Saturday, April 30, 2011

Thoughts before Yom Ha-Shoah

Tonight I decided to look through the pile of old newspapers and clippings that I took out of the cupboard yesterday (I had needed more room to put the Passover dishes away). I was thinking of cutting some of them up and taping them to pieces of paper to put in a scrapbook that I’ve been keeping. I think it must be awfully old-fashioned to keep newspaper clippings and put them into scrapbooks, but I started doing it as a child – I think when I was 12, in 1968 – and I have articles that I’ve carried around from place to place since then.

Among the papers were a whole big pile of the New York Times from September 2001, starting with September 12, 2001 – devoted to the terrorist attacks the day before. Included in the pile about the terrorist attacks were editions of the Ithaca Journal from September 12 and 13 and of the Ithaca College student newspaper, the Ithacan. I started teaching at Ithaca College in late August, 2001, and I always associate the beginning of my teaching career there with that sunny blue-sky day in September when the World Trade Center was destroyed and the country was changed forever. (I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that – reading the articles from September 12, 2001 reveal how much the country has changed since the first shocked reactions to the attacks).

Other events also showed up in the saved clippings – a big collection about Abu Ghraib and the revelation of the mistreatment and torture of inmates there by American soldiers, from spring of 2004. I was talking about this the other day with the students in one of my classes, and getting frustrated that they didn’t seem to know very much about it. I realize now that the Abu Ghraib revelations came seven years ago, when the oldest of them would have been 14 years old. I should have more patience with them, especially considering how badly American high schools teach about current events, especially events that are politically controversial.

A few of the articles really called out to me, and I’m going to go through them in chronological order of publication.

The first one is a reprint – published on May 14, 2006, but originally from the August 31, 1958 New York Times magazine. It was written by A. M. Rosenthal, the executive editor of the New York Times who died the week before the reprinted article was published. It is about his visit to Auschwitz. He writes,
The most terrible thing of all, somehow, was that at Brzezinka the sun was bright and warm, the rows of graceful poplars were lovely to look upon and on the grass near the gates children played.

It all seemed frighteningly wrong, as in a nightmare, that at Brzezinka the sun should ever shine or that there should be light and greenness and the sound of young laughter. It would be fitting if at Brzezinka the sun never shone and the grass withered, because this is a place of unutterable terror….

By now, 14 years after the last batch of prisoners was herded naked into the gas chambers by dogs and guards, the story of Auschwitz has been told a great many times. Some of the inmates have written of those memories of which sane men cannot conceive….

And so, there is no news to report about Auschwitz. There is merely the compulsion to write something about it, a compulsion that grows out of a restless feeling that to have visited Auschwitz and then turned away without having said or written anything would somehow be a most grievous act of discourtesy to those who died here….

For every visitor, there is one particular bit of horror that he knows he will never forget. For some it is seeing the rebuilt gas chamber at Oswiecim and being told that this is the “small one.” For others it is the fact that at Brzezinka, in the ruins of the gas chambers and the crematoria the Germans blew up when they retreated, there are daisies growing….

There is nothing new to report about Auschwitz. It was a sunny day and the trees were green and at the gates the children played.
It seems appropriate to cite from Rosenthal’s article today, since Yom ha-Shoah is tomorrow.

I found two articles from early September, 2001, both about the second intifada in Israel. The first one is from September 3, 2001, and is titled “Back to School on Two Sides of Mideast’s Dividing Line.” It’s about the first day of school in Israel/Palestine (which usually occurs on September 1). It begins –
One of the more familiar routines in any country, the first day of school, became another reason this weekend for Israelis and Palestinians to worry about the fate that each might endure at the hands of the other.

Barbara Ben-Ami could not shake her disquiet today as she dropped off her 6-year-old son, Boaz, at the Adam School on Emek Refaim, a lively – one could almost say trendy – street in Jerusalem. Boaz was starting the first grade, a milestone if ever there was one.

Naturally, mother and son were excited. But it was the start of the first school year since violence broke out 11 months ago, and that made it harder to keep dread from creeping in at the edges, Ms. Ben-Ami said….

Young as he is, Boaz sensed that things were out of kilter, his mother said. “Whenever something like that is on TV, you try to shut it off,” she said. “He does feel the tension.”

