The Head Heeb : Knocking Down 4000 Years of Icons

Musings about politics, religion, law, art and marriage - what else is there?

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?
Saturday, January 04, 2003
Good fences make good neighbors

Courtesy of The Talking Dog: Yasser Arafat has condemned the Israeli security fence as a "Berlin Wall."

For one thing, Arafat doesn't seem to understand that the purpose of the Berlin Wall was to keep people from leaving, while the purpose of the security fence will be to keep infiltrators from coming in. What I really don't understand, though, is why the left is so opposed to the fence. Given the current security situation, there are two ways that Israel can prevent terrorists from infiltrating within the Green Line. One is by occupying Palestinian cities and setting up checkpoints. The other is to build a fence.

The presence of a fence around the Gaza Strip has drastically reduced the ability of terrorists to enter Israel from Gaza. Because of the fence, Gaza has not been reoccupied. A similar fence along Israel's border with the West Bank will enable the IDF to withdraw safely - and it's no accident that the principal opponents of the fence within Israel are the right-wing parties who want the occupation to continue.

A security fence will not, as Arafat puts it, "strangle" the Palestinians. It will be a fortified border, like many that exist in other countries. The Palestinians will still have an open border with Jordan, and those who want to enter Israel will be able to do so by going to designated entry points and passing through security. The fence will not cut off the West Bank from the world.

In fact, far from "strangling" the West Bank, the fence will enable the IDF to withdraw from the more intrusive security measures that exist now. After the fence is built, Palestinian cities will no longer be cantons surrounding Israeli troops, and going to work in the West Bank will no longer involve hours-long waits at checkpoints.

One would think that people who want the occupation to end would support the fence and urge that it be built as soon as possible. Instead, they oppose it - which places them in an odd alliance with, of all people, the Israeli far right.

Women and the Egyptian courts

The Jerusalem Post reports that Tahany el-Gebaly will soon become Egypt's first woman judge. El-Gebaly, an expert in international law, will serve on the Supreme Constitutional Court.

A woman on Egypt's highest court will be a powerful symbol, but I can't help thinking that a few women judges in the lower courts would be much more helpful in changing the legal status of women in Egypt. Few cases reach the Supreme Constitutional Court, especially in a country like Egypt where the constitution is observed mostly in the breach. Most legal business, especially the family-related matters where Arab women are most harmed by judicial prejudices, takes place in trial-level courts. In Iran - which, despite its theocratic constitution, has had women judges since 1997 - the appointment of female judges started in the family courts, and has led to real change in how women are treated in divorce and custody cases. A woman judge on the Egyptian Constitutional Court might set precedent, but a few women in the family courts would go a long way toward seeing that it is followed.

Another Ukrainian famine?

Courtesy of Tim Blair: The New Republic reports that Robert Mugabe is using famine as a weapon of war in Matabeleland:

Zimbabwe's Matabele minority has suffered at the hands of President Robert Mugabe's Shona-dominated Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party for as long as Zimbabwe has been independent. So it is no surprise that they, even more than their oppressed countrymen to the north, withstood threats, beatings, and murders and last March cast their ballots for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. Tragically, the ZANU-PF bludgeoned and rigged their way to reelection nonetheless, as African leaders throughout the continent cheered. And Mugabe is now taking his revenge in maize. His catastrophic decision to cleanse the country's farms of their white owners has forced the country--once southern Africa's breadbasket--to import food from the world's charities. And Mugabe is making sure little of it enters the south. The government has only permitted half a million tons of maize into Zimbabwe, all of it distributed through the state-operated Grain Marketing Board, one of whose managers told The Times of London, "We only sell to Shona-speakers." Reports of desperate hunger have been trickling out of Matabeleland for months. And Didymus Mutasa, ZANU-PF's administrative secretary and senior bureaucrat, recently admitted that whittling down Zimbabwe's population from its current twelve million is his government's explicit plan. "We would be better off," he said, "with only six million people ... who support the liberation struggle. ... We don't want all these extra people."

Mugabe has committed mass murder in Matabeleland before, but this is something on an entirely different scale. Like the New Republic, I don't think "genocide" is too strong a term here. If the reports are correct - and Mugabe's own officials seem to be confirming them - then Zimbabwe's government is deliberately starving the Matabele ethnic group out of existence. The New Republic compares this to Rwanda, but what we're really witnessing in Zimbabwe is Stalin's Ukrainian famine, all over again.

Last year, Genocide Watch stated that "genocides and politicides develop in Eight Stages, with the actual genocide at Stage Seven," and that Zimbabwe was then at Stage Six. It looks like the seventh stage is now under way.

Easy listening, part 4

I stopped off after work today and picked up Ismaël Lo's seventh album, Dabah. Lo isn't as well-known in the United States as Youssou N'Dour, but he's probably in second place among Senegalese musicians; his last two releases, iso and Jammu Africa were well received.

Lo's music is less pop and more politics than N'Dour's, but Dabah, like all his albums, is an eclectic mix - French and Wolof ballads, R&B, Afropop, pan-Africanism and a few things that are hard to classify. The third track, Biguisse, is my favorite, but nearly everything on the CD is good; it's actually worth the price just for the photos of Dakar in the liner notes.

My other purchase was a CD of early 20th-century Turkish cantorial music and Ladino folk songs; I'll let you know after I've listened.

