June 8, 2012

The Dark Knight’s Allegory for Terrorism

by Gedalyah Reback

The Dark Knight rises back next month. His arrival is significant for a number of reasons, and they all deserve to be quantified. But what’s socially important about The Dark Knight Rises is it’s attitude toward modern problems. The first two movies have been culturally significant. The Dark Knight was called “the first great post-9/11 film.” They’ve incorporated the political atmosphere of the times into the plot lines, with Ras al-Ghul’s League of Shadows organizing a massive chemical attack on an American city and the Joker’s tactical threats against landmarks and transportation effectively besieging a modern Gotham. The third film seems to be building on economic divisions and plans to round off the latent theme of terrorism, a tremendous combination of themes. But I felt it was important to describe in detail what Nolan was able to do with his modern Caped Crusader to match him to the spirit of the times.

Batman Begins’ Allegory for Al-Qaeda

The movie is about fear. That is the essential thing to understand. In Batman Begins, the story is indisputably is about Bruce Wayne. Everything revolves around his experience, but that’s an invested experience. He grows into the idea he has to be the guardian angel where no one else will be. Becoming a source of good that literally fights crime necessitates overcoming fear, whether one is training to be a Marine or run for office in a country known for its assassinations.

Along the journey he’s acquainted with Ras al-Ghul. In the comics, he is more science fiction, a hundreds-year-old noble who’s keeps himself living by means of a completely fictitious chemical pit. He’s experienced wars and pain over his lifetime, but has also had time to amass great wealth and build a network of global assassins. He is a man of principle, making him a mirror for Bruce Wayne’s morality throughout the comics. It’s no different in the film.

But his name makes the reason behind choosing to use his character much more obvious. His name is Arabic. Ras al-Ghul literally means “demon head” (related to “rosh” in Hebrew and “ghoul” in English), symbolizing the dread he can instill. In my mind, he and the themes of the movie have always made this the first real attempt to incorporate the epic problems of international terrorism a plot device in a movie that has nothing to do with Islam or the Middle East.

Adapted for the movie, the scifi is eliminated while maintaining his personality. He serves as the ideal model for today’s Islamic fundamentalism, motivated by an ingrained religious ideal to cleanse evil from the world by launching full-scale war against it. There is no concern for collateral damage. Their plan in Begins is to hit Gotham with a weapon that would tear at the sullied fabric of its society.

Challenging the Validity of Terrorism

Channeling the power of fear is a sub-element of the overarching theme. The secondary villain, The Scarecrow, makes that obvious. His background as a psychiatrist informs him how to design a chemical weapon that would induce panic and insanity. The weapon would literally make Gotham City’s citizens kill each other. Ras wants to use it to strike terror in the hearts of Gothamites, while Wayne wants to turn that strategy on the criminals who count on it. In al-Ghul’s words, “Gotham will tear itself apart through fear.” But Wayne wants to “turn fear against those who prey on the fearful.” His struggle to overcome fear is a model he wants to project for those Gothamites, and consequently their future is not lost, much less are they deserving of being punished for others’ sins.

What is lost here is Batman can’t deny the corrupt nature of the city. Wayne takes a stand that “there are good people” in the city and that the only strategy to save the city is to take the fight to criminals and go through the court system to establish the rule of law, perhaps its own statement about modern politics. It is a message as applicable to the Islamic fundamentalism of our age than the prisons of Guantanomo Bay.

Wayne is trained by al-Ghul’s League of Shadows, and has to complete his journey by executing a known murderer. But this criminal hasn’t gone through a trial nor been proven guilty. His execution has no justice connected to it. The scene here nestles the idea of what a stable society looks like squarely in the face of the terrorists who aim to destroy it. Al-Ghul says “no one can save Gotham,” denying that anything can challenge a belief he follows religiously – the only way to wipe evil away is to stab it in the heart in one massive blow.

Batman challenges an international organization motivated by an infallible ideology. He squares off with people whose answer to criminality, selfishness, and moral decay is destruction instead of redemption. Begins, not just the character, invests stock in the notion that people can change, but it will not be overnight. Begins is a classical comedy with a happy ending, firmly establishing someone whose challenged the norms of human failure and stood up to people’s nature to bully or to run; their nature to give into their desires or give up on the world; their nature to turn on each other rather than on the real problem.

Batman Begins challenges the idea of terrorism by instructing us how not to be terrified, and goes further by tearing into its own self-justifications. It takes a dramatic adventure to deliver the point, but it’s difficult not to see it. And like all great teachers, the writers and director don’t give just one lesson. A deeper inspection of these themes continues in The Dark Knight.

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June 7, 2012

Jews Should Have an Open Way to Buy Land in the West Bank

by Gedalyah Reback

I just posted on my new column at The Times of Israel about this topic in relation to the legal crisis of Ulpana. Ulpana, a single neighborhood in the Israeli settlement of Beit El, is one of six spots in the West Bank scheduled to be demolished because they have no legal standing to exist. It’s not that they are settlements in general. It isn’t that they were built without permits. It’s that they were built on private Palestinian land, something that is actually relatively rare despite the propaganda that Israeli settlements are grabbing territory owned by Palestinians.

