Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

Monday, December 15, 2014

Azerbaijan’s Complex Relationships With Armenia, Iran and Israel

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

Among the many groups who inhabit the Caucasus are the Azeris, a Turkic people who speak a language related to Turkish, but who are culturally closer to the Persians.

The Republic of Azerbaijan’s 9.49 million people inhabit a land 86,600 square kilometres in size. The country borders the Russian Federation’s republic of Dagestan to the north, Georgia to its northwest, Armenia to its west, and Iran to its south. It faces the Caspian Sea on its east.

Armenia also cuts off the very western section of the country, known as Nakhchivan, from the rest of the country, though this enclave, 5,500 square kilometres in size and with a population of 415,000, provides Azerbaijan with a 15-kilometre long border with Turkey.

Virtually the entire population of Azerbaijan is Muslim, with approximately 85 per cent Shia and 15 per cent Sunni.

Along with occasional rule by indigenous dynasties, the Azeris were at various times governed by Arab, Ottoman Turkish, and Persian empires, until incorporated into the Russian Empire in the early 19th century.

After the Russian Revolution, Azerbaijan became a full-fledged Soviet Socialist Republic. However, it also incorporated, in its southwest, the 4,400 square kilometre Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous
Oblast.

Entirely enclosed within Azerbaijan, but not far from Armenia itself, this province was more than three-quarters Armenian by ethnicity.

As the USSR disintegrated, the parliament of Azerbaijan in 1991 abolished the autonomous status of the region, while the majority Armenian population declared its independence.

War ensued between the majority ethnic Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh, backed by Christian Armenia, and Muslim Azerbaijan. By 1994, when a cease-fire went into effect, the new de facto republic of Nagorno-Karabakh had proved victorious and had enlarged its territory. Today, it includes some 140,000 residents, 95 per cent of them ethnic Armenians.

Armenians now control all of the territory of the former oblast, plus conquered areas south to Iran and west to Armenia itself -- the so-called Lachin corridor.

Of course Baku has not reconciled itself to this situation, and refuses to accept either the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh or the loss of seven other territories within an Armenian-controlled “security belt.”

Iran was quick to recognize Azerbaijan as an independent nation in 1992. It saw Azerbaijan, a Shia-majority state, as fertile ground for spreading its Islamic Revolution.

But relations between the two countries quickly turned sour, as Baku expressed irredentist sentiments and promoted the idea of a “Greater Azerbaijan,” which would unite the country with the 16 million Azeris in northwest Iran.

In February 2012, a member of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party asked the government to change the country’s name to “North Azerbaijan,” implicitly suggesting that the Azeris who live in northern Iran are in need of liberation.

Fearing Baku’s intentions to fuel secessionism inside its borders, Iran provided backing to Armenia in its war with Azerbaijan – something that has not been forgotten.

Azerbaijan has openly accused Iran of interfering in its domestic affairs. Tehran supported the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan (AIP), a pro-Iranian and religious Shiite opposition party banned by Baku.

The leader of the AIP, Movsum Samadov, called for the overthrow of President Ilham Aliyev’s government and was sentenced to 12 years in jail in 2011.

In 2012, 22 Azerbaijanis charged with spying for Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps were given lengthy prison sentences.

Instead, Azerbaijan has developed bilateral strategic and economic relations with Israel; they share the common goal of containing Iranian influence.

In a 2007 speech, the Israeli ambassador to Azerbaijan, Arthur Lenk, spoke of increasing trade between energy-rich Azerbaijan and Israel. Israel is the second largest customer for Azeri oil, shipped through the Baku-Tibilisi-Ceyhan pipeline to Turkey.

In 2009, the deputy chief of mission of the U.S. embassy in Baku, Donald Lu, sent a memo to Washington which quoted President Aliyev as describing his country’s relationship with the Jewish state as an iceberg, as “nine-tenths of it is below the surface.”

In February 2012, Azerbaijan signed a $1.6 billion defense deal with Israel’s Aeronautics Defence Systems that included air defense systems, intelligence hardware, and drones.

A month later, the magazine Foreign Policy reported that Israel had been granted access to air bases in Azerbaijan on Iran's northern border to serve Israel in a possible strike on Iran.

Access to such airfields would mean that Israeli fighter-bombers would not have to refuel midflight but could continue north and land in Azerbaijan. Such a possibility might be keeping Iran’s rulers awake at night.


Monday, December 01, 2014

Scotland and Prince Edward Island Have Something in Common

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

There’s been a lot of hoopla this year about both Scotland and Prince Edward Island, in the one case because of the referendum on independence, in the other, the commemoration of the 1864 Charlottetown Conference leading to the creation of Canada.

It’s instructive to note, though, that they both joined larger political entities not for positive reasons, but rather under duress.

