AFP, AP correct Pope/Abbas story (& “Why Islam doesn’t need a reformation”)

May 20, 2015

Harvard-educated, Oscar-winning Natalie Portman, born Neta-Lee Hershlag in Jerusalem, stars in the adaptation of Amos Oz’s memoir about a boy coming of age in the tumultuous period just before and after Israel’s independence from the British mandate.

 

* David D. Laitin and Marc Jahr: “Detroit, a once great city, has become an urban vacuum. Its population has fallen to around 700,000 from nearly 1.9 million. The city is estimated to have more than 70,000 abandoned buildings and 90,000 vacant lots. Meanwhile, desperate Syrians, victims of an unfathomable civil war, are fleeing to neighboring countries, with some 1.8 million in Turkey and 600,000 in Jordan… Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan, a Republican, has already called for an infusion of 50,000 immigrants as part of a program to revitalize Detroit, and signed an executive order creating the Michigan Office for New Americans. Syrian refugees would be an ideal community to realize this goal, as Arab-Americans are already a vibrant and successful presence in the Detroit metropolitan area…”

* Mehdi Hasan: “In recent months, cliched calls for reform of Islam, a 1,400-year-old faith, have intensified. ‘We need a Muslim reformation,’ announced Newsweek. ‘Islam needs reformation from within,’ said the Huffington Post… Apparently anyone who wants to win the war against violent extremism and save the soul of Islam, not to mention transform a stagnant Middle East, should be in favour of this process. After all, Christianity had the Reformation, so goes the argument, which was followed by the Enlightenment; by secularism, liberalism and modern European democracy. So why can’t Islam do the same? Yet the reality is that talk of a Christian-style reformation for Islam is so much cant... The Protestant Reformation opened the door to blood-letting on an unprecedented, continent-wide scale. Tens of millions of innocents died in Europe; up to 40% of Germany’s population is believed to have been killed. Is this what we want a Muslim-majority world already plagued by sectarian conflicts, foreign occupations and the bitter legacy of colonialism to now endure, all in the name of reform, progress and even liberalism?”

 

* Please “like” these dispatches on Facebook here www.facebook.com/TomGrossMedia, where you can also find other items that are not in these dispatches.

 

CONTENTS

1. Update: Popes and angels and PLO leaders
2. Let Syrians Settle Detroit (By David Laitin & Marc Jahr, NY Times, May 15, 2015)
3. Why Islam doesn’t need a reformation (By Mehdi Hasan, Guardian, May 17, 2015)
4. Natalie Portman’s Zionist Manifesto (By Dana Kennedy, Daily Beast, May 19, 2015)


[Note by Tom Gross]

UPDATE: POPES AND ANGELS AND PLO LEADERS

Following my piece and various blog posts by others on Sunday about the Pope and Palestinian President and PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas, in which I criticized AP and AFP for their portrayals of what the Pope said, both news agencies issued corrections, although each agency is now running with a different version of what was said. The Vatican and the Italian media report that AFP’s account – which mirrors my own – is now accurate:

AFP: Pope ‘angel of peace’ Abbas comment was encouragement: Vatican

Vatican City (AFP) - Pope Francis’s reference to Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas as “an angel of peace” was meant as encouragement for him to pursue peace with Israel, the Vatican said Monday, after the words whipped up controversy on social media….

As the head of Rome’s Jewish community questioned why the pontiff would entrust the “angel of death” with bringing peace, some Twitter users pointed the finger at the media, with one wondering whether “it is the media and not the pope who called Abbas an angel of peace.”

***

In my piece on Sunday, I also criticized the New York Times. On Monday the Times ran a piece about the controversy in which they link back to my piece.

It is unusual for the Times to link to a piece which is critical of their own Mideast coverage; they clearly consider this issue important enough to have made this new piece, for a time, the lead story on the NY Times website.

(Unnoted by the New York Times and others, the Washington Post was one of those American papers which got it right first time round, reporting on Sunday that the Pope “encouraged him [Abbas] to commit to peace”.)

***

I have also been interviewed about the controversy by various news outlets, for example, here in the Washington Examiner.

And papers such as the Catholic Herald have weighed in: The Pope’s message to Mahmoud Abbas got lost in translation.

On Monday the Italian media were also critical of those English-language news outlets who misrepresented the Pope’s comments.

