April 29, 2012

Israel Heading toward Elections over Ultra Orthodox (not) in the Army

by Gedalyah Reback

For the first time in years, a serious threat has been levied at the Israeli status quo on the issue of Ultra Orthodox Jews serving in the Israeli army. Ultra Orthodox Jews, for many reasons, often won’t serve in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), needless to say rarely approaching units like infantry or tanks. Many instead spend their early adult years attending Yeshivas with their tuition & livelihoods subsidized by government grants. There is indeed a substantial bureaucracy which regulates the practice and therefore is employed to deal with it. The mechanism by which the machinery runs is a piece of legislation called the Tal Law, named after the head of the committee that researched how to reform the practice of exempting Ultra Orthodox Jews from the IDF.

The Tal Committee was run by Tzvi Tal, a Justice on the Israeli Supreme Court, starting in 1999. By 2002, the committee was set up because on the one hand, the exemptions weren’t exactly legal. The Supreme Court itself had decided that there needed to be a formal law regulating it. At the time, since the early 70s, it was by a sort of executive order from the Minister of Defense that had granted the exemptions.

One might ask though why this has gone on so long. This is one of, if not the main issue characterizing social and political differences between secular & religious Israelis. The non-involvement of Ultra Orthodox Jews in the military characterized their rejection of the state. Continuing the practice seemed not just to be a rejection of Israelis’ patriotic sentiments, but also a sort of apathy for the Israelis who would go out and defend the Jews living in Israel from external threats. This week, a protest camp has been set up outside the Knesset called “The Suckers’ Tent,” referring to the apparent position of people who must enter the army and not enjoy both exemption and simultaneous financial benefits for attending Yeshivas.

The Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional in February. The law was supposed to create a framework where Yeshiva students would go to school and then decide between limited forms of military service or non-military national service. In practice, students have been able to indefinitely postpone doing either.

Evolved Problem

In the early 70s, the amount of army-eligible males taking the exemptions was negligible. That number increased steadily as the community became more entrenched and even moved steadily more right. Today, the projected growth of the Ultra Orthodox population, combined with the rising proportion in number of exemptions, has the issue pushing Israel toward dissolving the current governing coalition and launching early elections. How likely the elections are is actually a question though, since most members of non-Orthodox political parties want the Tal Law or anything that allows massive exemptions from national service to be dissolved.

Israel has many political parties that break down along ethnic and religious lines, as well as political philosophy. Kadima seems to be the largest left-wing party while Likud is the largest to the right. But National Union & HaBayit HaYehudi are religious, pro-Zionist parties. Shas and United Torah Judaism are Ultra Orthodox parties. Hadash and the United Arab List are Arab parties. It is Shas we would think has the clout to create a new election cycle, but in fact it is the radically secular Yisrael Beitenu that is threatening pulling out of the government if its version of a reformed law doesn’t pass the Knesset. Their version would require universal national service, whether in the army or in some designated alternative.

Yisrael Beitenu and Shas are both members of the governing coalition, more because they have similar outlooks on security more than on social issues. Negotiating between the two parties would force Likud and Benjamin Netanyahu into an uncomfortable mediating position that would either end in nothing or essentially rehash the compromises that are so unpopular and deemed illegal today.

Ultra Connected

Israeli politicians aren’t often creative thinkers so much as they are overly pragmatic and businessmen. Even though most countries’ parliaments and congresses would respond to such a Supreme Court ruling in the same way – rehashing the old law in a new format and with new language – in Israel the status quo is extremely tough to break. The culture created by the military exemptions has created other social and education problems seemingly unconnected to the IDF service issue. For one, the quality of Ultra Orthodox Yeshiva students is diminishing. In a classic case of quantity versus quality. As one might expect slackers to take advantage of some individuals’ ideological reasons for wanting military exemption, indeed there are underachievers occupying the halls of the seminaries. Many servicemen would consider those few Ultra Orthodox who have entered the military to be of that stock, mostly because their own Yeshivas’ administrators have kicked them out of the seminaries for behavior or laziness. In my mind, expanding the mechanism where Religious Zionist students split time between Yeshivas and the military would be part of if not much of where the answer lies. But it would serve the Ultra Orthodox to have students split time between studying and serving, enabling the brightest students to continue their studies toward inevitable Rabbinical positions.

