Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

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.