Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

Monday, January 21, 2019

Nigeria's Upcoming Election is One to Watch

By Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

A number of African states will be holding elections in 2019. In the case of Nigeria, the incumbent had had to insist he was still among the living.

Early in December President Muhammadu Buhari was forced to deny rumours that he has died and been replaced by a lookalike. 

Rumours that he had been replaced with a body double called “Jubril” from Sudan had been widely shared online.

The president assured Nigerians he is alive and will be asking Nigerians to vote him back into power in the Feb. 16 election. 

The 75-year-old has been beset by ill health since taking office in 2015. He was on “medical leave” in Britain for three months in 2017. 

The presidential contest will basically pit Buhari, the standard-bearer of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) against challenger Atiku Abubakar, who is 71, of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP).

There is an unwritten rule between the two major parties that the presidency should alternate every eight years between the predominately Muslim north and the predominately Christian south. It currently is the north’s turn, and the candidates are therefore northern Muslims.

The key concerns are the same ones that dominated the 2015 vote. The first, as is so often the case in Nigeria, is corruption.

In 2015, Buhari drew heavily on his reputation as incorruptible. In 2019, he will undoubtedly reiterate this promise and he does have some things to boast about.

His government claims to have recovered $2.75 billion in stolen assets. And it has overseen the conviction of two former governors.

Many, however, see President Buhari’s war on corruption as disappointing. Critics accuse the government of only targeting political opponents, while allowing its cronies to go scot-free.

Still, the ruling APC has a clear advantage on this issue. The PDP is remembered for plundering the country during its sixteen years in power.

Atiku, who was the former vice-president from 1999 to 2007 under President Olusegun Obasanjo, is one of the country’s richest politicians and has faced several allegations of fraud. In some circles, his name is synonymous with high-level graft.

Secondly, there is the struggling economy, which plunged into recession in 2016. It has since recovered, but growth remains slow.

Buhari is currently implementing social intervention programmes said to be touching the lives of thousands. In recent months, he has also launched a collateral-free loan program for micro-businesses, which could win sympathy among many voters.

Atiku is promising to revitalise the economy and is emphasising his experience. He has business interests across Nigeria and claims to have provided some 300,000 jobs across the country.

He also wants to restructure the federal system and devote a minimum of 21 per cent of the budget to education, which may also win him some supporters.

And then there is security, in a country riven by internal conflicts and terrorism.

Buhari made big gains against the Islamist group Boko Haram when he first took office. The insurgents previously controlled a sizeable portion of the North-East, but are now a weakened force.

But Atiku may also seek credit for mobilising hunters to wade off the militants in his native Adamawa state.

However, insecurity pervades much of the rest of the country. Nigeria faces escalating separatist growth in the former Biafra. Heading this movement is the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB), which has organised large-scale demonstrations and disruptions in the past few years demanding independence.

Armed banditry and kidnapping for ransom have also become growth industries. Buhari has been seen to be slow to respond to many of these threats.

The North-West, by far Nigeria’s most populous zone, is particularly strong Buhari territory. In 2015, he won all seven states. Buhari is similarly well-liked in the North-East, where he is credited with suppressing Boko Haram and bringing normalcy to Adamawa, Borno and Yobe states.

The APC and Buhari play poorly in the South-East, however, and they are even less popular following their handling of the Biafra secessionist movement. The South-South will also largely back the PDP as it did overwhelmingly in 2015.

In 2015, Buhari won election by a margin of 2.5 million votes in defeating incumbent Goodluck Jonathan. Although his record in office has been mixed, still, 2019 looks like his election to lose.

Ethiopia's New Leader Promotes Women to High Office

By Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

Abiy Ahmed, the new prime minister of Ethiopia, has accelerated a radical reform programme that is overturning politics in the vast and strategically significant East African country.

Since coming to power as prime minister in April, the 42-year-old has fired formerly untouchable civil servants, made peace with hostile Eritrea, lifted bans on websites and other media, and released thousands of political prisoners.

