Worshipping Materialism at Christmas

The prevailing view on Fox News is that everyone in America, regardless of his or her religious beliefs, must join in the lavish and lengthy celebration of the birth of Jesus or be accused of warring on Christmas. But the real assault on Jesus’s teaching comes from gross materialism, says Lawrence S. Wittner.

By Lawrence S. Wittner

Although fundamentalist fanatics have been working for decades to turn the United States into a “Christian nation,” they have not had much success along these lines.

One reason for their failure is that religious minorities and non-believers have resisted. And another is probably that a large number of Americans want to preserve religious tolerance and avoid theocracy. But it might also reflect the fact that the United States is now firmly in the grip of a different religion: shopping.

After all, in this “holiday season” the dominant activity does not seem to be traditional religious worship or prayer. The recently-concluded Black Friday provided the occasion not only for an orgy of consumer spending, but for ferocious action by screaming mobs of shoppers who engaged in mass riots in their desperate attempts to obtain a variety of products.

The frenzied participants were not starving, impoverished peasants or product-deprived refugees from communist nations but reasonably comfortable, middle-class Americans. Their desperation was not driven by hunger. They simply wanted … more!

And now that the nation enters its Christmas shopping spree — conveniently begun in November, to allow plenty of time for the practice — there will undoubtedly be lots more commodity fetishism. The shopping malls are already alive with the Christmas music designed to encourage purchases, while visions of rising sales figures dance through the heads of happy store managers.

All of this, of course, leads to complaints by traditional religious believers about the commercialization of Christmas. Of course, the bloviators on Fox News seek to blame the decline of religious feeling during the Christmas season upon liberal thought. But the hard reality is that Jesus in the manger or bleeding on the cross has less appeal to many Americans that do the latest cellphones and other commercial gadgetry.

Actually, despite the emphasis on purchases during the holidays, shopping is a year-round phenomenon in the United States. Children might not be able to read, write, add, or subtract, but they know a great deal about the latest consumer products.

Their parents and grandparents are thoroughly familiar with them as well. And why wouldn’t they be? A vast array of products is regularly featured on TV and radio programs, on roadside billboards, and in their newspapers and magazines.

In fact, commercial advertising is ubiquitous in the United States, with few Americans able to escape it. Even when people are not in their homes, commercial television programs — those shoddy, thought-free commodities developed to keep the ads from bumping together — run continuously in doctors’ waiting rooms, auto repair shops, elevators, train stations, hospitals, restaurants, airports, school cafeterias, bars, and taxis.

Furthermore, advertising is not designed to merely alert people to the availability of a product, but to make them want it. Commercial enterprises understand that, thanks to the influence of advertising, purchases will not be based upon need, but upon desire.

Advertising will stir dissatisfaction with what people already have and create a craving for something else. And this is a very promising route to sales. Naturally, then, U.S. corporations engulf Americans in advertising. It’s an excellent investment, and produces legions of eager, even desperate shoppers.

Only a very rare American politician would be willing to stand up against the resulting steamroller of consumerism. Imagine the political future of a candidate for public office who said:

“There has been enough talk of economic growth and competition as the solutions to our problems. Our real challenges as Americans are to limit our consumption to what we genuinely need, to share with others who are less fortunate than we are, and to halt the plunder of our planet’s resources and the destruction of our environment.”

I suspect that she or he would not get very far. Nor, despite the similarity of this approach to the core values of religious faiths, is it popular among the mainstream U.S. churches. Yes, they encourage small-scale charitable ventures. But they do little to challenge the consumerist ethos.

Indeed, the most active and rapidly growing among the churches — the fundamentalist and evangelical denominations — have rallied behind political candidates championing unbridled capitalism and the prerogatives of wealth. “Drill baby, drill” seems far more popular among them than the Golden Rule.

Ironically, then, by not opposing the corporate cultivation of untrammeled greed among Americans, the churches have left the door open to the triumph of America’s new religion — not liberal secularism, but shopping.

Lawrence S. Wittner is professor of history emeritus at SUNY/Albany. His latest book is Working for Peace and Justice: Memoirs of an Activist Intellectual (University of Tennessee Press).

 




Explaining the Unexplainable

Since World War II, the common reaction to the horrendous crimes of the Nazis has been to wonder how such extreme behavior was possible. But the more important point is how the process of killing could be made so mundane, a question that remains relevant today, as Gary G. Kohls explains.

By Gary G. Kohls

A couple of years ago, the iconic sign over the gate to the infamous World War II-era extermination camp at Auschwitz was stolen. (It was later recovered after being found cut into three pieces). At the top of that gate was this classic bit of Nazi propaganda, proclaimed to the millions of doomed incoming victims: “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Makes One Free).

“Arbeit Macht Frei” is a pretty good summary of what is otherwise known as “the Protestant work ethic” that started in Europe during the Protestant Reformation. Right-wing nationalists, anti-communist, pro-capitalist, pro-war, anti-Semitic, racist and religious reformers such as John Calvin and Martin Luther would have agreed that “Arbeit Macht Frei” supported their dogmatic teachings about fulfilling one’s patriotic duty to the state, the church or the industry that employed the people.

Following Hitler’s fascist takeover and the total destruction of Germany’s liberal democratic government in 1933, Germans were indoctrinated to believe that it was their patriotic duty to defend the Nazi’s Thousand Year Reich by any means necessary, including laboring, killing or dying for the cause.

Indeed, the efforts instituted by the fascist government (including the abolition of labor unions) resulted in virtually full employment in all of the war-related industries that were set up to ensure the success of the Thousand Year Reich, including the military arts, police, fuel, chemical, agriculture, mining and weapons production. All of these industries thrived with willing, reasonably well-paid and grateful “Good Germans” who blindly applauded Hitler for orchestrating his “economic miracle”.

The transportation and communications industries that were essential for war-making – but which were also domestically beneficial – also thrived. Good examples included the building of the Autobahn for rapid troop movement and the increased production of automobiles, including the affordable Volkswagen for the masses and the not-so-affordable Mercedes for the elite.

The provision of cheap mass-produced radios and plenty of entertainment (propaganda) that was overseen by Joseph Goebbels made sure that everybody would be able to hear the demagogues spout their Nazi propaganda demonizing non-Aryan foreigners, Jews and various anti-fascist leftists, such as trade unionists, socialists, liberals and subversive antiwar activists.

Little more than a decade earlier, in 1922, hyperinflation, joblessness and hunger had followed the fiasco of World War I. Then, just as the economy was recovering, the Wall Street Stock Market crash of 1929 sealed German democracy’s doom.

So, after Hitler was appointed to the Chancellorship in 1933, even many of the most ethical Germans were thankful for the war industry work, and they liked the state-sponsored (socialized) medical care, educational opportunities and the paid vacations of Hitler’s “Strength Through Joy” campaign, even though there was essentially no freedom of movement in the labor market.

‘Good German’ Christians

Until Hitler started occupying, colonizing and brutalizing other nations, things were going well for most obedient, white “Good German” Christians. Not so for non-Christians and other minorities who were suffering under the police-state jackboot of Prussian militarism.

“Good Germans” dutifully averted their eyes and closed their ears to keep from seeing the hateful anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia, sexism, xenophobia and other forms of discrimination that were happening all around them, including the aggressive building of concentration camps all over Germany and the occupied territories.

The Nazi concentration camps started in 1938 at Dachau. The scores of concentration camps that eventually dotted Germany’s military empire (especially occupied Poland) also provided a lot of work for Hitler’s obedient (and silenced) Volk, for each camp needed, in addition to the SS troops and Gestapo (who beat any resister into submission), numerous citizen-workers to keep them running smoothly.