Secular Israel & College Students

The other side of the issue concerns secular Israelis. While Yeshiva students get stipends to attend their seminaries, non-religious or religious university students are not given the same treatment. University tuition is extremely low compared to the United States, but students still struggle to find sufficient work and pay with such hectic class schedules. I, myself, have had to turn down full time job offers because I cannot meet their desired amount of hours while in school and am working two part time jobs right now. Last year, there were protests by students in the middle of Jerusalem demanding equal treatment by the government, recognizing their academic endeavors.

It’s that demand for equality under the law driving many of the protests by civic engagement groups and individuals. Ultimately, ideology has taken a backseat to the politics of patronage where a bureaucratic normality has taken hold. It will take a sincere and daring effort to undermine that bureaucracy and force a demographic to be more involved in the services of the government.

Other issues I haven’t covered involve the behavior of people in the army. Religious Zionist Jews, who want to serve in the army, have developed their own units and the Hesder program mentioned above (combining Yeshiva learning with military service), in order to answer issues of men & women having increased contact and avoiding the apparent immaturity (sex & other concerns) or secularism of young soldiers in other units. Ultra Orthodox raise these concerns as well on the oft-cited list of reasons to avoid the IDF.

April 25, 2012

Israel’s Navy Could Be Fighting off Africa

by Gedalyah Reback

Despite the fact India lacks what might be becoming a standard element of modern navies, its services have been in high demand from other countries seeks its help in the Indian Ocean. The European Union wants to protect shipping along the African coast, for example against Somali pirates. European countries are trying to build the naval abilities of “Somalia, Djibouti, Eritrea, Kenya and Tanzania.” Where Israel is in this project is a question for market researchers as much as it is for Israel’s political leaders. The project is trying to hand over responsibilities to local actors, and India is the natural choice. But Israeli private contractors have operated in the region for years, even preventing one pirate attack on an Italian ship.

Israel has strong relations with Kenya & Tanzania, so she’s perfectly placed to make an impact with its own thriving defense industry. Even Russia & China are part of international efforts to patrol the area, joining NATO’s (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) Operation Ocean Shield.

Where’s Israel’s leadership comes in is here, with NATO. Recently, Turkey refused to allow Israeli reps at a NATO conference in Chicago. Every country in the alliance has a veto on policy decisions, and Turkey has used its power several times in the past. Other Mediterranean countries who are not part of the alliance were also in attendance. Until the fallout with Turkey, Israel’s relationship had been growing with NATO, virtually to the point of being an unofficial member. As Israel’s naval powers grow, it will want to extend its reach further, especially off the coast of countries where Israeli diplomats have been attacked and Islamist militant organizations are operating, i.e. Somalia. Israel will get that chance this summer, when Turkey’s other rival and Israel’s new energy business partner Cyprus becomes the President nation of the European Union. That will put Israel’s navy in an optimal position to be more directly involved with the European Union in both the Mediterranean & the Indian Ocean defense project.

The European Union is the backdoor for the IDF to cooperate with European armies when Turkey is blocking its access to NATO. The two organizations, despite being headquartered in the same city and actually having 21 members in common, do not coordinate policy, projects or operations well at all. The main reason is actually the Turkish dispute with Cyprus, making the second half of 2012 one of the more interesting times for European politics in recent history. With disputes about the Euro, possibly a new French president and the relationships in the eastern Mediterranean deteriorating, diplomats will be busy trying to patch up Turkey’s faltering diplomatic relationships before they infect European initiatives in both the EU & NATO.

Israel's been aiming to expand its diplomatic footprint in Africa itself for years.

But Cyprus will be in command, and the Cypriots have used their political position against Turkey before. In 2005, Cyprus vetoed another idea, to invite Turkey to join the so-called “European Defense Agency.” That agency is more a loose accord to get armies from the EU and outside the EU to talk to each other. The contracts Cypriots have been signing with Israelis over joint exploration for gas & oil make it a real opportunity for Israel to get into the economic and security projects of the European Union.

Personally, while I’d like Israel and Turkey to patch things up, Israel needs more leverage in future negotiations over the two countries’ relationship in order to make getting back together worth it. This is an opportunity for Israel to do that.

April 25, 2012

Israeli Companies are Building India’s Robotic Weapons

by Gedalyah Reback

India has been beefing up its naval abilities ever since Pakistani terrorists landed in Mumbai in 2008 and killed nearly 200 people. It’s the latest in a mostly positive stringof encounters with Israeli military companies, especially welcome after what happened to IMI.