Friday, January 03, 2003
Clashing tactics

About 200 people participated in a joint Arab-Jewish "protest and consultation meeting" in Yafia to address the disqualifications of Azmi Bishara and Ahmed Tibi, but the meeting ended up revealing more about the divisions within the Arab Israeli community than the rift between Arabs and Jews. Jewish political and human rights figures - not all of them from Hadash by any means - were well represented at the meeting, but MK Abdelmalik Dehamshe - who has clashed with both Tibi and Bishara - was conspicuous by his absence. (One of the mysteries of the disqualification proceeding is the way that Dehamshe - who, unlike Tibi and Bishara, represents an Islamist party, and whose public statements have often been as inflammatory as Tibi's - sailed through the CEC with only three dissenting votes. With all the analysis focused on the two disqualified candidates, there's been very little in the way of explanation of why Dehamshe passed so easily.) The leader of the northern faction of the Islamic Movement in Israel, whose newspaper was the subject of last week's closure order, also failed to show.

There was also disagreement over tactics. The participants in the meeting agreed to organize a series of demonstrations over the weekend, culminating in a protest in front of Tuesday's Supreme Court hearing, but they were divided on what to do if the court ruled against them:

... representatives from Hadash-Ta'al and Balad disagreed on the proper response if the Court upholds the CEC decision. Balad members said that the entire Arab public should threaten to boycott the elections if the disqualifications are allowed to stand, while Hadash-Ta'al members called for Arabs to vote in any case.

The Balad representatives also appeared lukewarm about "the creation of a Jewish-Arab Supreme Follow-Up Committee that will lead the public fight against the disqualifications." The Supreme Follow-Up Committee of Arab Israelis, an Israeli Arab umbrella organization, has come out in favor of building an Arab-Jewish coalition, but Bishara seems to prefer a more confrontational approach.

The two strategies advocated by Tibi and Bishara show the right and wrong way to confront the right's politics of exclusion. If Arab Israelis want to reclaim their Israeli identity, the obvious way to do so is by participating in the Israeli political process in combination with Jewish Israelis. As many Arab Israelis have come to recognize, reconciliation is a two-way street that is best accomplished by meeting the Jewish community halfway. Bishara's approach, however, amounts to a withdrawal from Israel - which is, ironically, exactly what the right wants him to do.

Brotherhood of... oh, never mind

Leora Eren Frucht reports on some of the smaller parties taking part in the Knesset election, among them "Men's Rights in the Family." It's not a one-issue party - the number 2 candidate on its list, Eli Avigdor, is also campaigning for more rights for taxi drivers. (That's a platform I can relate to - I've been one.) He's also found common ground with Israeli Arabs:

"The Arabs have a lot of trouble with their women. In the Arab sector the status of women is higher than the status of men. We can work together to stop this trend," he says, excitedly.

Paging Naomi Chazan...

Thursday, January 02, 2003
Those were the days

From the lead-in to a New York Sun article about a museum exhibition:

We are habituated to thinking of violence and subjugation as the sole products of conquest, forgetting that the vanquishers can also bring splendors of luxury, learning and even progress. Originally a nomadic people, the Mongols in the 13th century established - both through destruction and enlightened openness - the largest land empire in history, stretching from Hungary to Korea and down to present-day Iran and Iraq. Doubtless they were a fearsome and warlike people, yet "The Legacy of Genghis Khan: Courtly Art and Culture in Western Asia, 1256-1353," on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until February 16, is devoted to the gentler and more constructive faces of Mongol domination.

Ohhhh-kay. "Gentle" and "constructive" is an, er, interesting way to describe one of the most destructive empires in the history of the world. Ask anyone from Russia or Iraq about the benefits that Mongol rule brought them. Better yet, compare the population of Iraq before and after the Mongol conquests.

There are some empires that, at least arguably, brought progress to their conquests. The Romans and the British, for instance, each contributed something of their own to their conquered provinces - law, administration, engineering, public works. In the Mongol empire, progress was something that was taken rather than brought. There were areas that the Mongols ruled well - China, for example - but they did so by adopting the methods of those they conquered rather than through any talent uniquely theirs. In other places, such as Russia, their contribution was depopulated cities and ravaged fields.

It's fairly significant, I think, that nearly all the art described in the article - including the illustrations in chronicles of Mongol rule - comes from the Islamic or Chinese tradition.

Indeed, many of the objects included bear the marks of cross-cultural influence. In a Central Asian textile of woven gold thread on silk, winged lions and griffins are paired - a common Iranian motif - while the cloudlike pattern on the lions' wings and the floral design of the background have a Chinese or East Asian origin.

Long before the Mongols ever broke out of the steppes, there was something called the Silk Road. Cross-cultural influence between China, Central Asia and Iran has been going on for a long, long time. The Uighurs of western China converted to Islam sometime in the tenth century, well before the Mongols arrived on the scene, and Chinese themes had appeared in Central Asian and Iranian art for centuries.

The Mongols didn't do much for cross-cultural contact either. Genghis Khan's empire fragmented soon after his death; by the time the Mongols reached Russia and Baghdad, there were several Mongol-ruled empires rather than a single polity. The Mongols didn't last long enough as a unified empire to knit their conquests together or to create any trade routes that weren't already there.

The inescapable irony attached to this show at this moment is that today the lands once ruled by the Mongols are a mosaic of self-determining nations with considerably less tolerance, respect for history or good-natured love of decorative opulence than they experienced some 800 years ago.

On the other hand, there haven't been any pyramids of skulls outside Baghdad lately. Or was that part of the decorative opulence?

Speaking Frankly

According to unnamed sources, the appointment of Fijian Rear Admiral Voreqe "Frank" Bainimarama to a United Nations command appears to be in jeopardy. Bainimarama's relative lack of peacekeeping experience was cited, as was the fact that he was specially promoted from commodore to rear admiral so he could apply for the UN position. More to the point, however, Bainimarama perpetrated a military coup against the elected government of his country. As an article in the Fijilive news service coyly pointed out:

The source said that Rear Admiral Bainimarama's resume also stated that former President Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara had resigned during the upheaval in May 2000 however facts state that he was requested to resign by the military headed by Rear Admiral Bainimarama.

