Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

Monday, July 30, 2018

Israel and the Complexities of Jewish History

By Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

Jewish identity after the Holocaust and the creation of Israel has become ever more complex, especially for those of the post-1945 generation, who grew up immediately after these transformational events

In Israel itself, Jews face a dilemma regardless of where they find themselves on the ideological spectrum.

While the left is correct about the dangers of continued occupation of the territories acquired after the 1967 war, the right warns about the dangers of a peace process with a Palestinian national movement that includes Hamas, which rules Gaza and is sworn to eventually destroy the Jewish state.

The enclave is home to two million Palestinians, more than half of whom live below the poverty line and who face an unemployment rate of nearly 50 per cent.

The militant group believes that the Jews invented their history and that Israel is nothing more than a colonialist intrusion, which needs to be destroyed, as were the Christian Crusader kingdoms almost a millennium ago.

Israel and Hamas have fought three wars in the last decade and many on both sides think a fourth is inevitable.

Hamas sees compromise as a betrayal of justice. The events on the Gaza border in recent weeks demonstrate this.

Why are Palestinians who live in Palestine demanding the “right of return” to a country that is no longer Palestine?

Does the Palestinian right of return mean going back to the actual ancestral homes that were lost in war 70 years ago? Those homes in most cases no longer even exist.

No Israeli government will agree to national suicide by allowing the descendants of refugees to move to the Jewish state.

The Palestinian demand for right of return to the state of Israel is nothing less than an expression of the rejection of Israel’s right to exist.

In a video of a July 12 rally, aired on Al-Jazeera, former Hamas interior minister Fathi Hammad spoke about “the cleansing of Palestine of the filth of the Jews, and their uprooting from it,” which he promised would soon happen.

“By 2022 we will be rid of them,” he said, and Palestine will have been “healed of its cancer -- the Jews.”

It is of course true that modern Zionism originated in an increasingly inhospitable Europe, where pogroms were common, and where anti-Semitic hatred culminated in the Holocaust.

That’s not the whole story, though.Today, a majority of Israeli Jews are not of European descent but come from families who left one part of the Middle East and came to another part, who left or fled or were expelled from countries like Egypt, Iraq and Morocco, where Jews had lived for centuries.

They weren’t touched directly by the Holocaust but as minorities of a different faith they suffered at the hands of their Arab neighbours -- and long before 1948.

A Holocaust-centered  narrative also ignores the centrality of the land of Israel to Judaism and the Jewish people.

Yes, Jews needed a safe home -- but not just anywhere. Through their culture, religion, and languages, Jews maintained a vicarious indigineity with a homeland lost but never forgotten.

So this is the quandary: while Jews are not “occupiers” in any part of the land of Israel -- the way Europeans have occupied lands with which they had no historical or religious connection, in Africa, Australia, and North America -- Israel does govern millions of Palestinian Arabs who have no civil, national, or political rights under occupation.

Left-wingers tend to minimize the security threat that Israel faces, the level of hostility and denial of its right to exist. But right-wingers ignore the political, demographic and moral consequences of permanently ruling over another people.

The ideologues in each camp pretend the argument of the rival group has no substance. That is madness.

De Gaulle’s Fifth French Republic, Sixty Years On

By Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Fifth Republic in France. It is now the second-longest constitutional order in the country since the 1789 French Revolution.

It is surpassed only by the Third Republic, which lasted from 1870 until the French defeat of 1940 in the Second World War.

The Fifth Republic was born amidst a profound crisis that destroyed the ill-fated Fourth Republic.

The latter lasted little more than a decade, and collapsed due to the vicious colonial wars France had been fighting in Indochina and Algeria.

The Fourth Republic’s weak parliamentary system had seen a revolving door of prime ministers amidst political gridlock -- there were 21 administrations in its 12-year history.

Moreover, the government proved unable to make effective decisions regarding the decolonization of the numerous remaining French colonies.

After a series of crises, most importantly the Algerian one of 1958, the Fourth Republic collapsed.

In many ways the Algerian War, launched by the Front de Libération Nationale in 1954, almost tore the nation apart.

Across the Mediterranean from metropolitan France, Algeria had, apart from its indigenous Arab Muslim population of some 8.5 million, about a million French settlers, known as pied-noirs.

They, of course, wanted to remain French, under the slogan Algérie française.

Favourable to them, the French Army in Algeria slowly consolidated power, and by May 1958 had complete control over the territory and were on the verge of launching a coup d’état.

Fearing a military takeover of France itself, the government called former general Charles de Gaulle, the hero of the Second World War, out of retirement to hold the country together.

He now presided over a transitional administration that was empowered to design a new French constitution.

