The Head Heeb : Knocking Down 4000 Years of Icons

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

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Saturday, May 17, 2003
Beta Israel

Ha'aretz profiles an Ethiopian Jewish family living in Ramle.

Against the odds

Kibbutz movement leader Yoel Maharshak convinced the IDF to protect Palestinian farmers in the West Bank from settler harassment, despite opposition from the settlers - and from the Palestinian Authority.

Friday, May 16, 2003
A necessary action

Foreign aid donors are reportedly insisting that the Ugandan government resume peace talks with the rebel Lord's Resistance Army, demanding that the "government must get to the underlying cause of the conflict" rather than pursuing a military solution. I'm not given to hyperbole, but this strikes me as one of the most wrongheaded positions since the United Nations ignored General Dallaire's warning of an incipient genocide in Rwanda.

For one thing, Uganda did give peace a chance earlier this year, reaching a cease-fire agreement with in March and extending it despite repeated violations by the LRA. Only after the negotiations went nowhere and the LRA resumed kidnapping civilians did the government return to military operations. It cannot be said that the government failed to exercise good faith

For another, the conflict between the Ugandan government and the LRA is not one that can be resolved by addressing the "root causes." The LRA has no coherent ideology and does not enjoy appreciable support in Uganda; instead, most of its bases are in Sudan. Moreover, it is one of the most atrocity-prone armies in a war-torn continent:

The LRA has abducted large numbers of civilians for training as guerrillas; most victims were children and young adults. The LRA abducted young girls as sex and labor slaves. Other children, mainly girls, were reported to have been sold, traded, or given as gifts by the LRA to arms dealers in Sudan. While some later escaped or were rescued, the whereabouts of many children remain unknown.


Forty-eight people were hacked to death near the town of Kitgum in the far north of Uganda on 25 July 2002. Local newspaper reports said elderly people were killed with machetes and spears, and babies were flung against trees.

In other words, the LRA is not a rebel force like the MPCI of northern Côte d'Ivoire, which has legitimate grievances and has generally been disciplined and respectful of human rights. Instead, it is similar to Sierra Leone's barbaric Revolutionary United Front.

It seems that the donor community has learned nothing from the collapse of the "peace process" in Sierra Leone. The Lomé peace accords, which the Sierra Leone government and the RUF concluded under international auspices, ended predictably when the RUF refused to disarm and once again went on the offensive. A megalomaniac like LRA leader Joseph Kony is no more to be trusted with a share of power than Foday Sankoh. He belongs where Sankoh now is - in front of a war crimes tribunal - and if military action is necessary to get him there and end his atrocities, then such action is justified.

Dreams deferred

The Swazi government has again postponed the release of a draft constitution first promised in 1998. Swaziland, which the last traditional monarchy in Africa, established a Constitutional Review Commission in 1996, but the commission drew protests almost immediately. Although the commission included several progressive members and held public hearings, the circumstances of the hearings were hardly designed to encourage free discussion. As described by independent journalist Martin Dlamini:

"We tell the world about rule by consensus, but do we say that the CRC consultation exercises were held in the intimidating presence of chiefs who were there to ensure people do not speak their mind and do not enjoy the basic human right to freedom of speech?

"The chiefs hold the power to evict people who differ in opinion. They represent the king in the rural communities, and whoever speaks against government is bound to get into trouble."

More than six years after the hearings were closed, many Swazis speculate that the commission is simply unable to draw up a document that combines democracy and individual rights with the king's desire to sustain power. At least one commentator has noted sardonically that "the difficulty of trying to reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable is no doubt causing the delay in producing a new Constitution." With public dissatisfaction increasing and no end in sight to the country's rule of law crisis, however, it is uncertain how much longer Swaziland can go without cutting this Gordian knot.

Al-Ahram Chronicle time

This week's article discusses the effect of the Great Depression on Egyptian farmers and the consequent establishment of a government-sponsored agricultural bank.