An independent kingdom of Scotland was established in the ninth century, and despite periodic wars with England, retained its sovereignty throughout the Middle Ages. In the 14th century the Stuart dynasty began its three centuries of rule over the country.

The Stuart king James VI of Scotland inherited the throne of England in 1603, as James I, and the Stuart kings and queens ruled both independent kingdoms until the Acts of Union in 1707, which merged the two kingdoms into a new state, Great Britain.

The closing years of the 17th century saw a decline in Scotland’s economy. There was a slump in trade with the Baltic countries and France from 1689–1691, caused by French protectionism and changes in the Scottish cattle trade, followed by four years of failed harvests (1695, 1696 and 1698-1699), an era known as the “seven ill years.”

To try to turn things around, the Scottish Parliament in 1695 granted a charter to the “Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies.”

The new company, hoping to create a lucrative colony for Scotland, invested in the so-called Darien scheme, a plan to found “Caledonia,” a colony on the Isthmus of Panama, as a means of establishing trade with the Far East. Vast sums of money were raised to finance the project.

It turned out to be a disaster. Three small fleets with a total of 3,000 men set out for Panama in 1698. Poorly equipped, at the mercy of tropical storms and disease, under attack by the Spanish in nearby Colombia, and refused aid from English settlements in the Caribbean, the colonists abandoned their project in 1700. Only 1,000 survived and only one ship managed to return to Scotland.

Its failure left nobles, landowners, town councils and many ordinary Scots completely ruined. Voices began to be raised suggesting that union with England would enable Scotland to recover from the financial disaster through English assistance.

This indeed proved to be the case. A sum negotiated at 398,000 pounds was paid to Scotland by the English government under the terms of the 1707 merger, and 58.6 per cent of the money was allocated to the shareholders and creditors who had lost money in the Darien debacle.

Even more direct bribery was also said to be a factor, with many supporters of union receiving funds from English sources.

For many Scots, it was a sad occasion. Wrote Robert Burns: “We’re bought and sold for English Gold, Such a Parcel of Rogues in a Nation.”

As every Islander knows, P.E.I. only became a Canadian province in 1873, six years following the establishment of Canada. Many Islanders had been opposed to Confederation, feeling the Island was doing quite well on its own.

Islanders were also disappointed that neither the Charlottetown nor Quebec Conferences of 1864 had dealt with the island’s “land question” – the fact that absentee landlords owned much of the colony’s farmland. It had led to Tenant League riots a year later.

In 1866, the island government passed a resolution declaring that no new terms would induce it to join Confederation.

In 1871, however, the colony began construction of a railway and soon found itself financially overextended. The ambitious railway-building plan had put the government into debt and created a banking crisis.

Two years later, the Canadian government negotiated for the island to join Canada. It agreed to take over the island’s extensive debt, consented to provide $800,000 towards a buy-out of the last of the colony’s absentee landlords, and promised to establish and maintain a year-round steamer service between the island and the mainland.

During the election of April 1873, island voters had the option of accepting Confederation or facing increased taxes. They decided to join Canada as a way out of their financial problems. Yet now the province cashes in on being the “Cradle of Confederation!”

Friday, November 28, 2014

Israel's Increasing Use of Drone Warfare

Henry Srebrnik, Calgary Jewish Free Press

In an article published last July in the Los Angeles Times, veteran journalist Doyle McManus noted that “The drone has become America’s counter-terrorism weapon of choice.”

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), they are aircraft controlled by operators from the ground, thousands of miles away, at American bases in places like Djibouti or in the United States itself.

Carrying lethal missiles, they can hover for hours over potential targets, and kill suspected terrorists with relative precision. And of course they don’t endanger American lives.

But while many in the U.S. are concerned with the moral issues surrounding the use of drones, this is not much of a factor in Israel, surrounded as it is by enemies many times its size and population. The country has become a major player in the development of drones.

According to a 2013 report produced by U.S. consulting firm Frost & Sullivan, Israel is now the largest exporter of unmanned aerial systems.

The report said that from 2005 to 2012, Israel exported some $4.6 billion worth of systems, including aircraft, payloads, operating systems and command and control caravans. One of the main producers, Israel Aerospace Industries, unveiled the Super Heron refinement of its Heron drone at the Singapore Air Show in February 2014.

The Hermes 450, built by Elbit Systems, has been “fighting terror for over a decade” and the company touts the aircraft as the primary weapon used in counter-terror operations.

Israeli officials have said that the Air Force has been rapidly building a UAV fleet at the expense of manned aircraft. It has reached a point where more than 50 percent of flights have been conducted by UAVs as part of reconnaissance and other missions.

