Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

Monday, December 27, 2010

Should Ideology of Human Rights Trump Nationalism?

Henry Srebrnik, (Summerside, PEI) Journal-Pioneer

In the last few decades, a consensus has emerged among our political elites, in government, the media, and academia, regarding the proper character of the state.

They increasingly have come to regard as illegitimate states which are founded on the basis of ethnic or religious nationhood, as opposed to the civic-territorial or multicultural model found in present-day Canada or the United States.

Increasingly critical of the classical nation-state, they reject the notion that each self-defined group is entitled, as part of its patrimony and place in the world, a particular space it can call its own homeland.

Indeed, they have come to define nationalism itself as a variant of racist intolerance, a political pathology that leads inexorably to the narrowest of so-called “tribalism.”

The older paradigm of nationhood, one grounded in an exclusionary ethno-nationalism, has in their eyes been largely discredited. In its stead has arisen the paradigm of a state with a universalist vision based on international human rights ideology.

That is why the Turks of Northern Cyprus, the Maronites of Lebanon, the Kurds in the Arab world and the Chechens in the Russian Federation, among many others, have been unable to obtain recognition as identifiable national groups, though they are no less deserving of statehood than the Japanese, Finns or Bulgarians, or even the Slovenes or Estonians, all of whom were fortunate enough to have developed as recognizable states or at least as units within a federation, with recognizable boundaries -- and hence “made it” before the doors were shut on further self-determination based on the principle of nationality.

Our modern leaders, it would seem, are nostalgic for such failed testaments to multinationalism as the old Austro-Hungarian, tsarist Russian and Turkish empires!

The western elevation of human rights has led to the privileging of individual values over those of nations, denigrating states and disparaging nationalism.

People support the notion that the rights of the individual and of minorities take moral precedence over the rights of majorities and the state.

And if safeguarding those rights impinges on the sovereignty of a state, so be it.

Multilateral intervention against a sovereign state deemed to be in violation of human rights is now considered permissible.

“Human-rights abuse” has replaced the “red menace” of cold war days as the enemy of civilised values.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Nazi Germany Fought Many Different Wars in WW II

Henry Srebrnik, [Toronto] Jewish Tribune

A recently published book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, by Timothy Snyder, is a new account of the horrors inflicted on the populations of eastern Europe during World War II. It reinforces my view that the 1939-1945 war in Europe was two, perhaps even three, separate conflicts, with Hitler’s Germany the state involved in all of them.

In the east, especially after Hitler’s 1941 attack on the Soviet Union, the conflict was ideologically driven by the very bedrock tenets of Nazism. It was a genocidal “race” war, with social Darwinism applied to its fullest. Hitler’s racial doctrines were so important to him that it led him to abrogate the pact he had opportunistically signed with Joseph Stalin two years earlier – and one from which he was benefitting.

Poland and the various component parts of the European Soviet Union were to be simply wiped out, not just as states, but even as peoples, to make room for German lebensraum. These peoples were considered “sub-humans.” The war was total – and so, of course, would be the Soviet and partisan reaction.

This was ground zero of the Holocaust: the mass murder of Jews and other civilians by German firing squads, and the construction of the gigantic extermination centres in occupied Poland: Auschwitz-Birkenau , Belzec, Chelmno, Majdanek, Sobibor, and Treblinka, to which Jews, Roma, Soviet soldiers, Communists, and other “undesirables” were deported from all parts of Europe and asphyxiated by the millions.

In central Europe, though, there was, so to speak, more nuance in the way Hitler treated various ethnic nations. The Czech lands, considered historically German, became the “Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia,” but were not totally absorbed into the German Reich. Slovakia and Croatia (including Bosnia and Herzegovina) were created as new states with the demise of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia– ironically, here Hitler served as the midwife of ultra-nationalist aspirations. 

As for Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, Hitler played the diplomat in attempting to referee all of their competing irredentist claims so as to keep them all on side as German allies.
For example, in the interest of maintaining close political ties with both Budapest and Bucharest, Berlin retained the Banat region of northern Serbia following the defeat of Yugoslavia, as a potential bargaining chip with these countries, both of which desired to annex the area.

In 1940-1941, Hungary had much of Transylvania returned to it, as well as parts of Slovakia and the former Yugoslavia, recreating the Greater Hungary of pre-World War I.

The Romanians, who had now lost part of Transylvania to Hungary, were compensated by Hitler with Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina (taken from Romania by Stalin in 1940), as well as lands further east, which they named Transnistria. 

The Bulgarians grabbed a piece of Romania known as Southern Dobruja (which had once belonged to Bulgaria), most of Yugoslav Macedonia, and Greek Thrace.
In cooperation with Hitler’s ally Italy, a Greater Albania was also formed, including Kosovo and parts of western Macedonia.

In all of these various diplomatic machinations, Hitler played the role of a “benign” chess master, creating his “New Order” in Europe.

Hitler was even more solicitous of the feelings of the “racially acceptable” peoples of western Europe, mostly conquered by 1940. 

He regarded the Dutch as part of the Aryan Herrenvolk and Holland was controlled by a civilian German governor. Even after Denmark’s defeat, Hitler continued to regard the country as a sovereign state and allowed the Danish Government to continue to function under the close supervision of the German Foreign Ministry. The Nazis even allowed free and open parliamentary elections there in 1943! 

And though France was vanquished in a matter of weeks in May-June 1940, the armistice which was signed with Nazi Germany by the new pro-fascist Vichy regime was respected. Germany treated it as a sovereign state, allowing it limited military and naval forces. 

Most French citizens went about their normal business, though German troops occupied the northern half of the country. Indeed, Vichy was recognized even by the Allied powers; Canada only terminated diplomatic relations in November 1942.

So in the west the war, certainly until 1943-1944, was largely something that was taking place thousands of miles to the east.

What Hitler demanded of all these various subservient entities was that they subscribe to his two main aims: vanquishing Bolshevism and the “Jewish race.” This was, for him, the litmus test of their loyalty. In that sense, the total war being waged in the east impacted Jews, Communists, and other “enemies” of the Reich even in central and western Europe. 