Thursday, May 15, 2003
A hidden past

Today's New York Times describes archaeological work that is shedding light on a little-known Jewish community: the Jews of southern Italy during the third through seventh centuries. From the fragmentary evidence available, it appears that the Italian Jews of that time were a prosperous and assimilated community who dominated maritime trade in some towns and used the vernacular to the virtual exclusion of Hebrew. It is believed that they were descended from slaves brought to Rome after the Jewish rebellions of the first and second centuries - an origin which, in at least one case, leads to fascinating speculation:

For instance there is a first-century travertine tombstone now in the basement of the National Archaeological Museum of Naples, yet another example of vibrant Jewish life here during the first millennium [...] This is the headstone of Claudia Aster, a 25-year-old Jew brought to the area, probably as a girl, and sold as a household slave. The inscription reads: "Claudia Aster, captive from Jerusalem. Tiberius Claudius Proculus, imperial freedman, took care of this epitaph. I ask you to make sure through the law that you take care that no one casts down my inscription."

Addressed in the plural to all inhabitants of the area, or travelers passing through, Dr. Lacerenza said, it sounded like an elaborate appeal for the protection of the inscription. Although such appeals have been found on other Roman tombstones, it is possible that Claudia did not want history to forget that she and her people had been taken there as captives. And her Roman master may have honored her wishes, possibly because he fell in love with her or even married her. Dr. Lacerenza said that Aster may have been a Latin or Greek version of the Jewish name Esther. Claudia, say other historians, would have been the name given to her as a member of the household of someone named Claudius.

Digs in southern Italy and Sicily have also yielded ritual implements, ruins of a Roman-era mikvah, burial inscriptions and books.

Cultural politics

Via a correspondent who wishes to remain nameless: Charles Paul Freund discusses the effect of the war on Arab popular music.

Wednesday, May 14, 2003
Fanfare please

Congratulations to Miranda for posting the 2000th comment.

Not exactly Florida

The Constitutional Court of Somaliland has confirmed the narrow re-election of President Dahir Riyale Kahin, increasing his margin from 80 to 217 votes. The election saga may not be over, however; the opposition KULMIYE party has expressed dissatisfaction with the method by which the court resolved discrepancies, and is considering its options. There are already worrying signs that the close election and the ensuing tensions are damaging Somaliland's democracy, with reports that security forces are intimidating opposition supporters and clamping down on demonstrations.

Now that the legal challenges to the election have been exhausted, the most important issue is preserving democracy and the rule of law in Somaliland rather than placing a particular candidate in office. No doubt Kahin will have to endure allegations that he was "selected, not elected" for the remainder of his term, but KULMIYE's best course is probably to accept the court's ruling, explore Kahin's suggestion of a national unity government and attempt to forge alliances with other opposition parties. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for later this year, and KULMIYE will have another chance to show its strength. Kahin, for his part, should keep in mind that the election was a statistical tie and that 58 percent of the voters chose someone other than him, and negotiate with KULMIYE in good faith. Somaliland has achieved a great deal during the past decade, and it would be a tragedy if its transition to democracy collapsed at the very moment of success.

Liberia's excuses

The Sierra Leone war crimes tribunal yesterday accused Liberian president Charles Taylor of obstructing justice by refusing to hand over the body of warlord Sam Bockarie. The Liberian government has expressed its willingness to turn the body over, but has given a very curious excuse for the delay. Liberian authorities claim that they have yet to determine the exact cause of Bockarie's death - but the same Liberian authorities announced last week that Bockarie had been killed in a shootout with government forces. It usually doesn't take very long to determine the cause of a battlefield casualty's death. There's something very fishy about the Liberian government's explanation, and one might be forgiven for wondering whether the body in Monrovia really belongs to Bockarie.

Tuesday, May 13, 2003
The backlash continues?

The Egyptian parliament was recently the unlikely location of a discussion of anti-Semitism. The context was a debate over a program for religious tolerance and moderation:

The debate featured a clash between several MPs regarding whether Islam should be the only religion singled out for criticism.


