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Independence Day (Israel): We have reason to rejoice

by Isi Leibler

The Bible quotes Balaam describing the Jews as “a people that dwells alone and is not counted among the nations.” Alas, that aptly describes the status of the Jewish state on the 67th anniversary of its rebirth. Yet despite enormous challenges confronting us, we have every reason to celebrate.

Yes, Israel is the only country in the world whose right to exist and defend itself is continuously challenged. We have neighbors who still dream of driving us into the sea; we face an ongoing global tsunami of viral anti-Semitism; the world judges us by double standards; Israel is an oasis in a region in which primitive barbarism reigns as hundreds of thousands of people are butchered as a matter of routine.

But despite this, by any benchmark Israel unquestionably represents the greatest national success story of all time.

Exiled and scattered throughout the world for 2000 years and suffering endless cycles of persecution and mass murder climaxing with the Shoah, the Jews miraculously resurrected a nation state.

Since the late 19th century, Jewish idealists have been returning to their homeland and transforming deserts into gardens.

In 1947 the world was astonished when incredibly for a brief moment, both the U.S. and the Soviet Union unprecedentedly agreed to endorse the creation of a Jewish state.

There were only 600,000 Jews in Palestine when the State of Israel was declared. Yet against all odds and despite inadequate armaments and lack of military training, fighters from the fledgling state successfully vanquished the combined military forces of its Arab neighbors, determined to destroy us.

Victory was not achieved without painful sacrifice and 24 hours before rejoicing on Independence Day, we pay tribute to over 20,000 Jews those who gave up their lives to defend our Jewish state.

Our miniscule state enabled an ingathering of exiles from all corners of the world, providing a haven for survivors of the Shoah, refugees from Arab persecution, Jews from underdeveloped countries like Ethiopia and over a million from the former Soviet Union. Out of this melting pot Israel has created one of the most vibrant and resilient societies in the world.

Today we boast a thriving nation of over 8 million citizens and represent the largest Jewish community in the world.

Israel has become a veritable economic power house, emerging as the second largest country (after the U.S.) in high tech and startup facilities. We overcame our water problems by an extraordinary desalinization program. And now we are effectively energy self-sufficient and will even be exporting surplus gas resources.

Whilst there is room for improvement, our social welfare structure and in particular the medical system provides outstanding services for all Israeli citizens without discrimination.

Culturally, we are a pulsating country in which our ancient and sacred language has been renewed as the lingua franca for Jews coming from totally different cultures. There has been a dramatic revival of Torah learning with more Jews familiar with the texts and teachings of Judaism than at any time in our history.

Despite external threats and terror, we remain a democratic oasis in a regional cauldron of barbarism, providing the right to vote to all citizens and guaranteeing genuine freedom of religion and freedom of expression.

But the most incredible transformation is that after 2000 years as a subjugated and persecuted people, we have become a regional military superpower. The empowerment of the Jewish nation, the success of our people’s army and its ability deter the combined force of all its enemies is mind boggling. As we face tough challenges such as the threat of a nuclear Iran, even the mullahs realize that an attack on us would lead to their decimation.

Although the American people and Congress remain strongly supportive, as long as the Obama Administration remains in office, Israel may soon be denied the U.S. diplomatic umbrella at the United Nations and the Europeans may well be hatching further schemes to sanction us. Yet, it is mind boggling that our Prime Minister was invited three times to address Congress and on each occasion received standing ovations. That Winston Churchill was the only other leader honored in this manner says it all.

Lessons from our bitter history have taught us that when the chips are down, we can only rely on ourselves. We were initially perceived as the unfortunate underdogs. Today, we are accused of being too powerful. Most of us concur that if the price for being strong and independent obliges us to lose favor with confused bleeding heart liberals, so be it. The reality is that we are stronger today and better able to withstand political and military pressures than ever before.

In Europe, popular anti-Semitism has again transformed Jews into pariahs. Yet Jewish communities will always remain and Israel must encourage efforts to strengthen their Jewish identity and support their struggle against anti-Semitism. Diaspora Jews are fortunate knowing that if their world collapses, Israel provides them with a haven. But many will not wish to see their children grow up in an environment in which they feel obliged to conceal their Jewish identity and have military personnel guarding schools and synagogues. Increasing numbers are therefore likely to make aliyah or at least encourage their children to do so.

In the United States, aliyah will attract those Jews concerned about t their grandchildren remaining Jewish in an open society – where currently 80% of non-orthodox are marrying out. Committed Jews are also increasingly attracted to the the opportunity of living in a pulsating Jewish state which provides a cost-free Jewish education, in which the Hebrew language, culture and national holidays create a unique Jewish lifestyle which they can never experience in the Diaspora.

We must surely appreciate the privilege of living in a Jewish state and not facing the painful Jewish identity issues confronting our diaspora kinsmen.

So despite the challenges facing us, we should dismiss the purveyors of doom and gloom who transform self-criticism into masochism and continuously whine about our failings and reject the highly vocal fringe elements who disparage our achievements, mock Zionism and challenge the merits of statehood.

Of course, many aspects of Israeli society, as with any other, require attention. These include issues of growing inequality between rich and poor and the ongoing irritants in relationship between the state and organized religion. Not to mention the dysfunctional political system.

Alas, the dream of peace with our neighbors remains just a dream. But we should exult in the realization that we are stronger today than in the past when we overcame far greater challenges and genuinely faced annihilation.

Opinion polls indicate that we rank amongst the happiest and most contented people in the world. However many young Israelis now take Jewish statehood for granted, never having undergone the chilling experience of European Jews in the 1930s as they desperately sought entry visas to countries to avoid the impending Shoah. Nor can they appreciate the devastating impact of living in an anti-Semitic environment where Jews are considered pariahs.

