Hamas gunmen ride a motorcycle as they drag the body of a man, who was suspected of working for Israel, in Gaza City last week
* Leading Australian cartoonist criticized for substituting Nazis for Israelis
* “One media outlet that gets off far too lightly for its outrageous and irrational hostility against the State of Israel is the Financial Times”
* Veteran FT columnist Philip Stephens draws parallel between Benjamin Netanyahu and Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei
* It was a sight that shocked the world – the corpse of Ribhi Badawi being dragged through the streets of Gaza City by a motorcycle as Hamas gunmen fired into the air. But he was no collaborator with Israel
* He was tortured for seven months into confessing that he was working for Israel. “They burned him and broke his jaw and teeth,” said his widow. “He was hanged for 45 days by his arms and legs to make him confess. He confessed because of the torture.” (Meanwhile the Financial Times and others are calling Hamas a legitimate government)
* “A recent picture taken in Gaza reveals more than all the sanctimonious speeches calling on Israel to be ‘humane’ or ‘proportional’. The Islamist prime ministers of Tunisia and Gaza, both wearing suits and ties, dipped their hands in the blood of a ‘martyr,’ and then went to a press conference where they displayed their bloodied hands.”
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1. New shipment of Iranian rockets reportedly already en route to Gaza
2. Jordan Times: “Hamas arsenal hit, but rocket know-how intact”
3. New complement to Iron Dome in Israel’s Defense Shield succeeds in test
4. Arafat’s body to be exhumed today
5. Anti-Semitic cartoon in leading Australian paper criticized
6. Amnesty International official reprimanded after tweeting anti-Semitic joke
7. The Financial Times’ five lessons from the Gaza conflict
8. “Hamas victim was no collaborator, widow says” (By Matthew Kalman, NY Daily News, Nov. 26, 2012)
9. “British Colonel Kemp: Hamas leaders ‘running for their lives’” (Arutz Sheva, Nov. 25, 2012)
10. “Ehud Barak quits politics, but leaves door open for comeback” (Israel Hayom, Nov. 26, 2012)
11. “If you thought the Guardian was bad on Israel, check out the FT” (The Commentator, Nov. 25, 2012)
12. “Blood and Tribalism” (By Michael Widlanski, American Thinker, Nov. 21, 2012)
I attach several notes, followed by some articles. Most relate to last week’s clashes between Hamas and Israel.
[Notes below by Tom Gross]
NEW SHIPMENT OF IRANIAN ROCKETS REPORTEDLY ALREADY EN ROUTE TO GAZA
The (London) Sunday Times reports that a fresh cargo of rockets and other weapons has left the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas, and is most probably destined for Gaza. They included Fajr-5 rockets with a range of up to 75 kilometers that will initially be shipped to Sudan, and then smuggled by land to Gaza, according to intelligence reports.
According to the report, the cargo may also include Shahab-3 ballistic missiles, which could be stationed in Sudan and used as a direct threat to Israel from there.
Last month Sudan blamed Israel for an apparent air strike on the armouk Complex, a Sudanese military factory said to be run by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Israeli officials have neither confirmed nor denied involvement in the attack.
For more on that, see the note in this dispatch: Trying to save his other arm (& Iranian revolutionary guards in Sudan)
JORDAN TIMES: “HAMAS ARSENAL HIT, BUT ROCKET KNOW-HOW INTACT”
The Jordan Times reported yesterday that “although the Islamists’ firepower was hit hard during its eight-day confrontation with Israel, Hamas has valuable technical knowledge at its fingertips which could be used to rebuild its arsenal.”
In the first day of the conflict, Israeli officials said the Israeli air force had destroyed the lion’s share of Hamas’ arsenal of rockets with a range longer than 40 kilometers.
But Hamas and Islamic Jihad still managed to fire at least half a dozen rockets at metropolitan Tel Aviv, one of which hit a block of flats in Rishon Letzion, and at least two at Jerusalem, which struck suburbs south of the city in the West Bank.
The strikes marked the longest distances yet reached by rockets fired at Israeli civilians by terrorists in Gaza.
During the operation, the Israeli military said it struck more than 1,500 targets, including 19 terrorist hideouts, 26 weapons manufacturing and storage facilities and hundreds of underground rocket launchers.
But the Jordan Times reports that Hamas and Islamic Jihad have not only received Iranian rockets but have succeeded in manufacturing their own home-grown 200mm diameter rockets (whose range is close to 80 kilometers) using Iranian know-how.
During the 8-day confrontation, Hamas’ armed wing, the Izzeddine Al Qassam Brigades, said they had fired 1,573 rockets at central and southern Israel (although they didn’t use the word “Israel”).
NEW COMPLEMENT TO IRON DOME IN ISRAEL’S DEFENSE SHIELD SUCCEEDS IN TEST
The newest component of Israel’s anti-missile missile system that includes the Iron Dome, which is said to have performed remarkably well in intercepting Hamas and Islamic Jihad missiles targeting Israeli cities last week, has succeeded in its latest test.
The new intercept, called David’s Sling, aims to intercept medium range missiles in the same way Iron Dome demonstrated its ability to identify and destroy incoming rockets fired from short range.
The existing Arrow system will handle the long-range ballistic threats. When the full system is deployed in 2015, Israel will have the world’s best defensive shield, according to experts.
Last week, Iron Dome impressed armies and governments across the world with an incredible success rate of more than 80% in stopping missiles aimed at major Israeli population centers.
ARAFAT’S BODY TO BE EXHUMED TODAY
The body of Yasser Arafat, “the father of airline terrorism” and founder of the PLO, will be exhumed today as part of the investigation into his death in 2004. Conspiracy theorists believe he was murdered, either by members of his own Palestinian inner circle or by Israel.
Earlier this year, as part of a documentary it was making, Al-Jazeera TV borrowed personal items from Arafat’s widow and had them analyzed by a laboratory and then claimed they had discovered minute amounts of polonium-204, suggesting he was murdered.
Following completion of the samples taken today, Arafat will be re-interred in a military ceremony in Ramallah.
For more on Arafat, please see: Yasser Arafat, ‘the stuff of legends’: A warning for the future.
ANTI-SEMITIC CARTOON IN LEADING AUSTRALIAN PAPER CRITICIZED
A cartoonist for The Age, one of Australia’s leading papers, has been criticized for drawing on Holocaust parallels in a cartoon concerning Gaza last week.
“In his ugly, simplistic cartoon in The Age, Michael Leunig has once again crossed the line and used anti-Semitic words and themes,” a leader of Australia’s Jewish community said.
The offensive cartoon played on the words “First they came for the Jews…” the famous statement attributed to German pastor Martin Niemoller about the apathy of German intellectuals following the Nazi rise to power and their gradual elimination of certain minority groups.
In Leunig’s cartoon, he substitutes Nazis for Israelis.
Steve Bell’s conspiratorial cartoon last week in the British paper The Guardian, depicting a horrific looking Benjamin Netanyahu with Tony Blair and David Cameron as hand puppets, also caused controversy.
AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL OFFICIAL REPRIMANDED AFTER TWEETING ANTI-SEMITIC JOKE
A senior official at the British branch of the human rights organization Amnesty International has been reprimanded for singling out Jewish members of the British parliament and making an anti-Semitic joke about them.
Kristyan Benedict, campaigns manager for Amnesty’s London branch, tweeted last week as the violence in Israel and Gaza raged: “Louise Ellman, Robert Halfon and Luciana Berger walk into a bar... each orders a round of B52s,”
Ellman, Halfon and Berger are all Jewish members of Britain’s Parliament. (All three are also among dozens of British members of the House of Commons and House of Lords who subscribe to this email list.)
Amnesty’s campaigns director Tim Hancock criticized Benedict and said he didn’t believe humor was the best approach when people were being killed and injured in Israel and Gaza.
Last year during an official Amnesty event, Benedict threatened to “smack” a pro-Israel writer, Richard Millett, on his “little bald head”.
Amnesty UK has long been criticized for organizing a slew of events that go well beyond criticism of Israel, and for calling into question whether the country should exist at all.
THE FINANCIAL TIMES’ FIVE LESSONS FROM THE GAZA CONFLICT
Financial Times (Nov. 22, 2012)
1. Israel has learnt to end a war
2. Hamas is a legitimate regional player
3. Morsi has passed his first test
4. Mahmoud Abbas is a spent force
5. Missile defense saves lives in Israel (and Gaza too)
(Tom Gross: I would disagree with the first three of these.)
I attach five articles below.
The first concerns Hamas’ public executions of people it accused of collaborating with Israel.
Last week, Hamas again horrified residents of Gaza City when it publicly executed many Palestinians. In one instance, a van pulled into an intersection and four masked men forced six prisoners to lay face-down on the pavement. All six were shot to death as bystanders looked-on. One of the bodies was then tied to a motorcycle and dragged through the city surrounded by additional motorcycles with drivers yelling, “Spy.” Other bodies were placed in trash bins. Hamas has proudly acknowledged responsibility for all of the deaths.
-- Tom Gross
“THEY BURNED HIM AND BROKE HIS JAW AND TEETH. HE WAS HANGED FOR 45 DAYS BY HIS ARMS AND LEGS TO MAKE HIM CONFESS”
Hamas victim dragged through the streets of Gaza City Tuesday by motorcycle was no collaborator, widow says
By Matthew Kalman
New York Daily News
November 26, 2012
It was a sight that shocked the world — the corpse of Ribhi Badawi being dragged through the streets of Gaza City Tuesday by a motorcycle as Hamas gunmen fired into the air.
His crime? Collaborating with Israel to pinpoint Hamas targets.
But the charge wasn’t true, the militant’s grieving widow told The News.
Actually, Badawi, 37, had spent the last four years in a Hamas prison under armed guard.
He was tortured for seven months into confessing that he was working for Israel.
“They burned (him) and broke his jaw and teeth,” said his widow, Kholoud Badawi. “He was hanged for 45 days by his arms and legs to make him confess. He confessed because of the torture.
“He told me every detail of what had happened to him and he gave me a diary he was writing,” she added.
Ribhi Badawi was no innocent, having belonged to the Jaljalat Brigades, an Islamic group that wanted the Palestinians ruled by strict religious law.
But he was sentenced to death in a show trial. His family appealed and asked that the sentence be reduced to 10 years in prison, and the court was due to rule the day he was executed.
“We hoped they would accept our appeal because they had no evidence — just his supposed confession,” she said.
As Kholoud and her five young children accepted the condolences of neighbors and friends in their tiny home in the poverty-stricken Sheikh Radwan neighborhood of Gaza City, friends and neighbors said Badawi was a kind, helpful man who made a living as a herbalist.
They said he once broke down a wall to save an elderly, disabled neighbor whose house was hit in an Israeli airstrike.
Badawi’s father, Ahmed, said his son hated the Israelis more than Hamas.
“My son could never have been an informer,” he said. “They say he got money from the Israelis. Look at his house. This is the house of a poor man. He helped everyone. Everybody liked him. I bless him.”
Hamas officials declined to comment. They referred reporters to comments last week by a Hamas leader who said such executions must not happen again.
“THAT OUT OF 177 GAZANS KILLED DURING THE OPERATION, SOME 120 WERE TERRORISTS, SHOWS AN AMAZING DEGREE OF ACCURACY BY THE IDF”
(Colonel Richard Kemp, a former commander of the UK forces in Afghanistan, is a long-time subscriber to this email list.)
British Colonel Kemp: Hamas Leaders ‘Running for Their Lives’
By Elad Benari & Yoni Kempinski
November 25, 2012
Israel achieved the goals it set for itself in Gaza and has caused heavy damage to Hamas, says Colonel Richard Kemp.
Colonel Kemp travelled to Israel on the outbreak of Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza, in order to gain a firsthand insight into the conflict and be able to provide an objective analysis of the fighting between the IDF and Gaza terrorist groups.
While in Israel he held talks with high level IDF and government officials, visited IDF units and spent much time in the Gaza border area as well as in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
In 2009, Kemp gave evidence to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, refuting Judge Richard Goldstone’s allegations concerning war crimes supposedly conducted by the IDF during Operation Cast Lead. For this evidence Kemp drew on his independent assessment of the Gaza conflict, his 30 years’ counter-terrorism experience and his knowledge of the Israeli defense and intelligence organizations gained during his military service and while working in the UK Prime Minister’s Office.
“I think it’s a tragedy that [Operation Pillar of Defense] had to happen,” Kemp said, “but after 1,000 missiles being fired from Gaza into the Israeli civilian population over the last year and a build-up of 120 in a short period of time, I don’t think the Israel Defense Forces had any other choice other than to mount the operation.”
Kemp said he was impressed with the accuracy of Israeli intelligence in targeting senior Hamas terrorists during the operation, and noted that out of 177 Gazans killed during the operation, some 120 were terrorists.
“Every civilian casualty is a great tragedy, but unfortunately when you’re fighting an enemy like Hamas which uses the civilian population to shield itself, this is an unfortunate outcome and the only other choice is to allow them to carry on hammering the rockets into Israel,” he said.
