Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Islamism Appeasement and the Tunisian bloodbath



The reflexive reaction to Muslim terror from the highest echelons of government is always publicly expressed abhorrence at the latest act of brutality and murder. We are all of us reassured that ‘this’ is the madness of an aberrant and wholly unislamic individual or movement.

According to statements Prime Minister David Cameron made to Parliament on the 29th of June 2015, the mass murder carried out at Soussa in Tunisia two days earlier was the action of “a barbaric regime of terrorism and oppression.” The PM had been talking to the BBC “that very morning” about how to stop people associating this ideology with Islam. He said “I personally think that using the term ISIL or ‘so called’ would be better than what they currently do. I don’t think we’ll move them all the way to Da’esh, so I think saying ISIL is probably better than Islamic State because it is neither, in my view, Islamic or a state.”  (Guardian Live Blog Transcripts)

And here is the nexus of the problem.  Ambiguity serves only to conceal an inconvenient or uncomfortable truth.  Its lord and master is the bad faith it serves.  The opposing argument is simple enough to explain: we have learnt through history that plain speaking is too often just another word for the prejudice used by demagogues to incite the passions of the crowd.  To label an entire community is prescriptive and too often it leads us to discriminate against the targeted community.  The dilemma these two sides to the debate create is that from the wholly laudable desire to not offend our friends and neighbours we voluntarily engage in an exercise of self-deception.

So what are the issues and how can we confront them?

Many of the global conflicts in the world today are between Muslim nations and non-Muslim nations.  Whether they are non state players acting as stand alone Islamic movements (Somalia’s Al-Shabaab or Nigeria’s Boko Haram) or groups that are protected, trained and financed by Muslim states (Pakistan, Qatar and Saudi Arabia) the conflict between Islamic players and the rest of us is a war that we can expect to remain painfully active for many years, perhaps decades to come.

There have been voluminous analyses of Al Qaeda and Islamic State, a few simple facts will suffice to demonstrate the growing global threat.

Al-Qaeda in the 1990’s had an annual budget of perhaps $30 million. Daesh (IS) has a budget of $100 million per month.  In a single generation the number of foreign Islamist fighters increased from a few thousand to a conservative figure between 25,000 and 30,000.  Those fighters originated in over 100 countries. The trans-national dimension of this ideological migration is highlighted by the ease with which people are able to travel and the sympathetic response that many Muslim nations have towards the cause espoused by IS.  For instance, Turkey initially refused to allow Kurdish fighters to enter the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani as IS fighters systematically murdered Kurds and destroyed the town.   Impending terrorist outrages in Kenya, the Sudan and Nigeria were identified but not acted on by the military.

Tracking militants, many of them radicalized online, is a hugely challenging, complicated task.  A person may have grown up in one country, been radicalized in a second, received their military training in a third and ‘settled’ in a fourth while receiving his (or her) orders from a fifth.  The social networks which include tens of thousands of Internet sites as well as facebook, twitter (46,000 IS sites were identified as requiring closure) and the mobile phone network are a core communication strategy for both retaining commitment to the cause and spreading the poison.  According to one expert, one in seven to one in nine fighters have carried out terrorist attacks in their own country or in a 3rd country.

The British right wing fascist National Front had 17,000 members at its peak - supporters of Islamic State are the Muslim equivalent.  But they are more than that. These are people who, for whatever reason, have made an intellectual choice to embrace a philosophy that celebrates beheading, crucifixion, slavery (both sexual and for want of a better word, ‘traditional’ slavery) as a ‘positive’ affirmation of their identity.  It may be no more than a grotesque, "life enhancing," lifestyle choice for them but it is this choice that we are reluctant to publicly and without reservation, condemn.

When three young British women take their nine children to Syria, to live in an IS controlled ‘paradise’ all we seem capable of expressing is a doe like, wide-eyed, caught in the headlights puzzlement.  Instead, we should be examining, from the sources, how Western educated women could embrace a narrative of pure venom. The Islamists that support Al-Qaeda, Islamic State and so on believe that broader moral questions have invalidated our right to self-defense. They believe that their cause, because it is based on shared religious values, is virtuous.  That one word justifies every horrific act committed in the name of their god and their prophet. 

In late medieval Europe public disputation between Christian authorities and Jewish communities was used as a means to humiliate Jewish communities.  We do not need public debate to deteriorate into a medieval public disputation but anything less than public repudiation of these people and their specific Islamic beliefs amounts to soft support for an ideology of conquest, torture and terrorism.

To allow these people to reside anywhere in the non-Muslim world is the most frightening aspect of this whole sorry saga.

A counter narrative that undermines the radicalizers both at home and abroad must clearly define right and wrong, our idea of right and wrong, not theirs. Australia has recently discussed the introduction of legislation that would ensure anyone with dual citizenship loses their Australian citizenship if they are engaged in terrorism, and they would be deported from Australia or not permitted to return.  I would take that one step further. Engage in terror, preach it or provide material support for it, irrespective of status, then that person will be deported to the nearest sympathetic country that will take them in, with no chance of ever being permitted to return.