Not only that, the Ben-Amis live close enough to the action to hear the tank shell bursts and the machine-gun fire that have reverberated across the Jerusalem development of Gilo and the next-door West Bank town of Beit Jala. The boy is well aware that this is not how life is supposed to be, Ms. Ben Ami said.
The daughter of a good friend of mine goes to the Adam School, so I can picture the entrance of the school where she goes every school day. Now the level of tension has dropped a great deal, and it’s much safer to walk the streets of Jerusalem. Nonetheless, there’s still the fear that something could happen, as with the terrorist attack last month near the Central Bus Station. I feel very uneasy about the new reconciliation between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. Hamas has called for the PA to repudiate the agreements with the Israeli government and says that the new interim unity government that will be formed will engage in no negotiations with Israel. The PA has been working towards a declaration of Palestinian statehood in September, and if that occurs, and the General Assembly ratifies it, what will happen? There have been a number of alarming articles in Haaretz this week predicting the start of a new intifada in the fall as a result of the declaration of statehood. I certainly hope not!

The next article is from September 10, 2001 – just before the Al Qaeda attacks the next day (not that anyone knew they were going to occur, except for the attackers). It’s titled, “Israeli Arab’s Suicide Bomb Points to Enemy Within,” and it’s about a day of attacks on September 9. The article begins,
Israel suffered a jackhammer series of terrorist blows today that the police and senior government officials said included the first suicide bombing ever committed by an Arab who was one of its own citizens.

Violence flared on the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and in this surfside northern town [Nahariya], and even its toll of eight dead, including three implicated in the attacks, and scores wounded understated the psychological impact on a nation that had already begun waking up each morning wondering where the next bomb would go off, and who would deliver it.
The attack in Nahariya was at the train station – three people plus the bomber were killed, and 71 were injured.
The day’s killing started at about 8 a.m. in the West Bank, when shots were fired at a van carrying Israeli kindergarten teachers to work. One teacher and the driver were slain. Then, at about 10:30 a.m., the bomb exploded here, less than 10 miles from the border with Lebanon.

That bomb was followed a few hours later by an explosion in a car south of here, near Netanya. That explosion, apparently by a bomb made of mortar shells, killed the Palestinian driver, injuring three people and burning several vehicles.
I visited Israel in the summer of 2001 for a few weeks, staying in Jerusalem at the intersection of Emek Refaim Street and Pierre Koenig, in the southern part of the city. I remember hearing the gunfire from the vicinity of Gilo – Beit Jala: the loud booms of tank shells and the smaller sounds of shooting. It was frightening, and I was glad to go home to the United States where it was safe. Or so I thought.

Friday, April 29, 2011

US campaign for academic boycott of Israel

One of the things that is so distressing about the campaign for an academic boycott of Israel (U.S. Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel) is that people whom I respect are participating in it, and I simply don't understand how they can add their names to a campaign that denies academic freedom, and in particular denies the right of scholars of Jewish Studies to work with colleagues in Israeli universities. Israel is one of the world centers of Jewish Studies, and if the academic boycott succeeded in the United States, it would strike an enormous blow to it. It's for this reason that I call the campaign for the academic boycott antisemitic.

Scholars and writers whom I respect who have signed on include: Ammiel Alcalay (poet and scholar), Judith Butler (gender theorist, UC Berkeley), Marilyn Hacker (poet whose work I first encountered as quotes in the novel "Babel-17" by Samuel R. Delany), Barbara Ehrenreich (well-respected feminist and political author of among other books, "Nickel and Dimed"), and Adrienne Rich, a Jewish lesbian poet whose work I have loved for decades. I feel betrayed by them - however bitter their criticisms of Israel, is it necessary to be part of a movement that is contrary to all of the academic values that we claim to hold dear?

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Holocaust as "educational experience"

Howard Jacobson: Ludicrous, brainwashed prejudice
Myself, I wouldn't bet heavily on there being good times ahead for Jews. Anti-Zionists can assure me all they like that their position entails no harm to Jews – only witness how many Jews are themselves anti-Zionist, they say – I no longer believe them. Individually, it is of course possible to care little for Israel and to care a great deal for Jews. But in the movement of events individuals lose their voice. What carries the day is consensus, and consensus is of necessity unsubtle. By brute consensus, now, Israel is the proof that Jews did not adequately learn the lesson of the Holocaust.
Forget Holocaust denial. Holocaust denial is old hat. The new strategy – it showed its hand in Caryl Churchill's Seven Jewish Children, and surfaced again in Channel 4's recent series The Promise – is to depict the Holocaust in all its horror in order that Jews can be charged ("You, of all people") with failing to live up to it. By this logic the Holocaust becomes an educational experience from which Jews were ethically obliged to graduate summa cum laude, Israel being the proof that they didn't. "Jews know more than anyone that killing civilians is wrong," resounds an unmistakably authorial voice in The Promise. Thus are Jews doubly damned: to the Holocaust itself and to the moral wasteland of having found no humanising redemption in its horrors.
Read the whole thing.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Syria News

Absurdly - Despite Reports of Brutality Toward Civilians, Syria to Join U.N.'s Human Rights Council.
The brutal crackdown by Syrian President Bashar Assad may finally be getting the attention of world leaders - but apparently not enough to stop Syria from becoming the newest member of the U.N. Human Rights Council.