Kemp, a former commander of the UK forces in Afghanistan, said the targeted killings of Hamas terrorists were important, explaining that similar actions by the U.S. and the UK against Al-Qaeda terrorists have significantly damaged its abilities to hit Western targets.
“I think that the targeted killing of Hamas’s leadership has done untold damage to Hamas,” he said. “Hamas talks big now, it’s talking victory, but actually it’s been very severely damaged: both their leadership and also their munitions.”
Kemp added, “I believe that Israel has accomplished the mission it set out to achieve. I know there’s a lot of dissatisfaction that Hamas has not been dealt an absolutely fatal blow but I don’t think that was ever Prime Minister Netanyahu’s objective. He could have gone on to obliterate Hamas but that would’ve taken a lengthy and extremely costly ground campaign.”
EHUD BARAK QUITS POLITICS, BUT LEAVES DOOR OPEN FOR COMEBACK
Ehud Barak quits politics, but leaves door open for comeback
November 26, 2012
At a dramatic press conference on Monday, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak announced his surprising resignation from politics after nearly 50 years in service of the country.
“I have decided to resign from politics and I will not be running in the [upcoming] elections,” Barak told reporters at his office in the Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv. “I enlisted to the IDF in 1959 and I served the people of Israel for 47 years as well as I could.”
The defense minister reassured reporters that he would remain in his post until the establishment of the next government, following the Jan. 22 elections and then “I will free up time to focus on my family.”
“I have exhausted my contribution to politics, which I was never entirely passionate about, and I feel that I must make way for others to man senior political positions. Turnover in positions of power is a good thing,” Barak said, explaining the decision that took most Israelis by surprise.
“This decision was not without its misgivings, but ultimately, I am at peace with it,” he declared.
“Thus I complete seven and a half years in the Defense Ministry, spanning three governments, one of them under my own leadership,” he said.
“During these years, I led a systematic rehabilitation, bolstering the long arm and dealing with the Iranian threat, pushing Iron Dome and the other anti-missile interceptors and ensuring a deep diplomatic and military cooperation with the Americans,” Barak said.
“I want to thank from the bottom of my heart the IDF commanders, both in compulsory service and career soldiers, the people of the Defense Ministry and the members of the intelligence community, who allowed me to fulfill my duties as defense minister successfully. I am proud to have led such wonderful people. I want to thank the prime minister and my colleagues in the government, as well as my devoted friends in the Independence Party leadership, who gave me a lot of strength for many years and for long hours,” Barak added.
“In the coming three months, we will continue to face every challenge, and I assure you, there will be many,” he concluded.
Barak also took the time to dispel speculations suggesting that he would join up with other parties, insisting that he would not run in the election. But he also never explicitly said he would not return to politics.
The political echelon did not waste a second before issuing responses to Barak’s dramatic announcement, with Labor Chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich expressing her sorrow over Barak’s resignation even before the press conference ended.
“Barak is the world’s most decorated soldier, and one of the most highly regarded defense figures in the international community. He contributed to the IDF and to the security of the country more than the public will ever know,” Yachimovich said.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also voiced his appreciation for the outgoing minister, saying, “I thank him for his cooperation and I very much appreciate his longtime contribution to the security of the state.”
But not all the responses were sympathetic. MK Danny Danon (Likud) issued a statement shortly after the announcement, declaring, “Thank God we are rid of this nuisance.”
“After Barak realized that he could not secure a seat on the Likud list he understood his irrelevance in the political arena and decided to initiate his resignation, instead of the people forcing it upon him,” Danon said in a statement.
Likud minister Yuli Edelstein echoed his colleague’s sentiments, saying, “Today is a day of independence for Likud.”
“Barak will go down in the annals of Israel’s governments as the worst defense minister in the history of the Jewish settlement enterprise. His conduct was rife with egotistical and political considerations, all at the expense of the Jewish settlers,” said Edelstein. “I wouldn’t be surprised if, at the first opportunity, he will find a reason to return to politics and to his evil ways.”
The Strong Israel faction, headed by rightists Aryeh Eldad and Michael Ben-Ari, also issued a celebratory response, adding that “now Netanyahu and [Foreign Minister Avigdor] Lieberman will be able to approve all the construction plans for Judea and Samaria that had gotten bogged down on Barak’s desk. Or, alternately, it may emerge that Barak was only a fig leaf and that it was the prime minister himself who was responsible for the mistreatment of the settlers.”
On the other side of the political spectrum, Israel’s Left was no less critical of the resigning minister. “Barak played a dual role in the political system,” said Meretz Chairwoman Zahava Gal-On. “I commended him as the one who normally blocked extreme policies, but sometimes he was the one who spearheaded extreme moves and pushed them forward.”
“There is something symbolic about the fact that Barak, the man who invented the ‘no partner’ spin, the man who disappointed and failed to sign a peace agreement with the Palestinians, who didn’t end the occupation the way we expected him to, is resigning precisely in the same week his ‘partner’ [Palestinian Authority President] Mahmoud Abbas extends a hand to peace with Israel and seeks recognition of the PA as a state. Now Barak is gone, just when he gets a chance to rectify the historic damage he caused.”
Hadash Chairman Dov Khenin said, “Ehud Barak was the pillar that made possible the existence of the most extreme rightist government in Israel’s history. He will never be able to absolve himself of this historic responsibility. Barak’s political maneuvering cannot mask his culpability for the four difficult years of frozen diplomacy, the damage he caused to the possibility of peace with the Palestinians and the general economic and social deterioration.”
The news even elicited a response from Gaza. Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said that Barak’s resignation was yet another victory for the Gaza terror organizations, Israel Radio reported. He explained that the resignation was proof that Israel’s recent Gaza Strip offensive, which Barak led, had been a failure.
Tom Gross adds: I have written several times about the anti-Israel bias of the Financial Times, for example, here:
“NO, PHILIP. IT’S NOT THAT THE ISRAELI PREMIER NEEDS TO ‘CAST’ HAMAS AS TERRORISTS, THEY ARE TERRORISTS”
If you thought the Guardian was bad on Israel, check out the FT
The Commentator (UK)
November 26, 12
One media outlet that gets off far too lightly for its outrageous and irrational hostility against the State of Israel is the Financial Times.
For a paper that -- somewhat absurdly given its utter failure to predict the financial crisis; as well as its myopia on the EU -- takes itself tremendously seriously, what really jumps out at you when the discussion turns to Israel is the combination of flat out stupidity and visceral hostility.
Enter Philip Stephens, a veteran FT columnist who, on the back of the recent conflict with Hamas, delivered a rant of his own this Thursday.
When I talk about flat out stupidity and visceral hostility, I really do mean it. It is not meant as a gratuitous insult.
Stephens’ aim in the piece is to draw some sort of parallel between Benjamin Netanyahu and Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, “a fellow reactionary”, he says. (His point, in a nutshell, is that they’re both warmongers.)
He argues that, “The parallel with Iran is anyway an uncomfortable one” by which he seems to mean that it’s uncomfortable in the sense that it’s a truth some might not like to hear. In reality, the parallel is not so much “uncomfortable” as “cretinous”.
Comparing the Israeli leader with a Holocaust denier may have anti-Semitic undertones, but I do not accuse Stephens of deliberate anti-Semitism. He is so desperate to impugn the character of the Israeli leader that he lashes out wildly, weirdly and, beyond demonisation, without a clear sense of purpose.
For example, consider this, which encapsulates in a single paragraph the mentality we are dealing with:
“[Netanyahu] lives in the shadow of a war hero brother, who perished during the Israeli rescue of hostages at Entebbe, and a father who believed Arabs would never make peace with Jews. As long as Hamas can be cast as terrorists, Mr Netanyahu can refuse to talk peace. The unspoken delusion is that Israel’s security can be forever underwritten by military victories.”
At every level, what is this guy talking about? Let’s start with the stuff about living under the “shadow of a war hero brother”. Netanyahu is one of the most successful Israeli politicians of modern times. I doubt that he’s living in anyone’s shadow, but then again I’m not interested in playing the amateur psychologist.
Has Stephens conducted in depth interviews with Netanyahu about his family background and his relationship with his brother? Is he qualified to make such an assessment? And what’s that bit about his dad? What, so, like most objective observers, Netanyahu’s father could see that the Arabs have a deep seated problem with Israel? And that’s somehow significant?
This is just weird.
And then we get to the “substance”. “As long as Hamas can be cast as terrorists, Mr. Netanyahu can refuse to talk peace”. No, Philip. It’s not that the Israeli premier needs to “cast” Hamas as terrorists, they are terrorists, as the Obama administration, and even the European Union recognise.
And then, to round things off, we get this: “The unspoken delusion is that Israel’s security can be forever underwritten by military victories.” (In passing, let me just say that I love the man’s use of the word “delusion”... directed at someone else!)
Again, no Philip. Netanyahu shows absolutely no sign of believing that “Israel’s security can be forever underwritten by military victories”. In fact, his posture on the military front is almost entirely defensive. It wasn’t Netanyahu who unilaterally launched barrage after barrage of rockets against Gaza. He responded to unprovoked rocket attacks from Hamas.
One could argue that he favours military action against Iran’s nuclear programme, but he’s not the only one and, in any case, he would launch such an attack in the manner of preventative defence.
Like all Israeli leaders he adopts a broad range of strategies to secure his country, from diplomacy through public relations to deterrence. You can disagree with Benjamin Netanyahu on many things, but casting him as a warmonger does not fit with the available evidence.
But who cares about evidence when your mission is purely about demonisation?
There’s all the standard idiocy in the piece about “Bantustan”s and “apartheid”, as well as a total failure to address the consistent problem of Palestinian rejectionism not to mention the rather inconvenient truth that only two Arab countries have ever made a peace agreement with Israel.
The worry for Netanyahu and all other intelligent observers (ie. not Philip Stephens) is that one of those two countries, Egypt, may renege on its agreement and adopt a much more aggressive stance. I’m sure if that happens the FT will manage to roll out someone or other to say it’s all Israel’s fault. Really, I’m not being ironic.
Much of the rest is the usual anti-Israel rant. In a pointed remark against Netanyahu, he concludes by saying:
“If there is a single lesson from the tumultuous events of the past few years, it is that the era of the armed reactionary is coming to a close.”
And if there’s a single lesson from your piece Philip Stephens it is that the era of the flat-headed, reflexively anti-Israeli British columnist is still very much with us.
PRIME MINISTERS DIPPING THEIR HANDS IN BLOOD
Blood and Tribalism
By Michael Widlanski
November 21, 2012
A recent picture taken in Gaza reveals more than all the sanctimonious speeches calling on Israel to be “humane” or “proportional” in fighting the Islamic terror state in Gaza that has made life a living hell for thousands in Israel.
The Islamist prime minister of Tunisia, Rafik Abdessalem, and the Hamas “prime minister” of Gaza, Ismail Haniyyeh, both wearing suits and ties, visited the body of a young boy killed in the new fighting. They dipped their hands in the blood of the boy, and then went to a press conference where they displayed their bloodied hands.
Some of us remember pictures of Arabs dipping their hands in blood and then brandishing them to the crowd. This occurred after a Palestinian mob grabbed two Israeli reserve soldiers and butchered and burned them in front of a cheering throng in 2002.
The two unarmed reserve soldiers had made a wrong turn, mistakenly entering Ramallah just north of Jerusalem. They had not attacked anyone. They were unarmed, but they were Jewish.
Dipping the hands in the blood is a tribal gesture – taking credit for killing an enemy or rubbing up against the blood of a “martyr” who died because terrorists hid an arms depot under his house.
The tribal blood-dipping, like “honor killings” of women suspected of “improper behavior” is not really an Islamic ritual but a vestige of pre-Islamic tribalism. When two top Arab leaders engage in such tribalism, it belies all the diplomatic trappings and all the claims of Islamic democracy.
“Our message to the international community is that this blatant Israeli aggression on our people in Gaza must stop,” said the foreign minister of Tunisia, the first Arab state to enjoy “Arab Spring.” He never explained why he never complained about Arab terrorists spilling the blood of non-Arabs and non-Muslims.
“Israel has to realize that the Arab world has undergone many changes, and what was permitted to Israel in the past will not be permitted now,” said the Tunisian minister whose government was the first messenger of “Arab Spring.”
Recept Erdogan, the Islamist prime minister of Turkey said almost exactly the same thing. Erdogan personally supported Hamas terrorists with money and diplomacy. He visited Egypt and warned Israel it would not be “allowed” to subdue the terrorists of Hamas and Islamic Jihad the way it had in 2008.
It is worth remembering that this same Erdogan has been touted by President Barack Obama as one of the great hopes of the Middle East, as one America’s greatest friends and even as a possible mediator between the U.S. and Iran. This says a lot about President Obama’s judgment of other leaders and his understanding of the Mid-East.
Turkey’s Erdogan has also offered himself as a mediator between Israel and Hamas, though Erdogan has done his best to isolate Israel from taking part in NATO drills and counterterror forums. With such mediators, one probably does not need enemies.
