Sunday, June 30, 2013

Anti-Morsi demonstrations in Cairo tonight

Amazing pictures from Cairo tonight of the anti-Morsi demonstrations:
In front of the presidential palace
Evening prayer among the anti-Morsi demonstrators in Tahrir Square
The poster says: "The Brotherhood are Arab Zionists and American clients."

How do people convince themselves that the Muslim Brotherhood, which calls for the destruction of Israel, are Arab Zionists?! Or is this just a code - the word "Zionists" just means "total evil," so it's what you call your bitterest enemy?

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

DOMA is dead!

The Supreme Court just struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, passed in 1996 and signed by Bill Clinton.

From the New York Times:
The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that a 1996 law denying federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples is unconstitutional, in a sign of how rapidly the national debate over gay rights has shifted. 
The decision was five to four, with Justice Anthony M. Kennedy writing the majority opinion, which the four liberal-leaning justices joined. (Read the decision.) 
“The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity,” Justice Kennedy wrote. “By seeking to displace this protection and treating those persons as living in marriages less respected than others.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts was in the minority, as were Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito. 
The ruling overturned the Defense of Marriage Act, which passed with bipartisan support and President Bill Clinton signed.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Ken Loach and the Jerusalem International Film Festival

When I was perusing the site of the Jerusalem International Film Festival, which is starting next Thursday (July 4) and ending on July 13, I noticed that a film by Ken Loach, the British director, will be screened: "The Spirit of '45." It will be shown twice, on July 11 at 4 pm and on July 12 at 8 pm. I was quite surprised to notice that his film will be screened at the festival, since he has signed on to the international boycott campaign against Israel. In 2006, he wrote, in a statement published on the Electronic Intifada website: 
I support the call by Palestinian film-makers, artists and others to boycott state sponsored Israeli cultural institutions and urge others to join their campaign. 
Palestinians are driven to call for this boycott after forty years of the occupation of their land, destruction of their homes and the kidnapping and murder of their civilians.
They have no immediate hope that this oppression will end. 
As British citizens we have to acknowledge our own responsibility. We must condemn the British and US governments for supporting and arming Israel. We must also oppose the terrorist activities of the British and US governments in pursuing their illegal wars and occupations. 
However, it is impossible to ignore the appeals of Palestinian comrades. 
Consequently, I would decline any invitation to the Haifa Film Festival or other such occasions. 
Best Wishes, 
Ken Loach
In 2009, he withdrew a film of his from the Melbourne international film festival, "following our discovery that the festival was part-sponsored by the Israeli state." He wrote (together with the producer and screenwriter of the film): "We feel duty bound to take advice from those living at the sharp end inside the occupied territories. We would also encourage other filmmakers and actors invited to festivals to check for Israeli state backing before attending, and if so, to respect the boycott. Israeli filmmakers are not the target. State involvement is."

I wonder if he is aware that his film is scheduled to be shown in a couple of weeks in the Jerusalem International Film Festival? The festival is certainly sponsored by the Israeli state, in the sense that it is partially state funded. One year when I went to the opening film, the surprise guest of honor was Shimon Peres, the president of Israel.

Or is it possible that he has changed his mind and decided that the BDS movement is a waste of energy and that it will never change Israeli policy? One can only hope.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Trains, No Trains, and Trains Again - in Jerusalem

I'm staying in a neighborhood in Jerusalem called "Katamon" (the name is Arabic, but it comes from Greek, and means "below the monastery" - the monastery in question is on the hill at the top of a close neighborhood called San Simon). During the Ottoman period, in the late 19th century, the rail track was laid between Jaffa, on the coast, and Jerusalem, with the final station being on Emek Refaim St., and the line was officially inaugurated in September 1892. In 1920 the entire line was rebuilt by the British army. The last train on the line ran in 1998. When I was living in Israel from 1987-89, and then again in 1992-93, I used to hear the train pass by every day, and it was a comforting sound - I like hearing the train whistle. The train was re-opened in 2005, but the final stop in Jerusalem was no longer on Hebron Road, but in Malcha, in the southern part of the city.

So what to do with the old rail line? One proposal was to pave it over and create yet another big highway crossing through Jerusalem - something which would have divided a number of neighborhoods in half (the Katamonim, Baka, and the German Colony). The mayor of Jerusalem, Uri Lupolianski, was determined to build this highway, but he was turned out of office in 2008 by Nir Barakat, who agreed with neighborhood activists in the Katamonim that the rail line should be turned into a rail park. The rail park was finished earlier this year and it's a very nice place to take a walk, ride a bicycle, hang out with the kids, jog, and meet your neighbors from the surrounding neighborhoods.

