The Head Heeb : Knocking Down 4000 Years of Icons

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Saturday, August 09, 2003
More reflections on return

About a month ago, I discussed [1, 2] the results of a poll, taken by the Palestine Center for Policy and Survey Research, indicating that only 10 percent of Palestinian refugees would return to Israel if given the option and that only 1 percent would do so if required to accept Israeli citizenship. Danny Rabinowitz now writes that the lessons of the poll may be sinking in on the Palestinian side:

The paradox is that under certain conditions, recognizing the Palestinians' right of return could promote a solution in which each side feels that it has gained. Among the Palestinians, the growing realization that very few would want to go back to Israel allows for the traditional demand, calling for a universal and sweeping return, to be toned down and replaced by a limited quota.

Speaking off the record, there are Palestinians who would accept a quota of 200,000 returnees - double the number that Israel said it would consider at the Taba talks in January 2001, but still demographically insignificant compared to the Israeli fear of an influx of millions.

Rabinowitz suggests a plan under which Israel could implement this quota with minimal demographic risk:

In a symbolic gesture, Israel could declare right now, prior to reaching a permanent accord, that it is prepared to grant Israeli citizenship to any Palestinian refugee born within the Green Line before 1948. There are about 200,000 people who fit that description, all of them over the age of 55, most of whom will not be having more children.


Such an arrangement will calm Israel's demographic fears somewhat, and allow for a larger returnee quota that comes closer to the minimum acceptable to the Palestinians. The Palestinians will enjoy the moral and symbolic benefit of having the fundamental right of persons born in Israel recognized, and those whose lives are most symbolic of the historical injustice suffered by the Palestinian people will be given true priority.

It's becoming increasingly clear that the question of return, which is one of the two Israeli-Palestinian issues previously thought to be intractable, is susceptible to a creative solution. There are also no shortage of such proposals for the other intractable issue; the most promising would place the Dome of the Rock under Palestinian sovereignty while leaving the underlying Temple Mount and the Western Wall in Israeli hands. The outline of a viable two-state solution is becoming conceptually clearer by the day; the only question is how many more people will die before the level of mutual trust and courage becomes sufficient to implement that solution.

Triangle politics

Joseph Algazy reports on the race for mayor of Umm al Fahm. The October election may be a test of a secular progressive coalition's strength against the incumbent Islamic Movement - assuming that such a coalition can be formed.

Friday, August 08, 2003
Our Crowd revisited

Al-Ahram has an interesting article on the opening of the Grand Mosque of Granada, the first mosque in Spain since King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella expelled the Moors and Jews in 1492. Among other details of the legal and social position of Muslims in Spain, the article quotes Muslim student Abdel-Hakim Vasquez:

Vasquez believes that there is a two-tier Islam developing in Spain.

"There is the traditional mainstream Islam of the poor immigrant masses which -- on the whole -- is the same Islam one finds in the local mosques in Rabat, Algiers or Cairo. On the other hand, there is a very elitist, white European middle-class Islam which is attracted to Sufism because of its inherent elitism (the select few who achieve gnosis) and whose adherents feel that they are better than the poor immigrants."

This description puts me in mind of the way that established Jewish communities in the United States reacted to immigrant Jews during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The first two waves of Jewish immigration to America - Sephardim during colonial times and German Jews during the 1830s through 1860s - were small and primarily middle-class, and assimilated rapidly into American society. After 1880, however, the American Jewish community, which probably numbered no more than 250,000 at the time, was overwhelmed by the Eastern European and Russian immigrants who are the primary ancestors of today's American Jews. Many of the established Sephardic and German Jews looked down on these immigrants for their poverty, traditional religious practices and lack of education.

It appears that something similar may now be taking place among Spanish Muslims, pitting the prosperous, well-established and quasi-New Age "white" Muslims against the poorer and more traditional North African immigrant workers. What remains to be seen is whether the North Africans will eventually assimilate on the model of Eastern European Jews in the United States. This will depend in part on whether their leadership encourages them to pursue or reject assimilation - but also on whether the elite Muslims, and Spain as a whole, invites them to join the club.

UPDATE: I've been reminded that the Grand Mosque is only the first in Granada since 1492, and that others have been built in Spain during the past decade.