Given the floor to deliver a word on the report, Abu Zeid said the discourse of Egypt's three religions -- Islam, Christianity and Judaism -- must convey a message of tolerance. According to Abu Zeid, accusations of extremism must not just be levelled at Islam. "There are a lot of extremist Christians and Jews in America and Israel, and both are defaming the messages of Christianity and Judaism," Abu Zeid said.

This statement was hardly a ringing endorsement of Judaism; indeed, it appears to have been made in defense of Egyptian Islam. However, the fact that Jews were mentioned at all as part of the Egyptian religious discourse was too much for another legislator:

Abu Zeid's comment immediately angered Mohamed Mursi, a prominent deputy from the banned Muslim Brotherhood. "As long as we are discussing a report about Islam in Egypt," Mursi said, "I insist that there is no Jewish discourse in Egypt."

At this point, several MPs began arguing with Mursi, and parliamentary speaker Fathi Sorour himself stepped in to blame Mursi for ignoring "the fact that several Jews live in Egypt and most of them go to Jewish synagogues". Sorour said, "Mursi's words contain an element of extremism which he must renounce."


In this same vein, leftist MP Abul-Ezz El-Hariri [Tagammu] denounced the fact that several extremist imams and clerics have described Jews "as the worshippers of monkeys and pigs", in their Friday prayer sermons.

Another religious cleric, MP Abdel-Rahman El-Adawi, said Islam bestows tremendous respect on Christianity and Judaism. Judaism's Prophet, Moses, said El-Adawi, enjoys even more respect in Egypt "because he was born here and led the Jews in their revolt against the Pharaoh."

All right, so what's the meaning of all this (insofar as an Egyptian parliamentary debate can have meaning)? On the one hand, the fact that such a tepid remark as Abu Zeid's - essentially, a statement that Jews are no better or worse than anyone else - could inspire an anti-Semitic rejoinder illustrates the depth of anti-Semitism in certain sectors of Egyptian society. Notwithstanding Sorour's pledge to "never provide anyone with the opportunity to accuse the Egyptian parliament of extremism or anti-Semitism," the, er, horse has already left the barn in that respect.

On the other hand, however, more than one Egyptian deputy responded not only by condemning anti-Semitism but by expressing their respect for the Jewish religion (albeit with a clear differentiation between Judaism and Zionism). Even if one wants to be cynical and write this off as damage control - a conclusion I'm far from sure is warranted - the fact remains that, at minimum, the legislators consider anti-Semitism an item of damage that must be controlled. That they are willing to express respect for Judaism in an official forum is significant.

Even more significant is the fact that their statements appear to be part of a larger trend. MEMRI, which is hardly a pro-Arab source, recently noted a growing backlash against anti-Semitism among Arab intellectuals and media figures. This included a series of articles by Osama el-Baz, a close political advisor to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, that debunked anti-Semitic myths. If the backlash against anti-Semitism in Egypt has now spread to legislators from several political parties - including the Tagammu party, which has historically cooperated with the Nasserists and has flirted with the Brotherhood - then it is a hopeful sign.

The burdens of iconization

There's an excellent article by Shalom Lappin in the current issue of Dissent, discussing the reasons why anti-Zionism is popular in Europe. He writes from a left-Zionist viewpoint that is in many ways similar to mine, and I think many of his points are valid ones. The passage that first caught my attention, though, came immediately after Lappin explained why the creation of Israel was not a product of "Western guilt over the Holocaust:"

Nonetheless, the idea that Israel was created through Holocaust guilt has gained widespread currency in Europe. This idea is used to impose moral conditions on Israel that are not generally applied to other countries. If Israel was created as an act of expiation for crimes against the Jews, so this reasoning goes, then its legitimacy depends upon its not oppressing other people. The idea of Israel as a conditional concession wrung from the West through Jewish suffering in Europe goes some way toward explaining the glee (relief?) with which Israel's more strident European critics insist on comparing its treatment of the Palestinians to the Nazi persecution of the Jews. The obvious perversity and inappropriateness of the comparison is the source of its attraction. Not only are the victims of the Nazis transformed into the oppressors, but the basis of their collective legitimacy is undermined.