See for example: Pope Francis didn’t call Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas ‘angel of peace,’ Italian newspaper says.

***

I attach three articles below.


ARTICLES

HELPING SYRIAN REFUGEES

(Tom Gross adds: I think this is an interesting idea that should be seriously considered. At the same time, one must not forget the disgraceful way in which the wealthy Gulf Arab States have done so little to welcome fellow Sunni Arab refugees. The abandonment of millions of innocent Syrian refugees by the international community is one of the greatest crimes of our era. I hope this article -- and there are too few like it -- would stimulate a wider debate throughout the world about the situation of Syrian refugees , even if Detroit would not be the place...)

Let Syrians Settle Detroit
By David D. Laitin and Marc Jahr
New York Times
May 15, 2015

Detroit, a once great city, has become an urban vacuum. Its population has fallen to around 700,000 from nearly 1.9 million in 1950. The city is estimated to have more than 70,000 abandoned buildings and 90,000 vacant lots. Meanwhile, desperate Syrians, victims of an unfathomable civil war, are fleeing to neighboring countries, with some 1.8 million in Turkey and 600,000 in Jordan.

Suppose these two social and humanitarian disasters were conjoined to produce something positive.

Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan, a Republican, has already laid the groundwork. In January 2014 he called for an infusion of 50,000 immigrants as part of a program to revitalize Detroit, and signed an executive order creating the Michigan Office for New Americans.

Syrian refugees would be an ideal community to realize this goal, as Arab-Americans are already a vibrant and successful presence in the Detroit metropolitan area. A 2003 survey by the University of Michigan of 1,016 members of this community (58 percent of whom were Christian, and 42 percent Muslim) found that 19 percent were entrepreneurs and that the median household income was $50,000 to $75,000 per year.

What confidence can we have that traumatized war refugees can be transformed into budding American entrepreneurs? We cannot know for sure. But recent evidence of recaptured children from the clutches of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda and victims of violent crime across five continents reveals that they become more active citizens than similar compatriots who have not suffered from these traumatic events. In the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan, Syrians, despite psychological scars and limited resources, have set up 3,500 shops, stores and other businesses.

Refugees resettled from a single war zone have helped revitalize several American communities, notably Hmong in previously neglected neighborhoods in Minneapolis, Bosnians in Utica, N.Y., and Somalis in Lewiston, Me.

Resettling Syrians in Detroit would require commitment and cooperation across different branches and levels of our government, but it is eminently feasible. President Obama and Congress would have to agree to lift this year’s refugee ceiling by 50,000. The State Department, which handles overseas processing of refugees, would need to open offices at the camps in Jordan and Turkey, determine eligibility and administer a lottery for resettlement. Homeland Security, which controls the borders, would have to carry out accelerated security checks, as has been done in the past for Vietnamese and for Iranian religious minorities. Health and Human Services would need an expansion in the $1.5 billion it budgets for refugee resettlement.

The Treasury Department and the Department of Housing and Urban Development could also help. The Home Affordable Modification Program, part of the 2008 federal bailout of financial institutions, was meant to help places hardest hit by home-price declines. But the program has not been fully utilized, in part because of stringent oversight requirements. Cities like Detroit have gotten permission to use funds from the program to demolish abandoned properties and create parks and green spaces. But it would be better to spend the money on helping refugees renovate once-abandoned homes.

Finally, grants from the federal government and from philanthropic foundations would be needed to help the local Arab-American community supply social services for the newcomers.

Of course, local buy-in is a sine qua non. Refugees are by no means the only source for the regeneration of Detroit. Its more settled populations, including African-Americans and Latinos, are bringing great energy and resources to the city’s renewal. But Syrians would bring new vigor and catalyze its nascent recovery.

Some skeptics will point to the difficulties of assimilation, noting past concerns in the Detroit area about the integration of Iraqi refugees. But there is no evidence to suggest that the Detroit area is a powder keg of anti-immigrant sentiment. Quite the contrary: From its original Native Americans to the Great Migration of Southern blacks to the infusion of Hispanic and Arab immigrants, Detroit has been a melting pot of religions, ethnicities and cultures.

In 2013, the city, which has a higher proportion of black residents than any large city in America, elected its first white mayor in more than 40 years. The following year, the city showed remarkable resilience and unity in emerging from municipal bankruptcy, with a reorganization plan that, among other things, preserved the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts and gave the city space to invest in long-neglected public services.

