Ph.D. Octopus

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Archive for the ‘Middle East’ Category

In Defense of Thomas Friedman (Sort Of)

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by David

Some guy named Hamilton Nolan has an article on Gawker mocking Thomas Friedman’s latest column. How wonderfully clever and original! I’ve never seen that before, except when McSweeney’s did a far more impressive Mad Libs version titled “Create Your Own Thomas Friedman Op-Ed Column.” Friedman-bashing runs rampant through the left-wing media. You can even find this classy and sophisticated piece by Matt Taibbi that makes fun of Friedman’s mustache!

In 2012, however, the only thing more trite and repetitive than a Thomas Friedman column are pieces that point out how trite and repetitive Thomas Friedman’s columns are.

Look, I’m not going to argue for Friedman’s greatness here: many, perhaps even most of his columns are as banal as the critics say. Supporting the war on Iraq remains his (and my) greatest political blunder, for which there can be no apology.

Nonetheless, I won’t follow the herd and hate on Friedman. On Israel-Palestine, the only topic on which he is a true expert, he usually has interesting things to say. The chapter “Hama Rules” in From Beirut to Jerusalem, which I was assigned as an undergraduate, remains remarkably prescient in its criticism of Ariel Sharon and Anwar Sadat.

Also, in 2002, in a column titled “The Core of Muslim Rage,” Friedman made a simple but powerful argument. Basically, he noted that the Arab/Muslim world goes apeshit (I can curse like Taibbi too!) when Jews kill Muslims but doesn’t give a rats ass when Hindus/Christians/Muslims do the same thing on a much larger scale. As he wrote:

When Hindus kill Muslims it’s not a story, because there are a billion Hindus and they aren’t part of the Muslim narrative. When Saddam murders his own people it’s not a story, because it’s in the Arab-Muslim family. But when a small band of Israeli Jews kills Muslims it sparks rage — a rage that must come from Muslims having to confront the gap between their self-perception as Muslims and the reality of the Muslim world.

There are many reasons for Arab-Muslim antipathy to America and Israel: the poverty and misinformation endemic to parts of the Arab-Muslim world, as well as the daily violence and oppression perpetuated by Americans and Israelis on Arabs and Muslims are prominent among them. But to me, the most important reason is the “poverty of dignity” that Friedman identifies. Muslims imagine themselves in possession of the one true faith, yet they haven’t won a major victory with the West since the Ottoman Turks took Constantinople in 1453.

We even see the legacy of this bitterness in the Arab Spring today. The Islamists seek a restoration Sharia law to restore Muslim dignity. Similarly, the secular segments of the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt and elsewhere are revolting against a once mighty civilization that has fallen frighteningly behind much of the world. Friedman understands this, which is why when he writes about the Middle East, I will always read, even if I don’t always (or even often) agree.

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Written by David Weinfeld

June 25, 2012 at 16:51

Posted in journalism, Middle East

The Best Journalist on Israel-Palestine: Khaled Abu Toameh

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by David

Khaled Abu Toameh

In light of the discussion generated my last post on the Harvard conference on a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (on this blog and my Facebook page), I decided to write a very short post about the person who I think is the best journalist and best source on Israel/Palestine: the Palestinian-Israeli Khaled Abu Toameh. I saw him speak in Israel back in early 2006, I was impressed when someone asked him about the peace process and he replied: “Peace process? What peace process?” I’ve tried to follow his work ever since, and though I followed it much more closely a few years ago than I do now, it’s still more relevant than ever.

As his Wikipedia page notes, Toameh was born in Tulkarem, in the West Bank, but grew up in an Arab village in Israel proper. He is an Arab Muslim, of Palestinian ethnicity, with Israeli citizenship. He calls himself an “Israeli-Arab-Muslim-Palestinian.” He became controversial writing for the right-wing Zionist paper The Jerusalem Post, who seemed to love him because he was hyper-critical of the ultra-corrupt Palestinian Authority, even more so than he was of Hamas. Toameh was and is a vital source for the conflict between the PA and Hamas, which has occasionally turned into a civil war involving violence, atrocities, and torture on both sides. Many in the PA hate and even think of him as a traitor, but he is extremely effective at talking to high level officials and getting a sense of the Palestinian street.

Here is a list with some links to his most recent pieces.