The notorious extermination camp at Auschwitz employed 60 physicians and 300 nurses and many other ancillary staff members for just the medical facility, much of which was involved in human experimentation. Many of the people involved in those crimes against humanity were professed Christians.

The gulag of camps was good for the economy, though, for each of the camps was aligned with very profitable German corporations, whose bottom lines flourished with the cheap labor costs. The prison camps played a major role in Hitler’s economic boom. Germany’s Gross National Product grew substantially, for the labor was free and the food and lodging expenditures were minimal.

Auschwitz was located in Poland, far away from the eyes of most Germans back in the homeland. It was the most infamous of the camps, but the German occupiers of the newly acquired Polish territories knew what was going on inside. Still, most “Good Germans” averted their eyes and ears and noses. Most of them claimed that they were unaware that mass murder was happening on the other side of the electrified fences.

But it was a time of war and telling the truth in wartime is always a revolutionary act that requires a lot of courage. Witnessing to the truth in a time of war is also frequently regarded by military regimes as an act of treason. And so the Volk lied to themselves and to others.

Cognitive dissonance happened in Nazi Germany, although there was no such phrase back then that described the conscious or unconscious denial of and confusion about unwelcome new truths that contradicted deeply held beliefs. But the truth was obvious to all. Only one conclusion could be drawn from the 24/7 stench of burning flesh and the red smoke that came out of the crematorium’s tall stacks of each of the extermination camps.

After the total collapse of the militarists, financiers, investors and industrialists who had been behind Germany’s attempts to steal the resources of Europe and Asia (especially the oil fields of Eastern Europe and western Russia), more unwelcome truths were to be revealed. Among these revelations was the story of the commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Hoess (not to be confused with Rudolf Hess who was Hitler’s # 2 early in the Nazi regime).

Cruelty in Child-Rearing

The Rudolf Hoess, MD, of Auschwitz infamy was the son of a devout, well-to-do, conservative Roman Catholic family that had wanted him to go into the priesthood. But circumstances were such that he instead chose to serve Hitler in the thuggish Freikorps, that group of traumatized and unemployable World War I veterans who became his street fighters and mercenary soldiers and who believed the lie that leftists, especially Jews,  socialists and communists on the home front had “stabbed Germany in the back” and were the real cause of the humiliating defeat in the trenches on the Western Front.

Just like most men who grew up in authoritarian Europe, Hoess learned unconditional obedience to authority early in his life. Cruelty in child-rearing, especially in males, usually elicits the unconscious desire for vengeance, often only acted upon in a delayed fashion, frequently against a scapegoat rather than against the original perpetrator of the cruelty, which is usually an abusive parent-figure.

Harshness in child-rearing was the norm for most German and Austrian children for centuries prior to Hitler, whose regime also promoted punitive child-rearing methods. It makes for vicious, obedient Nazi soldiers or, for that matter, Special Forces soldiers in any country.

Such “parenting” was reinforced by the similarly harsh discipline that was often practiced in most German churches and schools – and not just in Catholic schools, but in secular schools as well. And so Hoess wrote the following explanation for his willingness to reflexively carry out the decidedly un-Christ-like – indeed, satanic – orders he received from his superiors:

“Above all, I was constantly reminded that I was to comply with, and follow, the wishes or commands of parents, teachers, priests, etc., indeed all grown-ups including the servants, and that I was to allow nothing to distract me from that duty. Whatever they said, went. These fundamental values of my upbringing became part of my flesh and blood.” [See Alice Miller’s Breaking Down the Wall of Silence.]

This is how military recruits in basic training internalize the killing arts. So it should come as no surprise when soldiers react automatically and violently in the war zone, obeying even illegal orders given in the kill-or-be-killed chaos of the battlefield. After the psychological trauma, humiliation and threats of punishment experienced in their child-rearing, school yards, mean streets or their basic training, soldiers can be relied upon to react automatically, even unconsciously, and do what they have been indoctrinated to do when their own physical survival is threatened.

Duty and honor; solemn oaths of allegiance to a flag (the Swastika or the Stars and Stripes); obedience to god and country; patriotism; nationalism; “America # 1” and “Deutschland Uber Alles” are common examples that will promote the blind patriotism that has driven the killing machines on all sides of every war throughout the entire history of warfare.

Internalizing such propaganda allowed Hoess to perform his gruesome “duties” at Auschwitz, without any obvious signs of remorse when he was later tried, convicted and hanged for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The baptized Lutheran Adolph Eichmann, a contemporary of Hoess’s, also reacted without remorse during his trial in Jerusalem long after the war, as did most of the other defendants at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial.

Consequences of Violence

Sadly, the soldier-victims (willing or unwilling) of chronic brainwashing (which can easily create robotic humans willing to inflict pain on others) learn much too late that being involved in state-sponsored terrorism, directly or indirectly, can also be lethal to their souls and psyches, not to mention the souls and psyches of their battlefield victims (and loved ones when they come home), all of whom are mostly innocent, unarmed and decidedly defenseless women and children.

The invisible spiritual wounds of the warrior can also be experienced by another group: the guilty bystander, who witnessed the violence and then may have stood silently by, doing nothing to stop it. The guilt felt later for not intervening (or feeling helpless to intervene) often becomes too much to bear, with the resultant depression, anxiety, anger, insomnia, nightmares, flashbacks, drug use, homicidality and suicidality of combat-induced posttraumatic stress disorder symptom, often identical to that experienced by the guilty perpetrator.

One has to wonder what kind of Christianity is it that promotes harshness in parenting, racism, discriminatory attitudes toward the “enemy-other, and pro-war theologies. And what kind of Christianity remains silent about its country’s extrajudicial assassinations by drone warfare or the manufacturing, stockpiling, and training to use, the lethal weapons that are only intended for human destruction?

From where in the human soul comes the willingness to kill, torture and cooperate with the evils of state-sponsored homicide and economic oppression, irrespective of what militarized nation one lives in, fascist/capitalist Germany or “democratic”/capitalist America?

As Bob Dylan asks so poignantly in his classic antiwar song, “Blowin’ in the Wind”: “How many times must the cannonballs fly before they’re forever banned?” “How many ears must one man have before he can hear people cry?” “How many deaths will it take till he knows that too many people have died?” “How many years can some people exist before they’re allowed to be free?” “And how many times can a man turn his head pretending he just doesn’t see?”

The answers aren’t really mysteriously blowing in the wind. The answers to the questions about why there is an epidemic of violence instead of sustained peace are understandable and therefore preventable.

The solutions to the problems (and the prevention of the consequences) concerning both military and domestic violence lie in whether or not children and recruits are treated humanely (with unconditional love and mercy) or with brutality and/or neglect in their families, schools, churches, neighborhoods, workplaces and streets.

Gary G. Kohls, MD, is a founding member of Every Church A Peace Church (www.ecapc.org) and is a member of a local non-denominational affiliate of ECAPC, the Community of the Third Way.




Biblical Economics

An irony of modern politics is that many conservative Americans view themselves as devout believers in the Bible yet they ascribe to right-wing, dog-eat-dog economic theories that Jesus and other Biblical figures would condemn. The contradiction has pushed Biblical economics out of mainstream debate, says Rev. Howard Bess.

By the Rev. Howard Bess

The Bible has an identifiable view of economics. Whether or not we take the point of view seriously is a matter of choice, but for those who give some sort of special authority to the Biblical writings, the viewpoint cannot be ignored. One cannot not say “I believe the Bible” and lightly dismiss the perspective developed by Israelites in an ancient setting.