Other skeptics will say that the plan would fail because the most ambitious Syrians would leave the city once they achieved economic security. There would be no legal way to prohibit this, of course. But the Syrians would be in the region with one of the most established Arab populations in America, surely an incentive to put down roots. Moreover, if small business and home-ownership loans were extended, the refugees would have a financial incentive to remain.

Finally, some will call this plan politically dead on arrival, given skepticism toward immigration, particularly in the Republican Party. But it’s worth noting that the 2003 study of the community found that two-thirds of respondents said they had voted for George W. Bush in 2000; refugee populations with traditional social views and a knack for entrepreneurship are not going to make Michigan less of a campaign battleground.

More important, both parties can agree that resettling destitute, innocent refugees is consistent with America’s moral and ethical commitments; it would send a powerful message to President Bashar al-Assad, the Islamic State and the world about American compassion and ingenuity.

Are the benefits to Detroit, to a devastated Syrian population, and to American ideals worth overcoming the expenses and administrative complexity of this proposal? We think so.

(David D. Laitin is a professor of political science and co-director of the Immigration and Integration Policy Lab at Stanford University. Marc Jahr is a former president of the New York City Housing Development Corporation.)

 

“ISLAM ISN’T CHRISTIANITY. THEY ARE NOT ANALOGOUS, AND IT IS DEEPLY IGNORANT TO PRETEND OTHERWISE”

(To remind readers: I don’t necessarily agree with all the points in the articles I attach -- Tom Gross)

Why Islam doesn’t need a reformation
By Mehdi Hasan
The Guardian
May 17, 2015

In recent months, cliched calls for reform of Islam, a 1,400-year-old faith, have intensified. “We need a Muslim reformation,” announced Newsweek. “Islam needs reformation from within,” said the Huffington Post. Following January’s massacre in Paris, the Financial Times nodded to those in the west who believe the secular Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, “could emerge as the Martin Luther of the Muslim world”. (That might be difficult, given Sisi, in the words of Human Rights Watch, approved “premeditated lethal attacks” on largely unarmed protesters which could amount to “crimes against humanity”.)

Then there is Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The Somali-born author, atheist and ex-Muslim has a new book called Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now. She’s been popping up in TV studios and on op-ed pages to urge Muslims, both liberal and conservative, to abandon some of their core religious beliefs while uniting behind a Muslim Luther. Whether or not mainstream Muslims will respond positively to a call for reform from a woman who has described their faith as a “destructive, nihilistic cult of death” that should be “crushed”, and suggested Benjamin Netanyahu be given the Nobel peace prize, is another matter.

This narrative isn’t new. The New York Times’s celebrity columnist Thomas Friedman called for an Islamic reformation back in 2002; US academics Charles Kurzer and Michaelle Browers traced the origins of this “Reformation analogy” to the early 20th century, noting that “conservative journalists have been as eager as liberal academics to search for Muslim Luthers”.

Apparently anyone who wants to win the war against violent extremism and save the soul of Islam, not to mention transform a stagnant Middle East, should be in favour of this process. After all, Christianity had the Reformation, so goes the argument, which was followed by the Enlightenment; by secularism, liberalism and modern European democracy. So why can’t Islam do the same? And shouldn’t the west be offering to help?

Yet the reality is that talk of a Christian-style reformation for Islam is so much cant. Let’s consider this idea of a “Muslim Luther”. Luther did not merely nail 95 theses to the door of the Castle church in Wittenberg in 1517, denouncing clerical abuses within the Catholic church. He also demanded that German peasants revolting against their feudal overlords be “struck dead”, comparing them to “mad dogs”, and authored On the Jews and Their Lies in 1543, in which he referred to Jews as “the devil’s people” and called for the destruction of Jewish homes and synagogues. As the US sociologist and Holocaust scholar Ronald Berger has observed, Luther helped establish antisemitism as “a key element of German culture and national identity”. Hardly a poster boy for reform and modernity for Muslims in 2015.

The Protestant Reformation also opened the door to blood-letting on an unprecedented, continent-wide scale. Have we forgotten the French wars of religion? Or the English civil war? Tens of millions of innocents died in Europe; up to 40% of Germany’s population is believed to have been killed in the thirty years’ war. Is this what we want a Muslim-majority world already plagued by sectarian conflicts, foreign occupations and the bitter legacy of colonialism to now endure, all in the name of reform, progress and even liberalism?