Though he is clearly cynical, and no supporter of right-wing Israeli governments, Toameh seems to endorse a two-state solution and appreciates his Israeli citizenship. Some quotes from his Wikipedia page:

On his vision of peace:

If there is a Jew who would like to live in Palestine he is welcome, and if there is an Arab who would like to live in Israel he is also welcome. In an ideal situation, peace means that people can live wherever they want. (2010)

On living in Israel:

Israel is a wonderful place to live and we are happy to be there. Israel is a free and open country. If I were given the choice, I would rather live in Israel as a second class citizen than as a first class citizen in Cairo, Gaza, Amman or Ramallah. (2009)

On Arabs in the Israeli Knesset using the term “apartheid” to describe Israel while in South Africa:

And then they come here to tell us that Israel is a state of apartheid? Excuse me. What kind of hypocrisy is this? What then are you doing in the Knesset? If you are living in an apartheid system, why were you allowed, as an Arab, to run in the election? What are you talking about? We do have problems as Arabs with the establishment here. But to come and say that Israel is an apartheid state is a big exaggeration. I am not here to defend Israel, but I think that Knesset members like this gentleman are doing huge damage to the cause of Israeli Arabs. I want to see the Knesset member sitting in the Knesset, in Jerusalem, and fighting for the rights of Arabs over there.

Obviously Toameh is not the be all and end all of truth regarding the conflict. But he is provocative and provides novel insight and information and is essential reading for anyone concerned with the region.

Written by David Weinfeld

March 4, 2012 at 14:37

Syria and the Star Trek Universe

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by David

Forces of the Syrian Uprising Reach the Edge of Damascus

What the hell is going on in Syria?

The short version is that in the early 1990s Bashar al-Assad left his cushy opthalmology gig in England to return home to the Syrian army and ultimately succeed his dad as divinely appointed monarch dictator. And he’s been a pretty brutal dictator ever since, ruling as the Ba’athist leader and part of the Alawite minority (a Shi’a sect) that dominates the military class in a majority Sunni country.

Bashar al-Assad would make a good Romulan

So he ran what was essentially a police state, but things weren’t really so bad until a bunch of the other Arab nations decided that the good ol’fashioned decades long dictator model may not be the best way to go. But whereas leaders of Tunisia and Egypt fell quickly and relatively non-violently, in Libya, as we know, it took an armed struggle to oust Ghaddafi, and in Syria, well, they’re still fighting it out. The uprising against Assad has turned very violent, the military is involved in a brutal repression of the movement, killing thousands over the past several months. What is the world to do?

For some intelligent and realistic answers, you can watch this video of Karam Nachar (a Ph.D. Candidate at Princeton in history!) on MSNBC’s Up With Chris Hayes. Nachar thinks that while at first the Syrian opposition seemed to want to go it alone, now they want outside intervention, not just in terms of sanctions, but a “credible military threat.” The Arab League admirably initiated a UN resolution called for Assad’s peaceful ouster and a transition to a new government, and the resolution would have passed but not for China and Russia’s vetos. And so we’re at an impasse. Nachar thinks that we should follow the “Korean precedent” of the early 1950s, and set up a “Friends of Syria” coalition, led by Nicolas Sarkozy of France, and any intervention should be carried out by the Arab League and Turkey at the helm. The idea of course, seems to be that only other (non-Iranian) Muslim nations should get involved in this Syrian Arab-on-Arab violence.

Maybe that’s what will happen. But let’s do a little what if. Recall one of the more interesting episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, from season 3 back in 1990, called “Yesterday’s Enterprise.” In that episode, the Enterprise we know and love, NCC-1701-D, encounters a space-time rift (as one does). Out of the rift emerges the previous Enterprise, NCC-1701-C, which had been en route to answer a distress call from a Klingon outpost under attack by Romulan Warbirds (Romulans!). In the original timeline, the Enterprise-C intercepted the Romulan Warbirds but was destroyed in battle, along with the Klingon outpost. The Klingons, however, being an honour-bound race, appreciated Starfleet’s rescue effort so much this led to a peace agreement between the Klingon Empire and the Federation. But… because of the space-time rift, the Enterprise-C no longer made it to its destination, and thus there was no Federation attempt to assist the Klingons, and no peace treaty. As a result, the normally peaceful exploration vessel became a Starfleet battleship, and the Federation was engaged in a life and death struggle with the Klingons Empire, which in fact they were on the verge of losing (in this new time-line). In the end, Captain Picard agrees to help send the Enterprise-C back through the space-time  rift to the past (along with security chief Tasha Yar, but that info isn’t relevant to this post) to complete their rescue attempt, even though that means certain death for all their crew, because it will prevent the war between the Federation and the Klingons. And that’s what happens (Mission Accomplished!). The original timeline is restored, and the Enterprise-D can go back to seeking out new life and new civilizations and boldly going where no one has gone before.