An essential to stability in any country is property rights. The American Declaration of Independence cites “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as reasons to pursue a free United States. But that line is a modification of an earlier John Locke quote: “life, liberty and property.” Israelis have been evicted from houses they’ve bought in cities like Hebron which they’ve actually bought. East Jerusalem Arabs often struggle to get building permits for land no one argues they don’t own. The Palestinian Authority maintains not only that it’s illegal to sell land to Israelis, but that it is punishable by execution. The result is a thriving underground market in Jerusalem, Hebron and elsewhere. The entire process is “extra-legal,” daring settlers and Palestinians to go more extreme in their strategy to acquire land outside of conventional legal means. Hence, the entire atmosphere invites more daring action by builders, contractors and people who want land. There is only a minority of cases reaching the courts in Israel, but the docket could be dealing with other issues if only there were an open approach to acquiring and securing property for both Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank and in Jerusalem.

Religious Zionists, mostly Orthodox, have a religious obligatlion to live in the Land of Israel. By extension, there’s a strong imperative to own land in the country, enabling stability in the country, being able to build a family and openly pursue other religious precepts and principles like the harvest of first fruits, tithing and of course being able to earn off the value of property via farming or otherwise in order to give charity. Diplomats search in vain for a way to cool tension between lay Jews and Arabs, but they stoke the flames by pushing a dynamic property market underground outside the watchful eye of governments who want to minimize the movement of property that would complicate a sleek, convenient two state solution. That’s to say that powerful parties don’t want land freely changing hands because it could influence drawing an international border between Jewish and Palestinian neighborhoods on the West Bank of the Jordan River.

Courts exist to channel disputes and rivalries through a civilized structure. Property disputes are a common case load for any legal system. Minimizing them goes far to ensure stability by making sure few cases ever have to be brought to court – much less a constitutional, non-claims court like the Israeli Supreme Court.

June 3, 2012

Syria’s Alawites (and other Minorities) beyond Wikipedia and the News

by Gedalyah Reback

Wikipedia is a great website. Ignore it at your own peril. Teachers and professors talk it to hell, but not using it is to ignore a tremendous tool that Google considers the automatic top result on virtually any academic topic. Most professors don’t understand that the reason you shouldn’t cite it as a source isn’t due to its lack of reliability. It’s because the information of its articles are constantly changing. You should be checking the footnotes and hitting the links listed at the bottom of the page. New information makes the date you accessed it originally constantly irrelevant, but letting it point you in the right direction is assuredly a good strategy for writing a paper or thinking of a research topic.

So when it comes to Middle East topics, it’s not so much the subjectivity I worry about – even on articles covering things like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s the outdated information. In terms of minorities, Wikipedia seems much more like an aggregate for recycled, archaic information than it does a reliable source of the modern state of different religious or ethnic groups.

The particular page of concern for me is this one: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion_in_Syria. What the page has to say about Alawites is peculiar: “Although they are settled cultivators, Alawis gather into kin groups much like those of pastoral nomads. The four Alawi confederations, each divided into tribes, are Kalbiyah, Khaiyatin, Haddadin, and Matawirah.”

The information is correct. But it was a better summary about 100 years ago. Alawites, Ismailis and Druze have not been left out of the age of the internet, digital music, cars or the urban explosion. Every group has moved away from rural lifestyles into Latakia, Hama, Homs and Damascus. But most importantly of all, the community’s conservative roots have been decimated by the modern age. A combination of Arab nationalism, feigning devotion to religion and the marathon of Western cultural influences into the year 2012 have made religion a weak link among Alawites. In the spirit of the age, the experience is defined by a raw, dark, realpolitik approach to life. Alawites’ main concern right now is living under the thumb of political Islam defined by the Muslim Brotherhood. More relevant than referring to the group’s religious history is its political history. The Ottoman Empire made great efforts toward the end of its existence to push Syria’s Alawites to embrace the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam in custom, law and sect. By the time the empire fell, the community’s leadership was either running to Shi’ite Islam for legal inspiration or enthusiastically defining the community’s independence.

After 90 years of secular Arab nationalism and a Western culture not at all defined by religious tradition, secularism is perhaps the more dominant trend in Alawite and other minorities’ religious identities in 2012 Syria. bear this in mind for your next term paper. But also bear in mind “secular” doesn’t imply atheist, agnostic or apathetic regarding religion. It can merely imply someone doesn’t live his or her life in accord with it, or doesn’t want religious affairs mixed up in government or politics. But in terms of tribal authority, or the authority of religious figures, it’s virtually non-existent. The effective leadership of the Alawite community is Bashar al-Assad and the disproportionately Alawite Syrian armed forces.

This doesn’t mean religion is finished for the Alawites. It would be just as naïve to say the same for the American Northeast and West Coast. Religion is hardly on its way out. How Alawites deal with religion in the future will likely change, but contemporary Western trends will hardly be the end of the story or the ushering in of a sudden wave of secular or atheist Humanism. Alawites have had the opportunity for years to eliminate other elements of religion in Syria’s political life and have balked at the opportunity. A number of minorities are converting to Twelver Shi’ite Islam.

So when you look at a map on the news describing where the Alawites are, or what percentage of people actually believe in a certain religious idea, take the statistics and the graphics with a grain of salt. A lot of the research is out of date and the conclusions conveniently organized. Surveys have never been rich enough to absolutely define the beliefs of many Middle Eastern minorities, much less nail down an arbitrarily line on the map defining where they live. The information is helpful, but trends like urbanization and the ability to commute long distances make looking at these sources as infallible or perfectly accurate extremely precarious.