The Saints of Eritrea

From Teresa Nielsen Hayden comes the fascinating news that an Eritrean prophet, Embaye Melekin, has reworked the Book of Mormon. Melekin, who is also the leader of an Eritrean political party, claims that the original Book of Mormon was written in Sabaean and that the "true owners" of the book are Africans:

The Book of Mormon or the Abyssinian Book, was translated from its original Sabean scripts by a white prophet named, Joseph Smith, who founded the Mormon Church or, as it is called today, Church of the Latter-Day Saints (LDS). As I unravel the true version of the book, it shall be seen later, that the Prophet Joseph Smith was not expected to know the true meaning of the records of our forefathers he translated. As a result, the records of our forefathers prophesied that he, Joseph Smith, and his church, shall follow the doctrines and distortions of the “Abominable Church” and shall fail to realize the true meaning of the book he was prophesied to interpret. Instead, I, Embaye Melekin, was chosen to do so, and possess the true knowledge and spirit, and to bring the book to its authentic owners, the Eritrean and African people in general.

Some of the consequences of Melekin's revelation are apparent, as Teresa points out, in his revised edition of the Book of Ether. For those not familiar with Mormon scripture, the Book of Ether tells the story of the Jaredites, who sail to North America after the fall of the Tower of Babel, receive the prophecies of God, establish a kingdom and ultimately annihilate themselves in a fierce civil war. In the original Book of Mormon, the Jaredites were Jews; in Melekin's scripture, they were Ethiopians.

Melekin's Book of Ether contains a number of editorial notes that he regards as proof of the Jaredites' African origin. In both versions of Ether 1:35, for instance, the brother of Jared cries out unto the Lord, and the Jaredites' language is not confounded upon the destruction of the Tower of Babel. To Melekin, this is a reference to the Ethiopian holy language of Ge'ez, which he claims to be "the root of all languages." Melekin also points out at Ether 2:3 that the word "desret" means "honeycomb" in the Tigrean language - an obvious reference to both the Mormons' beehive symbol and the name "Deseret" that was given to Utah by Brigham Young. Chapter 13, in Melekin's scripture, is a prophecy that a "New Jerusalem" will one day be built on the Buri Peninsula in Eritrea.

Melekin's interpretation of the Book of Mormon may be somewhat ironic in light of the fact that, prior to 1978, the LDS church did not admit black people into the priesthood. It may, however, be quite a bit more than that. Melekin's church may represent, not only a radical offshoot of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, but the first of a new family of African Independent Churches.

The African Independent Churches, or the AICs, are the product of encounters between Africans and Christian missionaries, often from Pentecostal or marginal Protestant denominations, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Each church has its own unique history, but most took a generation or less to slip out of missionary hands:

These missionaries generally tried to set up local congregations and church organisations along the lines of those they were familiar with in their home countries, but by the end of the 19th century many African Christians had formed independent denominations. Some, the so-called Ethiopians, tended to follow the pattern of church organisation bequeathed to them by the missionaries, and their desire for independence of control by foreign missionaries was a reaction against the racism that came to the fore in the age of the new imperialism - roughly between 1870 and the beginning of the First World War.

Today, the AICs collectively have approximately 85 million followers. The "Ethiopian churches," most of which are not located in Ethiopia, are actually the least radical of the AICs; their establishment was largely a transfer of political control rather than a change in liturgy or theology. The West African prophetic churches and the Zionist churches (of which I have previously written) are much more thoroughly syncretized, with many accepting polygamy in addition to Pentecostal traits such as faith healing, white regalia and river baptism.

The Zionist churches, which are strong in southern Africa, have been characterized as "fitting in to the structures of African traditional religions in terms of spirit-possession, faith-healing, manifestations of spiritual power." The prophetic churches also share many of these characteristics, although both remain firmly Christian and regard traditional African gods as evil spirits. The syncretism of the AICs is a different variety from that of the Afro-Brazilian and Afro-Caribbean religions, which incorporate both traditional gods and Christian saints as intermediaries under a supreme power. This is a difference that is natural given the purposes of the two families of religions; the New World African religions were attempts to maintain traditional practices under conditions of slavery, while the AICs were adaptations made within the context of willing acceptance of Christianity.

Be that as it may, Christianity has rarely passed through African hands untouched, and it is unlikely that the LDS Church will fare any better than other missionary denominations. Indeed, many aspects of Mormonism seem ready-made for Africa - missionary zeal, strong prophetic tradition, support for family and hierarchy, conservative social values, syncretic tendencies and a touch of the secret society. The Mormons have been conducting active missionary work in Africa for 25 years, which is about the right amount of time for African visionaries to start reinterpreting LDS scripture - and they have been doing so in many of the same countries where AICs originated, particularly in southern and western Africa. As the LDS presence in Africa becomes better established - LDS missions in many African countries began only in the last 10 to 15 years - more African adaptations are likely to emerge. Some of these, particularly in southern Africa where polygamy continues to be a fiercely contested religious issue, will be even more radical than Melekin's.