Israel is one of only three countries that have used armed drones in conflict; it has launched numerous airstrikes in Gaza using its armed drones during the wars with Hamas. There is also evidence that Israel has used its armed drones to undertake attacks in Sudan.

In 2013, an Israeli official confirmed the use of combat UAVs, and envisioned the use of drones that could both conduct reconnaissance as well as fire missiles.

Jordan in April 2013 allowed Israel to fly military drones over the country en route to Syria in order to monitor the situation there and, should the need arise, target chemical weapons caches in the civil war-torn country.

Israel’s drones are technologically superior and able to evade detection by the Russian air-defence systems used by the Syrian army, according to experts.

In August 2012 Ibrahim Awaida, who was responsible for attacking a troop carrier within Israel in Eilat a year earlier, was killed by an Israeli drone in Egypt’s lawless Sinai desert. And an Israeli drone strike killed five suspected Islamic militants and destroyed a rocket launcher in Sinai in August 2013.

For Israel, the enemy is close and dangerous, and drones, no matter our opinions of them, are a very useful weapon.

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Rise of Drone Warfare

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

In an article published last July in the Los Angeles Times, veteran journalist Doyle McManus noted that, “The drone has become America’s counter-terrorism weapon of choice.”

Unmanned aerial vehicles, they are aircraft controlled by operators from the ground, thousands of miles away, at American bases in places like Djibouti or in the United States itself.

Carrying lethal missiles, they can hover for hours over potential targets, and kill suspected terrorists with relative precision. And of course they don’t endanger American lives.

First utilized in the 1990s in the Balkan wars, since 2001 their use has dramatically escalated in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism is an independent not-for-profit organization, established in April 2010 in Britain. Its team of researchers has calculated that under President Barack Obama over 3,000 people, including nearly 500 civilians, have been killed by drones.

Since 2004, drones controlled by the CIA’s Special Activities Division have attacked 401 targets in northwest Pakistan, especially in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, where the Pakistani Taliban operates. Total deaths as of October 2014 number between 2,383 and 3,858, of which 416 to 951were civilians.

From 2007 to the end of October, Somalia’s al-Shabab has been targeted by nine drone strikes, resulting in upwards of 30 reported deaths, virtually all of them militants. An attack in September killed Ahmed Abdi Godane (also known as Mukhtar Abu Zubeyr), the alleged mastermind of al-Shabab’s attack on an upscale shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, in September 2013.

Ansar al-Shari’a (al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula), formed in January 2009 from a merger of al-Qaeda’s Yemeni and Saudi branches, has helped destabilize Yemen, with suicide bombings and armed attacks.

Confirmed U.S. drone strikes in that country since 2002 number between 67 to 79, but the figure may be as high as 100. The total number of people reported killed range between 347 and 503, among them 26 to 68 civilians – but again, these numbers may prove to be much higher.

The greatest number of drone strikes has taken place in Afghanistan, as part of the 13-year war against the Taliban – more than 1,000 since 2008 alone. Dozens of armed drones fly over Afghanistan every day.

A report released this past February by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), found that drone strikes accounted for at least a third of all civilian deaths in air strikes last year. UNAMA notes that it is sometimes difficult to establish which type of aircraft carried out a strike, so the true total could be higher.

While the House and Senate intelligence committees of the U.S. Congress are responsible for scrutinizing the highly classified CIA drone program, some have complained about being denied information. In any case, according to one source, “It’s a serious question as to how much any elected official could possibly understand about what’s going on inside” the intelligence agencies.

For example, Abu Yahya al-Libi, a high-ranking al-Qaeda official, was killed by a drone in June of 2012 in Mir Ali, in the Pakistani tribal area of North Waziristan. But the missile that killed him was part of a sequence of attacks that killed between 14 and 18 people.

A story in the Washington Post reported that after an initial strike, drones returned to attack those carrying out rescue work. But apparently committee members were only shown video covering the final part of the incident, giving a misleading impression that concealed over a dozen deaths.

In October 2009 the UN’s Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Philip Alston, called on the U.S. to demonstrate that it was not randomly killing people in violation of international law through its use of drones on the Afghan-Pakistani border.

Alston, a professor of international law at New York University, contended that “Intelligence agencies, which by definition are determined to remain unaccountable except to their own paymasters, have no place in running programs that kill people in other countries.”

A further question is the extent to which operators become trigger happy with remote controlled armaments, situated as they are in complete safety, distant from the conflict zone.

The morality of drone warfare is bound to remain a contentious issue for the foreseeable future.


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Jerusalem Tensions Affect Relations Between Israel, Jordan, Palestinians


Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

Two days ago four Israelis were murdered, and eight injured, in an attack on a Jerusalem synagogue.

The two Palestinian perpetrators were shot by police. It was the worst loss of life in a single day in the city since 2008.