He also invited back exiled opposition leaders, ordered the partial privatisation of massive state-owned companies, and ended a state of emergency imposed to quell widespread unrest.

Abiy is chair of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a coalition of four parties which has been in power since 1991.

But he is its first leader from the country’s largest ethnic community, the Oromo, who have complained for decades of economic, cultural and political marginalisation.

Abiy was born to a Muslim Oromo father and an Orthodox Christian Amhara mother; the Amhara were Ethiopia’s long-time rulers. He is a devout Pentecostal Christian and has broadened political participation to underprivileged groups.

Analysts say Abiy’s mixed Christian and Muslim background, and fluency in three of the country’s main languages allow the new leader to bridge communal and sectarian divides. 

He has also reached out to women. Last October, he appointed a new cabinet that is half female, in an unprecedented push for gender parity in Africa’s second-most-populous nation.

Women now occupy the top security posts for the first time in Ethiopia’s history. Aisha Mohammed is in charge of defence, and Muferiat Kamil, a former parliamentary speaker, heads the newly formed Ministry of Peace.

She aims to tackle the widespread ethnic unrest that has erupted in the country since the easing of authoritarian control.

Women also head the ministries of trade, transport and labour, as well as culture, science and revenue.

“It is a very important and progressive move on the part of the prime minister and very consistent with the transformative agendas he’s been pursuing,” stated Awol Allo, an expert on Ethi­o­pia at Britain’s Keele University.

Also in October, Ethiopia’s parliament approved the country’s first female president, Sahle-Work Zewde.

Sahle-Work was previously the special representative of the UN secretary general to the African Union. Before that, she headed the UN’s Nairobi office with the rank of undersecretary general.

She has emphasized the importance of respecting women and the need to build a “society that rejects the oppression of women.”

In November, the country’s parliament installed as Supreme Court president a women’s rights activist. 

Meaza Ashenafi was a judge on Ethiopia’s High Court from 1989 to 1992 and then an adviser to a commission writing its new constitution. She also founded the Ethio­pian Women Lawyers Association and helped start the first women’s bank in the country.

Abiy said she would improve the court’s ability to implement reform in the country and the demands of justice and democracy.

“All these developments are exciting, but it is something that’s happening up top,” cautioned Blen Sahilu, a lawyer and women’s rights activist.

“In order for the shift to happen at a grass-roots level, the work is going to take years.” She pointed to factors such as widespread teen marriage and the lack of access to secondary education that hold women back.

“We have very progressive laws for gender equality enshrined in the constitution,” remarked Ellen Alem, a gender and development specialist at UNICEF Ethiopia. “The problem is in translating those to reality.”

Of course there is realpolitik involved in these reforms. Ethiopia’s rulers have been shaken by two years of anti-government unrest. Expanding women’s cabinet representation has been one of Abiy’s first moves. 

He recognizes that women’s political support can help him mobilize voters and help solidify the EPRDF’s  hold on power. And women will supply loyal female politicians to fill parliamentary and cabinet posts.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Is History Repeating Itself at Ivy League Schools?

By Henry Srebrnik, [Calgary] Jewish Free Press

A landmark lawsuit alleging that Ivy League Harvard University discriminates against Asian American applicants went to trial in October, thwarting months-long campaigns waged by the university to avoid a courtroom fight.

Filed by the group Students for Fair Admissions, it asserts that Harvard uses “racial balancing” to artificially determine the demographic breakdown of each incoming class.

Admissions officers gave Asian-American applicants lower scores for personal traits such as “humor” and “grit” in order to offset their higher academic grades from tests. Through such means, Harvard sets a cap on the number of Asian Americans it will admit, the plaintiffs argue. They ask the court to bar colleges from being able to consider, learn about or even become aware of an applicant’s race.

The judge in the case said she might not make a decision until February.