USS Enterprise NCC-1701-C Emerging from the Space-Time Rift

You got that? Good. So how does this relate to Syria?

Well, in Nachar’s real word, an Arab/Turkish coalition, with international backing, would intervene against Assad’s Baathist regime in support of the Syrian rebels. That makes sense. But in my Star Trek fantasy version, Israel would do the intervening. That’s right: the Israeli Defense Forces would assist the Syrian rebels against Assad. Heck, they might even engage in some conventional warfare with the Syrian army and kick some ass like they did in 1967. They’d succeed in removing Assad from power. And the honour-bound Arab League would be so impressed that that they would agree to a peace agreement with Israel provided that Israel withdrew from the Sheba Farms and the Golan Heights, which they would then do. And then the the new Syrian regime would cut off all funds to Hamas and Hezbollah, and refuse to offer their fighters safe haven. And then Israel would withdraw from the West Bank and the international community would compensate Palestinian refugees and both sides would apologize for atrocities and there’d be a peaceful two-state solution between Israel and Palestine.

Of course, that would never happen, and so I’m NOT ADVOCATING ANY ACTUAL ISRAELI INTERVENTION IN SYRIA. Let me make that clear. In the real world, that would lead to the IDF killing Syrian civilians in their attempt to target military operations, and the entire Arab world turning even harder against Israel, probably leading to rocket attacks and civilian casualties in Israel, and then possibly the whole region erupting into a broader conflict. So that would be very bad. But wouldn’t it be nice if we could have our own space-time rift that could take us to that Star Trek world, if only just for a moment? Beam me up.

Written by David Weinfeld

February 15, 2012 at 18:04

Gay Paradise in Zion? A Commentary on The Enlightenment Project

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by Weiner

Several years ago, I was having dinner in Dupont Circle, a gay-friendly neighbourhood in Washington, D.C., with a gay Jewish friend and his boyfriend, also a Jew. My friend, who describes himself as both a “professional Jew” and a “professional gay,” brought up the topic of Israel. I don’t recall exactly what was said, but both he and his boyfriend expressed pride in the fact that Israel was rather tolerant towards gays and lesbians, much more so than its Arab neighbours. I agreed with the sentiment, but expressed some skepticism as to its value.

I remember saying that many right-wing, hawkish supporters of Israel, would proudly praise Israel’s record on gay rights, or women’s rights, or any other issue that showed that Israel was a modern, western, country, with a tolerant, progressive society, not unlike that of the United States or Canada. I remember thinking that these people didn’t give a rats ass about gay rights in America, or about feminism anywhere in the world, apart from trumpeting Israel’s superiority over its backward Muslim enemies. This was especially true for Israel’s Christian Zionist supporters, many of whom were actively hostile to gay rights and women’s rights.

This sort of analysis always made me a little uncomfortable, like comparing the Israeli military’s efforts to reduce civilian casualties with the goals of Hamas suicide bombers, who hoped to maximize them. Having the best human rights record in the Middle East is a little like being the best student in a remedial math class: not something you should really be boasting about. Sure, Israel is more tolerant of gays and lesbians, and more progressive on women’s issues than Syria, but so what? As a modern, western, democratic state, shouldn’t it aspire to play in the big leagues with the United States, Canada, western Europe and the like?

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by David Weinfeld

July 11, 2011 at 16:00

The Case Against Cases For or Against a Jewish State, or How Nation-States are like Big Macs

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We’ve got a guest post here from Gruber, who is doing his PhD in modern Israeli history.