May 23, 2012

Are Orthodox Jews Diluting the Debate on Homosexuality and Judaism?

by Gedalyah Reback

Orthodox Jews are well aware of the issues homosexuals face, thank God. At least in Modern Orthodox circles, sympathy has become the main theme of the discourse on gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgendered Jews. Sympathy has picked up momentum in my short time living in the community. Without being able to relate, and only really being able to speak for myself though I think it applies across the community, there is an appreciation for the conflict so many people go through trying to balance religiosity with the way they are. Few think people are choosing to create personal conflict within themselves. The community has finally gotten the point.

Living as a gay man while trying to adhere to the constitution that is the body of Jewish Law is a dramatic and possibly a traumatic task. The experience is emotionally grueling and testing. The Jewish community, now indisputably among much of Orthodoxy, understands that, even if they have not reconciled this reality entirely with the religion they practice.

Dovetailing into another issue, speaking only on the intellectual side of things I’ve wondered how my generation is handling it theologically. The mere idea that thousands of people are gay, lesbian or otherwise through no choice of their own runs counter to the spirit of law. If a law can be legislated regulating its practice, that implies there is choice in the matter. But conventional wisdom right now states there is no choice in the matter of sexual orientation. Gay men have no option, so either they are exceptions to the rule or the rule is void. Personally, I don’t think my generation appreciates the dichotomy. My age demographic, maybe one among others, is ignoring this issue.

There has been a lot of talk about gay marriage in just the last month in the Jewish community, both because of Barack Obama’s public support for the idea and the sudden coming out of the closet by Jewish rapper Y-Love. The outpouring of support for Jordan has been immense. He dared to declare very publicly in a community which is going through a quiet crisis over the issue, and people down all the community’s corridors have remained there to support him for who he is. And here the road diverges. Does the support for gay Jews necessarily mean Orthodox Jews will have to recognize gay marriage and gay sexual relations as legitimate, simply because of the existence of gay Jews in the community’s midst? There are few ways to ask this question without provoking some sort of emotional reaction, and I’m not sure I’ve asked it in the best way. But this is indeed where things have become murky for me.

Orthodox Jews my age are frequently coming out in support of gay marriage. Certainly there must be a reasoning to support it given that the Torah is quite explicit regarding gay sex, the necessary corollary to gay nuptials. I don’t see much of the reasoning being based on some in-depth consideration of Jewish law. Instead, I see Jews dancing around the issue entirely.

In the US, it seems like there is a tremendously hefty amount of opinions that since the US is a ‘separation of religion and state’ country. It certainly isn’t a Jewish country and it is not located in the Promised Land, the Land of Israel. There is no concern to get involved in the political affairs of the ‘goyishe medineh’ if there is no need to.

But in Israel, the argument is similar. Last week I read a posting in the Times of Israel arguing that since Israel isn’t a Halachic state, there should be no concern about the issue. Though coming from a Dati Leumi Jew, that seemed to be going way beyond to dance around the issue.

I think both views are sort of cop-outs to the larger theological implications of the entire inyan. On rare occasions have I read a genuine grappling of the reality with the Halacha, which is seldom the approach being taken in the Jewish blogosphere.

I feel like every time I try to write this it always stings at least one person that I’m even putting it out there, as if I’m taking away from the emotional gravity of the issue. I’m fully aware of it and I don’t diminish the weight these issues have. But the discourse from the intellectual side seems to be substantially lacking in my personal opinion. Perhaps there is more literature than I am aware of, but I’m not seeing it as a factor in the Jewish world.

Orthodox Jews, thankfully, recognize the emotional weight of what’s happening. But importantly, there is an intellectual discourse accompanying what is nothing short of a crisis for Orthodox Judaism. As I mentioned earlier, there are massive implications for the religion itself based on the existence of homosexuals. For some reason, this period of history is choosing to mark a dichotomy more than previous ones. Homosexuality has been acknowledged throughout human history. For whatever reason, this debate on how to grapple with homosexuals’ existence is challenging Judaism now.

The most compelling opinion I’ve read has been that of Rabbi Zev Farber. He offers both an important point and an important answer to my question. First, he clarifies homosexual relationships aren’t immoral. They are indeed a problem for Jewish law but not because they create some sort of moral dilemma. Gays don’t perform an immoral act when and if they get together. But more relevant to what I mention above, he states homosexuality is something that might be “beyond the person’s control.” More specifically, he refers to a concept called in Aramaic, “oness rahmana patrei.” Loosely translated, it’s “compulsion God mercifully exempts.” That brings up precedent in Jewish Law that Rabbi Farber says serves to justify the principle’s application here, including emotionally distressing situations involving sex. I urge you the reader to visit this paragraph’s link to get more insight into the idea.

Whether or not Rabbi Farber’s approach is actually correct, it certainly adds to a discourse I feel is lacking. Orthodox Jews are emotionally in the right place, but should invest more consideration into how discourse on the religious side of things and the religious law’s side of things is developing. It is hardly a closed discussion in the world of Jewish Law – the world of Halachah. Certainly, if today’s social developments are to occur in tandem with Orthodox Judaism’s prosperity, appreciating both the situation of devout gay Jews and the foundational laws of Judaism simultaneously is going to have to take place.

