Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

Monday, February 25, 2013

When Was the State of Israel Established?

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal-Pioneer

When was the State of Israel established?

The official answer is easy: David Ben-Gurion, on behalf of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, proclaimed the formation of the Jewish state on May 14, 1948, as the British were pulling down the Union Jack and departing Palestine, which they had governed as a League of Nations Mandate after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War.

But modern Israel is, in many ways, older than that. The World Zionist Organization, created by Theodor Herzl in1897, had been building the infrastructure of a Jewish country for many decades. 

One document on the road to statehood was the Balfour Declaration of Nov. 2, 1917. Signed by the British foreign secretary, Arthur James Balfour, it stated that Britain was “in favor of the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing should be done which might prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

The text of the Mandate for Palestine (which incorporated the 1917 Balfour Declaration) was approved by the Council of the League of Nations on July 24, 1922 and Britain became the official Mandatory power. Jews arrived in Palestine, building cities, farms, and infrastructure – a de facto state.

One can also point to the Nov. 29, 1947 passage, by a vote of 33-13, with 10 abstentions, of United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181, which called for the partition of Palestine into Arab and Jewish states to follow the termination of the Mandate. Among those in favour were the Soviet Union and the United States. The resolution was accepted by the Jews in Palestine but rejected by the Arabs.

Yet, to my mind, there is yet another, symbolic, date that predates the formal establishment of the state, though it is a day that surely ranks among the darkest in Jewish history.

By the end of 1942, most of the Jews of Poland, herded into ghettos after the Nazi conquest of the country in 1939, had been murdered in Hitler’s Holocaust. Those that remained, in cities such as Bialystok, CzÄ™stochowa, Vilna (Vilnius), and Warsaw, were mostly younger people, who knew the fate that awaited them, and, though knowing they could not prevail against the might of the Nazi war machine, were determined to fight.

In Warsaw, members of the Revisionist Zionist movement formed the Jewish Military Union (Zydowski Zwiazek Wojskowy, or ZZW), and began to acquire arms, much of it from the mainstream Polish underground, the Home Army (Armia Krajowa, or AK). On the left, a number of political groups organized the Jewish Combat Organization (Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa, or ZOB); they gained some help from the Polish Communist-led Gwardia Ludowa militia.

When Nazi SS troops entered the ghetto in mid-January 1943, to deport more Jews to their deaths, they were met with gunfire and Molotov cocktails, and were forced to retreat.

Furious, Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, on Feb. 16 ordered the entire ghetto destroyed. Two months later, the assault began. Though of course completely outnumbered and outgunned, the Warsaw Jews fought against these overwhelming odds for a month.

As the ghetto was being demolished, some Jews managed to escape through underground sewers into Warsaw proper, but at least13,000 were killed in the battle (almost half burnt alive  in the collapsing buildings set on fire by the Nazis.

However, on April 19, 1943, during the battle, the ZZW raised two flags atop the highest building in the ghetto:  the red-and-white Polish Eagle and the blue-and-white Zionist banner (today’s Israeli flag). That day, too, should be considered one of the founding dates of Israel.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

An "English Canada" in the South Pacific

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal-Pioneer

An American friend of mine who teaches at a Pennsylvania college is in Australia on sabbatical at the moment. It’s his third time in the country and he loves it. Who wouldn't? The “lucky country” has, in most areas, a benign semi-tropical climate, unlike our more frigid one – and it’s summer “down under” right now.

It got me thinking about the other ways Canada and Australia differ. Along with different colonial experiences, these are the two most obvious ones: Australia does not have a distinct “country” within it such as Quebec, with its own culture, language, and sense of nationhood; and it is not next to the United States, and therefore endlessly (especially in English Canada) trying to differentiate itself from America.

When its six colonies formed the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901, none was a former European colony that had been conquered by the British. It has no equivalent to Quebec (or for that matter, the old Afrikaner republics in South Africa).

In many ways Australia is more “British” than Canada. The country retains its ensign flag, with the Union Jack in the upper left. Cars drive on the left side of the road. There are double-decker buses in the cities. Cricket and rugby are major sports. Even the accent is far more British than Canada’s.

On the other hand Australia has a far greater sense of nationalism. Its constitution, unlike ours, never required amendment by the British parliament.  There are no endless ruminations about “identity” -- a perpetual Canadian pastime. And its national culture remains more robustly “militaristic” than ours.

