Wednesday, March 28, 2007

In Which I Disappear

I was going to post more today, but have been too busy. I'm about to take advantage of Israel's Passover lull to go to the United Arab Emirates and buy socks. I should be back shortly after Easter. Until then, see if you can guess what city is pictured below. The first to guess correctly will have a full week added to their allotted lifespan!


Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Peace Process

I keep meaning to comment on the current peace initiatives involving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but haven't had time to get my thoughts together. Here are a few scattered ones, however.

First, the Bush administration is showing a serious effort in the region, where Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice seems to be moving in. So far, all she has to show for it is a planned series of meetings between Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas on the "political horizon." I haven't the foggiest idea what that means. Based on that Jerusalem Post story and Ha'aretz, it sounds like they'll mostly be chatting about Qassams and crossings, but I guess Rice wants it to sound more visionary. The Bush administration's sudden interest in this matter also worries me. The White House isn't involved enough to screw it up the way they do most things, but the emphasis on the appearance of action suggests they do have an interest in the region that requires a bone for the Arab states, such as a possible military strike on Iran.

Speaking of the Arab states, Olmert is sending a message via Ban Ki-moon that he'd love a summit with moderate Arab regimes. Such a summit would focus on areas of agreement rather than disagreement, which is exactly how you want to advance a peace process. Meanwhile, under a headline that says the Arabs states might "repackage" their peace proposal, Ha'aretz goes on to report that the contents of said package will remain the same. Israel, however, will never agree to all that "in principle" before negotiations even begin. Meanwhile, Badger has the interesting notion that Tom Friedman's suggestion for a surprise visit by Saudi King Abdullah to Israel might be the result of coordination between the two, which has happened before. I guess we'll find out soon enough.

UPDATE: I just left a relevant comment at Yglesias's site:
"Rice is spending a lot of time on Israeli-Arab issues, and Ban Ki-moon is also making it a priority, but there's also this bizarre rush to produce accomplishments that don't amount to much of anything. I mean, what's the deal with biweekly discussions of the 'political horizon?' The only 'political horizon' around here is the Winograd Committee report that may force out Olmert and the Labor Party elections that will bounce Peretz, and could lead to Ehud Barak deciding to bolt the coalition and bring down the government. Anything that happens before all that is wasted effort, unless you just want to look good."


Monday, March 26, 2007


The combined mosque/chapel complex commemorating the Ascension on Jerusalem's Mount of Olives


Israel: Good Shepherd

One interesting aspect of living in Jerusalem is that if you get around much in the Old City - downtown belt, you're guaranteed to meet a lunatic at least every couple of weeks. For example, when I was at the bus station for my trip to Galilee, I met a kippah-wearing guy who seemed to be striking up conversations so as to warn people about their worldly attachments. In my case, I was told that if the University of Windsor, the name of which was on my travel bag, meant anything to me, I would be consumed by flames, reduced to ash, and worse than ash, for I would be nothing more than the memory of ash. This morning at the place where I do laundry, there was a woman from Grand Rapids, Michigan who was writing a book. That much is fairly innocuous. Then, however, we got into the three visions by which God had revealed her purpose to her. I can't explain the details because I zoned out a bit, but the upshot of it was that her book was connected to the eventual building of a third temple and the conversion of the (Palestinian?) Arabs to Christianity as a result of all their suffering.

Most people here, however, are perfectly normal. And with that as a segue, let's talk about Purim. Purim is a holiday that usually falls shortly before the official first day of spring and commemorates the events of the Biblical Book of Esther, though one suspects that the book is there partly to legitimize an existing agricultural festival of some kind. It is, after all, grouped with the festival scrolls rather than the histories and its pretense at historicity is pretty thin. The story, common to all three major monotheistic traditions, is that after the Persian ruler Ahasuerus spurned Vashti for not letting him show her off before the court, he realized he needed a new wife. Mordecai submitted his ward Esther, who won the king's favor and became queen. Thereafter, Mordecai learned of a plot by a minister named Haman to have all the Jews killed, which was thwarted when Esther revealed her Jewish heritage. The king gave the Jews permission to defend themselves, and they killed all the people who were trying to kill them. Mordecai became the new minister, and everyone lived happily ever after.

The Jewish collective response to this story has often been appropriately summarized as, "They tried to kill us, we survived, let's eat!" Purim is basically a big party. It seems to be a violation of Israeli law to have a celebration that is only one day long, so the events are actually stretched out for a week or so in advance of Purim. The actual day of Purim is the 14th of Adar, except in Jerusalem where it comes a day later, as centuries ago rabbis decided that the fact fighting went on for one day longer in Shushan meant that any city which had a wall during the Achaemenid period should celebrate it a day later. At least a week in advance, posters begin appearing advertising Purim parties, of which I'm told the the one with the Lubavicher Haredi is the best. These consist of a festive reading of Esther, followed by a festive meal and then a dutiful following of a commandment in the Talmud that at Purim, observant Jews should drink until they can no longer distinguish between the phrases "Cursed be Haman" and "Blessed be Mordecai."

The downtown area where I live reminded me a lot of Madison's State Street on Halloween, the American holiday to which Purim is often compared. On Purim, everyone wears costumes, and you see an assortment much like that on an American Halloween, with a few culturally determined variations, such as the women and girls who just put on nice, white, vaguely Hellenistic/Persian combinations of garments and call themselves Esther. A high percentage of men dress in drag, which perhaps explains why the Haredi rabbis bother issuing rulings forbidding it all the time. There are also the usual superheroes, ninjas, period constumes, and movie characters. I guess what you don't have is the scary element. As you might guess, the wildness stays the same, however, with a thick layer of police trying to check the rowdier elements. Another important aspect of Purim is making noise. In synagogues, I'm told people just stamp their feet. Out on the street, people use firecrackers, and get added fun out of it by trying to throw them onto balconies and into crowds of suddenly startled people. During the day there are parades, though I only saw newspaper pictures of those, and the giving of food baskets to people. I also think it important to mention that the West Bank is completely sealed off except for medical emergencies, which means Palestinians undoubtedly hate Purim, getting locked inside their cantons.

Given the current political tensions, it is perhaps inevitable that there was plenty of talk about Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a new Haman, which I don't feel like going into. The standard religious interpretation, however, is that the series of coincidences through which the Jews are saved shows God's concern for his people, though a cynic might suggest it would have been easier to have just one coincidence eliminate Haman before the plot ever got underway. An especially zealous devotee of Robert Graves - assuming such people exist - might suggest the saving of the Jews constitutes a new life, making it a typical spring holiday, filled with themes of rebirth and renewal. If I might make another painfully obvious segue, another holiday which combines divine concern for humanity with rebirth and renewal is Easter which commemorates events right here in Jerusalem.

As you may remember from my e-mail "Foundations" where I talked about the ruins of the Davidic city, the Mount of Olives is a high ridge east of the hill where Jerusalem originally stood. In the Old Testament, one occasionally reads of people doing things on the "High Places" outside the city, usually worshipping idols. Scholars believe these are the high places in question. Back in September I wrote about some of the lower reaches, such as the alleged Tomb of Mary and probable Garden of Gethsemane with the olive trees some of which are over 2000 years old. I finally got around to visiting the top of it, though I didn't hike. I took a bus from the Arab bus station near the Old City's Damascus Gate, and rode down into the Kidron Valley and up through a pro-Hamas neighborhood on the Mount's north side, then around a couple of elementary schools where some teachers were standing around chatting while keeping an eye on young girls running around during what looked very much like a recess, until I got off by the Church of the Pater Noster.

The Mount of Olives sites all commemorate especially famous events, as in the narrative structure of the gospels they tended to be saved until near the end when Jesus was by Jerusalem. Thus, on the lower slopes of the mountain is the Arab village of al-Azariya, known in Roman times as Bethany, where lived Lazarus and Martha. I couldn't go there, as I ran into my friend the Israeli security barrier and didn't feel like looking for a way around it. The Church of the Pater Noster, Latin for "Our Father," is on the site where Jesus supposedly taught the Lord's Prayer, and is thus perhaps the ultimate Jesus-as-teacher site just as al-Azariya would be the pinnacle of Jesus-as-healer. The remains of an old Crusader-era church are still visible. The building today, however, is much more recent, Lonely Planet is failing to tell me when it was built. The walls are covered with tiles showing the Lord's Prayer in dozens of languages, from standard ones like French, Italian, and Japanese to some very obscure ones like Greenlandic, Cree, and a few I confess to never having heard of. Most of the less commonly spoken language panels had dates at the bottom, suggesting maybe that's when they were added.