A recent survey showed that Germans who grew up between the 1920’s and 1945 were mostly unaffected by de-Nazification or other de-radicalization programs.  Prejudiced belief can only rarely be eliminated and it takes action over successive generations to succeed. Identities, once set are rarely modified.  They simply go underground until the conditions for their re-emergence prevail. Because of this we need to take a stand in favor of our universal western values.  Democracy and human rights is the core of our modern society to which I would add education towards tolerance.  However, if protecting that society means that we deny those same rights to our enemies then as controversial as it may sound, this course of action is the minimum that we need to debate.

The rules that govern our society (and by this I mean the Western system currently dominated by the USA) constrain us to the benefit of everyone within the unitary system that we inhabit. They are set but subject to ongoing redefinition through continuous modification in order to unify disparate cultural groups.  Our thinking and our behavior is molded by the pressures that these changes create and our reactions to those pressures. What limits the damage we inflict on others is that we have a social system that is defined by boundaries. Closed societies, the Islamic world in particular, have little if any possibility for change because they are always defined by looking backwards towards an idealized past.  The creation of a single cultural entity means the extinction of any competitors past. This is the toxic essence of Islamism.

If we are unwilling to fight for what we believe in there are plenty of pseudo-academic institutions populated by thousands of radicals in our universities and elsewhere who are always happy to tell us how to behave, what to think and who to hurt.  If we are not permitted to even identify those people or groups we believe to be our enemy and then to explain why we believe them to be so, then we are already a partially closed (undemocratic) society on the road to ruin. 

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Israeli Deterrence and Political Principles



Douglas Hurd was Foreign Secretary in the Governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major from 1989-1995.

He wrote that: “a principle does not cease to be a principle simply because it coincides with legitimate interest.”  He was referring to allegations that the West was only interested in Kuwait and the Iraqi invasion because of Kuwaiti oil reserves.  He then responded to the allegation that Israel and Iraq were similar cases. He refuted this by pointing out that Israel had “occupied the Territories as the result of a war in which her neighbors were clamoring for an end to Israel’s existence.”  He continued, he did not believe that ‘occupation’ provided “a basis for Israeli security.”

An unintended consequence of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait was that it complicated any possible solutions to the Arab-Israeli conflict and highlighted the distance Palestinians needed to travel in order to become credible partners for peace.  In response to Saddam Hussein’s insatiable colonialist belligerence towards his neighbors the Palestinian leadership whole-heatedly embraced Iraqi territorial aggression against sovereign Kuwait.  And then, on 18th January 1991 Israel became a target for 39 modified Scud ballistic missiles fired at Tel Aviv and Haifa.

Israel reluctantly refrained from responding to this aggression.  However a possible consequence of this military inaction was that 1991 became the year the Arab world understood that if it could not win a conventional hot war against the Jewish state then in its place, diplomatic pressure from the USA and Europe could be brought to bare in order to fatally undermine the resolve of the State to defend itself, even as its own interests were being progressively undermined. And this occurred through international organizations and the force of public demands for appeasing a partial or even a false anti-Zionist narrative.

The Palestinian leadership believes that it has no reason to make any meaningful concessions towards peaceful co-existence because it believes Israel cannot win a diplomatic war.   For this reason alone, Israel cannot without end continue to negotiate a solution to its conflict with the Arab world while its enemy persists in the belief that through the force of international public opinion, it has time on its side. 

The art of diplomacy is best served when the sides to a conflict prepare their populations for peace as vigorously as they prepare them for war. The problem faced by Israel is that in the period since the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993 (Oslo I) and 1995 (Oslo II) there has never been a period of de-escalation or mutual recognition.

The Palestinians and their supporters in the West have always blamed Israel for refusing to freeze all building work in disputed territories.  Oslo never stipulated any kind of ban on construction and even when Israel acquiesced to these conditions the Palestinian leadership remained indifferent to any Israeli overtures towards negotiation.  Incitement, both religious and nationalist, became a means by which the Palestinians united their people against Israel while the kleptocracy within Palestinian society bled its own citizens without mercy. This was the reason that Hamas won elections in Gaza against Arafat’s Fatah party.  With conditions of Palestinian corruption almost unchanged it is the reason that in Judea and Samaria the Palestinian Authority (PA) has failed to stage elections for a new President.  The PA, like all corrupt institutions, is good at presenting cosmetic changes.  Since January 2013 it has been renamed the State of Palestine.  Mahmoud Abbas is six years and almost 6 months overdue in stepping down from office.  But he and his family, like Yasser Arafat before him, have made sure to financially enrich both family and friends.  With no other viable alternative, Hamas would easily win power from its apparently irredeemably corrupt Fatah rival. 