Most of these governments – often on their own volition, as in France – deported Jews to the killing centres the Nazis had set up in devastated Poland; Bulgaria and Denmark were, unfortunately, the only exceptions. As well, pro-Nazi volunteers in these countries formed SS divisions to support the race war in the east. Even fascist Spain, officially neutral, helped in this endeavour.

Finally, there were two powers that throughout the war remained unconquered and, along with the Soviet Union, would eventually defeat the madman: Great Britain and the United States.

In terms of Hitler’s hierarchy of races, the British were “Aryans” and he admired them. From his point of view, it was they, not Germany, who were responsible for not “coming to their senses” and joining his struggle in the east. During the 1939-1940 “phony war” period, there were many peace overtures made to Britain. It was Winston Churchill, not Hitler, who refused to “see reason,” as far as the Nazis were concerned.

As for the United States, Hitler, basically a Eurocentric, had paid them little attention until 1941 and was in effect dragged into war with America because of the foolish behaviour of his Japanese allies.

In a sense, Hitler saw the war with Britain and America as almost a distraction, something that got in the way of his ideological master plan: the elimination of the Jews, Roma, and a large part of the Slavic population in the east.

For the Nazis, the war that really counted and would be pursued with the utmost genocidal ferocity until the very end in May 1945 was the one against the Judaeo-Bolshevik “bacillus” that had threatened to destroy “European civilization” – as Hitler defined it, of course.

The Nazi madness would lead to the Communist takeover of eastern Europe after the war. So the horrors that befell that part of the continent did not really end until 1989-1991.

Friday, December 10, 2010

China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region is Really the Sixth “Stan”

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI]

In 1991, when the Soviet Union fell apart, the five central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, sometimes called the “five stans,” became sovereign states.

They were all part of a largely Turkic Muslim civilization that had flourished in the region for hundreds of years, until conquered by tsarist Russia in the 18th-19th centuries. They had acquired their current borders as Soviet republics.

However, there is a sixth “stan” that has proved less fortunate, because it ended up as part of China rather than Russia.

The Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in the far west of the People’s Republic of China is more than 1.6 million square kilometres in area and borders Russia, Mongolia, Pakistan, India, and the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. An arid region that historically was called East Turkestan, it has oil reserves and is China’s largest natural gas-producing region.

The region is the historic homeland of the Uighurs, a Turkic Muslim people. While the Russians were conquering western Turkistan, the Chinese Empire gained control over eastern Turkestan as the culmination of a long struggle that began in the seventeenth century.

The Uighurs, not pleased to find themselves subservient to Imperial Han Chinese rule from far-off Beijing, in 1864 rebelled in various Xinjiang cities. They were quashed with incredible cruelty.

In the 1930s, the weak Chinese Republic faced another rebellion, when a short-lived Islamic Republic of East Turkestan was declared in 1933. It was crushed a year later.

In 1944, as China was fighting Japan, factions within Xinjiang again declared independence, this time under the auspices of the Soviet Union, and created the second East Turkistan Republic. But in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party took over the territory and declared it a Chinese province. In October 1955, Xinjiang became classified as an autonomous region.

In recent decades, as the area developed economically, Han Chinese moved in and took the better jobs and housing. Around 90 percent of Xinjiang’s population were Uighurs in 1949; now it is estimated that they make up only about 45 per cent of its 21,590,000 people, though they remain a majority in western Xinjiang.

This has sparked resentment and calls for independence. In the 1990s, separatist groups in Xinjiang began frequent attacks against the Chinese government. The most prominent of these groups is the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, founded in 1993. Other factions want to create a secular Uighurstan state.

In July 2009, ethnic tension between the Han and Uighur led to severe riots in the capital city of Urumqi. According to Chinese state media, at least 150 people were killed, and more than 800  injured. The riots were reportedly sparked by a Uighur protest over the ethnically motivated killing of two Uighur workers in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong.

World attention has tended to focus on another oppressed ethnic group under Chinese rule, the Tibetans. Their spiritual and political leader, the Dalai Lama, has generated international awareness for their cause. But the plight of the Uighurs should command equal attention.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Elections Not Always the Answer for Troubled Countries

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal-Pioneer

This past Sunday, November 28, three countries with little in the way of democratic political culture held elections, with all too predictable results. One is in the Middle East, another in the Caribbean, and the third in west Africa.

In all three, the ruling group sought to make sure, through various forms of fraud and intimidation, that it would win. In all three, the losers cried foul and claimed there were widespread irregularities.

In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak, now in power for almost 30 years, arranged to have his National Democratic Party win parliamentary elections. 

Mubarak had begun cracking down on the Muslim Brotherhood, the outlawed Islamist group that represents Egypt’s only substantial opposition, earlier this year. At least 1,200 supporters had been arrested, and in the weeks leading up to the vote, rallies by Brotherhood candidates, running as independents, were broken up and some were barred from running altogether. Their supporters were beaten up as they arrived at the polls to vote.

In Haiti, outgoing president Ren
é Préval wanted to make sure that his chosen successor, Unity Party candidate Jude Célestin, would triumph. There was considerable pre-election violence in this tragic country, already struggling with the aftermath of a horrific earthquake and a more recent outbreak of cholera. 

The populist Lavalas Party had already been barred from running in the election. Of the 18 other candidates in the race, 12 rejected the process as fraudulent and described ballot boxes stuffed and voters opposing Célestin turned away. This was no surprise-- elections in Haiti have frequently been marked by chaos. Riots have followed the voting.

In the ethnically torn Ivory Coast, the presidential vote was marred by bloodshed that left at least seven people dead amid accusations of cheating on both sides. 

The vote was a close-fought contest between Laurent Gbagbo, a southern Christian who has held on to power since his term expired in 2005, and ex-prime minister Alassane Ouattara, from the largely Muslim north.

