Monday, June 23, 2003
Tuesday, June 17, 2003
To paraphrase the old saying "Wine in, truth out," one could say about Abdel Aziz Rantisi: "Missile in, truth out." The Hamas leader, who escaped by the skin of his teeth from the bungled bombing mission of our Apaches last week, gnashed his teeth and promised that the armed struggle would continue until the last Jew was driven out. In his anger, he revealed the true goal of Hamas.
It's hard to believe that now, 55 years after the establishment of the state and decades after signing peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan, we are once again hearing threats of the kind made by Ahmed Shukeiry, secretary of the Arab League, 40 years ago. "We will send the Jews back where they came from," Shukeiry declared on French television at the time. Asked by the interviewer - and this is a scene I have never been able to forget - what plans he had for Jews who were born in Israel, Shukeiry drew a finger across his throat. In other words, we'll butcher them.
Unlike the PLO, which bills itself as a national liberation organization, Hamas is a fanatical religious terror network that is seeking to wipe out both Israel and secular Palestinian rule. In the attempt on Rantisi's life, one may disagree with the timing and the method, but there is no question that the heads of an organization which has been killing our people indiscriminately for well over a decade are terrorists who deserve to die.
Hamas was born in 1988, at the height of the first intifada, taking its cue from Khomeinism in Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Hamas doesn't want conciliation or a return to 1967 borders. It will settle for nothing less than the obliteration of Israel. It's no accident that three of the most savage attacks on Israel's civilian population have taken place at the first signs of dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians.
Since the Oslo Accords in 1993 and negotiations at Camp David, Hamas has dispatched 113 suicide bombers, 72 of them after September 2000. In this span of time, 271 Israelis have been killed and 1,803 wounded in Hamas suicide bombings. And these statistics say nothing of the countless attacks that were foiled. Apart from the harm to our economy and personal safety, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have lost their jobs in Israel. Unsurprisingly, the first attack after the Aqaba summit was carried out by Hamas at the Erez junction, on the very day Palestinian workers were allowed to return to work in Israel.
Rantisi once said that "the darker the night, the brighter the stars shine" - a Hamas version of the Marxist maxim that things will have to get a lot worse before they get better. This fusion of Islamic fundamentalism and Marxist theory is a lethal stew that threatens both the Palestinian Authority and Israel....
I wonder why Hamas' brand of lethal anti-semitism is not more widely acknowledged when discussing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, especially in the leftist circles that I often find myself in. It's easy to blame Israel for the conflict -- after all, it is the more powerful party, with a strong army and coercive control over the Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza -- but in order to understand why Israel acts as it does, it's important to understand that groups like Hamas arouse deep fears of annihilation for Israeli Jews.
Sunday, June 15, 2003
I was also living in Israel during the 1998-99 academic year (October-August), and there was an election then also -- if I recall correctly, when I was there the Labor Party, led by Ehud Barak, defeated Likud, led by Binyamin Netanyahu. Part of the electioneering of the Shas party during that election had to do with a supposed exorcism -- it was videotaped, the tape was subsequently played on national television and sold publicly. A woman was possessed by the spirit of her dead husband, and sought help from various quarters until she came to a rabbi affiliated with the Shas party -- he conducted an exorcism to rid the poor woman of her husband's spirit. The tape was used as part of the election campaign of the Shas party, I guess as a demonstration of their connection with heavenly forces.
Another way that I think of the intersection of mysticism and politics has to do with how contemporary politics in a broader sense affects the study of Jewish mysticism (indeed, of any subject in Jewish studies). In the academic world as a whole over the last thirty years there has been intensive attention devoted to issues of race, class, and gender and how one's own identity affects one's scholarship -- such as who it is that gets to do scholarship, who has access to college and advanced study, the topics one chooses to study, the methods one uses to approach those topics, etc. My current research has to do with women's involvement (or not) in early Jewish mysticism/ritual practices to gain power. The mere fact that I've chosen to address this topic is heavily influenced by the feminist movement of the last thirty years -- and the fact that others are interested in reading what I have to say also means that the field as a whole has been affected by feminism.
When I first started thinking about these questions, in the early 1990s, when I was writing the prospectus for my doctoral dissertation, one of the members of my committee did not even understand why the question of women's involvement had to be addressed -- his point of view was that there were no women in Jewish mysticism, so why bother about the question any further? In reply I attempted to say that I thought it worthwhile to consider why there were no women -- especially in comparison to the development of Christian mysticism, where there have been many significant women mystics. The rise of the feminist movement allowed me to raise this question as a valid question and attempt to answer it.