The Gaza War between Hamas and Israel last summer may not have extended to the West Bank, but it has unleashed a wave of urban violence in Jerusalem, affecting its transportation system and dividing its Arab and Jewish segments even further apart.

Jerusalem has been on edge for months, with almost nightly clashes in the Arab neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem since the summer murder of a Palestinian teenager by Jewish extremists.

Prior to this latest incident, at least ten people have been killed in the city since July, and dozens injured. There have been running battles between Palestinian youths and Israeli police forces.

Israelis and Palestinians both claim the city as their capital. Of its 800,000 residents, a third are Palestinians who refuse to acknowledge the Israeli annexation of east Jerusalem after 1967 and resist becoming citizens of Israel.

Tension at the holy site in Jerusalem’s Old City known to Jews as the Temple Mount (Har Habayit) and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary (Haram al Sharif), has inflamed passions.

On Oct. 30, Israel temporarily barred all access to the site to Muslims for the first time in many years.

This followed the Israeli killing of a Palestinian man suspected of trying to assassinate a right-wing Israeli rabbi, Yehuda Glick, who for years has advocated for Jews to gain more prayer rights on the Temple Mount.

Israeli authorities also added concrete barriers around the 24 stops along Jerusalem’s 14-kilometre light railway, two of which were the sites of deadly vehicular attacks the past few weeks, with Palestinian drivers crashing into Israeli pedestrians.

The sabotaging of the Jerusalem light rail system in the Arab parts of the city is occurring because the Palestinians see it as an attempt by Israel to connect all of Jerusalem in order to strengthen Israeli sovereignty over the entire city.

Palestinians are angered by settlement expansion in east Jerusalem, where Israel has just approved plans to build 200 homes in the Ramot neighbourhood.

The unrest has also strained Israel’s ties with neighboring Jordan, which ruled the Old City between 1948 and 1967. Jordan’s King Abdullah II is al-Aqsa’s official custodian, which includes paying the salaries of about 500 employees of the trust, the Islamic Waqf, which runs the shrine.

The Jordanian minister of Islamic Affairs, Hayel Daoud, called the closing “state terrorism by the Israeli authorities.”

Jordan recalled its ambassador, saying the move was to protest Israeli “violations” at the site. Jordan’s special role there is enshrined in the peace treaty signed with Israel in 1994.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reassured King Abdullah in a phone call that he was committed to maintaining the status quo at the contested holy site, and that Israel would make every effort to restore calm there.

 “If anything happens to al-Aqsa,” warned Oraib al-Rantawi, director of Al Quds Center for Political Studies, a Jordanian research institute, “then we will be entering a religious war between Muslims and Jews.”

To calm the situation, U.S. Secretary of State visited the Jordanian capital, Amman, and met with both King Abdullah and Netanyahu on Nov. 13. Nasser Judeh, Jordan’s foreign minister, said the king had impressed upon Kerry how important the issue was for Jordan.

As part of a deal reached at the meeting in Amman, Israel lifted restrictions on Muslims praying at the mosque.

Is all of this leading to a new Palestinian intifada, or uprising? President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority has denied it. But he did state, on Nov. 11, that “The Muslim and Christian worlds will never accept Israel’s claims that Jerusalem belongs to them.”

Meanwhile, Sheikh Raed Salah, the leader of the Islamic Movement’s radical northern Israel branch, on Nov. 7 gave a sermon in Nazareth about conquering Jerusalem and making it the capital of a Sunni Islamic caliphate.

Events in a pressure cooker and contested city like Jerusalem can quickly spin out of control.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Will Obama Allow Iran to Become a Nuclear Power?

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

It’s clear that the post-1960s generation, a cohort that includes Barack Obama, is now in control of American foreign policy.

Obama is more than a left-wing multiculturalist – he is America’s first “Edward Said” president, a “Third Worldist” who believes western culture has oppressed people of colour throughout the centuries and must stop doing so. Said’s seminal 1978 work, “Orientalism,” the foundational text for the academic field of “post-colonialist studies,” is his guide.

Obama is now going to allow the world’s most dangerous state, run by theocrats, to develop nuclear weapons, even though Iran has been a major backer of terrorism for decades, and has American blood on its hands in Iraq, Lebanon, and elsewhere, via the actions of proxies like Hezbollah.

In a letter last month to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Obama urged Iran’s supreme leader to seize the opportunity to negotiate a nuclear agreement with the West.

This comes as the Nov. 24 deadline in nuclear negotiations between the U.S. and Iran, as well as five other world powers, gets closer. An interim deal last year gave Iran some relief from sanctions in return for curbs on nuclear activity.