And the Palestinian people, whether leaning towards Fatah or supporting Hamas, have learned since the Oslo process was formalized, that their Israeli enemy were apes pre-destined by the Arab god and his prophet Mohammed for extermination.  If all the Palestinian leadership has imparted to its followers is that violent resistance is sanctioned by their faith against every Jewish man, woman and child, then it follows that Oslo was a waste of time, worse, it was a delusion that fruitlessly raised the hopes of both peoples.  Alan Johnson wrote: “the veil of euphemism that hangs over the entire debate about Islam and its bigots must be lifted.”  To that I would add: the veil of euphemism that hangs over the non-debate about the Arab world must also be lifted if ever there is to be a chance for peace.

The issue was best summarized by Left wing Israeli novelist and peace activist Amos Oz when he famously declared that Israel and Palestine were in need of divorce and not just separation.

After Israel transferred control over Palestinian cities to Yasser Arafat’s PA under the Oslo Accords, the PA used every tool at its disposal to incite hatred and to encourage an atmosphere of perpetual warfare. From children’s TV to school texts, radio programming to television, official government websites to religious instruction, from Mosque to theater the PA has utilized every possible method to disseminate a message renouncing co-existence.

Instead of a paradigm shift towards demythologising its opponents a reflexive focus on grievance that treats any Palestinian concessions as illegitimate has emboldened a Palestinian world view that aims to create a new balance of power through delegitimizing any indigenous Jewish-Israeli rights.

De-escalation means words now and not just in a theoretical future.  It signifies a time in the present of acceptance and tolerance.  Mutual recognition is an absolute.   It can never be a negotiating tactic to deny the culture and history of the other – but where contradictory narratives are intrinsic to the identity of the disputing rivals, mutual recognition demands an explanation of the discrepancies between the disparate narratives within the framework of creating understanding that facilitates an end to the conflict.  This is where politicians and diplomats can and must prepare their people for peace. If they want it, that is.

There is nothing in the Muslim power base that is exercised so effectively against Israel at the United Nations or the Muslim agitation against Israel in Western countries to demonstrate any inclination towards de-escalation or towards mutual recognition. If anything, it is moving backwards towards a fascist, revisionist agenda and revanchism.   Escalating Muslim immigration into the Western World and its concomitant growth in regional political power through influencing local voting patterns will only lead to greater antipathy being openly expressed towards Israel. The need for politicians to appease their local Muslim populations at the expense of the rest of the population has already happened throughout Scandinavia and France.

It should not be a question we even have to ask but why is this important when our enemies often use a sophist argument to brush aside our concerns? Too often we are told that when we give them what they want they will stop oppressing us.  So what they claim is that racism and incitement to murder can be turned on and off like a tap. The fallacy in this specious argument was highlighted in a survey (see web link below) that demonstrated the long term negative effect that propaganda has on those educated towards hate.

Study: Nazi propaganda left life-long mark on German kids:

Natan Sharansky pointed out that “the power of a democratic government is ultimately dependent on the popular will.”  He also said: “a critical difference between the world of fear and the world of freedom (is that) in the former, the primary challenge is finding the inner strength to confront evil. In the latter, the primary challenge is finding the moral clarity to see evil.”  (The Case for Democracy.  The Power of Freedom to overcome Tyranny and Terror.)

To paraphrase Omar Barghouti (the leading Arab anti-Israel activist): racist Arab colonialism has to be defeated by re-establishing ethical co-existence with all marginalized non-Arab nations (and therefore, not just Jews).

There are no anodyne solutions to the Muslim-Jewish and Israel-Arab conflict.  If suspicion and mistrust are by-products of bad faith initiatives then undoing past wrongs has to begin with de-escalation and re-education in the present. 

Machiavelli believed that diplomacy was no substitute for arms and money.  His cynical world in which almost 500 years ago, to retain power the leader must kill or be killed is sometimes not that different to what happens today in different parts of the world. His belief that promises need not outlast the conditions that produce them was an escape clause that undermines international security.

But Machiavelli believed that good faith negotiations were generally desirable while the Palestinians view it as no more than a tactical expedient.  Good faith negotiations are the greatest challenge facing Israel because besides the constant incitement there is no possibility of strategic depth being established between Israel and Palestine. Something else is needed to guarantee that the peace will not fall hostage to extremism. 

And so, to return to British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd: ‘Occupation’ cannot ever provide a basis for security if a nation regards ethics as having any relevance to its national dialogue and to its identity.   If the narrative around ‘occupation’ is incorrect then Israel has to do something about that narrative because almost the whole world believes the Palestinian side of the story, not ours.  The longer this conflict continues the greater the despair will be felt by both sides.  This can only increase polarization and make the possibility for peaceful co-existence recede into the distance.  Israel is threatened by that despair as much as the Palestinians and it manifests itself in the violence of language in the Knesset, in the growing alienation and disquiet simmering under the surface of Israeli society.  It manifests in the suspicion and fear felt by Israeli and Palestinian alike. And these terms are now toxic to both sides. Whether we accept the identity of our enemy as legitimate or not is fatuous. Its only value is served as propaganda and counter propaganda in denying each other an identity.