The latest Indian project involves unmanned drones, but this time in the water. Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd. (MM), an Indian sporting company, is teaming with Rafael to make the machine happen. India has been augmenting its navy since the 2008 attacks anticipating more break-in attempts, especially from Pakistan. Much of the development is focusing on defending the coastline of Gujarat, the largest state in India. The latest project adds to the efforts, announced in January, of adding a second aerial unmanned squadron to the Indian arsenal. That project involves Israel Aerospace Industries.

Robotics as a non-military venture is also gaining traction. Recently, the National Committee on Robotics and Automation and the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) sent reps to Israel for further research and venture development with Israeli companies. They met with the head of the Israeli Robotics Association, Professor Zvi Shiller. According to his bio, he has been involved in projects with the Israeli Defense Ministry, Science Ministry and even its Space Agency. Meeting Shiller might not have any other political implications, but the fact he is on staff at Ariel University (in the West Bank) was not at all on the list of concerns, let alone the radar whatsoever, of the Indian delegation.

This is all happening despite obstacles in the Israeli-Indian relationship, including accusations Israel Military Industries, owned by the Israeli government, has been bribing its way to Indian contracts. Various reports range from $44 to $70 million in seized assets to serve as a fine for the breach in trust, which is actually included in the contracts India’s Defense Ministry signs. That action brought up issues inside Israel regarding the ethical conduct of its major companies in general. Now with another country taking notice of such business practices in a public way, it’s an especially humiliating prospect. In the meantime, IMI is appealing the Indian decision. It is unlikely they’ll make headway, since they are only one of seven companies India has blacklisted (India won’t make defense deals with these companies for at least 10 years).

April 24, 2012

Judaism’s New Holidays: Zionist or Not, Jews’ Religion are Increasingly Affected by Israel’s Celebrations

by Gedalyah Reback

Four new holidays, all in the span of a month, have smacked the Jewish calendar in the past two generations. One of them applies universally but has monumental impact on Israelis: Holocaust Memorial Day (Yom Ha-Shoah). Commemorating those who lost their lives in the Holocaust, it is a somber day in Israel and a day to be marked in Jewish communities around the world. It rests adjacent to Israel’s national holidays on the calendar, preceding them by a week.

This week marks the next two. Their are fundamentals for the modern Israeli: Memorial Day and Independence Day. Growing up in the United States, not only are the two days separated but they are treated the same way. Neither has as much emotional significance anymore, both are barbecue festivals and both are days you’ll get good deals on furniture. This is wear religion has played a nuanced role even for secular Israelis. Judaism, as I’m sure is very true about many religions, is careful to play to the themes of the subjects its holidays commemorate. While the Israeli Rabbinate is a thorn in the side of even many religious Israelis because of its bureaucracy and political patronage, it has played a significant role in the regulation and scheduling of Israeli national holidays.

For these two days, the oft-cited theme in religion of going from darkness to light is overt. The day before Independence Day, Israelis remember their fallen soldiers and officially the civilian victims of terrorism. Jewish consciousness extends that memorial to Jewish victims of terror who never carried Israeli citizenship, recognizing the intertwined fates of Jews and Israelis who have been targeted over Middle Eastern politics. Additionally, it reflects a true timeline. The day before Israel issued its Declaration of Independence, 38 civilians were killed defending Gush Etzion, a small group of towns south of Jerusalem. The Jordanians, who had already invaded the territory of the former British Mandate for Palestine before Israel declared independence, massacred those men in an incident that the Jordanians have never denied was an indecent act. It resonated throughout the Jewish population and was fresh news in the minds of everyone the next morning when the State of Israel was declared. Today, Gush Etzion has been rebuilt, but only after its land was recaptured in the 1967 Six Day War.

Reading that headline, Israelis went with heavy hearts through the light at the end of the tunnel to declare independence within 24 hours of the tragedy. But perhaps more symbolic is placement of Holocaust Memorial Day, Yom HaShoah, a week before both holidays. In 1945, after the Allied Powers had conquered Germany, the full scale of the disaster for Jews was still unimaginable. Survivors faced humiliating or impossible decisions, to move back to homes surrounded by anti-Semitic neighbors or to leave for greener pastures. Many chose the idealized guilded journey to the Land of Israel, facing three years of British actions against new immigrants and Holocaust survivors. Local Jews picked up the pace smuggling survivors into the country by boat and from the harbor. Thousands were jailed on British military bases on Cyprus. Eventually, the Jewish population doubled from about 300,000 before WWII to 600,000 on the eve of independence.