The "facts" state somewhat more than that. On May 19, 2000, an armed group of radical Fijian nationalists led by George Speight seized control of the parliament building where Mahendra Chaudhry, Fiji's first Indian prime minister, was marking his first anniversary in office, and held it for more than 50 days. On May 29, as it became clear that the situation would not be resolved quickly, Bainimarama - who, at the time, commanded Fiji's armed forces - engineered Ratu Mara's resignation and took control of the government. Although he claimed to be doing so in defense of public order and against Speight's group, he did little to stop the looting of Indo-Fijian farms by nativist gangs, and he put much of Speight's program into effect, including abrogating the multiracial 1997 constitution. After the siege of Parliament ended, Bainimarama did not return control to the elected government, but instead turned over power to a handpicked civilian government and charged it with creating a new constitution that ensured the supremacy of ethnic Fijians. Only a landmark court decision - the first in history to successfully declare a coup illegal - restored constitutional government and paved the way for new elections.

If Bainimarama gets a job with the United Nations, then the last shred of its tattered anti-racist credentials will be gone.

Redefining the right

The most recent Ha'aretz poll (and yes, I know how uncertain polls can be) shows Likud continuing to slide, with support currently down to 31 seats from a high of 40. (A Ma'ariv poll gives them 34.) This time, however, it seems that the religious parties rather than Avoda or Shinui have benefitted from Likud voters' disaffection; Shas, Mafdal and UTJ all gained while Avoda held steady at 22 seats and Shinui slipped from 15 to 14.

In addition, the balance between left and right has not changed from last week; the shifts in party support have occurred within rather than across electoral blocs. The poll results show the right winning 64 seats, compared to 39 for the left plus the Arab parties and 17 for Shinui and Am Ehad. However, as Yossi Verter points out:

In theory, Sharon can form his government given the current state of affairs. In practice, he only has enough votes to block the opposition. To put it mildly, Sharon does not want to be held captive by Avidgor Lieberman, the head of the National Union (seven seats) or the National Religious Party's Effi Eitam (six seats). If that were the case, he would desperately need the Labor Party to save him, once again, from the far right. In this position, Mitzna has enormous power...

Given Sharon's relatively centrist stance in the current election, it may be that "the right" should not be considered a unified electoral bloc. Instead, just as Shinui and Am Ehad are separated from the left-wing bloc led by Avoda, parties such as Mafdal, Yisrael Beiteinu and Herut should be separated into a "far right" or "nationalist" bloc. This means that the right-wing bloc led by Likud is reduced to Yisrael Ba'aliya and possibly UTJ and Shas.

If the parties in the running for the Knesset are separated four rather than three ways, the electoral picture suddenly looks different. Instead of a potentially-commanding 64 seats, the right now has only 51, as compared to 39 for the left, 17 for the center and 13 for the far right. This means that, in order to form a government without the far right, Sharon will need to bring in either the centrist bloc or Avoda. If he wants to dispense with Shas as well, he'll need both Avoda and Shinui.

If Likud continues to slide and if Avoda breaks out, Sharon might be presented with an unpalatable choice. A gain of three seats for Avoda would place it at 25, and there's an outside chance - not a large one, but a chance - that Likud could end up smaller than that. Even if the right and far right maintain their overall strength, this would force Sharon to choose between building a narrow coalition in which he would be the captive of the far right and Shas, or being the second largest party in an Avoda-Shinui-Likud government. In the latter case, he'd probably still be prime minister - Lapid would insist on the coalition being a Sharon government rather than a Mitzna government - but he'd be a weak one.

Then again, all this could change tomorrow. The election is still 26 days away, and that's two or three political lifetimes.

Boycotts deconstructed

Don't miss Edward Alexander's analysis of the academic boycotts against Israel. Among other things, an Israeli applicant for a position at a British university was told that the department to which he applied "didn't accept applicants from a Nazi state." I'm continually surprised by the number of people with Ph.Ds who can't seem to tell the difference between Zionism and Nazism, and, unfortunately, it doesn't seem to be because they are one letter away from being anagrams.

UPDATE: While on the subject of boycotts, check out Haggai Elitzur's firsthand account of a divestment conference at the University of Michigan.

The other side

In today's Ha'aretz, Israel Harel makes the case for disqualifying the Arab parties. Those of you who've been following the story here know that I disagree, but Harel argues his point well.

He does make one argument, though, with which I completely agree - that it's hypocritical for people to oppose disqualifying Azmi Bishara but simultaneously support banning Baruch Marzel. As I've said here before, Marzel should be allowed to run. I consider the views of both Marzel and Bishara despicable, but that isn't the point - the point is that Israel is a democratic country, and that nobody should be disqualified from office based on their political views alone. That applies just as much to the right as to the left.

Also in today's issue, Yossi Verter reports that Likud might replace the chairman of its CEC delegation in midstream in order to ensure that Shaul Mofaz is cleared to run. Gideon Alon describes the CEC's party-line vote in which many of the members voted without reading the evidence, and Moshe Gorali argues that disqualification should not be a political decision - an opinion apparently shared by Shas representative Yehuda Avidan. Given Shas' skeptical attitude toward the Israeli judicial system, something is indeed broken in the CEC if Avidan believes that disqualification decisions should be left to the judges.

UPDATE: Mofaz was disqualified anyway, not for his political views but because he had not completed the legally mandated six-month "cooling off period" between leaving active military service and running for office. This circumstance - breach of the election law - is one of those where I do support disqualification.

