately 10,000 judges. This week, Zakareya Abdel-Aziz, head of the Judges' Club, announced that the club's general assembly has decided not to apply for registration under the new NGO law. A majority of the judges in all 28 branches of the Judges' Club voted not to comply with the new law. The last day for NGOs to apply for registration under the law in order to maintain their status as legal entities was 4 June.
Under most circumstances, a group of judges voting to disobey the law would be an unseemly spectacle, but not when the law will potentially undermine the already-compromised independence of the judiciary. It appears likely that the Judges' Club will also challenge the constitutionality of Law 84 in court - a challenge that might well succeed given the Court of Cassation's invalidation of a similar law three years ago.
I've made some sidebar additions including G. In Baghdad and Arab Street Files, the latter of which is based in Saudi Arabia and which I found through the good offices of al-Muhajabah. I've also added Paleo-Judaica, a blog dedicated to ancient Judaism (via Kesher Talk). What I'd really like to find is a blog by an Israeli Arab, but I haven't run across any in several months of looking.
In other news, I've decided on Dreamhost for my upcoming MT blog. I'm planning to reserve a domain today and get it up and running as soon as I have MT figured out. I'll let you know how things progress.
UPDATE: On second thought, I'm pretty sure that Arab Street Files is based in Egypt, and I have now been informed that this is indeed the case.
Monday, June 16, 2003
Score one for the rule of law
The Tel Aviv Labor Tribunal has issued a landmark ruling against employment discrimination. The Labor Tribunal's decision fined the Tafkid Plus firm 100,000 shekels for placing a help-wanted advertisement "stipulating as a criterion that [applicants] prove IDF or national service." Since the jobs advertised were secretarial, the court found that military experience was not necessary for the job and that the requirement was therefore a veiled attempt to discriminate against Arabs and Orthodox Jews. According to Judge Varda Wirt-Levine, "the implementation of the requirement harms the concept of equality between Jews and Arabs and between secular Jews and ultra-Orthodox Jews [who often do not serve in the IDF] in the labor market."
This decision is an important victory for equal employment rights in Israel, which are guaranteed by law but sometimes not enforced in practice. The most remarkable thing about the case is that the complaint against Tafkid was filed by the Ministry of Labor, which is headed by Zevulun Orlev of the National Religious Party (Mafdal). I wouldn't have expected a Mafdal minister to champion the rights of either Arab Israelis or Orthodox draft avoiders; although Mafdal's constituency is Orthodox, most of its voters serve in the IDF and the party platform strongly favors national service. It's good to know that Orlev will enforce the law even when it goes against his party's principles.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni makes the point that, despite Africa's receipt of economic aid from the developed world, the continent is a net donor:
African commodities and raw materials are processed in wealthy nations and then resold by companies and corporations in those nations at prices many times greater than what is paid to the producers, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni said Tuesday night at a well-attended reception just hours after his meeting at the White House with President George W. Bush.
Museveni doesn't want more aid. In fact, his preferred solution is the same one often touted by the United States: free trade. The difference is that Museveni wants real free trade, without the subsidies and barriers that keep African agricultural products out of American and European markets. I tend to be skeptical of Museveni, but this argument is both forceful and cogent - if we want African countries to open their markets, we have to open ours to them.
Some of you may have noticed that, despite the African focus of this blog, I haven't written much about the Congolese civil war. There's a very simple reason for that - I don't know enough about the background of the Congo conflict to say much besides "this is horrific and someone should stop it." There's been some excellent Congo coverage at The Skeptic and Body and Soul, and this roundup on The Skeptic's blog will tell you more than you ever wanted to know.
In any event, those who have criticized the Congo peacekeeping force as inadequate are being proven right, as local militias clashed with French troops this morning. If anyone expected this to be a simple peacekeeping operation, today's battle should disabuse them of the notion; the Congo force will need to be large enough to engage in peacemaking. In other words, it has to be big enough to suppress and disarm the warring factions, and conduct routine patrols and policing as well as supervise the delivery of humanitarian aid.