The most important site on the Mount of Olives, though, is, of course, that of the Ascension. There are, however, three claimants. One was a Russian Orthodox church I didn't bother to go to, as the Russian Orthodox keep hours that would make a Saudi Arabian consulate proud. The most visible is the tall, somewhat dingy up close steeple of the Roman Catholic church, which I also wound up skipping because it was too hard trying to find the entrance. The place I did wind up visiting was not very imposing, being a smallish structure from the time of the Crusades. Across the street from a cafe/restaurant with great rooftop views of the Old City, I initially found it confusing. The sign outside said "Chapel of the Ascension" in several languages, but instead of a steeple, it had a minaret with a crescent moon and speakers for the call to prayer. Upon closer inspection, I saw a small cross above the entrance, and a sign with a Muslim profession I couldn't quite make out on a wall by the door.

After I'd made a couple of false starts trying to determine if I should wander in or not, a man inside beckoned to me. As I crossed the threshold passing an entrance to a chamber with prayer carpets and a standard mosque shoe storage cabinet, I heard and then saw a church group singing a hymn the main line of which was "He lives within my heart" with a slight southern accent. I asked the man if it was a church or a mosque. "Both!" he replied, "The only place in the world where both Christians and Muslims..." and he stopped looking briefly for a verb but gave up and just beamed. "Issa (Jesus), peace be upon him, brings us together." Jesus, of course, is recognized in Islam as a Prophet, though I didn't know Muslims had the Ascension, which I guess is the implication of having a Mosque of the Ascension. The actual prayer area of the mosque was the small room off to the side of the entrance, while the chapel was a small building in the courtyard where the church group was singing. Inside the chapel was a depressed piece of rock in which was preserved the alleged footprint of Jesus before the Ascension. Next to it was a flat space with a niche in the wall facing Mecca for Muslim prayers, while directly in front were red flowers and a place for the lighting of Christian prayer candles.

In the world today, finding such a place was remarkable, almost like a dream. Especially in areas that aren't very multicultural, there's so much focus on differences, and the whole idea of interfaith dialogue sounds like a fringe liberal hobby. Yet here at this place, just across the valley from a place where six weeks ago there were riots involving control over another holy site, two of the monotheistic religious had been brought together by faith and perhaps that very same dream. After all, much of what we look for in religion is our dreams, of being saved from oppression and genocidal intent, of a friend in the darkest of nights, of hope for the future, and many of the holidays we commemorate represent our memories or visions of the far side of that hope and our expression of faith that we might yet see it. And perhaps, too, atop the Mount of Olives, God has left us with a signpost, like a good shepherd who protects, saves, and guides, leaving the path to salvation written within our own familiar world.


Who Wanted a Stand-Off?

I've been wondering who in Iran gave the green light to the capture of the 15 British military personnel in the Persian Gulf. It looks like both Conservative circles in Britain and the editor of an Iranian oppostion newspaper blame Revolutionary Guard. There's also a suggestion that they were taken as a response to the American detention of Iranian consulate personnel in Irbil shortly after President Bush's speech in January.

The IRGC chain of command goes up to Ayatollah Khamene'i, not President Ahmadinejad.

UPDATE: Reuters offers this:
"'It appears there is no decision on (how to handle) this issue,' said one Iranian analyst pointing to the relatively subdued coverage in Iran's media so far.

"A diplomat echoed this view, saying hard-line news sources were making the most noise. Both the analyst and diplomat said the incident may have taken the authorities by surprise and did not appear pre-planned, so there was a debate about next steps."

(Crossposted to American Footprints)


Settlers on the Warpath

Probably because Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has no political capital whatsoever, the settler movement has begun aggressively challenging the state in the West Bank. In Hebron, settlers have occupied a house by the main road connecting their settlement with the Cave of the Patriarchs. They claim they acquired it legally, but Palestinians disagree. The government, meanwhile, is dithering while the situation grows more tense, though they did try to block a Peace Now demonstration.

Meanwhile, today settlers have scheduled a march to reoccupy Homesh, which was evacuated at the time of the Gaza disengagement. To prevent clashes, the IDF is securing their route to the settlement site, but the government has pledged to evict them if they try to remain. The settlers do seem prepared for that, so perhaps it will end peacefully. Both these developments, however, show that the settler movement has senses the time is right to try turning back the consensus which drove Israeli policy toward the territories during the last few Sharon years and try to turn it back into a expansionist power.

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Saturday, March 24, 2007

Health Care Forum

If anyone wants to know why I qualify my support for Obama as "tentative," look no further than the SEIU health care forum, where it sounds like his rhetoric was very expansive but his positions simultaneously all over the map and his specifics amount to some efficiency issues and getting employers to pay into a pool if they don't provide adequate coverage. That said, I don't spend that much time on the exact details of a candidate's positions at this point, which may or may not be what they propose in office and what then comes out of Congress when all is said and done. Obama does seem like he can move the debate leftward, which I think is important. On the other hand, Richardson, my back-up favorite, has a lot of specific ideas, but his pitch is very much in the Clinton/Kerry mode, and it's not clear if they move the debate at all. Among the top tier of candidates, only Edwards has the real goods on this issue, with Kucinich and Gravel taking the single-payer position among the minor candidates.


Firefly Episode 4: "Shindig"

"Shindig" is the first Firefly outing that moves past exposition of the setting to explore the relationship between two characters, in this case, Mal and Inara. We've known about sexual tension between them ever since the pilot, but this episode brings that to the fore. By the end of it, we've learned a little more about both characters and their relationship to their very different worlds, as well as gotten some more of those side moments highlighting other characters at which Firefly excels.

One way in which Firefly differs from most science fiction shows of its type is that it's not afraid to show Mal, as captain, on something other than an even keel. On Persephone, he's clearly bothered by feelings of jealousy such that even mentioning Inara's name and hinting at her work causes him to become more distracted and surly than usual. It's probably a matter of taste, but I found it almost too much. If he his feelings lead to awkwardness that easily, how have they been functioning together for almost a year?

The two are clearly from very different worlds, though at the risk of disagreeing with the episode's writer, Jane Espenson, from the DVD commentary, I felt she fit into his a lot better than he did hers. Mal was able to fit in at the ball, but only as long as he focused on his objective - meeting Harrow, a client who won't deal with Badger, but whom Badger suspects Mal might be able to win over.

The three main guest stars, by the way, were all fine. Mark Sheppard is a great actor with an interesting recurring character whom I would have loved to see more often in future episodes. Larry Drake struck just the right note with Harrow, as a man within elite society who's well aware of its more unsavory characters. If anything was missing, it was in Edward Atterton's Atherton Wing. This is probably mainly a writing flaw, but while he did a come job as coming across as the smooth, arrogant rich kid, it was never quite clear why Inara genuinely liked him as she professed to do.

Matters come to a head when Mal punches Atherton for the latter's own jealous reaction and assumption that he owns Inara now that he's paid her. This leads to an obligatory sword duel over the matter of honor, and Atherton, naturally, is an expert swordsman. There's a great scene in Mal's room on Persephone where Inara comes to try and help Mal escape, and instead ends up teaching him swordfighting. Mal draws a distinction between not respecting her work and not respecting her, and coming as close to begging as Mal ever does in asking her not to accept Atherton's offer to stay with him as his personal Companion.

During the course of the show, we also see more of the everyday life of the crew, with what we might call Wash and Zoe's personal interactions and the card game over chores between Book, Simon, and Jayne. Simon is starting to fit in more, taking part in discussing plots to rescue Mal and being referred to by Jayne as "the doctor" rather than as some outside refugee. River also gets a bit more development in that wonderful scene where she reads Badger, who had come aboard to prevent the others from rescuing Mal, in his own dialect, concluding that he was a "sad little king of a sad little hill." Badger becomes an even more interesting character by responding with amusement.