I'd make the same point in a slightly different way. I've said before that iconization can be as dehumanizing as demonization, and iconization of European Jews as Holocaust victims may be a case in point. This is true not only because iconization lays a heavy burden of guilt on the non-Jewish European population, but also because it assigns a fixed role to European Jews - and, as the iconization of the Holocaust has grown, to Jews as a whole.

The iconization effect is, moreover, another of the many parallels between Jews and Palestinians. This came to mind when reading Ikram Saeed's discussion of the backlash against Palestinians in post-Saddam Iraq:

A tent city is growing on the scorching soccer pitch of suburban Baghdad's Haifa Sports Ground, which is named after the Israeli city many of them fled in 1948. Almost 250 Palestinian families have been expelled from their homes in the chaos that has followed the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime early last month.

In the comments to his post, Ikram raised a serious question: why, after 55 years, were the Palestinians living in Baghdad still regarded as foreigners?

The answer, I think, is the Arab world's iconization of the refugees of 1948. The very centrality of the Palestinian refugees' cause throughout the Arab world means that Palestinians must always be refugees, and can never be allowed to blend into their host countries. Thus, the presence of Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and Syria more than half a century after the creation of Israel - and the fact that the Palestinians in Iraq, although better treated than most, were never allowed to become citizens.

Many of the Iraqis now expelling Palestinians from their homes might support the Palestinian cause in the abstract. Some of them may have called for the destruction of Israel at demonstrations or public functions. This reverence, however, was reserved for Palestinians as a collective; individual Palestinians continued to be vaguely distasteful foreigners who were fat cats under Saddam. When push came to shove, the Iraqi landlords didn't accept their Palestinian tenants as neighbors.

There are, in fact, very few places in the Arab world, other than the Palestinian territories themselves, where Palestinians are allowed to assimilate. Jordan, which has a substantial Palestinian majority that includes the queen, is a partial exception, but there are refugee camps even there. It's no coincidence, I think, that the country where Palestinians stand the greatest chance of becoming just folks is precisely the one where their cause is fetishized the least - the United States.

And if peace breaks out in the Middle East, there may one day be another country where Palestinians can be just like anyone else. It's a country where Palestinians have lived for centuries, where they make up 20 percent of the population and where their struggle is certainly not a national icon. I'll give you one guess which country it is.

Monday, May 12, 2003
Everyone else is doing it

The following was generated by Rob's Amazing Poem Generator from the contents of my homepage:

The international tribunal for the Chief Justice,
system. The following the Fijian courts Haiku and Saudi Arabia
Western Europe
Part 2
Northern states but I have vanished amid infernal
laughter. Fortunately, the
ruling Democratic Party
remaining outside
a Uriah
might, have vanished amid infernal
laughter. Fortunately, the commander
of Islam
and Sri
Lankan wars on the
day Pakistan Day, The Ivorian
equation still faces potential sanctions for
DNA testing.

Do I really use the word "fortunately" that much?

The circus is back in town

As if Zimbabwe didn't have enough troubles, the Tsvangirai treason trial has resumed after a two-month recess. Developments will be noted.

Sunday, May 11, 2003
Cartesian courts

New Zealand correspondent Errol Cavit informs me of a curious case in which a court is being asked to rule itself out of existence. This unique case is the result of an ongoing sexual assault investigation on Pitcairn Island, a dot on the map in the South Pacific with a population of 47. As might be expected, Pitcairn had only a rudimentary legal system, with an Island Court consisting of an elected magistrate and two part-time councillors. In the twenty years before 1999, only two cases came before this court, both resulting in minor fines. The island's three jail cells were used to store life jackets.