The Fourth Republic was dissolved by a public referendum in 1958 which established the modern-day Fifth Republic with a strengthened presidency.

Under this semi-presidential form of government, the president has substantial power, holds a term of five years and, following a change to the constitution in 1962, is directly elected by the French people. (De Gaulle held the position until 1968.)

Algeria eventually became independent on July 5, 1962, and virtually the entire European population left thereafter.

De Gaulle was a military man who was ahead of his time. In the 1930s he defied the strategic orthodoxy of the military high command by advocating greater reliance on armoured divisions.

When France fell to Hitler’s armies in June 1940, de Gaulle escaped to England, salvaging the country’s honour by creating the Free French movement, rather than joining the defeatist Vichy regime of Marshal Philppe Pétain.

On June 18 he broadcast an appeal to his compatriots on the BBC to continue the struggle, vowing to kindle the “flame of resistance.”

Over the next four years, the exiled general became the symbol of the French collective fight against the Germans.

The French turned to him again in 1958, and he once again saved the republic.

Since de Gaulle,  who left office in 1969, there have been seven French presidents, of differing political ideologies, under the Fifth Republic. Emmanuel Macron, the latest, was elected last year.

Finally, France has crafted a republican system that seems to work.

Now the nation’s most revered historical figure, de Gaulle has thousands of streets, schools and public squares across France bearing his name. Le général had saved the country twice.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

African States Lay Down Arms

Henry Srebrnik, [Saint John, N.B.] Telegraph-Journal

Most of Africa’s conflicts are interminable affairs, civil or tribal wars lasting decades and  involving non-state actors. They’re hard to bring to a close.

One of Africa’s few wars between sovereign states, on the other hand, recently ended.

The leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea on July 9 signed a “joint declaration of peace and friendship,” a day after a summit in Asmara, the Eritrean capital, between Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia. 

Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after a 30-year guerrilla war, but their border remained contested and about 80,000 people died in a 1998-2000 border war.

A peace agreement known as the Algiers accord was signed in 2000. It created an independent, impartial body, known as the Ethiopian-Eritrean Boundary Commission, to determine the boundary, but Ethi­o­pia balked at implementing the deal.

Ethiopia has now agreed to implement the ruling that awarded the key town of Badme to Eritrea.

Isaias visited Addis Ababa July 14. The two leaders announced that they would resume airline and telephone services and cross-border trade, and reopen their embassies. 

Ethiopia, which has been a landlocked nation since Eritrea achieved independence, needs the Eritrean port of Assab for access to the Red Sea. Until 1998, it used Assab for two-thirds of its trade with the world. 

In addition, the two countries agreed to participate in the development of other ports. This will reduce Ethiopia’s dependence on the port of Djibouti, which has been its main gateway for trade.

Africa’s second most populous state, with 102 million people, Ethiopia has East Africa’s largest economy and is a regional power.

It has the largest army in the region and the continent’s fastest-growing economy, with a growth rate expected to be 8.5 per cent this year. 

Abiy, who became Ethiopia’s prime minister in April, is the first member of the Oromo ethnic group, which makes up more than a third of Ethiopia’s population of more than 102 million, to lead the government. 

They have suffered repression in the past and were at the center of protests demanding more economic opportunities and greater freedom of expression.

The outgoing Ethiopian leader, Hailemariam Desaleg of the small Welayta ethnic group, who number only 2.3 per cent of the country’s people, resigned in February.

Deadly clashes for more than two years had left at least 700 people dead. Abiy lifted a state of emergency and freed political prisoners.

Both men are members of the Ethiopian People’s RevolutionaryDemocratic Front that has ruled the country since overthrowing an Amhara-led Marxist-Leninist Derg regime in 1991.

Historically, the Amhara people, numbering 27 per cent, were the country’s governing force. Emperor Haile Selasssie, deposed in 1974, was Amhara, as was Mengistu Haile Mariam, the country’s dictator until 1991.

The minority Tigrayans, though numbering just 6.1 per cent of the population, have controlled the political and economic life of Ethiopia since then. The late Meles Zenawi, the first prime minister of a post-Derg Ethiopia, was Tigrayan.

Abiy’s ethnicity has been crucial in laying the ground for reconciliation with Eritrea.

The repressive Eritrean government, meanwhile, has long been involved in human rights abuses, and denies rights based on political opinion and religion.

It subjects its citizens to “national service” that traps conscripts for well over a decade and in some cases, forever. About 12 per cent of Eritrea’s five million people have fled the country.

Will this peace deal result in social and political liberalization there?

Monday, July 23, 2018

Does Russia Regret Having Sold Alaska?

By Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer
As all those who study nationalism know, one of the major sources of conflict between states relates to what is known as irredentism.

This refers to any movement or country that seeks to reclaim and occupy a land that it considers to be a “lost” or “unredeemed” territory that it once owned.

Such territorial claims are justified on the basis of real or imagined national notions of historic, territorial, religious or ethnic affiliations.

There are many serious cases of irredentist claims around the world, and they often spark wars. Some seem dormant – but are they?

Visiting Alaska recently, I wondered if there was any “seller’s remorse” in Russia regarding a former colony that is now an American state. 

It’s been more than 150 years since Tsar Alexander II of Russia sold Alaska, across the Bering Strait from Siberia, to the United States.

At the time, it seemed to make sense. The Russians had lost the Crimean War to European rivals Britain and France a decade earlier, and they feared that the British, already in control of most of northern North America, might wrest it from them.

To forestall this, in 1867 they sold Alaska to the United States, then still a relatively minor power and certainly no threat to them.

Russian America was the name of the tsarist colonial possessions in North America from 1733 to 1867. The Russians were primarily interested in the abundance of fur-bearing mammals on Alaska’s coast.

The fur trade proved to be a lucrative enterprise, and on 1784, with encouragement from Empress Catherine the Great, permanent settlement in Alaska began. 

In 1799 the Russian-American Company was created in order to monopolize the fur trade. Alexander Baranov (for whom a hotel is named in present-day Juneau) was promoted by the company as chief manager, effectively becoming the first governor of Russian America. 

The capital was established in New Arkhangelsk (today’s Sitka) and became known as the “Paris of the Pacific Ocean.”

Angered by encroachment on their land, Tlingit warriors destroyed several Russian settlements, but the Russians re-established their presence following the Battle of Sitka in 1804.

By the middle of the 19th century, though, profits from the colony were in steep decline and the Russians concluded that it was too expensive to retain. They also feared that if gold were discovered (as it eventually was), Americans might overrun the territory.

U.S. Secretary of State William Seward had wanted to purchase Alaska for quite some time as he saw it as an integral part of “manifest destiny.” The purchase would position the U.S. closer to trade with China, and fend off any British thoughts of encroachment on the West Coast.

Though many skeptics called it “Seward’s folly,” Washington purchased the colony for $7.2 million. As it turned out, it was money well spent!

Some Russians now regret the decision. So the 150th anniversary last year of Russia’s sale was a day of mourning for some right-wing Russian nationalists who see the transaction as a gigantic blunder, one that lessened Moscow’s influence in an Arctic with natural riches in an age of climate change.

“If Russia was in possession of Alaska today, the geopolitical situation in the world would have been different,” Sergey Aksyonov, the prime minister of Crimea, remarked. A Russian military magazine ran an article on “The Alaska We’ve Lost.”

Alexander Dugin, a Russian philosopher and strategist known for his fascist views, and one of the founding fathers of the “Eurasian civilization doctrine,” has stated that the sale should be re-discussed.

Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, was more diplomatic. “The anniversary may, of course, trigger diverse emotions,” he said. “But it is a good occasion to refresh memories of Russians’ contribution to exploration of the American continent.”

Andrei Znamenski a history professor at the University of Memphis, told the New York Times that irredentist calls to reclaim Alaska were not limited to extremists.

“It’s a very convenient episode for nationalists, who want Russia to expand, to exploit,” he said. “It fits into national rhetoric: Look how the Americans have treated us.”

Today the Russian-American border runs through the Diomede Islands in the middle of the Bering Strait. Big Diomede belongs to Russia and Little Diomede to the US. The distance between them is a mere 3.8 kilometres.

In Pakistan, Voting and Violence

By Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

It seems every Pakistani election is preceded by violence and political detentions. This one has proved no exception.

In the run-up to the July 25 vote for the National Assembly, there were high-profile arrests and bloodshed.

Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter and political heir Maryam were arrested at the Lahore airport July 13 on corruption charges as they returned to the country in an attempt to rally their beleaguered party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N).

The arrests came the same day the election campaign took a deadly turn. More than 130 people, including a candidate from another party, were killed in two militant attacks elsewhere in Pakistan.

In the southwestern province of Baluchistan, a suicide bomber killed 128 people, including a politician running for a provincial legislature. Four others died in a strike in Pakistan's northwest, spreading panic in the country. 

Police officers and members of a paramilitary force known as the Rangers clashed with protesters in several cities in the Punjab, the country’s most populous province and a stronghold of Sharif’s party.

The police also arrested at least 600 workers of the PML-N on security-related charges.

 “It’s the sort of crude repression that recalls dark periods of Pakistani history under military rule,” said Omar Waraich, deputy South Asia director for Amnesty International.

