Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

Monday, December 31, 2012

1973 Was Politically Momentous Year

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

The year 1973, now four decades on, saw a series of momentous political events on the world stage: The winding down of a war in Southeast Asia, a scandal surrounding an American president, a coup in South America, and a major Middle Eastern war.

On Jan. 27, Henry Kissinger, U.S. President Richard Nixon’s National Security Advisor, and North Vietnamese Politburo member Le Duc Tho signed the Paris Peace Accords, ending American involvement in the Vietnam War.

The United States had been fighting in Vietnam for a decade, to little avail, and at an immense cost in lives, money, and prestige. Almost 60,000 troops had been killed, and tens of thousands wounded.

Tens of billions of dollars had been spent. Domestic pressure to finally end the war was enormous.

In January-February 1968, the North Vietnamese and the Communist Viet Cong had launched the massive Tet Offensive in South Vietnam.

Although it was not a victory militarily, the ability of the Vietnamese Communists to mount such a large-scale operation shocked the American public, which had been led to believe by its political and military leaders that the war was being successfully prosecuted.

As Bruce Springsteen would later sing, in “Born in the U.S.A.”:

I had a brother at Khe Sahn
Fighting off the Viet Cong

They’re still there, he's all gone.

With little American support after 1973, the corrupt South Vietnamese regime was no match for its opponents. In April 1975, the Communists completed their conquest of the country, and North and South Vietnam were united under their rule.

The war would destroy the careers of two American presidents.

On March 31, 1968, Democrat Lyndon Johnson, whose popularity was plummeting after Tet, announced that he would not seek re-election that fall. His successor, Republican Richard Nixon, though ending American military operations in Vietnam, would be brought down by the Watergate scandal in 1973-74.

Although not directly connected to the war, Watergate – named for the building that housed the Democratic National Committee, which was burglarized by Nixon operatives in 1972 -- was the culmination of a long period of illegal activity on the part of the White House.

The unpopularity of the war had led to massive opposition on the part of students, workers, and most of the elected leaders of the Democratic Party in Congress, so Nixon had become used to using unlawful methods to combat his enemies, real and perceived.

It finally caught up to him.

By May 1973, a special Senate Watergate Committee had been established and its hearings were broadcast on television. As evidence against him mounted, Nixon would resign in disgrace a year later, forestalling certain impeachment and removal on the part of Congress.

On Sept. 11, a CIA-sponsored coup deposed the Marxist-inspired regime of Salvador Allende in the South American nation of Chile, installing the right-wing General Augusto Pinochet.

Allende was killed, and thousands more would be tortured and executed under Pinochet’s brutal regime.
It too was carried out in the name of fighting Communism.

Finally, Oct. 6 saw the start of the largest Arab-Israeli war to date. The Yom Kippur, or Ramadan, War began with the simultaneous attack by Egypt and Syria on the Israeli-occupied Sinai Peninsula and Golan Heights, both captured in 1967.

Thrown onto the defensive during the first days of fighting, Israel eventually gained the upper hand and carried the war into Syria and Egypt.

A UN-brokered cease-fire ended the fighting on Oct. 25.

But the war, in which Israel suffered heavy losses, was a political setback, and Kissinger, who was now U.S. Secretary of State, started conducting shuttle diplomacy, and engineered a military disengagement agreement between Israel and Egypt on January 18, 1974.

An Israeli-Syrian one followed a few months later.

A final peace treaty between Israel and Egypt was brokered by President Jimmy Carter five years later, though none was ever signed with Syria.

Today, while the Middle East remains in turmoil, Chile is once again a democracy and Vietnam, which now has diplomatic relations with the U.S., is one of the world’s most peaceful nations.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Examining America's Asia-Pacific Policy

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal-Pioneer

Ever since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, American foreign policy under both presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama has been preoccupied with the Muslim world. 

U.S. forces have been fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and have also battled, from the air and sea, al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and other Islamists, in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and elsewhere.

All the while, in east Asia, China’s economic and military might has been growing by leaps and bounds. 

Apart from its huge land army, China is now the world’s second-ranked naval power, behind only the United States, with a fleet including about 80 major warships, 53 submarines, 50 landing ships and 86 missile patrol boats. In September its first aircraft carrier went into service.

 Why has the country built such a large navy? China claims sovereignty over a large area of the Pacific Ocean off its shores, bringing it into dispute with several neighbouring countries

Ships from China and the Philippines have recently confronted each other over a reef known as the Scarborough Shoal, in the South China Sea. Called Huangyan Island by China, it consists of a series of rocks and reefs some 160 kilometres from the Philippines and 800 kilometres from China.

Another quarrel involves the Spratley Islands, further south. Comprising about 750 pieces of land, all or parts of this archipelago are claimed by China, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. Even tiny Brunei is involved.

While these islands are in themselves economically unimportant, the surrounding waters contain significant reserves of oil and natural gas. Last year Chinese naval vessels fired on Vietnamese fishing boats in the Spratleys.

China and Japan both lay claim over a group of five tiny islands in the East China Sea currently controlled by Tokyo. Known as the Diaoyu Islands in China, and the Senkaku Islands in Japan, their nearby waters are believed to harbour valuable mineral resources, including oil and natural gas.

In September the Japanese government itself bought the islands from a private owner, setting off demonstrations in Beijing and 19 other cities in China. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said that Beijing would “never yield an inch” over the disputed islands, reported the state-run news agency Xinhua.

Whoever controls these various island chains will, of course, reap the benefits from the surrounding waters.
China’s recent assertiveness worries its neighbours. The United States, in response, has indicated its intention to strategically “pivot” its attention to the Asia-Pacific region. Kurt Campbell, U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said in September that the disputed Diaoyu/ Senkaku Islands were “clearly” covered by a 1960 treaty obliging the United States to come to Japan’s aid if attacked.

Also, almost as soon as he won re-election, Obama set off on a trip to Cambodia, Thailand and Burma (Myanmar) in mid-November, to “wave the flag” and increase American visibility in the region, as a counterweight to Beijing. He sought to reinforce America’s strategic and economic interests.

“The United States of America is a Pacific nation and we see our future as bound to those nations and peoples to our west,” said the president while in Burma. “And as our economy recovers this is where we believe we will find enormous growth. As we have ended the wars that have dominated our foreign policy for a decade, this region will be a focus for our efforts to build a prosperous peace.”

Obama knows that if America is to compete globally in the 21st century, it must take greater steps to engage economically and politically with this part of the world, as well as containing Chinese geopolitical ambitions.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Gaza War and the New Egypt

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

The latest war between Hamas-ruled Gaza and Israel appears, for the moment, to be over. And Egypt has played a key role in negotiating a cease-fire, since unlike the United States, it can talk directly to Hamas, its kindred ideological spirit.

Egypt’s foreign minister, Mohammed Kamel Amr, visited the enclave during the fighting and the country’s new president, Mohamed Morsi of the Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of the once-banned Muslim Brotherhood, has emerged as a major regional player.

“I want to thank President Morsi for his personal leadership to de-escalate the situation in Gaza and end the violence,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said at a Cairo press conference announcing the accord.

So let’s step back a little. So far, last year’s “Arab Spring” has brought Islamic movements or parties to power or increased influence in virtually every country in the region, including Libya, Tunisia and even Jordan. In the current civil war in Syria, they are playing a major role in the struggle to bring down the Assad regime.

For decades, American foreign policy in the Middle East was predicated on keeping these movements out of power. We were told they posed a danger, not only to Israel, but to world peace. Yet now, Morsi is lauded for his positive role in ending the fighting between Israel and Hamas.

Indeed, an Israeli Foreign Ministry source told the New York Forward newspaper that Cairo’s role in mediating the conflict has brought into sight a day when Egypt will take over from Israel responsibility for Gaza.

“We would be quite happy for Egypt to take over as many responsibilities as possible that Israel currently has over Gaza.” This would involve controlling security and, to some extent, supplies.

So this begs the question: If the election of President Morsi is now viewed positively in Washington, why did the U.S. work so hard in keeping the autocratic regime of Hosni Mubarak in power all those years, citing the threat of a fundamentalist takeover as the reason? (Even Moammar Gadhafi was seen as a “lesser evil.”)

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Two Competing Views of Israel in the Middle East

 Henry Srebrnik, [Toronto] Jewish Tribune

There are two competing narratives when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian (and wider Arab-Israeli) conflict.

On the one hand, those on the political left, adhering to the thesis propounded by Marxists and post-colonialists, view the entire Zionist enterprise as an imperialist project, the seizure of indigenous Arab lands by white Europeans.

They view Israel as a ‘settler state,’ one similar to the former white-dominated Rhodesia or South Africa.