And despite calling for an independent investigation into the crackdown, which has left hundreds dead, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon apparently won’t do much about blocking Syria’s path to the human rights group.
Another absurdity: Hugo Chavez has come out in favor of another dictator - Bashar al-Assad.
On Monday, President Chavez expressed his support for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, blaming "terrorists" for the protests in the town of Deraa.

The protests have been met with deadly force by the Syrian security forces.

Syrian human rights organisation Sawasiah says more than 400 civilians have been shot dead in the government's campaign to crush the month-long pro-democracy protests.

Bur Mr Chavez accused the international media of jumping to conclusions.

"Terrorists are being infiltrated into Syria and producing violence and death -- and once again, the guilty one is the president, without anyone investigating anything," the Venezuelan president said.
Sources of information on Syria

Syrian Revolution Digest of Ammar Abdulhamid, a "liberal democracy activist" who has been forced into exile from Syria.

Syria Comment, by Joshua Landis, Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

The Syrian Days of Rage, on Facebook. Written by free Syria activists outside the country.

Syria Unrest on Al Jazeera English. (I'd like to insert here that though I've found their coverage of the Arab revolutions very informative, and their straight news on Israel seems reliable, I get tired of their one-note editorial stance on Israel/Palestine).

New York Times - Lede blog has had a lot of great coverage on the Arab revolts in general, and is also covering Syria.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Earth Day, 2011

This year for Earth Day (which was on Friday), NASA posted some wonderful photos of the earth from space, some from the international space station, others from satellites. Here are some I found the most interesting.

Morenci open-pit copper mine in Arizona

Smoke rising from the destroyed World Trade Center in New York City on 9/11/01

Earthrise from the Moon

Antarctica and southern Africa

Earth and Moon together from the Galileo spacecraft from about 3.9 million miles away

Mount Everest from the space station

Mayon volcano, Phillipines

Siberia's Lena Delta

Three storms in the Atlantic

Nile Delta at night - notice that all the lights are along the delta and the Nile, not elsewhere in Egypt

Saturday, April 09, 2011


I'm tired of politics, it's time for some cat pictures. The orange cat is Zachary, and the grey, black, and white one is Winkle.


Small plane flying above
5 Nisan - five days since the new moon.
A jet rushing to the east.

Winkle peering between the fence boards.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Antisemitic call for boycott of Hebrew University by McGill University student newspaper

I just came across an editorial in the student newspaper of McGill University in Montreal, Canada, calling for the university to cut its ties with the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. It was just published, on March 28, 2011. The editorial finds problematic a new partnership with Hebrew University in several areas: epigenetics, human rights, international business, and food safety and water management.

How could these areas of cooperation possibly be problematic, especially human rights? According to the editorial, the problem is that the program doesn't mention the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Israeli restrictions on Palestinian movement there, and the head of the Minerva Center for Human Rights at Hebrew University wrote an article in support of the security wall.

The Minerva Center is hosted at the law faculty of the Hebrew University, but their website hasn't been developed yet. It does, however, list two upcoming programs in November of 2011. The first conference, to be held on November 13-15, 2011 is on the "Potential Role of Transitional Justice in Active Conflicts." The second one, to be held on November 27-29, 2011 is a conference on "New Technologies, Old Law: Applying International Humanitarian Law in a New Technological Age." It is cosponsored with the International Committee of the Red Cross Delegation in Israel and the Occupied Territories, and one member of the conference academic committee is Mr. Charles Shamas, of the Mattin Group, Ramallah. Apparently the ICRC has decided that it's worth engaging with the human rights center at the Hebrew University, despite the fact that Israel still occupies the West Bank. Both conferences sound really interesting and the person who wrote the Daily McGill editorial could benefit from going to both of them to learn what academic research on human rights really consists of.