The Israelite understanding of economics was developed over a period of nearly 1,000 years, from the Israelite escape from Egyptian slavery to the cruel years of slavery in Babylonia.  Putting together the story of their development of economic theory is like following the plot as a well-written novel. In its final form it was laid out by a group of Israelite priests in the Sixth Century BCE.

Priests in ancient Israel were taken seriously. They were not hampered by theories of separation of church and state or keeping religion out of economics and politics. When priests spoke about wealth, property and God, no one would dare tell them to keep their noses out of the public square. They WERE the public square.

The summary of their economic theories is imbedded in the book of Leviticus in the Old Testament. The essence of Biblical ethics is at times captured in short phrases. Memorize these short phrases and a person has enough guidance for a Godly life.

Examples are “am I my brother’s keeper?,” love mercy, do justice, and walk humbly with God,” and “love your neighbor as yourself.” A controlling and precise statement about economics is found in Leviticus 25:23 “Land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants.”

When we look at the development of the Israelite nation, it is very clear that they were not a capitalist, consumer-oriented society, whose first order of business was to spend and use material wealth on themselves and to pursue the getting of more so they could spend more lavishly on themselves.

Jesus pegged the Israelite tradition correctly when he said the greatest of all commandments was to love God with heart, mind and soul. All ethical behavior and the handling of all wealth were subservient to the command to love God.

The priests developed not-so-simple rules about how the control of land was to be handed down from generation to generation. The Year of Jubilee was meant to be a once-every-50-years complete redistribution of land among the Israelites. But the redistribution as written in Levitical law was never enacted. I suspect that those who controlled land were a bit reluctant to turn it over to “lazy” folk who had not taken good care of the family farm.

Yet, whether or not the system was ever implemented is not the point. A principle was set. All people were to have access to and use of the resources of the earth. This basic right was to take priority over any person or group to claim private ownership and use of those resources.

One can argue that these standards are from an ancient agrarian economic system that cannot be reasonably applied to modern economics. Essentially, that is the view of leading American politicians, whether President Barack Obama or his Republican rival Mitt Romney. They were both more in line with Ayn Rand than the Bible.

However, as a Christian who takes the Bible seriously, I am suggesting that there are principles from Leviticus 25:23 and other economic references in the Bible that can be applied to modern economic practices.

The first principle has already been mentioned but needs to be restated and is foundational to everything else. The resources for the support of life must be available to and enjoyed by all. To cut off people from basic life needs is immoral. It is an affront to the God who claims ownership of all things.

All possessions are gifts from God, and those gifts are not reserved for a select few. A living wage, clean air to breath, quality health care, and potable water all become demands from the Almighty.

The second principle is related. I make no suggestion that everyone have exactly the same resources at his/her disposal. However, just as the less fortunate in life must have basic needs met, limitations on accumulation must be put in place.

The second principle is that Biblical economics limit the permanent control and ownership of wealth by the few. In a modern economic system, Biblical economics demand that such accumulation and control of wealth be brought to an end through taxation, anti-trust laws or other legislative remedies.

Jesus was quite blunt. You cannot serve God and money. The arrogance of today’s super-rich makes the point. Super-rich people are in big trouble with God.

The third principle raises the question “who is to benefit?” In the Biblical economic system and ethic, the highest concern is focused on right where people live. Economics must serve the smaller of our social units.  A social unit may be understood as a family, a clan, a neighborhood or a community. The point of Biblical economics is that the concerns of God will never be found on Wall Street or in the corporate suites of Bank of America.

The Bible does indeed present an economic system with underlying principles. They are pounding at our door.

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska.  His email address is hdbss@mtaonline.net.  




Israeli Scholar Disputes Founding Myth

From the Archive: As Israel again “mows the grass” in Gaza taking revenge on Palestinians for firing crude missiles into Israeli territory the myth upon which the Jewish government stakes its claim to the land is front and center. But the myth faces challenges even inside Israel, as Morgan Strong reported in 2009.

By Morgan Strong (Originally published April 12, 2009)

The founding narrative of the modern State of Israel was born from the words in the Torah (or Old Testament), that God granted Abraham’s descendants the land of Israel and that Moses led the Jewish people out of Egypt to conquer it.

A second part of the narrative was the story of the Diaspora that after Jewish uprisings against the Romans in the First and Second centuries A.D., the Jews were exiled from the land of Israel and dispersed throughout the Western world. They often were isolated from European populations, suffered persecution, and ultimately were marked for extermination in the Nazi Holocaust.

Finally after centuries of praying for a return to Israel, the Jews achieved this goal by defeating the Arab armies in Palestine and establishing Israel in 1948. This narrative spanning more than three millennia is the singular, elemental and sustaining claim of the State of Israel as a Jewish nation.

But a 2008 book by Israeli scholar Shlomo Sand challenges this narrative, claiming that beyond the religious question of whether God really spoke to Abraham and Moses the Roman-era Diaspora did not happen at all or at least not as commonly understood.

In When and How Was the Jewish People Invented? [published in English as The Invention of the Jewish People], Dr. Sand, an expert on European history at the University of Tel Aviv, says the Diaspora was largely a myth that the Jews were never exiled en masse from the Holy Land and that many European Jewish populations converted to the faith centuries later.

Thus, Sand argues, many of today’s Israelis who emigrated from Europe after World War II have little or no genealogical connection to the land. According to Sand’s historical analysis, they are descendents of European converts, principally from the Kingdom of the Khazars in eastern Russia, who embraced Judaism in the Eighth Century, A.D.

The descendants of the Khazars then were driven from their native lands by invasion and conquest and through migration created the Jewish populations of Eastern Europe, Sands writes. Similarly, he argues that the Jews of Spain came from the conversion of Berber tribes from northern Africa that later migrated into Europe.

The Zionist Narrative

Sand, himself a European Jew born in 1946 to Holocaust survivors in Austria, argues that until little more than a century ago, Jews thought of themselves as Jews because they shared a common religion, not because they possessed a direct lineage to the ancient tribes of Israel.

However, at the turn of the 20th Century, Sand asserts, Zionist Jews began assembling a national history to justify creation of a Jewish state by inventing the idea that Jews existed as a people separate from their religion and that they had primogeniture over the territory that had become known as Palestine.

The Zionists also invented the idea that Jews living in exile were obligated to return to the Promised Land, a concept that had been foreign to Judaism, Sand states.

Like almost everything in the Middle East, Sand’s scholarship is fraught with powerful religious, historical and political implications. If Sand’s thesis is correct, it would suggest that many of the Palestinian Arabs have a far more substantial claim to the lands of Israel than do many European Jews who arrived there asserting a God-given claim.

Indeed, Sand theorizes that many Jews, who remained in Judea after Roman legions crushed the last uprising in 136 A.D., eventually converted to Christianity or Islam, meaning that the Palestinians who have been crowded into Gaza or concentrated in the West Bank might be direct descendants of Jews from the Roman era.

Despite the political implications of Sand’s book, it has not faced what might be expected: a withering assault from right-wing Israelis. The criticism has focused mostly on Sand’s credentials as an expert on European history, not an expert on ancient Middle Eastern history, a point that Sand readily acknowledges.

One critic, Israel Bartal, dean of humanities at the Hebrew University, attacked Sand’s credentials and called Sand’s thesis “baseless,” but disagreed mostly over Sand’s assertion that the Diaspora story was created as an intentional myth by Zionists seeking to fabricate a direct genealogical connection between many of the world’s Jews and Israel.