Today, on our 67th anniversary, we should give thanks to the Almighty for enabling us to be the blessed Jewish generation, privileged to live in freedom in our resurrected ancient homeland. We should continually remind ourselves that our success defies rationality and by any benchmark must be deemed miraculous.

Chag Sameach.

Isi Leibler may be contacted at ileibler@leibler.com

This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom

Browse more articles like this at www.wordfromjerusalem.com

 
 

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What’s Wrong with Islam?

Flashback: Wednesday, August 23, 2006

by Viz
 

The simple answer is that nothing is wrong with the way in which most people today practise Islam, one of the three best known of the “monotheistic” faiths.

Islam at once appears to be both the youngest and oldest child of the Abrahamic tradition. Ishmael was the elder son of Abraham, Isaac being the younger, but Islam (as defined by Mohammed) developed after the movement that many would describe as the first significant descendant of Judaism, Christianity.

Before I proceed, let me undermine that basic premise by pointing out that the Brahmin tradition of Hinduism and the Taoist tradition of Buddhism can both trace their roots to the influx of Jews into Asia after the Babylonian exile period. In that sense, both Christianity and Islam would be relative late-comers to the Ibrahimin fold. Likewise, the primary faith of the Persians, Zoroastrianism, would also take a sharp turn in a more monotheistic direction with the arrival of the enslaved Israelite tribes following the assumption of Darius’ Median empire by the Persians. Darius had taken up the reins from the Babylonians who had conquered Jerusalem under Nebuchadnezzar a little earlier in that same 6th century BCE and carted off all those slaves.

There are more examples, but here we can see that the vast majority of the world’s population (Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims) have had their cultures shaped by their interaction with the family of Abraham, with about 50% of the world still openly tracing its heritage to that lineage: Christianity (2.2B), Islam (1.4B) and Jews (12-18M).

The problem seems not to be that we don’t have enough in common, but in the interpretation of that common heritage.

When the hadiths talk of the end times and speak of the trees and rocks saying: “Muslim, behind me is a Jew. Come and kill him.”…that is not to say that Muslims are bound to such terrible actions as a matter of faith. Quite the opposite. The hadith is saying that in the time of judgment there will be a persecution of Jews, such that they will have nowhere to hide. We saw this in the last century with the persecution and attempted anihilation of the Jews by the Nazis, as they could find no place to hide. And yet we hear some imams calling for the destruction of Israel and the murder of Jews every Friday, citing these hadiths as if they were a licence to kill. Ironically, the Qur’an makes it quite clear that a prerequisite for the fulfillment of its scripture is that the Jews will be returned to the land noted in the Qur’an itself.

Islam is, in many ways, the religion most closely resembling Judaism. The Qur’an features a line-up of prophets that are exclusively Jewish, including Mohammed, who traced his own lineage from Ishmael, son of Abraham, who was circumcised in the skin at Moriah; hence, a Jew.

Like Judaism, Islam is intensely monotheistic, rejecting Jesus as a deity, though, unlike Judaism, it welcomes him as a prophet…and anticipates his return at the end of days, or Qiyaama. All three religions agree that Jesus was a Jew, and Islam and Christianity both agree that he’ll still be a Jew when he returns. Even the Mahdi, it is said, will be a Jew.

So, how is it that radical Islamic preachers can advocate the killing of Jews? What’s wrong with this picture?

Religion has been used for millennia as an actuator for social change. We are seeing the negative side of this in radical Islam today. We saw it, albeit in a more positive light, in Poland when the Roman Church was instrumental in the downfall of the Communist movement in Eastern Europe. We saw it in the spread of Christian “Liberation Theology” in Central America, the correctness of which is still debated within the church. We saw it in the time of Mohammed, and in the time of Jesus. We saw it in every revolt against the Greek and Roman empires in the Middle East.

That religion can be a motivating force in people’s lives should not be an indictment against religion lest we are prepared to also throw away the ancient knowledge that is encoded in those traditions.

It is the interpretation of these ideas, these concepts, these traditions, that needs to be discussed. For it is only in their mutual examination that we can bring about peace without the need for the precursor of looming total destruction.

The trick is not to convert people between faiths, but to help them become better role models within their individual faiths. Just as the rainforests are a seminal trust of biodiversity for this planet, so are the various faiths of man a reservoir for all the aspects of his divine nature.

 
 

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On the Virulence of Rage

The Parable of the Tribes (Vayishlach 5775)

by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

Originally published December 2, 2014 at www.rabbisacks.org
where you can read more of Rabbi Sacks’ work (audio available)
or follow him on Twitter @RabbiSacks

From beginning to end, Genesis 34 tells a terrifying story. Dina, Jacob’s daughter – the only Jewish daughter mentioned in the entire patriarchal narratives – leaves the safety of home to go out to “look at the daughters of the land.” She is raped and abducted by a local prince, Shechem, son of the king of the town known as Shechem.

Jacob learns of this fact but does nothing until his sons return. Shimon and Levi, Dina’s brothers, immediately realise that they must act to rescue her. It is an almost impossible assignment. The hostage-taker is no ordinary individual. As the son of the king, he cannot be confronted directly. The king is unlikely to order his son to release her. The other townspeople, if challenged, will come to the prince’s defence. It is Shimon and Levi against the town: two against many. Even were all of Jacob’s sons to be enlisted, they would still be outnumbered.

Shimon and Levi therefore decide on a ruse. They agree to let Dina marry the prince but they make one condition. The members of the town must all be circumcised. They, seeing long term advantages to an alliance with this neighbouring tribe, agree. The men of the town are weakened by the operation, and the pain is most acute on the third day. That day, Shimon and Levi enter the town and kill the entire male population. They rescue Dina and bring her home. The other brothers then plunder the town.