Today's Jerusalem Post also editorializes in favor of the CEC's decisions on the Arab parties and Marzel, but its arguments aren't as well put as Harel's. Ironically, the Jerusalem Post editorial is based on a premise that Harel rejects - that Marzel's attempt to distance himself from his past is more sincere than Bishara's or Ahmed Tibi's. This argument is, to say the least, put in question by the Attorney General's evidence that Marzel continues to lead Kach. Harel has it right - there is no real ethical basis to distinguish between Bishara's views and Marzel's. Where he's wrong is in implying that both should be disqualified - in fact, neither should.

UPDATE 2: Akiva Eldar comments further on the effect of the disqualification petitions among Arab Israeli voters. Eldar predicts that, if the Supreme Court overturns the bans:

[Bishara and Tibi] will have to bury the homes of Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein and Likud MK Yisrael Katz in flowers. They have turned Bishara from a controversial politician in the Arab street to a popular personality in the villages of the Galilee and the Triangle. Until Tibi was banned by the CEC, his new colleagues in Hadash were claiming that parachuting him onto their list would lose them at least half a seat. After Tibi was banned by the right-wing majority on the CEC, Tagadir Shavita, who was pushed down to the fifth slot on the Hadash list, is being told she can order a new dress for the Knesset.

Eldar also suggests - in somewhat of a contradiction to his previous statement - that current polls do not take into account Arab apathy, and that the Arab parties might receive two fewer seats than are predicted in the polls:

To assess the ramifications of the decision to ban Bishara and Tibi on the level of interest Arabs have in the elections, one must await the court's decision. If the justices side with the two Arab MKs, they will reinforce Israeli Arab faith in the democratic system, which could mean a sharp increase in the number of voters and preservation of the Arab representation in the Knesset. On the other hand, if the court gives its kashrut stamp to the CEC's political decision to ban the two MKs, it would provide confirmation of the Arabs claim that echoed through the Or Commission's hearings: that Israeli society does not want Israeli Arabs as equal citizens. The result would be a new record for Arab apathy.

The banning of Bishara and Tibi will not send Balad and Hadash voters into the arms of other parties, whether Arab or Jewish. It will lead to a full-scale boycott of the elections, with a stigma firmly attached to any Arab who does go to vote on January 28.

None of this should come as any surprise to people who have been reading this journal. The petitions against Tibi and Bishara are likely to have exactly the opposite effect from what the petitioners intended - to strengthen the Arab radicals rather than marginalizing them. In the short term, yes - if the petitions are upheld, Bishara and Tibi will not sit in the next Knesset. In the long term, however, the disqualifications are likely to convince moderate Arab Israelis - those who now vote for Avoda, or even Likud - that Israel doesn't want them. This will have a far more destabilizing effect on Israel's politics and society than would Bishara ranting from the sidelines. Israel has survived having Bishara in the Knesset since 1996 (and Tibi since 1999) without any noticeable damage, but a reprise of the October 2000 riots and the long-term disaffection of the Arab population would seriously harm the state. I've said it before, and I'll say it again - even aside from the moral imperative to grant equal rights to Arab Israelis, Israel cannot remain a strong Jewish state if it denies equality to its minorities.

In fact, I'm not sure I share Eldar's optimism about the effect of a Supreme Court ruling in favor of the Arab parties. Even if the legal decision goes in Bishara's and Tibi's favor, the political decision has already been made by the CEC. The current electoral politics of the Israeli right will go down as an example of short-term thinking.

UPDATE 3: Alex Epstein, a political analyst affiliated with the conservative Shalem Center, disagrees with the CEC's rulings and argues that radical parties should be kept out by raising the proportional representation threshold rather than disqualifying their candidates. It isn't only leftists who think this is a bad idea.

Wednesday, January 01, 2003
Making strides

Amnon Rubinstein discusses the narrowing educational gap between Jewish and Arab Israelis, noting that there is no longer a significant gap between Jews and Christian Arabs, and that Muslim Arabs - especially girls - have made up much of the difference that existed during the mandate. Rubinstein states that it is "incumbent upon us to eliminate the educational gap between Jews and Arabs completely," which will require concessions from both sides - "affirmative action and a change in approach by the Arab local authorities." Nevertheless, the difference in educational achievement between Muslims and non-Muslims is now less in Israel than in Europe.

Concerning terrorism against Israel

In response to my article about Ali Yahya, a reader posted the following comment:

I am just noticing that you never post about the subject of Arab terrorism, and frankly don't seem to care. This blog has been running for about a month and the one time you have even mentioned a terrorist incident it was in a throwaway line of a long post in support of Azmi Bishara...

Those who are interested in reading my full answer to him can find it here. The short answer, though, is that I do care about terrorism against Israel, and that the death of innocent Israelis in terrorist attacks fills me with anger and pain. I could never express that pain as eloquently as Imshin, though, nor could I hope to match the ruthlessness with which people like Meryl Yourish skewer terrorists and their supporters. The world doesn't need me to tell it that terrorism is a bad thing, I'm not in the habit of writing "me too" or preaching to the choir - and if I wrote about everything that caused me pain or anger, I'd never have time to write about anything else.

I'll also recall the mission statement that I included in the first post I made to this blog - specifically, that this is not a warblog, and that its purpose is not to chronicle the war against terrorism. When I write about Israel, I prefer to treat it as a three-dimensional, living country with triumphs, flaws and controversies rather than a one-dimensional victim of terrorism. Too many people - both supporters and critics of Israel - seem to see it exclusively through the lens of the Palestinian conflict rather than as a real place populated by human beings. It can be just as dehumanizing to turn victims into icons as it is to dismiss or blame them - either approach turns them from individuals to symbols. Israel and Israelis are more than victimhood, and I want to focus on the other things they are.