In the end, Atherton is about to win the duel when Inara offers to stay with him if he'll spare Mal, a sacrifice which shows her own affection for him. Mal uses this to get the better of Atherton, but declines to "finish it" so that Atherton will be left with the reputation of a coward. Inara provides a finishing touch by telling him he will become persona non grata to other Companions. In the show's final scene, the two share a moment in the cargo hold, looking over Harrow's herd of cattle while making a common bond out of not wanting to leave Serenity.

Altogether this was a decent episode - I haven't even mentioned Kaylee's dress and its associated moments. As noted, I did wonder a bit about elements of the characterization, and the pacing of the ball scenes also seemed off, though maybe I just haven't seen enough balls on TV to judge appropriately. As a complete package, I'll give it 6/10.
Inara: "I am grateful, you know, for the ill-conceived and high-handed attempt to defend my honor although I didn't want you to."


Friday, March 23, 2007

Obama for President

After careful consideration, and surprisingly early in the process by my standards, though that seems to be the theme of this cycle, I have tentatively decided to support Barack Obama for the 2008 Democratic Presidential nomination.

The main rap against Senator Obama is his lack of national political experience, as in 2008 he will have had only four years in the Senate. This is normally a problem in foreign policy, where decisions have to be made quickly and consequences can be profound. However, he has been an enthusiastic participant on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and his campaign web site highlights some serious stuff, particularly on nuclear proliferation from the former Soviet Union. He has also spent significant time overseas and gained familiarity with different parts of the world that will serve him well in the White House.

Obama's domestic agenda is less formed, the main reason this support is tentative. However, he addresses issues such as education and health care in a way which conforms to my own philosophy of a government which supports localized initiative which creating conditions of security and stability in which people can live and work. On key labor issues I have no doubt he has the right ideas, and his background as a community organizer gives him insight into the problems faced by, well, people who work for change at the community level.

Finally, at the level of shaping the national debate, Obama is a talented politician who, as some have noted, has a tendency to come across as more liberal than he actually is, but doing so in a way people find acceptable. After six years of President Bush, conditions seem right for someone to articulate a coherent, inspiring liberal vision of the country, a process begun in 2003 and 2004 by Howard Dean. This would represent an important paradigm shift in our national politics, one which would pave the way for more progressive change in the future.


Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Name

After extensive deliberations, the relevant committees of the Israeli government have decreed that Israel's second war in Lebanon should be called... the Second Lebanon War.



Tajikistan's President wants a more traditional onomasticon:
"Imomali Rakhmonov announced on March 20 that he wants to remove the Russified 'ov' ending from his name and use the more Tajik spelling 'Emomalii Rahmon,' AP reported the next day. Rakhmonov said, 'In Soviet times, our names were documented according to the rules of the Russian language.' He added, 'I want to return to traditions and change my name to Emomalii Rahmon.' Rakhmonov, who was addressing a meeting of Tajik intellectuals on the traditional spring celebration of Norouz, called on others to change their names in similar fashion and urged a return to the use of traditional place names, reported."


Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Egyptian Dictatorship Ascendant

I don't blog much about Egypt, but Marc Lynch makes a compelling case that it is about to transform from authoritarian fake democracy to outright dictatorship. Here are the constitutional changes in question:
"The changes are blatantly, almost absurdly, authoritarian and antidemocratic. Judicial oversight of elections will be eliminated; even NDP strategist Ali al-Din Hilal admits that this makes cheating much easier (which of course is the point). Contested Presidential elections will be virtually impossible, since candidates must come from a licensed party with so much representation in all elected bodies that in practice only the NDP will ever get over the bar. Parties based on religion would be explicitly banned, making it impossible for the Muslim Brotherhood to form a political party and participate openly in the political process. But it isn't just the MB: the regime, under NDP control, will retain an iron grip on the licensing of political parties, and judging by past practice will use this control to exclude not only the Muslim Brotherhood but any other promising political party. 'Counter-terrorism' provisions will render a whole range of highly controversial, intrusive security practices Constitutional, making the de facto security state into a de jure security state."

What are the chances these moves will be successfully opposed?
"The best and only real option: mobilize sustained, critical international media attention to stigmatize and embarrass the Egyptian regime. Al-Jazeera has been giving full voice to the Egyptian opposition, but the Saudi press is mostly ignoring it, probably because the Saudis don't really like democratic reforms and they are currently comfortably aligned with Cairo and Washington against Iran. Al-Arabiya currently does not have a single front page story about the Egyptian crisis (though this may change over the course of the day, of course), while between al-Hayat and al-Sharq al-Awsat there is exactly one story, a scathing opinion piece by Fahmy Howeydi, who can write whatever he wants to write because he's Fahmy Howeydi... except in Egypt, where al-Ahram refused to run this highly critical piece in his usual weekly column spot. Some Egyptian papers, like al-Masry al-Youm, are doing a good job, but it's often been noted that they have this margin of freedom precisely because of their relatively limited influence and reach."

Meanwhile, the Bush administration, which at least created a space for the opposition to work within a couple of years ago, is letting Mubarak have free reign. The point of these changes is to smooth the transition to rule by Mubarak's son Gamal, and I suspect the thinking in Washington is that they want a friend running Egypt for the foreseeable future.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)


Guillaume Postel

Occasionally people think I'm a little strange. If so, at least I'm in the right area of study. Here's a bit from Robert Irwin's For Lust of Knowing:
"That Guillaume Postel - the first true Orientalist - was also a complete lunatic may be taken as an ominous presage for the future history of an intellectual discipline...His belief in the primacy of Hebrew was not in his time particularly controversial. What was a little eccentric was his idea that in order to achieve world peace and a utpoian manner of life it was necessary for everyone to return to speaking Hebrew, for it was the via veritas perdita, 'the lost way of truth.' Moreover, he held that the very structure of the Hebrew language, divinely ordained as it was, would confirm the Christian revelation...

"In his lifetime he was the foremost expert on Arabic and Islam in Europe, but he was also quite barmy. In Venice in 1547 he had met up with a woman called Johanna, whom he confidently identified with the Shekinah (divine presence) of the Cabala, the Angelic Pope, the Mater Mundi, the New Eve, and the consummation of eternity, among other things. Johanna (like Superman) had X-ray vision, so that she could see Satan sitting at the center of the earth. Postel, impressed, became her disciple. By the time he returned from his second trip to the Middle East, the Mater Mundi was dead. However, this was only a temporary setback, as in 1551 she returned to this world and possessed Postel's body, so that he became the Mater Mundi, the New Eve, and so on. (He does not say if he got the X-ray vision.) As prophet of the New Age, he then produced a succession of strange books and pamphlets, which got him into trouble with the Inquisition in Venice. However, the Inquisition, in an unusually benign frame of mind, decreed that he was not a heretic, merely insane. An official of the Holy Office, who had examined Postel's writings for heresy in 1555, reported that, though his ideas were definitely heretical, 'no one, fortunately, could possibly understand them except the author...'

"Postel's erudition grew heavily on the Cabala and Neoplatonism, but also on what he could discover of the doctrines of such Muslim groups as the Druze and the Isma'ilis. In particular, his notion of the successive incarnation of the Divine in men (and he considered himself an outstanding example) may have ultimately been derived from his reading of Druze literature. He was especially enthusiastic about the Druze because he had determined that they were of French origin and that their name was derived from 'Druid.' The alleged Frenchness of the Druze was particularly important, as Postel was a fervent patriot who believed that the French were the chosen people of the Last Days and that the King of France had the rightful claim to be king of the world by virtue of his direct descent from Noah (though one would have thought that there were many in Postel's time who could have made a similar claim)."


Monday, March 19, 2007

The War With No Name

Only Israel could be drowning in bureaucracy over what to call a war:
"The proposals currently in place for the war's official name include the 'Peace in the North' and 'Northern Shield War,' and 'The Second War in Lebanon.'

"The decision on the name, which was expected to be reached during the meeting on Monday, has been postponed due to the opposition of legal advisers over the proposal 'The Second War in Lebanon,' since the first conflict in Lebanon was actually defined as an operation.

"According to Edrey, the legal and economic ramifications of defining the conflict as a war are not significant because the government is already paying compensation to businesses in the north.