May 20, 2012

Israel Deploys Heavy on the Egyptian Border

by Gedalyah Reback

The prospects for the future between Israel and Egypt are still ambiguous. Egypt’s Sinai is more of a worry than it’s been at any other point in the past 30 years. Since last year’s Egyptian Revolution, Egypt’s natural gas pipeline exporting fuel to Israel has been attacked 14 times. Amidst Israel’s lacking popularity with Egyptians, their government suspended its gas deal with Israel two weeks ago, claiming the deal undervalued the exported fuel and demanded renegotiation. But without the threats to the pipeline, there would have been little motivation to implement the move.

This is the first significant move by Israel’s military to prepare for engagement along the Egyptian border. Two major concerns hang over the heads of Israeli security personnel, on the one hand something a near-term concern and on the other a long-term one. Firstly, like with the pipeline, Bedouin in the Sinai desert might present a threat to Israeli tourists in Egypt. There have been terrorist attacks on resorts in the Sinai before, but the concern is more acute now. Egyptian police initially abandoned the Sinai during the revolution last year. They’ve slowly returned to respond to local instability, though after months of sabotage attacks. With some Bedouin motivated by Islamic militancy, the concern is more terrorists might try to infiltrate Israel.

But, Israel took the initiative last month when the high brass of the IDF requested the Knesset authorize a larger reserve call-up than usual to patrol not just the Syrian, but also the Egyptian border. According to the Reserve Duty Law, updated in 2008, veterans can be called up once every three years unless the IDF requests permission to call up more people more frequently. In this case, six battalions will be split between the two borders with permission to call up 16 more if necessary. The threat from armies is not the priority, but the one posed by smuggling and border raids by terrorists. In the words of Deputy Chief of Staff Dan Harel, “The army needs a better ‘answer’ than in the past to the threat.”

There is a fading worry Bashar al-Assad would start a war with Israel to distract Syrians from instability at home, focusing rage on an external tormentor. That would probably split the feeble Syrian army at this point. The real concern is Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Here’s why:

Guns to Gaza

The peninsula is home to two different concerns. In Northern Sinai, Bedouin manage smuggling routes into Gaza. In the beginning of May, the Egyptian government captured a massive cache of weapons heading there. That includes huge caches of captured weapons Libya’s rebels sold to Hamas last year. The north’s main city is slowly slipping out of reach of the rest of Egypt. El-Arish is littered by pictures of the fundamentalist presidential candidate Hazem Abu-Ismail, showing where Egypt’s Sinai is headed. Construction supplies are stolen by corrupt workers and sold off to be smuggled to Gaza. But most unsettling of all, human trafficking is enforcing the industry of these same crime rings, including kidnapping for ransom, torture, rape and organ theft.

Bedouin leaders are unsettled by where their tribes are going. With unemployment as high as 90% in the Sinai, they receive a lot of lip service from the country’s leaders but little practical help. Consequently, smugglers continue to invest in their businesses, the more and more brutally. Despite whatever imperative local chiefs have, they don’t have the power and few have the will to make progress.

Human Trafficking, Organ Trafficking and Slavery

Egypt’s Bedouin are closely related to the tribes in the Israeli Negev. The international border between the two territories is only 100 years old, and for much of that time Israel had control of both areas and no fence separated the areas. Bedouin still wander the desert, crossing borders with ease and without hesitation. Consequently, crime syndicates on the Egyptian side would be well-connected on the Israeli side.

Sudanese and Eritrean refugees are caught in the middle. Escaping the conflict zones in their countries, they head for the closest First World state they can – Israel. Traveling north through Egypt, they hire Bedouin trackers to get them across the desert to an unguarded gap in the Israeli border. Presumably they can restart new lives or head to Europe. But many of them are turned on and kidnapped by their handlers. Taking $3,000 for the service of guiding them through the desert, their relatives are called with demands of $30,000 or even $40,000 for their release. Contacts report the captives are tortured with electric cables, even as they are put on the phone to plead for their families’ help. With Egyptian police failing miserably to enforce order, families are left to sell all their possessions with slim hopes anyway. The European Union has a resolution on the table demanding Egypt do more, acknowledging the situation.

On the Israeli side of the border, the situation is being overlooked. Ministers are actually more concerned with deporting refugees already in Israel than they are about the ones already lost on their way. Concerns, however exaggerated, range from thinking Islamic militants are sneaking into the country to parts of the country being over-run by refugees. No matter the motivation, it is a PR nightmare for the country that the focus is on gettign rid of the refugees rather than saving their brethren from an apparent common enemy.

South Sudan

Israel has built a relationship with South Sudan. The country only went independent last year and has seemed to be the natural ally, being the enemy of Arab northern Sudan. It’s that Sudan, the north, which has fueled much of the conflict that drove refugees to Israel in the first place. Jerusalem has been concerned with arranging deportation with the South Sudanese government, but has invested little into fighting a Bedouin threat that South Sudan also wants stamped out.

Israel will need to shift its focus if it wants to get ahead of the game in the Sinai Peninsula. Bringing attention to the human component of Bedouin crime rings in the Sinai will go a long way in pressuring Egypt to be more aggressive in policing what is supposedly its own territory.