Islam isn’t Christianity. The two faiths aren’t analogous, and it is deeply ignorant, not to mention patronising, to pretend otherwise – or to try and impose a neatly linear, Eurocentric view of history on diverse Muslim-majority countries in Asia or Africa. Each religion has its own traditions and texts; each religion’s followers have been affected by geopolitics and socio-economic processes in a myriad of ways. The theologies of Islam and Christianity, in particular, are worlds apart: the former, for instance, has never had a Catholic-style clerical class answering to a divinely appointed pope. So against whom will the “Islamic reformation” be targeted? To whose door will the 95 fatwas be nailed?

The truth is that Islam has already had its own reformation of sorts, in the sense of a stripping of cultural accretions and a process of supposed “purification”. And it didn’t produce a tolerant, pluralistic, multifaith utopia, a Scandinavia-on-the-Euphrates. Instead, it produced … the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Wasn’t reform exactly what was offered to the masses of the Hijaz by Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab, the mid-18th century itinerant preacher who allied with the House of Saud? He offered an austere Islam cleansed of what he believed to be innovations, which eschewed centuries of mainstream scholarship and commentary, and rejected the authority of the traditional ulema, or religious authorities.

Some might argue that if anyone deserves the title of a Muslim Luther, it is Ibn Abdul Wahhab who, in the eyes of his critics, combined Luther’s puritanism with the German monk’s antipathy towards the Jews. Ibn Abdul Wahhab’s controversial stance on Muslim theology, writes his biographer Michael Crawford, “made him condemn much of the Islam of his own time” and led to him being dismissed as a heretic by his own family.

Don’t get me wrong. Reforms are of course needed across the crisis-ridden Muslim-majority world: political, socio-economic and, yes, religious too. Muslims need to rediscover their own heritage of pluralism, tolerance and mutual respect – embodied in, say, the Prophet’s letter to the monks of St Catherine’s monastery, or the “convivencia” (or co-existence) of medieval Muslim Spain.

What they don’t need are lazy calls for an Islamic reformation from non-Muslims and ex-Muslims, the repetition of which merely illustrates how shallow and simplistic, how ahistorical and even anti-historical, some of the west’s leading commentators are on this issue. It is much easier for them, it seems, to reduce the complex debate over violent extremism to a series of cliches, slogans and soundbites, rather than examining root causes or historical trends; easier still to champion the most extreme and bigoted critics of Islam while ignoring the voices of mainstream Muslim scholars, academics and activists.

Hirsi Ali, for instance, was treated to a series of encomiums and softball questions in her blizzard of US media interviews, from the New York Times to Fox News. (“A hero of our time,” read one gushing headline on Politico.) Frustratingly, only comedian Jon Stewart, on The Daily Show, was willing to point out to Hirsi Ali that her reformist hero wanted a “purer form of Christianity” and helped create “a hundred years of violence and mayhem”.

With apologies to Luther, if anyone wants to do the same to the religion of Islam today, it is Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who claims to rape and pillage in the name of a “purer form” of Islam – and who isn’t, incidentally, a fan of the Jews either. Those who cry so simplistically, and not a little inanely, for an Islamic reformation, should be careful what they wish for.

(Mehdi Hasan is a presenter on Al-Jazeera English.)

 

A TALE OF LOVE AND DARKNESS

(Incidentally Natalie Portman’s film of Amos Oz’s, A Tale of Love and Darkness, received a scathing review in Haaretz -- Tom Gross)

Natalie Portman’s Zionist Manifesto: A Tale of Love and Darkness adds to the ongoing shift in how Israel is being perceived in Hollywood.
By Dana Kennedy
The Daily Beast
May 19, 2015

The Oscar-winning Israeli-born actress premiered her directorial debut about the birth of the State of Israel, A Tale of Love and Darkness, at Cannes.

“You have to be Jewish to understand it,” said my seatmate, in tears, at the end of the premiere of Natalie Portman’s quietly devastating new film, A Tale of Love and Darkness.