Egyptian president Muhammad Morsi has also offered to mediate. Like Hamas, he and his Muslim Brotherhood preach that Jews are the sons of pigs and monkeys.
Morsi violated the Israeli-Egyptian Peace Treaty by remilitarizing the Sinai Peninsula, supposedly to stop the various terror groups there, but he has done little to stem the flow of rockets and explosives to Hamas and other terror groups via Sinai.
This is no surprise. Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood is the father and mother of groups like Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Al-Qaeda. A Brotherhood graduate, Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman, organized the 1993 World Trade Center attack after helping to assassinate Egypt’s Anwar Sadat in 1981, after he made peace with Israel.
Like Hamas, Egyptian leader Morsi finds it very difficult even to say the word “Israel”. He prefers the Arabic term for “aggressors,” while Hamas spokesmen use the term al-ihtilal – The Occupation – or al-kawn al-sihyouni: the Zionist entity.
Israel’s neighbors – some of whom used to have good ties with Israel – now cannot even bear to say its name in public.
Say hello to the new tribal Middle East where several leading Arab/Islamic countries have passed through the Arab Spring into an Ice Age of pre-Islamic tribalism.
Protesters chased by armed riot police during clashes at Tahrir square in Cairo, on Friday
* James Brandon: On Thursday, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood president declared all his decisions to be irrevocable and immune from any form of judicial challenge or overturn. Morsi said this would allow him to achieve “political and economic stability” and to “defend the revolution”: an ominous phrase beloved by every revolutionary-turned-despot from Robespierre to Lenin and Mao.
* Just hours before, Hillary Clinton told a press conference in Cairo that “Egypt’s new government is assuming the responsibility and leadership that has long made this country a cornerstone of regional stability and peace.”
* The “stability and peace” trade-off that was reached between Clinton and Morsi in Cairo is clear; in return for Morsi persuading Hamas to agree to a ceasefire with Israel, the U.S. would allow him to seize new ‘temporary’ political powers under the guise of ensuring ‘stability’, both in Egypt and in the region.
* The judiciary was the last branch of government still acting as a significant brake on Brotherhood ambitions. Now opposition protesters will face tougher sentences, while Brotherhood members will be allowed to continue their attacks on rival demonstrators and use sexual assault to intimidate liberal female oppositionists, with impunity.
* Hillary Clinton’s ‘peace and stability’ trade-off has only granted Israel a short-term reprieve and has in the longer-term stacked the odds against the survival of the Jewish homeland. Following Clinton’s visit, Mohammed Badie, the Brotherhood’s real leader, publicly reiterated the group’s view on Israel that “jihad was obligatory” on Muslims.
* The Wall Street Journal: The immediate losers will be Egypt’s liberals and the Western journalists who inhaled the vapors of Tahrir Square. But Morsi’s coup is also awkward for the Obama Administration, which had been praising the Egyptian in media backgrounders for his role in brokering the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. Hillary Clinton had barely left Cairo before Morsi made his move. He may have figured that all the praise made it easier for him to grab more power.
“THE POWER TO DEFINE SUNNI ISLAM ITSELF”
* Barry Rubin: If one views the 2011 revolution as a democratic one, then Morsi is destroying it. But of course he and the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists see it as an Islamist revolution, parallel to the 1979 Iranian revolution – though in Egyptian terms. The timing of this takeover is ironic since it coincides with an all-time high for the Obama administration’s regard for Egypt.
* According to The New York Times last week: “Mr. Obama told aides he was impressed with the Egyptian leader’s pragmatic confidence. He sensed an engineer’s precision with surprisingly little ideology. Most important, Mr. Obama told aides that he considered Mr. Morsi a straight shooter who delivered on what he promised and did not promise what he could not deliver.”
* Barry Rubin: But the main problems Morsi is focused on is how to keep the Muslim Brotherhood in power, how to get lots of money from the West, and how to make Egypt into a radical Islamist state. Enforcing quiet in the Gaza Strip right now is part of that effort. Being the main sponsor of Hamas, a terrorist group, used to be called “state sponsorship of terrorism,” now it is to be admired as being, in The New York Times formulation, Hamas’s “most important international ally.”
* While the chiefs of Egypt’s religious system, including the powerful mosque-university al-Azhar, are hardly liberal, they are also not systematic Islamists. Once such people are replaced with loyalists, the Brotherhood will have the power to define Islam itself. Given the international authority of al-Azhar, which trains clerics for many different countries, Sunni Islam from Morocco to Indonesia would be closer to becoming thoroughly in line with revolutionary Islamist, anti-Western, anti-Semitic thinking. That is not to say it is open, liberal, and tolerant now. But the situation would be far worse and destabilizing. For example, mainstream clerics would issue a stream of rulings justifying terrorism and condemning anyone who cooperated with the West.
* You can comment on this dispatch here: www.facebook.com/TomGrossMedia. Please also press “Like” on that page.
1. Morsi’s move “is reminiscent of Gaddafi”
2. “U.S. chooses stability over democracy in Egypt” (By James Brandon, The Commentator, Nov. 25, 2012)
3. “Egypt’s Islamist coup” (Wall Street Journal, lead article, Nov. 24, 2012)
4. “Egypt’s Islamist president assumes dictatorial powers” (By Barry Rubin, Rubin Reports, Nov. 23, 2012)
MOVE “IS REMINISCENT OF GADDAFI”
[Note by Tom Gross]
I attach three articles about the “coup” on Thursday by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi when – with the world obsessing over events in Gaza and Israel – he awarded himself virtually unchallenged control of Egypt, including placing himself outside judicial oversight
On Friday, protests by thousands of Egyptians against the Muslim Brotherhood turned violent. Muslim Brotherhood party offices in several cities were set on fire. In continuing protests yesterday, at least one teenager was shot dead.
One previous Muslim Brotherhood supporter of Morsi described his move “as reminiscent of Gaddafi”. The Wall Street Journal pointed out that Morsi now has more power then his predecessor Hosni Mubarak ever had.
Many of the commentators in The New York Times, The Guardian, the BBC and elsewhere who have been telling us how “moderate” Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and President Morsi were likely to be in power, are now strangely silent.
Mohamed El-Baradei, the prominent Nobel-peace prize winning former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, called on the United States and European Union to condemn the declaration, calling Morsi a “dictator.”
But so far the response by the U.S. and EU has been pathetic. And Egypt will continue to get almost $10 billion in aid from the U.S., EU and International Monetary Fund, even as it becomes a repressive, Islamist state.
I attach three articles below. The authors of all three are subscribers to this list.
Among other recent dispatches about the ongoing Islamist take-over of the Arab world’s biggest country, please see “Egypt’s tremendous military might comes under Islamist control”.
AN OMINOUS PHRASE BELOVED BY EVERY REVOLUTIONARY-TURNED-DESPOT FROM ROBESPIERRE TO LENIN AND MAO”
U.S. chooses stability over democracy in Egypt
By James Brandon
The Commentator (UK)
November 25, 2012
On Thursday, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood president Mohammed Morsi passed an extraordinary presidential decree. This unilaterally fired the country’s prosecutor-general, banned the judiciary from dissolving the country’s constituent assembly and, conveniently, also declared all the president’s decisions to be irrevocable and immune from any form of judicial challenge or overturn.
Morsi said this would allow him to achieve ‘political and economic stability’ in Egypt and to ‘defend the revolution’: an ominous phrase beloved by every revolutionary-turned-despot from Robespierre to Lenin and Mao.
This momentous step – which one Egyptian legal expert described as ‘absolute fascism’ – was almost certainly given the nod by the Obama administration, either implicitly or explicitly. Only a few hours before his announcement, Hillary Clinton had told a press conference in Cairo that:
“Egypt’s new government is assuming the responsibility and leadership that has long made this country a cornerstone of regional stability and peace.”
After Morsi’s announcement, the U.S. State Department merely observed that Morsi’s moves “raise concerns for many Egyptians and for the international community”, hardly a resounding U.S. denunciation.
The ‘stability and peace’ trade-off that was reached between Clinton and Morsi in Cairo is clear; in return for Morsi persuading Hamas to agree to a ceasefire with Israel, the U.S. would allow him to seize new ‘temporary’ political powers under the guise of ensuring ‘stability’, both in Egypt and in the region.
This move – the latest instance of the Obama Whitehouse dressing up naivety for hard-nosed realism – is short-sighted for two main reasons:
Firstly, it grants the Muslim Brotherhood the power to act with minimal checks and balances from Egypt’s judiciary. Now that Egypt’s non-ideological military has realised that it can prosper under an Islamist regime, the judiciary was the last branch of government still acting as a significant brake on Brotherhood ambitions.
For all its faults, this institution is now likely to be purged and silenced, with knock-on effects for Egyptian politics: opposition protesters will face tougher sentences, Brotherhood members – already widely accused of attacks on rival demonstrators and of using sexual assault to intimidate liberal female oppositionists – will be able to act with greater impunity.
Ongoing, politically motivated prosecutions of opposition leaders, on charges from blasphemy to corruption, will also likely increase. Weakening Egypt’s judges will also enable the Brotherhood to move against other sources of opposition formerly protected by the judiciary.
On Friday, Gehad al-Haddad, a senior Brotherhood adviser, tweeted ominously that after the Brotherhood had dealt with the judiciary, ‘the police needs its own cleansing project, which this declaration enabled. Let’s hope it’s swift’.
Secondly, Hillary Clinton’s ‘peace and stability’ trade-off has only granted Israel a short-term reprieve and has in the longer-term stacked the odds against the survival of the Jewish homeland.
Following Clinton’s visit, Mohammed Badie, the Brotherhood’s real leader who was prevented from standing for the presidency on a technicality, publicly reiterated the group’s view on Israel that “jihad was obligatory” on Muslims, his sole proviso being that an armed attack on Israel by Arab states should only be “the last stage”, once the Muslim world had achieved “unity” – incidentally a word used by Morsi to justify his power-grab.
As will become clear, in the longer-term Clinton’s deal with Morsi has weakened Israel by linking its security to the Muslim Brotherhood’s political ambitions: if the US does not give a free hand to the Brotherhood in Egypt, the Egyptians will cease to rein in Hamas.
Clearly, this new dynamic works actively against Israel; the more Hamas threatens Israel, the more the US will have to concede to the Brotherhood in Cairo; a formula that only motivates the Brotherhood to allow Hamas’ military capabilities strengthen further, all while the Brotherhood uses its control of Egypt to advance towards its planned ‘last stage’, namely the eventual liquidation of Israel.
It is of course possible that Morsi will keep his promise to relinquish his powers once a constitution is in place. However, Morsi and his followers believe their party acts on earth on behalf of God; how then can they reduce God’s earthly powers and remain devout?
It is also possible that Morsi’s unseemly lunge for the levers of power will galvanise the group’s much-hyped ‘liberal’ wing. Certainly it has unnerved overseas supporters. Osama Saeed, the Scottish Brotherhood activist now working for al-Jazeera, described Morsi’s defence of the move ‘as reminiscent of Gaddafi’.
Dali Mogahed, a long-time U.S.-based defender of the Brotherhood, described the move as ‘a disaster’. It is also possible that effective domestic opposition to the Brotherhood will now finally coalesce: Mohamed ElBaradei’s powerful denunciation on Friday of Morsi as a ‘pharaoh’, the Brotherhood’s preferred term for Mubarak, clearly struck a nerve.
Yet these developments may be too little, too late. With the Brotherhood seizing dictatorial powers and silencing opposition voices, while simultaneously re-writing the country’s constitution in order to hardwire Islamism into the country’s governmental DNA, all apparently with the tacit support of Obama’s White House, it may be too late to save Egypt from despotism.
MR. OBAMA SHOULD CONDEMN THE POWER GRAB”
Egypt’s Islamist Coup
The Wall Street Journal (lead article)
November 24, 2012
The Muslim Brotherhood’s man claims more power than Mubarak had.
The Egyptian revolution took another bad turn Thursday, as President Mohamed Morsi gave himself dictatorial powers over the legislature and courts. The world has feared that the Muslim Brotherhood would favor one-man, one-vote, once, and the Morsi coup is an ominous sign.
“The people wanted me to be the guardian of these steps in this phase,” Reuters quoted Mr. Morsi as saying on Friday. “I don’t like and don’t want – and there is no need – to use exceptional measures. But those who are trying to gnaw the bones of the nation” must be “held accountable.”
Mr. Morsi says his diktat will merely last as long as it takes the country to adopt a new constitution, which is what authoritarians always say. They claim to be a necessary step on the way to democracy, but democracy never arrives. Mr. Morsi’s rationalization is that he must have this power to “protect the revolution,” as if the demonstrators who deposed Hosni Mubarak in 2011 merely wanted another Mubarak with a beard and prayer rug. Mr. Morsi is claiming more power than Mr. Mubarak ever had.
Egyptians took to the street on Friday in protest, sometimes violently, and nearly every other major political leader denounced the putsch. That includes Abdel Monheim Aboul Fotouh, a former Muslim Brotherhood leader and presidential candidate. The violence is regrettable, but the protests may be the only way Egyptians can prevent the Muslim Brotherhood from becoming their new dictators.