The editorial also condemns the Hebrew University because it has "expanded on occupied land in East Jerusalem and provided scholarships for those who participated in Operation Defensive Shield during the Second Intifada in 2002." Well, the first Hebrew University campus, on Mt. Scopus, existed before the establishment of Israel as a state. The cornerstone was laid on 1918, and the university campus was opened on 1925. At that time there was no "East Jerusalem" in the sense that people use the term today. All of the area of Jerusalem and the rest of Palestine was administered by the British Empire for the mandate of Palestine. During the 1948 war, the Mt. Scopus campus was cut off from the rest of Jewish Jerusalem and remained so until 1967. The Hebrew University had to build a new campus at Givat Ram in the center of what became West Jerusalem, near the Knesset and other government buildings. After 1967, the university returned to the Mt. Scopus campus and scores of new buildings were erected.

As for providing scholarships for those who fought in Defensive Shield against the Second Intifada - the Daily McGill editorial ignores why Israel fought Defensive Shield in the first place. This was the Israeli campaign to retake the cities of the West Bank, occasioned by the murderous rampage of suicide bombers in Israeli cities at the height of the Second Intifada. It began on March 29, 2002, after the Passover massacre in Netanya on March 27.

According to the Wikipedia article on Palestinian suicide bombings in Israel, there were 5 bombings in 2000 (all after the outbreak of the Second Intifada in September, 2000), 41 in 2001, 46 in 2002 (including the Passover massacre in Netanya on March 27, which killed 30 people, and the massacre of 9 people at the Hebrew University itself on July 31, 2002 - I knew one of the victims, Ben Blutstein), 24 bombings in 2003, 19 bombings in 2004, 9 bombings in 2005, 3 bombings in 2006, 1 in 2007, and 2 in 2008. In 2002, the worst year, 237 were killed in suicide bombings, and in 2003, 146 were killed.

The editorial also says that the presence of an IDF base on the Givat Ram campus is an additional reason to boycott Hebrew University. I have never heard this before and have trouble believing it is true. I studied at the Hebrew University's Rothberg School in the 1987-1989 academic years, had a Fulbright Fellowship at the Hebrew University in the 1992-1993 academic year, and held a Lady Davis fellowship in the 1998-1999 academic year. Throughout the 2000s, I have visited Israel almost every year and have done research at the National Library, which is housed at the Givat Ram campus. In all that time, no one has ever mentioned to me the existence of an army base on the campus. I have many Israeli friends who have served in the IDF or whose children have done so, and none have mentioned this supposed base.

In my opinion, this call to break ties with the Hebrew University is also antisemitic, in effect if not in intent. The Hebrew University is one of the world's centers of Jewish Studies. Every four years the World Congress of Jewish Studies is held at the Mt. Scopus campus. Jewish Studies scholars at McGill (and other colleges and universities around the world) cooperate with members of the various faculties of the Hebrew University on a constant basis. Calls for colleges and universities to break ties with Israeli universities are always antisemitic, because they attack this crucial academic link among Jewish Studies scholars.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Terry Jones and moral responsibility for murder

Via Terry Glavin, a very interesting analysis of the murders in Mazar-i-Sharif and Kandahar, discussing the manipulation of religious sentiment both among Muslims and Christians, as well as the tangled and very sad situation in Afghanistan is one source of Afghans' anger - The Dead of Mazar.
It sounds like chaos theory: a fringe extremist religious leader in the Florida boondocks holds a trial of the Quran for its role in inspiring the 9/11, condemns it to death and has someone else execute it by burning – and on the other side of the world, angry Muslims, possibly incited by sermons of hatred, storm a ‘foreigners’ compound and (in the words of the UN spokesman on BBC TV last night) ‘hunt down’ and kill seven of them....

And – since Pastor Jones’ provocation if not deemed to directly inciting violence seems to be protected by the First Amendment(**), we still hope that, despite his public denials, his dreams will be visited by the pictures of the slain of Mazar and, after today, Kandahar.
These are the first and last paragraphs - it's well worth reading the whole article.

Hatred begets murder

What is one to think? I sometimes just despair about the utter evil that people engage in, carelessly inciting hatred against each other and wreaking havoc upon the innocent. So-called pastor Terry Jones put the Qur'an on trial on March 20 at his church in Florida. It was defended by an imam from Dallas (I feel sorry for that man!). The certainly not-impartial jury of his church declared the Qur'an guilty, and decided that the punishment was burning. The whole event was video-taped and can be viewed on the internet. (Search for the video yourself, I don't want to link to it).
On the video, a pastor named Wayne Sapp is seen igniting a kerosene-drenched copy of the Koran with a plastic lighter. Members of the church watch the book burn for several minutes while several photographers snap pictures. Finally, Mr. Jones says, “That actually burned quite well.”
How vile.