That week can symbolize those three years of adjustment. With no clear end to the plight in sight, Yom HaZikaron hits the Jewish mindset – intentionally – at a time when the community is still coping with the anxieties, humiliation and ruins of the Holocaust. But Memorial Day, Yom HaZikaron, has a very different atmosphere. While it seems to be an additional day of mourning and despair, the tone includes one of work left to be done and accomplishments yet to be achieved. The soldiers memorialized, many of them Holocaust survivors who picked up the pieces and settled in Israel after the War, died fighting. Israelis visit cemeteries even if they have no loved ones buried there. Many Jewish seminaries, Yeshivas, take the day off from classes and bring students to see the throngs of people visit memorial parks, events and loved ones’ final resting places. The most popular sight is Mount Herzl, Jerusalem’s local military cemetery which has taken on a de facto status as the national cemetery similar to the American one in Arlington, Virginia.

Independence Day

That’s the atmosphere that precedes Independence Day for Israelis. It is a truly religious experience in one of the most nationalist, patriotic countries in the world. In a mentality of utter darkness, there is suddenly a burst of light. Fireworks and barbecues light up the country. Schools empty across the country like the day before with kids streaming into the streets of cities and even small towns dressed in blue & white. The narrative of the country’s survival is ever present and effervescent when you walk down the streets. Teenagers, soldiers and Yeshiva students wrap the Israeli flag around themselves like a cape screaming and hollering in euphoria.

But it’s not Israel’s only Independence Day. Three weeks later, Israel celebrates a second. It isn’t celebrated by everyone because of the political implications people read into it, but Jerusalem Day, Yom Yerushalayim, has had a much larger significance for modern Judaism than any other newly marked day on the calendar. The reasons have to do with, on the one hand, the city’s vitality to Judaism itself. The second, though, has to do with the emotional rollercoaster I described above. The day incorporates all the feelings the other three exemplify and project.

Jerusalem Day & Preventing another Holocaust

Jerusalem Day is celebrated on the anniversary of the third day of the Six Day War when the city was captured. It’s intent was to be a day to celebrate winning that war without any other meaning attached to it, but the gravity of that war was too immense not to take on further meaning. In the three weeks preceding it, Arab radio made waves of it threats to do away with Israel and literally throw the Jews into the Mediterranean. The implication was there would be mass massacres and total annihilation of the institutions the Jews had created in Israel. Quite literally, some grim newspapers urged the last Jew standing to “turn out the light.”

So when at 8AM on June 5, 1967, the Israeli Air Force caught the Egyptians on guard duty lazily making a shift change, it combined the ingenuity of the military, preparedness and incredible faith to reverse the situation and mentality completely. In one swoop, a funeral turned into a birthday. Egypt’s and Jordan’s air forces were decimated on the ground, and the most incredible preemptive strike in modern military history re-declared Israeli independence. The sweeping UN condemnations of the Israeli action have enshrined Israeli distrust of the organization, considering it was the UN’s monitors who abandoned guarding a buffer zone between Israel and the advancing Egyptian army. Gamel Abdul Nasser never recovered, dying of a heart-attack three years later. Syria saw another coup before the Yom Kippur War six years later. Jordan never again went to war with Israel.

Religious communities, even going beyond the pro-Zionist ones, have had difficulty playing down the miracle that Jerusalem Day celebrates for Jews worldwide. Anyone with Jewish parents who were living in communities at the time – Brooklyn, Long Island, New Jersey, California, etc. – can learn from them that the jubilation of Israel’s survival combined with such an epic return to the capital city of Judaism has been unmatched in the younger generation’s lifetime. Not even the panic that gripped Jews worldwide when Israel was attacked on Yom Kippur, just six years later, could match the ecstatic electricity that channeled through the Diaspora when it was reported Israel had conquered Jerusalem on the third day of the war.

For these reasons, Jews in Israel and in many Modern Orthodox & Conservative communities today celebrate Israeli Independence Day as a religious holiday, fulfilling a religious obligation to thank God whenever surviving a threatening situation or obtaining something wonderful. In this case, both. More so in Israel but also abroad, Jerusalem Day gets its religious share more emphatically. Even Haredim, that is Israeli Ultra Orthodox Jews usually standoffish of Israeli national holidays, celebrate the redemption of the day and are overwhelmed by significance of recapturing Jerusalem. The title might seem controversial if you see the world through politics, but its significance for Jews and Judaism is much broader than even the threat Israel’s conquests might be given away to another, non-Jewish country.