The Sharifs were sentenced to lengthy prison terms in connection with their ownership of expensive properties in London that the courts said were bought with illegally acquired money. Sharif's son-in-law is currently serving a one-year prison sentence on the same charge.

The Supreme Court removed Sharif as prime minister last year and barred him from seeking office again. He has already served as the country’s prime minister three times.

The Sharifs contend that the case was manufactured by their political foes and the country’s powerful military. The former prime minister remarked that Pakistan now has a “state above the state.”

During his term in office, Sharif criticized the military’s involvement in civilian affairs and its efforts in fighting extremists. 

He stated that the entire nation has been converted into a “big prison,” and urged the people of the country to break the shackles and free themselves.

His brother Shahbaz Sharif now heads Sharif’s party and is campaigning for re-election on July 25.

There are a total of 342 seats being contested, out of which 272 are general seats while the remaining 70 are special seats reserved for women and ethnic minority candidates. As well, the four provincial assemblies of Punjab, Sind, Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa are also holding elections.

Altogether, 3,459 candidates will contest on 272 general seats of the National Assembly, while 8,396 are running for 577 provincial seats.

Polls have consistently shown a close race for parliament between the PML-N and the Pakistan Movement for Justice (PTI), with the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) polling in third place ahead of several smaller parties. 

The PTI was founded in 1996 by former national cricket captain Imran Khan, who seems favoured by the military, while the PPP is the political vehicle of the Bhutto family.

Its current leader is Bilawal  Bhutto Zardari, the son of the Pakistani politician and slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and her husband Asif Ali Zardari, the former president of Pakistan.

In elections held five years ago, the PML-N secured 166 seats in the National Assembly and the PTI only 35, with the incumbent PPP slashed to a mere 15 seats.

The army will deploy 350,000 security personnel to polling stations throughout the country on election day.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Will Helsinki Summit Affect the Syrian Conflict?

By Henry Srebrnik, [Moncton, NB] Times & Transcript 
This past Monday, all eyes were turned towards Helsinki, where Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin held their long-anticipated summit.

A serious bone of contention between the two countries has been the Syrian Civil War, where Russia has been aiding Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while the United States has supported Kurdish rebels and other anti-government forces. The two superpowers have come perilously close to blows at times.

The conference was also hyped in its possible implications for Israel, a key American ally in the Middle East.

But in the end, maybe too much has been made of this meeting -- certainly as far as Israel is concerned. Russia might be offering Israel a grand bargain that Putin believes will meet the interests of the parties involved, without much American input.

Its cornerstone involves keeping Iran at bay in Syria until a total settlement, which would include the withdrawal of the United States (and Turkey), is reached. After that, Moscow will make sure the Iranians -- and Hezbollah -- leave Syria as well.

In Helsinki, Trump stated that Putin “is helping Israel.” He added that “creating safety for Israel is something that both President Putin and I would like to see very much.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems to agree. On July 11, he made his third visit to Russia this year to see Putin. 

The talks revolved around the possibility of an Iranian departure from the country in exchange for Israel not interfering in Assad’s forces in the south of the country, near Israeli territory. 

Netanyahu has been pressing Moscow to curb Iranian influence in Syria and has repeatedly warned that Israel will not tolerate a permanent Iranian presence there.

Netanyahu stressed that Israel “has no problem with the Assad regime,” but the main issue includes the presence in Syria of fighters from Hezbollah, the remnant of the Islamic State and Iran.
Russian diplomats have emphasized that there should be no “non-Syrian forces” in the southwest of Syria, near the Israeli border. 

Russia has apparently promised to keep Iran within 100 kilometres from the boundary and has already been partially delivering on this commitment. 

Moscow still gives Israel needed leeway on Syrian territory, as long as they strike Syrian positions only in retaliation to Syria’s own offenses or when they attack non-Syrian forces. 

The very day Netanyahu arrived in Moscow, Ali Akbar Velayati, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s foreign policy adviser, delivered what Iran’s foreign ministry called a “very important” message regarding Syria from Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani.

A few short years ago hardly anyone could imagine that Russia would become the most influential external actor in the region, with everyone now expecting something from Moscow.

Russia is taking into account the security interests of the key players --Turkey, Israel and Iran, contends Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs.  

Does the road to ending Iran and Hezbollah’s presence in Syria run through Moscow rather than Washington? Netanyahu thinks so, and Helsinki hasn’t changed his mind.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Does Being Smaller Make a Country More European?

By Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

At 2,586 square kilometres, it is the smallest but one of the 28 European Union states. You could drive its length (88 kilometres) or its width (56 kilometers miles) in no time.