Obama noted that the United States and Iran had common interests in fighting the forces of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq, and reassured Iran’s leaders that, in the words of one administration official, “you should let us do it, because it will help you.”

The U.S. did not inform countries like Saudi Arabia or Israel, who will interpret this as proof Obama is acting with little regard for his allies as he pursues a deal with Iran.

Obama seems to feel that he needs Tehran to contain ISIS. But the latter are a ragtag Sunni Muslim group of fanatics that can be dispatched quickly with enough force, while Shia Iran is a powerful state of almost 80 million people, whose leaders wish to gain hegemony throughout the Muslim world (and maybe beyond).

Does Obama actually think that when Iranians shout “death to Israel” and call the “Zionist entity” a “cancer,” this is merely rhetoric? Does he believe the mullahs when they maintain that that they need nuclear energy for peaceful purposes only? Apparently.

Lee Smith, a senior editor at the Weekly Standard and author of The Consequences of Syria, asserts that the White House wants a larger regional accommodation with Tehran. 

“As Obama has explained,” he writes, “Iran is a rational actor that pursues its interests. If you fight the Islamic Republic, it’ll just make it angrier and more dangerous, so it’s best to try to get on its good side. A world where the United States and Iran are friends and allies will be a safer, more peaceful place.”

Are we heading for a reprise of Neville Chamberlain returning to Britain from Munich in September 1938 waving a piece of paper signed by Hitler and Mussolini, and declaring that the Munich Agreement meant “peace for our time?”

Obama never has to face an electorate again. Even though the Republicans now control Congress, as head of state he has wide latitude when it comes to foreign policy. Stay tuned.


Friday, November 14, 2014

The Cold War Trial that Epitomized McCarthyism

Henry Srebrnik, Calgary Jewish Free Press

Although they were tried and executed more than half a century ago, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg’s names remain familiar to most Americans.

Put to death on June 19, 1953, after their conviction for conspiracy to pass atomic bomb secrets to the Soviet Union during and after World War II, the Rosenbergs were at the centre of one of the most famous and controversial espionage cases of the twentieth century.

Their trial drew world-wide attention, and since that time, literally thousands of articles and books have been written about the case and its ramifications for the United States, the Cold War, and the American Jewish community.

The celebrated case has again been in the news, following the death of Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass, this past July1, at age 92.

Greenglass, who had also been arrested as part of the espionage ring that included the Rosenbergs, pleaded guilty in exchange for testifying against them – testimony that he would in later years admit had been false.

He served 10 years of a 15-year sentence and was released from federal prison in 1960. Another defendant, Morton Sobell, was convicted and served 18 years of a 30-year term.

Greenglass had been drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943 and was assigned as a machinist to the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, N.M., where scientists were developing the atomic bomb.

When Julius Rosenberg learned of this, he recruited his brother-in-law to gather information to pass on to Soviet agents. Greenglass complied, delivering notes from conversations with fellow workers about aspects of atomic research and a sketch of what he said was an implosion-type nuclear device.

The materials were all turned over to Harry Gold, a courier for the spy ring, who then passed it on to Anatoly A. Yakovlev, the Soviet Union’s vice-consul in New York City.

Following the arrest of a German-born physicist, Klaus Fuchs, who had also worked on the Manhattan Project, a series of revelations led, in June 1950, to the arrest of Julius Rosenberg as an atomic spy.

Ethel’s arrest followed in July. Evidence suggests that Ethel was held mainly in an effort to force her husband to reveal further names and information. This never happened.

On March 29, 1951, the Rosenbergs were convicted of treason. Following failed pleas for clemency to President Dwight Eisenhower, they were executed two years later.

The constitutionality and applicability of the Espionage Act of 1917, under which the Rosenbergs were tried, as well as the impartiality of the trial judge, Irving R. Kaufman, were key issues during the appeals process.

Because the defendants were Jewish, as was Emanuel Bloch, their defence attorney, many American Jews feared the case would incite a wave of anti-Semitism -- though both Judge Kaufman and the chief prosecutor, Irving Saypol, also were Jewish, as was Roy Cohn, who was part of the government’s legal team. (After the Rosenberg trial, Cohn was appointed as Senator Joseph McCarthy’s chief legal counsel.)

So, although a number of leftist Jewish organizations protested the verdict, most were conspicuously silent. Both Rosenbergs, as well as the other defendants, were Communists. Public condemnation of them, a general identification of Jews with left-wing causes, and McCarthyism made many Jews fear that their own loyalty was under scrutiny. Some Jewish leaders, including those of the American Jewish Committee, publicly endorsed the guilty verdict.