Without more aggressive measures from Cairo, Israel’s different branches of military will have to do the work themselves. That should not mean a full scale invasion, but it would imply a lot more covert activity, making alliances with certain tribes and not others, as well as working with South Sudanese to penetrate and neutralize groups that are smuggling as much armor as they are human cargo.

May 16, 2012

Modern Shi’ite Islam: 201 – the Power of the Scholars

by Gedalyah Reback

But what is it that gives Shi’ite leaders their power? It’s not the guns on the street that fuel Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq or Nasrallah in Lebanon. The influence is a mix of religious prestige and control of resources. Both men govern strong militias, but they owe their power to different influences. Amazingly, neither of them is considered authoritative scholars in Shi’ite Islam. They are militiamen or carry the name recognition of their relatives.

Those scholars are called “mujtahidun,” Arabic for “adjudicators.” They are the elite of the scholars in the Shi’ite world, the most capable and intelligent in being able to analyze centuries of scholarship and jurisprudence. Over the last 200 years, their political power has grown to the point they’re resented.

In the 19th century, Shi’ite Islam was split between two movements: the Akhbaris & the Usulis. The first considered Islamic law as fully laid out, outlined and organized. There was nothing new to contribute to analyzing the original sources of Islamic law – the Quran and the Hadith. Trying to draw new conclusions would be violating the legal precedents previous scholars had set in place. Akhbaris looked at complex legal analysis – “ijtihad” – as categorically forbidden.

The Usulis are the intellectual antithesis. Their belief that the world is constantly changing or new legal scenarios present themselves made their idea that ijtihad was not only permissible but necessary much more practical. That practicality crushed the Akhbari movement, which was too rigid to respond the changing social and economic climate for Shi’ites in Iraq & Iran living under European influence and Ottoman modernization.

The Mujtahid practices Ijtihad. Achieving such an influential title is not necessarily a formal process, but a mujtahid is expected to have studied for years, probably decades, in order to earn it.

The Usuli emphasis on a mujtahid’s ability also translated into giving a mujtahid more communal authority. Suddenly, a mujtahid is considered a strongly qualified person to decide major economic and social issues in the Shi’ite community. Combine this new emphasis to that authority with the access to charitable donations and managing locally owned religious property, and the power of a mujtahid became much stronger.

Colonial influence by the British and resentment of the Ottoman Empire helped create political issues that made these legal scholars politically popular. When the British forced the Iranian Shah to outsource ownership of local tobacco crops to European monopolies in 1891, a renowned Iraqi scholar publicly banned smoking, destroying the tobacco industry. The ban was lifted only when the Shah cancelled the international contract. It strengthened the position of not just Iraqi scholars but also the power of Shi’ite scholars to extend their influence beyond their own borders.

In 1935, after years of Shi’ite scholars protesting the Sunni-heavy national curriculum of schools and Shi’ite marginalization from the government, they were instrumental in organizing an armed revolt against the Sunni-dominated government. It was the effort to force Shi’ites into a national draft that sparked the rebellion, and showed the political and even military power scholars were gaining as the main legal authorities in their religious communities.
Even though Iraq came down hard on these scholars in the years afterward, the idea they were the most qualified to lead the community fed the creation of religious political parties in the 1950s & 1960s in Iraq.

Big-name scholars Ayatollah Muhsin al-Hakim and the prodigy Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr lent their support to these political movements in the 1950s. Both were members of religious dynasties, much like there are Jewish leaders today who might hail from the Feinstein or Soloveitchik Rabbinical dynasties.

Ayatollah Khomeini also had a tall soapbox in Iraq while exiled from Iran, bringing that idea of political authority full circle into a highly developed constitutional system led by a “Supreme Leader,” officially a steward for the 12th Imam, running the Iranian government. His idea has been enshrined as law; only the most learned scholar can be appointed as the head of the Shi’ite world, whose de facto capital has become the capital of revolutionary Shi’ite Iran, for now.

May 15, 2012

Modern Shi’ite Islam: An Intro

by Gedalyah Reback

The Shiite world has often been ignored in historical research and political value. We seemed to have only started caring again when the United States and United Kingdom invaded Iraq. Suddenly, a secular Sunni elite was toppled, giving rise to a majoritarian state ruled by a conglomerate of Shiite political parties closely connected to Iran. But the flood of new books on the community is limited to topics of international security, terrorism and war. The modern sense of Shi’ism has been defined more by the experiences with the Ottoman Empire and internal tension over the dogma of the religion.

Traditionally in Shiite Islam, the idea that any one figure could rule it was actually borderline heretical. Twelver Jafari Shiite Islam is named “12-er” because it reveres 12 successors – “Imams” – to the Prophet Muhammad and his nephew Ali. For the first 300 years of Islamic history, Shiite leaders were constantly on the run or in hiding. Sunni rulers or religious rivals (often the same enemy) pursued their Shiite rivals, causing a number of sub-splits in the Shiite community that created communities that revered each Imam individually. As one religious leader would die, competition would envelope Shiite rivals for the position. Zaidi Shiites (Fivers) and Ismaili Shiites (Seveners) each see the fifth or seventh Imams as the last legitimate princes of the Shiite dynasty, while Twelvers don’t believe the dynasty ended until the disappearance of a 12th successor. The religion eventually coalesced, seeing this 12th Imam as an exile spiritually empowered that will miraculously reemerge to reassume control of the Islamic community in the End Times. To say anyone else is entitled or qualified at all to lead the community in a formal capacity was consequently a theological controversy.