It helps, too, to be Israeli-American and speak Hebrew, like Portman, to bring Amos Oz’s international bestseller to the screen in her feature directorial debut – in Hebrew no less. The Harvard-educated, Oscar-winning Portman, born Neta-Lee Hershlag in Jerusalem, stars in the adaptation of Oz’s memoir about a boy coming of age in the tumultuous period just before and after Israel’s independence from the British mandate.

Portman also wrote the screenplay, which borrows from another of Oz’s books, How to Cure a Fanatic, in suggesting the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is rooted in irony because both groups had the same oppressor. Europe exploited, humiliated, colonized and controlled the Arab world and it murdered the Jews, Oz wrote.

“(But) two children of the same cruel parent do not love one another,” the narrator, meant to be 76-year-old Oz, says in the film. “Very often they see in each other the exact image of the cruel parent.”

A Tale of Love and Darkness is not the first Israel-themed movie made by an avowed Zionist to show sympathy for the plight of Palestinian Arabs and the complexity of the Arab-Israeli conflict. But because of Portman’s star power, it’s the perfect film for the postmodern American Jew (see also: Jon Stewart and Tony Kushner, among others) who, in part due to the controversial policies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has spoken out against the Israeli government in recent years in ways that would have been unthinkable before.

“I’m very much against Netanyahu,” Portman, who moved to the U.S. when she was three, told The Hollywood Reporter last week. “I am very, very upset and disappointed that he was elected. I find his racist comments horrific.”

Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List first brought the horrors of the Holocaust home to American audiences in 1993. When he released Munich in 2005, it was controversial for portraying Israelis as avenging warriors – not tragic victims – in the story of the Israeli government’s secret retaliation against the Palestine Liberation Operation after the massacre at the 1972 Olympics.

A Tale of Love and Darkness adds to the ongoing shift in how Israel is being perceived in Hollywood. It could be the first film to make the complex and bittersweet story of its creation real to American audiences, although it is probably too dreary to ever be a hit.

Portman plays Oz’s melancholy mother Fania, a refugee from the Ukrainian village of Rovno, which has also been considered part of Poland, Lithuania, and the Soviet Union over the years.

Sturdy and vivacious at the start of the film, which begins just after the end of World War II, Fania slowly falls apart after the Jews in Israel get what they want: the 1947 U.N. resolution that leads to Israeli statehood.

The reason for Fania’s depression, which manifests first as severe migraines, is confusing and mysterious as seen through the eyes of her young son (the excellent Amir Tessler), but there’s another possibility evident to the audience: For some cultured, intellectual Eastern European Jews like Amos’s mother, uprooted from their homes and set down in dusty, dreary lower middle class Jerusalem, the desert was never going to bloom. The long dreamed-of homeland would never be enough because of what they’d lost – and for the “abyss” Fania intuits is awaiting the new state of Israel and the Jews.

Many scenes follow in which the once-regal, now morose Fania is seen sitting in a chair staring blankly into space, curled up on her side in bed, popping white pills, and roaming aimlessly around in the rain. She’s so checked out that she lets her nebbishy, earnest husband (Gilad Kahana), a librarian and writer, know that he can see other women. She commits suicide when Amos is 12.

What saves the film from becoming the Jewish Bell Jar are the nuanced glimpses into the almost-civilized relationships between Arabs and Jews under British rule, and how the establishment of Israel set in motion what would be decades of misery for Palestinian Arabs.

Portman made it clear in her recent interview that she doesn’t want to be seen as anti-Israel just because she opposes Netanyahu.

“I feel like there’s some people who become prominent, and then it’s out in the foreign press. You know, shit on Israel,” Portman said. “I do not. I don’t want to do that.”

She doesn’t “do that” in the film. Even though Arabs are portrayed as the clear aggressors later in the movie, it’s balanced enough to show both points of view.

In one of the movie’s most chillingly prescient scenes, little Amos is taken for tea at the home of a well-to-do Arab family and is admonished to be on his very best behavior. But after being told to go play in the yard, he becomes enamored of a little Arab girl close to him in age named Aicha. To impress her, he climbs a tree and accidentally dislodges a hanging swing, hitting and injuring her little brother down below and horrifying both families. But the damage is done.

The sense of haunting loss, on both sides, is what makes A Tale of Love and Darkness hard to watch and difficult to forget.

“Still moved by Natalie’s film,” my friend texted me the following day. “So depressing. The devastation of the Jewish family 75 years ago is as vivid and agonizing as if it happened yesterday.”

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.