Other major universities have also been accused of the practice. Richard Sander, a law professor who studies affirmative action, filed a lawsuit in November against the University of California system, where he teaches. seeking access to records that he says could reveal whether the system defied state law by surreptitiously reintroducing race as a factor in admissions.

A newly formed group called the Asian American Community Services Center has joined the lawsuit. George Shen, a Southern California businessman, said many Asian-Americans believe that “we’re not getting a fair shake, so this is a big issue.”

We might see gifted Asian American students, in this as in many other respects, as the “new Jews.” 

Because similar underhanded practices kept Jews out of top-rated universities a century ago, a practice not discontinued at some until the early 1960s.

When Harvard president Abbott Lawrence Lowell assumed the Harvard presidency in 1909, Boston “Brahmins” and alumni of elite boarding schools made up most of the student body.

In an attempt to diversify, the admissions committee of the day created the “Top Seventh Rule,” which required Harvard to reach out to those who finished in the top seventh of their class, regardless of school or location.

By 1922, Jews constituted over 21.5 percent of Harvard’s student body, while they were only around 3.5 percent of the U.S. population.

So in that year, Lowell sought to institute a Jewish quota. He had “discovered” that a major cause of anti-Semitism was the presence of Jews. “The antisemitic feeling among students is increasing, and it grows in proportion to the increase in the number of Jews,” Lowell wrote in a 1922 letter.

If they “should become 40 percent of the student body, the race feeling would become intense. If every college in the country would take a limited proportion of Jews, I suspect we should go a long way toward eliminating race feeling among students.”

Lowell contended that enrolling a high number of Jewish students would “ruin the college” by causing elite Protestant students to attend other schools.

Jews were widely regarded as competitive, eager to excel academically and less interested in extra-curricular activities such as organized sports. Non-Jews accused them of being clannish, socially unskilled and either unwilling or unable to “fit in.”

So new standards were put in place to put downward pressure on the “troublingly” high Jewish population and restore Harvard’s traditional demographics by requiring applicants to demonstrate “character and fitness and the promise of the greatest usefulness in the future as a result of a Harvard education,” as well as good academic standing.

The new criteria would reward “leadership” and “well-rounded” candidates. They would be achieved through recommendation letters and interviews. As well, a passport-sized photo would be required as an essential part of the application.

Finally, to ensure “geographic diversity,” students from urban states were replaced by students from places with few Jews, such as Wyoming or North Dakota, who ranked in the top of their high school class.

Elite colleges also began to use legacy admissions during this period by giving preference to children of alumni — who were mostly not Jewish.

Through such subterfuge, most Jewish students could be rejected, without openly discriminating against them.

By 1931, Harvard’s Jewish ranks were cut back to 15 percent of the student body.

Not until the early 1960s did Yale University end an informal admissions policy that restricted Jewish enrollment, according to the book Joining the Club: A History of Jews and Yale by Dan Oren, originally published in 1986.

The book describes a folder in the university archives, labeled “Jewish Problem,” that contained a memo from the admissions chairman of 1922 urging limits on “the alien and unwashed element.” The next year, the admissions committee enacted the “Limitation of Numbers” policy. Jewish enrollment was held to about 10 percent for the next four decades.

The same methods ensured informal quotas of Jews at other top-tier universities. At Columbia University during that period it fell from 32.7 percent to 14.6 percent. At Princeton, perhaps the most exclusive of the Ivies, the university had fewer than two percent of Jews in its student body in 1941.

University of California, Berkeley, sociology professor Jerome Karabel detailed this discrimination against Jewish students in his acclaimed book, The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, published in 2005.

By the 1960s, the Ivy League had ended its quotas for Jews, but now it’s doing the same thing to Asians.

Just as their predecessors of the 1920s always denied the existence of “Jewish quotas,” top officials at Harvard, Yale, Princeton and the other Ivy League schools today strongly deny the existence of “Asian quotas.” But there exists powerful statistical evidence to the contrary.