The Brotherhood doesn’t control the military or Ministry of Interior, yet neither one is going to rush to defend a more liberal Egyptian state. The military’s main goal is to protect its role in government and its economic interests, and the Brotherhood’s draft constitution puts the military outside of civilian control.
As long as Mr. Morsi doesn’t challenge those interests, the military and police may let him control the courts, the media and the legislature. This is a recipe for rule a la Pakistan, with an increasingly Islamist state but the military and intelligence services as an independent power. The immediate losers will be Egypt’s liberals and the Western journalists who inhaled the vapors of Tahrir Square. But whatever Mr. Morsi intends, the Pakistan model is not a recipe for a more stable Egypt.
Mr. Morsi’s coup is also awkward for the Obama Administration, which had been praising the Egyptian in media backgrounders for his role in brokering the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. Mr. Morsi was hailed as a moderate statesman. Yet Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had barely left Cairo before Mr. Morsi made his move. He may have figured that all the praise made it easier for him to grab more power.
Mrs. Clinton and President Obama had said nothing as we went to press, though a State Department spokeswoman issued a tepid statement saying the U.S. had “concerns” and calling for “checks and balances.” The Obama Administration has invested its prestige in a moderate Muslim Brotherhood, and it may be loathe to admit that this hope might be going the way of its Russian “reset” or its claim that the “tide of war is receding.”
Mr. Obama should condemn the power grab and hope this has some sway with those who want to maintain good U.S. ties. If the Muslim Brotherhood becomes the Islamist Mubarak, it will be a blow to U.S. interests and further evidence of a Middle East sliding away from American influence.
THE POWER TO DEFINE SUNNI ISLAM ITSELF”
Egypt’s Islamist President Assumes Dictatorial Powers
By Barry Rubin
November 23, 2012
The French press agency headline says it all: “Egypt’s [President] Morsi assumes sweeping powers, branded new pharaoh.” Morsi has issued a decree giving himself virtually dictatorial powers and contradicting the assumption that he – and his Muslim Brotherhood organization – intend to rule democratically. Opposition forces said this constituted a coup.
Morsi’s spokesman explained the decree in these terms: the president can issue any decree he wishes to protect the revolution. “The constitutional declarations, decisions and laws issued by the president are final and not subject to appeal.”
It seems apparent that this is another step in the process toward the fundamental transformation of Egypt into an Islamist, Sharia-ruled state. If one views the 2011 revolution as a democratic one, then Morsi is destroying it. But of course he and the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists see it as an Islamist revolution, parallel to the 1979 Iranian revolution – though in Egyptian terms, of course. Lest there be any illusions about what this means, note that Morsi is one man whose legitimacy is not established in practice – despite having won an election – and who cannot depend on the country’s institutions to obey him. The power behind Morsi is not that he is president but that he has the support of the country’s strongest group, the Muslim Brotherhood, and can generally count on the Salafists as well.
The timing of this takeover is ironic since it coincides with an all-time high for the Obama administration’s regard for Egypt, following that regime’s brokering of an Israel-Hamas ceasefire, including a continuous insistence from the U.S. government and mass media that the Brotherhood was now moderate and pro-democratic. In a normal universe, a U.S. president would be furious at Egypt for being made to look foolish after lavishing so much praise on Egypt and its insistence that the Brotherhood was moderate and democratic. Of course, that will not happen with this administration.
It is true that Morsi acted “pragmatically” on the ceasefire issue. But what does that mean? He took into account his own regime interests and didn’t just howl “Alahu Akhbar!” repeatedly. Westerners seem to think that for someone to be a radical Islamist they have to be a wild man. If Osama bin Laden wore a suit and tie, he’d still be alive today.
But of course Morsi wants to stay in power and strengthen his regime. He’s not going to throw away $10 billion in aid (U.S., EU, IMF) for some wild adventure in the Gaza Strip that Hamas began without asking him. He doesn’t yet control the country or the army. There’s no constitution and no functioning parliament. If the Muslim Brotherhood has proven anything, it is that it has patience.
According to the New York Times:
Mr. Obama told aides he was impressed with the Egyptian leader’s pragmatic confidence. He sensed an engineer’s precision with surprisingly little ideology. Most important, Mr. Obama told aides that he considered Mr. Morsi a straight shooter who delivered on what he promised and did not promise what he could not deliver.
“The thing that appealed to the president was how practical the conversations were – here’s the state of play, here are the issues we’re concerned about,” said a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations. “This was somebody focused on solving problems.”
Barry Rubin now continues But the main problems Morsi is focused on is how to keep the Muslim Brotherhood in power, how to get lots of money from the West, and how to make Egypt into a radical Islamist state. Enforcing quiet in the Gaza Strip right now is part of that effort.
Being the main sponsor of Hamas, a terrorist group, used to be called “state sponsorship of terrorism,” now it is to be admired as being, in the New York Times formulation, Hamas’s “most important international ally.” Another interesting parallel is that Hamas, like the fellow Brotherhood branch in Egypt, won an election and then seized power completely. Things in Egypt have not yet gone that far, but Morsi has taken a big step in that direction.
At home, it has taken only a few weeks for Morsi to return to dictatorship. The decree comes as secular-minded groups demonstrate in the Tahrir Square area while the Islamists call for suppressing them.
Morsi’s offensive seeks to give him the power to purge existing institutions and put supporters in control.
Perhaps the highest priority is to take over the court system by appointing Islamist judges. During the late Mubarak regime, judges were among the most courageous of dissidents, issuing decisions the government doesn’t like. After the revolution, judges gave rulings against the Brotherhood’s goals, for example, saying that the election of parliament – which is three-quarters Islamist – was illegal. Morsi wants to reverse this ruling by decree rather than face new elections where Islamist vote totals will probably plummet.
The other key institutions are the armed forces, where top generals have already resigned, and the religious establishment. While the chiefs of Egypt’s religious system, including the powerful mosque-university al-Azhar, are hardly liberal, they are also not systematic Islamists or Brotherhood supporters. Once such people are replaced with loyalists, the Brotherhood will have the power to define Islam itself.
Given the international authority of al-Azhar, which trains clerics for many different countries, Sunni Islam from Morocco to Indonesia would be closer to becoming thoroughly in line with revolutionary Islamist, anti-Western, antisemitic thinking. That is not to say it is open, liberal, and tolerant now. But the situation would be far worse and destabilizing. For example, mainstream clerics would issue a stream of rulings justifying terrorism and condemning anyone who cooperated with the West.
The Egyptian regime’s cooperation on a Gaza ceasefire, then, was in large part intended to defuse any reaction against its movement toward dictatorship at home. It is doubtful, for example, that the Obama administration will condemn the new decree giving Morsi total power in the country. And Egypt will get almost $10 billion in aid from the United States, European Union, and International Monetary Fund, even as it becomes a repressive, Islamist state.
The Huffington Post asked for a piece (below) to cover the Middle East, as part of their “world reaction page” to the American election results this morning.
After that, there is an article by David Weinberg from today’s Israel Hayom, one of Israel’s highest circulation newspapers.
PROMISING MUCH, DELIVERING LITTLE
Will despots in Iran, Syria privately welcome Obama’s win?
By Tom Gross
November 7, 2012
Middle East is a region where Barack Obama promised much and delivered little in his first term as president.
Almost from the outset, he disappointed Iranians. As their pro-democracy protests of 2009 were brutally crushed, they chanted, “Obama, Obama are you with us or against us?” while the White House remained largely silent. Obama’s continued outstretched hand to the Iranian regime, his sending two letters to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei seeking cooperation between their governments, and his video message promising “mutual respect,” further demoralized many reform-minded Iranians.
Later in his first term, Syrian civilians were left confused, bewildered and angry as Obama did next to nothing to come to their aid while the Assad regime mercilessly mowed them down.
He also managed, through the sheer clumsiness and incoherence of his approach, to infuriate Israelis and Palestinians in equal measure. Indeed exit polls of the 100,000 dual American-Israeli citizens residing in Israel showed they voted for Romney by a whopping 85 percent – in marked contrast to Jews in the U.S. who remain solidly Democrat. (69% of Jews voted for Obama, 30% for Romney, according to CNN. In 2008, 78% of American Jews voted for Obama.)
While many fans of Obama in America claim that he is a far more popular president abroad than his much-detested predecessor, George W. Bush, this has not in fact been the case – at least not in the Middle East. Obama thought Arabs and Iranians would embrace him and they haven’t. Nor did they do so in Pakistan, where pre-election polls showed more people were rooting for a Romney victory yesterday than an Obama one.
From as early as the end of his first year in office, the Pew Global Attitudes Poll confirmed that Obama’s election had not improved America’s standing in the Muslim world. In the Palestinian territories, 15% said they had a favorable view of the U.S. while 82% had an unfavorable one. Obama’s 2009 speech in Ankara didn’t seem to help in Turkey, where 14% then said they had a favorable view of him and 69% unfavorable. Obama’s ratings were hardly any better elsewhere in the region. Indeed no one I have spoken to there quite understands why he was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize.
While it remains the case that in the “Arab street” there is still a feeling that Obama is more like them than Romney is, especially since Obama’s father was a Muslim, many others in the Middle East are expressing anxiety this morning about the news that Obama has secured a second term.
This is particularly so in Israel where people fear he will exert strong pressure on the country to withdraw from territory which lies only a few miles from Tel Aviv before a genuine partner for peace has been found among the Palestinian rulers. Israelis saw what happened after they withdrew from Gaza only to then be on the receiving end of thousands of missile attacks from the land they left, and want to ensure that any withdrawal from the West Bank doesn’t result in a similar situation occurring even closer to Israel’s major population centers.
And there is real despair this morning among many anti-regime Syrians who were hoping and praying that a Romney victory might bring much needed U.S. military assistance in the form of a no-fly-zone, or arms supplies to help them defend themselves against Assad’s forces.
Among the Arab leadership, particularly in the Gulf, many indicated behind the scenes, that they would feel more comfortable with a man like Romney, i.e. someone who is familiar with the world of IPOs, and mergers and acquisitions, and all the terminology of big business, and who is himself someone of considerable means. They have never been thrilled at dealing with Obama, whom some privately dismiss as part community organizer, part naïve leftist academic. “Romney fits in more with our comfort zone,” one member of a ruling family in a pro-Western Gulf state said to me.
Many Arab governments are led by people who have spent most of their lives accumulating wealth for themselves and their families, much like Romney. However, unlike Romney, they have little interest in pursuing democratic goals, or granting equal rights to women, so they need no longer be concerned by the prospect of neo-con advisors to Romney who might have done precisely that.
As for the leaders in Iran, like those in Russia and China, they will privately welcome Obama’s win, since he is likely to continue to allow them to get away with much mischief on the international stage while Romney might have taken a harder line. They regard Obama as weak, and believe that another Obama term will enable them further to dilute America’s global influence.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and other leaders in the region have released polite press statements this morning congratulating Barack Obama and saying they look forward to working with him in his second term.
But privately they and other Middle Easterners realized during the campaign that it seems that in his second term Obama will seek to avoid too much involvement in the Middle East (or too many “foreign entanglements” in general) -- his premier task will be to concentrate on reviving the American economy. After seeing the final, foreign policy, presidential debate many understood that America was a war-weary nation, and both candidates sought to end existing wars and avoid new ones.
He may try to slip them down his list of priorities, but the ever-growing Iranian nuclear threat, and the wave of change and turmoil currently engulfing much of the Arab world will ultimately prove too dangerous for America, which still remains the world’s premier power, to ignore.
(Tom Gross is a former Jerusalem correspondent for the London Sunday Telegraph and New York Daily News.)
ISRAEL, FILL YOUR SANDBAGS
Fill your sandbags
By David Weinberg
November 7, 2012
I’d like to believe that President Barack Obama's re-election means nothing significant for U.S.-Israel relations, since “all Democratic and Republican presidents over the past four decades have been solidly pro-Israel” — as Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom argued on Israel Radio this morning. But Shalom is putting a pretty face on a forbidding situation.
Obama’s re-election means that Ehud Olmert is going to run against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the upcoming Jan. 2013 Israeli election. It means that Obama is going to intervene aggressively in our election to boost Olmert. It means that a push for immediate Palestinian statehood is back on the international agenda. Most worrisome of all, it means that an American “grand bargain” with the Iranians, possibly at our expense, is on the table.
With good reason, Olmert and Tzipi Livni seem to think they can count on Obama’s strong support in the race against Netanyahu. There are a myriad of ways in which Obama and his emissaries can make it clear to the Israeli voter that U.S.-Israel relations will suffer if Netanyahu is re-elected. They know that Israeli voters fear U.S.-Israel conflict.
Obama’s anti-Netanyahu campaign will be the flip side to the campaign we’ve seen in recent weeks seeking to convince American Jews and Israeli Americans that Obama “has Israel’s back.” Just as the Jewish and Israeli press was swamped with pro-Obama testimonials from Dennis Ross, Alan Dershowitz, Jack Lew, General Dempsey and others, now we’ll get hints and warnings that the “unprecedented” gains in U.S.-Israel intelligence sharing and weapons development approved by Obama will wither if Netanyahu is re-elected. White House backing for Israel in the Security Council will be conditional upon Israeli concessions to the Palestinians, and so on.