A view from the Rail Trail looking south. I'm not sure what the hills in the distance are.
On the rail trail parallel to Emek Refaim.
Flowers along the path.
Jerusalem now has another train - the light rail, which was inaugurated in the fall of 2011. The route goes from Mt. Herzl in the western part of the city, to the center of the city on Jaffa Road, and all the way north to Shuafat, Beit Hanina, and Pisgat Zeev. Shuafat and Beit Hanina are Arab neighborhoods in the northeast and Pisgat Zeev is a Jewish neighborhood built since 1967 (actually, I've read that it's not entirely Jewish now, because east Jerusalem Palestinians have been moving in to some apartments there). The light rail crosses over the Green Line - the ceasefire lines from the 1948 war that determined the border between Israeli-controlled west Jerusalem and Jordanian-controlled east Jerusalem for 19 years. I haven't been all the way on the light rail but a few days ago I took it from Givat ha-Mivtar, not far from the Hebrew University at Mt. Scopus, to the big intersection of Jaffa St. and King George St. The next two photos are of people on the light rail.

The next photo is of Jaffa Road with the light rail in the distance coming from the Old City.

The photo below is of the intersection of Jaffa Road and King George. Notice the graphical sign for the light rail on the pole above the traffic light.

King George Street is named for King George V, who was the British monarch in 1924 when the street was dedicated. Below is the dedicatory plaque.

Herbert Samuel was the first British High Commissioner for Palestine - he was Jewish; under him was Ronald Storrs, a Christian and British official, who among other things decreed that all buildings in Jerusalem should be faced with Jerusalem stone; and under him was the mayor, a Muslim, Ragheb El Nashashibi, from one of the old Jerusalem Palestinian families who had been officials under the Ottomans for a couple of a centuries (other families were the Dajanis, the Husseinis, and the Khalidis). This seeming portrait of interfaith and communal harmony was not true then and is certainly not true now, even though everyone takes the light rail through the city.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Buddhists, Myanmar, Incitement to Murder, and Responsibility for one's own actions

There are times when I despair of the intelligence of human beings, even those who comment on New York Times articles! The article Extremism Rises Among Myanmar Buddhists Wary of Muslim Minority is about a Buddhist monk named Ashin Wirathu who gives wild, inciting speeches against the Muslims of Myanmar.
“You can be full of kindness and love, but you cannot sleep next to a mad dog,” Ashin Wirathu said, referring to Muslims. “I call them troublemakers, because they are troublemakers,” Ashin Wirathu told a reporter after his two-hour sermon. “I am proud to be called a radical Buddhist.”
In Myanmar in the last year, "images of rampaging Burmese Buddhists carrying swords and the vituperative sermons of monks like Ashin Wirathu have underlined the rise of extreme Buddhism in Myanmar — and revealed a darker side of the country’s greater freedoms after decades of military rule. Buddhist lynch mobs have killed more than 200 Muslims and forced more than 150,000 people, mostly Muslims, from their homes."
What began last year on the fringes of Burmese society has grown into a nationwide movement whose agenda now includes boycotts of Muslim-made goods. Its message is spreading through regular sermons across the country that draw thousands of people and through widely distributed DVDs of those talks. Buddhist monasteries associated with the movement are also opening community centers and a Sunday school program for 60,000 Buddhist children nationwide.

In [Ashin Wirathu's] recent sermon, he described the reported massacre of schoolchildren and other Muslim inhabitants in the central city of Meiktila in March, documented by a human rights group, as a show of strength.

“If we are weak,” he said, “our land will become Muslim.”

Buddhism would seem to have a secure place in Myanmar. Nine in 10 people are Buddhist, as are nearly all the top leaders in the business world, the government, the military and the police. Estimates of the Muslim minority range from 4 percent to 8 percent of Myanmar’s roughly 55 million people while the rest are mostly Christian or Hindu.....

Ashin Sanda Wara, the head of a monastic school in Yangon, says the monks in the country are divided nearly equally between moderates and extremists. He considers himself in the moderate camp. But as a measure of the deeply ingrained suspicions toward Muslims in the society, he said he was “afraid of Muslims because their population is increasing so rapidly.”

Ashin Wirathu has tapped into that anxiety, which some describe as the “demographic pressures” coming from neighboring Bangladesh. There is wide disdain in Myanmar for a group of about one million stateless Muslims, who call themselves Rohingya, some of whom migrated from Bangladesh. Clashes between the Rohingya and Buddhists last year in western Myanmar roiled the Buddhist community and appear to have played a role in later outbreaks of violence throughout the country. Ashin Wirathu said they served as his inspiration to spread his teachings.

The theme song to Ashin Wirathu’s movement speaks of people who “live in our land, drink our water, and are ungrateful to us.”

“We will build a fence with our bones if necessary,” runs the song’s refrain. Muslims are not explicitly mentioned in the song but Ashin Wirathu said the lyrics refer to them. Pamphlets handed out at his sermon demonizing Muslims said that “Myanmar is currently facing a most dangerous and fearful poison that is severe enough to eradicate all civilization.”.... 
Stickers with the movement’s logo are now ubiquitous nationwide on cars, motorcycles and shops. The movement has also begun a signature campaign calling for a ban on interfaith marriages, and pamphlets are distributed at sermons listing brands and shops to be avoided. 
When I read this story, I was struck by several similarities to events that in the past have led to genocide against ethnic groups who are defined as "other" and then dehumanized. Here we have a charismatic leader preaching against Muslims, calling them "mad dogs." He calls them "a most dangerous and fearful poison." He exaggerates the number of Muslims in the country, even though they are a small minority. He is leading a movement that calls for boycotts of Muslim-made goods and for banning interreligious marriages. He is rapidly creating schools and community centers that spread his message of hatred towards Muslims. Fortunately, he is not the only voice in Myanmar - there are people, including other leaders of Buddhist monks, who are speaking out against him. But the central government is not working very vigorously to suppress attacks against Muslims, and in many of these attacks, riot police stood and watched attacks upon Muslims.