Gbagbo’s supporters consider Ouattara responsible for a 2002 revolt that divided the country, while Ouattara’s backers maintain that they attempted to seize power because northerners were treated as second-class citizens.

The rivals accused each other of irregularities at polling stations; both sides claimed their followers were barred from casting their votes.

Columbia University political scientist Jack Snyder, in his book From Voting to Violence, challenges the American dogma that voting is a political panacea regardless of conditions or circumstances. He argues that promoting elections often produces serious conflict in places where critical preconditions, such as the rule of law and a free press, are not present. 

Oxford University economist Paul Collier, in Wars, Guns, and Votes, agrees: without a system of checks and balances, he writes, elections have led to widespread corruption and nations mired in ethnic politics. Democracy in such places is simply a faç
ade, he concludes.

Violence often follows such elections, just as it does before the voting. Sometimes things become so polarized that the military steps in -- so an election becomes the prelude to a coup!

Instead of providing a mandate, and political legitimacy for the winners, these so-called elections only exacerbate the deep ethnic, religious and ideological hatreds in these countries.

Isn't it time we stopped making a fetish out of elections in corrupt oligarchies or ethnic tinderboxes, from Honduras to Sri Lanka, from Afghanistan to Nigeria? The dictators and strong-men only pay lip service to elections as a way of placating western countries.

Of course, this poses a far more difficult problem: how can true democracy ever take root in such states?

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

End of Trudeauism

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

The 10th anniversary of Pierre Trudeau’s death on September 28 passed almost unnoticed in this country. That’s because the pan-Canadian ideology of Trudeauism, which destroyed the Meech Lake (1987-1990) and Charlottetown (1992) Accords, is now only a memory, as is the former prime minister himself.

Had they become part of the Canadian Constitution, the proposed amendments would have recognized Quebec as a “distinct society.” This was, for Trudeau, anathema, and he became their chief critic and opponent, along with Preston Manning’s old Reform Party. The accords went down to defeat, the second time in a national plebiscite.

Even the Ignatieff Liberals today barely mention Trudeau as a “role model.” After all, they’ve themselves signed on to the idea of the Québécois being a nation, as has Stephen Harper, himself another former opponent of Meech Lake and Charlottetown.

Since 1984, when Trudeau left office, his Liberal Party, which used to “own” Quebec, has not won a majority of seats in that province, despite having had two French Canadian leaders in Jean Chrétien and Stéphane Dion.

In fact, following its formation in 1990 -- a consequence of the failure to pass Meech -- the separatist Bloc Québécois has won a majority of Quebec’s 75 federal ridings in six straight elections. Polls indicate that they are on track to do so again the next time Canadians go to the polls.

Francophone nationalists refuse to support a Liberal Party that, under Trudeau, thwarted their collective aspirations. And, while they may no longer be religious in the old Roman Catholic sense of the word, they also won’t give their votes to a Conservative Party which feels too “English” for their tastes.

Stephen Harper is not only an Albertan by residence, but a Protestant evangelical. He’s the first prime minister since Lester Pearson to be neither Catholic – as were Trudeau, Joe Clark, John Turner, Brian Mulroney, Chrétien and Paul Martin -- nor Anglican (Kim Campbell).

Do memories of the old anti-Catholic Orange Order still lurk in the subconscious minds of many in Quebec?

Old antagonisms seem to have been in play in the recent New Brunswick provincial election as well, where the Liberals were turfed out after one term in office, something unprecedented in the electoral history of the province.

The underlying reason? Their abortive attempt to sell New Brunswick Power Corp. to Hydro-Québec.

For many anglophones in the province, ethnic descendants of the United Empire Loyalists and political descendants of the anti-francophone Confederation of Regions Party, which had its brief period of fame as the official opposition between 1991 and 1995, this smacked of letting a Québécois stalking horse into their collective homes. They voted for the Progressive Conservatives.

New Brunswick’s ethnic and linguistic cleavages run deep, nor have they been papered over by the province being officially bilingual – another legacy, by the way, of Trudeau’s.   

On the federal level, thanks to the Bloc, Canada seems to have settled into a pattern of perpetual minority government. The Conservatives win seats in the “old,” especially rural, English Canada, while the Liberals are a permanent majority in the multicultural big cities (along with the non-francophone parts of Montreal).

The New Democrats chip away at the strongholds of both these parties, but are never able to break down the ideological barriers that keep them a minority party.

As Quebec and the rest of the country drift apart, emotionally and politically, is Canada on the road to becoming another Belgium, a country whose two component parts, Flanders and Wallonia, have become virtual nations, leaving the central state institutions a hollowed-out shell?

Monday, August 30, 2010

California Dreaming ... or is it Just a Nightmare?

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

I’ve just returned from a two-week stay in southern California.

When you’re sitting at a table sipping latté and looking out at the ocean on a bright sunny day at one of the many cafés along the beaches between Santa Barbara and Laguna Beach, it’s hard to believe there’s anything wrong with the world – or the state.

Coastal towns along the scenic Pacific Coast Highway such as Manhattan Beach, Huntington Beach, and Newport Beach are breathtakingly beautiful.

Their citizens are also incredibly affluent – even modest homes near the water start at over one million dollars, with many in the five to ten million dollar range.

And as for the Los Angeles megalopolis itself, almost everyone in the world has heard about “hip” and wealthy towns like Beverley Hills, Pasadena, Santa Monica, Venice and West Hollywood, home to famous actors and multi-millionaires.

The city was of course built on the business of making films—“the industry,” as people in L.A. call it.

Even I have come to know someone who was intimately involved with “Hollywood”: Millicent Wise, widow of the famed Oscar-winning director Robert Wise, who made, among many other memorable films, “The Sound of Music” and “West Side Story.”

Millie Wise is the sister of a close friend of ours, and lives in an apartment full of mementos of her late husband’s career, near the appropriately named Avenue of the Stars.

But don’t be fooled by the glitter and the glamour, the surfers and the sunshine. California is hurting badly.

The current state unemployment rate stands at 12.3 percent. Thousands of civil servants and teachers have been laid off, and many more thousands of families are losing their homes through foreclosure.