And these churches will eventually return to the home soil of Mormonism. Since the beginning of large-scale African immigration to the United States in 1965, many AICs have come full circle and established American congregations. To take just one example, a major Nigerian prophetic church, the Celestial Church of Christ, now has more than 80 congregations in the United States and Africa. In other words, Melekin's LDS reinterpretation may be the first in a new wave of African church formation, which will ultimately influence religion in the United States. The first African Independent Mormon congregation in America may be less than a generation away, and the reaction of the LDS leadership in Salt Lake City remains to be seen.

Chronicle time

Find out how an Egyptian ambassador's headgear caused an international incident between Egypt and Turkey in 1932.

Thursday, August 07, 2003

Dueling lawsuits

A Nigerian Senate commission's call for a judicial inquiry into the Anambra coup has not yet been acted upon, but the Anambra state government has inaugurated its own panel to investigate the coup and try the impeachment proceedings against Deputy Governor Okey Udeh. The commission, which is headed by a former federal attorney general, has been empaneled under Article 188 of the Nigerian constitution, which provides procedures for removing governors and deputy governors from office. The panel, whose jurisdiction will be limited to Udeh's conduct, will have three months to conduct hearings and report back to the state assembly.

In the meantime, another court case filed by the former Anambra Assembly speaker Eucharia Azodo and political godfather Chris Uba is pending in Abuja. This lawsuit seeks to enforce the resignation letter obtained under duress from Anambra Governor Chris Ngige, to replace him with Udeh and to bar prosecution of Uba for his role in the coup. With the federal and state lawsuits at cross-purposes, it appears that the Anambra standoff will continue a while longer.

The malling of Palestine

The first Palestinian mall is now open in Ramallah, and its manager, Sam Bahour, is running it with a decidedly American business ethic:

Bahour, a Palestinian born in the U.S., who moved to the Ramallah area in 1995, is trying to teach the city the values of the marketing culture on which he was raised: The cashiers will offer the customers membership cards (he calls them "loyalty cards"), and the store's
staff, in green uniforms, is bagging purchases and accompanying anyone who asks to the parking lot.


Bahour says he is not only an American businessman, he is also a Palestinian who is committed to his people's struggle. He hopes to combine these two motivations in the supermarket and the mall.

"I don't agree with the demand of some of the residents here not to sell Israeli products," says Bahour. "I just make sure not to sell products from the settlements. But if customers are looking for a product that I can get in Israel, I'll supply it. There's a large variety of Tnuva products here, for example. Nevertheless, it's important to me to encourage local industry, and that's why every local product will bear a colorful, attractive label saying `Made in Palestine.' I am also trying to convince local manufacturers to add a bar code to their products, so it will be easy to move them through the cash registers. Even the Coca-Cola bottling plant in the territories hasn't added bar codes to its cans up to now."

In addition to a supermarket, shops and food court, the mall contains a play center for children sponsored by Palestinian cell phone company Jawwal:

At the entrance, colorful fish swim peacefully in two large aquariums. The children can choose among racing cars, a bowling machine, a train, swings and other game machines operated with tokens. Each game cost one shekel, except for the cars and the bowling, which cost two. There is also a room for animated films on DVD and a small theater corner for reading stories and for children's plays and a coffee corner, where residents can organize private birthday parties.

Bahour is proud of his decision to choose only nonviolent games; there is only one somewhat aggressive game machine: You put in a shekel, a black pillow comes out, you hit it and the machine measures your arm strength.

Construction of the mall began in 1999, before the beginning of the second intifada. Since then, the intifada and the ensuing reoccupation of the West Bank, as well as more conventional labor and cash-flow problems, delayed its completion. As Israel continues to reopen West Bank roads in preparation for an ultimate withdrawal, however, the mall is likely to draw customers from throughout the area and add hundreds of jobs to the depressed Palestinian economy.

The mall may, however, create long-term political issues of the type that have surrounded shopping center construction in the United States. Vegetable stalls in the neighborhood of the mall are already losing business, and Ramallah Main Street may not be able to survive the establishment of discount, high-volume shopping centers. Mall construction - particularly once it spreads beyond the comparatively wealthy environs of Ramallah - could become a point of contention in Palestinian society. It will be a normal problem, though, and Palestinians could use a few more of those.

Jews at the Old Bailey

Diane's post on the first Jews of Australia, to which I linked the other day, led me to a fascinating legal and historical resource called Old Bailey Online. This database, created by the University of Sheffield, includes a searchable archive of the published proceedings of the Old Bailey in London from 1714 to 1799. In addition to more than 45,000 archived trials, the site contains explanatory articles and tips on how to search for members of particular communities including 18th-century London's Jewish, black and Irish populations.