Australia’s political system is a hybrid of the American and British ones. Its lower House of Representatives is elected by population, but its upper house, the Senate, is also an elected body, representing the states. It has a classical two-party system, with a permanent Liberal Party-National Party Coalition – similar to Britain's Tories -- on the right, and a Labour Party on the left. The latter is in power at the moment.

Unlike Canada, which lives in the shadow of its neighbouring superpower, and hence has in recent decades made a virtue of a mild form of pacifism, Australia is the South Pacific’s hegemonic power. Indeed, it even governed colonies, including the eastern half of the island of New Guinea, which only gained its independence in 1975, as Papua New Guinea.

Canberra, unlike Ottawa, participated in the war in Vietnam in the 1960s. In more recent years, it has become a “Pacific policeman,” sending troops at various times to neighbouring islands in turmoil, such as East Timor and the Solomon Islands.

Aboriginal peoples have been -- and in many ways still are -- treated badly in both countries. Since the beginning of European settlement in 1788, Australia's indigenous peoples have at various times been murdered en masse, herded into reserves, and marginalized, with virtually no rights. Few could vote until the 1960s.

Both Canada and Australia were, until the 1960s, also quite racist in their immigration policies. In fact, in Australia, there was an explicit “white Australia” policy. But this has changed, and today cities like Melbourne and Sydney are vibrant, multicultural places. Trade with Pacific powers like China and Japan are essential to the country’s economic well-being.

By looking at the trajectory of Australian history, we can get a glimpse of the Canada that might have been, had it been founded as a confederation without Quebec, and far from the United States.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Two African Countries That Descended into Anarchy

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal-Pioneer

Two small countries adjacent to each other along the northwest coast of Africa have histories very different from those of their neighbours.

The populations of most African states consist of the indigenous people who lived within their current borders before the advent of European colonialism.

But Liberia and Sierra Leone were both founded as places where former Black slaves from North America could start new lives in their ancestral continent.

Liberia was mainly the creation of the American Colonization Society. Settlement of freed slaves from the United States began in 1822, and by 1867, the Society had assisted in the movement of more than 13,000 Americans to Liberia.

In 1847, these Americo-Liberians were able to establish a republic. Nominally independent, it was in effect an American protectorate, governed for some 150 years by the descendents of the Americans who had brought with them the culture of the U.S. south.

The capital, Monrovia, was named in honour of American President James Monroe, a prominent supporter of the colonization project, while Buchanan, the third-largest city, was named for an early governor who was a cousin of another American president, James Buchanan. The country’s flag is a one-star version of Old Glory.

Sierra Leone became a British colony in 1808, and gained its independence in 1961. In 1787, Britain had started to resettle Black Loyalists from the American colonies who had been freed in exchange for their services during the American Revolution, in the new capital, Freetown.

The Crown also offered resettlement to former slaves who had settled in Nova Scotia; they would have a profound influence on the emerging Creole culture. As well, some colonists came from the Caribbean or from England itself.

Both countries would later be undone by ethnic strife. First destabilized by military coups, the civil wars that followed ushered in years of chaos, violence and mass murder.

Although founded by freed American Blacks, Liberia is mostly inhabited by indigenous Africans, with the slaves’ descendants comprising just five per cent of the population.

So in 1980, when President William Tolbert was overthrown by Sergeant Samuel Doe, a member of the indigenous Krahn people who had suffered discrimination at the hands of the Americo-Liberian elite, it marked the end of dominance by the minority.

But things got worse. By the late 1980s, Doe’s arbitrary rule had led to economic collapse, and a former political ally of his, Charles Taylor, formed an opposition group, the National Patriotic Front of Liberia. His armed militia overran much of the countryside, entering the capital in 1990 and killing Doe.

Taylor not only took control of Liberia, but also became involved with a civil war in neighbouring Sierra Leone. He was finally forced out in 2003, but not before an estimated 250,000 Liberians were killed.

Eventually extradited to the Hague, Taylor in 2012 was convicted by a special tribunal of war crimes as a result of his involvement in the Sierra Leone civil war, and sentenced to 50 years in prison.

In Sierra Leone, the descendants of the Creole, or Krio, settlers, who continued to arrive in Freetown until 1855, today comprise just two per cent of the country’s population.