“Although the myth of an exile from the Jewish homeland (Palestine) does exist in popular Israeli culture, it is negligible in serious Jewish historical discussions,” Bartal wrote in the newspaper Haaretz. “Important groups in the Jewish national movement expressed reservations regarding this myth or denied it completely.

“The kind of political intervention Sand is talking about, namely, a deliberate program designed to make Israelis forget the true biological origins of the Jews of Poland and Russia or a directive for the promotion of the story of the Jews’ exile from their homeland is pure fantasy.”

In other words, Bartal, like some other critics, is not so much disputing Sand’s historical claims about the Diaspora or the origins of Eastern European Jews, as he is contesting Sand’s notion that Zionists concocted a false history for a cynical political purpose.

But there can be no doubt that the story of the Diaspora has played a key role in the founding of Israel and that the appeal of this powerful narrative has helped the Jewish state generate sympathy around the world, especially in the United States.

“After being forcibly exiled from their land, the people remained faithful to it throughout their Dispersion and never ceased to pray and hope for their return to it and for the restoration in it of their political freedom,” reads the preamble to the Israeli Declaration of Independence.

Reality from Mythology

In January 2009, as the Israeli army bombarded Palestinians in Gaza in retaliation for rockets fired into southern Israel, the world got an ugly glimpse of what can result when historical myths are allowed to drive wedges between people who otherwise might have a great deal in common.

After the conflict ended with some 1,400 Palestinians dead, including many children and other non-combatants the Israeli government investigated alleged war crimes by its army and heard testimony from Israeli troops that extremist Rabbis had proclaimed the invasion a holy war.

The troops said the Rabbis brought them booklets and articles declaring: “We are the Jewish people. We came to this land by a miracle. God brought us back to this land, and now we need to fight to expel the non-Jews who are interfering with our conquest of this holy land.”

In his book and in an interview with Haaretz about his book Sand challenged this core myth. In the interview, he said:

“I started looking in research studies about the exile from the land a constitutive event in Jewish history, almost like the Holocaust. But to my astonishment I discovered that it has no literature. The reason is that no one exiled the people of the country.

“The Romans did not exile peoples and they could not have done so even if they had wanted to. They did not have trains and trucks to deport entire populations. That kind of logistics did not exist until the 20th Century. From this, in effect, the whole book was born: in the realization that Judaic society was not dispersed and was not exiled.”

Asked if he was saying that the true descendants of the inhabitants of the Kingdom of Judah are the Palestinians, Sand responded:

“No population remains pure over a period of thousands of years. But the chances that the Palestinians are descendants of the ancient Judaic people are much greater than the chances that you or I are its descendents.

“The first Zionists, up until the Arab Revolt [1936-1939], knew that there had been no exiling, and that the Palestinians were descended from the inhabitants of the land. They knew that farmers don’t leave until they are expelled.

“Even Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, the second president of the State of Israel, wrote in 1929 that, ‘the vast majority of the peasant farmers do not have their origins in the Arab conquerors, but rather, before then, in the Jewish farmers who were numerous and a majority in the building of the land.’”

Sand argues further that the Jewish people never existed as a “nation race” but were rather an ethnic mix of disparate peoples who adopted the Jewish religion over a great period of time. Sand dismisses the Zionist argument that the Jews were an isolated and seminal ethnic group that was targeted for dispersal by the Romans.

Although ruthless in putting down challenges to their rule, the Romans allowed subjects in their occupied territories a great many freedoms, including freedom to practice religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly.

Thousands of Jews served in the Roman legions, and there was a sizable Jewish community in Rome itself. Three Jewish descendants of Herod the Great, the Jewish Emperor of Jerusalem, served in the Roman Senate.

Jewish dietary laws were respected under Roman law, as well as the right not to work on the Sabbath. Jewish slaves 1,000 carried to Italy by Emperor Titus after crushing the first Jewish rebellion in 70 A.D. were bought and set free by Jewish families already long settled into Roman society.

After the final Jewish rebellion, the Bar Kokhba revolt of 132-136 A.D., historians say the Romans placed restrictions on Jews entering Jerusalem, which caused other areas, such as Galilee in northern Palestine, to become centers of Jewish learning. But there is little or no evidence of a mass forced relocation.

Sand says the Diaspora was originally a Christian myth that depicted the event as divine punishment imposed on the Jews for having rejected the Christian gospel.

Genetic Evidence

There has been no serious rebuttal to Sand’s book, which has been a bestseller in Israel and Europe. But there were earlier genetic studies attempting to demonstrate an unbroken line of descent among Ashkenazi Jews in Europe from the Hebrew tribes of Israel.

In a genetic study published by the United States National Academy of Sciences, the Y chromosomes of Ashkenazi, Roman, North African, Kurdish, Near Eastern, Yemenite, and Ethiopian Jews were compared with 16 non-Jewish groups from similar geographic locations. It found that despite long-term residence in different countries and isolation from one another, most Jewish populations were not significantly different from one another at the genetic level.

Although the study also demonstrated that 20 percent of the Ashkenazim carry Eastern European gene markers consistent with the Khazars, the results seemed to show that the Ashkenazim were descended from a common Mid-Eastern population and suggested that most Jewish communities have remained relatively isolated from neighboring non-Jewish communities during and after the supposed Diaspora.

However, a monumental genetic study entitled, “The Journey of Man,” undertaken in 2002 by Dr. Spencer Wells, a geneticist from Stanford University, demonstrated that virtually all European males carry the same genetic markers found within the male population of the Middle East on the Y chromosomes.

That is simply because the migration of human beings began in Africa and coursed its way through the Middle East and onward, stretching over many thousands of years. In short, we are all pretty much the same.

Obsessive Delusion

Despite the lack of conclusive scientific or historical evidence, the Diaspora narrative proved to be a compelling story, much like the Biblical rendition of the Exodus from Egypt, which historians and archeologists also have questioned in recent years.

It is certainly true that all nations use myths and legend for sustenance; some tales are based on fact, others are convenient self-serving contrivances.

However, when myth and legend argue for excess, when they demand a racial, ethnic or religious purity to the exclusion of others so that some prophecy can be fulfilled or some national goal achieved reason and justice can give way to extremism and cruelty.

The motive for creating the state of Israel was to provide respite for the Jews of Europe after World War II, but that worthy cause has now been contorted into an obsessive delusion about an Israeli right to mistreat and persecute Palestinians.

When right-wing Israeli Rabbis speak of driving non-Jews out of the land that God supposedly gave to the Israelites and their descendants, these Rabbis may be speaking with full faith, but faith is by definition an unshakable belief in something that taken by itself cannot be proven.

This faith or delusion also is drawing in the rest of the world. The bloody war in Iraq was an appendage to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as is the dangerous rise of Islamic fundamentalism across the region. There is also now the irony that modern Israel was established by Jews of European origin, many of whom may be ethnically unconnected to Palestine.

Another cruel aspect of this irony is that the descendants of the ancient Israelites may include many Palestinians, who are genetically indistinct from the Sephardic Jews who were, like the Palestinians, original and indigenous inhabitants of this ancient land.

Yasir Arafat told me quite often that the Israelis are really cousins of the Palestinians. He may have been wrong; they are more likely brothers and sisters.

Morgan Strong is a former professor of Middle Eastern history, and was an advisor to CBS News “60 Minutes” on the Middle East. He is author of the ebook, The Israeli Lobby and Me.




Challenging Israel’s Myths

A carefully cultivated mythology sustains Israel’s territorial claims to Palestine and rationalizes Israel’s ethnic cleansing of millions of Palestinians from the land. Challenges to those myths are typically met with fierce counterattacks, as Lawrence Davidson discovered.