Israeli newspapers are littered with religious ideas about Israeli independence, linking the event to the week’s Torah and Haftarah readings (recent example: here).

April 22, 2012

Golan Heights’ Druze: An Intro

by Gedalyah Reback

The Golan Heights is a disputed territory to the southwest corner of Syria and in the northeast corner of Israel. Once used as a high ground from which to launch shells into the Galilee Valley, the Israelis captured it in two days during the Six Day War. It was not an empty area. Maybe 100,000 Syrians lived there. But most of its poor inhabitants fled immediately. The only group that largely stayed were the Druze: “Around 7,000 remained in six Druze villages: Majdal Shams, Mas’ade, Buq’ata, Ein Qiniyye, Ghajar and Shayta. They are estimated to number 20,000 today.” There are populations of Druze in Israel and Syria. Nothing was particularly different about the Golan’s Druze until this moment. None could have guaranteed they’d be virtual Israelis into infinitude, but that has what happened.

In 1981, Israel annexed the Golan Heights for several reasons. Unlike the West Bank, it was a direct front with a sworn enemy, unlike the West Bank regarding Jordan. Jordan was not as hostile an Arab state as Syria, nor did the issue of negotiating territory with the Palestinians come up with the Golan – it was never Palestinian. So only the Golan and East Jerusalem have been annexed from the conquests of the Six Day War, leaving both populations with unique residency rights in Israel. The Golan Druze face a different social situation than the Palestinians of East Jerusalem. They were citizens of Syria, and their territory was recognizably Syrian. East Jerusalem was void of an internationally recognized owner. So here, nationality was neither in dispute nor coalescing. East Jerusalemites have experienced waves of Arab nationalism, Jordanian citizenship and Palestinian nationalism both under the Jordanians and under the Israelis. Golan’s Druze were cut off from their indisputable home government.

Druze are generally labeled fiercely loyal to their home regimes, no matter who’s in charge. Along the same lines, the leadership is generally pragmatic. In Israel, Druze living in the Carmel and the Galilee aligned themselves with the Jews in the Israeli War of Independence. Today, they are the only ethnic or religious group aside from Jews who are obligated to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces (a request made by the group’s leadership).

The Druze of the Golan don’t have any sort of requirement. The reasons are simple. For one, their loyalty is ambiguous. There have been vocal pro-Assad demonstrations in the Golan for years. The community has either been motivated by a genuine patriotism for Syria or fear that a land-for-peace deal might bring vengeful Syrian police to arrest anyone who advocated against Damascus while the territory was Israeli. But secondly, while it’s practical for the Israeli government to hold back anyone whose loyalty to the Jewish State is just non-existent, it’s also a humanitarian gesture and obligation that they don’t serve in the IDF. It is illegal under international law to force residents of an occupied territory to serve in the conqueror’s army. Even if it weren’t, it would be cruel to compel service to anyone who is conflicted about their national identity.

Golani Druze carry Israeli residency cards and have virtually open access to the country’s services without some of the rigors of citizenship, but maybe about 10% of them have accepted Israeli citizenship. Many Druze have taken the opportunity to attend universities, a fictional example of which coming from the Israeli film “Syrian Bride.” On the Syrian side of things, there is an exchange between the two countries for Golani college students to go for free (with Syrian government funding) to universities in Damascus. Funerals also bring visitors, who more and more over the years have gotten more relaxed ruled on moving between the borders.

After almost 50 years on the Israeli side, the attachment to Syria is breaking. The lot of native Israeli Druze is noticeably good. Despite whatever social and economic issues might exist for the small Israeli Druze community, it doesn’t approach critical levels. Intermingling is also much easier than with Syrian Druze. The social scene is also available to the younger Golani Druze, being just another opportunity to immerse themselves on the Israeli scene.

With no clear way of returning the Golan Heights to Syria, much less to a Syria ruled by Bashar al-Assad, Golan’s Druze will probably continue to adopt Israeli citizenship at an increasing rate.