Jacob is horrified. “You have made me odious to the people of the land,” he says. What then were we supposed to do, ask the two brothers? “Should we have left our sister to be treated like a prostitute?” With that rhetorical question, the episode ends and the narrative moves elsewhere. But Jacob’s horror at the action of his sons does not end there. He returns to it on his deathbed, and in effect curses them:

“Simeon and Levi are brothers—

their swords are weapons of violence.

Let me not enter their council,

let me not join their assembly,

for they have killed men in their anger

and hamstrung oxen as they pleased.

Cursed be their anger, so fierce,

and their fury, so cruel!

I will scatter them in Jacob

and disperse them in Israel. (Gen. 49: 5-7)

This is an extraordinary passage. It seems to lack any kind of moral message. No one comes out of it well. Shechem, the prince, would seem to be the chief villain. It was he who abducted and raped Dina in the first place. Hamor, his father, fails to reprimand him or order Dina’s release. Shimon and Levi are guilty of a horrendous act of violence. The other brothers engage in looting the town.[1] Jacob seems passive throughout. He neither acts nor instructs his sons on how to act. Even Dina herself seems at best to have been guilty of carelessness in going out into the town in the first place, in what was clearly a dangerous neighbourhood – recall that both Abraham and Isaac, her grandfather and great grandfather, had feared for their own lives because of the lawlessness of the times.[2]

Who was in the right and who in the wrong are left conspicuously undecided in the text. Jacob condemns his sons. But his sons reject the criticism.

The debate continued and was taken up by two of the greatest rabbis in the Middle Ages. Maimonides takes the side of Shimon and Levi. They were justified in what they did, he says. The other members of the town saw what Shechem had done, knew that he was guilty of a crime, and yet neither brought him to court nor rescued the girl. They were therefore accomplices in his guilt. What Shechem had done was a capital crime, and by sheltering him the townspeople were implicated.[3] This is, incidentally, a fascinating ruling since it suggests that for Maimonides the rule that “all Israel are responsible for one another” is not restricted to Israel. It applies to all societies. As Isaac Arama was to write in the fifteenth century, any crime known about and allowed to continue ceases to be an offence of individuals only and becomes a sin of the community as a whole.[4]

Nahmanides disagrees.[5] The principle of collective responsibility does not, in his view, apply to non-Jewish societies. The Noahide covenant requires every society to set up courts of law, but it does not imply that a failure to prosecute a wrongdoer involves all members of the society in a capital crime.

The debate continues today among Bible scholars. Two in particular subject the story to close literary analysis: Meir Sternberg in his The Poetics of Biblical Narrative[6] and Rabbi Elhanan Samet in his studies on the parsha.[7] They too arrive at conflicting conclusions. Sternberg argues that the text is critical of Jacob for both his inaction and his criticism of his sons for acting. Samet sees the chief culprits as Shechem and Hamor.

Both point out, however, the remarkable fact that the text deliberately deepens the moral ambiguity by refusing to portray even the apparent villains in an unduly negative light. Consider the chief wrongdoer, the young prince Shechem. The text tells us that “His heart was drawn to Dinah daughter of Jacob; he loved the young woman and spoke tenderly to her. And Shechem said to his father Hamor, ‘Get me this girl as my wife.’” Compare this with the description of Amnon, son of King David, who rapes his half sister Tamar. That story too is a tale of bloody revenge. But the text says about Amnon that after raping Tamar, he “hated her with intense hatred. In fact, he hated her more than he had loved her. Amnon said to her, ‘Get up and get out!’” (2 Samuel 13: 15). Shechem is not like that at all. He falls in love with Dina and wants to marry her. The king, Shechem’s father, and the people of the town, readily accede to the Shimon and Levi’s request that they become circumcised.

Not only does the text not demonise the people of Shechem. Neither does it paint any of Jacob’s family in a positive light. It uses the same word “deceit” (34: 13) of Shimon and Levi that it has used previously about Jacob taking Esau’s blessing and Laban substituting Leah for Rachel. Its description of all the characters, from the gadabout Dina to her excessively violent rescuers, to the plundering other brothers and the passive Jacob, the text seems written deliberately to alienate our sympathies.

The overall effect is a story with no irredeemable villains and no stainless heroes. Why then is it told at all? Stories do not appear in the Torah merely because they happened. The Torah is not a history book. It is silent on some of the most important periods of time. We know nothing, for example, about Abraham’s childhood, or about 38 of the forty years spent by the Israelites in the wilderness. Torah means “teaching, instruction, guidance.” What teaching does the Torah want us to draw from this narrative out of which no one emerges well?

There is an important thought experiment devised by Andrew Schmookler known as the parable of the tribes.[8] Imagine a group of tribes living close to one another. All choose the way of peace except one that is willing to use violence to achieve its ends. What happens to the peace-seeking tribes? One is defeated and destroyed. A second is conquered and subjugated. A third flees to some remote and inaccessible place. If the fourth seeks to defend itself it too will have to have recourse to violence. “The irony is that successful defence against a power-maximising aggressor requires a society to become more like the society that threatens it. Power can be stopped only by power.”[9]

There are, in other words, four possible outcomes: [1] destruction, [2] subjugation, [3] withdrawal, and [4] imitation. “In every one of these outcomes the ways of power are spread throughout the system. This is the parable of the tribes.” Recall that all but one of the tribes seeks peace and has no desire to exercise power over its neighbours. However, if you introduce a single violent tribe into the region, violence will eventually prevail, however the other tribes choose to respond. That is the tragedy of the human condition.