There are times when I will write about terrorism. Sometimes, terror will be too important, or the pain of terror attacks too intense, to do otherwise. But it won't be one of my primary topics, and I don't apologize for that.

UPDATE: Fixed the links.

Tuesday, December 31, 2002
Happy New Year

See you in 2003. To those of you for whom it will still be 5763 or 1423, have fun anyway.

Ali Yahya, or: Why I write so much about Arab Israelis, part 2

I like to travel. For most of my life, however, I've had either the time or the money, but never both at once. When I had a steady job, it was usually the kind that didn't include paid vacation, and when I had time off, it was usually because I was unemployed.

In the summer of 1997, though, I suddenly found myself free and clear. I was out of school, past the bar exam, had some money saved from working for the city, and had an understanding boss who realized I could use a vacation. In September, when court calendars permitted, I took the $2000 I saved by not taking a bar review course and got on a plane to Helsinki.

The trip was my first vacation in the 1990s, but it was also a research project. At the time, I was freelancing for the New York Jewish Week in addition to working for the city, and I had arranged meetings in Helsinki and Turku with members of the Jewish World War II veterans' association. (The interesting thing about the veterans was that Finland fought on the Axis side of the war, and some of them ended up winning the Iron Cross. It's a long story.) For background, I also met with the director of the Jewish Community of Helsinki, and that's where I found out about Ali Yahya.

In 1997, Yahya was the Israeli ambassador to Finland - the first Arab Israeli to hold that rank. This seemed like another worthy subject for an article, so I called the embassy and obtained an interview. (According to the Finnish newspaper Ilta Sanomat, Yahya "seldom gave interviews," so I should probably be honored.)

The Jerusalem Post has described Yahya as "charismatic," and I can vouch for that personally - he's one of those people you just like on sight. Yahya is a big, easygoing man who dresses well, enjoys a good meal and a show, and has an (aesthetic) eye for the ladies. He's clearly a person who loves life, and he has an infectious enthusiasm that he transmits to anyone in the room.

Yahya had promised me twenty minutes, but he gave me two hours, and I listened as he explained his fascinating life story. For many years, he was the director of Ulpan Akiva in Netanya, and he taught Arabic language and culture at the IDF staff college. In 1986, he became the first Arab to win the Israel Prize, and received his ambassadorial appointment eight years later. As I listened, I realized that Yahya - an Arab Muslim - had more faith in Israel than I did, and that he saw Israel as a country with a bright and peaceful future rather than viewing it with my infantile cynicism.

Yahya is famously nonpolitical - so much so that he was appointed ambassador by Rabin and confirmed in office by Netanyahu, and so much so that Sharon subsequently named him ambassador to the United Nations Second Committee. He has never run for office or become associated with a political party, preferring social-service positions like coordinator for special projects in the Akaba-Eilat district and serving on the board of directors of the Abraham Fund, an organization promoting coexistence between Jewish and Arab Israelis. He is nonpolitical enough to have had Ariel Sharon and Shulamit Aloni as guests in his home - at the same time. At the end of our meeting, though, I couldn't help feeling that this was a man who should be prime minister.

Ali Yahya is a symbol of everything I love about Israel - the Herzlian inclusiveness of Zionism, the desire of Israel's founders to build a new society with equal rights, and the extraordinary tolerance that Israel has maintained despite half a century of war. If Yahya's openness is compared to the crabbed, narrow vision of a Baruch Marzel or a Michael Kleiner, Yahya wins hands down. The Israel I love - Rabin's Israel, Amram Mitzna's Israel - is a place where Ali Yahya can be at home.

Yahya is also a man comfortable with himself - an Arab who loves Israel without ceasing to be an Arab, who shares his culture without surrendering it, and who is fully Arab and fully Israeli in the same way that I am fully Jewish and fully American. As a member of a minority in my own country, I've had an affinity for Arab Israelis for a long time, but it wasn't until I met Yahya that I realized why. He is not only Israeli, but everything an Israeli should be.

Neither of the articles I came to Finland to research was ever written; my relationship with the Jewish Week ceased shortly after I came home, and I couldn't interest any other magazine in Yahya's story. Nevertheless, the current debate over the disqualification of the Arab parties calls his memory to mind. The right-wing parties that voted to ban Ahmed Tibi and Azmi Bishara might think they are marginalizing the radical Arab leadership, but what they're really doing is marginalizing Ali Yahya, and lending credibility to the radical Arabs who argue that it is impossible to be both Arab and Israeli. Tibi and Bishara don't represent the majority of Arab Israelis now - but if the right continues to practice the politics of exclusion, they soon will.

I wonder what Yahya thinks of the way things are going.

Bishara banned

As expected, the CEC has banned Azmi Bishara and Balad from the Knesset election. The petition will now go to the Supreme Court, where - unlike Ahmed Tibi - Bishara does not have the Attorney General's support. However, Justice Michael Cheshin, in his capacity as CEC chairman, stated tonight that Bishara should be allowed to run. If his views are shared by other members of the court, the Bishara case promises to be a bitter fight.

In the meantime, the Israeli Arab Follow-Up Committee is planning a protest for Friday, and Danny Rabinowitz predicts that "Arabs in Israel will perceive the attorney general's move as a legal and political divorce and turn to a sweeping boycott of the elections." Just what Israel needs.