For them Israel’s defenders are, to quote the late academic Edward Said, “Orientalists,” motivated by a “Eurocentric prejudice against Arabo-Islamic peoples and their culture.”

The other story, subscribed to by the vast majority of Jews, in both Israel and the diaspora, entails the return of a people who originated in the land to reclaim its patrimony.

They contend that Jews in Christian Europe were not only not considered “Europeans” by many people in the host nations where they lived, but were, rather, subject to recurrent waves of violence, culminating in the Holocaust. As well, they add, more than half the Jews in Israel are in any case Mizrachim, Jews native to the Muslim lands of the Middle East, who had been forced to flee their former homes.

Which of these two stories do Israel’s Middle Eastern enemies themselves endorse? Obviously, many of those in left-wing and nationalist movements, including some Palestinian groups, prefer the first. They fancy themselves secularists and so avoid using religious terms, preferring the word “Israeli” to “Jew.”

But, somewhat ironically, the rise of Islamist movements such as, among others, Hamas, Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood, prefer a religious reading of the quarrel. Their literature is replete with references to ‘Jewish’ treachery and evil, going all the way back to Qur’anic times – hundreds of years before the establishment of the modern Jewish state.

They may not realize it, but they in fact confirm that Jews are native to the area, and not some recent foreign implant. As well, they demonstrate, by using the word ‘Jew,’ that their issue is not with the Israeli presence in areas occupied since the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, but with the very idea of a non-Muslim entity in the region.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

"Don't Cry for Me, America"

Henry Srebrnik. [Summerside, PEI] Journal-Pioneer

Ever since his defeat on Nov. 6, many people, including even fellow Republicans, have been writing Mitt Romney off as a bad candidate and a sore loser. He’s been mocked for declaring that Barack Obama won by giving out “gifts” to voting groups such as African-Americans, Latinos and younger women.

“The Obama campaign was following the old playbook of giving a lot of stuff to groups that they hoped they would get to vote for them,” Romney is reported to have said. Talk of sour grapes! After all, he planned to give a lot more “stuff,” also known as lower taxes, to millionaires and billionaires.

According to the Huffington Post, Romney also blamed the “liberal media,” including CNN and NBC, for supposedly favoring Obama during the presidential debates.

Romney was definitely not an ideal candidate. In an age when politicians are supposed to “connect” with voters and “feel their pain,” he came across as a wooden plutocrat whose attempts at compassion didn’t ring true. It was clear he had led a charmed life financially.

When Hurricane Sandy struck the week before the vote, and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican, lauded the President for his concern as they toured the devastated beaches, it was the last nail in Romney’s electoral coffin.

What is really telling about Romney’s failure to realistically gauge how things were going was his delusional certainty that, despite all this, he would win the election. He hadn’t bothered to write a concession speech.

Romney even had a fireworks display ready in Boston harbour once his victory was announced, one that would have been visible from his election night party at the Boston Convention Center!

But in fact the election wasn’t even close. Obama secured 332 electoral votes to Romney's 206, with battleground states like Colorado, Florida, Ohio, and Virginia all ending up in the president’s column.

I think this speaks to Romney’s contempt for the American electorate, on par with his comments earlier in the year that “47 per cent” of Americans were simply lazy moochers expecting government handouts and so would, of course, should they manage to get off their sofas, vote for Obama.

It’s an arrogance born of extreme wealth: Romney saw in Obama a mere “community organizer,” someone who got lucky in 2008 – and who would certainly not stand comparison with a titan of finance!

But we shouldn’t feel too sorry for the ex-governor. He can spend the next little while crying over the tens of millions of dollars he’s accumulated at Bain Capital and elsewhere – and since some of it is stashed away in the Cayman Islands, there’s also the prospect of a nice Caribbean holiday.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Radical Right-Wing Forces Make Gains in Europe

Henry Srebrnik, (Summerside, PEI) Journal-Pioneer

While most of us have been fixated on the American election these past few months, there have been a number of recent contests in Europe which should give us cause for concern.

As deeply indebted nations face massive unemployment and austerity, some voters are turning to parties long outside the ideological pale.

In hard-hit Greece, one in every four people is without work. Youth unemployment is above 50 percent. The far-right Golden Dawn Party, led by Nikolaos Michaloliakos, ran a campaign during the spring 2012 Greek election based on the dire economic situation, as well as virulent anti-immigration rhetoric.

It won 6.92 per cent of the vote on June 17, taking 18 of the 300 seats in parliament, the first time it has managed to elect members to the legislature. A survey taken in September found that 22 per cent of Greeks now view the party favorably.

Golden Dawn calls for the deportation of all non-Greek immigrants, broadly defined as anyone not of Greek ancestry, and its followers have been blamed for violence against recent arrivals, including attacks on immigrant-owned market stalls and shops. Its officials say they have persuaded a major restaurant chain to begin replacing immigrants with Greek workers.

The press quoted Elias Panagiotaros, one of the new legislators from Golden Dawn, as stating that Greeks "have the right to protect themselves and their property from all these illegal savages."

In Ukraine, parliamentary elections held on Oct. 29 saw the Svoboda (Freedom) All-Ukrainian Union, an ultranationalist, right-wing movement, win 38 of the 450 seats in the national legislature, with 10.44 per cent of the vote. In the previous parliamentary election, in 2007, the party was supported by just 0.76 per cent of the electorate.

Leader Oleg Tyagnibok insists that "Svoboda is simply and only a pro-Ukrainian party." His party has benefited from frustration over the country's stalled economy and dissatisfaction with the government of President Viktor Yanukovich, which favours closer ties with Moscow.

While Svoboda has emphasized national sovereignty and warns of encroachment by neighboring Russia, some of Svoboda's members are neo-Nazis, and this has elicited warnings about the rise of anti-Semitism and xenophobia in Ukraine. Tyagnibok has himself in the past referred to the "Jewish-Russian mafia, which rules in Ukraine."

Tyagnibok maintains that nationalist parties are enjoying a renaissance in Europe because of people's financial problems: "Economic failures make people look for reasons."

In Hungary, too, dissatisfaction with the state of the economy has led to the rise of a right-wing nationalist party. Jobbik, known for its anti-Semitic and anti-Roma (Gypsy) rhetoric, won 16.67 per cent of the vote, good for 47 of 386 seats, in the April 2010 election and is now the country's third largest party.

Its leader, Gabor Vona, in 2007 founded the radical nationalist Hungarian Guard, which was banned by authorities a year later on the grounds that the activities of the organization "were against the human rights of minorities as guaranteed by the Hungarian Constitution."

The next parliamentary elections in Hungary must be held by spring 2014.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Obama's Biography Is Unique Among American Presidents

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal-Pioneer

Barack Obama is by far the most “rootless” – and therefore most “cosmopolitan” – president Americans have ever elected to that office.

His mother, Stanley Ann Durham, was a transient left-wing “hippy” from Wichita, Kansas, a child of the “sixties” who lived in various places before ending up in Hawaii.

There, while attending the University of Hawaii, she married a Luo graduate student from Kenya and had a child at age 18. The husband, Barack Sr., abandoned her almost immediately and returned to Kenya. Barack never really had a father.

In 1965, Ann married another student, Indonesian Lolo Soetoro, and the family moved to Indonesia. From age six to ten, Obama attended local Indonesian-language schools in Jakarta.  He therefore spent his formative childhood years in a country culturally, geographically and religiously about as far from America as possible; he still has a half-sister in Indonesia.

Ann’s second marriage too would eventually dissolve. Meanwhile, his mother shipped the boy off to live with his white grandparents in Honolulu – itself a city in another island chain out in the mid-Pacific that had only become an American state in 1960.

Obama finally went off to college and law school, in California, New York, and Massachusetts – like many a foreign student coming to study in the United States.

After graduation, Obama in effect chose to become part of the historic African-American community – by moving to Chicago’s South Side, working as a community organizer, joining the Trinity United Church of Christ, a Black congregation, and, in 1992, marrying Chicagoan Michelle Robinson.

America’s 44th president has “made it” through sheer intellect and drive. (He holds degrees from Ivy League universities Columbia and Harvard.) He had no money, no “background,” no ethnic or social ties of the sort that even a poor boy like Bill Clinton of Arkansas could rely on.

Barack Obama is in effect culturally the equivalent of a naturalized citizen – and this is both his strength and weakness.

Monday, October 22, 2012

In the Middle East, the Future Remains Unpredictable

Henry Srebrnik. [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

Twenty years ago, who could have imagined that Israel would be in more danger today than at any time in its 64-year history?

By 1992, the Communist regimes in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe had all imploded, and the USSR had itself dissolved into 15 countries. Israel’s ally, the United States, remained the world’s only superpower.