They watch helplessly as so-called “trash-out men” come to their houses, remove those belongings the homeowners cannot afford to keep, and drive off to landfills with the possessions.

In the L.A. area there are, according to some estimates, some 88,000 homeless people. Many can be seen on the streets panhandling and rummaging through outdoor garbage bins at fast food restaurants in strip malls.

While Los Angeles boasts of world-class universities such as the California Institute of Technology, the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), and the University of Southern California, inner-city neighbourhoods such as Compton are saddled with failing public schools and high drop-out rates, and rife with juvenile gangs.

This coming November, Californians will be electing their governor and one member of the U.S. Senate.

The Republicans have nominated two women, former eBay president and billionaire Meg Whitman, and former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina, respectively, for the two positions. (Term limits make Arnold Schwarzenegger ineligible to run again for governor.)

They will face off against the Democratic candidates, former governor Jerry Brown and current U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer.

Both races promise to be nasty. But no matter who wins, the disparity between rich and poor in California keeps getting bigger. The Golden State has never before been this tarnished.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Obama's High Hopes

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI]

The United States recently celebrated its 234th birthday.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, much of American politics revolved around gender, racial and religious issues.

Today, however, the country’s difficulties to a large extent are found in the realm of the economy and international relations.

The main foreign policy problem remains the Afghanistan conflict including, increasingly, relations with Kabul’s neighbour Pakistan, an ostensible yet unreliable ally.

These are the sorts of troubles that face an overstretched empire.

U.S. administrations since 2001 have spoken about fighting two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan. But America hasn’t admitted to itself that these are colonial conflicts. Every empire fights these, and they pop up all over the place. Ask any 19th century Briton or Frenchman.

During the long period of European dominance of the “third world,” the various imperial countries were constantly engaged in low-grade colonial wars, often with mercenary troops, against so-called “troublemakers” – though the racist discourse of the time of course used words far worse than that.

But no one “at home” considered these campaigns to mean the country was “at war” – that meant fighting “real” wars against other major states.

Maybe the U. S. had become too cocky in the 1990s, when it was temporarily the world’s only major power. Russia was then a pitiful laughingstock run by a drunken Boris Yeltsin.

NATO and America, full of hubris, had laughed at the Soviet failure in Afghanistan and grabbed Kosovo from Serbia in 1999, knowing Russia was too weak to do anything about it.

But who’s laughing now? Bill Clinton’s economic boom gave way to George W. Bush’s meltdown, as the post-2001 hostilities in Iraq and Afghanistan drove the U.S. ever further into debt, partly because Bush had instituted a tax cut which left the country vulnerable to a financial crisis -- which indeed occurred in 2008.

The Afghan mujahadeen of yesterday are today’s Taliban and nobody is going to expand NATO into places like Georgia (which lost South Ossetia and Abkhazia to the Russians in 2008) or Ukraine.

On a visit to Georgia in early July, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried to reassure its leaders that they will not be abandoned as the Obama administration improves relations with Russia. But they have cause to worry.

In fact NATO itself is increasingly obsolete in this post-Cold War era of financial austerity. Of its 28 members only four besides the U.S. spend the required two per cent of their national budgets on defence.

Barack Obama came into office with high hopes. It would be truly tragic if his domestic initiatives got shelved due to a costly overseas war -- as happened to Lyndon Johnson with Vietnam in the 1960s.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Troubles to Our South

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

Things are not going well in America. In fact, very few presidents have faced the problems that confront Barack Obama today.

The economy remains flat; the Gulf of Mexico oil spill is an unparalleled environmental disaster; and the war in Afghanistan seems endless, with no real strategy for victory.

On the economic front, foreclosures keep evicting thousands of Americans from their homes each month -- the number of homeowners who lost their houses hit a record of nearly 94,000 in May -- while sales of newly built homes plunged to their lowest level in more than four decades.

And the unemployment rate remains stubbornly high, at close to 10 per cent. Many of these people have been out of work for a year or more; even if they eventually get new jobs, they will probably make less money, and have less purchasing power, than before.

On April 22, BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig off Louisiana exploded, killing 11 workers, and since then millions of barrels of oil have spewed into the Gulf and onto land in four states.

Apart from the billions of dollars lost by residents of the area, especially those in the fishing and tourism sectors, and the destruction of wildlife on land and sea, health experts say they expect a wave of health problems, as people absorb the spill's impact on their lives, including depression, anxiety, and alcohol and drug abuse. Many will probably never work again.

As for Afghanistan, Obama has now fired General Stanley McChrystal as the top U.S. commander there, after the general had spoken disparagingly about the president and other members of the administration.

He was replaced by David Petraeus, who has been credited with quelling the violence in Iraq through a timely “surge” in U.S. forces, and so brought a measure of stability to Iraq.

However, Petraeus admitted to Congress that, while overall levels of violence were higher in Iraq, stabilizing Afghanistan “would be harder than Iraq due to the lack of human capital, damage after 30 years of war, illiteracy, lack of infrastructure and so on.”

Those who read history know that every major power in history eventually has had to retrench.

As Yale University historian Paul Kennedy wrote in his article “A Time to Appease,” published in the July/August 2010 issue of the National Interest, “However the American Republic advances through the decades to come,” it probably will have to face the “key issue of adjusting to a twenty-first-century world order in which it plays a smaller role than it did in the one before.”

As did the British and others before them, Americans will have to come to terms with this new reality.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

New York Women and the U.S. Supreme Court

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

U.S. President Barack Obama has nominated Elena Kagan to become the 112th Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, filling the vacancy created by the retirement of Justice John Paul Stevens.

Kagan currently serves as Solicitor General of the United States, the lawyer who represents the federal government in cases that come before the Supreme Court.

Kagan grew up on Manhattan’s liberal, intellectual Upper West Side, the daughter of Robert Kagan, a graduate of Yale Law School who represented tenant associations, and Gloria Kagan, who taught at Hunter College Elementary School.