The country’s civil war began in 1991 with an invasion led by Foday Sankoh, of ethnic Temne and Lokko background. His Revolutionary United Front promised to end the domination of the country by the Freetown elite, considered corrupt and incompetent by many in the country.

But the RUF soon became more interested in the money to be made from the sale of “blood diamonds” and plundered the country’s resources. The fighting, which included incredible atrocities visited on people by the RUF, lasted about a decade. At least 70,000 people died; some estimates are much higher.

In 2000, amid increasing evidence of massive human rights violations, British forces were sent to the country by then Prime Minister Tony Blair and defeated the RUF. Sankoh was indicted for multiple war crimes but died in prison in 2003 before the trial took place.

The current president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, is obviously America’s choice. Educated in the U. S., she had served in the administration of Tolbert before leaving the country after Doe’s coup. She then worked as an economist at the World Bank in Washington. First elected president in 2005, she subsequently won re-election in 2011 in a vote that was boycotted by the opposition.

In Sierra Leone, Ernest Bai Koroma, a former insurance executive, won a second term as president in 2012. He has said that he is still thankful to Tony Blair for the role Britain played in securing peace for Sierra Leone, and the British are playing a major part in rebuilding the country’s economy.

In a sense, Liberia and Sierra Leone have come full circle. Both are again under the tutelage of their former patrons, the U.S. and Britain.

Monday, February 04, 2013

A Political Philosopher's Analysis of Nazi Totalitarianism

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal-Pioneer

It has now been half a century since the political philosopher Hannah Arendt, a refugee from Nazi Germany who became a distinguished American academic, published Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.

It was based on the New Yorker articles she wrote while covering the trial of Adolph Eichmann, one of the architects of Hitler’s genocide.

He had been captured by Israeli agents in Argentina in 1960. He was found guilty of crimes against humanity, crimes against the Jewish people, war crimes, and membership in an outlawed organization, and was executed in 1962.

The book, published in 1963, has been the subject of heated controversy ever since. Arendt, who died in 1975, and who has herself been the subject of many books since, was accused of a lack of sympathy for the victims of the Holocaust, as well as of portraying Eichmann as a bureaucrat who simply followed orders, rather than a vicious anti-Semite.

Arendt’s views on Nazism as a major failing of European civilization can be found in seminal works written prior to Eichmann in Jerusalem, including The Origins of Totalitarianism, published in 1951; The Human Condition, which came out in 1958; and the 1961collection Between Past and Future: Six Exercises in Political Thought.

Arendt saw the curse of totalitarianism emerging out of mass movements, which trampled historical traditions, and were dismissive of private property and limited government.

The group, be it one of class, ethnicity, or religion, destroys, as she wrote in The Human Condition, “the paradoxical plurality of unique beings,” eventually eliminating the realm of freedom. Under Nazism, a homogenous society of “blood and soil” supplants individual difference.       

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt asserted that this loss of individual identity creates a totalitarian society in which “each individual knows that he lives or dies for the preservation of the species,” and leads to the “volkish” community of “race” envisaged by Hitler. It also creates the “mass man” – people such as Eichmann and SS commander Heinrich Himmler – for whom traditional morality becomes meaningless.

The primitive and “biological” category of race, rather than nation, becomes the principle of the body politic, contended Arendt, and bureaucracy becomes the means of rule. From this tribalism comes the grotesque theory of “the superman whose natural destiny it is to rule the world.”

For the Nazis, terror and mass murder become necessary, she stated, since the forces of “nature” and “history” must not be impeded in the course of the implementation of the ideal civilization, the so-called “Thousand Year Reich.”

No relativist, Arendt, in Between Past and Future, observed that the totalitarian impulse had introduced a “radical evil” in the world, one that constituted a break in the history of civilization. If there was no empirical reality, but rather the propagation of ideological claims that could be totally mad, this meant “quite literally that everything is possible not only in the realm of ideas but in the field of reality itself.”

Crimes such as the Holocaust were therefore so immense, she maintained, that they could not be judged by normal moral standards, and the murderers, too, were unprecedented in human history.

A true political conservative, Arendt cautioned that authority should always imply “an obedience in which men retain their freedom.” It remains prudent to always heed this advice.