"On Sunday, the second committee dealing with a name for the conflict held its first meeting. The committee, a public panel was appointed by Defense Minister Amir Peretz, is working on the assumption that the term war should not be used, and instead it should be called an operation. According to Edrey, the two committees are coordinating on the issue."

Has anyone thought about the "Hizbullah War?"


Bhutto on the Taliban

Benazir Bhutto's warning that the Taliban may take over Pakistan if not stopped in 2007 is a joke for all the wrong reasons. The Taliban rely too much on Pakistan's support for their campaign in Afghanistan to risk a confrontation right now, though if they ever consolidate a position in Afghanistan, they may look to the south. (The Taliban still had not conquered the entire country in 2001.) If that happens, Musharraf will have problems within his own armed forces.

Bhutto should know all about such problems, however, because her government made the Taliban during the 1990's. Her party may be 'secular,' but it still wanted influence and stability in Afghanistan and needed to appease the country's conservative religious elements. Arming and funding a religious extremist movement killed both birds with one stone. For her to start playing the anti-Taliban card now is sheer opportunism as she tries to make a political comeback in the elections Pakistan will supposedly hold later this year.

(Hat tip: Moby Capital. This will be crossposted to American Footprints once the site is back up.)

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Sunday, March 18, 2007

Firefly Episode 3: "Bushwhacked"

No, I haven't forgotten my plans to review Firefly. However, it's been a busy couple of months. I'm getting back in the groove now, though, with the show's third installment, "Bushwhacked," a short horror flick designed as a formal introduction to the Reavers, whose brief appearance in the pilot simply let us know they were horrible. "Bushwhacked" lets us see the horror, which is made all the more compelling by the fact they themselves never appear. All we see is their shadow in the actions of the crew and the transport ship's lone survivor.

The transport ship is portrayed in a suitable dark and eerie manner, which sets the tone for the eventual discovery of the bodies, at which Mal immediately orders everyone back to Serenity. The discovery of the survivor contributes to the sense of urgency, as it involves Jayne panicking over a fight, assuming he is far more vicious than he actually is (at that point). In an equally eerie medical bay, we see the survivor driven mad, to the point where Mal, who has obviously encountered their handiwork before has Simon put him to sleep out of mercy.

Mal and Jayne then describe the Reavers to a skeptical Book. This skepticism sets the stage for the even bigger skepticism of Commander Harkin, who arrives with an Alliance cruiser to accuse Mal of committing the atrocities on board the transport, as well as the standard illegal salvage operation. In the end, however, he is forced to acknowledge the truth and Mal, driven to speak poetically in trying to get Harkin to understand, saves his life by killing the Reaverfied survivor despite being in handcuffs.

Even as it establishes both the horror of the Reavers and the general skepticism about them on the inner planets, the episode fits it lots of nice character moments. The basketball game at the beginning is one, showing the crew just having fun together for the first time in the series. Shortly after that, Simon's fish-out-of-water position and his courage are seen simultaneously as he falls for Jayne's trick to don a spacesuit and enter what he believes is a vacuum. We see the same thing when he enters space for real with his sister, whose bright inner spirit comes through for the first time in her enjoyment of the experience. Finally, we see Mal demonstrate his sense of honor and/or loyalty when he hides Simon and River rather than use them as a bargaining chip with the Alliance, as both Simon and Jayne expect.

In one or more of David Eddings's series, a character uses a technique of requesting random objects to ostensibly torture people, on the theory that their imaginations will come up with worse stuff than he could actually do. "Bushwhacked" uses the same theory brilliantly. Had we actually seen the Reavers torturing and killing, the show would have simply become a gorefest. By leaving them offstage and focusing just on reactions, the show puts us inside their effects, giving us a similar reaction that of the characters. All in all, it was a nicely done piece of work which I give an 8/10.
Mal: "That poor bastard you took off my ship. He looked right into the face of it — was made to stare."
Harken: "It?"
Mal: "The darkness. Kind of darkness you can't even imagine. Blacker than the space it moves through."
Harken: "Very poetic."
Mal: "They made him watch. He probably tried to turn away, and they wouldn't let him. You call him a survivor? He's not. A man comes up against that kind of will, the only way to deal with it, I suspect, is to become it."


Anthem Wars

Muslim Arab Cabinet minister Ghaleb Majadele has caused a controversy over his refusal to sing Israel's national anthem, though he says he does stand in respect. The lyrics are here:

"As long as in the heart, within,
A Jewish soul still yearns,
And towards the end of the East
An eye still watches toward Zion --

"Our hope is not yet lost,
The hope of two thousand years,
To be a free nation in our own land,
The land of Zion and Jerusalem."

Majadele is right that the song is clearly aimed at Jewish citizens, and any Arab is justified in having mixed feelings so long as they are persistently regarded as a "demographic threat" to what it represents and when a woman who says that having an Arab in the Cabinet represents "a lethal blow to Zionism" is herself nominated for that Cabinet by her party within the governing coalition. Loyalty has to be a two-way street.


The Depraved Show

One of the concerns with the results of Bahrain's Parliamentary elections was that the Shi'ite and Sunni Islamists would unite around social issues. This appears to be happening:
"Bahrain's information minister yesterday received the backing of two newspapers in the stand-off with a parliamentarian investigation committee over the alleged explicit sexual content of a cultural show.

"Islamists from Al Wefaq, Al Asala and Al Menbar, who make up 75 per cent of Bahrain's Council of Representatives, last week agreed to form an ad-hoc committee to quiz Information Minister Dr Mohammad Abdul Gaffar and ministry officials over the 'indecent character' of a musical show, Qais and the Possessed, staged on March 1 as part of the annual Spring of Culture festival. The deputies' decision sharply split the country between conservatives who said that the show was 'an unacceptable onslaught on Bahrain's identity and values' and liberals who charged the Islamists with 'seeking to impose their restricted views on the population'."

This is, of course, partly just grandstanding by politicians who can't figure out how to do anything about advancing political reforms or solving the country's other problems. As a result, many may eventually lose faith in the system and attempt to topple it from outside.


Friday, March 16, 2007

Warning to the Nation

The office of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has warned the official newspaper of the Balad party that Shin Bet will counter any threat, even legal ones, to Israel's "Jewish and democratic character." The threat, in this case, is apparently various Arab proposals for a non-sectarian basis for the state. Olmert's warning will not only drive Israeli Arabs further into the margins, but should terrify anyone who is a friend of Israeli democracy. If the religious parties gain more clout, does calling for civil marriage threaten the state's Jewish character? In a democracy, certain activities are legal, and others are illegal. Security services have no business threatening people who are exercising their legal rights.

Beck and Clinton

Garance Franke-Ruta makes a good point about CNN's Glenn Beck's comments on Hillary Clinton:
"When Ann Coulter called heterosexual John Edwards a "faggot," the blogs erupted. But when someone calls the Democratic front-runner, who is female, a "bitch," we get total radio silence. This makes me think my nightmare Democratic scenario may yet come true. Hillary could win the nomination, but be so damaged from a steady stream of misogynist attacks like this -- which the male activists of her party will agree with too much to fight back against -- that she will go down in flames...And believe you me -- no party that can't stand up for the honor of a woman who has been publicly insulted is going to be judged capable of standing up to terrorists, no matter how masculine its nominee may be."

I'm suspended between Richardson and Obama with Senator Clinton far down the list, but I will say Beck was way out of line, and Franke-Ruta's point at the end, while perhaps grounded in a very traditional chivalry, will reflect the perceptions of most Americans.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Higher Education and Political Reform

Florian Kohstall writes about the westernization of higher education in Egypt and Morocco in the context of political reform. Despite some people's stated intentions, however, it doesn't look like it has any bearing whatsoever on increasing political pluralism within the two countries. Even the universities themselves often maintain a centralized administration. There's also this:
"In addition to the selective approach to reforms, beneficiaries of reform and international cooperation also come from a select stratum of society. The current boom of private universities in Egypt, for example, creates opportunities for Egyptian philanthropists to invest in the business of education and come across as promoters of the “knowledge society” called for in UNDP's Arab Human Development Reports. And the results of such investments are only accessible to a small number of students who can afford private education. Elite politicians also benefit, as the countless committees, workshops, travel tours, and conferences organised by international organizations provide an important platform from which to present themselves as the true vanguard of reform."