She attended Ivy League Princeton University as an undergraduate and obtained her law degree from Harvard Law School. She would become dean of that law school many years later. She has also been a professor at the University of Chicago Law School.

Should Kagan be confirmed by the U.S. Senate, there will be three liberal women from New York City on the Supreme Court, the other two being Ruth Bader Ginsburg, born in Brooklyn, and Sonia Sotomayor, from the South Bronx.

Ginsburg also graduated from an Ivy League University, Cornell, and at first also enrolled at Harvard Law School. When her husband took a job in New York City, she transferred to Columbia Law School and became the first woman to be on both the Harvard Law Review and the Columbia Law Review.

Like Kagan, she also has taught law, at Rutgers University and Columbia, before being appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in 1980. She was elevated to the Supreme Court in 1993.

Sotomayor, appointed to the Supreme Court last year, also graduated from Princeton and obtained her law degree from Yale, but has never taught. She practiced law in New York before becoming a federal judge on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York in 1992. Six years later, she joined the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which comprises the states of Connecticut, New York, and Vermont.

While Kagan and Ginsburg are Jewish, Sotomayor is an Hispanic whose parents came from Puerto Rico. And while the latter two come from less affluent backgrounds than does Kagan, all three had parents who were committed to their children’s education.

Emily Goodman, another New York judge, has suggested that Ginsburg, Kagan, and Sotomayor advanced because of a New York dynamic that enabled each to see herself as going where others hadn’t pushed ahead.

“The New York woman – she’s a striver,” noted Ann Kirschner, dean of a branch college of the City University of New York.

They may have reached these heights because there is less discrimination against women and minorities these days, but the drive, intelligence and talent – the cultural capital – they bring with them is pure New York, of course. After all, for the past century, it’s been the centre of the world.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Irredentism: A Potent Form of Nationalism

Henry Srebrnik, [Toronto] Jewish Tribune

The word “irredentism” comes from the mid-19th century term “Italia irredenta,” meaning Italy unredeemed. As Italian nationalists were unifying the peninsula into a single Italian state, irredentists championed the annexation by the new Italy of territories that they felt should be within its borders.

Many nations lay claim to areas they consider to be theirs because the area was once – even if many decades or centuries ago – part of their patrimony.

Irredentism becomes a particularly potent form of nationalism when the territory coveted is the very area where the nation was forged.

Two high-profile irredentist conflicts relate to Israel and Serbia.

The dispute between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs has an irredentist dimension and complicates attempts to form a Palestinian state.

Religious Jewish settlers refer to the areas west of the Jordan River by their Biblical names – Judea and Samaria. This was the heartland of the ancient Jewish kingdoms.

The cities of Jericho, Shechem (now Nablus) and Hebron are, to devout Jews, part of the land promised to the Israelites by God. Hebron, the burial site of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah, the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Jewish people, is the second holiest city in Judaism, after Jerusalem.

On the other hand, much of Israel’s coastal area along the Mediterranean, where the modern city of Tel Aviv is, was in Biblical days often in Philistine hands, and is of less nationalist significance. Hence there was less opposition in Israel to leaving Gaza.

Kosovo is the historic centre of the Serbian nation, home to many of its revered Christian Orthodox churches and monasteries. However, by the 1990s almost all of Kosovo’s population had become Albanian.

Following the breakup of Yugoslavia, Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic refused to let go of Muslim-majority Kosovo, which was only detached from Belgrade’s control after the 1999 war. Kosovo is now a sovereign state, but many Serbs would love to reconquer it.

There are many other cases, even if the claims are not currently being pursued.

The heart of the German nation before World War II was Prussia, the kingdom that unified the country in 1871. Much of the land it controlled along the Baltic sea now belongs to Poland and Russia, thanks to Hitler’s defeat in 1945.

The Russian enclave of Kaliningrad was part of East Prussia before World War II, when the city was known by its German name, Königsberg. It was the home of, among others, the philosopher Immanuel Kant. No Germans remain there today.

Russia itself first developed a sense of nationhood in what is now the independent Ukraine. The Grand Duchy of Rus was a medieval state, with its capital in modern-day Kiev.

It was during this period that the Russian people accepted the Eastern Orthodox, or Byzantine, form of Christianity. Hence, even though the Grand Duchy of Muscovy, far to the north, later became the nucleus of the Russian Empire, the ethno-religious identity of the Russian people was formed in Kiev.

Many Russians – including millions living in Ukraine – would like to see the two countries reunited under Moscow’s rule.

Greece, like Italy, also emerged as a state in the 19th century, following centuries of Turkish rule, and it slowly reclaimed the Peloponnesian Peninsula and the Greek-speaking areas further north. Athens became its capital.

However, the medieval Greek Orthodox state, known as the Byzantine Empire, encompassed a much larger area, and its capital, the great city of Constantinople, was (and still is) the seat of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch.

For centuries the Greeks tried to regain the city, which had been conquered by the Muslim Ottoman Turks in 1453 and renamed Istanbul. Some nationalists still dream of a Greater Greece incorporating Constantinople.

Another country that may harbour irredentist claims against Turkey is Armenia. The small rump area that became the independent Armenian republic following the collapse of the Soviet Union is much smaller than the historical Armenian kingdom.

In the Middle Ages, Armenia included much of present-day eastern Turkey; it was centred around Mount Ararat and Lake Van. Following Turkey’s defeat in World War I there were proposals for an Armenian state that would include much of Asia Minor. This never happened.

Mount Ararat is still revered by the Armenians as symbolizing their national identity and relations with Turkey remain tense.

Though most irredentist claims remain “dormant,” one never knows if they might flare up at some future date. We Jews are not the only ones with long historical memories.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Perils of Predicting the Future

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI]

What’s the most important thing I hope students learn in any of my classes? To doubt the prevailing wisdom of the age, to be skeptics and contrarians, and not buy into whatever the zeitgeist of the moment insists is “obvious” and “self-evident truth.”

“Everything you now believe might be a joke in 50 years,” I tell them.

