Friday, April 25, 2008

More Hametz

It's not often that I agree with someone from the National Religious Party. In fact, I think this may be the first time I've even come close. However, Yehuda Ben Meir's views on the stance toward Israel's hametz law are interesting.

This means, of course, that I am agreeing with someone from the National Religious Party in a matter where he disagrees with his faction. I guess that's consistent.


Wednesday, April 23, 2008


The Jerusalem Post reports on public eating habits in Jerusalem during Passover. This makes an interesting case to explore the tension between community- and individual-based views of religion. Both are, to some degree, found in every religion. I was raised with a Protestantism that focused entirely on my own behavior and relationship with God as an individual. At the same time, some elements of the religious right interpret the idea that "God will judge the nations" to mean that God will judge them as nations based on their community values, and so try to force everyone to adhere to what they believe is the correct moral code, sometimes blaming disasters on people's failure to follow it.

One aspect of this tension within Judaism is that God's covenant is with the Jews as a people. The people interviewed in the Post article fascinate me:
"'I don't care what other people do, I do what I believe in, and I have no problem with restaurants that serve bread during Pessah,' said Shulamit Terez, who was sitting in Café Hillel, whose menu is kosher. 'I myself don't think it's appropriate to sell or eat hametz publicly during Pessah because it offends other people.'

"Terez's husband, Avraham, said that people should do what they wanted, but indoors...

"'I'm happy that hametz is not seen on the streets, because this is part of our commandment. But I won't prevent anyone from eating hametz on Pessah if it's very important to him,' Rivka Kaye from the settlement of Elkana said."

Note the "our commandment." What's important is that the public space of the community shows they are following God's will, even if individuals aren't. This is also why some people would potentially be offended at others' consumption of wheat, and thus disregard of God. This is completely different from:
"'Not all people are the same, and those who want to eat bread should be able to do it during Pessah, too. This is the idea behind the freedom of choice and the freedom of religion,' Leata Jelinek, from Canada, said."

Here we have the Western post-Enlightenment mindset where religion is a matter for individuals. Trying to regulate the community according to religious values smacks of theocracy. Finally, there's this guy:
"'We keep kashrut on a certain level,' said Boris, a father of two who was having ice cream with his children at McDonald's. 'We don't eat hametz during Pessah, and we don't eat pork. It's important for us to maintain the Jewish tradition because tradition is the past. Without the past, we have no future,' Boris added."

He speaks only about tradition, which means he probably doesn't believe there's any relevant divine commandment behind it. This is, in effect, taking the community-centered attitude and emptying it of religious context. Even if he agrees it is a matter of personal choice, his particular choice is entirely based off the community marker.

Anyone, of course, can find hametz on the Arab side of town, though predictably they don't seem to be hiking over there. I haven't seen bread in grocery stores, presumably because it's perishable and they didn't stock any not knowing how the legal situation would go down.

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Thursday, April 17, 2008


This is exactly where I am right now:
"For everyone else, April is the month where nature springs back to life, love is in the air, pleasant days and good feelings.

"I feel like in the academic calendar, April is the equivalent of winter. The year is dying, disappointments abound, there is frantic work to harvest whatever is left of this year’s efforts. I can’t remember an April since I began work as a professor where I felt relaxed and in control, except years when I was on leave. I always stumble into May out of energy, horribly behind in everything. I think I see the same in at least some of my students and many of my colleagues."

I enjoyed last April, as I was set for another year of fellowship in my future. That may be a unique experience since I began my formal education.


Monday, April 14, 2008


My home internet connection has really been staggeringly bad lately.


Thursday, April 10, 2008

Oslo, Only Weaker?

Ynet reports on new developments in Middle East peacemaking:
"According to Palestinian sources, the two sides are to reach a general agreement on principles by the end of the year that would not include reference to the questions of Jerusalem or the Palestinian refugees.

"The agreement would be a temporary one – valid for five years – during which the PA would be granted some municipal sovereignty in the capital and would be allowed to provide various services to the Palestinian residents of the city.