April 22, 2012

Israeli Gas Drillers Get Nearly $1 Billion in Investments from US

by Gedalyah Reback

It was announced April 22nd that the group of owners developing one Israel’s large offshore gas fields, Tamar, will be getting just over $900 million in loans from a consortium of 11 companies and banks in the near future.  The money is a huge boon for the developing Israeli energy industry.  It also indicates the potential for the export element of the business the industry is aiming for.  The connections are coming from principle Tamar developer Noble Energy, based in Texas, which owns about a third of the field.

In January, the controlling group signed a deal with a smaller Israeli energy provider to supply gas for nearly 20 years, declaring they wished to increase competition in the Israeli market.  That deal is worth $5 billion.

Tamar is a large gas field whose vast area has caused diplomatic and security issues to pop up with Lebanon and Hezbollah. The field is one of several that is also the target of joint development projects with Cyprus. Cyprus’ interests have angered Turkey, creating tension with Ankara as well. Turkey does not recognize the government of (southern) Cyprus, preferring the Turkish Northern Cyprus government as the official representative of the island. Israel has been looking at enlarging its navy in anticipation of security issues to offshore development sites in the future. Lebanon has refused to negotiate with Israel up till this point, instead filing complaints with international bodies and refusing to ratify a joint development agreement with Cyprus.

The symbols of the main companies involved are here: Noble Energy (NBL); Delek Drilling (DEDRL); Isramco Negev (Isral) & Avner Oil (Avnrl).

April 21, 2012

Israel’s Navy Expanding to Defend Offshore Gas

by Gedalyah Reback

Israel has expanded its relationship with Greece for two reasons. The first is because Greece is the natural alternative to having an alliance with Turkey, which is falling apart. The second is Greece is the natural patron of Cyprus, the other country about to win big from natural gas fields discovered in the Mediterranean Sea. Israel is planning to develop several fields, so naturally they will want a strong relationship with the other country nearby, Cyprus. The fields are in the “territorial waters” of the two countries, that is the area of ocean or sea water that is within legal range of a country’s coastline.

But that also involves Lebanon. Lebanon is nowhere near as advanced as Israel in its ability to explore for mineral deposits offshore. But now that Israel has hit the jackpot, Lebanon is making claims that some of the fields are in Lebanese water. The maps would have to be manipulated to make that true, but that hasn’t stopped Hezbollah and the rest of the Lebanese government from making an issue out of it. Hezbollah added fuel to the fire, threatening Israel if it crossed into the ambiguously defined Lebanese waters. In kind, Israel promised it would defend its gas deposits with force.

There is teeth to the Israeli words while little to Hezbollah’s. Despite what little naval options Hezbollah or Lebanon would have, Israel is stacking up. The navy is negotiating with South Korea and Hyundai to buy a bunch of new frigates. Israel recently had a spat with South Korea’s military industry because Jerusalem chose to buy a squadron of training planes from Italy instead of the Koreans. Filling the need to bulk up the navy and stay on good terms with South Korea is like killing two birds with one stone. Some even want Israel to stock up on bigger sorts of ships like destroyers and cruisers.

Israel is also replacing its joint naval war games with the Turks by conducting new ones with the Greeks. Greece is a patron to tiny Cyprus, so any business or military affairs happening on the island resonate in Athens. Greece is equally involved in the cultivation of the natural gas deposits as Cyprus or Israel, so the Greek navy will be the first natural ally for the Israelis in the Mediterranean.

Cyprus might end up mediating between the Israelis and the Lebanese on a maritime border. Cyprus already has working agreements with both countries on exploration, but both could be undermined if either country cannot begin working offshore. Lebanon refuses to ratify its agreement with Cyprus until it gets clarity on its southern border, forcing Cyprus to get pro-active about solving the dispute. Israel and Lebanon are also beginning to cooperate in other ways on the waters of the Mediterranean Sea – blocking Palestinian activists from crossing into Israeli waters on Land Day and Nakba Day. There is room to settle the dispute, but it might have more to do with Hezbollah’s willingness to cook up an issue to fight about then actually taking a pragmatic approach to the issue.

Turkey is the big reason though to bulk up. Initially you’d think I’m talking about the Flotilla incident in 2010, when the Israeli navy boarded a ship and killed nine Turkish activists on their way to protest the blockade of Gaza. The reason to buy bigger boats has more to do with Turkey’s relations with Cyprus. Turkey has a tense relationship with Cyprus. In 1974, Turkey invade Cyprus and carved out the northern third of the island as a separate country for Turkish residents – Northern Cyprus. Only Turkey recognizes the country, and in September 2011 signed a joint exploration deal with the tiny country to search for gas off the Northern Cypriot shore.