It won’t be the first time that an American administration has blatantly intervened to sway Israeli public opinion. Former President George H.W. Bush campaigned against former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir in 1992, among others, by refusing to approve U.S. loan guarantees for Soviet immigrant absorption because of Shamir’s settlement policies. Shamir lost that election after serving two previous terms. Former President Bill Clinton campaigned vigorously for Shimon Peres and against Netanyahu in 1996. That effort backfired.
In his second term, Obama will be seeking to fashion a long-term legacy. With Congress still at a deadlock, he will have difficulty aggressively advancing his domestic agenda. That leaves foreign affairs and defense policy, where he has a freer hand.
On matters that directly affect Israel, remember that Obama is deeply committed to three things: global nuclear disarmament, rapprochement with the Islamic world, and Palestinian statehood. I believe that he will forcefully act to progress on all three fronts, and this could bring him into conflict with Israel.
In a briefing that he is scheduled to give in Washington later today, Dr. Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, will assert that Obama intends to offer Iran a “grand deal” to test whether diplomacy can stop its nuclear program. In fact, according to one press report, Obama’s close personal friend and White House adviser, the Iranian-born Valerie Jarrett, has for months been secretly negotiating in Bahrain with a representative of Tehran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
A U.S.-Iran agreement could involve tacit recognition of Iranian hegemony in the Gulf region and acceptance of its nuclear status, in exchange for a long-term freeze in Iran’s enrichment of uranium to high levels. This would leave Ahmadinejad’s nuclear development facilities, including the Fordow underground center, intact, instead of dismantling them. This would allow the Iranians to continue refining their nuclear skills. Even at low levels of enrichment this provides a framework with which Tehran can bypass Western restrictions and hoodwink Western inspectors.
Every Israeli knows that Iran has clandestinely crossed every “red line” set by the West over the past 20 years — putting nuclear plants online, building heavy water facilities, refining uranium, working on explosive triggers and warheads, and generally breaching all its obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty — and has gotten away with it. So any deal that scales back sanctions and allows Iran to keep operating its advanced nuclear development facilities, even at a low-level, is a fatal bargain.
The deal could also involve a commitment to “tackle” Israel’s alleged nuclear weapons program. Israel’s nuclear status has been supported and criticized by different American presidents over the decades, but has never been significantly threatened. In July 2010, Obama pledged support for Israel’s right to defend itself by any means possible — by implication, even with nuclear weapons.
However, Washington seems to have backtracked on its clear support, and is now supporting a U.N. conference on a nuclear-free Middle East scheduled for December in Finland which could very well focus on Israel. This issue holds the potential for acute friction between the two countries. Prof. Uzi Arad, who was National Security adviser to Netanyahu and who negotiated the July 2010 understandings, says that America had indeed undertaken to ensure that there would only be “discussions” at the Finland conference, with no move to enforce nuclear restrictions on Israel. We’ll see …
There is a theory which postulates that Obama’s re-election brings the required showdown with Iran closer than a Romney win would have, because Obama is already so invested in the issue and so clearly on record as rejecting the mere containment of Iran. But I don’t buy it. Obama’s paramount commitment to rapprochement with the Islamic world, I suspect, will overtake his declarations of opposition to Iran. He never was going to, and never will, confront Iran militarily.
Which brings us to Palestinian statehood, which was one of Obama’s earliest and most earnest commitments. Mahmoud Abbas’ obstinacy hasn’t made it easy for Obama to back Palestinian aspirations, but Abbas is forcing the issue with his push for unilateral recognition of Palestinian quasi-statehood at the U.N. later this month. Israel expects Washington to punish the PA for this, but I wonder. And when Israel announces new settlement construction, adoption of the Levy Report, and other penalties to Abbas in response to the U.N. decision, I doubt that we’ll get much support from Obama.
So start filling your sandbags. We’re in for a rough ride.
Palestinian student Imama Hithnawi, 18, says he enjoys Yiddish
* “Yiddish intrigues me with its majesty and its enigmatic, refined musical tone. I have no explanation for the fact that I have always felt a connection to this language” -- Yusuf Alakili, 50, from the Arab-Israeli community of Kfar Kassem, currently studying for a Master’s degree in literature at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv
* “My dream is to read Sholom Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman in its original language”
* First Israeli Arab woman becomes commander of an IDF combat unit
* Egyptian soccer player says he is likely to accept a formal offer to join the Israeli Hapoel Tel Aviv team
* Fury as it is revealed that UK government is paying Palestinian prisoners (including convicted terrorists) more than the average UK worker
The Israeli band Orphaned Land have taken the unusual step of applying for Turkish citizenship, in order to allow them to put on shows for fans in Arab countries
* This dispatch contains various items related to Arab affairs.
* You can comment on it here: www.facebook.com/TomGrossMedia. Please also press “Like” on that page.
1. Israeli band gets ready for an Arab world tour
2. First Arab woman becomes commander of IDF combat unit
3. Anger as it is revealed that UK government is paying Palestinian prisoners (including terrorists) more than the average UK worker
4. “Nu? Arab Students’ New Shtick: Kibbitizing in Yiddish” (Yediot Ahronot, Israel)
5. “Egyptian footballer says he may play for Israeli team” (Egypt Independent, Nov. 4, 2012)
6. “Debate among Muslim clerics: Is it proper to rejoice over Hurricane Sandy in the U.S.?” (Memri, Nov. 1, 2012)
7. “A Dramatic change of Iran’s image in the Arab World” (By Ali Hussein Bakeer, Turkish Weekly, Oct. 31, 2012)
[Notes below by Tom Gross]
ISRAELI BAND GETS READY FOR AN ARAB TOUR
Members of the popular Israeli band Orphaned Land have taken the unprecedented step of applying for Turkish citizenship, in order to allow them to put on concerts for fans in Arab countries.
The band is very popular in Turkey and the Arab world. They have already played together with a Palestinian band in Turkey (which unlike most Arab countries allows Israeli citizens to enter).
This video has music and interviews with the band about their forthcoming Arab tour. (Courtesy: Israel 21c).
For a related dispatch please see the clips of Rita here:
FIRST ARAB WOMAN BECOMES COMMANDER OF IDF COMBAT UNIT
Two weeks ago, a twenty-year-old Christian Arab became the first female Arab commander of an Israeli army combat unit.
Mona Abdo, who grew up in Haifa, but now lives in Kiryat Haim, made history by graduating from the Israeli Defense Forces’ Commanders training course. She will become a commander in the Caracal combat unit, which has both male and female, and Arab and Jewish soldiers serving alongside each other.
She volunteered to join the Israeli army in 2010 and was initially assigned to the Ordnance Corps. But, after four months, she decided she wanted to play a more active role, and was transferred to the combat unit Caracal.
She says that her parents and family encouraged her throughout the entire process. Abdo’s younger sister has also now joined the same unit as her. Abdo says she is not finished yet and aims to climb further up the IDF chain of command.
ANGER AS IT IS REVEALED THAT UK GOVERNMENT IS PAYING PALESTINIAN PRISONERS (INCLUDING TERRORISTS) MORE THAN THE AVERAGE UK WORKER
British MP Robert Halfon (who is a longtime subscriber to this email list) has written to the British Conservative-led government’s International Development Minister, Alan Duncan, demanding an explanation after the director of the important non-governmental organization, Palestinian Media Watch (PMW), Itamar Marcus (who is also a subscriber to this list) revealed that new legislation introduced last year by the Palestinian Authority explicitly redirected British government aid to pay Palestinian prisoners and their families – including those serving multiple life sentences for acts of terrorism, such as the planning and directing of suicide bombings.
A minimum salary give to such prisoners serving time in Israeli jails is £230 a month for a prisoner starting his sentence, and £1,957 a month for those serving more than 30 years. This is more than the average take-home salary in Britain.
The British Foreign Office and Department for International Development have said they will investigate the report. In past years Britain and other European governments have denied that their aid money has gone to fund Palestinian terrorism despite consistent reports to the contrary.
I attach four articles below.
-- Tom Gross
“MY DREAM IS TO READ SHOLOM ALEICHEM IN ITS ORIGINAL LANGUAGE”
Nu? Arab Students’ New Shtick: Kibbitizing in Yiddish
By Dudi Goldman
Yediot Ahronot (Israel)
Oct 15, 2012
“Yiddish intrigues me with its majesty and its enigmatic, refined musical tone. I have no explanation for the fact that I have always felt a connection to this language.”
Contrary to what you might expect, the speaker of these lines is not a Polish poet or German philosopher. He is Yusuf Alakili, 50, from Kfar Kassem, currently investing much effort in his studies for a Master’s degree in literature at Bar Ilan University’s Hebrew. Alakili studies Yiddish on the side for his own enjoyment.
How did this affair start? “In the 1980s, I worked with a Jew of Polish origin who lived in Bnei Brak, and Yiddish was the main language there. I was captivated by its musical tone and decided to study it in earnest. My dream is to read Sholom Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman [the inspiration for Fiddler on the Roof] in its original language.”
And what bothers him? “I don’t know who is to blame, but I don’t understand why this magnificent language is neglected, when such an extensive body of literature exists in Yiddish. Did you know that [Nobel Prize laureate] Agnon started writing in Yiddish, and only later transferred to Hebrew?” he asks.
Alakili is not alone. About a quarter of the 400 students studying Yiddish at Bar Ilan are Arabs, says Ber Kotlerman, academic director of Bar Ilan’s Center for Yiddish Studies. According to Kotlerman, some of the Israeli Arabs are searching for a way to connect to the Jewish culture with which they must cope, and it is not easy for them.
“Even Jews in the Diaspora search for this – a way to connect to the local culture – and it is wonderful that Yiddish can be a sort of ambassador, a bridge between nations and cultures,” he says. “Take, for example, the case of Tevye the Dairyman, whose daughter marries a Christian and he sits shiva [the traditional Jewish mourning ceremony] for her. Two years ago, a female Arab student approached me to say that her father would do the same thing if she fell in love with a Jew,” says Kotlerman.
Salam Bashara, 22, of [the Israeli Arab town of] Tira, is currently finishing her undergraduate degree in Arab literature. She explains how the Yiddish language and culture move her greatly.
“I fell in love with Hebrew literature back in high school. When I studied Yiddish, I became acquainted with Sholom Aleichem and the early works of Agnon,” and also watched various films, such as the wonderful movie “The Cantor from Vilna.”
“The cantor’s loss of his son [to the surrounding secular culture] is a universal experience, something that everyone can identify with,” says Bashara, who hopes one day to write her masters thesis on the parallels between Arab and Yiddish literature.
EGYPTIAN FOOTBALLER SAYS HE MAY PLAY FOR ISRAELI TEAM
Egyptian footballer says he may play for Israeli team
November 4, 2012
Mahdy Suleiman, an Egyptian goalkeeper, said he is likely to accept a formal offer to join the Israeli Hapoel Tel Aviv F.C. during the upcoming winter break, “if it is the only chance to play football.”
Suleiman is currently playing for Petrojet F.C, which competes in the suspended Egyptian Premier League. He previously played for prominent Egyptian football teams Ennpi and Arab Contractors.
Suleiman told Sky News Arabia in a telephone interview, “I received the formal offer through a Hungarian agent. I have not yet accepted it, but I might think of accepting if it is the only way for me.”
He described agreeing to play in the Israeli league as a “very serious risk.”
“A large number of Egyptian players contacted me as soon as they knew of the offer, so that I [could] ask the agent to find opportunities for them in the Israeli league, if possible,” the 25-year-old goalkeeper added, without naming the players.
Suleiman said that any player’s wish to play in the Israeli league is justified by the suspension of football activity in Egypt, criticizing “those responsible for resuming the activity in the country who do not think of the future of all the workers of the sports sector.”
Suleiman did not reveal the financial terms of the offer he was sent, and neither did he reveal the number of years of the contract.
Premier League football activity has been suspended in Egypt since the Port Said football violence, in which at least 72 Ahly fans, particularly members of the group Ultras Ahlawy, were killed after fans of the club Masry stormed the pitch at Port Said Stadium.
Some workers in the football sector, including players, administrators or journalists, complain about financial difficulties as a result of the activity halt.
However Ultras Ahlawy, supported by other members of the football sectors, members of the victims’s families and many political activists and groups reject the resumption of Premier League matches.
DEBATE AMONG MUSLIM CLERICS: IS IT PROPER TO REJOICE OVER HURRICANE SANDY IN THE U.S.?
Debate among Muslim clerics: Is it proper to rejoice over Hurricane Sandy in the U.S.?
The Middle East Media Research Institute
November 1, 2012
Following Hurricane Sandy, which hit the East Coast of the U.S. on October 29, 2012, many Twitter users in the Arab world expressed joy over the crisis in the U.S. and even wished for its demise, whereas others condemned these reactions and called to express compassion for the Americans. A number of Muslim clerics joined this debate, some of them agreeing with the first group and describing the hurricane as a punishment from Allah, and others agreeing with those who condemned this attitude.
