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, June 14, 2003
Corruption in Africa

The World Economic Forum has ranked 21 African countries in terms of corruption. Not surprisingly, Botswana is the least corrupt with a rating of 5.45 on a scale of 7, largely due to its political stability, strong rule of law and relatively honest governmental institutions. Equally unsurprisingly, Nigeria is near the bottom; although improvement has been noted in its judicial system, widespread corruption continues to exist at all levels of government. South Africa rated high on rule of law but was downgraded to fourth place overall due to large-scale organized crime, while Zimbabwe is "weighed down by the lowest score in terms of independence of its judiciary and the second to lowest score in terms of the neutrality of government public decisions."

The scores were obtained by surveying local business leaders and thus do not represent an entirely impartial viewpoint, but they appear generally fair and accurate. The rankings were released last week to coincide with the WEF's 2003 African Economic Summit; a final survey including additional countries will be published in the future. A breakdown of the indices used in establishing the rankings is here.

Gathering storm

The riots in Teheran are in their fourth day and appear to be growing despite escalating violence. There are signs that the protests are spreading beyond the students who started them, with some non-students joining the riots and many others honking their horns in support.

If the protesters can keep the momentum going until the general strike scheduled for July 9, the government might be in serious trouble. Whether it will get that far depends on what the security forces decide to do. Thus far, as in the riots of 1999, most of the violence against protesters has been committed by paramilitary vigilante groups while the government itself has stayed within the letter of the constitution. The vigilantes haven't had things all their own way, however, and the protests may grow too large for them to handle. At that point, the government will either have to send in the army or fold.

The key question is whether the security forces will follow orders. At this point, they appear to be remaining above the fray and have even arrested a group of vigilantes who attacked a student dormitory. This may mean that some or all of the security forces are unwilling to engage in political violence, or that there is dissent within the government as to how to handle the calls for democratization. It's still far too early to make predictions, but if Khamene'i decides to crack down, he may have fewer allies than he thinks.

Friday, June 13, 2003
A happy ending

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the story of Tamir, a Palestinian from Gaza who was adopted by an Israeli family after existing on the margins of Israeli and Palestinian society since the age of nine. Interior Minister Avraham Poraz - who is as genuinely moral a person as can be found in government anywhere - has now granted him temporary resident status for two years despite his criminal record:

Poraz had his staff make a comprehensive investigation of the young man's background. The investigation revealed that the offenses for which he was convicted were solely of a "survival" nature, that he had not been back to Gaza since the day he was expelled and that there is no hostile security activity in his background.

This status carries "the possibility of permanent residency at the end of that period" and eventual naturalization as an Israeli citizen. Thanks to Poraz' intervention, it looks like Tamir's dream of becoming an Israeli citizen and opening a home for street children may come to pass.

Rehov Sumsum, updated

Aviv Lavie interviews [1, 2] the founders of Hop!, Israel's answer to the Children's Television Workshop. The three-year-old channel, aimed at children from 1 to 7 years of age, now leads other Israeli children's programming among its target audience:

In the three short years that Hop! has been in Israeli homes, it has become a unique phenomenon: It's the channel that everyone loves to love. It's hard to imagine any other entity in the oft-berated Israeli media - especially when it comes to its influence on children - being so universally praised by parents, critics, academics and, of course, children. Hop!'s reputation is now approaching the problematic point where parents are parking their kids in front of the TV screen without bothering at all see what's on, just because they've heard that, as the slogan says, with this channel, the child is "growing up in good hands."

Hop! also echoes CTW in attacking stereotypes and promoting cultural diversity; it portrays children and families from all sectors of Israeli society, including Arabs.

Change of venue

Belgium has commenced proceedings to transfer its war crimes investigation of retired general Amos Yaron to Israel, bringing the long-standing diplomatic and legal battle between the two countries to an end. Earlier this year, the Belgian Court of Cassation issued a ruling dismissing charges against Prime Minister Sharon without prejudice but allowing those against Yaron to go forward.