To a degree, higher education systems always serve to reproduce elite status across generations, but this is especially striking in societies where its reach is so small. A gateway to even being admitted to these schools is knowledge of the language of instruction, usually English. I don't know how it works in Egypt, but in Morocco, where French is emphasized as a second language, acquiring the degree of English fluency necessary to study at al-Akhawayn University - Ifrane almost always requires private tutoring during the secondary school years, which only some families can afford.

These institutions do produce some anti-government activists - many of the Egyptian "Youth for Change" came out of American University - Cairo. However, part of the weakness of the 2004-05 protest movement was its inability to connect with people who didn't have an elite education, which remains the overwhelming majority of Egyptians.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Dubai? Where's That?

Because most flights in this region require paper tickets, I stopped by a travel agent today to book my Passover flight to Dubai. The girl who helped me had never heard of it, and had to get someone else to find the airport code for her. I admit Jerusalem travel agencies might not have a ton of people flying to the Gulf, but it is a rather important city, isn't it?

In the end, they wouldn't sell me a ticket because they couldn't verify I could travel between Jerusalem and Amman, so I had to go on-line and then pay $40 for international shipping.

Ten Minutes

Mona Eltahawy on blogging in Tunisia:
"Whenever I think of Tunisia and the Internet I always think of 10 minutes. That’s how much time journalist and human rights campaigner Sihem Bensedrine has to type out her latest news before security apparatus track down the Internet café she is filing from. Then she slips out to another café to begin another round of 10 minutes. I’ll never forget hearing her describe this at a conference in Copenhagen we spoke at last year that was organized by the Danish chapter of the writers’ organization PEN on freedom of expression in the Arab world.

"How many rounds of 10 minutes do we spend surfing the net, mindlessly? She has 10 minutes to tell the world about the latest horrors of the police state otherwise known as the torture fiefdom of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali aka Tunisia."

The Attorneys

Josh Marshall on the U.S. Attorney purge:
"First, we now know -- or at least the White House is trying to tell us -- that they considered firing all the US Attorneys at the beginning of Bush's second term. That would have been unprecedented but not an abuse of power in itself. The issue here is why these US Attorneys were fired and the fact that the White House intended to replace them with US Attorneys not confirmed by the senate. We now have abundant evidence that they were fired for not sufficiently politicizing their offices, for not indicting enough Democrats on bogus charges or for too aggressively going after Republicans. (Remember, Carol Lam is still the big story here.) We also now know that the top leadership of the Justice Department lied both to the public and to Congress about why the firing took place. As an added bonus we know the whole plan was hatched at the White House with the direct involvement of the president."

This story is actually an example of why the Bush administration's executive over-reach is such a big deal. The replacement of these attorneys was handled under a provision from the USA Patriot Act reauthorization which allowed the White House to bypass the Senate confirmation process. I'm not going to try finding a link, but way back in December we saw that Karl Rove's opposition researcher had been installed as an attorney in Hillary Clinton's old home state of Arkansas. This is an example of how easy it is to abuse power. The process criticism of everything from the NSA spying scandal to the military tribunals for Gitmo detainees may not be sexy, but this scandal is showing why it is crucial to preserving American democracy.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Courting Tashkent

Roger McDermott, writing for the Jamestown Foundation, today discussed a perceived improvement in Russian-Uzbek relations:
"Russia’s Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov paid an official visit to Tashkent on March 7, describing Uzbekistan as Russia’s closest partner in Central Asia. This marked the first occasion that a Russian prime minister has visited Tashkent since 1999. Talks centered on President Islam Karimov’s ideas to further strengthen the rapidly growing cooperation ties between Russia and Uzbekistan. This includes comprehensive cooperation in culture and education, trade and the economy, and security, as well as within existing multilateral organizations. Karimov made the most of the visit, telling Fradkov: 'Your visit to Uzbekistan is seen as fresh evidence of how dynamic -- and I would say fast -- relations are developing between Uzbekistan and Russia. Dynamic development in our relations at multilateral as well as bilateral levels is obvious in a variety of areas in which we cooperate. We also use your visit to take a critical look at the state of affairs in various areas of cooperation. Not just a critical look, but we must also find solutions to urgent problems and agree [on] cooperation priorities' (Uzbek TV Second Channel Yoshlar, March 7)."

RFE-RL's Daniel Kimmage, however, has a different impression:
"Taken together, the slight chill in Uzbek-Russian relations, the appearance of an article in a major Uzbek government mouthpiece urging better ties with the West, and stated Western willingness to engage Uzbekistan suggest that a multivector moment is beginning in Uzbekistan's foreign policy.

"The example of Kazakhstan, which has skillfully used a multivector foreign policy to maintain solid ties with Russia, the West, and, increasingly, with China, likely provides added incentive for President Karimov, whose sense of rivalry with his oil-rich northern neighbor is no secret.

"Uzbekistan's room for multivector maneuvering remains considerably smaller than Kazakhstan's, however. Tashkent has shown no sign that it will accede to Western demands for an independent investigation of accounts that Uzbek security forces massacred demonstrators in Andijon in May 2005."

Reading both pieces, I think McDermott mistook Russia's desire for closer ties to Uzbekistan for the actual existence of such ties. Karimov's government has been reaching out to Russia, the United States, and the European Union, and will probably avoid becoming anyone's client.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)

Monday, March 12, 2007

Arab-Jewish Tension

Here's some of that tension I mentioned below:
"68.4 percent of Israeli Jews fear a civil uprising on behalf of Israeli Arabs and 63.3 percent say they won't enter Arab towns in Israel, according to the results of the 2006 index of Jewish-Arab relations released on Monday.

"The poll also showed that 62 percent of the Arab population in Israel fears that the 'triangle' area will be ceded to a future Palestinian state and 60 percent say they fear a mass expulsion from Israel."

Israel: Galilee

As temperatures here in Israel warm up into the 70's and the rainy season comes to an end, I've finally started hitting the road more within the country. With consideration for Lent, late last week I took a couple of days and headed up to the Sea of Galilee region, along with about a gazillion pilgrim groups from all over the world. By afternoon the parking lots around the major sites were packed with their busses, and you could comically see more on the hillside roads in the distance. Many of their leaders tried to keep the groups together by holding up flags of the countries where they were from, and at one point on the hill leading up to the Roman Catholic Basilica of the Annunciation, I felt like I was at the opening ceremonies of the Olympics. Brazil! Nigeria! Philippines!

The journey north is fast, thanks to the recently completed Yitzhak Rabin Highway, Highway #6, which is exactly like a brand new American interstate. I stayed on the bus until Capernaum Junction, just outside a place called Tabgha, which is home to three Christian holy sites centered around rocks that were venerated by the Christians of Capernaum in the days of the Roman Empire. The most important one, the Mount of the Beatitudes, I didn't ascend, as it was closed for lunch from 11 a.m. until 2:30, and I'd saved it for the way back. I did, however, hop over to the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and the Fishes, built in 1936, on the site of an older Byzantine Church that was destroyed in 614 during a Persian invasion. Unlike all the other Catholic-run sites I can remember, this one was run by the Benedictines rather than the Franciscans. There were also two gift shops - one outside, the other on the interior courtyard. Christians, I've noticed, always have shops at their holy sites. Protestants sell souvenirs, the Orthodox sell candles, icons, and other religious items, and Catholics sell a mix of both. (Jews and Muslims also sell things, but there's no shop - there's just a guy near the entrance who whips things out of his coat.)

Further down the road is the Church of the Primacy of St. Peter, a small, black basalt building at the site associated with John 21, when Jesus appeared to some of his disciples while they were fishing after the resurrection. The fact that Jesus told Peter to "feed his sheep" is taken as a sign of his headship of the disciples, though it isn't as strong or direct as the verses in Matthew where he says: "Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." Catholics interpret this as inaugurating the papacy which goes back to Peter as the traditional first Bishop of Rome. While I was there a replica of a first century CE fishing boat was on the water nearby, and you could watch from the shade in the early morning light as they cast out their net. I heard a guide tell an African group at the site that the people on the ship were pilgrims rather than paid professionals of some kind. I also decided to give the traditional Franciscan "pace e bene" greeting to the old Franciscan friar on duty at the site, though he didn't know any English, so the conversation ended there.