UPDATE: Ha'aretz reports that the decision to disqualify Balad and Bishara was taken by a one-vote margin, and that the Supreme Court will hear the appeals on Tuesday. The court will face a deadline of Thursday, January 9 for its decision. According to Ha'aretz, the appeals will be heard by an 11-judge panel, which is highly unusual; most cases are heard by panels of three or five judges, and even the Shin Bet interrogation methods case was only heard by nine. The size of the panel, and the requirement that Justice Cheshin abstain, makes it virtually certain that Justice Abd-er-Rahman Zoabi will be among those who hear the case, and it will be interesting to see his perspective. In the meantime, Shimon Peres has joined those who are calling Bishara's disqualification a mistake.

Mitzna too?

Amram Mitzna is under police investigation for allegedly expediting a building permit for a contractor who gave office space to his campaign. This doesn't seem like anything on the scale of the Likud vote-buying accusations - it's more like the quid pro quo between candidates and campaign contributors that's taken for granted in the United States - but, if proven, it could damage Mitzna's reputation for personal integrity.

Monday, December 30, 2002
Fears that bite

Ralph Blumenthal of the New York Times has become the second person to actually analyze the Malawi vampire hysteria rather than simply playing it for laughs:

It didn't happen in a vacuum. Malawi faces widespread starvation and a severe AIDS epidemic, as well as an uproar over efforts by the country's first and only democratically elected president, Bakili Muluzi, to override a two-term limit and remain in office after 2004.

"Vampires say a lot about our fears and hopes," said Nina Auerbach, an English professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of "Our Vampires, Ourselves."

For millennia, the storied undead that emerge from the grave to suck the lifeblood of the living have embodied power "and our fears of power," Ms. Auerbach said. "They can be whatever you want." They are immortal. And unlike ghosts, they are robustly corporeal.

Another scholar, David J. Skal, author of "The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror," has said that a fixation on demons often accompanies periods of national stress. "In times of social upheaval, the vampire asserts itself," he said.

President Muluzi, in debunking the vampire rumors, may have inadvertently encouraged them when he said, "No government can go about sucking the blood of its own people."

The denial rang false, Ms. Auerbach said, because, "Governments have always sucked the blood of their people."

I still think there's more to it than that, though. As I mentioned before, the vampire rumors in Malawi tie in with persistent Third World fears of being harvested by rich Westerners or international agencies. The Malawian government isn't the only bloodsucker preying on Malawians' minds.

Sadness in the heart

Imshin says it all.

Tibi disqualified

Ahmed Tibi has been disqualified from the Knesset elections by the same 21-18 margin with which the CEC approved Baruch Marzel. MK Tibi will appeal to the Supreme Court, which is likely to reinstate his candidacy, but the damage has been done.

UPDATE: The petition to disqualify Abdulmalik Dehamshe has apparently been voted down.

UPDATE 2: Ha'aretz has confirmed the CEC's 21-3 vote to allow Dehamshe to run, with nine members (including Likud's six) abstaining. Tibi has also announced his intention to appeal to the Supreme Court - an appeal which, given the support of Justice Michael Cheshin and the Attorney General for his candidacy as well as the generally civil-libertarian tilt of the court, seems likely to succeed. The only remaining item on the CEC's agenda is now the petition to disqualify Azmi Bishara and Balad, which will be taken up tomorrow.

UPDATE 3: The Talking Dog comments on Tibi's exclusion.

Taking on the myths

Osama el-Baz, political advisor to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, criticizes Arab writers for using Nazi-like imagery in their portrayals of Israel:

The Egyptian president's political adviser has criticized Arab writers for attacking Israel, saying many use the same "racist" allegations resorted to by Adolf Hitler's Nazis to discriminate against Jews.

In a series of articles published last week in Egypt's semiofficial Al - Ahram newspaper, Osama el - Baz criticized the anti - Jewish sentiment being expressed in the Arab world and urged Egyptians not to be blinded by racist views.

"Our prejudices have turned us blind so we are not able to differentiate between good Israelis and bad Israelis," he said in one of his articles.


"Arabs and Jews belong to the same ancestry of (the biblical prophet) Abraham," el - Baz wrote. "Jews are descendants of Abraham's son Isaac, while the Arabs are descended from Isaac's half brother, Ishmael. For this reason, Arabs can't hate their blood relatives."

He also criticizes "extremist Jews for treating Arabs as a lower race," referring to Health Minister Nissim Dahan's characterization of Arabs as "snakes and scorpions." (That doesn't sound much better than "monkeys and pigs," does it?) He is, of course, right in criticizing such statements. The difference is, though, that racist sentiments such as Dahan's are condemned throughout the Israeli political spectrum, while similar comments in the Arab world have all too often gone unexamined. El-Baz' articles are a welcome step toward questioning the anti-Semitic stereotypes that have taken hold in much of the Arab media.

Regime change with a vengeance

Courtesy of Gil Shterzer:

Yediot Ahronot’s Nahum Barne’a reports of a rather amusing creative Jordanian idea. According to Barne’a both Israel and Jordan are uneasy with a thought of a democratic post-Saddam Iraq. The two countries fear that the Iraq’s majority, the Shiite Muslims, will be in control and till now Shiite states (Iran) were not such a huge success. Thus Israel and Jordan would like to see a Sunni general rules Iraq.

Anyway Barne’a writes that recently an American Delegation came to Jordan to discuss the Iraq subject with the Jordanians. In a meeting with the Americans one of Jordan’s King Abdullah advisers came with a brilliant idea. “What do you say about Former Avodah leader, Binyamin “Fuad” Ben Eliezer? He was born in Baghdad, he is a general, he is totally not Shiite and he is available”.

Well, the man is looking for a job...