As I was writing this essay in the summer of 2014, Israel was engaged in a bitter struggle with Hamas in Gaza in which more than 1,000 people died. The state of Israel had no more desire to be engaged in this kind of warfare than did our ancestor Jacob. Throughout the campaign I found myself recalling the words earlier in our parsha about Jacob’s feelings prior to his meeting with Esau: “Jacob was very afraid and distressed” (Gen. 32: 8), about which the sages said, “Afraid, lest he be killed, distressed lest he be forced to kill.”[10] What the episode of Dina tells us is not that Jacob, or Shimon and Levi, were right, but rather that there can be situations in which there is no right course of action; where whatever you do is wrong; where every option involves the abandonment of some moral principle.

That is Schmookler’s point, that “power is like a contaminant, a disease, which once introduced will gradually but inexorably become universal in the system of competing societies.”[11] Shechem’s single act of violence against Dina forced two of Jacob’s sons into violent reprisal and in the end everyone was either contaminated or dead. It is indicative of the moral depth of the Torah that it does not hide this terrible truth from us by depicting one side as guilty, the other as innocent.

Violence defiles us all. It did then. It does now.

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[1] Disapproved of biblically: see Deut. 13: 13-19, 1 Samuel 15: 13-26, Esther 9: 10, 15-16.

[2] The Midrash is critical of Dina: see Midrash Aggadah (Buber) to Gen. 34: 1. Midrash Sechel Tov is even critical of her mother Leah for allowing her to go out.

[3] Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Melakhim 9: 14.

[4] Arama, Akedat Yitzhak, Bereishit, Vayera, Gate 20, s.v. uve-Midrash.

[5] Nahmanides, Commentary to Genesis 34: 13.

[6] Sternberg, Meir. The Poetics of Biblical Narrative: Ideological Literature and the Drama of Reading. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1985. 444-81.

[7] Elhanan Samet, Iyyunim be-Parshat ha-Shevuah, third series, Israel: Yediot Aharonot, 2012, 149-171.

[8] Andrew Bard Schmookler, The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution. Berkeley: U of California, 1984.

[9] Ibid., 21.

[10] Quoted by Rashi ad loc.

[11] Schmookler, ibid., 22.

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Leibler: Obama Seeks Confrontation with Israel

Originally published Oct. 30, 2014
by Isi Leibler @ wordfromjerusalem.com


 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s response to the intensifying global pressures on Israel is to firmly reject any further territorial withdrawals that would put Israel’s security at risk, stating that “Israel will not lose hope for peace, but neither will it cling to false hope.”

He was also forthright about his intention to continue residential construction in Jerusalem, noting that “all previous Israeli governments have done so. . It is also clear to the Palestinians that these territories will remain within Israel’s borders in any deal.”

The Obama administration’s response to Israel’s confirmation that it would continue to create homes in the Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem was vindictive, brutal and in stark contrast to its deafening silence in relation to Palestinian incitement.

The State Department went so far as to accuse Israel of acting “illegally,” and in a manner “incompatible with the pursuit of peace”.

In an interview with American journalist Jeffery Goldberg published in The Atlantic, a senior US official referred to Prime Minister Netanyahu as “chickenshit” and described him as “the foreign leader who seems to frustrate the White House and the State Department the most”. More than Assad, Erdogan, the Iranian Ayatollah, Putin, and the ‘peace loving’ Abbas?

The curtain drop to the administration’s malice was displayed last week in the Ya’alon imbroglio. In a private conversation earlier this year, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon disparaged Secretary of State John Kerry’s behavior in relation to the peace process as “obsessive” and “messianic.” He made his remarks when Kerry was repeatedly making provocative statements against Israel and then retracting them.

As defense minister, Ya’alon is limited in what he can say publicly and the fact that he spoke off-record is irrelevant if he was subsequently quoted. But he apologized and reiterated the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship. Nevertheless, the White House inflated his unofficial remark totally out of proportion.

To invoke such a vendetta against the defense minister of its most important regional ally, months after the event, exposes the pettiness of the Obama administration. That Ya’alon was denied access to Vice President Joe Biden and National Security Adviser Susan Rice is problematic. But that this was leaked by State Department sources at the end of his visit was odious. To make matters even worse, the information was leaked to the Israeli daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, whose publisher is engaged in a long-standing crusade to demonize Netanyahu and his government and which was the source that had initially released Ya’alon’s off-the-record comments.

Clearly, the White House regarded this as an opportunity to undermine not only Ya’alon’s standing, but the entire Netanyahu government.

This is just the latest in a series of vindictive incidents by the Obama administration because Israel has dared to reject its diktats. Nothing illustrates President Barack Obama’s contemptuous attitude toward Israel more than his directive to withhold arms to Israel during wartime because Israel had rejected Kerry’s initiative to engage Qatar as the mediator to end the Gaza hostilities.

As virtually every foreign policy initiative by Obama has proven to be disastrous, his recommendations or directives must be viewed with skepticism. After all, it is we who will have to live with the consequences.

This administration adamantly insists that the Israel-Palestine status quo is untenable. Yet it remains silent as Hamas boasts of efforts to restore its terror tunnel network; barely reacts to the mayhem in Syria and Iraq where close to a quarter million people have been butchered; ignores the Qatari funding of Hamas and other terrorist entities including the Islamic State; fails to castigate Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for enabling jihadists to traverse Turkey’s territory in order to fight in Syria, while standing by and allowing the massacre of the Kurds on his border.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas humiliated the U.S. administration by merging with Hamas without prior consultation. But the U.S. failed to criticize this move, has not responded to Abbas’ policy of ethnic cleansing by making any future Palestinian state Judenrein, nor condemned him for executing any Palestinian found selling land to an Israeli. The U.S. did not reprimand him for failing to denounce the act of terror in which a baby and a young woman were killed last week in Jerusalem. Yet when an Arab teenager was shot to death while hurling potentially lethal Molotov cocktails at Israeli automobiles, the U.S. immediately conveyed its condolences to the family and urged Israelis to initiate an investigation.