Turkey has had fierce rhetoric since and its own naval maneuvers, rattling its sabers in the direction of the Greek, southern Cyprus working with the Israelis. In December, Turkey drove ships toward the fields claimed by Israel and the southern Cypriots and fired in the direction of the fields. Israel and Cyprus have asked for help from the US to keep the Turks back, but the tensions are hot as Turkey seeks to stake a claim for itself and its tiny Northern Cypriot neighbor. The International Crisis Group in the beginning of April accused Turkey of a series of provocations against southern Cyprus, and told Turkey to discipline itself.

April 19, 2012

Turkey’s Alevis: An Intro

by Gedalyah Reback

There’s been attention on the Alawite sect of late. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad comes from the sect, and the sectarian implications of the violence in Syria is huge. I recently posted about members of the religion who live in the Turkish-Syrian border area and how their emotions could complicate Turkish intervention in Syria.

Another group weighs even more heavily on Turkish politics: the Alevis. Their name has a similar origin to the Alawis’, but there are few similarities after that, religiously. Both groups are outgrowths of mainstream Shi’a Islam. Politically, the two groups have been traditionally marginalized and faced discrimination for their unorthodox beliefs. But the ambiguity of both groups’ religious beliefs has caused a lot of confusion. Religion and Middle East scholars often mix the two groups up unintentionally, making studying the two minorities unnecessarily difficult. That confusion even runs through the groups themselves. Since Alawites kept many particulars to their dogmas under wraps to a degree and Alevis are both secularized and don’t emphasize religious practice, the two groups have members who think the two religions have a lot more in common than they actually do.

Their beliefs are much more esoteric than mainstream Islamic sects. There are ideas similar to the Catholic trinity, heavy borrowings from Sufi ideas & a heightened appreciation of Muhammad’s cousin Ali.

Alevis might make up as much as 20% of Turkey’s population, though that rarely factors into political analysis. The party of Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan is religious in nature, Sunni to be specific. Its popularity and indicator of resurgent religiosity in Turkey overshadow the diversity that actually does exist in Turkey. Alevis’ religion also has origins in the various Sufi sects that once had much more influence in Turkey during the period of the Ottoman Empire. It made telling the difference between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims, in general, a difficult task. The groups has been influenced by Sufi spirituality, making their religious culture much richer in arts, dances and meditation. Because of the former influence of Sufis, Sunni Turks also felt their impact. That translates today in political terms.

Alevis have a tremendous but nuanced influence on the country. Because they are such a large group, their votes can make a difference. The fact the head of the Turkish opposition is an Alevi could spell future electoral trouble for Turkey’s leaders. Alevis also appreciate the secular traditions of modern Turkey much more than the current ruling party. Disenfranchised secular voters, combined with agitated minorities, could swing an election. In fact, it’s their religious beliefs that are actually a political issue in Turkey. Much of the ambiguity scholars reflect about Alevi and Turkish Sunni commonalities is because the Turkish government has maintained a policy that doesn’t recognize the minority as a separate religion. Recognition is important for many reasons, of late to avoid the mandatory Sunni-oriented Islamic classes in public schools. Because of that, the sect’s only institutions and places of worship don’t get the sort of government support that Sunni places do. Though the assumption they are Sunnis should enable money to flow to their centers, unofficial discrimination still exists.

On Syria, the confusion about Alevis’ connection to the Alawites isn’t the only thing that matters. Alevis might feel that an aggressive government policy toward Syria would actually be a Sunni push against a minority-ruled regime. If that were to happen, it could initiate the political backlash mentioned above.

April 19, 2012

Egypt’s Christians: An Intro

by Gedalyah Reback

As of 2012, the Middle East’s Christian communities are in wide retreat. From a population of about 1 million in Iraq before the US-British invasion, half have fled the country at some point since the war started and a great many have not yet returned. In Lebanon, the formerly majority Christian community has mostly emigrated. There are about 4 million Lebanese in Lebanon, maybe a third of whom are Christians. 15 million Lebanese live abroad, and virtually all of them are Christians. Other communities are in flight, including Palestinian Christians, whose numbers around traditionally Christian Bethlehem have extremely thinned out. One reason is Islamic militancy, another ethnic relations breaking down, and then the breakdown of political and economic stability. In Egypt, some have fled since 2011’s revolution, but most have not and probably never will. Here’s why.