By Lawrence Davidson

Soon after my Nov. 4 analysis, “In Defense of Richard Falk”  was published by Media with a Conscience (MWC), the site editor forwarded to me an unusual chastising response.  Unusual because it came from a relatively well-known scholar and writer by the name of Fred Skolnik.

Mr. Skolnik is the editor in chief of a 22-volume Encyclopedia Judaica (second edition), a work that won the Dartmouth Medal in 2007.  He is also the author of numerous works of fiction all concerning life in Israel.  It is not rare for Zionists to take me to task, and Skolnik is most certainly a Zionist.  Yet it is rare that those who chastise are of Skolnik’s stature.  And so, a reply is in order.

Mr. Skolnik does not like Dr. Falk who, the reader might remember, is the present United Nations Special Rapporteur for the Palestinian Territories.  And, because I defend Falk, he does not like me either.  Indeed, as far as Skolnik is concerned I am part of “an army of Israel haters … churning out endless … venomous half truths” about the Land of Israel.  Nonetheless, Skolnik has taken the time to write a three-page commentary to set me and my readers straight.

He says,  “I will state Israel’s case in as few words as possible, though you of course may not choose to publish this in order not to lose the effect you are aiming at.”  Well, that is silly.  I have no objection to my readers seeing Mr. Skolnik’s response.  Here is how you can do so: go to the MWC site; search for Davidson; go to “In Defense of Robert Falk;” and scroll down to Skolnik’s comment.

That being said, here is my analysis of elements of Mr. Skolnik’s case for Israel.

1.  Skolnik: “There is no historic Palestine that has anything to do with the Arabs, nor is there an “indigenous’ or native Muslim population there.”  Skolnick’s assertion is a very old fantasy or myth that has been developed over the years to allow radical Zionists and violent settlers to rationalize their historical absorption of Palestinian land.

Quoting from the Wikipedia entry for Palestinian People, an entry which reflects the latest research into this subject of who was where and when, including genetic analysis, we find that Palestinians are the  “modern descendants of those who have lived in Palestine over the centuries and today are largely culturally and linguistically Arab. … Genetic analysis suggests that a majority of the Muslims of Palestine, inclusive of the Arab citizens of Israel, are descendants of Christians, Jews and other inhabitants of the southern Levant whose core reaches back to prehistoric times.”

Furthermore, “a study of high-resolution haplotypes [DNA sequences] demonstrated that a substantial portion of Y chromosomes of Israeli Jews (70%) and of Palestinian Muslim Arabs (82%) belong to the same chromosome pool.”

What all this means is that the ancestors of those Palestinians who are now culturally and linguistically Arab have been in Palestine for time immemorial.  Over the ages, the population fragmented, acquired differing religious, linguistic and cultural traits. Indeed, those indigenous Palestinians, Jews and local Christians as well, are basically the same people gone in somewhat separate cultural ways.

Poor Mr. Skolnik. It is a shock that he is so ardently supporting the ethnic cleansing of his own cousins.

2. Skolnik: “Most of the Arabs with ‘roots’ in the Land of Israel migrated there from other parts of the Arab world in the 19th and early 20th centuries while the Jews have been continuously present in the Land of Israel for well over 3000 years.”

This is another myth that was most prominently put forth in a book by Joan Peters, published in 1984, and entitled From Time Immemorial.  Her argument and evidence were meticulously taken apart and shown to be false by Norman Finkelstein in his Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict (1995).

3. Skolnik: “The displacement of the Arabs in the Land of Israel during Israel’s war of Independence … was paralleled by the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Jews living in Arab lands at the time whose lives were made unbearable under vindictive Arab rule.” Subsequently, the Israelis “received their Jewish brethren with open arms” while the Arab countries that received Arab refugees “herded them into camps and treated them like animals.”

For an editor of a 22-volume encyclopedia Skolnik shows a deplorable tendency to slip into generalizing, stereotyping and lumping together multiple events with multiple outcomes. Here are some counterpoints:

–Actually, the exodus of Arab Jews from their countries of residence went on over an extended period of time and in some cases, such as Algeria, had nothing to do with the events in Palestine. In other cases where the Arab country found itself at war with Israel, as with Egypt, Jewish immigration was a direct result of the Zionist expulsion of Arabs.  And in the case of Morocco, the government tried hard to assure the Jews safety and prosperity to counter Zionist propaganda urging them to leave.

–Sometimes the “displacement” was hastened, as in Iraq, by Zionist agents committing violent acts of sabotage against local Jewish communities.

–The reception the Arab Jews got in Israel wasn’t quite the “open arms” picture Skolnik paints.  They were received by their European Jewish “brethren” with racial prejudice. Even today, Ashkenazi and Sephardic/Mizrachi relations in Israel are strained.

–As for the Arab refugees who were allegedly “treated like animals” by their fellow Arabs, this is an exaggeration.  The situation differed country to country. For instance, treatment in Lebanon was bad; in Jordan it was good. In none of the refugee camps in Arab countries were conditions worse than those in the tent cities and “development towns” in the Negev Desert into which the Israelis herded 80 percent of the Arab Jewish refugees.

4. Mr. Skolnik has other points which time and space do not allow me to address.  The interested reader can find them in his response to my essay on Dr. Falk. If you read and consider them please take the time to follow up with other sources of information, such as the works of the Israeli historians Ilan Pappe and Benny Morris as well as the journalistic pieces of Amira Hass and Gideon Levy (both of whom work for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz), and the reports of Israel’s human rights group B’Tselem.  These are all Israeli sources, but they tell a very different story than does Skolnik.

From Skolnik to Gaza

As Mr. Skolnik so aptly demonstrates, we all live within our own world. These are usually constructed for us by our upbringing:  our families, our peers, our schools, our friends and the level of attachment we develop to the community.  This attachment is usually sustained and deepened by the reinforcing information environment that the community provides for us.

These environments at once transform us into “good” citizens and simultaneously narrow our views of the world so they conform to acceptable political and cultural paradigms. The process usually works quite well. Nevertheless, it is still true that in any community you get a continuum of acceptance and devotion ranging from the skeptic to the true believer. For the latter, the community can do no wrong and its behavior can always be rationalized. When it comes to Israel, Skolnik is a true believer.

In a country like Israel, one that has armed itself to the teeth yet feels perennially insecure, and where the true believers are in charge, the situation is made dangerous in the extreme. Over the years Israeli leaders, generally believing the same things that Fred Skolnik believes, have dispossessed and ethnically cleansed the Palestinians, pushing them into ever smaller areas of concentration.

Gaza is the worst example of these cases.  It is a virtual “open air prison” of a million and half people squeezed into 139 square miles, the most densely populated place on earth. There, with the compliance of the United States and the European Union, the Israelis have proceeded to reduce most of the Gazans to abject poverty.

When, periodically, these people strike out at their tormenters, usually in ineffective ways, they are labeled terrorists and, again with Western blessing, attacked furiously and disproportionately by the Israelis.  You can now witness the latest onslaught live on the web.

Under these circumstances Skolnik’s assertions that the Jews were in Palestine first and the Arabs only came later as interlopers is really besides the point. Let us say, just for the sake of argument, that he is correct, that the Jews, even in their European guise, are the real indigenous Palestinians, having come back to the homeland after an extended absence of a couple of thousand years.

Even granted this fiction, does any of that give today’s Israeli Jews the right to treat the Palestinians as they do? Does it justify the creation of an apartheid environment in the occupied West Bank? Does it give them the right to reduce a million and half Gazans to a calculated impoverishment and then provoke them until they respond, whereupon Israelis indulge themselves in self-righteous mass murder?