The Soviet Union had been an implacable enemy of the Jewish state, arming and supporting the Arab countries in their wars against Israel from the 1950s through the 1980s.

Now it had given way to a much weaker, and far less ideological, Russia, a country itself in deep trouble and less concerned with Middle Eastern issues.

Many of the new east European governments – Poland being a prime example – became friendly towards Israel.

Another former ideological enemy, China, had dropped its reflexive pro-Arab policies and also moved towards more amicable relations with Jerusalem.

Yet today, Israel faces ideological hostility in many quarters in the western world, accused of being an “apartheid state,”while its borders are under threat from rocket attacks by Hezbollah in the north and Hamas in the southwest.

Most ominously, a potentially nuclear-armed Iran, whose Shi’ite theocracy replaced the benign government of the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, makes no secret of its intentions to wipe Israel off the map.

What has happened?

With hindsight, we can now see what a pivotal time the late 1970s were. They changed the very “zeitgeist” in global affairs.

On Oct. 15, 1978, Karol Józef Cardinal Wojtyla, archbishop of Krakow, was elected the supreme pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church. As Pope John Paul II, he was an inspiration to dissidents throughout the Communist bloc and he was instrumental in ending Communist rule in his native Poland and eventually in all of eastern Europe.

A year later, on Dec. 24, 1979, the Kremlin made the fatal mistake of invading Afghanistan, to prop up a pro-Communist regime. By the time the war ended in May of 1988, almost 15,000 Soviet troops had been killed. Dissatisfaction with the conflict on the part of ordinary Russians helped the reformer Mikhail Gorbachev come to power in 1985, and by 1991 the entire Soviet system had collapsed.

While the years 1978-79 were the beginning of the end for the decaying Communist regimes in Europe, they also ushered in the era of Islamist militancy.

In Iran the Shah, unable to withstand the tide of opposition to his rule, left the country on January 16, 1979. Two weeks later Ayatollah Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini returned from exile in France to Tehran, to an enthusiastic welcome.

In November 1979, a constitution for the new Islamic Republic was adopted and Khomeini became the Supreme Leader of the country. Iran would henceforth become arguably the fiercest opponent of Israel.

Inspired by the Iranian revolution, Hezbollah was formed in southern Lebanon in 1982 and has served as an Iranian proxy since then. Hamas was created in 1987 and has established itself as the undisputed ruler of Gaza since 2007.

While the two movements on Israel’s doorstep have inflicted significant damage over the past three decades, Iran remains the far greater danger, of course.

The threat of Communism is gone, but now extremist Islamist forces have placed Israel in great jeopardy. It turns out that, as far as Israel is concerned, Ayatollah Khomeini was a more dangerous figure in the 20th century than was Vladimir Lenin and his successors.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Control of Senate Vital in U.S. Election

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

Most Canadians, understandably, are concentrating on the presidential race between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. But there are other important contests underway in the general election. All 435 members of the House of Representatives are up for re-election, as are 33 members of the Senate.

The latter body of 100 members - two each from the 50 states -is the very powerful upper house of the U.S. Congress. Senators are elected for six-year terms, with one-third up for re-election every two years. The Democrats currently control the Senate, with 51 seats to the 47 held by Republicans.

Some senators in states that are heavily Democratic 'blue' or Republican 'red' are virtual shoo-ins. On the Democratic side, Diane Feinstein will easily win re-election in California, as will Kirsten Gillibrand in New York state.

Other Democratic incumbents with safe seats are Tom Carper in Delaware, Ben Cardin in Maryland, Debbie Stabinow in Michigan, Amy Klobuchar in Minnesota, Bob Menendez in New Jersey, Bob Casey in Pennsylvania, Sheldon Whitehouse in Rhode Island, Maria Cantwell in Washington state, and Joe Manchin in West Virginia.

In liberal Vermont, socialist Bernie Sanders, who votes with the Democrats, will cruise to victory.

However, Montana might be a loss for Obama's party. Incumbent John Tester trails Republican challenger Dennis Rehber in many polls, though it's still too close to call.

Among Republicans, Roger Wicker in Mississippi, Bob Corker in Tennessee, Orin Hatch in Utah, and John Barrasso in Wyoming will retain their seats without any difficulty. In Nevada, incumbent Republican Dean Heller continues to hold a lead over the Democrat, Shelley Berkley.

In the swing state of Florida, the Senate winner will probably be determined by which presidential candidate carries the state. Incumbent Bill Nelson, the Democrat, faces Republican Connie Mack IV; in recent polls, the gap between Nelson and Mack has widened, in Nelson's favour.

In closely-contested Ohio, Democrat Sherrod Brown faces Republican Josh Mandel, and will be re-elected unless Romney wins the state by a considerable margin, which is unlikely.

There are a number of open seats, where the incumbent has left office, and some are toss-ups.

In Arizona, Republican Jeff Flake faces Richard Carmona, the Democrat; it will be close, but Flake will probably retain the seat for his party. In Connecticut, where Joe Lieberman, running as an independent, beat back challenges from both major parties in 2006, Linda McMahon, the Republican candidate, has remained competitive against the Democrat, Christopher Murphy. Connecticut is a strongly Democratic "blue" state, though, so Murphy should prevail; however, McMahon could conceivably gain this one for the Republicans.

The Democrats 'own' Hawaii, so Mazie Hirono will trounce the former Republican governor, Linda Lingle.

Longtime Republican senator Richard Lugar of Indiana lost the primary to a Tea Party candidate, Richard Mourdock, giving the Democrat challenger, Joe Donnelly, a fighting chance to take the seat away from the GOP.

In the 'red' state of Nebraska, where Democratic incumbent Ben Nelson has retired, former U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey, a Democrat, faces Republican Deb Fischer; the Republicans will gain this seat. 'Blue' state New Mexico, meanwhile, will elect Martin Heinrich, the Democrat, to replace fellow Democrat Jeff Bingaman.

North Dakota's Kent Conrad, a Democrat, has retired, and the race between Democrat Heidi Heitkamp and Republican Rick Berg is a virtual dead heat. In Texas, the open seat will remain Republican, with Ted Cruz, a Tea Party favourite, replacing outgoing Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison.

Virginia is witnessing a battle between a Democratic former governor, Tim Kaine, and a Republican former senator, George Allen. Kaine has opened up a significant lead in a majority of recent polls. In Wisconsin, the Democrat, Tammy Baldwin, is projected to prevail over former Republican governor Tommy Thompson, but it is a tight race.

In Maine, where Republican senator Olympia Snowe has stepped down, a three-way contest has former governor Angus King, running as an independent, leading both his Democratic and Republican challengers, so this will be a Republican loss.

Two of the most-closely watched contests are in Massachusetts and Missouri. In the 'Bay State', high-profile challenger Elizabeth Warren, the Democrat, now has a small lead over Scott Brown, the Republican, who won Ted Kennedy's old seat in a special election two years ago. This is a seat Democrats, in the 'bluest' of 'blue' states, dearly want to regain.

In the 'Show Me' state, incumbent Democrat Claire McCaskill seemed certain to lose to Republican Todd Akin, until he stated in an interview that in cases of what he termed "legitimate rape," women rarely become pregnant. His lead in the polls has evaporated since then, and McCaskill, though still unpopular in the state, may prevail. Still, this one could go either way.

It does appear likely that, after Nov. 6, the Democrats will still control the United States Senate, regardless of the presidential winner.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Diverse Jewish Community of Los Angeles

Henry Srebrnik, [Toronto] Jewish Tribune

Greater Los Angeles, where I spent two weeks in August, is a mega-city, sprawling over five counties in the southern part of California. The Los Angeles region has a population of more than 17.8 million – half that of all Canada.

A warm climate, and industries such as oil, rubber, aerospace, and, of course, motion pictures, brought in millions of people from all over the United States and the world through the decades.

Jews came to Los Angeles as early as 1845, while California was still a Mexican territory. In the latter part of the 19th century, Jews held public office and helped establish the Chamber of Commerce and other civic organizations. Of course, they predominated in running the film studios in the 20th century.

In a report published in 2000, Raphael J. Sonenshein of the political science department at California State University, Fullerton, noted that the Jewish community has a long history of activism in political and social rights.

“Jews have played a pivotal role in the development of progressive coalitions throughout the history of modern Los Angeles,” he wrote. In the early 20th century, the growing Jewish community became a major presence in Boyle Heights, which had between 70,000 and 80,000 Jews from the 1910s through the 1950s. “The Boyle Heights Jewish community was working-class and often militantly progressive in its politics.”