Israel, the principal regional ally of the U.S., is the only country consistently facing criticism and has become the punching bag for the inept Obama administration, even being denunciated for opposing a nuclear agreement with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Only recently, Kerry again conveyed to an Arab audience the absurd allegation that the Arab-Israel conflict fanned ISIS and Islamic extremism. Yet the U.S. assiduously avoids condemning or responding to rogue states guilty of criminal bloodletting, out of fear of being further humiliated and exposed as lacking leadership.

It should be noted that there is a broad consensus throughout Israel that the government is justified in resisting efforts by the U.S. and others to restrict construction in its capital Jerusalem and the major settlement blocs – which were never challenged prior to the Obama administration.

There are those who question the wisdom of such an announcement at this time, but if there is one issue for which we should stand united and maintain our rights, it is construction in Jerusalem, whose development must not be dependent on endorsement from other countries.

The administration’s efforts to demean Israel’s leaders have always been counterproductive. Despite the initial media frenzy, Israelis have in such circumstances responded by rallying in support of their government. And yet, now when the house of Israel should display unity, some of our politicians are behaving irresponsibly.

Finance Minister Yair Lapid’s and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni public response to the recent pathetic and mean attempt to humiliate Ya’alon implying that the fault for the breakdown in relations rests with Israel rather than with a bumbling and spiteful U.S. administration were highly inappropriate. They promote chaos and bring shame upon themselves and the government they purport to represent, conveying the mistaken impression that Israel suffers from battered wife syndrome.

It is also regrettable that, in the face of a vindictive U.S. administration, Opposition Leader Isaac Herzog, failed to suspend political infighting and accused Netanyahu of being “personally responsible for the destruction of relations with the U.S.” He could have gained respect by stating unequivocally that there cannot be any limits on construction in the Jewish suburbs of Jerusalem.

Yes, there is constant tension and endless recriminations bouncing between the U.S. administration and Israel. And according to Goldberg, there is now even the threat that the US “may actually withdraw diplomatic cover for Israel at the United Nations”.

The government has made every effort to avoid aggravating the situation but Israel is a sovereign democratic nation and there are occasions when it must reject unrealistic or dangerous demands from the U.S.

Netanyahu should be commended for his extraordinary diplomatic balancing act in withstanding the unreasonable pressure from Obama and Kerry, avoiding outright confrontations and in so doing, retaining the support of American public opinion and Congress.

Israel is a small country and its people are aware that the U.S. is crucial to their survival. But does that oblige us to forfeit our self-respect or sovereignty and fawn toward an administration that repeatedly displays its contempt and humiliates us?

We should display unity by supporting our prime minister’s policy of rejecting further territorial concessions until the Palestinian leaders separate from Hamas, engage in negotiations and display flexibility to enable us to achieve our security requirements. We will not be denied the right to construct homes in our capital or in the major settlement blocs, which will remain within Israel. We seek the support of the United States but we must retain our sovereignty.

 

 

Isi Leibler’s website can be viewed at http://www.wordfromjerusalem.com.
He may be contacted at ileibler@leibler.com.
This column was originally published (in the Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom) on October 30, 2014

 
 
 

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Stratfor: Turkey, the Kurds and Iraq: The Prize and Peril of Kirkuk

Originally published: TUESDAY, OCTOBER 7, 2014 – 03:00

By Reva Bhalla
Stratfor Global Intelligence

In June 1919, aboard an Allied warship en route to Paris, sat Damat Ferid Pasha, the Grand Vizier of a crumbling Ottoman Empire. The elderly statesman, donning an iconic red fez and boasting an impeccably groomed mustache, held in his hands a memorandum that he was to present to the Allied powers at the Quai d’Orsay. The negotiations on postwar reparations started five months earlier, but the Ottoman delegation was prepared to make the most of its tardy invitation to the talks. As he journeyed across the Mediterranean that summer toward the French shore, Damat Ferid mentally rehearsed the list of demands he would make to the Allied powers during his last-ditch effort to hold the empire together.

He began with a message, not of reproach, but of inculpability: “Gentlemen, I should not be bold enough to come before this High Assembly if I thought that the Ottoman people had incurred any responsibility in the war that has ravaged Europe and Asia with fire and sword.” His speech was followed by an even more defiant memorandum, denouncing any attempt to redistribute Ottoman land to the Kurds, Greeks and Armenians, asserting: “In Asia, the Turkish lands are bounded on the south by the provinces of Mosul and Diyarbakir, as well as a part of Aleppo as far as the Mediterranean.” When Damat Ferid’s demands were presented in Paris, the Allies were in awe of the gall displayed by the Ottoman delegation. British Prime Minister David Lloyd George regarded the presentation as a “good joke,” while U.S. President Woodrow Wilson said he had never seen anything more “stupid.” They flatly rejected Damat Ferid’s apparently misguided appeal — declaring that the Turks were unfit to rule over other races, regardless of their common Muslim identity — and told him and his delegation to leave. The Western powers then proceeded, through their own bickering, to divide the post-Ottoman spoils.

Under far different circumstances today, Ankara is again boldly appealing to the West to follow its lead in shaping policy in Turkey’s volatile Muslim backyard. And again, Western powers are looking at Turkey with incredulity, waiting for Ankara to assume responsibility for the region by tackling the immediate threat of the Islamic State with whatever resources necessary, rather than pursuing a seemingly reckless strategy of toppling the Syrian government. Turkey’s behavior can be perplexing and frustrating to Western leaders, but the country’s combination of reticence in action and audacity in rhetoric can be traced back to many of the same issues that confronted Istanbul in 1919, beginning with the struggle over the territory of Mosul.