Friday, June 13, 2003
WASHINGTON, June 12 — The government of Saudi Arabia said today that it has fired several hundred Islamic clerics and suspended more than 1,000 others for preaching intolerance, part of a broader campaign against terrorism. At a news conference held one month to the day after terrorist bombs killed more than 30 people in Riyadh, the Saudi government also announced that it has implemented new regulations intended to prevent the flow of Saudi money to terrorist groups overseas.
Saying that last month's bombings had "galvanized" his government, Adel al-Jubeir, a senior foreign policy adviser to Crown Prince Abdullah, asserted that Saudi Arabia has done more than any other country to ensure that its money does not "get used for evil." "We will go after those who use religion to justify such behavior, which is alien to any faith, in particular our Islamic faith," Mr. Jubeir said at the Saudi Embassy here. . . .
Well, if it were true, this would be great -- but:
Critics scoffed at the Saudi Embassy's assertions that they had "closed the door on terrorist financing and money laundering." William F. Wechsler, a National Security Council official in the Clinton administration who has studied terrorist financing, said the Saudis had revealed few details of their new regulations, making it difficult to evaluate their effectiveness. "Let's see the laws and regulations, and let others evaluate them, not take the Saudis word for it," he said in a telephone interview. "Let's see that they are meeting international standards. Let's see the enforcement."
These new rules still will not prevent Saudis from financing Hamas (again, seemingly a double standard applied against Israelis).
. . . .But Mr. Jubeir acknowledged that there were significant loopholes in the rules. For example, the Saudi regulations will not apply to foreign-based charities that raise funds in the kingdom.
The rules also will not prevent Saudi money from reaching schools, hospitals and other community institutions run by the political wing of Hamas, the Gaza-based group that has taken responsibility for a devastating suicide bombing in Jerusalem on Wednesday. But Mr. Wechsler and other terrorism experts said it was impossible to separate Hamas' political wing from its military operations. "It's a fantasy to think you can just give money to the charitable wing and somehow you are not helping a terrorist organization," Mr. Wechsler said.
The Israeli government also contends that Palestinian documents seized by its troops during raids in the West Bank last year provide evidence that organizations run by senior Saudi officials have contributed large sums of money to Hamas and to the families of suicide bombers.
The Saudi government does contribute aid to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers, Mr. Jubeir said, but he argued that such assistance did not incite terrorist acts. "If the family's in need, they will get the money," he said. "We're not saying, `Go blow yourself up and we'll give you money.' "
So much for firing intolerant clerics.
``Our view has been and remains that we are against targeted assassination of individuals. We believe it is morally wrong,'' he told a news conference. ``They do not achieve any objective other than further fueling hate and provoking reactions and responses, which in turn provoke more reactions and responses, which in turn keeps the cycle of violence going and accelerated,'' he said.
. . . .Al-Jubeir denied the Saudi government gave money directly to Hamas, saying it provided assistance to impoverished Palestinians through the United Nations, the International Red Crescent and the Palestinian Authority -- just as the United States does. But he acknowledged Hamas may run some institutions receiving the aid and that individual Saudis may help finance the organization.
Saudi government aid to Palestinian families, including relatives of suicide bombers, was justified, he insisted. With more than half of all Palestinians living below the poverty level, ``we give money to Palestinian families in need. . . Are some of those families, families who have had a suicide bomber? Yes. But do we give the money because their son or daughter was a suicide bomber? No. Is that money an incentive for them to commit acts of terrorism? No,'' he said.
Al-Jubeir said families in need should not be punished because a son did something people disapprove of, arguing: ``I think morally, guilt should not transfer.'' Most of the Saudi aid is in the form of blankets and food, not cash, and ``there is an accounting of it,'' he said.
. . . .Hamas claimed responsibility for the Wednesday suicide bombing on a Jerusalem bus. Asked if he condemned Hamas, Al-Jubeir, said: ``We condemn terrorism in all its forms...whether it's perpetrated by one side or the other.''
While I am not in favor of the Israeli policy of assassinating Hamas leaders, because I don't believe that it leads to any weakening of the organization, and because the attacks also kill innocent Palestinian civilians, I do not think that the suicide bombing of a bus full of civilian passengers is morally equivalent to killing the leaders of a terrorist organization.