Israel needs peace as much as the PA and Gaza need peace. How we can reset the conditions for negotiation is the most important question Israel’s policy makers and diplomats should be asking.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Strong Horse and Arab Society



I have just completed reading a book by Lee Smith titled “The Strong Horse.  Power, Politics, & the Clash of Arab Civilizations.”   I recommend it to anyone interested in understanding the Near East and the greater issue of Arab politics. I have quoted extensively from the book.  Anything in quotation marks is either sourced from Lee Smith's book or a quotation from him.  However, I have also added my own thoughts on this subject below:

“When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse.”  (Osama Bin Laden) What stands out from this quote is the lack of any hint of compassion or mercy and if it encapsulates Arab thinking then everything that comes after, is merely an excuse for Arab and Muslim history.

Arab Nationalism is defined as “A political and cultural doctrine holding that the Arabs by virtue of a shared language constitute a separate and single people.” Arab nationalism is an “elevated tribal covenant” with Islam as its engine and because of its theology of pristine 7th Century religious perfection it is unable to confront its ethical failures.  An allegedly homogeneous Arab identity is a relatively modern concept but behind this super-tribal branding is the idea of a superior racial uniqueness and it drives an Arab need to exercise power over its rivals, all of whom are identifiable by their inferior faith, sex or race.

It is a Sunni Arab world view the glue of which is Islam, created in Sunni Arab Saudi Arabia, spread by an aggressively assertive and colonialist ideology and justified by religious authority. Of the 300 million Arabs, 70% are Sunni.  The Sunni reliance on violence is the central motif in a pattern that existed before Islam and it informs the regions social and political relations. “bin Ladenism is not drawn from the extremist fringe but represents the political and social norm.”

The “Pact of Omar” established the laws and regulations by which Jews and Christians were awarded both protection and inferior status (the pact defined the relationship with all infidels). It defines the racial aspect of Arab superiority over all others at the same time as codifying the hierarchical position of Islam against all others.

For the Arab, God “is not the agent of history but a narrative detail, the protagonist of one story that manages to motivate groups of men to kill and die.”  If the pact of Omar was intended to regulate the relationship with conquered nations and their people, it also created an apartheid faith that is religiously unable to accept the basic humanity of the other.  It condemns the Muslim faithful to eternal jihad.

Arab nationalism has sought to erase Arab crimes against humanity by portraying a heroic legendary vision of a homogeneous Arab identity and by blaming every non-Arab for its failures.  Nazism used a motto that Germany had been “stabbed in the back.” It did so, to soothe inflated German egos and to focus the energies of the people against a mythical enemy. It exploited the prejudices of the people to unite them behind a common enemy.  Similarly, Arab nationalism uses betrayal (‘foreign’ interference) to explain Arab weakness. It exploits the failure to encourage internal debate to paper over massive inequality and to explain the disjuncture between a self-image of global power and the reality of Arab fragmentation and discord.

Arab politics is defined by a passion that is irrational, “maximalist and millenarian.”  It means that there is room only for short term, tactical back-room compromises and therefore there is little reason for public debate.  Ideas like legitimacy and authenticity have significance only between those that rule because “Arab politics is an affair between armed elites, the regimes and their insurgent rivals, who will kill and die for their cause.”

If strong tactics are not used to discourage violence then violence wins (the strong horse). It is a testosterone charged contest that the women of society are committed to upholding even as it disadvantages them.  If fear of violence is the only proven guarantee of fidelity and protection from rivals then the structure of society is determined by the hierarchical dominance of the strongest.

The perceived logic in the West is that if an organization or a person has a wide enough base of support they can not possibly be on the extremist fringe. It supplies the superficial reasoning behind the support that so many people on the parliamentary Left, those who at least in theory support democracy, use to back Hamas in Gaza.  This is the unreasoned argument made by Western supporters of Hezbollah in Lebanon. In the worst case scenario, the thinking holds that a choice between fascism and democracy is unimportant because all ideological paths eventually moderate by convergence. The specious logic (not borne out by historical precedent) is that by its nature, power is a leveler, a force for moderation.  The narrative dished out to the doubters is that the business of governance leaves little time for extremism; that funding a revolution forces the radical to focus on administration; and that greed seeks out popular approval in order to maintain its hegemony.  The sophistry in the theory is in the paucity and the pain of historical precedent.  The case of Egypt and the election of the Muslim Brotherhood disproved that theory in less than a year as Egypt tottered on the brink of bankruptcy. The Muslim Brotherhood motto in response to Western calls for democracy has always been that “the Quran is our constitution.”

It does not automatically follow that support for the electoral process equates with support for democracy or allegiance to concepts of either human rights or equality. A propensity towards the use of violence or risk taking is not the behavior of those who believe in the intrinsic nature of democracy.

“Democracy is not an application, but the manifestation of a worldview that holds certain values dear, values that, since they were fought and sacrificed for, cannot be easily transferred from one culture to another.”