"Ynet has learned that this new outline has been presented to Israel and the Palestinians by US mediators, and that the two sides have been discussing it in recent weeks. While both sides are reluctant to accept the proposal, a source involved in the talks said that American pressure may force them to do so...

"The final stage negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians on the issue of Jerusalem will be postponed by five years, according to a new proposal discussed by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and PA negotiator Ahmed Qureia, a Palestinian source told Ynet.

"The proposal, submitted by the US, states that a settlement of the refugee problem would also be delayed by a few years."

I flipped the order of the two excerpts because I thought it was flowed better. I can see how Olmert's government is reluctant to sign off on this as presented, as for some reason Israelis are convinced the Oslo years were a great boon for the Palestinians in which they themselves got nothing. It's not clear what Olmert can point to here that would make them accept letting the Palestinian Authority operate in Jerusalem. The issue of settlements is also not addressed in these leaks. "Declaration of principles" has a rather hollow ring to it in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and it's not at all clear what purpose this serves except to please the lame-duck Bush administration and possibly bolster Olmert's and Abbas's political standing. Of course, since those are the party leaders in each country most committed to peace, that isn't nothing.

Regular readers won't be surprised, though, to learn I think this might be the best we can expect. The largest obstacle to peace right now, frankly, is the Qassam fire from Gaza. (And yes, I know Palestinians are just as bothered by IDF operations as Israelis are by the situation in Sderot, but the power imbalance is such that I simply don't see that mattering much.) Resolving that will mean either dealing with Hamas or an improvement in Israel's defensive technology that is still a few years away.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)

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Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Syrian Jews

Joshua Landis's has a fascinating piece by Robert Tuttle on the final decades of Syria's Jewish community.

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Sunday, April 06, 2008


RFE-RL profiles a seemingling low-key movement promoting Karakalpakstan's independence from Uzbekistan.


Imam Shafi'i

When I was in Cairo this past fall, I stopped by the tomb of Imam Shafi'i, a critical figure in the development of Sunni Islam. The gate entrance to the Ayyubid-period mosque and mausoleum is pictured below.

You can read about him here. In brief, he developed the system of using prophetic hadith interpreted by analysis and human reason to establish a system of Islamic law. Today the other schools of Sunni Islamic law all work within this framework to a greater or lesser degree. The mosque and mausoleum is part of a vast area of mausoleums south of the Citadel, and attracts many poor people seeking alms, as well as many who sit within the complex reading Qur'an and hadith. As with most Muslim religious figures, the actual grave is within a green glass and metal structure, but there was obviously some way to deposit money and written notes within.

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Bread Crisis

Egypt is showing signs of unrest over rising bread prices:
"Egypt's largest state-owned textile factory has called for a strike on Sunday over low wages and rising prices.

"Meanwhile, anti-government activists have also been calling for nationwide action, at a time of growing anger over worsening economic conditions...

"The powerful opposition Muslim Brotherhood has also pledged its support for the worker’s strike.

"The Egyptian authorities have been accused of using disproportionate force against protesters in recent years."


Saturday, April 05, 2008

Cotton Boycott

A movement is underway to boycott Uzbek cotton over the country's child labor practices:
"Since the first appeals were voiced in November 2007, several European clothing chains decided to stop buying Uzbek cotton or clothes made from it. Finland's Marimekko and Estonia's Krenholm were the first. They were joined by Swedish retail giant H&M, Gap, Tesco (the world's third-largest retailer), Britain's largest retailer Marks and Spencer, as well as Debenhams, another British clothing chain.

"The move was significant as it could shake Uzbek cotton's position in Europe -- where one out of every four garments is made of Uzbek cotton.

"Vasila Inoyatova heads the Uzbek human rights group Ezgulik, which has conducted research and several surveys on the use of illegal child labor and campaigned against the practice.

"'Of course, Uzbek officials should not be indifferent to this [boycott]. And they are not. [But] I don't believe a boycott from one or two companies will have a great impact on the Uzbek cotton industry and force Uzbek authorities to change their practice,' Inoyatova told RFE/RL at the roundtable. 'But if there are many more such companies, the problem is going to catch global attention.'"