The capital, with the same name, has barely 100,000 souls.

The country is the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. Small as it is, this grand duchy is a founding member of the European Union and NATO and hosts the European Court of Justice, the Secretariat of the European Parliament and other supranational institutions. Luxembourg expects to be listened to and taken seriously by its European peers. 

With roots stretching back to the 10th century, Luxembourg’s history is closely intertwined with that of its more powerful neighbours, especially Germany. Many of its 600,000 inhabitants are trilingual in French, German and Luxembourgish.

The state’s roots go back to 963 AD, when Siegfried, count of the Ardennes, acquired Lucilinburhuc, an old Roman fort with a Frankish name.

Over the next few centuries, it would grow to encompass an area four times the size of the present grand duchy. It even managed to produce three Holy Roman emperors and several kings of Bohemia. But it would eventually suffer three partitions, resulting in the small nation of today.

The three countries surrounding present-day Luxembourg all own territory that once belonged to Luxembourg, and they all at one point or another demanded its total annexation into their own territory.

In 1659, by the Treaty of the Pyrenees, France gained 1,060 square kilometres, 10 per cent of Luxembourg’s size at the time. Luxembourg later became part of Napoleon’s European empire.

At the Congress of Vienna in 1815, after his defeat, Luxembourg re-emerged, but smaller again. This time it was Prussia that gained territory -- 2,280 square kilometres, 24 more per cent of the grand duchy.

But the worst loss occurred in 1839, when the Netherlands accepted the Treaty of London, formally recognising Belgian independence. As a result, the country lost its western, French-speaking half to Belgium, which still has a province also called Luxembourg.

The territory ceded to Belgium was 4,730 square kilometres, or 65 per cent of the territory of the grand duchy at the time. The population of this territory was 175,000, then half of Luxembourg’s total.

Together, the three partitions reduced the territory of Luxembourg from 10,700 square kilometres to the present-day area of 2,586.

Even after all that, King William III of the Netherlands remained the head of state, as the Grand Duke of Luxembourg, maintaining a personal union between the two countries until 1890.

And of course the country didn’t avoid the horrors of 20th century Europe, either: in the first half of the 20th century, Germany brutally occupied Luxembourg twice, with Hitler annexing it outright the second time.

Luxembourg was liberated in September 1944, and became a founding member of the United Nations a year later.

Yet Luxembourg, instead of harboring irredentist designs to recover its lost territories, has become a poster child for the pan-European model we call the European Union. It was one of the six founding members in 1951 of what would become the EU.

With an advanced economy and one of the world'’ highest GDPs per capita, it is part of a greater economic region alongside the Walloon part of Belgium (including its German-speaking area), the French region of Lorraine, and the German states of Saarland and Rhineland-Palatinate.

A global financial centre, the country is a major banking hub. ArcelorMittal SA, headquartered in Luxembourg City, is the world’s largest steel producer.

Many radio and television services for pan-European audiences, including those in France, Germany and Great Britain, are headquartered Luxembourg. Generations of British listeners grew up with Radio Luxembourg, which beamed pop music programs into the country.

Xavier Bettel formed a government in December 2013 after elections held in October at which his Democratic Party, the Socialists and Greens emerged with a small majority over the largest overall group, the conservative Christian Social Party.

The vote was called after Jean-Claude Juncker of the Christian Social Party, who had been prime minister since 1995, lost his majority in parliament when the Socialists quit his coalition over a phone-tapping scandal. The Christian Social Party had been in government since 1979.

Bettel, the mayor of Luxembourg City between 2011 and 2013, is the country’s first openly gay prime minister.

July in Alaska: a Pleasant Reunion

By Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

I once heard a speaker refer to “remote” Alaska. That it certainly is – it’s five times zones west of Prince Edward Island.

Earlier this month, we travelled to Juneau, the capital, to attend the 50th year reunion of my wife Pat’s high school.

Alaska belonged to tsarist Russia until sold to the United States in 1867, and remnants of that past are visible in onion-domed Russian Orthodox churches and aboriginal Alaskans with Russian surnames.

The St, Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, built in the 19th century, contains icons brought from Russia, and sits on a steep hill overlooking the downtown. It was built by Tlingit natives who were Orthodox.

One of the saints of the church is St. Peter the Aleut, a native Alaskan.

Today, indigenous Alaskans comprise some 15 per cent of the state’s 740,000 people. Most others are people whose families came from the “lower 48.”

Alaska became the 49th American state – and, at 1,717,856 square kilometres,  by far the largest -- in 1959.

Juneau is in the Alaska panhandle, located on the Inland Passage of the Pacific Ocean and surrounded by mountain ranges.