Thursday, June 12, 2003
"Do you see any parallels between the security state that George Bush has created in America since 9/11 and the Gulag?" For a moment, the question struck me dumb. It had been put by a BBC radio interviewer, and we were on the air. It seemed impolitic to say, "What a ridiculous question," and I was too surprised to laugh. Finally I mumbled something about not having noticed that great a difference between daily life in George Bush's America and daily life in Bill Clinton's America, and left it at that. What I should have done was point out, tartly, that access to information is still far freer in America than it is in Britain, that immigrants are far better treated in America than in Britain, and that democracy remains a more open affair in America than in Britain. One always thinks of these things too late.
Yet in the days that followed, I did, rather surprisingly, have the opportunity to try out a few more answers. I was in London because a book I wrote about Soviet concentration camps had just been published there. For some, it seemed, the combination of that subject and my nationality offered the perfect opportunity to discuss the viciousness of contemporary American society. Several times I was asked if Guantanamo Bay should be considered a concentration camp. One reviewer, after saying a few neutral words about my book, complained that "the author has missed an opportunity to condemn human rights violations in her own country." Another interviewer asked whether people in America are often arrested for insulting the president on the Internet.
I sometimes also find myself in conversational situations where it seems that some of my interlocutors also resort to this type of hyperbole to express their opposition to the policies of the Bush Administration. I say this not to defend those policies, particularly the long detentions of foreigners after 9/11 which chiefly resulted in the arrest and eventual deportation of people guilty of minor immigration infractions -- but to beg for some kind of commensurability in people's speech. Whatever one thinks of the USA Patriot Act, or the detention of foreigners, they come nowhere near to the standard of a concentration camp or a totalitarian state such as the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany. Do people like the BBC radio reporter really think that the U.S. is becoming a totalitarian state, or are they just using remarks like that to raise the political temperature? Sort of like the indiscriminate use of "Nazi" or "fascist" to express one's dislike of someone else's politics. (For example, here in Ithaca there has been graffitti downtown saying, "Bush is a Nazi." I've often wished I could talk to the person who wrote the graffitti and ask them what they mean -- and also to ask them what they think Nazism was and is).
Another thing I've noticed, which may be related, is the tendency among liberal/left-wing people to regard Bush as a stupid man and/or a puppet of his "handlers" (e.g., Vice-President Cheney). I've often asked people why they think so -- do they have evidence for his stupidity? Wrong, maybe, depending on one's political views, but not stupid. I didn't vote for Bush and I won't vote for him in the next election, I don't like his conservative judicial nominees, I think that his tax cut is ruinous, I think that he shamefully let Senator Santorum off the hook for his anti-gay comments, etc. but I don't think he's stupid. On the contrary, I think that it some ways he has been brilliant -- for example in the way he rallied the country after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. I have a lot of respect for him. I think it's dangerous for people who oppose his politics to underestimate him as "stupid" -- it leads to underestimating his political astuteness and the connection he has with many Americans (a connection that I think is similar to that which Ronald Reagan had when he was President).
Wednesday, June 11, 2003
Since the publication of the book I have continued to do research in this area, especially on the question of women's role in early Jewish mysticism and rituals of power. Two years ago I published an article in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, (69 (June 2001), 343-375), entitled "Exe(o)rcising Power: Women as Sorceresses, Exorcists, and Demonesses in Late Antique Judaism." In it I discussed the presentation of women as witches in rabbinic literature (where, among other statements, it is asserted that "most women are witches" [b. Sanh. 67a]), and compared rabbinic statements with evidence derived from the Babylonian incantation bowls (for more information on these bowls, see Gideon Bohak's Traditions of Magic), which seem to give a more nuanced picture of women as victims of aggressive rituals inflicted on them by others, as exorcists ridding themselves and their clients of demonic harm, and as those seeking to inflict ritual harm on others. I discussed as well a fascinating figure in rabbinic literature, the mother or foster-mother (her name is not given) of Abaye, one of the rabbinic leaders of fourth century Babylonia. Abaye frequently quotes her in matters of incantations, and herbal and ritual healing.
My current research project is entitled Angels' Tongues and Witches' Curses: Jewish Women and Ritual Power in Late Antiquity and I hope to publish it eventually as a book.