Jewish lawyers do not feature in the Old Bailey trials; British Jews of the time faced few restrictions compared to their counterparts in many other countries, but the legal profession was still closed to them. Jews occasionally served on juries, though, and feature quite often as defendants and victims - a circumstance that is due in part to the large Jewish community of 18th-century London and in part to the nature of the published reports. In contrast to modern court reports, the Old Bailey proceedings were published in broadsheet form and sold to the public. As such, they naturally gave the most space to sensational trials. These tended either toward the lurid, such as the trials of jailer William Bird for the murder of four women and Jane Sibson for allegedly poisoning her husband, or toward details that an 18th-century Londoner would consider exotic, such as those that cast a sidelight on Jewish life.

One case that combines both elements is the 1784 trial of Porter Ridout, a distiller in Duke's Place, for the murder of a 13-year-old Jewish child. As presented by the prosecuting attorney, the child's death was an unfortunate consequence of holiday high spirits:

The Jews have an annual festivity religiously observed on their part, some time in the month of October; the prisoner lives in the neighbourhood, where that festivity creates necessarily some little disorder, he has lived there I believe twenty years, and has been constantly a witness of the return of it. In this festivity some persons unquestionably had exceeded the strict bounds of propriety, squibs and crackers had been thrown, and it seems Mr. Ridout in this last month on the last return of that festivity endeavoured to apprehend some persons who had fired those squibs, in doing so a little scuffle ensued, several fell, and among others Mr. Ridout, they arose however from the ground seemingly without injury, and Mr. Ridout returned to his house and shut the door; some few minutes afterwards he appeared at the window of the room on the first floor, and from thence discharged a gun loaded with shot among the crowd, several were wounded and some fell; and one unfortunate youth of the age of thirteen instantly expired.

The "annual festivity," as made clear in the testimony of Saul Mordecai, is Simchat Torah:

I happened to go into Mr. Ridout's house for some liquors, the discorse fell out about some holliday, he asked me in Hebrew, what I meant to make Skoke yonck of, that is, we always preserve fruit, a fruit which we never eat till that time comes, it being the new year, to make a blessing off; I told him, your time is coming on, that you think so troublesome, that is, Simka sacra we call it in Hebrew, it is the Rejoicing of the Lord, in English.

The trial was a relatively lengthy one for the time, and featured the testimony of more than a dozen witnesses. The circumstances of the killing were uncertain and several witnesses - including Jews - vouched for Ridout's good character, so he was ultimately acquitted.

Several synagogue robberies also came before the court, including the 1748 trial of Jeremiah Levi. The archived proceedings include the testimony of Adolphus Cohen, the clerk of the synagogue:

Q. Do you know of any thing that was lost from the Synagogue?

Cohen. On the 29th of February, when I opened the Synagogue, I found the key of a closet in which we put several things, and when I opened the door, I found that the poor's box was broke open, and the money taken out; I sent for a smith to open the door of the altar, and there is a cupboard under the altar, and there were some particular things in that, which we only use on particular days, which were taken away; there was the covering of the law, the altar vails, and five pair of bells, which we put on to our laws at particular times.

Q. Explain yourself what you mean by the laws.

Cohen. The five books of Moses, which are wrote on parchment, and rolled up on two sticks. I went to Mr. Symons our elder, and he ordered me to call our vestry together between four and five in the afternoon. I had a suspicion of Jeremiah Levi , because the goods that were stole were carried out of a window which looks into his yard, and there was a cane found, which there is great reason to suspect was the Prisoner's. Our vestry sent for me, we got a search-warrant, and I went and searched his house, but found nothing; they sent me to fetch those things belonging to the Synagogue, and there was a board of the floor broke open, and when the board was taken up I saw all my things there, and I carried them to our elder of the Synagogue; they were in the Prisoner's house up one pair of stairs.

The five pair of bells, the altar vails, and the covering of the law, were produced in Court.

Several other officials of the synagogue also testified, one of whom, Benjamin Levi, had searched the defendant's house upon obtaining a warrant from the Lord Mayor. In those days, before the creation of the London metropolitan police, it was evidently common for crime victims or private citizens to obtain search or arrest warrants and prosecute cases on their own account. It was rare, in fact, for counsel to be involved at all; trials were often completed in a few minutes, and even capital cases were sometimes decided in an hour.

The Old Bailey database may also provide a clue to the background of Moses Susman, who - as readers of Morris Schappes' Documentary History of the Jews in the United States will know - was the first Jew to face the death penalty in British North America. On June 12, 1727, he was arrested for stealing "gold, silver, money, [a] bag, [and] rings" from one Moses Levy, president of the influential Congregation Shearith Israel. He was arraigned the same day before a New York City magistrate's court, and, "having nothing to alleage against it," was bound over for trial on the morrow.