An internal Harvard document from 2013 found that, based on admissions criteria that considered academic performance only, Asian-Americans would account for 43 percent of the admitted class. But their actual admission rate was 19 percent then and has risen to only 23 percent since.

Discrimination against Asian students, and not just by Harvard, but throughout higher education, has been an open secret for years. Like Jews, they come from cultures that prize education and academic achievement, and so proportionately, many of them work harder, study longer and care more about school.

In response to the suit launched against it, Harvard contends that it does not discriminate but that “colleges and universities must have the freedom and flexibility to create the diverse communities that are vital to the learning experience of every student.”

Of course, in the 1920s, such schools also denied they were discriminatory. They just created vague excuses which effectively placed a quota on the number of Jews admitted. Back then, it was designed to keep out Jews. Today it’s Asians. It seems history is repeating itself.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Comic Books, Jews, and Superheroes

By Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

The death of Stan Lee at the age of 95 on Nov. 12 reminds us of the outsized role of American Jews in the development of low to middlebrow cultural industries such as comic books and Hollywood films in the 20th century.

Born Stanley Martin Lieber in 1922 in New York, the son of Jewish immigrants, Lee would go on to create such superheroes as Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk and the X-Men.   

This was an emerging mass market, but one that required little in the way of capital or academic degrees  to get started. Considered somewhat crass, it was looked down upon by more established ethnic groups and hence was one Jewish artists and writers could enter without having to worry about discrimination.

In 1939 Lee was brought in by a relative, Martin Goodman, to a small comic books publisher. It would eventually become Marvel, and Lee and artist Jack Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg) would go on to build a mega-million-dollar empire.

By the mid-1930s, others had already created the modern comic book. An unemployed Jewish novelty salesman named Maxwell Charles Gaines (née Max Ginzberg) decided to put the comic strips published in newspapers between covers and sell them as separate items, thus creating the American comic book.

It was in the midst of the Great Depression, and young Jewish writers and illustrators found themselves without jobs. The advertising industry was rife with anti-Semitism, so, like the Jews who “invented” Hollywood, they created their own industry.

The most enduring of all superheroes, Superman, was also the creation of two young Jews, writer Jerry Siegel from Cleveland and artist Joe Shuster, born in Toronto. 

In 1938, Detective Comics (later DC), a Jewish enterprise owned by Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz, both born in eastern Europe, published Superman’s first entry in the pages of Action Comics #1. Superman was an instant hit. The so-called “Golden Age” of comics had begun.

Siegel and Shuster had been developing Superman since 1933. After years of fruitless soliciting to the syndicates, in 1938, they sold all rights to Superman to DC for $130.

Between 1939 and 1941 Detective Comics introduced popular superheroes such as Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, and Green Lantern. Marvel Comics had best-selling titles featuring the Human Torch and Captain America.

Was this a genre that somehow drew on the experiences of Jews living as marginalized figures in a larger society where they often faced anti-Semitism and locked doors when seeking work?

Most of the superheroes had secret double identities, with mild-mannered alter egos. This, too, might have been reflected in the Jewishness of their creators. 

They lived in a non-Jewish, somewhat hostile, world. They felt that they could succeed in America only if they disguised their identities as Jews. So they tried to assimilate, as best they could, while clandestinely remaining part of their Jewish milieu.

This is a theme taken up by Danny Fingeroth, a former editor at Marvel Comics, in his book Disguised as Clark Kent: Jews, Comics and the Creation of the Superhero.

“One might speak Yiddish at home, but that was the language of your embarrassing immigrant parents and grandparents. You speak English in public so you can fit in with your friends at school.”

Fingeroth also sees the superhero- as-savior stemming from Jewish history. “I think the idea of a being who wields great power wisely and justly would be very appealing to people whose history involves frequently being the victim of power wielded brutally and unjustly.”

Arie Kaplan, who wrote From Krakow to Krypton: Jews and Comic Books, concurs. “Superman actualized the adolescent power fantasies of its creators -- two Jewish Depression kids craving a muscle-bound redeemer to liberate them from the social and economic impoverishment of their lives.”