The goals of Arab Society should be the same as the idealised benchmark we all share in the Western World: energy stability, food security, employment, stable health care and crucially, the social contract that theoretically undertakes to keep us safe. Given the current state of Arab society few Arab nations can deliver that promise to their people.  Democratisation of the Middle East and beyond must be an overarching security strategy for both the USA and Europe because without it, the instability that afflicts the Arab world will inevitably spread past its borders, infecting any society with which it comes into contact.

Perhaps the only lever we in the West can effectively utilise is to offer the Arab world a path forward based on self-interest rather than despair.   But if that is to happen we will need to re-awaken in our own societies a robust assertiveness about what defines us and what makes us worth emulating, and we will need to exclude those people who actively work against our vision.   

Monday, June 1, 2015

The Pope and the Palestinians



I am bewildered by the fuss created around Pope Francis’s recognition of the State of Palestine. Vatican City is a sovereign, territorial entity. It is an independent city-state and its head of government is the Bishop of Rome, also known as the Pope. What makes the Vatican different from other states is both its size (44 acres in area) and its designation as the current physical location for the supreme religious authority of the world’s 1,200 million Catholics.  The Holy See is separate from but also central to the Vatican city-state. It is both administration and government – its political and diplomatic infrastructure is based in Vatican City and headed by the Pope.  Crucially, what makes the Holy See different from other sovereign entities is that it is the locus for ecclesiastic authority and therefore, for worldwide followers of the Catholic Church.

Once this is understood it is possible to appreciate that the Vatican directs policy but also it is responsible for the way that the worldwide Church is viewed by outsiders.  The other side is that it also shapes the way that 1.2 billion Catholics view the rest of humanity.

I can summarize that recent history at least through the following Papal profiles:

Pope Pius XII may or may not have intervened on behalf of Jews and other groups that were persecuted to their deaths by the Nazis during WW2 but what condemns him is his failure to make a loud and consistent vocal objection to the policies of the Nazis.  It is futile to now speculate about what may have been; we can only understand the power of that central authority and crucially, that it was not publicly exercised.  That failure is a shameful, loathsome, wholly unforgivable ethical silence. 

There could never be an excuse for shutting out the cries of the tortured and the murdered, no matter who they were.

Pope Paul VI pushed through Nostra Aetate in late 1965. It passed by a vote of 2,221 bishops in favor of the declaration and was opposed by 88 bishops.   It repudiated the charge of Jewish deicide; rejected an attitude of the Church that all Jews were eternally damned and condemned antisemitism in all its guises. It highlighted the bond that Catholic and Jew shared and it rejected Supersessionism, the idea that one faith is made obsolescent by the creation of another.  It was this theological justification that fueled millennia of prejudice and persecution.  There has been nothing similar in any of the other churches (Eastern Orthodox or Protestant) that make up another billion adherents of Christian faith and many of which, to this day believe in a toxic and genocidal replacement theology.  Nostra Aetate was followed in 1974 and 1985 by further guidance.  After almost 1,900 years of Church persecution all this was nothing short of a revolution.

Still, it was only in 1994 that Pope John Paul II established diplomatic relations with Israel.  Diplomatic relations was acknowledgment of the legitimacy of Zionism as a right of Jewish expression. In 1903 Theodore Herzl attempted to gain Papal support for the Jewish homeland from Pope Pius X and was refused.  In 2014 Pope Francis visited Herzl’s grave.

The Islamic world understands the Vatican because it represents political interests projected through theological power.  Most of the Catholic Churches adherents live in countries with shaky democratic traditions where superstition and prejudice are barely distinguishable from their understanding of the obligations required by their faith. The power of the leader of the church to change attitudes is limited to small, incremental changes adopted over long periods of time.

The papacy took a century to recognize the legitimacy of Zionism. The prejudice of almost two millennia of officially sanctioned church persecution won’t disappear overnight or even over decades. It will take much longer.  It seems the State of Israel received nothing aside from Papal recognition while the Catholic Church, with its vast Israeli real estate holdings apparently, now pays no taxes on any of them.   Expressing gratitude for an end to being hounded, persecuted and murdered, it would be difficult to eloquently understate just how perverse this idea of being grateful for small mercies really is.

The State of Israel talked up the benefits – it said that a tourism bonanza would follow on from the exchange of treaties. After all, if, as a result of that treaty, Israel were to witness an increase in Catholic tourism to “the Holy Land” of even a half of one-per cent of all Catholics, that would represent a trebling of the record year for inbound tourism to Israel.   In fact, for Israel at least, there have been no discernible benefits.

Politically, there is no benefit to be had for the Catholic Church to improve its ties with Israel. The only benefit was the (enormous) financial benefit which Israel, it seems, gave away for nothing tangible in exchange.  Vatican policies in this region can have no effect on the lives or safety of Christians in the area but they can damage Christian interests by giving Muslims any excuse to escalate their policy of ethnic cleansing against Christians.

Fear of a backlash against Christian communities in lands with significant Muslim populations has created an atmosphere of appeasement throughout the world.   There are numerous examples of Christian communities that have suffered significant persecution because of real or imagined slights against the Muslim faith.