The Turkish Fight for Mosul

Under the Ottoman Empire, the Mosul vilayet stretched from Zakho in southeastern Anatolia down along the Tigris River through Dohuk, Arbil, Alqosh, Kirkuk, Tuz Khormato and Sulaimaniyah before butting up against the western slopes of the Zagros Mountains, which shape the border with Iran. This stretch of land, bridging the dry Arab steppes and the fertile mountain valleys in Iraqi Kurdistan, has been a locus of violence long before the Islamic State arrived. The area has been home to an evolving mix of Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, Yazidis, Assyro-Chaldeans and Jews, while Turkish and Persian factions and the occasional Western power, whether operating under a flag or a corporate logo, continue to work in vain to eke out a demographic makeup that suits their interests.
At the time of the British negotiation with the Ottomans over the fate of the Mosul region, British officers touring the area wrote extensively about the ubiquity of the Turkish language, noting that “Turkish is spoken all along the high road in all localities of any importance.” This fact formed part of Turkey’s argument that the land should remain under Turkish sovereignty. Even after the 1923 signing of the Treaty of Lausanne, in which Turkey renounced its rights to Ottoman lands, the Turkish government still held out a claim to the Mosul region, fearful that the Brits would use Kurdish separatism to further weaken the Turkish state. Invoking the popular Wilsonian principle of self-determination, the Turkish government asserted to the League of Nations that most of the Kurds and Arabs inhabiting the area preferred to be part of Turkey anyway. The British countered by asserting that their interviews with locals revealed a prevailing preference to become part of the new British-ruled Kingdom of Iraq.

The Turks, in no shape to bargain with London and mired in a deep internal debate over whether Turkey should forego these lands and focus instead on the benefits of a downsized republic, lost the argument and were forced to renounce their claims to the Mosul territory in 1925. As far as the Brits and the French were concerned, the largely Kurdish territory would serve as a vital buffer space to prevent the Turks from eventually extending their reach from Asia Minor to territories in Mesopotamia, Syria and Armenia. But the fear of Turkish expansion was not the only factor informing the European strategy to keep northern Iraq out of Turkish hands.

The Oil Factor

Since the days of Herodotus and Nebuchadnezzar, there have been stories of eternal flames arising from the earth of Baba Gurgur near the town of Kirkuk. German explorer and cartographer Carsten Niebuhr wrote in the 18th century: “A place called Baba Gurgur is above all remarkable because the earth is so hot that eggs and meat can be boiled here.” The flames were in fact produced by the natural gas and naphtha seeping through cracks in the rocks, betraying the vast quantities of crude oil lying beneath the surface. London wasted little time in calling on geologists from Venezuela, Mexico, Romania and Indochina to study the land and recommend sites for drilling. On Oct. 14, 1927, the fate of Kirkuk was sealed: A gusher rising 43 meters (around 140 feet) erupted from the earth, dousing the surrounding land with some 95,000 barrels of crude oil for 10 days before the well could be capped. With oil now part of the equation, the political situation in Kirkuk became all the more flammable.

The British mostly imported Sunni Arab tribesmen to work the oil fields, gradually reducing the Kurdish majority and weakening the influence of the Turkmen minority in the area. The Arabization project was given new energy when the Arab Baath Socialist Party came to power through a military coup in 1968. Arabic names were given to businesses, neighborhoods, schools and streets, while laws were adjusted to pressure Kurds to leave Kirkuk and transfer ownership of their homes and lands to Arabs. Eviction tactics turned ghastly in 1988 under Saddam Hussein’s Anfal campaign, during which chemical weapons were employed against the Kurdish population. The Iraqi government continued with heavy-handed tactics to Arabize the territory until the collapse of the Baathist regime in 2003. Naturally, revenge was a primary goal as Kurdish factions worked quickly to repopulate the region with Kurds and drive the Arabs out.

Even as Kirkuk, its oil-rich fields and a belt of disputed territories stretching between Diyala and Nineveh provinces have remained officially under the jurisdiction of the Iraqi central government in Baghdad, the Kurdish leadership has sought to redraw the boundaries of Iraqi Kurdistan. After the Iraqi Kurdish region gained de facto autonomy with the creation of a no-fly zone in 1991 and then formally coalesced into the Kurdistan Regional Government after the fall of Saddam Hussein, Kurdish influence gradually expanded in the disputed areas. Kurdish representation increased through multi-ethnic political councils, facilitated by the security protection these communities received from the Kurdish peshmerga and by the promise of energy revenues, while Baghdad remained mired in its own problems. Formally annexing Kirkuk and parts of Nineveh and Diyala, part of the larger Kurdish strategy, would come in due time. Indeed, the expectation that legalities of the annexation process would soon be completed convinced a handful of foreign energy firms to sign contracts with the Kurdish authorities — as opposed to Baghdad — enabling the disputed territories to finally begin realizing the region’s energy potential.

Then the unexpected happened: In June, the collapse of the Iraqi army in the north under the duress of the Islamic State left the Kirkuk fields wide open, allowing the Kurdish peshmerga to finally and fully occupy them. Though the Kurds now sit nervously on the prize, Baghdad, Iran, local Arabs and Turkmen and the Islamic State are eyeing these fields with a predatory gaze. At the same time, a motley force of Iran-backed Shiite militias, Kurdish militants and Sunni tribesmen are trying to flush the Islamic State out of the region in order to return to settling the question of where to draw the line on Kurdish autonomy. The Sunnis will undoubtedly demand a stake in the oil fields that the Kurds now control as repayment for turning on the Islamic State, guaranteeing a Kurdish-Sunni confrontation that Baghdad will surely exploit.