During the 19th century, Shi’ism, more specifically Twelver Jafari Shi’ite Islam, underwent an intellectual civil war. The first side of the coin was the conservative Akhbari school of legal thought. Their approach to religious law was that it was static. Trying to elucidate new principles of law, even in relation to unprecedented questions facing the community, was considered categorically forbidden. Their philosophical opponents were called Usulis, who argued it was impractical not to open up the possibility of reinterpreting old jurisprudence to apply to the modern era. Eventually, the Usulis proved much more adaptable to the changing environment. Only in Bahrain did the Akhbari school manage to survive, but the philosophy of Bahraini Shi’ism has been heavily influenced by foreign communities over the last 150 years.

But Usuli thinkers have become more reflective of the static Akhbari approach. Because religious thinkers and legal scholars were able to make themselves more relevant as interpreters of Islamic law in relation to new problems, their own positions got to be more socially important. With that, their institutions and resources became central elements of the community and their personas representative of the community as a whole. With this, extremely loyal followings coalesced around them. Even beyond that, the suddenly important position of the most exceptional scholars took on more religious meaning. Thinkers began arguing they were the only ones qualified to lead Islamic communities, even beyond Shiite centers.

That opened up the door for Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Developments in Usuli philosophy challenged the traditional attitude to leadership in the community. He developed a concept called “Rule of the Jurist,” theorizing that the most learned scholar was the only legitimate leader of Shi’ite Islam in absence of the 12th Imam. His ideas, published in the 1960s while in exile in Iraq, built on ideas from other leading Shi’ite thinkers throughout the 1900s. By the time he led the Islamic Revolution in 1979, no other authoritative scholar in Twelver Shi’ite Islam had the recognition Khomeini did. That also was true regarding wealth and resources. That same year, Saddam Hussein took the helm as Iraq’s president, and within a year he destroyed any armed or political opposition among Iraqi Shi’ites. In 1980, ordering the murder of the revered Iraqi scholar Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, he pushed other religious leaders either into submission or into seclusion. Only Khomeini’s Iran had the ability to lead the Shi’ite world, sponsoring the community of Lebanon and pushing for more influence in Persian Gulf countries – even among the traditionally Akhbari community of Bahrain.

Only with the rise of democratic Iraq has Shi’ism begun to see a rapid shift away from the philosophy one man could be an infallible leader to the Shi’ite world. On the one hand, Iraqis are aware of the oppressive policies of the Iranian government toward its citizens, including rival Shi’ite scholars. On the other hand, Iraq’s most renowned cleric – Ayatollah Ali Sistani – is a student of Ayatollah Khomeini’s main rival Ayatollah Abu al-Qasem al-Khoi. They personify the idea that no one scholar can be considered more authoritative than another recognized as his intellectual equal. With Iraq’s sudden Shi’ite awakening, there is a rival center of Shi’ite culture.

Modern Shi’ite Islam is a rich and changing world. This can only serve as a broad introduction as to the nature of power in the Shi’ite world, but it is an important gateway to understanding why one man might claim himself a legitimate pretender to a religion’s throne.

May 10, 2012

Bringing Kadima into the Government Increases the Possibility of a Multilateral Strike on Iran

by Gedalyah Reback

Shaul Mofaz‘ win in the Kadima primaries just three weeks ago was about a lot more than the survival of Tzipi Livni. Read the postmortem reports about Tzipi Livni’s political career and you find that her inability to compromise with other politicians was what ultimately doomed her candidacy to remain at the top of Kadima. When Ehud Olmert resigned his post in 2008, she couldn’t form a coalition with other political parties and had to hold a new election. Even after winning those elections in March 2009, 28 seats versus Likud’s 27, she still couldn’t compromise enough for any parties in order to get them to agree to joining a new coalition. That’s why second-place Likud ended up leading the government. Livni made things worse by opposing everything Likud did in power, even though they were often continuing a lot of the same policies she supported while she was in power the previous administration.

In reality, this primary was about whether or not to join the Likud-led government. Now Mofaz, former head of the IDF and Minister of Defense, is a member of the administrative Cabinet and Deputy Prime Minister. He has been revered for his performance during the Yom Kippur War and an appropriate leader in the event there were a war with Iran.

And that might be what has made this deal happen. Benjamin Netanyahu would have won the September elections easily, with few parties offering much opposition or alternative. But instead of going to elections and refreshing his term as Prime Minister, which would then be guaranteed to last at least until September 2016, he will lead the largest coalition in Israeli history and its largest cabinet (94/120 Knesset members; 33 members of the cabinet – over a 1/4 of the Knesset). Why? Perhaps because he wants political strength to strike Iran.