From there it was another two kilometers or so to Capernaum, now an archaeological site found within Capernaum National Park, which includes much of the Sea of Galilee's northern shore. Also Jesus was called Iesus Nazarene, he actually lived and preached in Capernaum, perhaps because of its awesome lakeside scenery. The visible ruins are all from the Roman period, with the most impressive being a synagogue that was built in the 4th century on the site of an older, Jesus-era one. There is also a lot of Peter stuff, with a bronze statue of Peter near the entrance and a large, very modern church with huge windows on all sides over a site which is considered to be Peter's house in Capernaum, visible through the floor.

It was interesting to hear what the different pilgrim groups were talking about, as this was a popular site to stop for a sermon and Bible reading. On the steps of the synagogue, a group from somewhere in Africa was focusing on healing, which as Christians will remember is how Jesus spent most of his time during his ministry. The healing of the body was related to the healing of souls. Nearby, along a shady lane with the ruins of some Roman houses, an American group was focusing on the punishment of sinners, as Jesus had predicted the destruction of Capernaum, and in fact this occurred during an 8th century earthquake. God striking down evildoers was a big deal. Finally, near the entrance, a Nigerian group was into the infallibility of the Roman Catholic Church which traced itself back to Jesus's charge to Peter. It was striking how people could take three such different points as their main theme for the same place.

After hiking back to Capernaum Junction, I grabbed a bus to Tiberias, a city of about 40,000 on the shores of the lake where I decided to just chill for the afternoon taking in the beautiful scenery, which reminded me more than anything else of Italy outside the mountains. Tiberias itself is also a place of pilgrimage, though not for Christians. It was a gathering place for Jewish intellectuals after the destruction of the temple and exile from Jerusalem, and thus the main site for the compilation of the Mishnah, the Jewish oral law which goes with the Torah. Religious Jews go to visit and pray at the graves of the Jewish sages buried in the hills around the city, though these were often hard to find. I did run across the burial site for the one I had heard of before arriving in Israel, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, better known as Maimonides, court physician to Saladin who studied at Karaouine in Fez, Morocco, articulator of the 13 Principles of Faith for Judaism. His grave is marked by a red metal structure overhead, and it divided by a barrier into a men's and women's side for praying.

I took in what I could of Tiberias, but for me it was mainly just a place to relax and enjoy the scenery, sitting on a bench with a view of the lake and it shores, drinking a cup of coffee while reading Orhan Pamuk's My Name is Red. The next day, though, I headed out for Nazareth, my first Arab city within Israel proper. On the way, the bus passed through Kfar Kana, the Biblical Cana where Jesus attended a wedding, though I didn't stop. It also went either through or by Nazareth Illit, a 20th-century Jewish town built near the Arab one. Nazareth itself was a highly unusual Arab city in that it took me forever to find a cafe where I could get a cup of tea or coffee. Israeli Arabs, or Palestinian-Israelis, really are more Israeli than anything else, despite the rising social tension of recent years.

The most prominent site in Nazareth is the Basilica of the Annunciation, built in the 1960's but incorporating the remains of earlier buildings inside around the Grotto of the Annunciation. This and the Church of the Nativity are, as far as I could tell, the only churches I've been to that have a regular local congregation in addition to all the tourists and pilgrim groups that come through - the regular Sunday services are held in an upstairs chapel, while special ones are down by the Grotto. The basilica is surrounded by a wall on the inside of which are pictures from the Virgin Mary from all over the world. Next door and really part of the same complex was St. Joseph's Church, built on the reputed site of Joseph's carpentry shop. Apparently no one told the medieval Christians who first venerated the place that carpenters in Roman Galilee were probably itinerant. A rival spot for the annunciation is Mary's Well, located just off the well-developed Well Square downtown and marked by the Orthodox Church of the Annunciation. The Orthodox version places the annunciation here when Mary was drawing water, and you can see the well down below a special chapel in the church, lined with icons as Orthodox churches are.

After that I ate in a local burger joint before heading back, first by taxi to Afula and then on the bus to Jerusalem. The things I did and saw are the type of things that appeal to people's piety, but I can't claim to have felt particularly pious as I travelled. For example, in Tiberias, I ate for dinner something called St. Peter's Fish, which is unique to the Sea of Galilee. The meal cost about $15, when if I were in fact following in the way of Jesus and the disciples I probably should have grabbed a felafel sandwich and given $12 to the poor. This, however, is common to pilgrims. Almost all the groups I saw were probably eating in nice restaurants and staying in mid-range or better hotels. In this as in so much else, it's much easier to venerate and admire than it is to follow.


Sunday, March 11, 2007

Berdymukhamedov's Turkmenistan

Joshua Foust blogs about changes in Turkmenistan since the death of long-time dictator Saparmurat Niyazov. These have geopolitical implications:
"There are some extraordinary changes happening in Turkmenistan. Unless there are some super-secret talks going on, it seems President Bush is content to allow Russia and Iran to be the major players in Turkmenistan, rather than any western governments. Indeed, Iran has made public its intention to strengthen economic ties with the country, including the start of direct flights between Ashgabat and Tehran. Everyone save the U.S., it seems, wants better ties...

"So, Iran is pushing its hand in Turkmenistan. Russia has maintained its interest in keeping its place as the primary export market for Turkmen natural gas.

The new regime is also toning down the personality cult, using the excuse that no one could equal Niyazov, for whom it was designed.

Olmert Wants a Summit

Before his meeting today with Palestinian President Mahmood Abbas, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert expressed support for a regional summit on the Saudi peace plan. This plan, you may recall, offers peace between Israel and the Arab states in exchange for Israel pulling back to the 1967 lines and a settlement on the issue of refugees, both from 1948 and 1967. Part of what has always interested me about this initiative is that it cuts the Palestinians out of the equation. In 2002, I thought Saudi Arabia might be moving to sideline the increasingly Iran-influenced Palestinian government under Yasser Arafat. Something similar could be in play now given the regional tensions surrounding Iran's rise in the post-Saddam Middle East and its nuclear program. This also dovetails with what I said this morning at American Footprints about Olmert preferring to deal with the Palestinian question rather than the Golan Heights, though Golan is part of the territory from which the Arabs seek withdrawal.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Galilee Fishing Boat

This is a replica of a 1st century CE fishing boat which plies the northern Sea of Galilee so people can see what they were like. I ran into it early Wednesday morning at the Church of the Primacy of St. Peter, which was appropriate as that is the alleged site of the events of John 21, when the disciples encountered the risen Jesus while fishing. On the seashore is a pilgrim group, one of the many which is currently running around the region.

On Unions

Ezra Klein is making some key points about unions. The first involves what they spend their time on:
"There's a sad miscomprehension in the larger political discourse that the primary purpose of labor unions is to demand higher wages and more expansive benefits. This is not true. The enduringly important role of unions -- wage increases or none -- is to give workers a voice in their company, and to imbue that voice with the power to force change. So 90% of what a union does is not bargain for better health care, it's file grievance claims on behalf of its workers. They demand better treatment, safer machinery, family-friendly scheduling, and equitable hiring. And they fight in the other direction as well, giving workers who may otherwise be ignored a channel through which to advocate for process improvements that would otherwise go unheard. Their day-to-day role is to give workers a voice in the workplace, and that remains even if they could never secure another wage increase again."

I'd link this to his point about political power:
"Absent a healthy union movement, the competition between the interest groups that actually govern our nation becomes merely a vying of different business interests, with few powerful forces advocating specifically for the interests of the working class. There is, of course, a free rider issue in the way unions work, wherein the entire working class -- of which only 8% are unionized -- can benefit from the health care expansions and worker safety regulations and guaranteed maternity leave benefits and all the other worker-friendly legislation the labor movement convinces the Democrats to pass, even as the average American doesn't realize it's unions doing the bulk of the organizing behind these measures."