I don’t believe any of Skolnik’s pseudo-history. I also don’t give a damn who lived in or controlled Palestine 3,000 years ago.  The ones who control it now are, by their actions, no better than barbarians. And the leaders in the West who back them have Palestinian blood on their hands.

When it comes to behaviors like ethnic cleansing and cultural genocide, the claim of self-defense is ludicrous. Nor can the fantasies of Fred Skolnik justify such on-going crimes.

Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.




The Source of Romney’s Lying

Exclusive: An enduring mystery about Mitt Romney is why he lies so persistently and with so little shame. Some people blame his business experience or cite the basic dishonesty of politics, but there is also the curious foundation of his Mormon religion which was started by a proven conman, notes Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

If some recent polls are correct, a plurality of Americans are planning to vote for Mitt Romney even though he may be the most persistent and professional liar to run for the U.S. presidency in recent memory, which is saying something. But what has attracted very little media attention is the question: why does Romney lie?

There have been some suggestions that Romney’s mendacity is an outgrowth of his business experience as a corporate takeover artist who tells investors and other stakeholders pretty much anything to close a deal. But that misses the reality of the business world where a reputation as a chronic liar can be lethal to long-term success.

No, Romney’s lying most recently revealed in his false claim about General Motors and Chrysler shifting U.S. auto jobs to China appears connected to something deeper in his personality, psyche or life experience.

One theory is that Romney is consumed by a blind ambition, obsessed with claiming the office of President that was denied his father because he was too honest while his Republican rival, Richard Nixon, was anything but. Another possibility is that Romney has surrendered whatever ethics he had to the longstanding Republican political strategy of winning at all cost, ironically a playbook inherited from Nixon. [See Robert Parry’s America’s Stolen Narrative.]

A third possible explanation is tied to Romney’s Mormon religion which was founded in the 19th Century by a notorious conman, Joseph Smith Jr., who as a youth used a “seer stone” to advise people where to hunt for buried treasure. He later expanded on his supposed visions to start his own religion, Mormonism.

Smith, aided by a few collaborators, created the Book of Mormon which Smith claimed was delivered to him in 1827 by an angel Moroni via golden plates buried in upstate New York. Smith supposedly translated the plates, which told a truly unbelievable tale about ancient Israelites coming to the Americas. Smith’s golden plates, which supposedly contained a form of Egyptian writing that he alone could translate, then conveniently disappeared, making it impossible to verify Smith’s fantastical story, at least from the alleged text on the plates.

Archaeologists and scientists have since noted that the Book of Mormon is full of assertions about animals, plants, architecture and technologies that didn’t exist in the Americas prior to the European arrival. Scholars note, too, that there are no linguistic or DNA links between Native Americans and people of the ancient Near East.

Still, after the Book of Mormon was published, Smith was on a roll, drawing converts from a U.S. population caught up in the religious fervor of the so-called Second Great Awakening. Smith then went a step further, pretending to translate some actual Egyptian hieroglyphics from old papyri. Smith claimed the papyri represented the writings of Israelite patriarch Abraham himself. The “translation” became the Book of Abraham.

Decades later, however, that bogus claim collapsed when scholars became more proficient at translating hieroglyphics and revealed Smith’s papyri to be nothing more than routine Egyptian funeral instructions.

Despite the traditional Mormon narrative portraying Smith and the early Mormons as victims of religious bigotry, many of the controversies that followed Smith to his death in 1844 at the hands of an angry mob in Illinois related to his scamming local residents out of money and his insistence on an intolerant theocracy with him in charge.

Romney’s Church

Today some of the quirky practices of Smith and his early male followers such as their desire to have sex with multiple women “sealed” to them as wives have been disavowed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but important remnants of Smith’s theocratic con game are still in place, such as the claim that the church’s top leader receives regular instructions directly from God.

Romney also is not just some rank-and-file Mormon following the faith of his parents and enjoying the church’s rituals. Rather, he is a former church bishop who comes from Mormon “royalty” with ancestors dating back to the earliest followers of Joseph Smith, including Parley Pratt and Miles Romney, the church’s first architect.

As a member of that “royalty,” Romney has benefited both in his business and political life from the concentration of Mormon wealth under the control of church leaders in Salt Lake City, Utah. While average Mormons often tithe to the church and get few non-religious benefits in return, the “royalty” are well-placed for the church’s powerful support derived from holdings worth tens of billions of dollars.

So, Romney’s fealty to the church and its insistence that Joseph Smith be viewed as a holy prophet, not a mendacious conman, is not simply a matter of true faith, but one of financial and political advantage. Of course, as with anyone, it’s impossible to know where Romney’s religious convictions end and his career aggrandizement begins.

From the U.S. tradition of freedom of religion, Americans also are hesitant to make judgments about the religious beliefs of others, though many on the Right have tried to exploit bigotry toward Islam by insisting that President Barack Obama is not a Christian, but rather a Muslim. By contrast, the Obama campaign and Democrats have steered clear of any criticism of Romney’s Mormonism.

It’s also true that most religions have fantastical or supernatural elements, such as Jesus’s virgin birth and his walking on water. However, Judaism, Christianity and Islam rely on ancient texts that date back millennia and often merged oral histories with self-serving myths designed to impress primitive societies.

The difference with Mormonism and other newer religions is that the origins of their holy writings and the motives of their founders can be more fully researched and explained. Mormon scholars have accessed the church’s archives and some have led the way in exposing the early deceptions used by Smith and other church founders.

For instance, Joseph Smith’s “Book of Abraham” supposedly “translated” by Smith in 1835 was debunked by both Mormon and secular scholars after remnants of Smith’s papyri were discovered and could be actually translated due to the improved understanding of Egyptian hieroglyphics that evolved through the 19th Century.

Virtually everything that Smith claimed about the papyri was false. The documents make no reference to Abraham and were dated some 1,500 years after Abraham’s supposed life. According to scholars, the papyri recounted funeral practices of Egypt in the period of about the First Century BC.

Smith’s apologists have been left to defend his fraudulent depiction of the papyri by claiming that Smith’s translation was by revelation, not by determining what the hieroglyphics literally said or that he possibly saw meanings embedded in the text that would be invisible to everyone else.

Yet, for a religion dependent on Smith’s honesty, such as when he claimed to have discovered the golden plates containing the Book of Mormon and other items that subsequently went magically missing, the empirical debunking of the one set of Smith’s documents that have survived, the papyri used for the “Book of Abraham,” is devastating as clear proof of Smith’s fraudulent practices.

[For a moving personal account of a Mormon woman facing up to the truth about her religion, see Kay Burningham’s An American Fraud.]

Relevance of a Religion

So, as sensitive as religious beliefs can be, Romney’s Mormon faith has relevance to the American electorate in several ways. First, does he really believe the discredited and ludicrous claims by Mormon founder Joseph Smith?

It’s true that people can separate some of the tenets of their religions from their day-to-day lives, like fundamentalist Christians who embrace a literal reading of the Bible but work successfully in scientific fields. However, gullibility or magical thinking in a U.S. President can be dangerous, either in his dealings with foreign leaders or in his control of the devastating American military arsenal, including nuclear weapons.

Before entrusting the nuclear codes to one person, the American people might want to know whether the person is grounded in the real world.

Secondly, if Romney is not a true-believer and is not someone who accepts Smith’s absurdities as real, then is Romney simply an opportunist who follows the Mormon religion because its connections have proved advantageous to him? While viewing Romney as an opportunist might be more reassuring than thinking of him as a fantasist, it doesn’t reflect well on him either.