The next day, the outraged witnesses against Susman had their day in court. In addition to the victim and his son, the witness list included the mayor, Colonel Robert Lurting, who was apparently a social acquaintance of Levy. Faced with such eminent testimony, the jury pronounced its verdict without leaving the bench - guilty as charged. When asked if he had anything to say before the court imposed sentence, Susman - who could not speak English - stood mute, and the judge sentenced him to hang. There was no penalty phase, no appeal, no writ of habeas corpus. On July 12, 1727 - a month to the day after his arrest - Susman became the first Jew in the future United States to suffer the ultimate penalty. Other than the price of his month's lodging in prison, the only cost to the city was the sum of two pounds sterling paid to the carpenter who built the gallows.

The fragmentary court records cited by Schappes reveal little about Susman's background or how he arrived in New York. The Old Bailey database, however, contains an intriguing record relating to Moses Ouseman alias Souseman, who was tried for theft in London in October 1724. The complaining witness at Souseman's trial testified that "the Prisoner was a Relation to a Jew Family that lodg'd in his House, and had liv'd there before for about seven Months, but did not lodge there at the Time when the Fact was committed." Souseman "call'd several Jews to his Reputation, who gave him a good Character," but was convicted upon the complainant's evidence.

Were Moses Susman and "Moses Ouseman alias Souseman" the same person? The fact that Souseman was sentenced to death would suggest that they are not - but on the other hand, more than half the death sentences passed by British courts in the 18th century were commuted. The usual punishment for a reprieved prisoner was transportation, and in 1724, transportation meant the American colonies. It's entirely possible - maybe even probable - that Souseman cheated the gallows and was transported to New York, there to become a servant to a Jewish family.

The Old Bailey records also refer to Souseman as "a German." This may be consistent with the observation in the record of Susman's New York trial that he could not speak English. (Yes, I realize that's a weak case given the number of Ashkenazic Jews in Britain at that time who were recent immigrants with German names, but the coincidence of time and criminal propensity might make it... well, somewhat less weak.) I'll never be able to prove anything, at least not without searching through dusty London records, but I suspect that the two may be the same. If so, then Moses Susman's life story becomes somewhat more apparent. He was a young, itinerant German Jew who found his way to London, drifted from home to home within its large and poverty-stricken Ashkenazic Jewish community, and turned - whether through circumstances or bad inclination - to crime. Once in America, he found theft a hard habit to break despite his narrow escape at the Old Bailey, and ultimately paid the penalty in New York that he had managed to avoid in London.

UPDATE: Al-Muhajabah discusses two cases involving Muslims.

Wednesday, August 06, 2003
A plan for Kibera

The Kenyan government may soon begin to clean up Kibera, a notorious Nairobi neighborhood that is home to a million people and one of Africa's largest slums. Yesterday, the Minister for Public Works ordered Kibera slumlords - most of whom have built on land leased from the government - to surrender their leases within six months. Following the expiration of this deadline, the government intends to construct housing as well as "public amenities such as dispensaries, schools, markets and playgrounds for the residents" in cooperation with the United Nations.

It's hard to argue with the idea of improving Kibera, which by all accounts is squalid and a breeding ground for disease. The problem is that the residents will have to be temporarily relocated - and Nairobi, which is already a crowded city, lacks the housing to accommodate so many displaced persons. It is likely that the residents of Kibera will have to live in refugee camp conditions for the time being - and, if the renewal project becomes bogged down in corruption and bureaucratic delay like many similar projects have, they may be stuck in the camps for a long time. The plan outlined by the Ministry of Public Works, which includes not only housing and infrastructure improvements but civic education and tenant protection legislation, has a great deal of potential, but only if the government has the will to see it through.

Asser Levy revisited

Among the issues raised in response to my essay on Asser Levy was the question of whether he owned slaves. I was able to visit the New York Public Library today - it's one of the perks of working two blocks away - and it appears that, yes, he did.

Volume 80 of the quarterly journal American Jewish History contains a fascinating article by Professor Leo Hershkowitz entitled Asser Levy and the Inventories of Early New York Jews, which includes a complete inventory of Levy's estate. The estate was appraised at 553 pounds 15 shillings, which was enough to make Levy a man of substance albeit not one of the colony's elite.