Founded in 1880 as a gold mining town -- you can take tours of the old mines -- the mountains loom over the city making for dramatic and spectacular views.

The city of 32,000 people, above the 58th parallel, sits at the base of Mount Roberts and can only be reached by boat or airplane.

The absence of a road network is due to the extremely rugged terrain surrounding the city. This makes Juneau in effect an island in terms of transportation, in spite of the city being located on the mainland.

A good starting point for learning about the city is the Juneau-Douglas City Museum, which also offers walking tours of Juneau's historic buildings.

Juneau has become a major destination for cruise ships. In summer, as many as five huge boats dock in the cruise ship harbour, and the  city is overrun with tourists.

The downtown begins to resemble a virtual theme park; indeed, most shops sell souvenirs and trinkets.

A tramway, opened in 1996, carries visitors 550 metres up Mount Roberts, elevation 1,164 metres, through the rain forest to an alpine area.

There are hiking trails, wildflowers and views of Gastineau Channel separating the mainland from Douglas Island.

The Mendenhall Glacier, some 22 kilometres long, is located in Mendenhall Valley, about 19 kilometres from downtown Juneau, and is also a tourist destination.

The glacier has recently come to the forefront of the international debate on global warming, because it is retreating and shrinking. A lake has now formed at its base from the melting ice.

On the fourth of July, America’s Independence Day, we watched Juneau’s annual parade, on a day when the temperature actually reached 28C. Not bad for a place this far north.

There were parades, races, music, sand sculpting, food vendors, and barbeques. We went to the one at Douglas United Methodist Church on Douglas Island. It was indeed a very spirited event.

Monday, July 09, 2018

Israel Boasts Robust Demographic Strength

By Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

Israel’s birthrates have seen a sustained rise in fertility. They present a stark contrast to the picture in other developed societies, where the fertility rate has been steadily sinking to or below replacement level.

New demographic data have revealed that the fertility rate in the United States, which had been relatively robust until recently, and was still holding its own as late as 2008, has just plunged to a historic low of 1.76, far below the replacement level of 2.1 children per family.

That is because, in the view of Sarah Rindner, who teaches English literature at Lander College in New York, the democratic West is ‘undergoing a deep cultural or spiritual crisis of which the demographic crisis is less a cause than a particularly severe symptom.”

Ofir Haivry, an Israeli historian and political theorist who is vice-president of the Herzl Institute in Jerusalem, attributes this to the situation in affluent cultures, where “the material and even the spiritual well-being of individuals is connected to the limit they place on the number of their children,” whereas the situation in more traditional societies large numbers of offspring are regarded “as the single best measure of success and status.”

While the individualism now dominant in the West, a product of liberalism, is one that lauds the autonomous, rational individual, Israel’s mix of collectivism and individualism, as Haviv Rettig Gur, the senior analyst for the Times of Israel newspaper, points out, allows for a more robust demographic strength.

Its culture of camaraderie and self-sacrifice, he notes, stems from “a collectivist ethos deployed in defence of individualism, a lionizing of family and tradition alongside an underlying liberalism that ensures these traditionalist and collectivist choices are entered upon by free individuals.”

Thirty years ago, in 1988, Israel’s population was at 4.4 million; it is now at about 8.8 million. In other words, the country’s population has doubled in three decades.

With 399 people per square kilometre, Israel is certainly densely populated. Has this led to the very small country feeling “overcrowded,” with a corresponding increase in economic problems, and a decline in services and quality of life? Not at all.

As the population doubled between those years, the GDP went from $43.9 billion to $318.7 billion, a seven-fold increase; per-capita GDP has more than tripled, from just under $10,000 to just over $37,000.

Israel is now among world leaders in the percentage of people with post-secondary degrees. At 46 per cent of the population, it is far above the average of 32 per cent in the developed world, as measured by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

In 1988, life expectancy for an Israeli was 74.4 years; it is now about 82.5 years, at number eight in the world, above Canada, Denmark, France, and the United States. Not bad for a people sweating out an “aggressive, stress-filled existence.”

Now home to the majority of the world’s Jews, at almost 6.5 million, Israel’s resilience and demographic strength will probably increase that percentage, especially as in the Jewish diaspora a declining birth rate and growing assimilationist pressures may make for far smaller Jewish communities in the future.

An Organization Helping Egyptian Christians

By Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

The mission of Coptic Solidarity, located in the Washington DC region, is to increase awareness of the situation of Copts in Egypt and to solicit the support of international public opinion and policy makers.

The Copts are over 10 million strong and have lived in Egypt for two millennia. They are the largest Christian and largest non-Muslim community in the Middle East.

Discriminatory state policies and political violence have historically marginalized Copts, particularly in many cities of Upper Egypt and in the Nile Delta area.