The following are excerpts from some of the clerics’ statements:
Among those who expressed satisfaction over the hurricane was Egyptian cleric Wadgi Ghoneim, who tweeted on October 29, 2012: “America is currently subject to [an attack] by one of Allah’s weakest armies (meaning Hurricane Sandy).”
MAGDI GHONEIM’S TWEET
On October 31, he tweeted: “In my opinion, this is revenge by the Lord [Allah] for [harming] his beloved Mustafa [another name for the Prophet Muhammad]...” Ghoneim presumably means that Allah sent the hurricane as punishment for the anti-Islamic film Innocence of Muslims.
Saudi cleric Nasser Al-’Omar likewise regarded the storm as divine punishment, and even issued a fatwa stating that the Muslims must be glad and thank Allah for it: “We must rejoice at anything that harms these arrogant and tyrannical oppressors. America is the spearhead of oppression, evil and tyranny in the present age. It has used its wealth, which Allah the Almighty bestowed upon it, to oppress mankind throughout the world.
America’s history is black, in every respect and in all parts of the globe, especially when it comes to [its treatment of] the Muslim nation. For America is an infidel and tyrannical nation that is hostile to Allah and His Messenger, and fights the Muslims. It has defiled and degraded Allah’s Book [the Koran]. It is close to all that is evil and distant from all that is good, and defends terrorism in the world. Who supports Israel? Who endlessly defends the Jews? Who destroyed Afghanistan and Iraq? Who takes the wealth of the Muslims worldwide and repays them with missiles, bombs and nuclear warheads? America and its agents are [also] the ones who supervise the most oppressive and deadly prisons, such as Guantanamo. The list of its crimes around the world is endless, and nobody can compete with it... America’s might [is used to promote] civil war, deception, evil, tyranny, and straying from the straight and narrow.
“So why should we not rejoice when it suffers harm?... Should we not be glad that Allah has heeded the prayers of the weak and oppressed around the world? Should we not be glad, when [the storm is clearly] a punishment from Allah for their crimes...? Some Muslims say [that] we should feel sorry about what has happened [in America]! This is a mistake [which indicates their] ignorance of the religious texts... When we see these strong winds destroying some of the states in America, we know it is a boon from Allah, for which we should be grateful and glad... In sum, we may rejoice over what has harmed America, for that is the reasoning of the Koran and the way of the prophets...”
UK-based Islamist Anjem Choudary tweeted: “Hurricanes, floods and tornados are the soldiers of Allah which Allah releases against those he wishes to punish or to wake up, Allah Akbar!”
Among the clerics who criticized these statements was the Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh ‘Abd Al-’Aziz bin ‘Abdallah Aal Al-Sheikh, who told the daily Al-Hayat: “It is improper to curse those affected by Hurricane Sandy in prayer, since there are many Muslims among them. We pray [that Allah] empower the Muslims and lead them to obedience... Muslims must learn a lesson from [natural] disasters and must not curse all [the victims]. This does not serve the Muslims, and must cease.”
Saudi Sheikh Salman Al-’Odeh tweeted: “To all those who pray that Hurricane Sandy will bring disaster, I quote the words of the Prophet [Muhammad about] the idolaters in Mecca: ‘I hope that [Allah] produces from their loins [sons] who worship Him [i.e., who become Muslims].’“
SALMAN AL-’ODEH’S TWITTER RESPONSE
Al-Azhar Sheikh Salam ‘Abd Al-Galil said: “The Muslims should not draw a connection between the hurricane and the anti-Islamic film, and should not rejoice over the crisis because this will trigger disdain and contempt [against them]. Allah puts all of his creatures to the test, [both] the Muslims and the infidels. Muslim nations can also by hit by a hurricane at any time, and then the other nations will heap scorn upon us.”
 Twitter.com/wagdighoneim, October 29, 2012.
 Twitter.com/wagdighoneim, October 31, 2012.
 Umh1.com, October 30, 2012.
 Twitter.com/anjemchoudary, October 30, 2012.
 Al-Hayat (London), October 31, 2012.
 Twitter.com/salman_alodah, October 30, 2012.
 Al-Watan (Egypt), October 30, 2012.
For a related dispatch please see:
A DRAMATIC CHANGE OF IRAN’S IMAGE IN THE ARAB WORLD
A Dramatic Change of Iran’s Image in the Arab World
By Ali Hussein Bakeer
October 31, 2012
Last week, Umayya Center for Strategic Studies held a workshop in the Egyptian capital Cairo, entitled “the Iranian Agenda in the Arab World”. Sixteen researchers, academics and journalists from several Arab countries and of many different orientations (Islamic, seculars, liberals, pan Arab, Sunni, Shiite and even people from the al-Ahwaz province in Iran) were invited as speakers.
The workshop which was widely covered by the media and broadcast live on many channels including (Misir25) from Egypt, (Al-Rafidain) from Iraq and (Aljazeera Mubasher) from Qatar, focused on carefully examining Iran’s agenda in the Arab world, the dangers of Iranian policies in the region especially amid the Syrian revolution and the Mullah regime’s and its allies’ bloody involvement in it.
Participants discussed the pillars of the Iranian agenda in the region, the domestic factors of this agenda, “regionalism” in Tehran’s foreign policy, Iran and the Arab revolutions.
It was evident from the participant’s papers that Iran’s alleged legacy in the Arab world has entirely vanished. Previously, it was very hard for anyone to criticize Iran; the vast majority of public opinion in the Arab world was sympathetic of Iran, perceiving it as an Islamic country supposedly defying the “great Satan” (United States) and Israel. The workshop reflected a dramatic change in this perception of Iran in the Arab world.
SYRIA: THE LITMUS TEST
The Syrian revolution has significantly affected Iran’s image in the Arab world and clearly had a negative impact on Arab perception of Iranian policies in the region.
Right now, even those who are neutral to Iran and its agenda are having a hard time explaining their position. The small number of people who still support Iran are viewed as sectarian, radicals or traitors. Participants reflected the general atmosphere in the Arab world that there can be no excuse whatsoever that could justify any person or country to support the bloody Assad regime against its people. Such a support could not be justified under any circumstances even if it served the purpose of resisting to Israeli occupation. This is a matter of freedom and a group of slaves can’t resist Israel or any other occupier.
IRAN AND ISRAEL TWO FACES OF THE SAME COIN
Moreover, speakers explained that Arabs are against Israel not due to any anti-Semitic sentiments, but because they are occupying Arab lands, humiliating Palestinians, violating all kind of international laws and using espionage and spies to internally shake the stability of Arab countries, and this is not different in any way from what Iran is doing too in the Arab world.
Currently Iran occupies islands that belong to the UAE, claims that Bahrain in its entirety is an Iranian province that must be taken back, uses its arms and militias as proxies in Lebanon, Iraq, Bahrain, Palestine, Kuwait, Syria and other countries, divides Arab societies on sectarian faults and inflames sectarian sentiments.
Both countries have regimes that operate with a Mafioso mentality in the region. They are not interested in any legitimate stability, they are not interested in prosperity of the region and welfare of its people, they strongly oppose any comprehensive and just peace in the region and on the contrary they play hard in order to make sure this doesn’t take place, both regimes use minorities in order to achieve political aims and in addition to all of these they use Arab countries as playground for increasing their influence in the region.
IRAN AND THE SHIITE
During the event, the participants showed a commitment to distinguishing between Iran and the Shiite. They stressed that commenting on Iran doesn’t mean in anyway commenting Shiite people. The speakers further agreed that the Mulla’s regime ultimate goal is to use Shiite in its agenda. Iran neither represents, nor protects the Shiite’s within the Arab world. Giving examples of this, the speakers noted Iran’s support for Armenia against Shiite Azerbejan, also noting the Iranian authorities’ treatment of the Arabs of Ahwaz province, although they are Shiite too.
Speaker warned that Iran is hiding behind slogans such as “Islamic unity”, “resistance” and other slogans in order to penetrate the public bases while covering its real intentions. Iran will not be ashamed from brokering deals with what it claims to be the “great Satan” (United States) and Israel when it is in their national interests to do so, as they did before many times during Mullahs rule.
REACHING THE IRANIAN PEOPLE
Participants assured that Arabs are not enemies of Iran or Iranian people, but they will stand strongly and firmly against the intimidating and reckless policies implemented by the mullahs’ regime in the Arab countries. As long as the current Iranian policies remain, the Arabs and Iranians will not have positive relations.
Considering the importance of directly reaching the Iranian public, speakers stressed the necessity of establishing new Arab media channels operating in Persian, in order to break the siege put by the mullahs on the Iranian people and to be able to deliver the message of Arabs directly without any interference from the mullah’s regime. This is especially critical when the mullah’s regime is using misleading ways to present false picture of events and stories as it did with the Egyptian president’s speech in Tehran few months ago.
Finally, the workshop participants restated their support for all Iranian people fractions and minorities in their struggle to obtain their rights.
The central square of Lebanon’s Resistance Tourist Landmark, otherwise known as Hizbullahland.
* Vanity Fair: “After several successive family summer vacations in California, this year my two grown sons wanted something a little more adventurous. We settled on Lebanon, a country I’ve always loved to visit. It actually has a lot in common with California – natural beauty, majestic mountains, the sea, great food, a fabled music scene, vivid nightlife, and a government at once partisan and weak. Both have a very refined wine country (the Napa Valley and the Bekaa Valley), both produce cannabis as a major agricultural product (marijuana and hashish), and both are blessed with – and challenged by – astonishing diversity: countless sects, cults, religions, and spiritual enclaves. In Lebanon as in California, the minorities make up the majority.”
* But whereas California has Disneyland, Legoland, and countless others, Lebanon has Hizbullah’s new Tourist Landmark of the Resistance, about 50 miles south of Beirut, near the Israeli border. It’s a multi-million-dollar complex that memorializes “resistance to” (and attacks on) Israel – known to many locals as “the Zionist Entity”.
* At its opening, attended by dignitaries including the omnipresent philosopher-linguist Noam Chomsky, it was hailed as a “tourist jihadi center” (three words not often seen together) by the son of Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hizbullah. Hizbullahland has already had more than 1.2 million visitors, according to a staff member.
* Lebanese Tourism Minister Fadi Abboud says that he’s so upset that the makers of the award-winning Israeli-inspired, American TV series “Homeland” filmed in Tel Aviv, and pretended it was Beirut, that he’s considering a lawsuit.
* In one rooftop “Beirut” scene, parts of the Tel Aviv skyline, with hotels lining the Mediterranean and the iconic “Shalom Tower” skyscraper, can be seen in the distance.
* In another scene from the recent “Back to Beirut” episode, Danes’ character is walking through a Beirut open market and passes a stall selling two Israeli T-shirts: one red with the white Coca-Cola logo in large Hebrew letters, the other a yellow jersey of the Jerusalem soccer team Beitar Yerushalayim, complete with a menorah.
* Eytan Schwartz, a spokesman for Tel Aviv’s mayor, said “If I were Lebanese, with all due respect, I’d be very flattered that a city, and a world heritage site, thanks to its incredible architecture, and residents who were named among the top 10 most beautiful people in the world (ranked by Traveler’s Digest magazine in 2012) could pass as Lebanese.”
* The show’s producers say “Shooting in Tel Aviv was a lot simpler for us.”
[Note by Tom Gross]
I attach two recent “human interest” articles from Lebanon.
(You can comment on this dispatch here: www.facebook.com/TomGrossMedia. Please also press “Like” on that page.)
1. “Six Flags Over Lebanon: Hezbollahland” (By Tom Freston, Vanity Fair, Oct. 2012)
2. “TV’s ‘Homeland’ angers Lebanese – for portraying Tel Aviv as Beirut” (AP, Oct. 19, 2012)
WHEN THE PAINTBALL FIELD, SWIMMING POOLS, AND SMOOTHIES ARRIVE, HIZBULLAH-LAND COULD BE BIG BUSINESS
[I reported on this Hizbullah theme park when it opened two years ago in these dispatches, and am glad to see a prominent publication, Vanity Fair, has now reported on it. -- TG]
Six Flags Over Lebanon
A day at Lebanon’s “Hezbollahland” is not everyone’s idea of family fun – but it makes you wonder if a terrorist group can ever become bourgeois
By Tom Freston
After several successive family summer vacations in California, this year my two grown sons wanted something a little more adventurous. We settled on Lebanon, a country I’ve always loved to visit. It actually has a lot in common with California – natural beauty, majestic mountains, the sea, great food, a fabled music scene, vivid nightlife, and a government at once partisan and weak. Both have a very refined wine country (the Napa Valley and the Bekaa Valley), both produce cannabis as a major agricultural product (marijuana and hashish), and both are blessed with – and challenged by – astonishing diversity: countless sects, cults, religions, and spiritual enclaves. In Lebanon as in California, the minorities make up the majority.