The global political context was also a clear factor. The United States was involved in the Korean War, and engaged in a worldwide ideological struggle with the Soviet Union. In pronouncing their death sentence, Judge Kaufman described the Rosenbergs’ crime as “worse than murder.”  During the trial Saypol stated that, by typing up the description of the atomic secrets, Ethel Rosenberg “struck the keys, blow by blow, against her own country in the interests of the Soviets.”

Kaufman, who died in 1992, later complained that he continued to be harassed for having imposed the sentences. “I'm sure the decision plagued him to his last days,” Professor Yale Kamisar of the University of Michigan Law School told the New York Times on Feb. 3, 1992.

In the years after the Rosenbergs’ executions, there was significant debate about their guilt. But the release in the 1990s of the Soviet intelligence information known as the Venona transcripts confirmed the Rosenbergs’ involvement in a spy ring.

Still, although Julius Rosenberg was guilty, Ethel’s role in any conspiracy was tiny at most. Morton Sobell told the New York Times on Sept. 11, 2008 that she was aware of her husband’s activity but did not directly participate in it.

As well, the importance of Greenglass’ stolen material would later be contested. Both Soviet and American experts have ascertained that it was of little value.

So, while Julius Rosenberg did break the Espionage Act of 1917 by passing intelligence on to the Russians, by far the greater crime was to kill him and his wife. They were the first, and only, American civilians ever executed for espionage in peacetime.


Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Afterlife of Soviet Zion

Henry Srebrnik, [Toronto] Jewish Tribune

Will wonders never cease? The attempt to create a viable Jewish Autonomous Region (JAR) in the far east of the Soviet Union between 1928 and the 1950s is now little more than a memory, yet articles and books about it continue to appear.

And now there’s even a musical!

A new piece of theater which premiered in London in late October, Soviet Zion captures this fascinating era of Russian Jewish history.

Written by British lyricist Giles Howe, with music by Katy Lipson, it tells the story of two Jewish families, one American, the other Ukrainian, who move to Birobidzhan, as the JAR was known, in 1939 and participate in the creation of this Yiddish socialist experiment.

But the reality they face is not what they had been led to believe, and for most of them, it ends badly, thanks to Stalin’s purges.

For many years Howe and Lipson had wanted to write a piece that would give them the opportunity to explore their Yiddish heritage, hence this play about an “alternative Zion.”

The cast, appropriately like the settlers themselves, come from all over the world, including Australia, Canada, England, Germany, Hungary, and Russia itself.

I’ve written two books on American and Canadian pro-Soviet groups that supported the Birobidzhan project – Jerusalem on the Amur (2008) for Canada, and Dreams of Nationhood (2010) for the United States – so I’m familiar with the story.

The JAR was founded in 1928, the result of Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin=s nationality policy, which stated that each of the national groups that formed the Soviet Union would receive a territory in which to pursue cultural autonomy in a socialist framework.

As the Jewish population grew, so did the impact of Yiddish culture on the region. A Yiddish newspaper, the Birobidzhaner Shtern, was established; a theater troupe was created; and streets in the new capital city were named after prominent Yiddish authors such as Sholem Aleichem and Y. L. Peretz.

The propaganda impact was so effective that several thousand Jews immigrated to Birobidzhan from outside of the Soviet Union in the 1930s.

But with the 1948 establishment of Israel as a Jewish state, the idea of an autonomous Jewish region in the Soviet Union would all be but forgotten.

When the USSR collapsed in 1991, Jews made up just two per cent of the total population of about 190,000. The rest were ethnic Russians, Ukrainians, Koreans, Chinese and various indigenous peoples.

But there has been a revival of Jewish life in the post Communist JAR. Yiddish is once again taught in the schools, the Birobidzhaner Shtern is again published, and there is Yiddish radio and television. A new Jewish community centre and synagogue have been built and a new Sholem Aleichem monument recently unveiled.

Today the Jewish population of the JAR is about 5,000, according to Jewish community figures. So though it never became the agrarian, socialist-Jewish utopia that some founders envisioned, Birobidzhan remains in some ways a Jewish place.

Never Try to Predict the Future

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

By the early 1960s, both the space race with the Soviet Union and the New Left had become major news in the United States.

America’s Cold War rival astonished the world on Oct. 4, 1957 by launching Sputnik 1, the first satellite to orbit the earth. I can remember as a boy seeing the story -- it took up the entire front page – in the Montreal Herald (which, as it happened, ceased publication two weeks later).

On April 12, 1961, the USSR launched Yuri Gagarin into orbit around the Earth on Vostok 1.

In response, President John F. Kennedy vowed to beat the Soviets to the Moon. Astronaut John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth, on Feb. 20, 1962. His mission completed three orbits in the Friendship 7 spacecraft.

The early Project Mercury and Project Gemini programs would give way to Project Apollo. The Apollo 11 mission culminated with astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walking on the Moon on July 20, 1969.