The complaint against Yaron was ruled admissible by a lower court earlier this week - similar to a grand jury indictment in the United States - but under a newly enacted procedure, the Belgian Justice Ministry has initiated the transfer of the proceeding to the Israeli courts. Presumably, the same procedure will be available in the event that the proceeding against Sharon is revived after he leaves office. The transfer is expected to be complete in about two weeks and, if effectuated, will mark a practical end to Belgium's role as a forum for politically motivated war crimes complaints.

There has already been a Israeli judicial inquiry as to Yaron's conduct, which found that he "had shown insensitivity to the dangers of massacre"at Sabra and Shatila. It appears that, like Sharon, he was guilty of culpable negligence and must bear some moral responsibility for the killings. Whether the evidence - including the record developed in Belgium - warrants further action is now up to the Israeli judicial system.

The Israeli Ministry of Justice shouldn't simply throw the file away. Part of the quid pro quo envisioned by the Belgian transfer-of-proceedings statute is that the receiving country will treat the complaint in a manner consistent with the rule of law. It is likely that Yaron's negligence did not rise to the criminal level and that he should not be prosecuted, but that decision should be made only after a complete review of the record. The Belgian prosecution was begun for political reasons; if it is dismissed in Israel, the dismissal should be on the merits rather than on similarly political grounds.

UPDATE: Haggai (June 13 entry) argues that the Belgian decision illustrates why the United States should join the International Criminal Court.

Another Chronicle

This one discusses the migration of rural Sa'idis (Upper Egyptians) to Cairo and Alexandria.

Thursday, June 12, 2003
Keeping the peace

The opposition KULMIYE party has accepted the results of the disputed Somaliland presidential election. KULMIYE's declaration ends a two-month standoff following the 217-vote victory of incumbent president Dahir Riyale Kahin.

The settlement between the two parties was reportedly reached through mediation by the nation's council of elders, which also convinced the ruling UDUB party to address KULMIYE's concerns. There have been hints in the past that UDUB is willing to consider a coalition government with KULMIYE, and a power-sharing arrangement may now be in Somaliland's future. The accord will also hopefully reverse the deterioration in human rights that has accompanied the opposition protests.

The mediation effort was helped by the fact that stability is an important concern in Somaliland, where an oasis of relative peace has grown up amid Somalia's anarchy and civil warfare. Both UDUB and KULMIYE were reportedly afraid of being the ones held responsible for breaking the peace, which would likely be political suicide in the upcoming parliamentary elections.

Uneasy sailing

There's good news and bad news in the Queen Boat case. The good news is that four of the 21 gay men convicted of "habitual debauchery" after a 2001 police raid on a Cairo nightclub had their sentences reduced to time served by an appellate court. The bad news is that their convictions were upheld and that they will have to spend a year on probation.

For the four men whose appeals were decided, a long legal odyssey has come to an end:

In May 2001, police arrested over 50 men during a raid on the Queen Boat nightclub on the Nile in Zamalek. Originally, the case was handed over to the Egyptian State Security-Emergency court, which delivered one-year or two-year sentences to the men. Two other men, considered to be the ringleaders, were given longer, three-year and five-year sentences after they were accused of "scorning religion." Emergency court decisions cannot be appealed.

But in June 2002, Egypt’s military governor ordered a retrial for the men, including those who were acquitted, to be held in regular criminal courts. The governor said the case did not fall under the jurisdiction of the State Security-Emergency court.

The retrial was, if anything, even more perfunctory than the state security court hearing; the arresting officers did not testify and the defense lawyers were not permitted to make arguments. At the end of the proceeding, 29 of the defendants were acquitted but the others were sentenced to three years - a longer prison term than they had received from the emergency courts.

It is not immediately clear what will happen to the other 17 convicted defendants, whose appeals have not yet been decided. In addition, the appellate court verdict sends a decidedly mixed signal to Egyptian prosecutors, who have continued to raid gay nightclubs in less publicized cases. The four defendants have been set free, but by upholding the debauchery convictions, the court may have validated the arrest and prosecution of others.

The king blinks

The Times of Tonga is back on sale after the Supreme Court threatened to hold the entire Cabinet in contempt. Had the government not caved, the Chief Justice might have invoked an unprecedented procedure under which he reported the Cabinet's contempt to Parliament, assumed the chairmanship of that body and called for a vote on sanctions.