You don’t think so? OK then, let’s go back to Canada in 1960.

In that year, the “Dominion of Canada,” as we still called it, was a unilingual country outside Quebec, with no bill of rights, and with the Red Ensign, a version of the British flag, flying on Parliament Hill.

Prime Minister John Diefenbaker extolled the virtues of our British heritage. Anyone “dissing” the Queen would have been shunned.

The Governor General of the day, “His Excellency Major-General The Right Honourable Georges Vanier,” was a decorated former army officer.

Had someone stated that a half-century later, a Black woman who came to Canada as a refugee from Haiti would assume that role, they would have been laughed at as some sort of utopian.

Canada was seriously considering allowing nuclear weapons on its soil. And three years later, Bomarc warheads were indeed delivered to two sites, in North Bay, Ont. and La Macaza, Que. – placed there by Lester Pearson’s Liberal government.

Sounds unbelievable today, doesn’t it?

Quebec was governed by the reactionary Union Nationale, effectively an arm of the Roman Catholic Church. All schools in the province were denominational.

Advocates of abortion, contraception, no-fault divorce, and same-sex marriage would have been pariahs, considered completely beyond the pale. Women couldn’t even wear shorts at many beaches.

Today, Quebec may be the most secular province in the country.

On the left of the Canadian political spectrum, some people believed in “proletarian revolution.” Many more were certain that by the turn of the century, Canada would at the least be a socialist country.

The forward march of the New Democratic Party could not be halted and the party would inevitably displace the Liberals on the left and win elections in the future.

In 2010, the Soviet Union no longer even exists, Communism is discredited as an ideology, and who still talks about workers taking power?

In 1960, Canada had virtually no laws against ethnic, gender or racial discrimination, and immigration was tightly controlled and mostly limited to people from Europe.

Toronto, now arguably the most urbane of North American cities, was still a Protestant town, so much so that some called it the “Belfast of Canada.”

The words “human rights,” “diversity,” and “multiculturalism” were rarely, if ever, found in general discourse. And probably no more than 100 people in the entire country knew what a niqab or a kirpan was.

So what will Canada look like in 2060? The only thing we can be certain of is this: no one has any idea.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Inuit Have Become Self-Ruling Body

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal-Pioneer

There are a number of jurisdictions in the world that are, to all intents and purposes, virtually self-governing, even when embedded in larger countries. Often these are the preserve of ethnic groups.

In the Arctic regions of the world, inhabited mainly by various Inuit peoples, there are two such entities, Nunavut and Greenland.

Nunavut, carved out of the Northwest Territories of Canada on April 1, 1999, while not technically an ethnic entity, has many features similar to such polities, as it is recognized as an Inuit homeland. The word means “Our Land” in Inuktitut.

Of the 32,000 residents in the huge territory, which has an area of 2,093,190 square kilometres, more than 90 percent are ethnically Inuit.

Inuinnaqtun and Inuktitut are official languages in Nunavut and about 70 percent of the population speak Inuktitut.

On July 9, 1993, the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement Act and the Nunavut Act were passed by Parliament, and led to the formation of the new territory six years later. The Land Claims Agreement was the largest Aboriginal land claim settlement in Canadian history.

The agreement gave title to the Inuit of lands measuring about 350,000 square kilometres, of which about 35,000 square kilometres include mineral rights.

It also specified that the number of Inuit employed in the public service be directly proportional to the number of Inuit in Nunavut society.

To make it clear that this is an Inuit jurisdiction, many place names have been changed – for example, Iqaluit, the capital, was once called Frobisher Bay.

Across the Davis Strait and Baffin Bay from Nunavut lies Greenland, the world’s largest island, with an area of 2,166,086 square kilometres. Of its population of 58,000 people, some 88 percent are Inuit, and their name for the country is Kalaallit Nunaat, “Land of the People.”

First a Norwegian, and later a Danish colony, Greenland became an equal part of the Kingdom of Denmark in 1953. It was granted home rule by Denmark on May 1, 1979.

On June 21, 2009, Greenland assumed responsibility for judicial affairs, policing, and natural resources. Greenlanders were recognized as a separate people under international law, as a step towards eventual full independence. Copenhagen now controls mainly foreign affairs and defense.

Greenlandic, spoken by almost all the inhabitants of the island, is closely related to Inuktitut. The main dialect, Kalaallisut, also known as East Inuit or West Greenlandic, has been the official language since June 2009.

In these two jurisdictions, Inuit peoples have now gained self-rule and control over their own institutions. While these territories are not, and may never be, economically self-sufficient, creating Inuit homelands has provided the residents of this harsh northern region “a place of their own.”

This is something that cannot be measured by economic criteria alone – or at least half the countries in the world would have to give up their independence.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Look Around at the De Facto States by "Stealth"

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

Students of political science are aware of the term de facto states. These are places that have declared themselves independent countries, usually through secession from existing states.

A number of such polities immediately comes to mind: Abkhazia, Somaliland, South Ossetia, Transnistria, and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, among others.

They satisfy the standard criteria for statehood set out by the Montevideo Convention of 1933: a permanent population, a defined territory, and a government that can discharge international obligations and enter into relations with other states.

Yet, for various reasons, they have not been accorded diplomatic recognition by most countries in the international community.

There are also a number of jurisdictions that are, to all intents and purposes, almost as independent, but for one reason or another, prefer not to make that position explicit and do not seek diplomatic recognition – at least not now. They are, so to speak, virtual states within larger countries. Canadians are already familiar with one: Quebec. This province has all the attributes of nationhood: a national assembly, a flag, defined borders, taxation capacity, and a major measure of control over culture, language, immigration, pensions, and many other areas of governance.

Quebec even has a presence in international bodies such as UNESCO and la Francophonie, the organization of French-speaking countries.

Though the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords failed to insert this “distinct society” status into the Constitution, even Liberal premiers of the province act as though Quebec is, to a large degree, sovereign. Indeed, the federal government has recognized the Québécois as a nation.

So why bother to separate?