The inventory is unusually detailed in comparison to many other probate records of the time, possibly because it was the subject of a fierce will contest between Levy's relatives. It includes not only real estate and major items but a complete list of personal property, including two pistols, a sword, a "Silver Spice box" used for ritual purposes - and, on folio 18, "one Negro boy" valued at 20 pounds. It thus appears that, in common with most other substantial merchants of the time, Levy was a slaveowner. He also employed indentured servants; on at least one occasion, he went to court to compel such a servant to finish her term.

Whether this tarnishes his status as "the first American Jewish hero," as I named him in Sunday's essay, is for the reader to determine. I have mixed emotions about it myself; slaveowning is clearly a flaw in Levy's character, but it was far from unusual among people of that time and social class. I would classify him as a flawed hero in the same way that George Washington or Thomas Jefferson was flawed.

Professor Hershkowitz' article also reveals other details, including the source of his belief that Levy was in fact born in Lithuania:

Two documents in the Gemeente Archief, Amsterdam, reveal that on April 26, 1660, he was in Amsterdam seeking money owed him and that on May 24 of that year, he announced he was going to Germany, possibly to Schwelm. In these two documents, he is referred to as Asser Levy Wilde and Asser Levi alias Aster Wilde, an intriguing reference especially as he signs the May document in Hebrew as Asser, "son of Judah Leib of blessed memory, Vilna." Surely a Dutch clerk copied "Wilde" when he heard Levy say "Vilna" or "Wilna." Wilde as a family name is hard to explain. A Vilna relationship seems more possible. Given the Cossack pogroms of 1648-1658, Levy's Eastern European connection seems even more certain.

The signature "son of Judah Leib" also indicates that, contrary to some reports, Levy's father was not Benjamin Levy, the cantor of the Recife synagogue. It is more likely that Levy, who practiced the butcher trade in New Amsterdam in addition to his merchant activities, came from a family of butchers. As the 1904 edition of the Jewish Encyclopedia indicates, however, his fame came from something more than that:

It is as a litigant, however, that Levy figures most prominently in the Dutch records, his name frequently appearing for days in succession. He invariably argued his own case and was almost invariably successful... No other Jew seems to have had so many dealings with Christians, or to have been on more intimate terms with them... Levy's trading relations extended to New England, and he frequently appeared as attorney for merchants in Holland. In 1671 he lent the money for building the first Lutheran church in New York. About 1678 he built a slaughterhouse in the east end of what is now known as Wall Street, where he appears to have been the owner of a famous tavern.

Instead of being unpopular on account of his many lawsuits, the contrary seems to have been the case. The confidence reposed in his honesty by his Christian fellow citizens appears frequently from the court records. Property in litigation was put into his custody; he is named as executor in the wills of Christian merchants, and figures as both administrator and trustee in colonial records.

Levy's legacy also included a grandson or great-grandson of the same name who was an officer in a New Jersey regiment during the American Revolution. There are other colonial records and secondary sources at the library that I didn't have time to check today; I'll let you know what they reveal.

Another reason to learn a second language

Allison discovers that the tooth fairy is bilingual.

Tuesday, August 05, 2003
Arrival Day odds and ends

Diane links to my Arrival Day post with some fascinating information about the first Jews to settle in Australia. The first Australian Jews landed with the other convicts on the First Fleet to Botany Bay, and there were quite a few of them:

Jewish convicts are clearly identified when they gave evidence after swearing on the Old Testament. Never again did the population have such a high percentage of Jews, as in those first few years when the convicts came mainly from London.

In fact, the first white woman in Australia was a Jewish petty thief named Esther Abrahams, who became the first lady of New South Wales.

I've also been informed that my plans to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the American Jewish community next year have been pre-empted by an organization called Celebrate 350, whose website is still under construction but promises a nationwide calendar of events. The only celebration of the 349th Arrival Day, however, is still right here on The Head Heeb, and this is still the only place where Arrival Day is an annual event. Thanks to everyone who's linked or promised to participate so far, and everyone else is still more than welcome.

The 1002nd night

One of the things I like most about Al-Ahram is its cultural criticism. Here, Nehad Selaiha writes about the various portrayals of Sheherazade on the Egyptian stage and their relation to Egyptian politics and the position of women in Arab society. The most recent, and most intriguing, of these portrayals occurred last month when the play Once Upon a Time - which involves an meeting between Sheherazade and Antigone in the afterlife - was performed in Cairo. Seiaiha's take on the performance, which avoids any cliches about the intersection of Islamic and Hellenistic civilization and focuses on the similarities between the two women, is an interesting read.

Be careful what you wish for

Is it just me, or does Daniel Pipes really seem to want a military coup in Turkey?