By Gruber

Last night when I was out to drinks with some friends of college, one of my close friends, who happens to be Israeli-born and works for an Israel-advocacy organization asked me flat out “Do you think there should be a Jewish state?” This is not an unfamiliar question, especially in light of all the recent brouhaha regarding the American Jewish community and Israel, provoked especially by Peter Beinart’s now infamous article and the Gaza Flotilla fiasco, which PhD Octopus has certainly examined before.

Of course, I had provoked this question to a certain extent, as I make no attempt to conceal my views on Israel/Palestine, especially among friends and family who I know consider me a radical when it comes to the topic, and accordingly may make snarky comments about the conflict that are framed playfully enough to avoid a full-blown argument which I know will devolve into back and forth yelling. So after comparing his disproportionate response to a small prank with Israeli policy, my friend stopped and asked me to answer this to-the-point question. “Do you think there should be a Jewish state?” After attempting to engage in a round of semantic acrobatics and careful qualifications, he demanded that I first answer the query with a simple yes or no. “No”, I said unhesitatingly. I quickly followed up however, saying that neither do I believe there should not be a Jewish state. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by David Weinfeld

May 16, 2011 at 14:46

Passover Reflections on Judaism and Identity

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by Weiner


I have mixed feelings about the Jewish holiday of Passover. I absolutely love the seders, but I hate the other six days without bread.  You can insert the standard jokes about matzoh causing constipation here, as the goyim don’t seem to be aware of this. I’m also bothered by the capitalist cooptation of the holiday, and of kashrut in general. Jewish dietary laws have become a means to jack up prices. Even more egregious, on Passover, products emerge like kosher for Passover cakes and cereal, which kind of defeat the purpose of the whole holiday and exemplify the notion of obeying the letter of the law, but not the spirit.

Still, every year, despite my reservations, and despite being a secular-minded atheist, I endure eight days of the bread of affliction. Why?

The reasons I tell people are the same reasons I practice any Jewish rituals in my own modified and modernized Reconstructionist Jewish way, from fasting on Yom Kippur to lighting Shabbos candles on Friday nights. It all boils down to three things:

1) Observing these rituals connects me with a sense of my own personal past. That is to say, it is something I grew up doing, and so I feel some obligation to continue practicing the rituals, and derive some joy from fulfilling that obligation and keeping up the tradition. And I’m a historian, so my personal history is important to me.

2) Observing these rituals connects me to the long arch and narrative of Jewish history. In some way, shape, or form, Jews all over the world have been performing these same or similar rituals for thousands of years. I derive pleasure from feeling connected to this historical chain. Again, I’m a historian, so this makes sense.

3) Jews all over the world still today perform these rituals. So by performing them myself, I feel connected to a global Jewish community, which fills me with warmth and pride.

In my mind, these reasons all operate within the framework of Mordecai Kaplan’s Reconstructionist Judaism, which posits that Judaism is an evolving religious civilization. Reconstructionism endorses full equality for women, gays and lesbians, converts, and Jews of patrilineal descent. Kaplan argued that Jewish law should get a vote but not a veto. His movement makes room for atheism, progressive Zionism and a great deal of diversity within its inclusive tent.

These reasons also have a lot to do with the dreaded “I” word, “identity,” the bete noir of many academics. But they also have a lot to do with the “C” word. No, not that one. I’m talking about “community,” which is held in a much more favourable light.

I guess I care a lot about my identity and my community, and more broadly about identity and community in general. And that of course seeps into my historical work, which is specifically about Horace Kallen and Alain Locke, but more generally about changing intellectual understandings of Jewish and African American identity and community.

And that’s why I post so much about intermarriage, and Zionism, Jewishness, and identity. Because I feel heavily invested in the struggle for Jewish continuity, even if I try to not let that distort my analyses as an academic historian. And so I tend to devalue ideologies like Marxism or extreme libertarianism, which deny significance and merit to cultural differences.

I try to be objective in my work, as I believe objectivity is often undervalued or downright ignored in today’s academic climate. Still, I admit that my biases do seep in. And if I do have one bias, I guess I should proclaim it loudly here, on this openly biased blog: I think ethnic particularlism is good. By ethnic I mean ethnic, religious, and cultural particularism.