When I read the comments to this story in the Times, I hoped for reasoned, rational discussion, condemnation of violence against innocent people, speculation on why this is happening now in Myanmar.

But no. Very few people in the comments to this article wrote rational, peaceful responses.

There were some Buddhists who wrote that this behavior is not supported by the teachings of the Buddha:
It is difficult at any time to talk about "true" Buddhism or what is and isn't Buddhist practice. As a Buddhist I have always been careful to not criticize other Buddhist groups, but, in this case, this is not Buddhist. I can only believe the Buddhists of Burma who are spreading hate have lost their way. There is nothing in Buddhism to justify what is occurring in Burma. Though we typically avoid labels of good and bad we must also call actions which are harmful as evil even if it is only a creation of the mind. Injustice and hate must not be tolerated even from supposed fellow Buddhists.
I understand the impulse behind a comment like this - those of us who find a particular religion spiritually uplifting and enriching, and who experience it as teaching us how to behave better towards other people, find it very difficult to imagine how people who also belong to our religion can engage in acts of violence and hatred in the name of that religion, which leads to us declaring certain people as "not Buddhist" or "not Jewish" or "not Muslim." I don't think we should say that, however, because it's an evasion of responsibility. As a Jew, can I honestly say that there is nothing in Judaism that could serve as a resource for people who wish to hate and murder? No, I cannot. Simply reading the book of Joshua shows that a devotion to the God of Israel can lead to killing the "other." Fortunately, the rabbis of the Talmud did not take the book of Joshua as an exemplar for how Jews should act in the future.

Then there were quite a few people who wrote that, somehow, the fact that Muslims in other countries are violent to non-Muslims, or oppress non-Muslims, justifies violence and murder against the Muslims who live in Myanmar. One of them wrote:
Hatred is a bad thing, clearly. But recent history and current events also show us that control of affairs by Muslims is to be avoided; there are simply too many extremists in those ranks, hostile to women, hostile to peace, hostile to what we know as basic civilized society. Therefore, I would agree that resisting Muslim influence in one's home affairs is understandable.
When challenged, this writer responded:
....I am AGAINST extremism and violence. But I am not against being hostile to a negative force. It is not politically correct to say this, perhaps, but there is something innately wrong and violent in the current make-up of the Islamic religion. Everyone knows this. There is a pure stream of goodness in every religion, but that stream is running pretty narrow in Islam right now, globally speaking.
She may think that she's against extremism and violence, but she's actually justifying it, when it is done against Muslims.

Another commenter wrote:
These Buddhists are treating their Muslim minority exactly the same way Muslims treat religious minorities everywhere they hold sway. Hardly surprising, and extremely difficult to get outraged about.
This is the argument that really gets to me. Does the oppression of non-Muslims in countries like Saudi Arabia (which does not allow the public expression of any religion except for Islam, which oppresses the Shi'ite minority, etc.) justify killing Muslims in an entirely different country who are not guilty of any of the things that the Saudis are doing? What happened to the idea that people should be held responsible for the things they themselves have done, not for things that other people who share one characteristic with them (in this case religion) have done? I'm sure that the people who write these comments would be outraged by the biblical command that someone who has committed a crime should be punished in the same way he or she has injured the other person (the lex talionis, or eye for an eye). But "eye for an eye" punishment at least has the virtue of punishing the person who committed the crime, and not other people who are related in some way to the offender.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Jerusalem Light Festival

This is the time of the year when the city of Jerusalem puts on a plethora of public events. Just ending this week was the Jerusalem Light Festival - light installations installed throughout the Old City. On Thursday night I went to the festival with a friend and we saw some pretty interesting images.

This photo is of the beginning of one of the routes (which we didn't follow) - the Hebrew reads "The Ghosts' Quarter" (in imitation of the names of the quarters in the Old City - e.g., the Jewish Quarter, or the Armenian Quarter).

This was a display at the end of the road that runs through the Armenian Quarter.

This was a giant, lit-up, sculpture of a woman, close to Zion Gate.

The next few photos were of an installation on the inside of the wall surrounding the Old City, close to the parking lot in the Jewish Quarter. The letters are in Hebrew and Arabic, both spelling out the word "light" in their respective languages - or in Hebrew and nur in Arabic.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

I'm going to Israel!

I'm going to Israel on Tuesday, and will be there until August 5, working on finishing my book, Angels' Tongues and Witches' Curses: Jewish Women and Ritual Power in Late Antiquity. When I was in Israel last year I wrote most of it, and now I have to finish chapter 5 and write the introductory chapter. I'll be staying in Jerusalem and spending most of my work time in the National Library. If any of my academic readers will be in Israel for the summer, please look me up.