Thirdly, assuming again that Romney understands the true history of Joseph Smith’s successful fraud, does Romney’s appreciation of Smith as a consummate conman help explain Romney proclivity to lie with such confidence? After all, if your religion enshrines a liar of Smith’s caliber as one of history’s greatest men, a prophet whose religion allows its current leaders to literally speak with God, then your view of lying might well be skewed.

Thus, it makes sense that Romney would experience little or no shame when he makes claims that are patently untrue. After all, they are no more false than Joseph Smith’s stories about disappearing golden plates and his translation of the “Book of Abraham.”

So, knowing that the ends can justify the means, Romney would have no reason to think twice when he lies, such as when he claimed not to have seen an attack ad against Republican rival Newt Gingrich and then went on to describe its contents. Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen was so impressed by the coolness of Romney’s lying that he devoted a column to praising Romney’s skill.

“Among the attributes I most envy in a public man (or woman) is the ability to lie,” Cohen wrote. “If that ability is coupled with no sense of humor, you have the sort of man who can be a successful football coach, a CEO or, when you come right down to it, a presidential candidate. Such a man is Mitt Romney.” [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Mitt Romney: Professional Liar.”]

Romney showed off those skills again and again as the campaign progressed, including when he framed his nominating convention around a gross misrepresentation of Obama’s “You didn’t build that” quote and a false claim that Obama had gutted the work requirement for welfare. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Finally, Fact-Checking Romney’s Lie.”]

Then, in the pivotal first debate, Romney claimed that his health-care plan would cover people with preexisting conditions when his own campaign later acknowledged that it wouldn’t and that his proposed tax cuts would be revenue neutral as he refused to explain how such magical math might work. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Did Romney Win the Debate?”]

Ironically, even as Romney lied about substantial issues, Obama took the brunt of the damage from the first debate when Democrats and progressives joined in denouncing Obama for not denouncing Romney’s lies more aggressively.

Now, in the campaign’s final days, Romney has come up with a new lie about Obama and the bailed-out automakers, Chrysler and General Motors, as betrayers of American workers because of alleged plans to move manufacturing plants to China.

Romney’s comments were followed by an ad, which claimed “Barack Obama says he saved the auto industry, but for who, Ohio or China?” The attack strategy prompted extraordinary denials from Chrysler and GM, deeming the charge that they were planning to shift U.S. jobs abroad as false.

“The ad is cynical campaign politics at its worse,” GM spokesman Greg Martin said. “We think creating jobs in the U.S. and repatriating profits back in this country should be a source of bipartisan pride.”

However, for whatever reason, Mitt Romney has learned that lying works and that it is no cause for shame. Indeed, lying has become one of his defining characteristics, which American voters might want to consider as they cast their ballots on Nov. 6.

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com).




The Backlash against Women’s Rights

Religious fundamentalism Islamic, Judaic and Christian is pushing back against progress toward equal rights for women. The fundamentalists want to restore patriarchal dominance and are gaining ground in the Muslim world, Israel and the United States inside the Republican Party, notes Lawrence Davidson.

By Lawrence Davidson

People often take things for granted, like the concept of progress. My students all assume that progress is continuous, indeed, inevitable.

Mostly they conceive of progress in terms of technology: smart phones and computers of every sort. However, there is also a sense that there is a steady and inevitable movement toward the realization of social ideals. Whether they are conservatives, liberals or libertarians, they all assume that the kind of world they want to live in is the kind of world that will evolve.  

That is also true for the feminists in my classes. They know that they have to fight for gender equality and they are willing to do so. Yet they also assume the betterment of women’s conditions will be continuous and that victory for their cause is inevitable.

In terms of their own local communities, they are sure that conditions for women today are better than they were in their grandmothers‘ day and that conditions will be better still for their own granddaughters. They can’t imagine things going backward.

But they may be in for a shock. It is reasonable to conclude that conditions for women, not only in places far away, but right here at home are deteriorating. That they will continue to do so is not inevitable, but it is certainly possible.

Let’s take a look at the trends. We will start with the ones manifesting themselves abroad and end with the ones here in the U.S.

Most of my feminist students see the Middle East as a central battleground for women’s rights. Of course, they define those rights in terms of Western secular culture and ideals and have a hard time suspending that point of view long enough to consider women’s rights from the standpoint of Muslim cultural ideals. Nonetheless, trends in the Middle East do not bode well for women’s status even in terms of Islamic precepts.

Middle East Trends

Last week authorities in Saudi Arabia refused entry to over 1,000 Nigerian Muslim women who had arrived for the annual pilgrimage known as the Hajj. The Saudi Ministry of Pilgrimage claimed the women were not accompanied by “male guardians” as required by Saudi law.

Actually, the women were accompanied by “male escorts,” but the Saudis had segregated the Nigerians, male from female, and then claimed the women were unescorted. When their mistake was pointed out to the Saudi officials, they refused to listen. I seriously doubt that Prophet Mohammad would have reacted this way.

 

Perhaps an American feminist would just dismiss this as Saudi backwardness. After all, we are talking about a country that refuses to let its women drive cars, which is a ban that cannot easily be drawn from the Quran or Hadith, the central books of Islamic law that date from the second half of the first millennium, long before cars were invented.

Perhaps feminists feel that, over time, outside pressure will bring the Saudis around to conform to Western standards of gender relations. Yet it is quite possible that influence could flow the other way.

For instance, in early October it was reported that IKEA, the Swedish furniture company with worldwide sales, purged the company’s Saudi catalogue of pictures of females. They just airbrushed them out.

The Swedes generally pride themselves on their equitable gender relations, but obviously some of their business executives are quite willing to accommodate Saudi standards when money is to be made. And, we all know that money, rather than feminist ideals, makes the world go round.

Then there is Iran. An American feminist would again dismiss Iran as a backward place when it comes to women’s rights. But, despite the chadors (under which one can often find designer clothes), this is a Western propaganda image that does not tell an accurate story.

Upon the creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979, most women’s rights were expanded. They had open access to the job market and earned the same wages as men for the job they held. They also had open access to the country’s universities including those courses of study usually considered male preserves.

Today, women make up more than 60 percent of those enrolled in institutions of higher learning, and women engineers, scientists, doctors, architects and the like are common. That is progress by any standard, east or west.

Yet, progress is not necessarily continuous. In September 2012,  it was reported that 36 Iranian universities have prohibited women from registering for courses in a range of subjects from chemistry and mathematics to education and business.

Apparently, this was a measure demanded by powerful conservative factions who feel that women have become too “active in society” and should “return to the home.” It remains to be seen if this change is long-term.

Both Saudi Arabia and Iran are countries with Islamic governments, but within the Middle East the challenge to gender equality is not just a product of a conservative Muslim outlook. Thus we can move on to Israel.

 

According to a recently released report of the Israel Women’s Network, women have made little or no progress over the last decade: “Discrimination against women in this country is spread across all sectors of society and culture.” Twenty percent of Israeli women live in poverty (it is even worse for children and the elderly). This is so even though Israeli women tend to be better educated than men.

In the last few years, the Israeli problem of gender discrimination has been illustrated by the “back of the bus” scandal occurring in Israeli cities. Orthodox Jewish communities in Israel often impose gender segregation and, as those communities expand out from their traditional urban enclaves, they insist that secular Israelis conform to their standards rather than the other way around.

Thus, busses running routes that go through both Orthodox and secular communities often try to get women to restrict themselves to the back of the vehicle.