The Turkish Dilemma

The modern Turkish government is looking at Iraq and Syria in a way similar to how Damat Ferid did almost a century ago when he sought in Paris to maintain Turkish sovereignty over the region. From Ankara’s point of view, the extension of a Turkish sphere of influence into neighboring Muslim lands is the antidote to weakening Iraqi and Syrian states. Even if Turkey no longer has direct control over these lands, it hopes to at least indirectly re-establish its will through select partners, whether a group of moderate Islamist forces in Syria or, in northern Iraq, a combination of Turkmen and Sunni factions, along with a Kurdish faction such as Kurdistan Regional Government President Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party. The United States may currently be focused on the Islamic State, but Turkey is looking years ahead at the mess that will likely remain. This is why Turkey is placing conditions on its involvement in the battle against the Islamic State: It is trying to convince the United States and its Sunni Arab coalition partners that it will inevitably be the power administering this region. Therefore, according to Ankara, all players must conform to its priorities, beginning with replacing Syria’s Iran-backed Alawite government with a Sunni administration that will look first to Ankara for guidance.

However, the Turkish vision of the region simply does not fit the current reality and is earning Ankara more rebuke than respect from its neighbors and the West. The Kurds, in particular, will continue to form the Achilles’ heel of Turkish policymaking.

In Syria, where the Islamic State is closing in on the city of Kobani on Turkey’s border, Ankara is faced with the unsavory possibility that it will be drawn into a ground fight with a well-equipped insurgent force. Moreover, Turkey would be fighting on the same side as a variety of Kurdish separatists, including members of Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which Ankara has every interest in neutralizing.

Turkey faces the same dilemma in Iraq, where it may unwittingly back Kurdish separatists in its fight against the Islamic State. Just as critical, Turkey cannot be comfortable with the idea that Kirkuk is in the hands of the Iraqi Kurds unless Ankara is assured exclusive rights over that energy and the ability to extinguish any oil-fueled ambitions of Kurdish independence. But Turkey has competition. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan is not willing to make itself beholden to Turkey, as did Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party, while financial pressures continue to climb. Instead, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan is staying close to Iran and showing a preference to work with Baghdad. Meanwhile, local Arab and Turkmen resistance to Kurdish rule is rising, a factor that Baghdad and Iran will surely exploit as they work to dilute Kurdish authority by courting local officials in Kirkuk and Nineveh with promises of energy rights and autonomy.

This is the crowded battleground that Turkey knows well. A long and elaborate game of “keep away” will be played to prevent the Kurds from consolidating control over oil-rich territory in the Kurdish-Arab borderland, while the competition between Turkey and Iran will emerge into full view. For Turkey to compete effectively in this space, it will need to come to terms with the reality that Ankara will not defy its history by resolving the Kurdish conundrum, nor will it be able to hide within its borders and avoid foreign entanglements.

 
 
Turkey, the Kurds and Iraq: The Prize and Peril of Kirkuk is republished with permission of Stratfor.
 
 

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Stratfor Flashback: Turkey’s Geographical Ambition

Note: Originally published by Stratfor  May 1, 2013.
(Republished by Stratfor in light of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Aug. 10 election as Turkey’s new president.)

 

By Robert D. Kaplan and Reva Bhalla

At a time when Europe and other parts of the world are governed by forgettable mediocrities, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister for a decade now, seethes with ambition. Perhaps the only other leader of a major world nation who emanates such a dynamic force field around him is Russia’s Vladimir Putin, with whom the West is also supremely uncomfortable.

Erdogan and Putin are ambitious because they are men who unrepentantly grasp geopolitics. Putin knows that any responsible Russian leader ensures that Russia has buffer zones of some sort in places like Eastern Europe and the Caucasus; Erdogan knows that Turkey must become a substantial power in the Near East in order to give him leverage in Europe. Erdogan’s problem is that Turkey’s geography between East and West contains as many vulnerabilities as it does benefits. This makes Erdogan at times overreach. But there is a historical and geographical logic to his excesses.

The story begins after World War I.

Because Ottoman Turkey was on the losing side of that war (along with Wilhelmine Germany and Hapsburg Austria), the victorious allies in the Treaty of Sevres of 1920 carved up Turkey and its environs, giving territory and zones of influence to Greece, Armenia, Italy, Britain and France. Turkey’s reaction to this humiliation was Kemalism, the philosophy of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (the surname “Ataturk” means “Father of the Turks”), the only undefeated Ottoman general, who would lead a military revolt against the new occupying powers and thus create a sovereign Turkish state throughout the Anatolian heartland. Kemalism willingly ceded away the non-Anatolian parts of the Ottoman Empire but compensated by demanding a uniethnic Turkish state within Anatolia itself. Gone were the “Kurds,” for example. They would henceforth be known as “Mountain Turks.” Gone, in fact, was the entire multicultural edifice of the Ottoman Empire.

Kemalism not only rejected minorities, it rejected the Arabic script of the Turkish language. Ataturk risked higher illiteracy rates to give the language a Latin script. He abolished the Muslim religious courts and discouraged women from wearing the veil and men from wearing fezzes. Ataturk further recast Turks as Europeans (without giving much thought to whether the Europeans would accept them as such), all in an attempt to reorient Turkey away from the now defunct Ottoman Empire in the Middle East and toward Europe.

Kemalism was a call to arms: the martial Turkish reaction to the Treaty of Sevres, to the same degree that Putin’s neo-czarism was the authoritarian reaction to Boris Yeltsin’s anarchy of 1990s Russia. For decades the reverence for Ataturk in Turkey went beyond a personality cult: He was more like a stern, benevolent and protective demigod, whose portrait looked down upon every public interior.

The problem was that Ataturk’s vision of orienting Turkey so firmly to the West clashed with Turkey’s geographic situation, one that straddled both West and East. An adjustment was in order. Turgut Ozal, a religious Turk with Sufi tendencies who was elected prime minister in 1983, provided it.