As Deborah Dash Moore in her 1994 book To the Golden Cities: Pursuing the American Dream in Miami and L.A., remarked, “The visible, immigrant, Yiddish-speaking community centred in Boyle Heights ardently supported FDR and the New Deal.”

This tradition continues today. I was at a picnic in Clover Park, Santa Monica, organized by Jerry Rubin, a Jewish activist running for city council. (He calls himself “the other Jerry Rubin,” so as not to be confused with the more famous radical, who died in 1994.) Pamphlets for numerous causes were on display and one of the speakers was a California state senator.

At the Workmen’s Circle, another left-wing organization on Robertson Boulevard, a very large audience came to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the murder of Soviet Jewish writers by Joseph Stalin on Aug. 12, 1952. A silent film, made in the Soviet Union in 1924, entitled Yidishe Glik, was shown, introduced by Kenneth Turan, the film critic of the Los Angeles Times.

By mid-century many Jews began moving west, to the Fairfax area, which became the centre of the LA Jewish community. In 1935, there were four synagogues in the Fairfax District; by 1945, there were 12. But in the 1960s Jews began moving further west.

Today, more than 600,000 Jews live in greater Los Angeles, especially in the Pico-Robertson area, where one can find a very large number of synagogues, Jewish community centres and schools, and kosher restaurants, cafés, bakeries and coffee shops. Many of these Jews are immigrants from Iran and the former Soviet Union.

During the past two decades, the Orthodox community has grown to become the largest Jewish denomination in the area. Chabad operates four schools, while Yeshiva University High School has campuses on both South Robertson Boulevard and West Pico Boulevard. Los Angeles is also home to the American Jewish University.

Los Angeles has about 150 synagogues and they span the entire spectrum of Judaism, with some testing the outer limits of what most Jews would consider proper.

The Wilshire Boulevard Temple, founded in 1862 as Congregation B’nai B’rith, is the oldest synagogue in the LA area. In 1929, the congregation built its current home on Wilshire Boulevard. It was, writes journalist Susan Freudenheim, “to be the fanciest building money could buy for the denizens of the silver screen’s Reform Jewish congregation,” and its dramatic, quasi-Byzantine-Moorish design is an architectural landmark. It is now being totally restored, at a cost of $50 million.

On one Friday evening I attended services at the Santa Monica Synagogue, a Reform congregation of 250 families, founded in 1981. The cantor, Daniel Leanse, accompanied the rabbi on a guitar and the service lasted just one-half hour.

Even less traditional was the non-denominational Nashuvah congregation in Brentwood led by Rabbi Naomi Levy, where I spent another Friday evening. There, a full band accompanied the worshippers in singing Hebrew prayers. The band, states their website, “links us to soulful music from across the globe. Our band represents a partnership between Nashuvah and Westwood Hills Congregational Church. The music they create connects us to one another and to G-d.”

Like the city itself, LA Jews are always pushing the envelope.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Do American Values Stem from Judaism?

Henry Srebrnik, Calgary Jewish Free Press

The American presidential election is now in full gear, with Barack Obama and Mitt Romney debating, among other things, what the United States should look like in coming years.

The citizens of very few countries examine their ideological “essence” in the way Americans do.

Michael Lind, author of The Next American Nation: The New Nationalism and the Fourth American Revolution, has noted that many American theorists posit a view of the United States as not a nation-state but an idea-state, based on the philosophy of liberal democracy in the abstract. There are no American people as such, but rather an American idea.

Yale University professor David Gelernter goes further, stating that the American world-view emerged not just from the Bible, but especially from the Hebrew Bible, via those English Protestant Calvinists known as the Puritans, who looked to the “Old Testament” for their values.

Puritanism would turn into “Americanism.” In a sense, Gelernter asserted in “A Religious Idea Called ‘America’,” a lecture he gave at the American Enterprise Institute in 2006, “the molten bronze of Puritanism became the solid metal of the American Religion.”

As such, the “American creed” is derived from biblical Zionism, “which is based on two ideas: a chosen people and a promised land,” he maintained. “Both elements were understood by the biblical prophets to imply privileges and duties. The chosen people is closer to God than any other and is held to higher standards. The promised land flows with milk and honey and must be made by its inhabitants into a beacon of sanctity for the whole world.”

The community as a whole conceived itself as having a covenant with God, or a vow agreed to by both sides. The Puritans who came to America on the Mayflower in 1620, known as the Pilgrims, signed such as compact before landing at Plymouth. Many consider it the seed of American democracy. American Puritans often described their settlements as covenant communities. “We are the children of Abraham; and therefore we are under Abraham’s covenant,” declared one early settler.

The Puritans had fled a “house of bondage” in Europe, as it seemed to them, and made a dangerous journey to a pagan land where they struggled to establish themselves. They were forming a “new Zion” in the Americas. “American Puritans thought of themselves as ancient Israel reborn, and said so often,” stated Gelernter. And liberty, equality, and democracy all had Biblical roots, so far as the Puritans understood them. “Biblical passages dealing with man and the state and the organization of a state -- such as they are -- are mainly located in the Hebrew Bible,” he said.

It was these “founding ideas,” as enunciated in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution -- human equality, natural rights, civil liberty, democracy, and constitutional government – that made people into Americans. “American-ness,” in this view, is less membership in a national community than a belief in a secular political faith -- the religion of democracy.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Is the United States an "Idea-State"?

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal-Pioneer

The American presidential election is now in full gear, with the Republican national convention having opened in Tampa on Aug. 28, and the Democrats meeting in Charlotte, North Carolina Sept. 3.

Both parties will debate, among other things, what the United States should look like in coming years.

The citizens of very few nations examine their “essence” in the way Americans do.

Michael Lind, author of The Next American Nation: The New Nationalism and the Fourth American Revolution, has noted that many American theorists posit a view of the United States as not a nation-state but an idea-state, based on the philosophy of liberal democracy in the abstract. There are no American people as such, but rather an American idea.

The American struggle for independence would create a different kind of nation. Declared the radical pamphleteer Tom Paine in his call to arms, Common Sense, in 1776: “We have it in our power to build the world over again.”

It was the founding ideas of the American Revolution -- human equality, natural rights, civil liberty, democracy, and constitutional government – that would make people Americans. “American-ness,” in this view, is less membership in a national community than a belief in a secular political faith -- the religion of democracy.

For such thinkers, the country is a post-national idea-state (as opposed to a multicultural federation of ethnic groups, the view on the left.) It is defined only partially by language and culture, and not at all by race or religion.

As the journalist Cokie Roberts has stated, “We have nothing binding us together as a nation -- no common ethnicity, history, religion, or even language -- except the Constitution and the institutions it created.”

This has led to the idea of “American exceptionalism” -- the belief that the U.S. is not only different from other countries but superior in morality and institutions. It also gave rise to the expansionist notion of “Manifest Destiny.”

The historian Paul Johnson has defined the U.S. as “a unity, driven by agreed assumptions, accepting a common morality and moral aims, and able therefore to marshal and deploy its forces with stunning effect.”

For American exceptionalists, politics since the 1776 Declaration of Independence has been the gradual, sometimes painful, working out of the ideas of the Founders. There has been only one constitution since 1789, the dominant parties have been in place since the 1850s, and even the state boundaries have remained fixed.

This formal constitutional and political continuity of course has disguised the many political upheavals -- often violent -- in American life, including the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Civil Rights Revolution.

But the powerful set of ideas enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution has served as ideological glue and unifying principle for the people of the United States.

Friday, August 24, 2012

California Doesn’t Loom Large in the 2012 Election

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

Prince Edward Island has had a glorious summer this year. Yet, when friends invited me to spend two weeks in Los Angeles earlier this month, I couldn’t pass it up.

Needless to say, the climate in southern California was also excellent. But what of the political climate?

California is, politically, a deep shade of “blue,” so neither President Obama nor Mitt Romney will spend much time campaigning here, even though, as the largest state in the country, with a population bigger than all of Canada’s, it delivers 55 electoral votes to whoever wins it in November. It’s not a swing state.

Obama will carry California easily on Nov. 6. He beat John McCain by more than 24 per cent here in 2008.

One of the state’s two U.S. Senate seats is being contested. Veteran Democratic incumbent Dianne Feinstein, first elected to the Senate in 1992, is being challenged by Elizabeth Emken.

The Republican candidate opposes abortion and same-sex marriage. She also wants the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) repealed, even though she helped shape parts of the act that apply to autism.

Emken thinks that her career in business, along with her background in autism advocacy – her son is autistic -- makes her a strong candidate for legislator.

“My dual career creates what you want for someone in government. You don’t typically see someone like me that has both backgrounds,” she said. Though she says she would seek to cut down government spending, she does not want that to fall on the backs of those that need help.