Though they are descended from the aboriginal Pharaonic civilization, many Egyptian Muslims think of them as “foreigners.”

Attempts to address this are usually met with denial by Egyptian media and government are under-reported. 

Sometimes Copts drawing attention to these injustices are portrayed as agitators out to tarnish Egypt’s image. 

I attended Coptic Solidarity’s ninth annual conference, held in Washington June 21-22, which addressed the theme of “Egypt’s Copts: Faces of Persecution,” and presented a paper on Nazi anti-Semitism.

I was on a panel with Edward Clancy, the New York-based Director of Outreach, Aid to the Church in Need, a papal-sponsored charity; and Father Philemon Patitsas, of the Holy Metropolis of Atlanta, and St. Katherine Greek Orthodox Church in Naples, Florida.

A host of other academics, social activists, and American and Canadian politicians and bureaucrats, addressed the meetings.

As well, two Hungarian officials, Dr. Laszlo Szabo, the Hungarian ambassador to the United States, and Tristan Azbej, Hungary’s Deputy State Secretary for Aiding Persecuted Christians, a government department now located within the Prime Minister’s office, provided views on how Christians in the Middle East might be helped.

The consensus that emerged from the conference is that the situation for Copts in Egypt is dire.

Raymond Ibrahim, author of The Sword and the Scimitar, maintained that the Egyptian government and media deny there is a problem. They insist Copts are considered part of the country’s social fabric and thus are not discriminated against because of their faith.

So violence and terrorism directed at Copts are considered an “aberration.” The government, he suggested, engages in deception and denial, “because they don’t want the status quo shaken.”

In fact sometimes Copts acting in self-defence against mobs are portrayed as perpetrators rather than victims. And it is claimed they exaggerate their plight.

Dr. Robert Herman, Senior Advisor for Policy at Washington-based Freedom House, agreed.

Under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, in office since 2014, independent media have been shut down, and some 40,000 opponents of the regime languish in prison. All legal sources, states the constitution, must be based on Islamic sharia law.

The absence of accountability in government allows attacks against Copts and other marginalized minorities to happen with impunity.

Islamist websites spew hate against Copts on a daily basis while critics are repudiated and their statements are said to be “full of lies.” Copts now face “a shrinking of civic space,” said Herman.

 “A democratic political system is the best way to protect religious freedom” and defend society against “hatemongers,” he concluded.

Andrew Miller, deputy director for policy at the Washington-based Project on Middle East Democracy, went further, asserting that Sisi pretends to be a “saviour” protecting Copts from extremists like Islamic State, in order to advance his standing on the international stage.

Tuesday, July 03, 2018

Washington's Vietnam Veterans Memorial a Sombre Site

By Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer
I worked as a journalist in Washington DC during the 1980s, but until I spoke at a conference here toward the end of June, I hadn’t been back since 1993.

In his recently published book War Beyond Words: Languages of Remembrance from the Great War to the Present, Yale University historian Jay Winter makes the case that war memorials have gradually shifted in design from the vertical, which suggests heroism, something we look up at, to the horizontal, which results in the downward gaze of mourning. 

One such structure, he indicates, is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which is said to be the most visited site on the Mall. The memorial is maintained by the U.S. National Park Service and receives around three million visitors each year.

I’d recommend two excellent scholarly articles, “The Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Washington Mall: Philosophical Thoughts on Political Iconography,” by Charles Griswold, (1986), and “The Wall, the Screen, and the Image: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial”  by Marita Sturken, (1991), which I have used in courses and draw upon here.

The Vietnam veterans who organized the construction of the memorial stipulated only two things for its design: that it contains the names of those who died or are missing in action and that it be apolitical and harmonious with the site. 

Dedicated in 1982, it was designed by Maya Lin, after a national competition, and she eschewed conventional tactics towards memorial design.

She was a 21-year-old undergraduate at Yale University, not only young and un-credentialed but Chinese-American and female – something not everyone was pleased with. But as the years have gone by, the memorial has attained iconic status.

Situated on the grassy slope of the Constitutional Gardens, it consists of two walls of black granite set into the earth at an angle. Together, they form an extended V almost 500 feet in length, tapering in both directions from a height of approximately ten feet at the centre.

The walls reflect the towering Washington Monument and face the imposing Lincoln Memorial.

The reflective surface allows viewers to participate in the memorial. They see their own images in the names of the dead. It is, for many, an extremely emotional experience, and many break down and weep.

There are no heroic images, no swords or flags. This is not a memorial that glorifies war.

Much of the memorial’s power is due to the effect of the almost 60,000 names inscribed on its walls. They are listed not alphabetically but in chronological order.