The current force isn't nearly large enough to do that. The Congolese militias are ill-armed and poorly supplied, but they control too much territory for 1400 troops to fight them effectively, especially while trying to provide humanitarian assistance at the same time. Retired General Roméo Dallaire - the man who sounded the warning of incipient genocide in Rwanda - has estimated that 20,000 to 30,000 troops will be necessary to stop the fighting in the Congo. I trust his judgment in such matters - he was right about Rwanda, and the United Nations should listen to him this time before the Congo becomes a tragedy on a similar scale.
An unusual blasphemy
As protests continue, more than 250 Iranian professors and government officials have signed a public statement calling on Khamene'i to step down as the country's supreme religious leader. In fact, they described the office itself as blasphemous:
...the dissidents' statement, published in an Iranian newspaper today, said: "Considering individuals to be in the position of a divinity and absolute power ... is open polytheism (in contradiction to) almighty God, and blatant oppression of the dignity of human being.
The office of supreme leader, or velayat e-faghih, is one of the linchpins of the Iranian constitution and is given extensive powers. The common conception of the supreme leader as the "real ruler" of Iran is somewhat inaccurate; the elected president, parliament and local councils sometimes provide an effective check against his power, and the Expediency Council occasionally exercises its mediating power in favor of the popularly elected bodies. His control over the military and judiciary and his effective power over the Guardians, however, makes him easily the most powerful person in the country, and the current leader has successfully blocked the reformist majority in the Majlis from enacting its program.
Criticizing the supreme leadership is generally considered outside the limits of free speech in Iran. There have been previous calls to abolish the position, but the number of public figures - including two aides to the president - who have signed this one is unprecedented. It is also virtually unprecedented to see the supreme leadership specifically criticized as un-Islamic. There's something going on in Iran, even if nobody can tell where it might end.
Sunday, June 15, 2003
A night at the movies
Naomi and I went to see L'Auberge espagnole last night. It's a coming-of-age movie of sorts, in which a French graduate student goes to study in Barcelona for a year and shares an apartment with a United Nations (or at least a European Union) of other students. The movie was shot in 2001 - the use of local currencies gives it away - but released in the United States last month.
The plot is fairly conventional; the characters study, party, grow up, have affairs and contend with an ignorant and boorish houseguest (who, surprisingly enough, is portrayed as British rather than American). The sense of place is excellent, and Barcelona looks like a great time; student life there is enough like everywhere else that the movie brought back nostalgic memories. The editing is often spotty, though, and the accelerated movement used at the beginning to portray a French bureaucratic office doesn't work.
What turns L'Auberge from an ordinary movie to a good one is the way it captures the emerging zeitgeist of the European Union. Fairly early in the movie, one of the foreign students asks a professor to speak Castilian instead of Catalan, and he tells her to "go to Madrid or South America if she wants to hear Spanish." After class, the still-indignant student asks her compatriots how the professor could defend the Catalan language "when we're all becoming a European Union." Another student - an immigrant from the Gambia - replies that the European Union is precisely what makes Catalan identity viable in Spain, because the addition of a European overlay allows underlying identities to be in harmony rather than in conflict.
The movie is, to a great extent, the story of how Xavier (the French graduate student) becomes a European rather than merely a Frenchman. The transformation comes at a price - when he returns to France, he feels like a foreigner in his own country compared to those who have yet to add the European overlay - but there's a sense that the glorious "Euro-mess" that existed in the Barcelona apartment is the future.
And it may not only be the future for Europeans. To add inconsequentially to a debate that occasionally occurs on this journal, most Israelis I've known would have fit in fine if given a chance to live in that apartment. And, for that matter, so would many Americans.
The police take a stand
Iranian Girl (first entry for June 15) reports that the police are taking the demonstrators' side:
Tehran was somehow calm last night but some serious battles have started in other cities like Ahvaz & people of Azerbaijan have also some plans....& generally the support of Police has been great, actually they never do anything against people & all that violence is from Basijis & members of Allah's group, that have no special uniform but you can recognize them from the dirty appearance & their hateful bear & way of wearing... I also heard that yesterday in one of Northern streets girls took off their veils & started chanting & policemen were even encouraging others to join them!
A government that loses the support of the police has sustained a serious blow in its ability to crack down on civil unrest. If Khamene'i has lost the army too, then it's only a matter of time regardless of whether vigilantes are able to shut down this round of protests.