When the government he formed took power in Spring 2009, worries circulated worldwide about the direction of policy and particularly the influence of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Leading Yisrael Beitenu, he has been extremely outspoken about the uselessness of the peace process and applied enormous social pressure on Israeli Arabs. Many on the political scene thought there would be massive diplomatic boycotts of the figure, and they’ve been right. Ehud Barak has met with a number of Western leaders in place of Lieberman. Avoiding Lieberman preceded the actual diplomatic crisis two years ago when Israeli commandos killed 9 Turks on a boat running the Gaza blockade. Many people wanted Kadima to join the government in order to blunt Lieberman’s influence and impact policy on the peace process.

What impact this will all have on policies toward settlements and relations with the Palestinians remains to be seen, though the first hints of change are breaking through. But Shaul Mofaz is important for the reason he effectively opposes a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran. His coming in gives the government a number of things. On the one hand, it eases Israel’s trigger finger, which many have speculated has been on the verge of a strike. But on the other hand, Mofaz is a defense man, and a unity government like this might signal leaders’ preparing for a strike and ensuring near universal political approval. Regarding diplomacy, Mofaz becomes the instrument others have hoped for since 2009. He opposes striking Iran, but has called striking Iran under certain scenarios “unavoidable.” He is rational and flexible. He enhances the image of Israel’s government abroad, even by just a bit. Bringing a qualified voice of caution into the mix brings Israel’s position closer to the Western powers negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program. Closing the gap, Israel’s aggressive stance is going to start sounding more rational as Mofaz probably will cool the rhetoric, talk about calculated steps and especially emphasize multilateral, international opposition to an Iranian nuclear weapon.

So if things do break down, Mofaz and his Kadima Party will make it easier to talk alliance with other countries, and maybe even increase international support for a future unilateral Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

May 7, 2012

The Importance of Water: The Ancient Key to Power in the Middle East

by Gedalyah Reback

Historically, the Middle East hosted the most well-known empires known to us today. The Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Egyptians and rulers from modern Turkey dominated the region. Rarely if ever was there a power centered in the Land of Israel or Syria that dominated the region. Only with Islam’s Caliphate, centered in 7th century Damascus, did that change. The reason is simply because this area doesn’t have the natural resources to support a large population that Egypt’s Nile or Anatolia’s forests or Iraq’s rivers do. All that is changing today and Israelis should be well aware of it. There are key elements to Israeli technological innovations and its military policies that make it an unprecedented phenomenon in Middle Eastern power.

Water

The main reason Egypt, Anatolia (Turkey) or Iraq have been the homes to the major Middle Eastern powers is because of the access to natural resources. Egypt & Iraq don’t have much in terms of wood or stone – as a matter of fact many of the bricks common citizens used in construction were mud bricks. What they lacked in such things they maintained in water. In the desert Middle East particularly, that has been the fundamental element to power. The Assyrian and Babylonian empires both centered themselves on the Tigris & Euphrates rivers of Iraq. Egypt, of course, has had the Nile. Israel has only the Jordan and it hardly supports a massive population.

But two things have changed the game that give Israel a power advantage. For one, Israel has developed the desalinization industry, converting sea water to fresh drinking water to support a rapidly growing population. Secondly, Egypt and Iraq might be overpopulated. Without this Israeli technology, its use of the aforementioned rivers is excessive. Even though Israel, Jordan & the Palestinians have decimated the health of the Jordan River, desalinization replaces the supply, in fact increasing it and even making Israel a possible exporter of water.

The more Israel increases this resource, the greater its power might become. The fact that producing more water is tied to continuing to develop and refine new technologies also speaks well to the economic power of Israel. This is one of many reasons that Israel’s diplomatic issues and impasse with the Palestinians does not undermine Israel’s strength as much as it would a small state centuries ago.

Navy

Indisputably, that power would be nowhere if it weren’t for the stimulus of Western weapons that have enabled Israel’s modern army. But it’s not just the most capable air force in the Middle East that is giving Israel its might. Israel might control the most powerful navy in Israel’s history. While it has nowhere near the manpower that Turkey has, it does own 4 Dolphin submarines bought from Germany with 2 more on the way. Further, because of Israel’s newly found natural gas wealth resting miles off the coast, its navy is considering an unprecedented build-up of armor to defend against Lebanese and Turkish attacks.

Historically, the empires of the Middle East relied on land power – infantry & cavalry – to conquer and defend. In fact, between 1100 & 1500, the Ayyubid and Mamluk Empires of Egypt had virtually no naval power. The Crusaders had such an advantage that those empires decided to desert the coast of modern Israel and move cities inward, merely to avoid giving their enemies usable ports and a strong foothold on land. Every time a ruler would have the initiative to build a fleet, budget cuts or pressure from conservatives ended the project early. The Ottoman Empire did not repeat this mistake, but they did not possess the power to defeat European naval powers like the Portuguese & Spanish in the early 1500s to stop the rapid expansion of European colonies and thus European power.

With increasing threats from smuggling, terrorists and even Turkey, Israel is on the verge of creating the certifiably strongest navy in Middle Eastern history. Merely maintaining one that can tango with the other powers in the region reads well for Israel’s future in the region, certain to solidify military abilities that historic powers have lacked.

If Israel continues its water projects and rehabilitates the Jordan River & Dead Sea, it would consequently be extending its technological abilities and the ecological health of the country. In so doing, it would enhance the natural strength of the country and the availability of natural resources. If that is an indicator of where countries can go, the Jewish State would theoretically be on the path to becoming, at least on a regional level, a superpower.