Friday, April 04, 2008

Turkey's Water

Turkey suddenly has water issues:
"During the 1990s, Turkish government officials were fond of predicting that the country’s water would become a strategic resource, not only compensating for its limited reserves of hydrocarbons but--by supplying water to the countries of the Middle East--bolstering Turkey’s ambitions of becoming a regional superpower. The dams built on the Tigris and Euphrates as part of the $32 billion hydroelectric and irrigation Southeast Anatolia Project (GAP) had already given Turkey a stranglehold over the two main rivers flowing through Syria and Iraq (see EDM, March 13). Turkish officials planned to supplement the GAP’s importance as a strategic asset by building pipelines carrying freshwater from Turkey to the countries of the eastern Mediterranean littoral...

"Over the past 20 years, the annual volume of water available per capita in Turkey has fallen from 4,000 cubic meters to 1,430 cubic meters, which means that Turkey now ranks among the countries with insufficient water resources. In comparison, Syria has 1,200 cubic meters per capita, Lebanon 1,300 cubic meters, Iraq 2,020 cubic meters and Western Europe 5,000 cubic meters (Referans, March 29-30).

"Turkey is already beginning to suffer from a lack of water; 2007 was the driest summer in Turkey in a decade. At one point, the reservoirs that supply the capital Ankara were only 4 percent full, forcing the municipality to cut water supplies to once every three days. Inevitably, the drought also hit Turkish agriculture, which accounts for around 72 percent of water use in the country. According to recent figures released by the Turkish Statistical Institute (Turkstat), as a result of the drought, in 2007 production of wheat fell by 13.9 percent, cotton by 10.8 percent, corn by 7.2 percent and rice by 6.9 percent (Turkish Daily News, March 31). Another hot summer is expected in 2008. As of the end of March 2008, the reservoirs that supply Istanbul and Ankara were still only two-thirds as full as they had been in March 2007 (NTV, April 2)."

This will only exacerbate the frequent water tensions between Turkey and Syria.


Technology and the Modern Middle East

Recently, I finally got around to reading Marc Lynch's Voices of the New Arab Public. Early on, it prompted me to think about the influence of technology in history. One point Lynch made early on is that people involved with al-Jazeera had used satellite TV technology in ways that led to the creation of an Arab public sphere. There's one paragraph that said this very clearly and precisely, but the book is a hot commodity here in Jerusalem, and after waiting a couple of months to get it I had to quickly return it because of a recall order.

In any case, this sounds pat, as its a truism that new technology creates possibilities, and not necessarily realities, though sometimes that technology is immediately seized upon by historical actors who were "ready" for it. However, I at least have often thoughtlessly commented that satellite TV is transforming Arab political culture. This clearly needs to be more precise, not only for that reason, but because it's no longer clear that satellite TV technology is that critical. In particular, it's not clear to me why, had Emir Hamad of Qatar come along in the 1960's, he wouldn't have simply started a radio station and gotten the same effect. You wouldn't have pictures, but I'm not sure if seeing suffering Iraqis really makes that much more difference than listening to them would have.

This led me to thinking about what technologies might be making a difference in regional history by creating new possibilities, and it occurred to me that it would probably be those which might be said to reduce the space between individuals rather than communities. Satellite TV networks do have call-in shows, but I have yet to be sitting in a cafe with al-Jazeera on and see someone whip out a phone and place a call. I think most people experience satellite TV news as linking together communities. If someone in Cairo feels a connection to someone in Rabat, it is primarily because Egypt is linked to Morocco in a common narrative, or perhaps because they share a common ideology or occupational class which is featured.

Two new technologies which work differently are the cell phone and the internet. Both are known in the blogosphere for their political uses, as several countries have active political blogospheres of their own, and text messaging has become an important tool for protest organization and the distribution of information. Stepping outside the Middle East for a minute, it was not for nothing that Pervez Musharraf shut down the cell phone networks when he declared his state of emergency.