The listing of names begins on the right-hand side and continues to the end of the right wall. It then begins again at the far end of the left wall and continues to the centre again. 

Thus, the name of the first American soldier killed in Vietnam in 1959 is on a panel adjacent to that containing the name of the last American killed there in 1975. 

The memorial has taken on all of the trappings of a religious shrine. There is a pathway along the base of the wall, where visitors walk, read names, make a pencil rubbing of a particular one, or pray. 

People bring personal artifacts, flowers and pictures to leave at the wall as offerings. They take photographs of themselves standing next to and touching the name of a friend or relative. 

It is a sombre place, as one ponders the fate of the mostly very young men, whose names are inscribed here.

Mind you, not everyone likes it. Former Second World War pilot and Princeton University literature professor Samuel Hynes, in his book On War and Writing, contends that the wall “says nothing except dead, dead, dead – 58,000 times.” 

My wife Pat, who grew up in Juneau, Alaska, during that period, knew two young men from her high school whose names are on the wall. One was a good friend.

It is no surprise that this is a very different form of commemoration. After all, how does a society remeber a war for which the central narrative is one of division and dissent, a war whose history is highly contested even now, more than four decades after it ended

The monument also speaks to the pain and subsequent marginalization of  the Vietnam veterans, who came disproportionately from the ranks of the poor and minorities. 

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a fitting tribute to all who fought and died. Anyone visiting this beautiful city should make it a point to see it.

Washington is Beautiful but Expensive

By Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

I teach a course in political geography at the University of Prince Edward Island, where in one segment we look at the history, geography, and demographics of some of the world’s major cities.

One of them is Washington, DC, and I sometimes ask students if they’ve ever been to the American capital. Very few have.

That’s a shame, because it is a beautiful, planned city, worthy of a superpower like the United States.

I worked as a journalist in Washington in the 1980s, but was last here in 1993. I’ve now come back for a conference.

For the politicians, lobbyists, and journalists who work here, life here can be hectic, as befits a world centre. We used to call it “Powertown.”

Prior to leaving, I was told by two colleagues who visited the city last year that I would see many changes. They were right.

Most Canadians are familiar, if only in pictures and on television, with the National Mall. With its magnificent museums, monuments and statues, the U.S. Capitol at one end, the Lincoln Memorial at the other, and the White House a little further north and in between, it really is a breathtaking sight.

But they might not have seen the city’s wonderful neighbourhoods, such as Adams-Morgan, Chevy Chase, Cleveland Park, Dupont Circle, Georgetown, and Kalorama. The city is also home to many universities.

There’s a fly in this ointment, however. The city has become so expensive many people can no longer afford to live in it.

The old 14th Street corridor, for example, has been transformed dramatically, as have other gentrified areas. Where there were once shabby streets with pawn ships, cheque-cashing places, and cheap liquor stores, they have been replaced by great restaurants, trendy bars and endless rows of glass condos.

It’s partly the result of the exponential growth of the federal bureaucracy. 

In response to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, President George W. Bush directed enormous sums of money toward national security efforts that required a highly sophisticated workforce.

The Sarbanes-Oxley law, passed in 2002, led to complex financial regulatory efforts that demanded staffing to match. The election of President Barack Obama in 2008 generated a stimulus bill, the Dodd-Frank law and the Affordable Care Act, each of which was a regulatory undertaking of the first order.

Government contracting dollars spent in the Washington area more than doubled between 2000 and 2010, reaching $80 billion, and the amount spent on lobbying more than doubled between 2000 and 2011, reaching $3.3 billion.

By one estimate, there are at least 20,000 registered lobbyists in the city, mainly located along K Street. For every one member of Congress, the influence industry produces about $12.5 million in lobbying.

So, while some three million jobs were lost nationwide in the great recession after 2008, the Washington region, which includes suburbs in Maryland and Virginia, suffered far less.

Essentially, Washington has been the beneficiary of a ­decades-long, taxpayer-funded stimulus package.

There are some 120,000 more people in Washington now than in 2000, bringing the population to almost 700,000. Many are young; the median age is nearly 34, four years below the national average.

And as tens of thousands of the nation’s best-educated workers arrived and during that period, the region added 21,000 households in the nation’s top one per cent.

Not surprisingly, between 1991 and 2016, the average single-family house price in Washington increased 317 per cent, approximately 50 per cent more than the increase nationwide.

In the Shaw neighbourhood, a small area located in the Northwest quadrant which includes the U Street corridor and “Little Ethiopia,” housing prices increased 145 per cent in one decade.

Welcome to the imperial city. You may visit anytime, but you likely can’t afford to live here.