The whole purpose of diplomacy is to represent, protect and where possible, to further, the interests of the state in the conduct of their foreign relationships. Israel has been consistently out-maneuvered throughout its diplomatic history because it has failed to view foreign policy as worthy of investment in either people or funding, or, to view the practice of statecraft as worthy of its long-term attention.

We could argue that befriending Israel would tangibly benefit the Vatican by increasing its influence over Israeli policy but the record of nations in international diplomacy is one of short-sighted (not always lucrative) self-interest and policies pursued in the interest of venal national prejudice and historical chauvinism.

Two events that caused controversy in Israel should not have done. Canonizing two nineteenth century nuns who lived in the Holy Land is a reminder that Christianity may be physically erased from the Muslim world but will be spiritually, eternally remembered, for as long as there are Church followers.  It was tokenism.  It was concerned with Arab persecution of Christians in the Near East.  Second, whether the Pope called President Abbas a “Man of Peace” or not is irrelevant. All the newspapers carried the initial reports that he did and those reports are all that are important.   Any subsequent denials serve only to fill space.  Pope Francis helped President Abbas to score points against his Hamas rivals in Gaza, and diplomatically, in the media war against Israel.

We may appreciate the pontiffs comments that “anyone who does not recognize the Jewish people and the State of Israel and their right to exist is guilty of anti-Semitism” as reportedly made in conversation with Portuguese-Israeli journalist Henrique Cymerman.  But what counts is the public profile of comments – what is prominently reported and what is ignored by the mainstream press (because it does not help to support an antisemitic agenda).

Israel has been consistently misrepresented and slandered over decades in the global press using precisely this method of information dissemination. Pope Francis did not publicly protest vicious persecution, torture and murder of Christians in Muslim lands; he is unlikely to highlight Islamic antisemitism.   Nor is he going to represent our side against our enemies in his treatment of this international conflict.

It seems that it is not in his interest to do so.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Benefits of 20:20 Hindsight in Explaining Election Surprises



People rarely if ever predict disasters which is why they surprise us so when they befall us.   Whether we would classify the Labour Party rout in Scotland and England as a disaster is a moot point – that depends on whether you take a long view or a short view of history.

In 1992 John Major confounded all the political pundits by winning the Conservative Party its fourth consecutive national election.  By 1997 the party that was embroiled in what seemed like one sleaze scandal after another, fell to an invigorated Labour party under the charismatic leadership of Tony Blair.

In 2015 David Cameron had no-one who could compete with him.  Even if his demeanor is reserved, his ministers added just enough spice to the political soup to give his Conservative Party the appearance of possessing a soul.  But none of that matters if the economy is flourishing (most people are not in pain) and if people feel relatively safe and comfortable (as they do).

Labour did not suffer another defeat because of the role given to its ‘Jewish born’ leader Ed Miliband but because it has no vision of what it wants to be.  It chose Ed Milibands’ Michael Foot (hang the capitalists high) Old Labour outlook over his brother David’s Tony Blair New Labour looks and ideas.  And even that is not why they failed. Labour failed because it had nothing new to offer the people and nothing old but credible to offer the electorate. Its message was shaped by Old Labour socialism: the NHS, inequality and living costs. But it had nothing to offer that the Conservatives hadn’t already made noises about.

The working classes are no longer the monolithic, benighted class that brings tears to the eyes of romantic visionaries in search of social justice.  And yet Labour still talks about its workers as if they were impoverished and without representation.   Labour needs its ideals but it desperately needs to update them for the 21st Century.  Under New Labour the party secured support from skilled workers.  It has lost that support.

In the 21st Century we have aspirations and I would make a distinction between them and ambitions.  The difference is defined by the former being more weighted towards education and the pleasure principle than the latter.  Ambition was all about Class and escaping poverty. Most of us are past that now. Labour needs to redefine its vision for our future.  Too many people are still affected by poverty but the balance of those scales are weighed overwhelmingly in favor of those for whom comfort is more important than the alleviation of someone else's suffering.  It isn’t cruelty but the success of the social net that has lost Labour its electoral appeal.

All political parties must constantly reinvent themselves because people need a reason to vote and if they have none then they don’t, or not at least, for the party seeking power.  We only seek change if there is something ‘in it’ for us personally. That may just mean a feel good feeling but it is still a personal choice.

In 1992 most opinion polls predicted a Labour victory.  Similarly, in 2015 most polls predicted either a Labour victory or a hung parliament.  So what happened?

In 1992 the Conservative Party had 26% of the Scottish vote and 11 Scottish seats in Westminster.  In 1997 when Labour defeated the Tories by a landslide that proportion of the Scottish vote fell to 18% and no seats. In the four successive elections that have been held since then, its voter turnout has remained fairly static and it has held onto one seat in each election. It has done nothing to convince conservatives in Scotland that it has a vision for Scotland that is relevant to Scots. It is therefore almost unelectable “north of the English border.”