Whether all of this will turn out to be historically significant remains to be seen. I think there's no question, however, that these technologies are having an impact on the region's economy and society. There was a science and technology panel at a "Change in the Middle East" conference I organized when I worked for Middle East Studies, and both were featured in that capacity. I unfortunately don't remember the details of this presentation, but it involved a great deal of interesting information on how cell phones are changing patterns of economic practice and lifestyles in Morocco. Another presentation focused on the ways in which young people in a conservative society are using the internet to circumvent social controls. You could also tie that into cell phones, as I have both read about and seen young people involving themselves with people of whom society would disapprove through text messaging and cell phones. Another condition of this development, if course, is the introduction of western values as a product of globalization mediated in part through satellite television.


Thursday, April 03, 2008

Not Just Bolton

A Japanese newspaper reports that Ehud Olmert confirmed John Bolton's account of Israel's September raid in Syria:
"The Japanese daily newspaper Asahi Shimbun cited sources at the Japanese foreign ministry for its report of a meeting between Ehud Olmert, the prime minister of Israel, and Yasuo Fukuda, his Japanese opposite number.

"Olmert is reported to have admitted that Israel carried out the bombing last September and that the target was a nuclear-related facility built using technical assistance from Pyongyang...

"According to the paper's sources, Olmert told Fukuda that the site was a nuclear-related facility under construction with advice and assistance from North Korean technicians. The sources added that Olmert said Israel remained concerned about nuclear proliferation by North Korea and was seeking greater information sharing with Tokyo on the issue."

(Crossposted to American Footprints)

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Wednesday, April 02, 2008


At Daily Kos, DHinMI takes a look at a huge hole in Obama's electoral coalition:
"A question will be what happens in Appalachia. The afternoon of the Potomac primary I suggested keeping an eye on the results in the mountains of Virginia and Maryland as an indication of what might happen in later contests such as OH, KY, WV and PA. The results for Obama were dreadful. Despite his huge statewide win, in the Appalachian counties Clinton pulled as much as 80% of the vote. The same thing happened in Ohio, where Clinton racked up huge margins in Southeastern Ohio. Obama has lost to Clinton in every part of Appalachia that's voted, including northwestern Georgia, northern Alabama, northeastern Mississippi and eastern Tennessee.

"The polling shows that Obama will continue to have a difficult time getting votes in Appalachia. SUSA reports that in eastern Kentucky Clinton has a 4-1 edge."

One of Clinton's ongoing premises is that Obama is unelectable because he hasn't been winning the working class white vote in states he will have to win in November: Ohio and Pennsylvania. The obvious, frequently made counterargument is that his performance against Clinton is not necessarily predictive of his performance against McCain, but still, those are some pretty strong numbers.


Emotional Frames

At 'Aqoul, Matthew Hogan provides a key to understanding attachment to Zionism. I, for one, think he's right on. In pro-Palestinian circles, one often hears the accusation that Israel "uses" anti-Semitism. This elides the important point that many Israelis, especially of the older generation, actually believe all opposition to Israel is motivated by anti-Semitism.

This may sound irrational, but all you have to do is carefully sift history to see how countless immigrants from Europe simply projected the attitudes of their erstwhile European neighbors onto Arabs, almost all of whom opposed Zionism, but for entirely Arab reasons. This also played into the creation of historical narratives in which economic and even personal clashes between Jews and Arabs were remembered as ideological, with the Jews advocating Zionist ideals and the Arabs opposed for what were often assumed to be anti-Semitic motives. Later, with the actual importation of European anti-Semitism, the web became even more tangled.

This is not to justify one side or the other. It's just another exercise in multicultural education.

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Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Land Day in Jaffa

I didn't make it to Jaffa's Land Day rally as I intended, but Imshin reports:
"My sources tell me that there were about 400 participants in the Land Day Demonstration in Yaffo on Friday. A large percentage of the demonstrators, between 150 to 200, depending on who you spoke to, were apparently Jewish radical lefties, 'You know - long hair, earrings, funny little beards…'...

"My sources’ estimate was that there were probably no more than fifty actual Arab demonstrators."

This tracks with the turnout at similar events I've seen and gotten word of. Israel these days has no mainstream left-wing activism to speak of. It sounds trite, but people simply don't see any realistic prospects for change of any kind on the national level, and so just go about their everyday lives as best they can.