Egypt’s Christians constitute the biggest Church in the Middle East. In a country of 70 to 80 million people, they take up about 10 million. Only the richest have fled to communities abroad in more affluent places like Brooklyn or Queens, New York. In general. Egyptian Christians have a much stronger connection to Egypt than the other communities. Even if they didn’t, they would have fewer places to run. None of the countries around Egypt have both the space and tolerance necessary to host a massive amount of Christian refugees.

But the situation in Egypt is not one of civil war. The large Christian community makes an impression on the political environment. Think of how the staunchly Shi’ite Hezbollah advocates (publicly) for tolerance of the extreme diversity in Lebanon (big communities of Christians, Sunni Muslims & Druze). That is also true in Egypt, where the community’s numbers give it recognition from significant Muslim leaders – political and religious.

Additionally, the community is highly organized on the religious level. It has one of the oldest churches in Christendom. The name “Copt” comes from another version of the Greek name for the country & is directly related to the English word “Egypt.” The Church also has direct influence over national churches in Israel, Ethiopia & across Africa.

But the religious strength of the community dwarfs its political activism. It’s a problem that’s become acute since the Egyptian Revolution, as Islamist politicians have risen rapidly to the front of the electoral pack. Over 70% of Egypt’s new parliament comes from members of the Muslim Brotherhood and more fundamentalist or Salafi groups of Muslims. Calls for more influence by Islam in a new constitution are adding immeasurable pressure on the Coptic community.

Since 2011, attacks against members of the community have grown. Clan rivalries in the Egyptian countryside have become full religious clashes on the streets of Cairo. In October, a spate of Church arsons sparked riots in Cairo. Twenty four people were killed fighting Muslims and eventually Egyptian soldiers trying to keep order:

Arsons have mostly been outside the capital. Other spates between Christians and Muslims include marriage issues. While intermarriage is a massive problem for any minority, particular incidents in 2010 purportedly had a Coptic priests’ wives leave them to convert to Islam. Those set off back and forth barbs between communities, as to whether the Muslim view is right or the Christians’ view that she was coerced into converting. The truth is rather elusive. Incidents like this have become absurdly common and underscore the tensions happening in the cities between the two communities.

There have been a number of holiday attacks on Christians in the last few years. In 2009, Muslim shooters killed Christians 4 people the day before Easter. In 2010 and 2011, there were attacks in January that killed about 20 combined, one of the attacks being a bombing of an Alexandria church on New Year’s.

Many Copts are resistant to the idea of getting more involved in politics, but many have already started go that way. The numbers of active Christians are low, but pressures on the community have stirred debate about needing to be more aggressive or at least pro-active. Copts have the largest Church in the Middle East and might be able to play a leading role for other Mideast Christians at a time of massive flight from their home countries. Only the Church leadership has played a significant political role in years past, and the choice of a new Coptic Pope later in 2012 (writing before the selection process begins) might lead to more or less involvement by Copts in the country’s politics.

April 16, 2012

Hezbollah in Iraq

by Gedalyah Reback

Pulling from the very pages of Hezbollah’s own news website itself, Muqtada al-Sadr recently sent a delegation to visit a Lebanese prisoner in Baghdad named Ali Moussa Daqdouq. The US arrested him in 2007 and obtained a confession he was training fighters inside Iran to fight in Iraq. In February, it was reported the US wanted to try him and extradite him from Iraq.

There hasn’t been much other evidence that Hezbollah is active in Iraq, but what does exist is substantive. There’s even less about what that might mean in the long term. What is suspected of Daqdouq is he was recruiting and training for Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq (AAH), responsible for over 6,000 attacks on American soldiers. Hezbollah was apparently operating under the supervision of the Iranian Al-Quds force, and not the leader of training.

Hezbollah is a small organization heavily dependent on outside aid to function. Some have said Hezbollah is sending arms to Syria to aid its crackdown, but that seems unnecessary considering the larger resources available to the Syrian army. Hezbollah’s involvement in Iraq might indicate it has some decent relationship with other parties there, but it is not as important as Iran’s influence in Baghdad. Hezbollah might have little impact on Iraq nowadays with slightly more stability and a heavily Shiite Iraqi military fighting Sunni insurgents and no US soldiers to attack.

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