Meanwhile, the American New Left, concentrated on college and university campuses, was rapidly changing the country’s political culture. It was motivated by social injustices, the opposition to the war in Vietnam, and the civil rights movement in the segregationist South.

Starting with the April 1960 founding of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, which supported the new Cuban revolution against attacks by the U.S. government, by the end of the decade the movement, much of it Marxist, was a major force in American life.

Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was also created in 1960. Two years later its members met in Port Huron, Michigan and drafted the Port Huron Statement.

In it, SDS criticized American society and described how universities should be at the centre of activities to establish a “participatory democracy.” With the escalation of the Vietnam War, SDS grew rapidly and organized massive marches and “teach-ins” across the country.

There was also a much wider “counter-cultural” movement. On Aug. 15-18, 1969 about 400,000 people gathered in upstate New York for the Woodstock concert. Bob Dylan didn’t participate, but the lyrics to his 1964 song “The Times They Are a-Changing” summed up the spirit of the event.  It indeed seemed that the “winds of change” were unstoppable.

No doubt, had people that year been asked what the world would look like 45 years later, many would have assumed, given the momentum unleashed in the decade, that by 2014 there would be human colonies on Mars (and maybe even farther in space), and that America would be governed by progressives who had introduced some form of socialist egalitarianism.

In fact the reverse happened.

Apollo 17 and was the sixth and last landing of humans on the Moon, in December 1972. There have been no humans there for 42 years now, let alone elsewhere in the solar system.

Even NASA’s space shuttle program ended in 2011, and so – irony of ironies – because America lost its own capacity to send people into space, the only way for its astronauts to get to and from the International Space Station is by way of the Russian Soyuz capsule and Russian rockets.

Meanwhile, the gap between the rich “one per cent” and everyone else is now at its widest in many decades. The wealthiest 10 per cent of Americans control more than three-quarters of all U.S. wealth and 80 per cent of all financial assets.

At the same time, median household income in 2013 was US$51,939, a full $4,497 less than before the recession.

The financial crisis led to millions of people being unable to pay their mortgages. There have now been approximately 5.2 million completed foreclosures by lending institutions across the U.S.

Not only is America not socialist, it has become a plutocracy, where money is now the mother’s milk of electoral politics.

The Center for Responsive Politics projected that $3.76 billion will have been spent on this year’s just-concluded midterm elections. Who provides these vast sums? Mostly, the very rich – and lawmakers are then beholden to them. Not exactly “participatory democracy!”

Communists used to brag that they were “on the right side of history.” Barack Obama has lately begun using the same phrase, when speaking about U.S. attempts to implement democracy in places like the Middle East.

But in fact, no one is either on the “right” or “wrong” side of “history,” as the Communists, who now barely exist, discovered. All we can be sure of is that “history” has its own trajectory, and we can’t predict its direction.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Our Global Nomenklatura

Henry Srebrnik, [Sumerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

The nomenklatura in the old Soviet Union referred to a select list or class of people from which appointees for top-level positions were drawn. They were the political elite of the society.

The Soviet state is long gone, but western countries, too, have an equivalent pool from which plum jobs, domestic and foreign, are awarded. These people initially may have been elected to office, but when their terms are over – either through defeat or retirement – they often flit from one well-paying stint to another.

They may use the contacts made while in office to establish foundations for various causes, keeping themselves part of the informal governance of their country, or even the world.

The best example is the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation, whose stated mission is to “strengthen the capacity of people throughout the world to meet the challenges of global interdependence.”

It has raised hundreds of millions of dollars, but more important, has enabled Bill Clinton, though out of office since 2000, to remain one of the most influential people on the planet.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who left office in 2007, has also been cashing in on his former position.

He has a commercial consultancy, Tony Blair Associates, which allows him to provide strategic advice on political and economic trends and governmental reform.

The profits from the firm go towards supporting Blair’s “work on faith, Africa and climate change.” To this end, he has set up two major international charities, the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative and the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.

Of course fostering good governance in Africa, designed to combat corruption, may also establish excellent contacts with local leaders with the power to award contracts.

In Canada, Kim Campbell and Joe Clark have been dining out for decades on their very brief periods as Progressive Conservative prime ministers of Canada. (Readers will recall she was here recently as part of the “Bold Vision” conference.)

In 1996, Campbell was appointed consul general to Los Angeles by the Liberal Jean Chretien government. She has also chaired the Council of Women World Leaders, and served as President of the International Women’s Forum.

Since 2008 Campbell has been Chair of the Steering Committee of the Washington-based World Movement for Democracy, a global network of people “who have come together to cooperate in the promotion of democracy.”

She is also a member of the board of numerous other international non-governmental “civil society” groups, including the Arab Democracy Foundation, the Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education, the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, and the Naissance Capital’s Women’s Leadership Fund.