“California needs to become economically competitive again, but with an eye for the truly vulnerable,” she has said.

But hers is an uphill battle against a well-financed, well-known and well-liked incumbent, and she has little chance of pulling an upset. Feinstein has built statewide name identification and a multimillion dollar campaign war chest in her two decades in the U.S. Senate.

In 2006, Feinstein won 59.43 per cent of the vote against Republican Richard Mountjoy’s 35.02 per cent. Two years ago, California’s other Democratic senator, Barbara Boxer, beat challenger Carly Fiorina by ten per cent.

Of California’s 53 members of the House of Representatives, 34 are currently Democrats and 29 Republicans. Most Democratic districts are along the coast and in the big cities; Republicans are stronger in the interior. In the Los Angeles region, 13 of the 18 representatives are Democrats.

Something new will be shaping the outcome in the House races. In 2010, Californians approved a measure, Proposition 14, which requires that all candidates in a Congressional district run in a single primary election open to all registered voters.

Voters can choose any candidate without regard to the political party affiliations of either the candidate or the voter. The top two candidates, regardless of party, face each other in the November general election.

As a result of this “blanket primary,” which took place in June, a number of California’s 53 congressional districts will have same-party candidates battling each other in the Nov. 6 general election.

The economy remains the main issue in the Golden State. Unemployment stands at 10.7 per cent in California, with underemployment estimated at 21 per cent. California has eight of the top 10 worst unemployment and foreclosure areas in the country.

Three cities, unable to pay their bills, have recently declared bankruptcy; Stockton is the largest American city to ever acquire that unenviable distinction. More than a dozen other cities are facing the financial strains of rising pension costs and declining revenue, forcing them to slash staff and basic services such as police and fire protection and library hours to keep up with the payments.
Yet, despite such economic problems, only 13 congressional districts in California may be competitive this year, according to a Cook Political Report analysis, because most districts have been gerrymandered to create safe seats. So, once again, California will send a largely Democratic delegation to Congress.


Thursday, August 23, 2012

Is Islam Inherently Anti-Jewish?

Henry Srebrnik, [Toronto] Jewish Tribune

Certainly, in comparison with classical Christianity, the answer is no. There is less of a theological basis for opposition to Judaism. Islam does not see itself as being the successor to the covenant between G-d and the children of Israel, as the Church did. Nor, of course, were “the Jews” ever considered responsible for deicide.

Still, long before the birth of the modern Zionist movement, there was already a centuries-old tradition in Islam of treating Jews in a subservient, even derogatory manner – although this was true of the way a triumphalist Islam deal with other faiths as well.

During the Muslim prophet Muhammad’s life, thousands of Jews lived in the Arabian peninsula, especially in and around Medina, the city to which in 622 Muhammad was forced to migrate from Mecca.

Muhammad’s early teachings appeared to borrow from Jewish tradition. However, once it became clear the Jews would not accept him, Muhammad began to minimize or eliminate the Jewish influence on his beliefs.

In fact, campaigns against Jews would become part of the very genesis of Islam. One of the first examples was the murder of Ka’b ibn al-Ashraf, a Jewish poet who lived near Medina. He wrote verses satirizing Muhammad and incited Meccans against the new faith, and as a consequence was assassinated in 624 by followers of Muhammad.

In 627, the Muslim armies defeated a tribe of Jews, the Banu Qurayza, following the Battle of the Trench between the followers of Islam in Medina and their opponents. The bulk of the tribe’s men, apart from a few who converted to Islam, were killed, while the women and children were enslaved.

Two years later, the Battle of Khaybar was fought between Muhammad’s followers and the Jews living in the oasis of Khaybar, 150 kilometres from Medina.

Khaybar’s Jews made their living growing date palm trees, as well as through commerce and craftsmanship, accumulating considerable wealth.

The Muslims won, and the victory in Khaybar greatly raised the status of Muhammad among his followers and local Bedouin tribes, who, seeing his power, swore allegiance to the new prophet and converted to Islam.

The captured booty and weapons strengthened his army, and he captured Mecca in 630, two years before his death.

The story includes an example of “Jewish treachery.” As the Jewish leaders of Khaybar went to Muhammad to negotiate the terms of surrender, Zeynab bint al-Harith, a Jewish woman whose husband had been killed in the battle, enquired about Muhammad’s favourite food. Hearing that it was shoulder of lamb, she offered him a poisoned meal. A companion died, but Muhammad did not; Zeynab was executed.

The Jewish community in Khaybar was eventually expelled by Caliph Umar in 642.

In succeeding centuries, Jews were periodically the victims of mob violence against their communities in the Arab world.

The conquest of Morocco and Al-Andalus (Muslim Spain) by the Muslim Berber Almoravids in 1040 and by the Almohades 81 years later, caused destruction and suffering to their Jewish communities. In 1066, a massacre of the Jewish population of Granada saw thousands killed. In Fez, 6,000 Jews were massacred in 1035 and mobs slaughtered thousands more in 1465. There were pogroms in Tetuan in 1790 and 1792.

In the 16th century, the Jews of Tunis were subjected to anti-Jewish policies and forced to live in ghettos. In 1869 anti-Jewish riots broke out, and the rabbis and leaders of the community of Tunis appealed desperately to French officials, informing them that “in the face of Muslim ferocity, 18 Jews have fallen to the knives of the fanatical murderers.” (Tunisia became a French protectorate in 1881.)

Elsewhere in North Africa, Ali Burzi Pasha murdered hundreds of Jews in Libya in 1785. Jews were also massacred in Algiers in 1805, 1815 and 1830.

Things did not improve in the 20th century. As H.E.W. Young, the British Vice-Consul in Mosul, present-day Iraq, wrote in 1909, “The attitude of the Muslims toward the Christians and the Jews is that of a master towards slaves, whom he treats with a certain lordly tolerance so long as they keep their place. Any sign of pretension to equality is promptly repressed.”

More than 1,000 Jews were killed in anti-Jewish rioting during the 1940s in Arab countries.

On June 1-2, 1941, during Shavuot, riots against Jews in Baghdad, Iraq, resulted in about 180 Jews killed and 1,000 injured, in what became known as the farhud (Arabic for “violent dispossession”). Looting of Jewish property took place and 900 Jewish homes were destroyed.

This followed the April 1941 coup that temporarily overthrew the pro-Western regime and installed Rashid Ali al-Gaylani as prime minister, with Nazi support and financing. He was finally ousted by British forces by the end of May.

On Nov. 2, 1945, anti-Jewish riots broke out in Egypt. Organized by the ‘Young Egypt’ group, Jewish-owned department stores in Cairo were looted, and a synagogue, Jewish hospital, and old-age home were set on fire. In Alexandria, six Jews were killed and 200 wounded.

Three days later, in a two-day pogrom, more than 140 Jews, including 36 children, were killed and many more injured in Tripoli, Libya.

On Dec. 2, 1947, Arab rioters, assisted by the local police force, engaged in a bloody pogrom in Aden, in today’s Yemen, that killed 82 Jews. Four synagogues were burnt to the ground and 220 Jewish houses were burned and looted or damaged.

All of this, of course, preceded the creation of Israel. No wonder hundreds of thousands of Jews fled these countries in the decades that followed.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Is an Indian-Israeli-Russian Entente Being Formed?

Henry Srebrnik, [Toronto] Jewish Tribune

Is it too far-fetched to imagine an Israeli-Indian-Russian alliance some day?

If one were to take seriously political scientist Samuel Huntington’s famous “clash of civilizations” theory of international relations -- that people’s cultural and religious identities will be the primary source of conflict in the 21st century -- then clearly, given how Israel is surrounded by a mostly hostile Islamic world, its “natural” allies would be those countries whose interests also collide with the Muslim world.

Of these, the major ones are India and Russia.

Orthodox Christian Russia lies north of the Islamic civilization in the Caucasus and central Asia. It has already retreated from the five Muslim states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Russia has fought two bloody wars to maintain control of Chechnya. Terrorism remains a constant there and in neighbouring Dagestan and Ingushetia.

The Indian subcontinent has been the scene of Hindu-Muslim clashes for more than a millennium, and even its partition into the two states of India and Pakistan in 1947 has not ended the enmity.

They have gone to war three times and came close to engaging in major hostilities many times more. The Muslim-majority but Indian-ruled state of Kashmir remains a major bone of contention. Tens of thousands of people have been killed there in the years of strife.

(China, too, faces an independence movement, by the Muslim Uighur people in Xinjiang, but it is too far removed from the Middle East to matter.)

Since the 1960s, Israel’s main ally has been the United States. During much of that period, a Communist Russia and a left-leaning India supported the Arab world against Israel. But the end of the Cold War terminated most of those ideologically-based alliances.