Monday, August 04, 2003
Finding examples

A group of First Nations delegates from Canada are currently in Israel to study nation-building strategies:

"What most impressed us about Israel was the Israelis' success in preserving their ancient language, their culture and the memory of their Holocaust," [delegate Sharon McKay] said. "Those are things that unfortunately don't exist among us, and I hope to learn from you how to improve the situation."

I'd expect the First Nations, as aboriginal peoples, to identify more with the Palestinians, and the article indeed mentions that "the underdog resonates greatly with the aboriginals ." With the formation of Nunavut and Nunavik, however, at least some of the First Nations now face the challenge of maintaining their culture within the framework of an autonomous political entity. For them, and for other First Nations who aspire to the same status, Israel may provide a valuable example.

Moment of truth

The first ECOWAS peacekeepers have arrived in Liberia, and the main rebel faction has promised to withdraw from the capital when they complete their deployment. In the meantime, Charles Taylor has pledged to resign on August 11 - something I'll believe when I see in light of his past vacillation.

It's also not immediately clear what ECOWAS' timetable is for securing the rest of the country, or whether its long-term goals will go beyond enforcing the cease-fire to nation-building. ECOWAS interventions in the past have often been unsuccessful and have been prone to mission creep and human rights violations. Unless the United States does not augment the peacekeeping force - a possibility that seems less likely now than it did a week ago - ECOWAS will have to decide whether to actively facilitate elections and civil society infrastructure or to simply keep the peace while the Liberian factions negotiate among themselves. Both courses might work if pursued effectively, but both are potentially dangerous.

Corrupt enrichment

Robert Mugabe has tacitly admitted that Zimbabwe's land reform program has turned into a land grab for ZANU apparatchiks by issuing an order limiting government and party officials to one farm each. Among the recipients of land reform largesse are Mugabe's wife and two of his sisters, who each have interests in more than one seized property.

Sunday, August 03, 2003
Arrival Day, Week 2 Bonus

Another American Jewish historical anecdote, courtesy of Solomonia: John Adams' support for an amendment granting equal rights to Jews at a Massachusetts state constitutional convention he attended in 1820.

Countdown to Arrival Day, Week 2

This post continues the countdown to Arrival Day 2003. Arrival Day is a non-religious celebration of the founding of the American Jewish community, which occurred with the landing of the first Jewish immigrants in New Amsterdam on September 7, 1654. Every Sunday until September 7, I will post an essay on American Judaism from a historical, contemporary or personal perspective. Both Jews and non-Jews are invited to participate in the Arrival Day Blogburst on September 7; if you're interested, let me know via e-mail or in the comments.

This week's topic is the first American Jewish hero. One of the great achievements of the United States is that American Jews are accepted, not as a tolerated minority, but as people like anyone else, and that this acceptance is not only political but social. Getting to that point, however, required a long struggle, and that struggle began with Asser Levy.

Levy was one of the Jews who arrived on Arrival Day; he was a passenger on the St. Catherine when it landed in New Amsterdam in 1654. Before emigrating to North America, he was a butcher in Recife, but the circumstances of his birth are uncertain. He is referred to in some documents as Asser Levy van Swellem, which suggests that his family came from the city of Schwelm in Westphalia, but Levy himself could just as easily have been born in Holland or Brazil. For that matter, he might have come from outside the Sephardic world entirely; Leo Hershkowitz, a history professor at Queens College, believes based on Dutch court records that Levy was born in Lithuania and that his family may have migrated through Schwelm to Holland and Brazil.

In any event, as described in Jacob Rader Marcus' treatise on The Colonial American Jew, 1492-1776, Levy soon found himself at the center of a political controversy. Thanks to the insularity of its established merchants and the prejudices of Governor Peter Stuyvesant, New Amsterdam was not hospitable to Jews. Stuyvesant, in fact, attempted to deport the Jewish settlers, only to be vetoed by the directors of the Dutch West India Company. Failing in that, he contented himself with subjecting the Jews to indignities, and it was one of these that turned Levy into a leader of the Jewish community.

Under the law of New Amsterdam, every freeman between the ages of 16 and 60 was required to serve in the militia. Stuyvesant forbade the Jews this duty, and ordered instead that Jewish men of military age pay a tax of 65 stuivers per month in its stead. Most of the Jews complied, but Levy was both an able-bodied man and a poor one, and he much preferred to stand guard rather than pay this onerous tax. In November 1655, he and another Jewish settler, Jacob Barsimson, petitioned the New Amsterdam council for the right to "keep guard with other burghers, or be free from the tax which others of their nation pay, as they must earn their living with manual labor." According to public records collected by Morris Schappes in A Documentary History of Jews in the United States, 1654-1875, the council denied their petition, remarking snidely that if they were aggrieved by the tax, they were free "to depart whenever and whither it pleases them."