In the 2010 national elections Labour scored 42% of the overall Scottish vote and received 69% of the seats on offer. This year that share of the Scottish vote dropped to just 24% and that translated into one seat only (the same as the Conservatives).

A party cannot complain that the system works for them and then, that it doesn’t.

First past the post voting has its advantages for the established, well funded, larger parties. But then it is not enough to have a presence in the local community; it must inspire enough voters to win over a majority of voters in the seat it is contesting. The system works if only because there is nothing better out there. Proportional Representation empowers every radical (reactionary as well as ‘so called’ progressive) able to muster the thresh-hold votes to gain a seat and that is even more destabilizing to the political process; look at Israel.

The following are the final results for the 2015 British National Elections: (with thanks to the BBC and other sites)

Party
Seats
Votes
Votes per Seat
Conservative
329
11,292,190
34,323
Labour
232
9,322,175
40,182
SNP (Scotland)
56
1,454,436
25,972
Liberal Democrats
8
2,397,354
299,669
Ukip
1
3,871,266
3,871,266
Green
1
1,152,568
1,152,568
Plaid Cymru (Wales)
3
181,694
60,565
DUP (Northern Ireland)
8
184,260
23,033
Other
12
831,237
69,270
Total
650
30,687,180
47,211

Some complain that the electorate is insufficiently sophisticated to be able to use their vote wisely but it is usually the losers that make that accusation, not the winners.  People voted for Conservative over Labour and Labour over Liberal Democrat (and so forth) for mainly two reasons:

Fear: that if they voted for any but the two major parties their vote would be wasted. Fear: that a vote for the Labour Party would translate into a Scottish victory via a hung parliament that would see Labour beholden to Scotland for passing any legislation.

The Liberal Democrats shared power with the Conservatives for five years between 2010 and 2015.  They could offer no vision save that of an emasculated and elitist party with no influence and even less independence of action.  That leaves the Scottish National Party.  Scotland has 32% of the UK landmass and 8% of its population. It is marginally wealthier than the UK average and has a national identity that puts it in conflict with England, which it sees as controlling its ‘destiny’ as well as all of its ‘national’ resources.

In the 20th Century, as an imperial power the United Kingdom saw its colonial empire decimated. Nevertheless it remains one of the world’s most wealthy nations as well as one of the most attractive destinations for immigration.  It has done well to hold onto remaining colonial appendages such as Ireland, Wales and Scotland for as long as it has without devolving any real authority to their citizens.

It is this contradictory nationalism that has given hope to Scottish voters. ‘Contradictory,’ because in a theoretically post-nationalism Europe, Scottish identity is particularistic and therefore radically out of step with the rest of the European Union it is so desperate to join as a separate country, independent of Great Britain.

Political scientists may well earn their salaries for years to come by endlessly re-examining the 2015 UK election results.  But it seems to me that the results were, the only ones that made any sense.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

My Pesach Trauma


Orthodoxy and Ancient Prejudice

I traveled to America for my silver wedding anniversary.  My previous visit to the USA ended in 1983 and was equally successful.  I make no apologies for being unadvisedly pro-American, pro-Jewish and pro-Zionist.  Still, I was scared that this time, once I reached the customs hall at Dulles International Airport “they” would not allow me in.  Since 9/11 it is not easy getting into the USA for a holiday – I have heard far too many anecdotes of traumatic experiences from innocent people!  My knowledge of customs officials are that they tend to be humorless, capricious and apparently, randomly hostile towards foreign visitors.

I suspect that Islamic terrorists intent on committing carnage are more likely to appear mild mannered, fawning; in-fact intolerably kiss-ass in order to pass through the customs checks. There has to be a better way!

But this is not why I am writing today.   I confirmed my flight just prior to flying out during Passover and so I ordered kosher meals.  In mid-flight the flight attendant asked me if I wanted to open my meal myself or was it OK for them to open it for me?  So the first thing I must do is to put the question into historical context.

Excepting for a major hiccup during the second century BCE when the Maccabees forcibly converted a large number of people, the Jewish people have been very conflicted about conversion since biblical times, often warning against it. One major universal aspect of Judaism posits that following the Noahide commandments are sufficient for non-Jews to have an equal place in the afterlife with Jews. (The Noahide laws prohibit murder, theft, adultery, incest and the eating of live flesh and require communities to establish a legal system and courts of law).   At the time of Christ, Judaism was a radical, revolutionary faith – which stood many Jews in opposition to the Roman Empire. At least in principle, Judaism freed the slaves and gave a measure of dignity to all human beings and that could never be accepted or comfortably tolerated, at the very least, for economic reasons, by either Greeks or Romans.  Judaism gifted the Western World universal education almost 3,000 years before any other nation embraced it, the Decalogue, and a Sabbath day that was universally applicable.

Judea was geographically, strategically important to Rome and intermittently restive. By displaying an alternative to the Roman economic model it potentially compromised Roman control over its colonial empire.  Eventually Rome responded with a bloodbath that to paraphrase the 2009 film, Avatar, would sear a memory into the Jewish psyche that would scar the Jews for millennia.