The United States remains Israel’s most important friend, founded on a common Judeo-Christian affinity, true. (It also helps that there is an influential Jewish diaspora in America.)

But it has often been said that states have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests. Geopolitically the U.S. is far away from the Middle East and has fewer fundamental disputes with the Muslim world. One might say that its support for Israel is “voluntary” and not based on national interest or realpolitik -- in fact the U.S. would be much better off, from that point of view, in abandoning the Jewish state.

After all, it causes America complications it would otherwise not have when dealing with the vast arc of Islamic states that stretches from Morocco in the west to Indonesia in the east. The Islamic world encompasses more than 50 countries and makes up over 23 per cent of the world’s population.

Israel can’t depend forever on an America that wouldn’t suffer politically, and indeed might gain, by abandoning it -- whereas India and Russia, even if they didn’t really care about Israel, are in the same political boat with it.

Again, applying Huntington’s formulation, Jewish civilization is distinct and so Israel has no “natural” allies -- the way Scandinavians or Latin Americans may feel some affinity towards each other. And in fact the Zionist movement sought support from various countries in the past -- Germany before the First World War, Great Britain in the 1920s and 1930s, France after the Second World War, and the United States since the late 1960s. So this may shift yet again.

Given all of this, it is interesting to observe that Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Israel in late June. (President Barack Obama has yet to visit Israel.)

Russians have long suffered from terrorism and extremism at the hands of Islamists in the northern Caucasus. Zvi Magen, a former Israeli ambassador to Russia, recently told the BBC that President Putin fears the events of the Arab Spring “might inspire similar developments in Russia’s soft belly -- the Caucasus.”

This may be spreading. Recently, assassins attacked two prominent Muslim opponents of religious extremism, in Kazan, a city on the Volga River that is the capital of Tatarstan, far from the Caucasus. It has been a center of Islamic culture since the 10th century.

In 2010, during a meeting of Russian Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov and his Israeli counterpart Ehud Barak in Moscow, an agreement was signed to boost military ties between the two nations, to help them fight common threats, such as terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Putin attended the inauguration in Netanya of a new monument commemorating Red Army soldiers who fought against Nazi Germany in the Second World War. For the Russian soldiers who liberated the Nazi concentration camps, Israeli President Shimon Peres told Putin, “the Jewish people owe a historical ‘thank you’ to the Russians.”

India, too, has strengthened ties with Israel. It formally established relations in January 1992 and ties between the two nations have flourished since, primarily due to common strategic interests and security threats. Indian foreign minister S. M. Krishna visited Israel last January and called for increasing counter-terror and economic cooperation between the two countries.

A study conducted a few years ago by an international market research company, found 58 per cent of Indian respondents showed sympathy to the Jewish state.

It’s possible we might be witnessing the beginnings of an informal triple entente.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Future of Sovereign Nation-States

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

In the last 30 years or so, a consensus has emerged among our political elites, in Europe and North America, regarding the proper character of the state. They increasingly have come to regard as illegitimate states that are founded on the basis of ethnic or religious nationhood, as opposed to the civic-territorial or multicultural model.

They have come to define nationalism itself as a variant of racist intolerance, indeed 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 been largely discredited, perhaps due to the excesses of fascism and ultra-nationalism before the Second World War. In its stead has arisen the paradigm of a state with a universalist vision based on international human rights ideology.

This ideal state should preferably not be linked to any ethnic group per se but should adhere to a civic and political, rather than ethnic, concept of nationhood: the United States or Australia are examples. And even if it remains, historically and still predominantly, the homeland of one ethnic group it should live up to the same standards, the way Holland or Sweden do.

The traditional definition of a nation, to quote the political scientist Walker Connor, "is a group of people whose members believe they are ancestrally related. It is the largest group to share such a myth of common descent; it is, in a sentient sense, the fully extended family."

This sense of kinship, of separate origin and evolution, whether historically accurate or fictive, is, he writes, "the glue of the national bond."

While objective criteria such as common language, religion, territory, and the like, help define an ethno-national community, its essence is a psychological bond that joins it and "differentiates it, in the subconscious conviction of its members, from all non-members in a most vital way." And it also, Connor indicates, accounts for the emotional depth - call it irrationality - which it inspires, "the fanatical sacrifices which have been made in its name."

Even more important for ethnic survival, and perhaps long-range success, argues the British theorist Anthony Smith, is the need to cultivate the myth of ethnic election. Even in those instances where political independence was lost (as in the case of the Armenians and Jews), the moral community and the sense of divine mission, "the passionate attachments to sacred lands and centres, and the abiding imprint of sacred languages and scriptures proved to be an enduring legacy for many peoples." It nurtured their hopes for political restoration to the ancestral homeland.

Studies of nationalism by Conor Cruise O'Brien and Donald Akenson, Irish and Canadian scholars, respectively, have also emphasized the religiously based nature of national identity among peoples such as the Afrikaaners, Ulster Protestants and Jews.

Their complex foundation myths and territorial claims involve covenants with God, "promised lands" for "chosen peoples," which served as crucibles of national evolution. Arabs, Japanese, Russians, Poles, Serbs, and many other peoples have also asserted a special relationship with a transcendental deity.

But modern western political theory has become increasingly critical of the classical nation-state, especially of 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.

Rationalist intellectuals are, needless to say, even more skeptical of theologically-based claims to particular territories. Antipathy to such notions gained ground over the past two centuries; today, the proponents of multicultural secularism are opposed as a matter of principle to homogenous ethnically-based statehood.

Europe's dominant paradigm now is post-nationalist as opposed to the retrograde nation-state. In their version of the ideal polity, the nation is the territory, not the people.

Are these modern leaders really nostalgic for such failed testaments to multi-nationalism as the old Austro-Hungarian, tsarist Russian, and Ottoman Turkish empires?

Monday, July 16, 2012

Albania Has Come a Long Way This Decade

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal-Pioneer

Paul Theroux’s The Pillars of Hercules: A Grand Tour of the Mediterranean, published in 1995, is a wonderful glimpse into the political cultures of the peoples who inhabit its shores.

However, the small Balkan country of Albania, which had only a few years earlier emerged from almost five decades of ultra-Communist isolation, shocked him.

Desperate and ravaged Albania seemed worse than most third world countries. There was poverty and paranoia everywhere.

Albania was still recovering from the legacy of Enver Hoxha, the ruthless dictator who had ruled for 40 years, until his death in 1985.

Under Hoxha, Albania’s only friend, half a world away, was Maoist China, and even it abandoned Albania in the 1970s. Albania had been officially declared an atheist state, cut off from neighbouring Greece and Yugoslavia – both considered enemies. Hundreds of mosques and churches were destroyed. Hoxha had banned private automobiles because he didn’t want people leaving the country.

Hoxha was succeeded by Ramiz Alia, who tried to preserve the Communist system while introducing gradual reforms in order to revive the economy. But as the rest of eastern Europe threw off Communist rule, Albania followed.

In March 1992 a decisive electoral victory was won by the anti-Communist opposition, and Alia resigned as president.

The years that followed were, as Theroux observed, even worse. By 1997 the country was in the throes of outright rebellion, following the collapse of the economy in the wake of pyramid schemes and widespread corruption.

The severe social unrest led to more than 1,500 deaths and the widespread destruction of property. Most Albanians lost what little savings they had and thousands emigrated.

A UN Multinational Protection Force, led by Italy, was sent to help restore law and order. But putting the country back on its feet would take time.

For the past decade, Albania has made it a point to integrate into the wider European economic, military and political space.

In 1998, Albania’s three million citizens ratified a new constitution, guaranteeing the rule of law and the protection of fundamental human rights and religious freedom. Today, the government is headed by Prime Minister Sali Berisha, whose Democratic Party won the most seats in the legislative elections in 2005 and 2009.

Albania is now a member of NATO, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the Council of Europe, and the World Trade Organization. It formally applied for membership in the European Union in 2009.

Free market reforms, under the tutelage of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, have opened the country to foreign investment, especially in the development of energy and transportation infrastructure. Reforms in tax collection, property law, and business administration are also progressing.

With help from EU funds, the government is taking steps to improve the national road and rail network, a long-standing barrier to sustained economic growth. Even tourism now accounts for an increasing share of the economy.

Although Albania's economy continues to grow, the country does still remain one of the poorest in Europe.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Will Israel Turn to Russia?

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

Is it too far-fetched to imagine an Israeli-Russian alliance some day?