To be sure, Lebanon pulls far ahead of California when it comes to a history of bloody civil strife (not that the Golden State hasn’t had its moments). But where California definitely pulls ahead is in theme parks. California has Disneyland, Six Flags, Legoland, and countless others. We looked long and hard for a theme park in Lebanon but the only attraction that seemed to come close was Hezbollah’s new Tourist Landmark of the Resistance, in Mleeta, about 50 miles south of Beirut, near the Israeli border. It’s a multi-million-dollar complex that memorializes resistance to the Israeli occupation (1982–2000) with something of a Six Flags spin.
To that segment of the Lebanese who refer to Hezbollah as “the Hez” the attraction is known as “Hezbollahland.” Israel – known to many locals as “the Zionist Entity” – refers to the same place as “a Disneyland for terrorists.” At its opening, in May 2010, attended by dignitaries including the omnipresent philosopher-linguist Noam Chomsky, it was hailed as a “tourist jihadi center” (three words not often seen together) by the son of Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah. Hezbollahland has already had more than 1.2 million visitors, according to a staff member. My sons and I drove down from Beirut on a hot August afternoon with Kate Brooks, a good friend and locally based photographer. We also took a friend of a friend, a smart, funny Lebanese-American named Jihad. Kind of like heading for the Magic Kingdom with a guy named Mickey.
Americans tend to know Hezbollah primarily as a militant Shiite organization, heavily armed with missiles and funded by Iran – an independent army within Lebanon, right on the Israeli border. The U.S., the U.K., Canada, and many other nations list Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. In Lebanon, Hezbollah is also a very organized political party with seats in parliament and ministers in the Cabinet.
With anti-U.S. protests sweeping the Arab world this September, precipitated by an anti-Muslim video, Hezbollah, as a sign of its strength, summoned tens of thousands of supporters to the streets of Beirut for one of the largest demonstrations anywhere. It was peaceful and, in a uniquely Lebanese move in deference to the Christian population, Hezbollah delayed the demonstrations for three days until the Pope, who was visiting Lebanon, left town. Hezbollah translates as “the Party of God” – which is pretty aspirational. Hezbollah runs many important social programs for its Shiite followers and has been a leader in rebuilding the southern part of the country following the 2006 war with Israel (which some would say Hezbollah itself provoked).
Hezbollah has proven itself to be a savvy brand builder, operating radio and television stations and now this theme park. Central to its brand is the proposition that only Hezbollah can defend Lebanon against the Zionist Entity and that it deserves sole credit for driving out the Israelis in 2000. Hezbollah has always been a threat to Israel. Now, given the urgent realities of the Syrian civil war (Hezbollah supports the Assad regime) as well as the nuclear ambitions of Iran (Hezbollah’s sponsor), many see the range of that threat widening. A recent International Herald Tribune headline declared, “Hezbollah Is Seen as a Risk in Europe.”
To get to Hezbollahland, we wound our way east from the Mediterranean through a succession of reddish hills until, in the middle of nowhere, we came upon a new four-lane road that led up a steep mountain. We drove in, parked the car, and stepped out into cool mountain air. The facility was impressive: modern buildings in every direction, open plazas, signs and markers in Arabic and English. Our guide, a proud, friendly, soft-spoken man, was happy to see some foreign visitors. It was Ramadan and business was slow. He said that what we would see was just “phase one” – only 15 acres. Hotels, a spa, swimming pools, a sports club, campgrounds, and a paintball battlefield were still to come. Hezbollahland was just getting started.
We began our tour in a theater with a film that told an approved version of the Hezbollah story, climaxing with the Israeli pullback to “Occupied Palestine” in 2000. The rest of the tour takes in exhibits and art installations, mostly outside and all glorifying the sacrifice, smarts, bravery, and success of Hezbollah. The centerpiece is the Abyss, a great cavern we entered on a wide circular pathway; the cavern is filled with abandoned armored vehicles, tanks, rockets, and other equipment, along with a large, broken-glass Star of David and tombstones with “IDF” (Israeli Defense Forces) inscribed on them. A grim tableau. Our guide said all of this symbolized “the downward spiral of the enemy.”
When I asked if these were all Israeli weapons, he said, “No, they are yours. They are American. You paid for them.” We walked along another path and saw mannequins of Hezbollah guerilla fighters in various combat poses. There was a replica of a field hospital, a machine gun children could play with, and a monument to the “Martyrdom Seekers,” as suicide bombers are called. (“They make the ultimate sacrifice,” our guide said; he did not comment about the victims.)
The restrooms are done up in a camouflage motif. From a viewing station you can see Syria and Israel. There was the inevitable gift shop. I figured I’d get a jump on Christmas shopping, but the pickings were few – the items left seemed mainly to be Hezbollah flags and buttons, posters of Nasrallah, and row after row of DVDs, mostly speeches and epic battle scenes. One item jumped out: an AK47 squirt gun. Probably not the best thing to put in your luggage these days.
We left the Resistance Tourist Landmark with a mix of reactions. Hezbollah has long supported terrorism – this is the organization that blew up our embassy and the Marine Corps barracks in Beirut in the early 80s, with enormous loss of life. Full stop. Even so, it’s hard not to have some understanding for why Hezbollah has gained respect among the local population for its role in ending the 18-year occupation. Now Hezbollah has built an effective attraction to communicate its narrative to the young.
When the paintball field, swimming pools, and smoothies arrive, Hezbollahland could be big business. The Lebanese have always been skilled merchants; could it be that Hezbollah itself will one day turn bourgeois? When you think about it, that very same evolutionary process turns out to have solved an awful lot of the world’s problems. Of course, a different possible future is also not hard to imagine: that violent provocations will flare once more, making Hezbollahland a tempting target for Israeli bombs.
As we got into our van to go back to Beirut, a big news story broke on the radio. The pro-Syrian Lebanese information minister, Michel Samaha, had just been arrested for smuggling explosives for the purpose of killing Lebanese anti-Syrian politicians with truck bombs. Hezbollah immediately accused the judiciary and the security forces of collaborating to create “security fabrications” to frame him. Everything in Lebanon is complicated. A couple of days later I saw my new friend Jihad bartending at a club called Radio Beirut. His T-shirt read, “MR. JIHAD,” in huge letters. Such is Lebanon. The drinks were on him.
‘HOMELAND’ ANGERS LEBANESE – FOR PORTRAYING TEL AVIV AS BEIRUT
TV’s ‘Homeland’ angers Lebanese – for portraying Tel Aviv as Beirut
By Bassem Mroue and Elizabeth A. Kennedy
October 19, 2012
Militants carrying assault weapons clear the area around a street, shouting in Arabic for people to get out of the way. A jeep pulls up: The world’s No. 1 jihadi has arrived for a meeting with top Hezbollah commanders. On rooftops, US snipers crouch unseen, the kingpin in their crosshairs at last.
The scene, from a recent episode of the hit US Showtime series “Homeland,” is supposed to be Beirut. But it is really in Israel, a country similar enough in some areas to stand in for Lebanon, yet a world away in most other respects.
The show about Arab terrorists and American turncoats has inadvertently become a tale of two cities. Some Beirutis are angry because the depiction of their city as swarming with militiamen is misleading and because they see Israel as the enemy. And in Israel, some are peeved that Haifa and even Tel Aviv – a self-styled nightlife capital and high-tech hub – apparently appear, to outsiders at least, to be Middle Eastern after all.
Lebanese Tourism Minister Fadi Abboud told The Associated Press that he’s so upset about the portrayal of Beirut that he’s considering a lawsuit.
“The information minister is studying media laws to see what can be done,” he said.
Abboud pointed to the scene with the snipers. Hamra Street in West Beirut is portrayed as a hotbed of violence, but it is actually a lively neighborhood packed with cafes, book shops and pubs.
“It showed Hamra Street with militia roaming in it. This does not reflect reality,” he said. “It was not filmed in Beirut and does not portray the real image of Beirut.”
Twentieth Century Fox Television refused to comment.
Several Lebanese interviewed by the AP said they have never heard of the show. When a reporter described the plot and said it was shot in Israel, the reactions ranged from anger to blithe acceptance that filmmaking is an imperfect art.
Hamed Moussa, an engineering student at the American University of Beirut, said it’s not a problem that Israelis are portraying Lebanese. In fact, he said, Lebanese often play Israeli characters in Lebanese soap operas.
But Ghada Jaber, a 60-year-old housewife, said Israel should never stand in for Lebanon.
“It is very insulting,” she said as she walked along Hamra Street. “Israel destroyed our country. Israel invaded and occupied our country.”
“Homeland,” based on the Israeli series “Prisoners of War,” is about a US Marine named Nick Brody who was a POW for years in the Middle East. The federal government and the public see Brody as a war hero, but a CIA operative played by Claire Danes believes he was turned by the enemy and is now a threat to the US.
The second season began last month, and some of the urban scenes are shot in Tel Aviv, the Israeli metropolis about 250 kilometers (150 miles) south of Beirut. Jaffa, a popular mixed Jewish and Arab neighborhood of Tel Aviv, was an Arab town before Israel gained independence in 1948, and its Levantine architecture, mosques and minarets, situated along the Mediterranean, allowed the creators of “Homeland” to present a plausible version of Beirut.
To the average viewer, the Beirut scenes may appear authentic. But to the discerning viewer, hints of Israel are everywhere: cars with blurred yellow Israeli license plates, red-and-white curbs that designate no-parking zones, an Israeli-style traffic circle, and a well-known minaret and clock tower in Jaffa.
In one rooftop scene, parts of the Tel Aviv skyline, with hotels lining the Mediterranean and the iconic “Shalom Tower” skyscraper, can be seen in the distance.
In one publicity shot released by Showtime from the recent “Back to Beirut” episode, Danes’ character is walking through a Beirut open market and passes a stall selling two Israeli T-shirts: one red with the white Coca-Cola logo in large Hebrew letters, the other a yellow jersey of a Jerusalem soccer team with the name in Hebrew, Beitar Yerushalayim, and a menorah. In a fast-paced chase that actually aired, however, there were no traces of Israel.
The reactions to the show in Lebanon and Israel reflect the tremendous divergence of narratives between the two peoples – each seeing the other as aggressor, each seeing itself as a victim.
Many Lebanese cannot forget the massive destruction Israel inflicted on Beirut during a 1982 invasion when it succeeded in routing the Palestine Liberation Organization from the country. They resent the 18-year occupation of south Lebanon that followed, and their leaders in any case reject the existence of the Jewish state.
But to Israel, Lebanon has been a perennial staging ground for missile strikes and other attacks on Israel, more than justifying the massive Israeli operations there that have occurred in every decade since the 1970s.
Eytan Schwartz, a spokesman for Tel Aviv’s mayor, said the Lebanese should, if anything, be pleased at the TV show’s choice for a stand-in.
“If I were Lebanese, with all due respect, I’d be very flattered that a city, and a world heritage site, thanks to its incredible architecture, and residents who were named among the top 10 most beautiful people in the world (ranked by Traveler’s Digest magazine in 2012) could pass as Lebanese,” he said.
“All we can do is pray for a day when the Lebanese regime will allow our Lebanese friends to visit us and see for themselves,” Schwartz said.
Nir Rubinstein, an Israeli Internet developer who fought in Beirut as a young soldier 30 years ago, said he understood the Lebanese anger, but also how Israelis might be insulted as well.
“This sort of diminishes Tel Aviv and Jaffa, which are more modern than Beirut,” said Rubinstein, speaking for a generation of Tel Aviv residents who are aggressively proud of their city – a densely populated urban area of some 2.5 million people with a standard of living that rivals most places in Europe, a world-class tech industry and a raucous nightlife.
Beirut itself has developed impressively in the two decades since its 15-year civil war ended, and its growing renown as a party city in its own right – the most liberal and fun-loving of major Arab cities – is a source of some fascination to Israelis who are barred from going there.
But the portrayal of Lebanon as swarming with guns is hardly unreasonable nonetheless.
The country has dozens of armed militias that still flourish, and an alarming number of private individuals have weapons in their homes, including hunting rifles, guns and even RPG launchers.
The biggest militia of all, Iranian-backed Hezbollah, has gained so much power and influence over the years that it’s now part of the government, wielding virtual veto power, and long-running talks on disarmament have gone nowhere.
The abundance of weapons is one reason why conflicts here can turn deadly so quickly.
In May, an explosive, eight-hour shootout in a residential area of west Beirut, which apparently began after a domestic dispute, killed several people – including a man who was firing machine guns and lobbing grenades from his balcony.
Lebanon also has seen a rise in clashes stemming from the civil war in neighboring Syria.
Despite its immense popularity, “Homeland” does not appear to have reached Hezbollah’s radar.
“I have no idea what you are talking about,” Hezbollah spokesman Ibrahim al-Moussawi told the AP when asked about the show. “This is the first I’m hearing about it.”
Still, he described Abboud’s plan to sue the producers as “a good step” and said Hezbollah will probably study the issue and put out a statement if needed.
Lebanon’s leading LBC TV carried a report on the controversy Thursday, saying the show disparages Arabs and that its setting in Israel is “a double insult.”