Passing a law to secure a right doesn't actualize that right in people's lives. There are companies that routinely ignore labor laws, and because employees want to keep their jobs, they don't complain. Unions are the main mechanism by which workers secure their rights in the real world, as well as units for collective bargaining.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Against Prostitution

Thanks to Natasha, I learn that some Arab countries try to put visa hurdles in front of single women for fear of prostitution. One effect of this is to discriminate against women. In any case, I can't help but think they'd be better off trying to police red light districts within the country, as I don't think most countries in the region suffer from a shortage of sex workers.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Georgian Orthodox Education

IWPR reports on the teaching of Orthodox Christianity in Georgian schools, and the conflicts with families of other religions. One point to be made out of this is the importance of religion as a powerful cultural marker in post-Soviet countries. Most Georgians undoubtedly see Orthodoxy as part of Georgianness, despite the acknowledged presence of religious minorities, such as Muslims in Ajaria. Beyond that, however, religion plays a major role in Georgian identity in particular. The republic issued a commemorative coin for the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ. When identifications between a faith and national community are that strong, all minorities are stuck in an uphill battle.

Israel might be an exception to this, as despite its being "the Jewish state," you don't generally hear complaints about religious oppression of non-Jews. Part of that, however, may be because the religious groups here are somewhat geographically segregated, and were dramatically so in the state's formative period. I've never looked into the history of Israeli education to see how religious education evolved over time.

Ahmadinejad's Powers

Ezra Klein comments on Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's actual power as President of Iran:
"Last night, I was talking with a pollster who kept insisting that Ahmadinejad was a nearly unique threat, as not only did he possess the means to eventually construct nuclear weapons, but he had a rationale for using them. I disagree on the last clause, but there is absolutely no reason to think President Ahmadinejad has the power to launch a nuclear strike. On anyone.

"In the Iranian political system, the Supreme Leader controls the armed forces, the television, the judiciary, the prisons, and basically every other lever of power. The President, conversely, is a very high-ranking civil servant. His only intersection with the military comes in the appointment of defense and intelligence ministers, who must then be approved by the Supreme Leader and then by the legislature. He is impotent when it comes to the armed forces...

"So President Khatami, who just wanted to institute some political reforms, was completely stymied by the Supreme Council. And yet we think Ahmadinejad will be allowed to launch nuclear attacks -- which will result in massive reprisal against Tehran -- all on his lonesome? It's nuts! He doesn't have the power. And no one with the power has proven particularly reckless or hungry for annihilating confrontation."

Ahmadinejad serves mainly as the comic book villain used to drum up popular American support for confrontation with Iran. I've noticed that here in Israel, where an Iranian nuclear bomb would represent a significant shift in its foreign threat level, there seems to be a lot more focus on "Iran" as such regardless of who's in charge. For the United States, however, the issue is concern over a possible competitor for dominance in a distant, yet strategically important region, and the propaganda factory needs a bit more "oomph" to keep people concerned.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Qatar's Labor Market

Qatar is working to reforming its guest worker laws to allow them to change sponsors within the country. One of the biggest problems to Gulf guest worker laws, laws similar to what President Bush has proposed for the United States, is that workers' status within the country is dependent on the sponsorship of their employers. This means it's all but impossible to enforce any worker protection provisions, because the employers can just end their sponsorship of anyone who might become a "problem" and kick them out of the country. Making the labor marker freer within countries would go a long way toward helping improve conditions for guest workers in the Gulf.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Armenian Genocide Politics

Jackson Diehl writes in the Washington Post about the House's proposed Armenian Genocide resolution:
"The Armenian Genocide Resolution sponsored by Rep. Adam Schiff does matter, logically or not. Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul spent several days in Washington last month lobbying against it, though the Turkish-American agenda is chockablock with seemingly more important issues. Friends of Turkey in Washington, from American Jewish organizations to foreign policy satraps, are working the Hill; so is the Bush team. On the other side is the well-organized and affluent Armenian American community, 1.4 million strong, and some powerful friends -- including the new House speaker, Nancy Pelosi...

"But the consequences of passage could be deadly serious: To begin with, Turkey's powerful military has been hinting that U.S. access to the Incirlik air base, which plays a key role in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, could be restricted. Gul warned that a nationalist tidal wave could sweep Turkey and force the government to downgrade its cooperation with the United States, which needs Turkey's help this year to stabilize Iraq and contain Iran. Candidates in upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections could compete in their anti-American reactions."

As long as Congress is in the business of making historical declarations, maybe the diplomatic fallout from passing this could be softened by also passing a resolution recognizing the massacres of Turkicized Muslims in eastern Europe during the late 1800's?

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Kuwaiti Resignations

Kuwait's government has resigned rather than subject a member of the royal family to possible impeachment:
"Kuwait's government resigned on Sunday in a move apparently aimed at thwarting a no-confidence motion against the Gulf Arab country's health minister, a member of the ruling family.

"Ten Kuwaiti parliament members presented the motion last month against Sheikh Ahmad al-Abdullah al-Sabah, who is also acting information minister, over suspected financial and administrative breaches at the Health Ministry.

"The vote was due to have taken place in parliament on Monday and Sheikh Ahmad would have had to step down if legislators had voted against him. The cabinet's resignation automatically cancels the parliament session...

"Political sources said the government was determined not to let the no-confidence vote go ahead because it was concerned that parliament's probes would not stop at Sheikh Ahmad.

"In December, Information Minister Mohammad al-Sanousi resigned a day ahead of an expected grilling by an Islamist MP, but political sources say it is more sensitive for a member of the ruling family to be forced out by an elected body."

All that happens now is that the Prime Minister forms a new government.

The Dig

These two pictures show the controversial dig in the Maghrebi Gate area and its proximity to the Dome of the Rock (top) and al-Aqsa Mosque (bottom). The dig site is where the black canopies are, while the wooden structure right next to it is the bridge that needs to be replaced. It is not clear to me how the excavations could threaten any of the Muslim holy sites.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Israeli Plot in Somalia

An Israeli charity is secretly working to meet the medical needs of Somali refugees:
"An delegation of Israeli volunteers, masking their Jewish identities, arrived at a Somali refugee camp on the Kenyan border Sunday.

"The volunteers arrived at the camp on behalf of the Jerusalem AIDS Project, an Israeli organization which promotes education for HIV/AIDS prevention, public health, training, and counseling.

"The refugee camp is populated by an overwhelming majority of Muslims, and only camp administrators were aware of the fact that the envoy was Israeli...

"The organization began by distributing clothing for infants and toddlers, who spent their days in worn out rags before the envoy arrived. But the lack of clothing, and widespread malnutrition, were not the only problems at the camp...

"Rozenberg said that after needs were evaluated, the organization would meet with IsraAID, an Israeli NGO focusing on AIDS awareness and prevention, in order to begin purchasing equipment.

"Rozenberg also said that volunteers would be trained in cesarean-sections, infant operations, and health education."

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Jerusalem: Foundations

Four thousand years ago, the world was different. Modern Israel is so developed it is hard to put yourself back in that time, stripping away all the streets and buildings to reveal a twisted landscape of steep but often low hillsides covered only by small shrubs and vines, though it should be said the climate was a bit wetter back then, and some of the deeper valleys had seasonal streams flowing through them. One such seasonal stream flowed roughly from north to south, cutting between at least two large hills - one to the east rather high and long rather than rounded, the other to the west a more traditionally shaped hill which ended with a precipitous drop right at the stream's edge. Just south of the western large hill was a smaller height, noticeably smaller, in fact, than all the hills around it. It was otherwise remarkable except for a natural freshwater spring on its eastern side. This is where Jerusalem began.

Today this area is very much part of tourist/pilgrim country. The long, eastern ridge hill is the Mount of Olives, its northern section an array of church steeples leading up to the summit where that of one of the competing churches of the ascension. Walking past it the other day I engaged in a brief Lenten reflection of wondering how many tour busses could be parked on it at one time. The western hill is Mt. Moriah, the Temple Mount, home to the walled Old City most people think of as old Jerusalem. The smaller hill to its south, Mt. Zion, aka Ophel Ridge, is no longer discernable as a separate hill, the valley between them having filled in over the centuries. When the walls were at their greatest extent, under Herod the Great and his immediate successors, they enclosed this area, as well. Now it hosts a UN girls' school with a cheaply painted white-on-blue sign and a bunch of small shops and slightly larger houses, 60% Arab, 40% Jewish. To its west is another Mt. Zion, this one getting its name thanks to early Christians who assumed David's capital must have been on the highest peak around; today from the smaller Mt. Zion what most stands out from its slopes is the brightly colored Church of St. Peter at the Crowing of the Cock, the alleged site of Caiaphas's house and Jesus's trial, which was also within the walls of Herod's Jerusalem.