If one were to take seriously political scientist Samuel Huntington’s famous “clash of civilizations” theory of international relations -- that people’s cultural and religious identities will be the primary source of conflict in the 21st century -- then clearly, given how Israel is surrounded by a mostly hostile Islamic world, its “natural” allies would be those countries whose national interests also collide with the Muslim world.

One of these might be Russia.

Mainly Orthodox Christian in religion, Russia lies north of the Islamic civilization in the Caucasus and central Asia. It has already retreated from the five Muslim states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Russia has fought two bloody wars to maintain control of Chechnya. Terrorism remains a constant there and in neighbouring Dagestan and Ingushetia.

Since the 1960s, Israel’s main ally has been the United States. But geopolitically the U.S. is far away from the Middle East and has fewer fundamental disputes with the Muslim world.

Israel can’t depend forever on an America that wouldn’t suffer politically, and indeed might gain, by abandoning it -- whereas Russia, even if it didn’t really care about Israel, is in the same political boat with it.

So it is interesting to observe that Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Israel toward the end of June. (President Barack Obama has yet to visit Israel.)

Iran’s nuclear program, Syria’s civil war, and the Muslim Brotherhood victory in Egypt’s presidential election were topics of discussion.

Zvi Magen, a former Israeli ambassador to Russia, told the BBC that President Putin fears the events of the Arab Spring “might inspire similar developments in Russia’s soft belly -- the Caucasus.”

Russia is also interested in helping Israel develop its natural gas fields in the Mediterranean and in tapping into an emerging alliance being developed between Israel, Greece and the Greek Cypriots to offset tensions with Turkey.

Putin told his hosts that the two countries have deep economic and cultural relations bolstered by the more than one million Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union who live in Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet has several Russian speakers, including Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

Putin said that he felt he was “among friends,” adding that the ties between Israel and Russia were ones of “deep friendship, not something that will pass, and that will endure in the future.”

Putin attended the inauguration in Netanya of a new monument commemorating Red Army soldiers who fought against Nazi Germany in the Second World War. For the Russian soldiers who liberated the Nazi concentration camps, Israeli President Shimon Peres told Putin, “the Jewish people owe a historical ‘thank you’ to the Russians.”

Is it possible we might be witnessing the beginnings of an informal entente?

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Does Rejection of Israel in the Muslim World Have Religious Roots?

Henry Srebrnik, [Toronto] Jewish Tribune

There are so many ways in which Israel’s relationship with its Arab citizens differs from the way the former apartheid regimes in South Africa and the old Rhodesia treated non-whites that I won’t repeat them here. Readers of the Jewish Tribune are already aware of these.

But there is another fundamental difference, one often overlooked, which makes Arab antagonism in the Middle East towards the Jewish state quite different from the interaction between native African peoples and white settlers in southern Africa during the age of European imperialism. And that is the role of religion.

The peoples in southern Africa had no animosity towards, indeed didn’t even know the existence of, the various Europeans who arrived in their homelands and eventually came to dominate them. There was, by definition, no theological animus towards European whites in the belief structures of the Shona, Ndebele, Tswana, Xhosa, Zulu and other peoples in the region.

And when most of these ethnic groups became Christians of one denomination or another, they then shared a common faith with the conquerors, one which could be used to shame those who had subjugated them.

So the struggle that eventually resulted in freedom from white minority rule was a political one. It was, basically, a fight against inexcusable racial discrimination and oppression.

But it was a very different matter when Jews began to resettle and eventually create a state in their ancient homeland.

Starting with some of the verses in the Koran and the hadith (the deeds and sayings attributed to the prophet Muhammad), there was already a centuries-old tradition of treating Jews in a subservient, even derogatory manner, by a triumphalist Islam, the faith that had supplanted Jewish (and later Christian) sovereignty in the Middle East.

During Muhammad’s life, Jews lived in the Arabian peninsula, especially in and around Medina, and interacted with the peoples who had accepted the new faith. But as was the case centuries earlier in regards to Christianity, most Jews did not convert to Islam.

So, while Jews were acknowledged as People of the Book by Muslims, and were better off than their coreligionists in the far more anti-Judaic Christian lands, they were considered dhimmis – second-class people – and subject to a host of humiliating laws and restrictions.

At various times and in various places, the restrictions on Jews included payment of higher taxes; being forced to wear clothing distinguishing them from Muslims; and being barred from holding public office, bearing arms or riding a horse. Jews could be prevented from repairing existing or erecting new places of worship (and no synagogue could stand taller than a mosque). Of course proselytizing on behalf of any faith but Islam was barred.

When they met on board an American ship in the Suez Canal in February 1945, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdul-Aziz ibn Saud, ruler of the region’s most fundamentalist Arab state, told US President Franklin Roosevelt that he was “unwilling to have any dealings with Infidels, not to say Jews.”

Imagine then, the anger among those who had always considered themselves superior to Jews, to find the tables suddenly turned, and a people who used to “know their place” in the religious universe of the Middle East now had the chutzpah to re-establish a state in Palestine, right in the centre of the Arab world.

This has not been an easy pill to swallow, since it calls in question a centuries-old worldview regarding Jews. We still don’t know whether this will remain a bedrock religious problem that, today, prevents much of the Islamic world from recognizing Israel, regardless of its borders or policies.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Was The War of 1812 An American Religious Crusade?

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

This month we commemorate the two hundredth anniversary of the start of the War of 1812. The conflict began on June 18, when President James Madison formally declared war on Great Britain.

Madison told Americans that he was committing the new republic “into the hands of the Almighty Disposer of Events” and announced that Aug. 20 would be a national fast day of thanksgiving and prayer.

Two centuries ago, the new United States, born out of a revolution against royalty and Catholic “Papism,” was a devoutly, even fanatically, Protestant country. And this shaped its foreign policy decisions, including the waging of war.

So contends historian Andrew Preston, in his magnificent book Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy.

It documents the way Protestantism, in particular the Calvinist theology of an elect people chosen by God to better mankind, propelled the British settlers in the North American colonies in their wars against the French and Spanish empires throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, and later against the mother country itself.

This was particularly the case in New England, founded by Puritan dissenters who were not only fiercely anti-Catholic, but also looked askance at the established Church of England and rule by a British monarch.

Catholicism, they asserted, “was an inherently authoritarian system that created political despotism wherever it predominated.”

When the hated French were finally defeated and forced to relinquish the colony of New France in the Treaty of Paris in 1763, it was for the New England colonists a sign of “divine providence.”

But they were sorely disappointed when the Royal Proclamation of 1763 created a boundary line between the British colonies on the Atlantic coast and aboriginal territories west of the Appalachians. Britain hoped in this way to gain the loyalty of native nations. Most had been French allies. 

And the American colonists felt further betrayed by the mother country when the French inhabitants of Quebec were allowed to retain their language and Catholic religion after the Quebec Act was passed by the British Parliament in 1774. This was viewed as an affront to the Protestant faith.

 Not only that, but the boundaries of Quebec were expanded to include land that is now southern Ontario and a huge portion of what is now the American Midwest, further blocking westward expansion by the American colonies.

It took just two more years for these, and other frustrations, to come to a head; the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776. America, the “city on a hill,” would be a beacon of liberty.

The victorious colonists who founded the new United States of America gained control over almost all the lands east of the Mississippi River and westward expansion, part of the “manifest destiny” of the United States, was underway.

The new nation, though, felt there was still unfinished business between itself and Great Britain. Americans were encountering strong resistance from native peoples in their push westward, and believed that the British were encouraging Indian opposition. As well, there was still the matter of a Catholic Quebec, whose inhabitants continued to live in darkness, oppressed by a church that many in the United States continued to view as the “Antichrist.”

So, though many Americans were opposed to war with Great Britain, others, particularly in the newly settled states, wished to “liberate” the remainder of British North America-- and also end native opposition.

The final straw was the British Navy’s boarding of American ships to forcibly enlist any sailors of British origin and its attempts to prevent the United States from trading with Napoleon’s France, at the time the master of Europe.

(The U.S. remained neutral in that European conflict.)

An American army under General William Hull invaded Upper Canada on July 12. “You will be emancipated from Tyranny and oppression and restored to the dignified status of freemen,” he proclaimed. But Hull was surprised by the resistance he encountered. The United Empire Loyalists, who had fought for the Crown during the American Revolutionary War, opposed the American invasion.

As for Lower Canada, the French inhabitants found the anti-Catholic stance of the United States threatening. They feared that an American conquest would force Protestantism and Anglicization on them; attempts to capture Montreal failed.

Concerned about American westward expansion and encroachment onto Indian lands, most aboriginal peoples also supported the British, in the hope that a British victory would assure the Indians of possession of their lands.

The Shawnee leader Tecumseh had created a native confederacy, which fought on the British side and was a key factor in many of the British successes. But he was killed in battle and the dream of a sovereign native nation never came to pass.