Levy and Barsimson refused to depart, or to acknowledge the decision. Instead, day after day, they appeared for military training with their muskets, and stood guard on the city walls. After two years, the council finally relented and enrolled them in the militia. Through unceasing pressure and the patronage of the Company, the Jews of New Amsterdam won other rights as well - the right to sell at retail, to practice trades, to engage in commerce with the Indians. By the end of 1657, the Company granted the Jews the status of second-class burghers - a rank that did not confer political rights, but permitted Jews to exercise the other privileges of freemen.

Through all this, Asser Levy prospered. In 1660, he was licensed to practice the butcher's trade in New Amsterdam, and he became a landowner the following year. He became a trusted agent of Dutch merchants and then a merchant in his own right, traveling as far as Albany and Holland on trading expeditions. Even as the British encroached on New Netherland and an increasing number of Jews deserted the colony, Levy stayed and expanded his business; when the British took New Amsterdam in 1664, his was one of the three Jewish households remaining in the city.

Under British rule, the Jews of New York retained their privileges. In some ways, in fact, their position improved; the Jewish inhabitants, along with other Dutch burghers, were granted the rights of English freemen, including the right to vote. Levy exercised this right, and others as well; in 1671, he became the first Jew to sit on an American jury. In one case, he was quite literally called upon to administer poetic justice; Peter Stuyvesant, the man who once tried to deport him, was the defendant in one of the civil cases that came before the court during his term. Levy gave Stuyvesant more justice than the Dutch governor would have given him, though; he found for the defense.

By the time of his death in 1681 or 1682, Levy had become the first self-made American Jewish businessman. He was far from the stereotype of the insular Talmudic scholar; instead, he was a man of the world who took a gentile partner at his butcher shop, was called upon by non-Jews to administer their estates and lent New York's struggling Lutheran congregation money to build its first church. His name was a byword for honesty throughout the American colonies and he may well have played a significant part in promoting social acceptance of other Jews; Marcus relates that a New England court once remitted a Jewish peddler's fine "as a token of respect to Mr. Assur Levy."

Asser Levy was many things - businessman, soldier, citizen, civic leader and a man fully at home among his non-Jewish neighbors. He was the prototype of the modern American Jew, and the man who made his modern counterparts possible.

Damascus spring?

Ha'aretz reports that the Syrian government has revoked the license of the country's only privately owned satirical newspaper, Al-Domary. That doesn't seem very surprising - nor does the fact that the newspaper hasn't been published since May because of official harassment.

On the other hand, several things about this episode are surprising, starting with the response of the newspaper's lawyer, Anwar al-Buni:

"This decision was outrageous and contrary to the law and constitution," al-Buni said. "It also runs counter to all that which has been said about media freedom, democracy and slogans of reforms and development."

In the days of Assad the elder, anyone who said something like that might as well start making burial arrangements. Now, though, it seems that Syrian lawyers are willing to be quoted by name when they make scathing criticisms of the government.

Al-Buni, who is a member of the Human Rights Association in Syria - another organization that would have been stillborn under the old regime - has also promised to take legal action on behalf of Al-Domary. Even if this legal action proves unsuccessful, the fact that al-Buni has even threatened it is a significant fact. Taking legal action against the government presupposes a court system that is independent enough to overturn government rulings; there is no point in instituting legal action against a dictator if the courts are firmly in his pocket. That an outspoken human- rights attorney like al-Buni is taking the Syrian courts seriously might indicate that, even though political democratization has stalled under Bashar al-Assad, the rule of law has been quietly advancing. At the very least, it seems that some things in Syria aren't quite like they used to be.

UPDATE: Abdullah (added to the blogroll) comments from Syria:

Al Domari was the first (if I'm not wrong) privately owned newspaper that was completely edited and published in Syria, the newspaper is owned by Ali Farzat a well known cartoonist in the Arab World. The revocation of the license is sad news especially in Syria's new age where the people are looking for more freedom of speech, modernized new laws and more economic progress.


I think that this kind of newspapers needs other than this soil to flourish, it needs an open society that values the freedom of speech, accepts the criticism and welcomes it. So the distribution figures of the newspaper has fallen and also (and that's based on my personal opinion after reading four or five issues) the value of its contents.

The kind of newspapers that I wish to see in my country is a political newspaper like the Guardian with its in depth analysis and genuine reports, but I think we need more time to see something like this.

He's probably right about a Guardian-type paper being years away in the present climate, but I wonder if a semiofficial but high-quality daily like Al-Ahram might be possible in somewhat less time.