Joe Clark is vice chair of the Global Leadership Foundation, which works to support democratic leadership, prevent and resolve conflict through mediation and promote good governance in the form of democratic institutions, open markets, human rights and the rule of law.

Clark serves with the Carter Center, founded by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, which is “guided by a fundamental commitment to human rights and the alleviation of human suffering.” Clark routinely travels overseas as part of the centre’s international observing activities.

Stephen Lewis led the Ontario New Democratic Party for much of the 1970s, though he never won an election. Nonetheless, in 1984 he was appointed Canada’s United Nations ambassador, by Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.

From 1995 to 1999, Lewis was Deputy Director of UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, and from 2001 until 2006, he worked as United Nations Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa.

He is now the board chair of the Stephen Lewis Foundation, an organization that helps people affected and infected by HIV/AIDS in Africa. Lewis is also an immediate past member of the Board of Directors of the Clinton Health Access Initiative.

The recent Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Malala Yousafzai, who survived an assassination attempt by the Pakistani Taliban in 2012, has, at the young age of 17, already joined this club, without even serving in an elected position. She has now created the Malala Fund, which she uses to advocate for girls’ rights to an equal education.

I assume these various foundations and organizations are doing good work. Nonetheless, none of these people has to answer to any electorate or public body for their activities, but only to their rich sponsors and donors.

As the Australian journalist James Rose wrote recently, the international system has become “a gravy train” for the global elite, “as they traverse the planet in pampered isolation.” Nice work if you can get it!

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Legitimacy of Eastern Ukrainian Elections Denied by the West

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

Elections have just been held in two pro-Russian regions in eastern Ukraine – but western countries, who provide uncritical support to the Kyiv government, insist they were illegitimate.

On Sept. 5, the Ukrainian authorities and the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics in the pro-Russian eastern areas of Ukraine signed the so-called Minsk Protocol stipulating the establishment of a ceasefire in Ukraine’s pro-Russian eastern regions.

In addition, Kyiv agreed to adopt a law giving the Donetsk and Luhansk regions special statuses for three years and ensuring early local elections there.

Both self-proclaimed republics therefore set elections for regional leaders and legislative bodies for Nov. 2. The elections were duly held -- but Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called them “a farce that is being conducted under the threat of tanks and guns.”

The European Union and the United States also do not acknowledge these elections. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Moscow’s recognition of the rebel vote would be “a clear violation of the commitments made by both Russia and the separatists” in the truce agreement signed in the Belarussian capital of Minsk on Sept. 5.

It called for local elections in the east to take place under Ukrainian law and Kyiv had scheduled them for Dec. 7.

But Russia is rejecting calls to distance itself from the rebel vote. “We will of course recognize their results,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said before the vote.

Aleksandr Zakharchenko, who was elected president of the Donetsk People’s Republic by a large margin on Nov. 2, said that he hoped the vote would bring peace to a region where 4,000 people have been killed in fighting.

Referring to the government in Kyiv, he added that “If they give us recognition and return the land we’ve lost without putting up a fight, then we will restore normal economic ties and we will live like equal economic partners.”

In Lugansk current leader Igor Plotnitsky, a former Soviet army officer, also won comfortably.

Were these elections legitimate? First of all, the turnout was at least 70 per cent, which is about 20 per cent higher than the percentage of people who voted in the main Ukrainian election on Oct. 26.

Legitimacy is in the eye of the beholder. The United States and the EU have recognized all kinds of elections around the world which were of dubious legality, and which were clearly less than free and fair. Recent presidential elections in Afghanistan and Egypt come to mind.

So a lot of this is not a matter of international norms but of power politics. Since Washington refuses to accept the fact that there was an unconstitutional regime change in Ukraine last February, it won’t accept any election result in eastern Ukraine, even if it reflects the wishes of the population there.

The people in those areas of eastern Ukraine remain suspicious of the Kyiv government, and for good reason. Ephraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, has noted that Poroshenko has called members of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), which collaborated with the Germans in World War II, heroes.

And the far-right Svoboda Party, which also glorifies Second World War partisans who fought against the Soviet Union, has four members serving as ministers in the current Ukrainian government.

In any case, Ukraine itself is no model of democracy. It is saddled with the same type of oligarchic system that afflicts other post-Communist states.

Poroshenko, known as the “chocolate king” for his confectionary business Roshen, is today a billionaire after he took advantage of the economic chaos that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union to acquire numerous state-owned enterprises at bargain-basement prices in the 1990s.

There seems to be a total lack of sympathy for the concerns of the people in eastern Ukraine on the part of western nations, which are eager to bring the entire country into its political and economic sphere, regardless of any regional opposition.