The early Christians were Jews but their leaders soon realized that if they were to become something bigger they would need to discard their toxic Jewish heritage.  The Romans feared revolution and they feared dissent.  The apostles distanced themselves and their followers from the narrative of Jewish revolt in order to establish their new faith and in doing so they planted the seeds of persecution that have plagued Christian-Jewish interfaith relations ever since.

When Jews were threatened with annihilation they responded by not simply discouraging proselytizing but more pro-actively, they periodically banned it.  Justinian Christianity increased the restrictions on Jewish civil rights and centuries later with the foundation of Islam the practice of belittling that which was different and creating a separation between the holiness of the believer and the unclean nature of the non-believer was taken to the logically next and final step. The Koran provides a guide for persecuting and killing any doubters including Muslim ones.  By declaring Islam to be the perfection of human faith it closes the door on criticism or improvement and it supersedes everything that came before it.

Today there are many people including the President of the United States of America excusing the inhumanity and ethnic cleansing practiced by Muslim fundamentalists throughout the Near-East.  President Obama has said that Christians “did it first” (with the Crusades).  What bothers me most about this is that it is a childish argument, philosophically and temperamentally immature. And it has no basis in ethics or fact.  For the most powerful man in the world to be saying this is beyond logical comprehension.

We live in the 21st Century, not the 7th and not the 10th. In order to possess any relevance, every case is unique.

The brutal killers of the so-called Islamic State would like to harmonize the modern world with 7th Century Islam, so they crucify children to create fear and demonstrate their superior purpose.  The Crusades started out as a desire to restore Christian access to the holy places around Jerusalem something that current Palestinian and anti-Semitic followers of the Arab cause would cynically deny to Jews!

By the 17th Century of the Common Era, Jews had been a persecuted people for so long that few of us alive today can appreciate the despair and sporadic dread they must have lived with.  Out of all that squalor Baruch de Spinoza appeared on the scene; the man many people regard as the patriarch of the Enlightenment.  In the Western World the intellectual darkness was starting to abate. In that 18th Century intellectual soup Gotthold Lessing, Immanuel Kant and Moses Mendelssohn argued for a rational intellectual landscape that afforded the individual freedom, equality and tolerance. The Haskalah, the 18th Century Jewish Enlightenment was also experiencing its birth pangs.

The Hasidim had a different approach. They did not preach the final coming of the messiah as millenarian cults did nor did they ascribe holiness to charismatic charlatans and theocratic psychopaths.  Instead, out of the abyss of gloom and despair they called out to the heavens, they screamed out to God in Heaven for deliverance from their earthly suffering. They did so by encouraging the faithful to pray even harder, but with a twist.  Their prayers would be filled with energy and joyful supplication to the almighty.  They claimed that if, through their song, they could burst open the gates of heaven then God would hear their cries for help.  And they claimed that a holy leader could intercede with God on behalf of the community. This adoption of charismatic leadership was a radical step away from the scholarly approach to prayer and community as practiced by previous generations.

The Hasidim rejected the legalistic, dry Yeshiva approach of mainstream Western Orthodoxy. We could claim they were the original happy-clappie gospel singers; eighteenth century evangelicals whose promotion of spiritualism sought to normalize mysticism as intrinsic to Jewish faith. In this way perhaps they thought that the misery of their lives could be set aside?  They raised the hopes of the oppressed, perhaps they were delusional, but fear had taxed their spirits for so long that surely any way must have been better than the present.  Fear led them to view prayer as their only salvation. Until that is, the new faith of Secularism began to supersede the old religious faith in the late 19th Century.

And this is where I reconnect with my contemporary story. How does this all relate to that flight attendants question? Ideas around ritual purity can be spiritually uplifting.  However, the idea that the touch of a non-Jew might pollute the physical nutrients that sustain our bodies is an ancient fear and it is time to set it aside.

We do have legitimate terrors.  We need to focus our fears in the direction of truly deadly contemporary existential enemies whether they are old-new anti-Jewish boycotters, antisemitic regimes posing as carriers of anti-Zionist radical chic or the deniers who are attempting to rewrite our history in universities and journals across the globe.

When I was questioned by the Virgin Atlantic flight attendant I was flustered by the question, and then the rage I felt I could never direct at an airline that was only respecting the archaic practices of a far too long and dark an age in our history.  Some of those orthodox traditions remain as fears, to which too many of us blindly cling. Those fears preclude taking the first steps towards religious healing.

I understand that intimidation and the reluctance to move on are fears’ unholy descendants. I understand that a return to a Judaic theology based on moderation and reasonable doubt is not in the interests of current ultra-orthodox communities. Compromise might actually dissolve some of the barriers that exist between many of the sects and sub-sects of Hasidism.

But no one should have to ask me whether I am offended by the touch of another human being – no one should have to offer me the choice of opening up my own food parcel.

It is a question that debases and degrades both of us.