It may still come to that, particularly if the government attempts some other interim legal maneuver to get the paper off the streets. If the Chief Justice brings a contempt motion before Parliament, the twelve Cabinet members - who are ex officio legislators - will have to recuse themselves. This will eliminate the commoners' disadvantage at a single stroke. Rather than being outnumbered 21 to 9, the commoners' representatives will be opposed only by an equal number of nobles, with the Chief Justice potentially casting the deciding vote. Even this, however, might not be enough for the contempt motion to succeed. The common members of Parliament do not represent political parties as such, but two of them are considered royalists and would probably vote against the motion. Unless two nobles step off the reservation - which seems unlikely in a situation where their powers are at stake - the motion would be defeated.

A parliamentary vote sustaining the Cabinet's violation of a Supreme Court order would create a constitutional crisis to dwarf the current one. It may be for this reason that the government gave in, choosing to allow the Times a temporary victory rather than precipitating a full-scale showdown with the courts. Given that a proposed constitutional amendment may soon restrict freedom of the press and immunize the government from judicial review, the government is likely to have the last laugh even without resorting to such extreme measures.

Wednesday, June 11, 2003
Another one

Yes, I know about the suicide bombing. No, I'm not going to write about it. I'll let Allison, Imshin, Tal G. and Rinat (who was close enough to hear it) speak for me.

UPDATE: Gil Shterzer has pictures, and shares the sad news that one of his close friends lost an aunt. Fortunately, Allison's mother-in-law is all right.

Dangerous ground

More than 1000 Iranians clashed with riot police in Teheran, demanding the resignation of President Mohammed Khatami and an end to religious rule. This is yet another sign of what a powder keg Iran has become, but it won't necessarily go anywhere. Most of the protesters appear to be students, and the Iranian government has generally been able to contain student riots - even when, as in 1999, they spread to more than a dozen cities. The test will be whether this round of protests spreads beyond the university campuses and, if so, whether the clerical authorities and their associated paramilitaries are willing to go to extreme lengths to put it down. As things stand, it's too early to call today's protest a harbinger of change - and if change does result, it could as easily be for the worse as for the better.

New charges

Morgan Tsvangirai appeared in court this morning to answer new treason charges arising from last week's demonstrations. The day was taken up with Tsvangirai's bail application, which the government has opposed vigorously in the hope of taking him out of action for an extended period. As a measure of the government's pettiness, Tsvangirai was brought to court in prison clothes and was only allowed to change into a business suit after his attorneys obtained a court order. The hearings will continue tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 10, 2003
Silent minority

A while ago, I wrote about a proposed Jewish-Arab trip to Auschwitz that was being planned by Israeli Arab religious leader Emil Shufani. At the time, I was skeptical of the assumptions underlying the trip, and I'm still skeptical now that the trip has been completed. On the other hand, for all the occasional bickering over the Holocaust's meaning, the project seems to have fulfilled another purpose - showcasing a group of Israeli Arabs who don't normally get much press:

[A Jewish participant] defined the [Arab] participants as people who are disgusted with MK Azmi Bishara's rhetoric. Bishara, he said, "has managed to concentrate all the young intellectuals of Israel's Arab sector around him, and they look down on all the others."

Some of these "others," mainly older people, came on the trip because they are disgusted with the nationalist rhetoric, and simply want to live in peace. They can perhaps be defined as the "bourgeoisie" of the Arab sector: people who have succeeded in their lives in Israel, and for whom a polarization of relations between the peoples threatens their serenity. They want to live in peace, and usually accept the Jewish identity of Israel, but will not relinquish their self-respect, of which Arab-Palestinian identity is a part. "I don't feel that we have been `fated' to live together," said Ahmed Massalah of Daburiya, who owns a successful law firm in Afula. "I want to live alongside you."

Even the doctor, Darawshi, a native of the village of Iksal, whose tone is more aggressive than that of Massalah, accepts the Jewish identity of Israel, but emphasized that he does so "in the spirit of the [Israeli] Declaration of Independence," i.e., maintaining the full civil rights of the Arab public. "I would define it this way: Israel as the state of the Jewish people, and of all its citizens," he says.