The view from Lebanon

I've added a link to A Window in Lebanon, a blog by a French university professor living as an expatriate in Beirut. It's in French, a language that's tough going for me, but it has some interesting insights on Lebanon, Arab culture and Middle East politics. Many of the author's posts aren't complimentary to Israel (what did you expect, this is a French university professor), but he gives Israel its due as a democracy, and he isn't very complimentary to other Middle Eastern governments either. And if you want to know what some intelligent French people are thinking about Randa Ghazi's anti-Semitic (and yes, I mean anti-Semitic) novel "Dream of Palestine," look here.

UPDATE: I apologize for the "French university professor" remark. It was a cheap shot, and stereotyping French professors isn't any better than stereotyping Israelis.

A political body

The CEC has rejected the petition to disqualify Hadash-Ta'al, with Michael Kleiner being the only member to vote in favor. (Surprise, surprise.) The petition against Hadash-Ta'al MK Ahmed Tibi is still pending, however, as are the requests to disqualify Balad, the United Arab List and MKs Azmi Bishara and Abdulmalik Dehamshe.

In the meantime, if there was any doubt as to how reasonable Arab Israelis are viewing the disqualification petitions, especially those initiated by Attorney General Eliyakim Rubinstein, this should make it clear. Nimr Sultani, an Arab Israeli lawyer, writes in Ha'aretz:

Another very strange aspect of the affair is how exceptional it is. We are not used to seeing the attorney general seeking bans on candidates and parties. The extraordinary request is evidence of the ideological position that Rubinstein represents. In a number of essays that have appeared in the academic press, Rubinstein expressed vehement opposition to a "state of all its citizens" - the ideological and political stand that Bishara and his party represent. It therefore seems that what lies behind Rubinstein's moves is a political and ideological platform that seeks to preserve at all costs "the Jewish state." Rubinstein hides behind the "the public interest" and a veil of objective legalism, but this is merely a smoke screen meant to conceal his true intentions... Rubinstein's moves... are evidence of a tendentious effort to silence the leadership of the Arab minority and to reduce Israel's democratic space while expanding its Jewish space. There is no doubt that if successful, Rubinstein's move will have ramifications for the voting patterns of the Arab minority, because of its increasing sense that it lacks any political influence in the country.

Note that it doesn't matter whether these are the Attorney General's actual motivations. What matters is that Arab Israelis will perceive them that way. It hasn't been lost on Arab Israelis that the CEC is, in Sultani's words, "a political body," and that a decision to disqualify the Arab lists will amount to a political decision about Arab participation in Israeli society. And the MKs from the Arab parties are making sure the message gets through:

Knesset members from Ta'al (Arab Movement for Renewal) and the United Arab List are arguing that the requests to disqualify their candidacies for the next Knesset are baseless, racist and designed to undermine the political representation of the entire Arab minority.

It's fair to ask, again, whether the potential damage from allowing Bishara or Tibi to sit in the Knesset is greater than the damage that would result if 20 percent of Israel's population is further alienated from civil society. It would be especially tragic for this to happen at a time when Arab Israelis are increasingly identifying as Israelis again after a period during which the majority self-identified as Palestinians. Whatever the Attorney General's reasons may be for attempting to disqualify Balad, the message that many Arab Israelis will hear is "We don't want you back."

This could have two effects, neither of which will be good for Israel. One possibility is that the Arab Israeli electorate will be further radicalized. Among the best kept secrets of Israeli politics is that the Arab parties have never represented a majority of the Arab electorate; instead, most Arab votes have historically gone to Avoda. Arab Israelis have been able to obtain much more influence as an important Avoda constituency than through the radical Arab parties. An unintended side effect of the CEC's shenanigans may be to radicalize the Arab population to the point where Bishara and Tibi, rather than more moderate leaders like Avoda MKs Saleh Tarif or Galeb Majadla, will become their true representatives. This won't be good for anyone - not for Arab Israelis, who will be further marginalized, and not for Israeli civil society, which will be faced with increasing disaffection among the Arab population.

The second possibility is an Arab boycott of the Israeli elections. In an encouraging sign, Tibi has stated that he will call upon Arab Israelis to vote even if he is disqualified. There are indications, however, that Balad and Bishara might call for a boycott - which, if carried out, will strengthen the very forces in Israeli society that are opposed to Arab participation, and will convince many Jewish Israelis that the Arab electorate doesn't consider Israel a legitimate state. From all indications, this point of view doesn't represent a majority of the Arab Israeli population now, and Israeli social cohesion will suffer if it does or even if the majority of Jewish Israelis think it does. The supreme irony of the current CEC proceedings is that they have the potential to divide Israel much more than the inflammatory remarks of a few marginal Arab legislators.

Sunday, December 29, 2002
Once more into the breach

Salam responds to my ill-conceived response to his thoughts on cultural betrayal:

You say : "It's easier to talk to people who share one's background and assumptions, but it's more rewarding to understand the rest of the world and to be understood in turn." Believe me I know this, I have been rewarded immensely. My life was not only enriched by all that I have been exposed to, but very much transformed. In the comments you wrote "I want to know about the Egyptian soap operas too. It's selfish of me, but I want to be a guest at the party" I don't think that's selfish, this is also the reason I read weblogs, even the ones which are very personal. It's a glimpse into a world which I might have not seen before and usually is, as you said, very rewarding.

The feeling of betrayal comes from somewhere else. There was a time when I thought that one of the best things that have happened to me is that I have not been "rooted" anywhere. I felt that I will manage to feel at home wherever I go. Culture, as in my cultural heritage, was not something I could betray because it was not part of how I saw myself.