Lee himself wondered whether “there was something in our background, in our culture, that brought us together in the comic book field?

“When we created stories about idealized superheroes, were we subconsciously trying to identify with characters who were the opposite of the Jewish stereotypes that hate propaganda had tried to instill in people’s minds?” Lee’s superheroes were all “outsiders” in one way or another.

After the Second World War, the publication of Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent in 1954 claimed that comics sparked illegal behavior among minors. A moral panic followed, and the industry removed many of its crime and horror lists. The superheroes, though, remained standing.

Democracy in an African Archipelago

By Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

Cape Verde, the small archipelagic country 500 kilometres off the west coast of Senegal, may be the best country in Africa for civil liberties and political rights.

Comprising 10 islands and five islets, with a population of 505,000, the unique geography and history of this former Portuguese colony have played a key role in facilitating good governance, and an open and non-violent society.

Civil and political rights are enshrined in the constitution and widely respected in practice. The country has a free press and decent levels of health care, with a life expectancy of 72 years for men and 80 for women. The literacy rate stands at close to 90 per cent.

Portuguese functions as a state language but Cape Verdean Kriolo is spoken by virtually everyone.

The population is, as one writer put it, neither African nor Portuguese but an admixture of both. The country retains close ties with Portugal and its currency is linked to the euro. Some have even suggested joining the European Union.

Cape Verde was claimed by Portuguese sailors in the 15th century. Uninhabited until then, it became a plantation economy and a centre for the slave trade. Enslaved Africans and Portuguese convicts were brought to the islands to work as agricultural field hands.
Cape Verde became an important commercial hub between the Americas, Africa and Europe. Other groups, including Arabs, Dutch, French, and Jews, settled and were absorbed into the mixed population. 

In 1956, the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC), was founded by the nationalist leader Amilcar Cabral. Following a protracted national war of liberation, the two Portuguese colonies attained independence as one state in 1975.

But the marriage of Portugal’s educated Cape Verde population with the underdeveloped mainland of what became Guinea-Bissau was never going to last, and they went their separate ways after a bloody coup in the latter in 1980. Guinea-Bissau is virtually a failed state today.

On Cape Verde, the ruling party, which was renamed the PAICV, remained the sole legal political party from 1980 until 1990, when the constitution was amended to legalise opposition parties.

Though a one-party state committed to ideological socialism until then, the ruling party had set up an effective and largely non-corrupt and pragmatic administrative structure.

With the coming of multi-party politics, the Movement for Democracy (MpD) was formed. It won the 1991 presidential elections, with Antonio Mascarenhas Monteiro defeating Aristides Pereira, who had been in power since independence. It also defeated the PAICV in that year’s parliamentary balloting.

This was followed by victories in the National Assembly elections of I995 and the presidential election of 1996, with Monteiro re-elected.

In 2001, however, weakened by internal struggles, the MpD lost to a rejuvenated PAICV, with Pedro Pires defeating Carlos Veiga for the presidency. The 2006 election repeated that result between the same two men.

The MpD regained control of the executive branch in 2011, with Jorge Carlos Fonseca beating Manuel Inocencio Sousa. Fonseca was re-elected in 2016, with 74.08 per cent of the vote, when the PAICV failed to present a candidate. He easily beat two independents, Joaquim Monteiro and Albertino Graca.

Though the PAICV had remained the largest party in parliament in 2011, it lost control of the legislative branch to the MpD as well in 2016.

Given the creolized nature of the population, disagreements between the parties revolve around pragmatic economic and political issues, since there are no distinct ethnicities on the islands.

In terms of institutional support, anecdotal evidence suggests that the Roman Catholic
Church in Cape Verde, to which most people belong, prefers the MpD, while unions back the PAICV.

The essentially untroubled transfer of power in elections over the last 27 years indicates that the nation has, by and large, confidence in its electoral institutions.