This summer I am doing further research on the incantation bowls, for a panel discussion at the Association for Jewish Studies in December 2003 -- this paper will be on the images, mostly of demons, on the incantation bowls. I am also continuing my research in the Hekhalot literature for a presentation at the Society of Biblical Literature conference in November 2003 -- on the eschatological image of God's weeping arm in 3 Enoch (Sefer Hekhalot). I also have a couple of book reviews to write this summer, as well as encyclopedia entries on Lilith. All in all, I will be very busy!
Tuesday, June 03, 2003
On Bush's visit, David Sanger writes (June 1, 2003)
. . . .Mr. Bush made the Auschwitz complex of slave-labor camps and extermination camps, of which Birkenau is a horrific part, his first stop in Europe. This morning he called it "a sobering reminder of the power of evil and the need for people to resist evil."
So it was that a president who rarely talks in public about the influences of history, but who has several times compared the mission of his presidency to the mission of those who defeated Hitler, appeared this morning under the gate that still reads "Arbeit Macht Frei," or "Work Makes You Free."
. . . .The president himself frequently uses the image of confronting evil to explain the pre-emptive turn in American foreign policy, and to force Europeans to make choices that, in their view, are far less stark than the one that confronted the world in World War II.
So for Mr. Bush, Auschwitz today served not only a symbolic purpose, but a diplomatic one. He arrived here today to drive home his argument — without ever quite saying so directly — that America's traditional allies made a huge historical mistake when they opposed decisive military action against Saddam Hussein.
In a speech at Wawel Castle here a few hours after leaving Auschwitz, he cited the experience of prisoner A70713 — Elie Wiesel, the writer and Nobel Peace Prize laureate — and said the death camps were a reminder of why America and its allies could never again make the mistake of waiting too long to confront a tyrant.
"All the good that has come to this continent — all the progress, the prosperity, the peace — came because beyond the barbed wire there were people willing to take up arms against evil," Mr. Bush said.
While I have a great deal of sympathy for President Bush's language of fighting against evil, his rhetoric masks the fact that the U.S. did not enter the Second World War in order to stop the Holocaust. The Allied victory in the war did stop the killing -- but that was not why the war was fought. To claim otherwise is to ignore the considerable anti-semitism that prevented many Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany from immigrating to other countries (for example, the St. Louis, a ship which contained many German Jewish refugees, was turned back from both the U.S. and Cuba in 1939, and forced to return to Germany). I don't think that we can so thoughtlessly commend ourselves for "taking up arms against evil."
There is, of course, ample evidence for the evil of the regime of Saddam Hussein, as Susan Sachs reported also on Sunday, June 1:
A Grim Graveyard Window on Hussein's Iraq
HILLA, Iraq, May 30 — He was a good soldier, so when he heard the first crack of the executioners' guns, Fadel al-Shaati said he instinctively dropped to the ground and pressed himself against a wall of the freshly dug trench.
He could not get it straight in his mind. The men firing at him were comrades in arms, men of his own Iraqi Army. But they had inexplicably dragged him from his bed in his nightclothes, as they had so many others, and forced him, blindfolded and bound, into this pit in the darkness of night.
Now, 12 years later, Mr. Shaati cannot remember if the women and children beside him screamed as the bullets hit, or whether the men in the hole moaned as they died. He only recalls a moment of hollow silence when the soldiers stopped shooting.
Then came the throaty rumble of a backhoe and the thud of wet earth dropping on bodies. He survived but saw hundreds of other innocents buried in another of Saddam Hussein's anonymous mass graves.
The killing ground of Hilla lies between pockmarked fields, stands of date palms and tufted pastures where sheep and cattle graze. Even today, after the bullet-shattered remains of more than 3,000 people have been pulled from its soil, there is nothing much to distinguish it on the pastoral landscape.
What is remarkable about the site is that it is just one of dozens, possibly hundreds, of secret graveyards scattered across Iraq.
"The truly frightening part is that the number of suspected mass graves is so unfathomable," said Sandra L. Hodgkinson, a State Department official who has been documenting some of the sites for the American occupation forces in Iraq. "They are everywhere. Literally every neighborhood and town is reporting possible grave sites, and from all different periods of time. I think we're going to find them everywhere."
No one really knows how many people were slaughtered by the Iraqi government over the past 35 years. It apparently killed its citizens on a huge scale, both systematically and indiscriminately. Human rights groups, which have tried to document the carnage for years, estimate that nearly 300,000 Iraqis are missing and were probably executed. Tens of thousands more, according to Iraqi opposition groups, may have been imprisoned and tortured, their lives warped forever by what they saw and experienced. . . .