April 30, 2012

Considering the Holocaust, Will Israel Have the Balls to Recognize the Armenian Genocide?

by Gedalyah Reback

Originally posted in The Beacon Mag

Last May, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin pledged he’d recognize the Armenian Genocide in the Knesset. Rivlin’s a moderate in the Likud Party, but he’s been a hawk on the issue. For five years, the Knesset has been debating commemorating the Ottoman Empire’s crimes. In 2011, they finally made the discussions public. So why is it so hard to acknowledge something that even Hitler supposedly did as early as 1939? According to one translation, the scumbag put it this way:

“Only thus shall we gain the living space (Lebensraum) which we need. Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

So until now what’s kept Israel from acknowledging the disaster? Quite simply, it would piss off Turkey.

Jews in other places around the world recognize the crime, and the Turks aren’t around to bully them into not. The USC Shoah Foundation, which sports many high-value Jewish donors, is adding 400 recorded testimonies from survivors of the Armenian Genocide to its archives. This is a major change for the foundation’s Institute, which has only focused on the Holocaust till now. In 2007, the Anti-Defamation League recognized the WWI massacres. The Zionist Organization of America also recognizes it. But the ADL’s head Abraham Foxman did so only after pressure from inside his organization. While Foxman wanted to protect Israel’s diplomatic position, his own organization pressured him to face the facts. Inside Israel, now that Turkey’s on the outs with Jerusalem, what could possibly justify continuing this ridiculous policy?

Azerbaijan. Despite whatever denials the government here in Israel cooks up, the security asset the Azeris are in the fight against Iran is tremendous. Israel might use Azerbaijan as a staging ground to attack nuclear sites, so reports say, so now denying the Armenian Genocide seems as important as ever. On April 6th, an Azerbaijani news outlet got to interview the country’s ambassador from Israel. What he said was revealing:

Question: Recently, the committee of the Knesset has discussed so called “Armenian genocide”. Will this issue come to the agenda of the Israeli parliament?
Ambassador Michael Lotem: The committee will discuss, but I think it will not go beyond. This issue should be kept to historians, not dealt by the politicians.

No matter how many meetings there are in the Knesset, Israel’s Foreign Ministry still seems to be revealing the country’s intent. Any Knesset meeting on the subject is a publicity stunt aimed at scaring the Turks. It’s not serious. It’s embarrassing as a country so intent on highlighting the devastation of the Holocaust that its leaders are apathetic to the idea of recognizing other crimes. Benjamin Netanyahu has used the Holocaust as a point of comparison to Iran’s intent regarding Israel’s Jews, so what good could it possibly do to diminish another genocide and risk diluting the significance of the Holocaust in the eyes of the world?

Turkey still refuses to recognize the magnitude or viciousness of the slaughter, arguing the numbers of those killed and the circumstances – battle as opposed to systematic murder. But a wave of European countries do not just recognize the event but criminalize denying it. On April 9th, it was reported the head of the Slovakian Supreme Court would have any Turkish official prosecuted if he dared deny the genocide on Slovakian soil. France pissed off Turkey several year ago when it passed its own version of the law. France’s statute was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court there, but the attitude toward the event is clearly on equal terms to how countries treat denial of the Holocaust. Europe is awash with these laws. Germany is the most famous for it, but in other countries the statutes exist: Austria, France, Poland and Portugal. Spain is more lenient about denial per se, but specifically prosecutes justifying the Holocaust. Israel has its laws outlawing Holocaust denial, but hasn’t even brought itself to acknowledge the mere happening of the Armenian tragedy.

Recognizing it will deepen Israel’s relationship with Turkey’s rivals: Greece and Cyprus. Turkey usually threatens consequences for diplomatic ties if another country recognizes the genocide. That threat means little these days in Jerusalem. Without leverage on Israel, the Jewish voice on the matter will weigh heavy against Turkey in the court of international opinion. Whatever problems Israel has diplomatically, its authority on genocide issues and its intimate connection to the Holocaust make the Jewish point of view extremely important to advocates of genocide prevention and recognition (see Armenia, Rwanda, Darfur).

Otniel Schneller, a member of the parliament, rolled out the identical argument for avoiding the issue as others had in the past, saying “Sometimes our desire to be right and moral overcomes our desire to exist, which is in the interest of the entire country.” But it’s more paranoid than proven that Turkey or Azerbaijan could have such a devastating effect on Israeli security. Turkey’s relationship has gone to crap with Israel, Syria and Iraq over the last several years, leaving it with little leeway for its own foreign policy in the region and thus little to threaten Israel with. Regarding Israel, the Jewish state lets other countries dictate its talk in the strangest ways, and the state is only undermining its assertiveness letting pressure from a non-ally, Turkey, bully the Jewish state into avoiding a simple moral statement. Turkey and Azerbaijan still need Israel as an ally against Iran; not just the other way around. Not acknowledging Jewish sovereignty on the issue is not merely impotent, but hits at the ‘galus’ mentality.

Recognizing the “Forgotten Holocaust” this year is a promise of Rivlin’s, but he’ll have to put his money where his mouth is to end this embarrassing situation. Rivlin and the entire Knesset will soon get their shot. It’s disgraceful it’s taken so long, but perhaps this year the ball will drop.

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