The same status holds true for Canada’s aboriginal peoples. First Nation reserves have their own rules, traditions, and police forces. They also benefit from fiscal privileges granted to reserve residents.

Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedom does not apply to them. Section 25 states: “The guarantee in this Charter of certain rights and freedoms shall not be construed so as to abrogate or derogate from any aboriginal treaty or other rights or freedoms that pertain to the aboriginal people of Canada.”

And Section 35 (1) of the Constitution makes it clear that “The existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal peoples of Canada are hereby recognized and affirmed.”

The Mohawk Council of Kahnawake, near Montreal, for that reason is able to evict non-Mohawks from the reserve. It is in effect a de facto polity.

There are other such entities in the world, including Tatarstan in the Russian Federation, and Flanders and Wallonia in Belgium.

The Russian Federation, successor state to much of the old Soviet Union, includes, apart from the ordinary administrative subdivisions known as provinces, 21 ethnic republics, which have inherited special rights. They maintain state symbols such as constitutions, flags, and national anthems and have the power to determine their own political institutions.

Two Muslim-majority republics, Chechnya and Tatarstan, in particular have asserted their right to full sovereignty following the dissolution of the USSR. But while the Chechens became embroiled in war with Moscow, the Tatarstan leadership gained much of what they desired without open conflict.

Oil-rich and heavily industrialized, Tatarstan in the 1990s worked out an arrangement with Moscow, formalized by treaty, in which the 3.8 million inhabitants of the republic were acknowledged as having a “special relationship” with the federal government.

“The Republic of Tatarstan,” states its constitution, “is a democratic constitutional State associated with the Russian Federation by the Constitution of the Russian Federation, the Constitution of the Republic of Tatarstan and the Treaty between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Tatarstan.”

Tatarstan’s government considers this to have been a recognition by Russia of the republic’s sovereignty in cultural and economic spheres. The official language is Tatar, though Russian is also in use.

Belgium today is largely a fiction. It really consists of two separate unilingual entities, Dutch-speaking Flanders, with six million people, and French-speaking Wallonia, comprising 3.4 million. (There is also a small German-language zone.)

The national capital, Brussels, with more than one million people, is a francophone-majority enclave within the Flemish zone.

Most political power has since the 1970s devolved to the autonomous language communities, while the central government has been almost completely “emptied” of any meaningful political power.

The Flemings and Walloons have their own identities, flags, and assemblies. Not only matters such as education and culture, but even competencies related to territory, such as economic policy, environmental concerns, public works, housing and agriculture, are now in the hands of the linguistic regions.

So Belgium no longer has any national parties: even those that operate across linguistic divisions in both parts of the country – the Christian Democrats, Liberals, and Socialists -- function as separate unilingual Dutch or French-language organizations.

Brussels may be the headquarters of the European Union, but it’s no longer really the capital of Belgium – a state that has effectively ceased to exist. So there is no need for an acrimonious breakup.

Sovereignty, in a globalized and interdependent world, is clearly no longer an all-or-nothing proposition. Quebec, many Canadian reserves, Tatarstan, Flanders, and Wallonia are, to coin a term, de facto states by stealth.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Central Asia Should Not be Ignored

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

For the past two decades, much of the world’s attention has been focused on Afghanistan. But it would be imprudent to ignore two of the countries that border it to the north, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

These two central Asian states, along with neighbours Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan, were part of the Soviet Union until that Communist multinational empire imploded in 1991.

A number of extremist groups have tried to destabilize these states. They have proven particularly dangerous to Tajikistan, where a bloody civil war raged in the 1990s, and to Uzbekistan, where bombings and sabotage have led to severe repression by those in power.

Three organizations in particular have fomented most of the violence.

While two have been more localized in their attempts to wrest power, the third advocates an ideology that transcends statehood, and, like al-Qaeda, dreams of an Islamic caliphate encompassing the Muslim world.

In Tajikistan, a small impoverished country of some 7.3 million people, the Hizbi Nahzati Islomii Tojikiston (Islamic Renaissance Party, or IRP) was formed in 1990.

The Soviet state was near collapse and nationalist ideas had begun to permeate the politics of the republic. Taking advantage of the situation, the IRP’s stated aim was to bring Islamic values back into public life.

Soon enough the country descended into a brutal civil war: while then President Rahmon Nabiyev organized pro-government militias, the IRP turned to rebels in Afghanistan for military aid.

By 1997, when a UN-brokered peace accord was signed, as many as 100,000 people may have been killed. Many others, including IRP members, had fled into Afghanistan, where some fought alongside the Taliban militants. The party was later legalized and maintains an uneasy truce with the government.

Uzbekistan, with its 27.6 million people, is the largest of the five central Asian republics in population. It has been a centre of Muslim culture for more than a thousand years, with fabled cities such as Bokhara, Samarkand and Tashkent, renowned for their architecture, literature and scholarship.

Uzbekistan’s president, Islam Karimov, has ruled the country with an iron hand since 1990 but this did not prevent the rise of militant organizations that sought the overthrow of his regime and its replacement with an Islamic state.

The O’zbekiston Islomiy Harakati (Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or IMU) was formed in 1998. In 1999 the IMU set up several military camps in northern Afghanistan.

Central Asia’s Ferghana Valley, where the Uzbek, Kyrgyz, and Tajik borders converge, has been the main area for IMU operations, and the organization launched punitive campaigns there in 1999, 2000 and 2001.

In addition, the IMU was responsible for a series of bombings in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent in 1999 and 2004, as well as numerous kidnappings.

When the American-led alliance invaded Afghanistan in 2001, the IMU announced its loyalty to the Taliban. In turn it received support from them and from Osama bin Laden.

Though the IMU suffered heavy losses while fighting alongside the Taliban, it has successfully re-organized itself in the tribal areas of North and South Waziristan in Pakistan over the following years.

However, Tahir Yuldashev, one of the movement’s leaders, was killed in a strike by an unmanned American aircraft in South Waziristan in late August.