A police investigation in 1999, however, led to allegations of widespread sexual abuse against young girls. To date, seven Pitcairn residents and two expatriates have been charged, and as many as 10 others remain under investigation. This meant, not only that a significant fraction of the Pitcairn population was under indictment, but that the island faced the prospect of an extensive and logistically difficult trial. The sheer number of defense lawyers, investigators, prosecutors and court personnel involved was likely to exceed the population of the island, and there simply wasn't anyplace to put them all.

The United Kingdom, which has jurisdiction over Pitcairn, responded with an order in council providing that the Pitcairn courts may "sit in the United Kingdom, or in such other place as the Governor, acting in accordance with the advice of the Chief Justice, may appoint." In the end, however, it was decided that New Zealand rather than the United Kingdom was the better location to hold the trial. New Zealand was closer to Pitcairn, the Pitcairn governor was based there, and it was home to most of the Pitcairn expatriate population.

In October 2002, the UK and New Zealand signed an agreement under which New Zealand assumed responsibility for the Pitcairn justice system. The New Zealand Parliament enacted the Pitcairn Trials Bill, allowing trials under Pitcairn law to be held in Auckland before a New Zealand judge, on December 17. Notably lacking, however, was the approval of Pitcairn's elected Island Council - approval that would probably have been withheld in any event given the public sentiment in favor of holding the trial on Pitcairn.

Thus, the recent motion by defense counsel to have the Auckland-based court rule itself out of order:

The in-chambers hearing before Pitcairn Magistrate Gray Cameron was the first use of the Pitcairn Trials Act passed in December last year, allowing trials under Pitcairn law to be held in New Zealand.


Yesterday, [defense counsel] Paul Dacre indicated for the first time that he would go further and, in what will be a ground-breaking action, try to get the entire Pitcairn legal structure struck out... Mr. Dacre said outside the court that he would argue that the structures established in the past three years were flawed and that the trials should be abandoned.


Shortly after Mr Cameron found the point on the circle where Mr Dacre's arguments met.

"Mr Dacre is asking me to make a ruling about suppression on the basis that I don't have the power to make rulings," he concluded.

After nearly two hours in a room that was somewhere else, in a court that might not have properly existed, Mr Cameron reserved his decision.

This is, as far as I'm aware, the first occasion on which a court has been asked to dissolve itself. A similarly Cartesian near miss, however, occurred on Fiji in the wake of the coup of May 19, 2000. Among the first acts of the military government that took power in the wake of the coup was to abrogate the 1997 constitution. This was followed by the Judicature Decree, in which the military authorities abolished the Supreme Court, leaving the Court of Appeal as the highest court in the nation.

Shortly afterward, a displaced Indo-Fijian farmer, Chandrika Prasad, sued in the Fijian courts to have the military government declared illegal. On March 1, 2001, the Court of Appeal ruled in Prasad's favor, holding that the interim government was unlawful and that the 1997 constitution had never been validly abrogated. Among the effects of the Court of Appeal's ruling was the nullification of the Judicature Decree and, therefore, the reinstatement of the Supreme Court as the highest court of Fiji. This meant that the interim government now had an avenue of appeal - but could only take that appeal if it acknowledged that its own decree was invalid.

If the government had appealed to the reconstituted Supreme Court, the paradox would have become even worse. A ruling in favor of the government would mean that all its decrees - including the decree abolishing the Supreme Court - had been validly promulgated. This would, in effect, have required the court to rule not only that it did not exist but that it had not existed for almost a year. At that point, no doubt, the Supreme Court and the interim government would both have vanished amid infernal laughter.

Fortunately, the government took the honorable course by accepting the reinstatement of the constitution and calling fresh elections. The first court to face an existential paradox will thus be, not the Supreme Court of Fiji, but one from a Pacific island smaller still.

Happy Mother's Day

And yes, Imshin, Allison and Alisa, this means you.