Not always good though. When it becomes violent, chauvinistic nationalism that leads to murder and genocide, it is bad. I try to separate between the benign particularism that comes from  lighting Shabbos candles and the pernicious particularism that emerges when right-wing Zionists tell Arabs they can’t live in certain neighbourhoods. And I think the two are probably and unfortunately connected in ways that should and do make me uncomfortable, even if I can’t quite explain those connections.

In his book, The End of Faith, militant atheist Sam Harris argues that religious “moderates” are almost as much to blame for the ills of faith as religious extremists, because they provide moral legitimacy to religion itself, the source of violent fundamentalism. I actually have some sympathy for this argument, and yet here I am, a passionate if moderate ethnic particularist, giving legitimacy to my more violent and extreme brethren.

But maybe it has to be this way.

Let me illustrate with a little anecdote from my college days. Back then, I moderated an Arab-Jewish student dialogue on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In some ways it was your typical Arab-Jewish student dialogue, featuring a smattering of left-wing Jews and wealthy, often Christian Arabs getting together to bash Israel. There were of course numerous important exceptions to that, which made it a rewarding if frustrating experience. One of those exceptions was, on the surface, one of those left-wing Jews, and I mean really left-wing: lived in the Dudley Co-op, active in radical student movements, strongly opposed to American hawkish foreign policy, very concerned with social justice and very critical of the Israeli government. And yet, during one dialogue session, she followed the more vociferous anti-Israel sentiment to its logical conclusion, and proclaimed she didn’t like it.

If peace in the Middle East means there would be no Jews, then I would rather there be war, forever.

I can’t say that I disagree. Because my sense of Jewish identity and Jewish community is one of the many things that provide meaning in my life. And I think these forms of communal identification and affiliation make the world interesting.

Written by David Weinfeld

April 19, 2011 at 10:13

Dueling Protests, Israel, Palestine, and Kif Kef (Kit Kat)

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by Weiner

Walking outside in the rain by New York University’s Bobst library, I encountered two protests at the corner of Washington Square South and Washington Square East. One, on the south side of the street near Bobst, was the Free Gaza protest, complete with its makeshift apartheid wall. The other, on the north side of the street, near the Starbucks, was the Zionist counter-protest.

Both groups looked relatively orderly, alternating shouted slogans. The Free Gaza crowd shouted things like “Not Another Dime for Israel’s Crimes!” And the more basic “What Do We Want? Justice! When Do We Want It? Now!” The Zionist group, on the other hand, shouted things like “Invest in Peace” and held signs that read “Boycott = Hypocrisy.”

I examined both of the protests, read through some of the signs, grabbed a free Kit Kat (actually, the Israeli version, Kif Kef) and then left. I used to be deeply invested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Read about it all the time, wrote about it, organized an Arab-Jewish dialogue group on campus while in college. I don’t do that stuff any more. I feel removed from it. Not too removed to feel nothing at all, but removed enough not to be as passionate as those standing in the rain.

Politically, I’m still a Zionist, but my policy preferences probably run closer to those standing by the fake apartheid wall. Actually, one fellow holding up a sign with the Zionist crowd probably came closest to summing up my views: “Pro-Israel, Pro-Palestine, Pro-Peace.” See I’m a strong two-state solution guy, but think it’s in Israel’s best interests, morally and pragmatically, to make major concessions to the Palestinians, end the occupation, increase Arab and other minority rights within the Jewish state, and recognize an independent Palestine. My Zionism makes me pro-peace.

But I guess that’s what bothers me about protests like this. I’ve been in the Ivory Tower a long time now (going on 5 years as a grad student), but this sort of sloganeering abandons all nuance, and that irks me. Israel has committed its share of crimes. But so have the Palestinians. And sure, we should “invest in peace.” But Israel’s the one with the power to end the occupation, and they should do it already. I love Israel, but I also support justice for Palestine, which seems to be the more pressing cause.

Still, emotions come into play. I’m not immune to Albert Camus’ sentiment: “I believe in justice, but I’ll defend my mother before justice.” And my mother, metaphorically, is hanging out with the Zionists, handing out Kif Kef. And that piece of chocolate is probably the most I got out of these dueling protests. Apparently, though, Kit Kat is one of the companies people who oppose Israeli policy are supposed to protest. I ate it anyway. Give me a break.

Kit Kat - barred

Written by David Weinfeld

April 5, 2011 at 14:21