“If God be for us, who can stand against us?” asked one American preacher. However, though a Vermont newspaper insisted that Americans had fought “a holy war, for the Lord has fought for us in battles, and given us the victories,” in actual fact the conflict ended inconclusively in 1814.

The United States had been unable to conquer the remaining British colonies in North America. Five decades later, these would be united in a new Dominion of Canada.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

A Tale of Two Provincial Identities

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

The book Banal Nationalism by Michael Billig, published in 1995, calls attention to the “everyday representations of the nation which build an imagined sense of national solidarity and belonging.”  It asks us to look for our sense of identity in mundane as well as big events.

So let’s compare two sets of people angry with their provincial governments. In Quebec, as everyone knows, students and their supporters have been demonstrating in Montreal for weeks, protesting about a government decision to raise fees for college and university students.

On Prince Edward Island, there has been dissatisfaction with many recent decisions by the provincial government, with a number of protests taking place in front of the legislature in Charlottetown recently.

A rally against plans to implement a harmonized sales tax, replacing the GST and provincial sales tax, brought out a crowd the evening of June 7. The Charlottetown Guardian of June 8 printed a large front page picture of the event.

I counted 13 Canadian Maple Leaf flags being held by protestors in the photo, and only two provincial ones, even though this is a provincial, not federal, issue. Undoubtedly there were many more.

On the other hand, I have read in various accounts that the Québécois marchers have carried aloft, along with various banners and placards, numerous Quebec fleur-de-lys flags – but apparently no Canadian ones. (If there were any, they’ve certainly been overshadowed.)

Former premier Jacques Parizeau, who led the separatist Parti Québécois from 1988 to 1996, chortled that this demonstrates that Québécois know where their primary loyalty lies. (Virtually all the striking students are enrolled in francophone institutions.)

“It’s absolutely fascinating because I’d never seen this before where over 200,000 people could demonstrate in Quebec without waving a single Canadian flag,” Parizeau told a pro-sovereignty meeting late last month. “These demonstrations have certainly settled the issue of Quebec’s identity.” Is he right?

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

The Old and New Lefts in America

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

This past May, I attended a conference on “Jews and the Left” held at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York. It dealt with Jews in both the old and new lefts of the 20th century, and the role of Jewish women in these movements.

A few days later, I took in the play “4000 Miles,” by Amy Herzog, at the Lincoln Centre. It’s the story of the 91-year-old widow of a once-celebrated Communist writer and activist and her 21-year-old grandson, whose life has been shaped by post-1960s culture.

All of this got me thinking about the political link between the two left-wing movements. The so-called “Old Left” was led by the Communist Party (CPUSA) and that organization almost collapsed after 1956, when its members learned, to their sorrow, that the Soviet state they had been worshipping for decades was, under Joseph Stalin, actually a murderous tyranny.

The political space the Communists left behind would, within a few years, be filled by a less dogmatic “New Left,” led by student radicals in groups like SDS, the Students for a Democratic Society, founded just four years later.

But the two are more of a seamless web than many people realize, despite the fact that the newer radical movement showed disdain for the hide-bound old Communists.

The connecting thread is the Jews of New York.

In 1939, according to Professor Harvey Klehr of Emory University, some 40% of the 39,000 CPUSA members were Jewish, and concentrated in big cities, New York in particular. Half of the party’s cultural apparatus, centred in New York, was Jewish, added Tony Michels of the University of Wisconsin.

When Henry Wallace he ran for president on the Communist-inspired Progressive Party ticket in 1948, about one third of his vote came from Jews.

The Communist Party collapsed in the 1950s, and by 1960 had just 3,000 members. But the children of Jewish Communists, so called “red diaper babies,” would fill the ranks of the leadership of the New Left.

People like Mark Rudd, who led a student revolt at Columbia University in 1968, were typical.

Of the 59 individuals who gathered  in Port Huron, Michigan in June 1962 to issue the SDS Port Huron Statement, the most influential manifesto that ever came from the student left, between one-third to one-half were Jews, according to Columbia University professor Todd Gitlin, a former president of SDS.

We can see how the one movement morphed into the other by looking at two seminal cultural events: the Peekskill riots of 1949 and the iconic Woodstock music festival twenty years later.

The catalyst for the Peekskill rioting was an announced concert by African-American singer Paul Robeson, known for his Communist affiliations. The concert, organized as a benefit for the Civil Rights Congress, a Communist directed group, was scheduled to take place on August 27 just north of Peekskill, NY.

Before Robeson arrived, a mob of locals attacked concert-goers with baseball bats and rocks. The local police arrived hours later and did little to intervene. Thirteen people were seriously injured, Robeson was lynched in effigy and a cross was seen burning on an adjacent hillside.

Many of those who came were Jews in various Communist-front organizations. This was the era of McCarthyism and the Communist Party was on the defensive.

There was yet more violence when the concert was rescheduled a week later. Even police and New York state troopers were caught on film joining in the beatings of concert goers.

Fast forward 20 years to August 15-18, 1969 and the height of the counter-culture. The Woodstock Festival, like the Peekskill concert, was held outside New York, in the Catskills, long a Jewish vacation area. (In the 1940s, many of the resorts were frequented by the same left-wing Jews who were at Peekskill.)

The venue where it took place was owned by Max Yasgur, a Jewish farmer born in New York City, whose parents were East European Jewish immigrants. Most of his non-Jewish neighbors opposed the festival, but unlike in 1949 at Peekskill, there was no violence.

And the folk-song movement, exemplified by people like Bob Dylan, who for a time lived in the town of Woodstock, also straddled the line between old and new left.

So there was more of a Jewish connection to Woodstock than people remember. It too had a Jewish flavour; many of the singers and groups were Jews.

The amorphous New Left, with its music and literature, had penetrated more deeply into the American mainstream than its predecessor. After all, it was not bound to the Soviet Union and had no need to apologize for that country’s misdeeds.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Montreal Then and Now

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal-Pioneer

On Victoria Day weekend, I attended my 50th year high school reunion in Montreal. Outremont High had been an English-language Protestant school and, with the outflow of Anglophones from Quebec after the 1970s, it no longer exists.

It was amazing to see the 200 or so graduates who returned after five decades. We even toured the old school, now a French education centre.

The school had always been a first-rate institution, and most of us seem to have done quite well in life; many of us are academics, doctors, lawyers, business people, and other professionals. At least half are retired. Only about half still live in Montreal, the rest scattered in the rest of Canada, the United States and even Europe. And the children of those still living in the city are also mostly gone.

But things are not going that well for others in Quebec. A three-month-old student strike by college and university students against the Quebec government’s plan to raise tuition fees has almost brought the city to its knees.

Students in Quebec pay by far the lowest fees in the country and as a result Quebec’s institutions are underfunded compared with those elsewhere in North America. Currently, annual tuition is $2,168 – the lowest in North America. The increase would bring tuition to $3,946 by 2019.

The additional sum the students were being asked to pay was just a small percentage of what the government itself pays for higher education. Yet this was met with massive opposition.

There have been nightly marches and demonstrations, and in some cases students opposed to the strike were harassed and forced out of classrooms by militants.

As well, in various neighbourhoods, people who support the students go outside and start banging saucepans and skillets every evening at eight o’clock. It can last anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour.

The campaign was inspired by the pot-banging protests that shook the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in Chile in the mid-1980s.

(In this and many other ways, Quebec has become more of a Latin or Mediterranean society than a North American one.)

In response, on May 19 Jean Charest’s governing Liberals brought in a law to bring the student strike to an end. As well, Montreal’s city council passed an anti-mask bylaw.

Bill 78 imposes fines of $25,000 up to $125,000 against student associations and unions. They could be charged if they do not stop their members from protesting within university and college grounds.

During a street demonstration, the organization that plans the protest will be penalized if individual protesters stray from the police-approved route or exceed the time limit imposed by authorities. Student associations and unions are also liable for any damage caused by other marchers during a demonstration.

Violence marked every night of the long Victoria Day weekend – we could hear it from our hotel on Sherbrooke Street -- and the first part of the week. The biggest demonstration yet drew 250,000 people on May 22, according to various estimates.

A day later, more than 500 people were arrested at another march, the 30th since the student protests began.

The march had been declared illegal by police the minute it was scheduled to start but was allowed to proceed for almost four hours before a line of Montreal riot police blocked part of Sherbrooke Street as the marchers approached. The arrests followed.

The student organizations have gone to court to try to get Bill 78 struck down. It continues to be flouted and some radicals have said that if talks fail they plan to disrupt various events planned for the summer tourist season. They predict a long, hot summer in Montreal.