But Ariel Kolitz, a Tel Aviv businessman who was a childhood friend of Gideon Raff, the Israeli co-creator of “Homeland,” said that it wasn’t as if the production team had the option of shooting in Beirut, where Raff and other Israelis involved are not permitted to visit and where they could be in danger.
“It’s a lot simpler to shoot here,” he said. “That’s it.”
* The circus comes to Gaza (above) accompanied by loud music, juggling clowns and fire blowers – but no women performers were included for fear of offending the Gaza Strip’s militant Hamas rulers
* The fairgrounds were packed with excited children in new clothes, women in glittery headscarves, others in black face veils, and men in suits and freshly pressed shirts. Families snacked on pumpkin seeds
* In an ironic twist, the cheery circus with its flashing lights was held on the grounds of a notorious Hamas security prison that was destroyed during an Israeli offensive four years ago
* After years of setbacks, Jerusalem’s secular residents have begun to push back against attempts by the city’s growing ultra-Orthodox Jewish community to impose religious duties on the general population
* A growing number of restaurants now open in Jerusalem during the daytime on Saturday, an array of cultural events have sprouted up, and for the first time in years, a longtime exodus of secular residents for nearby suburbs appears to have halted
* Navigating a complicated balancing act, Jerusalem’s Likud-affiliated Mayor Nir Barkat, a secular, former high-tech businessman, has attempted to revive secular life in the city without alienating the ultra-Orthodox. Naomi Tsur, the deputy mayor of Jerusalem (and a subscriber to this email list), notes that for the first time in 15 years, there is a clear non-Orthodox majority in the city council, another sign of secular revival
[Note by Tom Gross]
I attach two recent “human interest” articles from the Associated Press – one from Gaza, the other from Jerusalem.
* You can comment on this dispatch here: www.facebook.com/TomGrossMedia. Please first press “Like” on that page.
* Among other recent dispatches on Gaza, please see: Reuters: New iPhones snapped up in Gaza despite high prices (& Chomsky in Gaza).
1. “Circus comes to Gaza” (By Diaa Hadid, AP, Oct. 26, 2012)
2. “In Jerusalem, city’s embattled secular Israeli minority shows signs of life” (AP, Oct. 25, 2012)
ALL THE FUN OF THE FAIR!
Circus comes to Gaza – minus lion, ladies
By Diaa Hadid
October 26, 2012
Gaza City (AP) – The circus came to Gaza on Friday, accompanied by blaring music, juggling clowns and fire blowers – but getting it there required its own high-wire act.
No women performers were included for fear of offending conservative Palestinians and the Gaza Strip’s militant Hamas rulers, and the circus’ lone lion and tiger were left behind because of the high cost of transporting them legally into Gaza.
The Egyptian National Circus put on its first show of a month-long visit to the coastal territory on Friday, a sign of warmer relations between Hamas and post-revolution Egypt, which is governed by the Islamic group’s ideological parent, the Muslim Brotherhood.
Although it’s not state-sponsored, the Egyptian circus could only come because the country’s government loosened restrictions on the flow of passengers in and out of Gaza. More foreigners now enter Gaza, including the ruler of the resource-rich Gulf state Qatar earlier this week.
Once in Gaza, the Egyptians’ faced an unusual situation – most Palestinians here don’t know what a circus is.
“I think it’s going to be really surprising for most people,” said Riwa Awwad, 19, ahead of the opening night.
“Gazans are famous for not liking anything and I think they’ll do the impossible to entertain us,” said Awwad, who came with her extended family to the fairground on Friday.
In an ironic twist, the cheery circus with its flashing lights was held on the grounds of a notorious security prison that was destroyed during an Israeli offensive four years ago.
For the Gazans fortunate enough to see the opening show, it was a welcome relief from conflict and despair. The fairgrounds were packed with excited children in new cloths, women in glittery headscarves, others in black face veils, and men in suits and freshly pressed shirts. Families snacked on pumpkin seeds.
They hollered and cheered as a tight-rope walker wiggled his hips and belly-danced on a thread suspended above the ground. A performer hurled silver knives around volunteers. A red-clad fire blower shot whooshing, yellow licks of flame out of his mouth. Two clowns dressed in yellow-and-blue bumbled and fumbled as they tried to juggle, delighting children.
It took months to arrange the visit to the impoverished territory, where 1.6 million people live in a 25 mile-long sliver wedged between Israel and Egypt.
Aside from a circus’ brief visit in the 1990s, there’s never been anything like it since Israel captured the strip from Egypt in 1967. Israeli forces and settlers withdrew in 2005.
Businessman Mohammed Faris said he remembered seeing the circus under Egyptian rule in the 1950s, when Gaza was still a liberal place with casinos and bars. He said he recalled as a child seeing men walking on nails and female acrobats flying across stage.
“It was men and women – pretty women,” he said.
Not this time around.
Organizer Mohammed Silmi said female performers had to stay behind because the circus was worried that leaping ladies in tights would offend Gazans.
He said Hamas didn’t explicitly ban women but he was asked to abide by Gaza’s “traditions” when he petitioned to get the circus to come.
In practice, the circus wiggled a little around the no-women rule. At one point a man in drag, sporting a brown wig and red dress, sang and danced with Bunduk the clown.
After Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007, Israel and Egypt imposed a blockade that aimed to weaken the militants who seek Israel’s destruction.
Under international pressure, it was loosened after Israel raided a blockade-defying boat and killing nine Turkish activists aboard in 2009. Key restrictions still remain on exports and importing raw materials.
All the circus equipment came through the Rafah border crossing, but expensive fees and cumbersome paperwork kept the circus from bringing lions, tigers and horses across the border.
Gaza’s makeshift zoos and other merchants often bypass that problem by hauling animals through smuggling tunnels linking the territory to Egypt. In one famous scene captured on film, Gazans used a crane to lift a camel over the border fence as the animal twitched in the air in agony.
Animal welfare aside, Gaza’s main zoo recently turned to improvised taxidermy to keep its deceased animals on exhibit.
The area also continues to be violent. As circus technicians were setting up their tent earlier this week, Palestinian militants were fighting Israeli forces in tit-for-tat rounds of rocket fire and retaliatory airstrikes.
Egyptian technician Khalil Gomaa, 55, jolted upon every crashing boom. He told his children he was in Jordan so they wouldn’t be worried. “But I’m worried,” he said.
But the circus’s biggest challenge may be packing the 1,000-seater tent for the month-long visit.
A series of Palestinians interviewed didn’t know what a circus was, and the tickets – ranging from $5-$10 seats – are too expensive for most of Gaza’s traditionally large families.
Some 40 percent of Gazans live on less than $2 a day, a third are unemployed and most need UN donated food.
They include the mother of eight, Sabrine Baoud, and her unemployed husband. After the circus was explained to her, Baoud, 35, said she was glad her children didn’t know anything about it.
They’d never be able to afford to go.
IN JERUSALEM, CITY’S EMBATTLED SECULAR ISRAELI MINORITY SHOWS SIGNS OF LIFE/b>
In Jerusalem, city’s embattled secular Israeli minority shows signs of life
October 25, 2012
JERUSALEM – Hundreds of people packed a Jerusalem community center recently for what many in Jerusalem consider a subversive act: They attended a lecture on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath.
The seemingly harmless event, in which the popular Arab-Israeli journalist Sayed Kashua talked about pluralism and tolerance, broke a long-standing ban on holding activities in public buildings on the Jewish day of rest.
That turned Kiryat Yovel, a tranquil neighborhood in west Jerusalem, into the latest battleground in Jerusalem’s protracted culture war between Jewish conservatism and pluralism.
After years of setbacks, Jerusalem’s secular population has begun to push back against what many believe are heavy-handed tactics by the city’s ultra-Orthodox residents to impose their religious mores on the general population. A growing number of restaurants now open on Saturday, an array of cultural events have sprouted up, and for the first time in years, a longtime exodus of secular residents for nearby suburbs appears to have halted.
“We’re not against the ultra-Orthodox, we’re for tolerance and integration and against intimidation. But from no public services offered on Saturdays to promoting gender segregation, the community is undermining the very basis of our democratic state,” said Dina Azriel, a leader in the grassroots “Free Kiryat Yovel” initiative, which sponsored the recent lecture.
While most Israelis are secular, Israel’s founding fathers gave Judaism a formal place in the country’s affairs, and Orthodox rabbis strictly govern religious events such as weddings, divorces, and burials for the Jewish population. The ultra-Orthodox are also perennial kingmakers in Israeli coalition politics, though they make up only about 10 percent of the country’s population.
The influence of the ultra-Orthodox is especially pronounced in Jerusalem, where their numbers are proportionally much larger than the national average. Jerusalem, Israel’s largest city, is split almost evenly into thirds between secular and modern Orthodox residents, Muslim Palestinians, and the ultra-Orthodox Jews.
Many modern Orthodox Jews live and work with the secular population while maintaining a religious life style, in contrast to ultra-Orthodox, who choose to live in insulated enclaves.
The ultra-religious have used their large numbers and political muscle to shape modern Jerusalem. The city grinds to a virtual standstill on the Jewish Sabbath, with businesses closed, public transportation halted and few options for entertainment.
Attempts to change this status quo have prompted violent backlashes from the ultra-Orthodox, who haven’t hesitated to block roads, clash with police or send tens of thousands of activists into the streets when ordered by their rabbis. In 2009, the city experienced riots when it allowed a parking lot near Jerusalem’s Old City to open on the Sabbath to serve out-of-town tourists.
In recent years, the ultra-Orthodox have grown bolder, pressuring the local bus company, Egged, to operate gender-segregated lines through religious neighborhoods, attempting to separate men and women on public sidewalks and ripping down billboards with female images on them. Because of the threat of vandalism, Egged recently decided to cease all advertising on its Jerusalem buses by October 2013.
Religious coercion could be an issue in January’s parliamentary elections. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, which includes ultra-Orthodox parties, has been criticized as caving in to their demands. In particular, many secular Israelis are upset over the government’s failure to end military draft exemptions for the ultra-Orthodox, despite a Supreme Court order.
The “Free Kiryat Yovel” movement was formed after ultra-Orthodox activists were allowed to build a kindergarten that maintained a wall to separate religious and non-religious preschoolers. It took four years of petitioning the local community center to win a permit for the Sabbath lecture.
“We’re in a really critical time right now, and I’m not optimistic,” said Sarit Hashkes, who runs another secular rights group, called “Be Free Israel.”
“What we’re seeing now is cooperation of state and police officials with the ultra-Orthodox. Women are being pushed aside, and everything is pushed more to the right.”
The group is behind a number of initiatives, like offering discount cards to patrons to use at restaurants that are open on the Sabbath to increase “secular buying power.”
Hashkes said momentum among the secular population is percolating, but not without an equally fierce backlash. While separate sidewalks are officially banned, she said some streets were still off limits to women during the recent Jewish Sukkot holiday.
Just last week, a prominent female activist was arrested for wearing a traditionally male prayer shawl at the Western Wall, the holiest place where Jews can pray, an act that police prohibit because of Orthodox Jewish sensitivities.
Anat Hoffman said police strip-searched her and jailed her overnight, releasing her only after she agreed to stay away from the site for a month. The incident occurred as she led prayers for 200 American Jewish women from Hadassah, a Jewish women’s group that was celebrating its 100th anniversary.
Over the years, the growing religious influence, coupled with a high cost of living, has pushed tens of thousands of secular Jerusalemites to leave the city. Navigating a complicated balancing act, Mayor Nir Barkat, a secular, former high-tech businessman, has attempted to revive secular life in the city without alienating the ultra-Orthodox.
Barkat’s office says the mayor has boosted the city’s culture budgets since he was elected in 2008, quadrupling events like concerts and street festivals to enliven the city and encouraged new housing in secular areas to draw young couples and families.
“Despite a small number of friction points in the city, Jerusalem has seen a dramatic reduction in tension between the Ultra-Orthodox and secular communities in recent years,” said spokesman Barak Cohen.
In a sign that secular life could be making a comeback, the mayor’s office noted that enrollment in secular schools increased in the last school year for the first time in 15 years.
Naomi Tsur, a deputy mayor of Jerusalem, noted that for the first time in 15 years, there is a clear non-Orthodox majority in the city council, another sign of secular revival. Modern Orthodox schools also posted slight gains.
Whether these trends can continue remains unclear. More than 60 percent of Jewish students attend ultra-Orthodox schools, according to the Jerusalem Institute of Israel Studies.
Tsur, an urban planner who has promoted coexistence among Jerusalem’s diverse populations, said “a lot will hinge” on whether the secular masses turn their concerns into election issues. “People usually go to vote on ‘shall we go to war with Iran,’ but we need to work together on making an appealing mix that will attract young and dynamic couples to live in Jerusalem,” she said.
With parliamentary elections approaching, Kiryat Yovel activist and art historian Daniel Unger thinks these issues will continue to be pushed to the back burner.
“This is a real issue that Netanyahu and others don’t want to address,” he says. “Instead, he keeps talking about the Iranian bomb, in hope that his people won’t pay attention to the domestic social and economic issues he’s ignored.”