While President Bush has insisted on the need to overthrow the regime of Saddam Hussein and occupy Iraq in order to "resist evil," (a goal which I supported, by the way), another mass death has been unfolding in a corner of the world that most Americans pay no attention to: the Congo.
In Sunday's Times, Somini Sengupta reports that the problem there has been the "absence of genocide."
THE problem, up to now, has been the absence of genocide.
For more than four years, desire for the gold and coltan (a mineral used in the computer chip) found in northeastern Congo has turned this region into a showcase of cruelty. Ethnic enmities, the greed and political meddling of neighboring states and lawless militias comprised, in part, of gun-toting children, have created a state of ongoing violence that has claimed the lives of 3.3 million of the Congo's roughly 54 million people, according to a recent estimate by the International Rescue Committee.
The great majority have died of diarrhea, malnutrition and other miseries that could have been prevented if the warring parties hadn't kept humanitarian workers from delivering aid. Just last week, several refrigerators filled with donated medicine were destroyed by ethnic Hema fighters here, in this capital city of the northeastern province of Ituri.
Meanwhile, the nations of the West have looked on, wary of intervening in a nation the size of western Europe, with a history of suffering and turmoil stretching back to the 19th century.
"The immensity of the problem is a good excuse sometimes for doing nothing," said Jean-Marie Guehenno, the United Nations undersecretary general for peacekeeping operations, on a visit here this week.
Another excuse, too, was the absence of a Rwanda-style genocide. The very word sparks heated debate among Western aid workers and diplomats here. Is it a genocide when the carnage is mutual? How many thousands have to be killed? Does there have to be majority and minority?
. . . .Then — as though by the intervention of a malicious deity — the latest massacre here unfolded before the eyes of the world. Over several days earlier this month, United Nations peacekeepers and aid workers stationed here watched as Hema and Lendu militias went around hacking babies and old men, dumping bodies in a water tank, slaughtering people seeking refuge in a church.
. . . .As news trickled out from the United Nations compound here, alarms rang in its New York headquarters. On Friday, the Security Council authorized a French-led multinational peacekeeping force of up to 1,400 troops, with the first troops to arrive this week.
"Enough is enough," Mr. Guehenno said, reflecting the galvanizing effects of mass murder in the proximity of western observers. This is the same province, after all, where about 50,000 people have been killed over the past five years.
The plain fact, aid workers and diplomats here agree, is that the international community doesn't think it can afford the stain of another Rwanda. And this time, none can say they didn't know what was happening.
Is this not also an evil that we should resist -- not, in this instance, by invading the Congo, but by other means? I am reminded of 1994, during the Rwandan genocide, when the U.S. government and many others "stood idly by" while up to one million people were slaughtered. It is to the great shame of the people of the United States, not merely our government, that we did not go out into the streets and demand that the U.S. and the U.N. do everything we could to stop the genocide. This was a failure of both left and right -- and it seems likely that this failure will be repeated. Both the left and right are preoccupied with the war in Iraq and its aftermath. The President's rhetoric about the need to resist evil, especially when uttered at Auschwitz-Birkenau, is very compelling -- why not similarly inspire this country to try to stop the ongoing killing in the Congo? The left's humanitarian concern for the effects of the (now-lifted) U.N. sanctions and the war in Iraq upon Iraqi civilians is equally commendable -- why don't we see a mass buildup of support and demonstrations for a U.S./U.N. intervention to stop the slaughter and disease in the Congo?
Blogging also reminds me of how I was involved in science fiction fandom in the 1970s and early 1980s -- through the medium of science fiction fanzines and especially APAs -- amateur print associations. They contain contributions by a number of people and are published anywhere from once a week to once every two months. (In fact, in the early 1970s I belonged to a weekly apa, APA-L, from Los Angeles, while I was living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and actually managed for a couple of years to send a contribution in almost every week). Each person copies his or her apazine and sends it to the editor, who then collates all of the contributions and sends them out to the members. People write whatever they want (it doesn't really have to have anything to do with science fiction!), and also write comments on other people's apazines. One might consider this an early precursor to the listserve.
So in this blog my intention is to talk about my academic speciality, early Jewish mysticism, and contemporary politics, and anything else that might happen to catch my fancy -- like my cat, Zachary (although I am sure that there are many many web sites devoted to people's cats -- if cats don't inspire you, you may always skip those postings). If you want to see pictures of my cat, go to Zachary. The pix are part of my academic website.