At the site of the original Jerusalem, there is an entrance to stone-walled enclosure marked "City of David" featuring a harp symbolizing the king. Contrary to what one might expect, however, it is not run by the government or an academic institution, but by a group known as the Ir David Foundation, a right-wing Israeli group dedicated to demonstrating the area's Jewish heritage, as well as the Shalem Center, a conservative Israeli think tank dedicated to the promotion of Israel, Judaism, and free-market capitalism. It is thus perhaps not surprising that when you look at the gift shop, you don't see historically themed souvenirs but rather IDF-themed hats and T-shirts and the other standard "I Love Israel" gear. The first part of the tour is also a short 3-D video the cinematography of which is a bit like the Lord of the Rings movies as they try to inspite viewers with David's conquest of the city and Solomon's temple as an introduction to a history of the city, a history which they break off abruptly when the Romans ban Jews from the city only to flash forward to portray it as reborn as part of modern Israel with all its new neighborhoods and monuments. The manipulation of history is brazen.

The tour itself also doesn't start off well, as you begin by being told that the ruins below the metal grating that makes up most of the entry plaza, which archaeologists call by the poetic name "Large Stone Structure," is probably King David's Palace. This claim was advanced by Eilat Mazar, who discovered it in 2005, but it's not as firm as those who hype it would have you believe. The most obvious problem is that there's no way to tell whether or not it was a palace. Beyond that, while the ceramics found seem to date to the 10th century BC, the structure is so far missing a floor. This is a problem because you have no way of knowing whether these ceramics represent a bottom layer, or if they could have been deposited long after the structure was built, which would push it back toward being perhaps a Jebusite fortress. There was, however, part of a column with Phoenician designs on it.

The tour picked up rapidly from there, however, largely because our highly knowledgeable guide had an outstanding ability to weave together the story of the city with the story of its excavation in ways I'm not even going to try duplicating. It's also the case that we spent most of the time underground in shafts and tunnels that formed part of the city's water supply system, which really isn't that controversial. Jerusalem during the kingdom period was small. A current estimate puts the population in its early days at about 150 families, and the spring could probably support only about 2500 residents. The people also weren't as monotheistic as we sometimes imagine - the prophets weren't constantly railing against idols to keep in practice. Small statues of various deities were all over the place, kept in homes and probably carried on the person, as well, to protect against misfortune. The main signs of Jewish religious practice were across the Kidron Valley, where small burial chambers were carved out of the hills in what is now the Arab village of Silwan. There are a few inscriptions there, too, one of which states that no silver or gold is buried within, showing an awareness of burial practices and the problems of grave robbery seen elsewhere in the region, suggesting how culturally connected the city was to the outside world.

The Jebusites who founded the city around 1800 BCE weren't that worried about defense. Anyone attacking from a nearby hill would have to first become visible by marching down its side, then cross the valley before marching up the city's hill, giving them plenty of time to man the walls. The big issue was securing the water supply, which it's plain as day was outside the walls. We do know that a tunnel was chiselled to the spring during the Jebusite period, and at one point it intersected a shaft over 40 feet deep. For a long time the theory was that the shaft functioned like a really deep well and women and/or children would have to make daily trips down the tunnel to get water. This even became a rare occasion when archaeology influenced popular understanding of the Bible rather than the other way around. The Hebrew of 2 Samuel 5: 6-8, describing David's capture of the city, is apparently hopelessly obscure and no one really knows what it means except it somehow involves attacking something probably water-related. The guy who discovered the shaft, Charles Warren, who incidentally was also London's police chief during the Jack the Ripper murders, had the self-confidence stereotypically associated with 19th-century amateur archaeologists, and since it was possible to climb the shaft, decided they must have done that and used the water system to sneak into the city. The 17th-century King James is somewhat different, but a bunch of modern translations I checked out on-line seem to have taken that story and run with it.

In 1996, however, another discovery was made, one which completely revolutionized our perspective. I forget precisely what happened, but the upshot is that the tunnel didn't originally end at Warren's Shaft, and in fact the Jebusite construction team had passed right over it, a natural break in the rock they didn't even know was beneath them. The chamber above the shaft was hollowed out later and the rock placed in such a way that it blocked the rest of the tunnel. Today, when you leave the Warren's Shaft minicave, you get to continue along this tunnel until you emerge in a large, cavernous space with loud noises, plenty of action, and metal walkways and equipment everywhere. It was the Stargate! No, wait. It was the ongoing excavation of what the Jebusites were actually building toward, two huge guard towers protecting the points at which Gihon Spring was above ground. What the Jebusites had actually done to get water was not go outside the city every day, but carve out a channel about 20 feet high and thin enough that I had trouble fitting through it at some points that brought the water into the city, where it was collected in a pool within the walls. This was the Pool of Shiloh, which under the Romans became "Siloam," and by the Middle Ages was Silwan, the Arab neighborhood across the valley.

The new theory, incidentally, is that David's army scaled and seized the guard towers, cut off the water supply, and forced the city to surrender. In any case, it was taken, and became first the capital of Israel, and later of Judah after the monarchy was divided. Judah was smaller, but Israel was more vulnerable, for roads followed the high ground in those days to protect against ambushes, and Israel and its capital of Samaria was right along the path of all the military action, including the Assyrians who destroyed it in the 8th century BCE. It was then that Hezekiah made the next major round of modifications, including a new tunnel connecting the spring to the pool. Within it was found the Siloam Inscription, which is not a great royal pronouncement, but more like an ancient Hebrew union plug, in which the construction team announced what they'd done, how they did it, and how cool it was, and it was placed not in public view, but deep inside where teams chiselling from either side had met. This was better than the old Jebusite channel, as it was also hidden from view, part of a new array of defenses to protect against an Assyrian siege which never materialized.

Jerusalem did, eventually, fall to the Babylonians, and a lot of the ruins of buildings that you see open are from that time; there was also a layer of ash deposit suggesting the city was burned. There was more rebuilding during the second temple period, but all we saw was the stepped plaza around the Pool of Siloam, part of which dated from the Byzantine period and part of which was Herodian; today much of the pool is still hidden under a residential area.

Some people get excited because among the dozens of seals that have been discovered, two have names that are the same as ministers of Zedekiah named in the Bible. I guess it's interesting, but I'm skeptical about just assuming its the exact same guy. This, however, may go back to the sorts of things archaeology is and is not good for. Biblical archaeology often gets sensationalized as proving the Bible true or false. It really doesn't work like that. In general, modern archaeology is about using the remains of material culture to understand past human societies. While in Europe archaeology is classified as a sub-discipline of history, in North America it's become part of anthropology. Monumental archaeology might occasionally make headlines, but if tomorrow they dig further in the "Large Stone Structure" they find a plaque that says, "King David's Palace," what does that prove? Maybe it was a temple and David a God about whom later people told stories, or maybe he was a real king whose exploits were exaggerated. Religious believers need not change their minds about anything, and skeptics can always demand evidence of something else. I approach things as a historian, and see both the material remains and our written texts as evidence we need to assess in understanding the past. As our tour guide, himself a graduate student in medieval Jewish history, said, the Bible has one perspective from people looking back on the kingdoms, archaeology gives us another. This lecture might seem a bit wedged in here, but the way many people approach these issues has always gotten under my skin, and as I'm just now starting to get serious about travelling around, it's something I'll probably have occasion to raise again.

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We Hardly Knew Ya

Esterina Tartman has withdrawn her name from consideration for the post of Minister of Tourism. According to Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman: "I tried to convince her to stay, but she decided to take time out to be with her family. We respected her decision, even though I see no problem with her being our candidate."


George W. Bush: Not just a run-of-the-mill bad President, but head of an administration that is incompetent beyond your lowest expectations.