Ozal’s political skill enabled him to gradually wrest control of domestic policy and — to an impressive degree — foreign policy away from the staunchly Kemalist Turkish military. Whereas Ataturk and the generations of Turkish officers who followed him thought in terms of a Turkey that was an appendage of Europe, Ozal spoke of a Turkey whose influence stretched from the Aegean to the Great Wall of China. In Ozal’s mind, Turkey did not have to choose between East and West. It was geographically enshrined in both and should thus politically embody both worlds. Ozal made Islam publicly respected again in Turkey, even as he enthusiastically supported U.S. President Ronald Reagan during the last phase of the Cold War. By being so pro-American and so adroit in managing the Kemalist establishment, in the West at least Ozal — more than his predecessors — was able to get away with being so Islamic.

Ozal used the cultural language of Islam to open the door to an acceptance of the Kurds. Turkey’s alienation from Europe following the 1980 military coup d’etat enabled Ozal to develop economic linkages to Turkey’s east. He also gradually empowered the devout Muslims of inner Anatolia. Ozal, two decades before Erdogan, saw Turkey as a champion of moderate Islam throughout the Muslim world, defying Ataturk’s warning that such a Pan-Islamic policy would sap Turkey’s strength and expose the Turks to voracious foreign powers. The term neo-Ottomanism was, in fact, first used in Ozal’s last years in power.

Ozal died suddenly in 1993, ushering in a desultory decade of Turkish politics marked by increasing corruption and ineffectuality on the part of Turkey’s sleepy secular elite. The stage was set for Erdogan’s Islamic followers to win an outright parliamentary majority in 2002. Whereas Ozal came from the center-right Motherland Party, Erdogan came from the more openly Islamist-trending Justice and Development Party, though Erdogan himself and some of his advisers had moderated their views over the years. Of course, there were many permutations in Islamic political thought and politics in Turkey between Ozal and Erdogan, but one thing stands clear: Both Ozal and Erdogan were like two bookends of the period. In any case, unlike any leader today in Europe or the United States, Erdogan actually had a vision similar to Ozal’s, a vision that constituted a further distancing from Kemalism.

Rather than Ataturk’s emphasis on the military, Erdogan, like Ozal, has stressed the soft power of cultural and economic connections to recreate in a benign and subtle fashion a version of the Ottoman Empire from North Africa to the Iranian plateau and Central Asia. Remember that in the interpretation of one of the West’s greatest scholars of Islam, the late Marshall G.S. Hodgson of the University of Chicago, the Islamic faith was originally a merchants’ religion, which united followers from oasis to oasis, allowing for ethical dealing. In Islamic history, authentic religious connections across the Middle East and the Indian Ocean world could — and did — lead to wholesome business connections and political patronage. Thus is medievalism altogether relevant to the post-modern world.

Erdogan now realizes that projecting Turkey’s moderate Muslim power throughout the Middle East is fraught with frustrating complexities. Indeed, it is unclear that Turkey even has the political and military capacity to actualize such a vision. To wit, Turkey may be trying its best to increase trade with its eastern neighbors, but it still does not come close to Turkey’s large trade volumes with Europe, now mired in recession. In the Caucasus and Central Asia, Turkey demands influence based on geographic and linguistic affinity. Yet Putin’s Russia continues to exert significant influence in the Central Asian states and, through its invasion and subsequent political maneuverings in Georgia, has put Azerbaijan in an extremely uncomfortable position. In Mesopotamia, Turkey’s influence is simply unequal to that of far more proximate Iran. In Syria, Erdogan and his foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, thought — incorrectly, it turns out — that they could effectively mold a moderate Islamist Sunni opposition to replace President Bashar al Assad’s Alawite regime. And while Erdogan has gained points throughout the Islamic world for his rousing opposition to Israel, he has learned that this comes at a price: the warming of relations between Israel and both Greece and the Greek part of Cyprus, which now permits Turkey’s adversaries in the Eastern Mediterranean to cooperate in the hydrocarbon field.

The root of the problem is partly geographic. Turkey constitutes a bastion of mountains and plateau, inhabiting the half-island of the Anatolian land bridge between the Balkans and the Middle East. It is plainly not integral to a place like Iraq, for example, in the way that Iran is; and its Turkic language no longer enjoys the benefit of the Arabic script, which might give it more cultural leverage elsewhere in the Levant. But most important, Turkey is itself bedeviled by its own Kurdish population, complicating its attempts to exert leverage in neighboring Middle Eastern states.

Turkey’s southeast is demographically dominated by ethnic Kurds, who adjoin vast Kurdish regions in Syria, Iraq and Iran. The ongoing breakup of Syria potentially liberates Kurds there to join with radical Kurds in Anatolia in order to undermine Turkey. The de facto breakup of Iraq has forced Turkey to follow a policy of constructive containment with Iraq’s Kurdish north, but that has undermined Turkey’s leverage in the rest of Iraq — thus, in turn, undermining Turkey’s attempts to influence Iran. Turkey wants to influence the Middle East, but the problem is that it remains too much a part of the Middle East to extricate itself from the region’s complexities.

Erdogan knows that he must partially solve the Kurdish problem at home in order to gain further leverage in the region. He has even mentioned aloud the Arabic word, vilayet, associated with the Ottoman Empire. This word denotes a semi-autonomous province — a concept that might hold the key for an accommodation with local Kurds but could well reignite his own nationalist rivals within Turkey. Thus, his is a big symbolic step that seeks to fundamentally neutralize the very foundation of Kemalism (with its emphasis on a solidly Turkic Anatolia). But given how he has already emasculated the Turkish military — something few thought possible a decade ago — one should be careful about underestimating Erdogan. His sheer ambition is something to behold. While Western elites ineffectually sneer at Putin, Erdogan enthusiastically takes notes when the two of them meet.

Republished with the permission of Stratfor Glocal Intelligence
Original article: Turkey’s Geographical Ambition | Stratfor

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