But this has changed, in this day I am forced to identify myself with something I don't fully believe in. They see a name, a passport and I am lumped with people and things I don't think I belong with. Actually when I think about it things haven't just changed over night, I was probably fooling my self or was a good chameleon. So instead of arguing with whoever I decided to stop fighting it. It is who I am after all, well sort of. The problem was that I found out my brain needed some serious re-wiring; I have major blank gaps and disagree with so much. Which leaves me in limbo. This is where the feeling of betrayal comes from. I can't fully connect as much as I try. So if I do understand the lyrics Um Kalthum sings (I see you have used the Egyptian pronunciation ‘Kolsoum') I can't quote the classical poets whose poems she sings like my cousins do.

I think I can understand that a little. I see a bit of myself in those words. I've never quite been a rootless cosmopolitan - I'm a Jew, I have a Jewish heritage and education, and I'm too much of a Jew to ever be (or want to be) anything else. However, what Ikram Saeed said in the comments about Hellenistic Jews facing the same potential identity crisis as cosmopolitan Arabs hit home, because a Hellenistic Jew is exactly what I am. I enjoy mixing and matching traditions and accepting the best of other cultures, I like the diversity and mutual assimilation of the American melting pot, and I've always taken pride in being fully Jewish, fully American and fully Western. I never believed, and I still don't believe, that there's any incompatibility between the three. I also felt at home everywhere, and most of my life - even in the military and in foreign countries - I've never had any reason to question that.

In the past two years, however, there has been a sharp increase in both anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism. In both the Jewish and American aspects of my identity, I've found myself put into a category based on "a name [and] a passport." There has also been a growing attempt to expel Israel - with which I have an affinity both through ideology and through having friends and relatives there - from the West through boycotts and ostracism. I've frequently found myself having to explain America, Judaism and Israel to people who were hostile to them and who often had misconceptions about what they were and the realities they faced. I still value the mixing of cultures, but I'm glad to have my heritage to fall back on as a reality check and a source of strength. I'm not sure how I'd handle the current political climate if I didn't have a sense of who I am.

So, Salam, I apologize if I said anything to disparage the connection you're in the process of making with your heritage, and I hope I didn't come off sounding patronizing or dismissive. As far as I'm concerned, patronizing someone else is one of the worst sins that it's possible to commit, and I cringe every time I inadvertently commit it. For what it's worth, I don't put you in any category based on your name or passport, except that you have a perspective that nobody else of my acquaintance has, and I've enjoyed learning from it. Rock on, Salam, and don't mind my idiocies.

(And I hadn't realized that "Kolsoum" was the Egyptian pronunciation, but that makes sense because the person who introduced me to Umm Kolsoum was Egyptian. Most Arab-Americans are Lebanese, Egyptian or Palestinian, and the Lebanese-Americans have been here long enough that most of them live in middle-class suburbs. My neighbors in Yonkers were Egyptian, Palestinian or Jordanian, and sometimes two of the above. So whenever I use one of my two hundred or so words of Arabic, the chances are I have a Palestinian or Egyptian accent.)

More Palestinian than the Palestinians?

Meryl Yourish and others have commented on the recent letter of "Professors Of Conscience" warning that Israel is contemplating the expulsion of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza under cover of the upcoming American-Iraqi war. (Another comment of Meryl's is here.) One minor problem with this whole line of argument, though: The Palestinians don't think it's going to happen. As Ha'aretz reports today:

Nobody in the territories believes that Israel is particularly generous. Yet they see the Israeli administration continues to provide electricity to the territories, as well as food and other supplies to "enemy" territory.

In other words, the Palestinians don't care for Israel, but they realize that Israelis aren't monsters and that public opinion in Israel wouldn't stand for crimes against humanity. Many of their Western supporters, however, don't seem to realize that.

Why am I not surprised?

A dangerous decision

The Central Elections Committee voted by a 21-18 margin not to disqualify Herut candidate Baruch Marzel, despite evidence that he remains the leader of the outlawed Kach movement. The decision was the result of an apparent party-line vote that overruled the Attorney General's recommendation to disqualify Marzel.

Those of you who've been reading this journal know that I oppose the disqualification of any candidate on any ground other than criminal history or violation of the electoral law. An even more dangerous precedent will be set, however, if the CEC bans all the Arab parties but not Marzel. Even if the Arab lists are reinstated on appeal to the Supreme Court, the damage will have been done - the CEC will have indicated that Arab and Jewish candidates are judged according to a double standard. The official standard for disqualification is opposition to the concept of Israel as a Jewish-democratic state, but a party-line vote favoring Marzel over the Arab parties will make clear that the CEC doesn't have a problem with anti-democratic forces within the Jewish community. Any argument that Balad - and, even more, the UAL and Hadash - are being targeted for their support of violence will also ring hollow in light of the violence that Kach has both advocated and committed.

If the Arab parties are disqualified but Marzel isn't, then Arab Israelis could be forgiven for believing that the CEC simply doesn't value their participation in the political process. Maybe that's precisely what the CEC wants them to believe - an Arab boycott of the elections, or a low Arab turnout, would favor the right-wing parties that make up a majority of the CEC and undo some of the damage from the Likud corruption scandal. But this is an anti-democratic way of obtaining a political advantage, not to mention one that would devalue the citizenship of Arab Israelis and further increase the divisions within Israeli civil society. If anyone wants more proof that the Israeli right is focused on the short term, this is it.

Let me repeat that I think the CEC did the right thing by allowing Marzel to run. I don't believe that anyone should be disqualified from running for office based on his political views alone. Now that the CEC has voted the right way on Marzel, however, it should also reject the petitions to ban the Arab lists.