Several of the Arab participants stated that they went on the Auschwitz trip in order to connect with Jews in a way that didn't involve business or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For at least one of them, the connection succeeded:

Nuha Kawar, a poet from Nazareth, even admitted at the end of the first day that she had come on the trip as an Arab nationalist and a "Jew-hater," but the sights she saw in Auschwitz had brought about a profound change in her position. Immediately afterward, she even wrote a poem of identification with the pain of the survivors.

To my mind, anything that convinces a "Jew-hater" not to hate Jews is a worthwhile endeavor. Nevertheless, the trip also points up a persistent failure in Israel's policy toward its Arab minority. The experience of the middle-class Israeli Arabs who took part in the project is living proof that Arabs can be reconciled to the idea of a Jewish state - if they are treated like citizens with equal rights and allowed to take advantage of opportunities to succeed.

This means that, by rights, Israel should be doing everything it can to encourage Arabs to enter the professions and civil service, own businesses, live in non-segregated middle-class neighborhoods and participate in politics. The more that Israeli Arabs' citizenship is respected, and the more opportunity they have to realize their dreams within the framework of Israeli society, the more willing they will be to accept Israel as a Jewish state. There's at least some historical proof of this; during the Rabin administration, when spending in the Arab sector doubled and Arab MKs had real political influence, 65 percent of Israeli Arabs self-identified as Israelis, compared to half that now. Like anyone else, Israeli Arabs respond to political and social acceptance - which means that those Israelis who are worried about the growing disaffection among Arab citizens should be precisely those who argue the loudest for Arab civil rights. But this isn't what has happened, and Arab disaffection has increasingly become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The good news of the Auschwitz trip is that there are plenty of Israeli Arabs who are willing to give the Jewish state a chance. The bad news is that they had to go to Poland before anyone would listen to them say so.

A freilich nitl

Ever wonder how to say "Christmas" in Yiddish? Language Hat has the goods, and there's some fascinating etymological detail in the accompanying comment thread.

Monday, June 09, 2003
Comments offline again

It looks like Haloscan is having problems again - this time it's apparently the host's fault. Hopefully things will be up and running in the near future.

UPDATE: Commenting is back online, at least for the moment. We'll see what happens when Haloscan makes its promised server switch - hopefully the process will go smoothly, but Haloscan's record doesn't fill me with confidence.

Pacific censorship, continued

The Tonga Supreme Court has issued yet another injunction allowing the importation of the independent, New Zealand-based Times of Tonga. It is unclear whether the government will pay any more attention to this injunction than to previous ones, and even if it does, the Times' victory may be short-lived in view of a proposed constitutional amendment restricting press freedom and judicial review. The Tongan government is thus far holding firm on the amendment despite criticism, and has put out a press release purporting to explain the reasons for it.

The release states, somewhat laughably, that the amendment is intended to "neither remove nor restrict any rights but in fact put them in proper perspective," carefully omitting any indication of what "proper perspective" might be from the point of view of the Tongan monarchy. The kingdom also claims that the amendment conforms to American standards of press freedom, but gets some of the details wrong:

The overseas media operators licence is simply a policy matter which is in line with the United States of America and other countries, where foreigners are not permitted to own and operate any newspapers or other media communications in those countries.

I guess they haven't heard of Rupert Murdoch.

In the meantime, the New Zealand Herald has got hold of a briefing report on Tonga written by a retired ambassador. The report is two years old, but still rings true today, and its brutal honesty is apparent from the beginning:

The official slogan here is "Tonga: the land where time begins". It might better read "the land where time stands still"

Among other things, the report contains some fascinating speculation about what might happen when Crown Prince Tupouto'a takes over from the 85-year-old king. Tupouto'a apparently "has little respect for the nobles, considering them on the whole a degenerate lot," and has hinted that he might abolish the nobility upon taking the throne. The Crown Prince, however, is no democrat - he has become a millionaire through an array of royal monopolies, and hopes to break the nobles' power in order to increase his own. He is a Sun King in waiting - he might take Tonga out of the Middle Ages, but only as far as the seventeenth century.

UPDATE: The government has predictably ignored the latest court order. The Times' publisher is back in court seeking to hold the government in contempt, but I don't quite see the point.

Sliding backward

At a time when many other African countries are, however fitfully, in the process of democratizing, Guinea has taken a step backward by blocking an opposition-organized conference on democracy.