Finally, there is the Hizb-ut-Tahrir al-Islami (HTI) or the Islamic Party of Liberation, a pan-Islamist, transnational political organization whose goal is to combine all Muslim countries in a unitary Islamic state.

It was founded in then Jordanian-ruled east Jerusalem in 1953 and has members around the world, despite being banned by many governments. Its leader since 2003 is Sheik Ata Abu al-Rishta, a Palestinian scholar and writer.

Though the organization is illegal in all five central Asian Muslim republics, HTI has large followings in the region. Most of its members there are believed to be ethnic Uzbeks and President Karimov is a regular target of derision.

In May 2005, hundreds of people were killed by police in demonstrations in the Ferghana Valley city of Andijan; the president accused the HTI of responsibility for the violence.

Central Asia should not be ignored. With the collapse of Soviet power, these countries have re-entered the international political system.

Along with Afghanistan and Pakistan, they are now part of what we might term the greater Middle East.

We’ve seen the television ads for Prince Edward Island historical sites that proclaim,“this place matters!” It certainly holds true for central Asia.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Israel Pitches in With Help for Haiti

Henry Srebrnik , [Summerside PEI] Journal-Pioneer

No country in the world has had a worse press in the past year than Israel. The war against Hamas in Gaza last winter created a sense of outrage in many parts of the globe.

Particularly damaging were the findings of a UN-sponsored expert group led by Judge Richard Goldstone of South Africa.

The 575-page report, released last September, concluded that Israel used disproportionate force, deliberately targeted civilians, used Palestinians as human shields, and destroyed civilian infrastructure during the war.

In its wake, arrest warrants have been issued for senior Israeli politicians and leaders, dozens of other human rights reports on Israel’s conduct in the war have been widely distributed, and there are ongoing international campaigns to launch boycotts and sanctions against the country.

So the recent earthquake in Haiti was an opportunity for Israel to demonstrate a side usually ignored by its critics: the desire, rooted in the Jewish tradition, of helping those in need.

The poorest country in the western hemisphere, Haiti’s own political infrastructure virtually collapsed, along with most of the buildings in the capital of Port-au-Prince, after the massive January 12 earthquake. After all, this is a country where 78 per cent of the population lives on less than $2 per day, and where half the population is illiterate.

So help from outside became an imperative. Canada and the United States have been in the forefront of relief efforts, but Israel’s contribution has also been invaluable.

Ahead of most countries, Israel sent scores of doctors and other professionals to Haiti. The Jewish state has, unfortunately, had much in the way of experience dealing with disasters.

Two planes left Israel almost immediately after the disaster struck. They contained the entire equipment of the Israel Defence Force’s airborne field hospital unit and 221 personnel, including 40 doctors, 24 nurses and 20 paramedics.

The IDF team also brought with them five search-and-rescue teams, sniffer dogs, communication experts, and a security force of soldiers from elite units. The Medical Corps drafted gynecologists, obstetricians and other specialists.

In its first week of operation, the field hospital treated thousands of victims of the earthquake, while Israeli army search teams rescued a number of Haitians from under destroyed buildings.

Remarked Army Brigadier General Shalom Ben Arieh in an interview with London’s Jewish Chronicle, “It is hard to describe the extent of the gratitude of the people here when they realize that people have come from so far away as Israel to help them.”

He said that the IDF delegation would return home only after it was confident that the wounded were receiving proper treatment.

It will take years for Haiti to recover from this calamity and much of the burden for reconstruction will fall on the shoulders of major countries such as Canada, France and the U.S. But hopefully Israel’s contribution will not be forgotten.

Monday, January 25, 2010

What’s Next For Haiti?

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI]

Haiti’s political elite has, as usual, been found sadly lacking during the terrible crisis that has enveloped the country following the massive earthquake of January 12.

As many as 200,000 people may have died and millions more have been rendered destitute, without food and shelter.

The country’s president, René Préval, has barely been noticed. No surprise – its rulers have mismanaged things for decades.

Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere – per capita income is less than $400 a year. It has been victimized by corrupt dictatorial rulers for decades, in particular the father and son combination of François (“Papa Doc”) and Jean-Claude (“Baby Doc”) Duvalier.

Francois Duvalier became president in 1957, ushering in a reign of terror and brutality harsh even by Haitian standards. In 1959, he created a rural militia, the Milice Volontaires de la Sécurité Nationale, commonly referred to as the Tonton Macoutes, which brutalized the population and murdered political opponents: by some accounts those killed may have numbered 30,000.

In 1964, Duvalier held a constitutional referendum making him President for Life. His repressive regime only came to an end with his death in 1971. His son, a callow 19 year old, succeeded him, until overthrown in an uprising in 1986. “Baby Doc” fled to France, taking much of the country’s cash reserves with him.

This did not end Haiti’s political turmoil. The Duvalier era was later followed by the rule of a populist priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, whose attempts to improve the lot of Haiti’s poor led to a coup by army elements, supported by the country’s economic elite.

More disorder followed; Aristide was eventually returned to power due to the intervention of the United States, but, following mounting violence, was again sent into exile in 2004. After another period of political confusion, Préval assumed the presidency in 2006.

If the country is to move forward, it might consider tapping into the expertise of the large and well-educated Haitian diaspora. Other countries have done the same. One Baltic state comes to mind.

Dr. Vaira Vike-Freiberga, president of Latvia from 1999 to 2007, was born in Riga in 1937. Her parents came to Canada as refugees after World War II and she grew up in this country, eventually becoming a professor of psychology at the University of Montreal, where she taught from 1965 to 1998.

She retired that year, returned to her native land, and had a distinguished political career as the country’s head of state.

Might this serve as an example to our Governor General, Michaëlle Jean, whose parents came to Canada in 1968 as refugees from Duvalier’s brutal rule in Haiti when she was 11 years old?

Like Vike-Freiberga, Jean too was briefly an academic, before becoming a journalist. Her term as the Queen’s representative is nearing its end, and Haiti could certainly use someone with her international reputation as it tries to recover from the desperate situation it finds itself in.