I am irresistibly reminded of the medieval disputations that Jews were forced to engage in, defending Judaism and its holy books from Christian accusers (often Jews who had converted to Christianity; the accuser of the Qur'an in Florida was a Muslim who had converted to Christianity). The Talmud was tried and found guilty in Paris in 1240, and then burned in 1242 and 1244. It was also burned in Italy in 1553 (see The Jew in the Medieval World, pages 163-169 and 191-193).

12 people working for the UN were killed by a mob today in Afghanistan in response to the burning of the Qur'an. The UN workers were people who were working for the rebuilding of Afghanistan, who came to create and not to destroy. The mob attack began because three mullahs at the Blue Mosque in Mazar-i-Sharif "urged people to take to the streets to agitate for the arrest of Terry Jones, the Florida pastor who oversaw the burning of a Koran on March 20. Otherwise, said the most prominent of them, Mullah Mohammed Shah Adeli, Afghanistan should cut off relations with the United States. 'Burning the Koran is an insult to Islam, and those who committed it should be punished,' he said." The mob hunted for Americans to attack, but not finding any, went to the UN compound and attacked it.

Terry Jones, the so-called minister, reacted in this way:
Mr. Jones said in an interview with Agence France-Presse on Friday that he was “devastated” by the killings of 12 people in a violent protest in Afghanistan when a mob, enraged by the burning of a Koran by Mr. Jones’s church, attacked the United Nations compound in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif. “We don’t feel responsible for that,” he told the news service.
I know that the First Amendment precludes arresting Jones, but I feel that he is morally responsible for the killings in Mazar-i-Sharif, along with the three mullahs who incited the mob and the people who actually did the killing.

Jones pretends to be a minister of the Gospel - the same Gospel that teaches Christians, in the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (5:44-45): "But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous." He also says (5:39): "But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also."

Instead of doing what Jesus commanded his followers, "Mr. Jones demanded that the United States and United Nations take 'immediate action' against Muslim nations in retaliation for the deaths. 'The time has come to hold Islam accountable,' he said."

I'm not a Christian, but I can imagine how they feel when they see how Jones has twisted the Gospel he pretends to believe in and uses it to incite hatred and violence. I know how I feel when other Jews use Judaism to incite and justify hatred and violence against Palestinians - shame, and anger that my religion has been hijacked to bring more evil and violence into a world that is simply reeling with it. May God have mercy upon all of us, the righteous and the unrighteous together.

Update, Saturday morning, April 2

Apparently there were other people involved in the incitement to murder. Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan who to me seems increasingly like he's making a play for Taliban support, spoke publicly about the Qur'an burning last Thursday.  
The latest demonstrations were sparked by sermons at Friday Prayer this week over the Koran burning. A week earlier, Friday Prayer had not provoked such reactions, even though the Koran burning had already taken place.

Both Afghan and international news media had initially played down or ignored the action of Mr. Jones, the Florida pastor. This Thursday, however, President Hamid Karzai made a speech and issued statements condemning the Koran burning and calling for the arrest of Mr. Jones for his actions. On Friday that theme was picked up in mosques throughout Afghanistan.

There is no provision in American law for arresting anyone for burning a Koran, or for that matter a Bible, which the courts would consider protected free speech.

“Karzai brought this issue back to life, and he has to take some responsibility for starting this up,” said a prominent Afghan businessman, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of concern over retribution if he was publicly critical of the president. “Karzai’s speech itself provoked people to take such actions,” said Qayum Baabak, a political analyst in Mazar-i-Sarif. “Karzai should have called on people to be patient rather than making people more angry.”
There were also riots in Kandahar today, where nine people were killed. Rioters rampaged through the streets, and seem there to have been directly led by the Taliban. "Zalmai Ayoubi, spokesman for the provincial governor, said the rioters attacked the Zarghona Ana High School for Girls, burning some classrooms and a school bus. The school is supported by the United States Agency for International Development. The Taliban have opposed girls’ education."

Mark Potok writes in the Hatewatch blog:
And, ultimately, responsibility for this atrocity obviously rests mainly with the murderers who committed it and those who encouraged them to act in  response to Jones’ provocation. But as barbaric as the crowds were, it’s hard to avoid assigning a great deal of the blame to Jones, even though his despicable actions are protected under the First Amendment.