Sunday, June 08, 2003
An incomplete account

Body and Soul links to a New York Times op-ed piece about Syria's tolerance toward Christians:

Almost everywhere else in the Levant, because of discrimination and in some cases outright persecution, the Christians are leaving. Today in the Middle East they are a small minority of 14 million; in the last 20 years at least two million have left to make new lives for themselves in Europe, Australia and America. Only in Syria has this pattern been resisted. As the Syrian Orthodox metropolitan of Aleppo, Mar Gregorios Ibrahim, told me on my last visit: "Christians are better off in Syria than anywhere else in the Middle East. Other than Lebanon, this is the only country in the region where a Christian can really feel the equal of a Muslim."

I've remarked in the past about the openness of Syria - and Iraq - toward their respective Christian minorities. There's another religious minority in Syria, however, that hasn't been treated nearly as well:

Shortly after [1948], the Syrian government intensified its persecution of the Jewish population. Freedom of movement was severely restricted. Jews who attempted to flee faced either the death penalty or imprisonment at hard labor. Jews were not allowed to work for the government or banks, could not acquire telephones or driver's licenses, and were barred from buying property. Jewish bank accounts were frozen. An airport road was paved over the Jewish cemetery in Damascus; Jewish schools were closed and handed over to Muslims.


For years, the Jews in Syria lived in extreme fear. The Jewish Quarter in Damascus was under the constant surveillance of the secret police, who were present at synagogue services, weddings, bar-mitzvahs and other Jewish gatherings. Contact with foreigners was closely monitored. Travel abroad was permitted in exceptional cases, but only if a bond of $300-$1,000 was left behind, along with family members who served as hostages.

Many of these restrictions were abolished during the late 1990s, but both official discrimination has persisted. While the travel and occupational restrictions have been eliminated, the 2002 State Department human rights report notes that Jews and Kurds are excluded from the Syrian political system and that "Jews are generally barred from government employment... [t]hey are the only minority whose passports and identity cards note their religion."

To be fair, the State Department report attributes the exclusion of Jews from government employment to "political reasons" - an inadequate excuse, but one that doesn't necessarily arise from religious prejudice - and notes that violence against Jews is rare. On the other hand, Syria's serving defense minister, Mustafa Tlass, is the author of a book claiming that the blood libel is historical fact, and the book sold well last year at a Damascus book fair.

To William Dalrymple, the author of the Times article, all this seems a curious blind spot. In fact, he mentions Jews in only one place:

Ordinary Muslims in Syria, it seems, have not forgotten the line in the Koran about not disputing with the people of the book — that is, Jews and Christians — "save in the most courteous manner . . . and say we believe in what has been sent down to us and what has been sent down to you; our God and your God is one."

This may well be true of Christians, and I agree that Syria deserves a great deal of credit for the way it has protected and nurtured its Christian minority. It seems disingenuous, however, to write an article on religious pluralism in Syria - particularly one that is couched in general terms and implies that Syrian Muslims treat both Jews and Christians "in the most courteous manner" - without mentioning the Syrian government's record toward Jews.

Dalrymple's paean to the "cultural and religious freedoms" allowed by the Assad regime also reveals another blind spot when he claims that "these give Syria's minorities a security and stability far greater than their counterparts anywhere else in the region." As most of you know, I have no illusions about how Israel treats its non-Jewish minorities, and I've frequently criticized the social and political discrimination against Israeli Arabs. Nevertheless, the position of minorities in Israel is at least minimally "secure and stable," and both the Christian and Muslim religions are subsidized by the Israeli state. A Christian in Israel has as much right to practice his religion as a Christian in Syria - and, given the disparity in rule of law between the two countries, the Israeli Christian's religious freedom is much less dependent on the whims of the authorities. I don't doubt that, when Dalrymple wrote "the region," he meant "the Arab world." Fair enough - but just as it's incomplete to discuss religious pluralism in Syria without mentioning the Syrian Jews, it seems strange to give Syria a tolerance prize for "the region" without comparing it to one of the countries with which it shares a border.

Still strangers?

Joseph Algazy describes the continuing alienation of some Ethiopian Jews in Israel.