Here is how Mickey Gitzen, the director of Be Free Israel, an NGO promoting religious pluralism, explains the situation, “It’s a slippery slope. What starts with women boarding the bus in the back because of modesty can turn Israeli society into a segregated society in which women don’t have a place in public life.” How very Saudi of the Israeli Orthodox!

Struggles in the U.S.

That is there and not here in the progressive U.S.A. Really? Consider the following:

Conservative Christians make up more than 20 percent of the voting public in the United States. Their influence  runs deep in the Republican Party, as can be seen by the statements of many of the recent contenders for the Republican presidential nomination. And, among the lines pushed by this conservative Christian element is an exceedingly patriarchal view of the role of women.

The American Christian fundamentalist Pat Robertson runs a TV program called the 700 Club with a daily average audience of one million viewers. Here is what Robertson is telling his audience about the role of women:

I know this is painful for the ladies to hear, but if you get married you have accepted the headship of a man, your husband. The husband is the head of the wife and that is the way it is, period.”

In an Alternet interview with author Kathryn Joyce, who has researched and written on the subject of conservative Christian views of women, she makes the following points:

1. There is a growing movement among conservative Christians that preach that women should be married homemakers and that each must have “as many children as God will give you.” They see the God-given structure of human society as patriarchy.

2. This point of view has been endorsed by Christian leaders whose long-range goal is to so powerfully influence the U.S. government that they will be able to frame patriarchal precepts into law.

3. For these Christian conservatives the major enemy, the “root of the problem,” is feminism and all those who assert a woman’s right to control her own fertility.

Some of these sentiments can be found in the Republican Party’s national platform. According to Jill Filipovic writing in the Guardian UK, “the entire Republican social platform is structured around the idea of the traditional family where men are in the public sphere as breadwinners and heads of households, and women stay in private, taking care of children and serving as helpmates to their husbands.”

If this Christian conservative sentiment has captured the outlook of one of the nation’s two major political parties, you know it must not stop there. A New York Times report recently asserted that there is widespread social anxiety among American men caused by the confusion of gender roles that has allegedly come with growing gender equality in the U.S.

The report said that this development has brought about a backlash: “The masculine mystique is institutionalized in work structures” and both men and women who try to challenged this are “often penalized.”

You might have noticed how the attitudes toward women of Muslim, Christian and Jewish fundamentalists are quite similar. Each has fixated on the feminist drive for greater gender equality as a threat to their patriarchal concept of social life.

But, as the New York Times piece suggests, the problem is by no means restricted to those who describe themselves as religious conservatives. It is a society-wide, worldwide happening.

In the end, it is much harder to realize social progress rather than technical progress. For the latter, all you have to do is the research necessary to master elements of nature. These elements might take a lot of work to get at, but they do not consciously fight back.

To achieve the former, however, you must go up against vested interests that do fight back. That is why progress in society is hardly ever continuous and never inevitable.

Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.




Obama Carefully Defends Free Speech

In defending freedom of speech at the UN, President Obama addressed a variety of audiences, especially the world’s Muslims angry over an offensive video, but he also didn’t want to rile up his political opponents at home. That kept some of the key defenses of free speech off the table, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

It was inevitable that President Barack Obama would devote a significant part of his address to the United Nations General Assembly to the subject of freedom of expression. The repercussions of the anti-Islam video that sparked violence in several Muslim-majority countries are too recent and too substantial not to have done so.

The President began and ended his speech referring to Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador who died in some of that violence. Mr. Obama had to explain why the United States could not have somehow just banned the offensive video. And of course he would have been criticized by his domestic political opponents if he had not delivered a vigorous defense of free speech.

What the President said on the topic in his U.N. speech was appropriate for the forum, the time and the circumstances. The address deserves the good reviews it received.

The President noted that modern mass communications make obsolete many notions of controlling the flow of information. He argued that free speech is necessary for a democracy to function well. And he observed that efforts to restrict speech “can quickly become a tool to silence critics and oppress minorities.”

All quite valid, although this defense of free speech was still rather narrow. The President discussed the subject in large part in terms of religion. He said it is not repression but rather more speech that is needed to “rally against bigotry and blasphemy.” Use of that last term was unfortunate.

Although bigotry and blasphemy are both negative concepts that imply contempt for someone else’s community, and although sometimes both are exhibited by the same warped minds, they really are different things.

Some of the most pronounced bigotry is exhibited by those who profess to be most outraged by blasphemy. The term “blasphemy” recalls the intolerance codified in blasphemy laws and the genuine outrage of how some of those laws are implemented.

It was probably an effective tactic to convey as one of the main messages of the address that those who are most offended by attacks on their own religion have some of the most to lose through repression of free expression.

But the President’s presentation overlooked the single most important reason to safeguard free speech: it is one of the best ways to get closer to the truth, and to what is effective and to what works. John Stuart Mill, in his essay On Liberty, identified this as the primary reason for safeguarding freedom of thought and discussion:

“First, if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility.”

Mill went on to explain further reasons for ensuring free expression and how the subject is not just a simple matter of something being true or false:

“Secondly, though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.

“Thirdly, even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds.

“And not only this, but, fourthly, the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost, or enfeebled, and deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduct.”

An address by a head of government at the United Nations is not the same as a discourse by a political philosopher, and it probably would have been unwise to try to work this kind of reasoning into the President’s speech this week.

But we should keep in mind this most fundamental set of reasons not only for why freedom of speech is something we cherish but also why it should be cherished, even when it appears to collide with, say, someone’s religious faith.

We should keep it in mind partly because the ills of restricted expression that Mill described sometimes infect our own public discourse, notwithstanding the constitutional guarantees of the First Amendment. This does not always take the form of false dogma imposing itself, although we see that in, for example, creationist attempts to affect school curricula.

More often it involves the political correctness involved in automatic acceptance of a “general or prevailing opinion”, as it might relate to, for example, a foreign alliance or a perceived foreign threat, and quickness in shouting down those who challenge such an opinion.

Americans also have their share of doctrine, such as the belief in free enterprise, that has a valid and proven basis but often is held more as if it were the product of a revealed religion, thereby losing a good sense of the “character and conduct” that ought to be applied to particular problems and circumstances.

In looking abroad, and especially at the Middle East, the part of the world that President Obama was most addressing in his U.N. speech, we should keep in mind the chief justifications for free expression in order to know what we are wishing on other people. Sure, an immediate wish is that societies not tear themselves apart over sectarian differences, as is going on now in Syria.

But people who do not get beyond the immediate preoccupations and the concerns about who is blaspheming whom and who fail to graduate instead to a more prosperous, as well as more just and civil, way of life, will merely be clinging forever, as Mr. Obama might put it, to their guns and religion.

A transition to a more prosperous way of life requires an active search for truth rather than merely believing what a local religious leader says to believe. It requires a vigorous interplay of ideas, with competing points of view freely expressed, to discover what works and what is effective.

We cannot force people in other countries to think this way, but we should keep all of this in mind whenever we have an opportunity to nudge their thinking in this direction, maybe even explaining this in a speech or two.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post  at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)




Jesus: Redistributionist-in-Chief

From the Archive: Christian conservatives are cheering Mitt Romney’s attack on a 14-year-old comment by Barack Obama endorsing a limited “redistribution” of wealth, but they ignore that Jesus called for a far more radical wealth redistribution  and it may have led to his crucifixion, as Rev. Howard Bess wrote in 2011.

By the Rev. Howard Bess (First published on Sept. 4, 2011)

According to Luke’s gospel, the beginning of the ministry of Jesus as a reputational rabbi was marked by his public reading of a passage from the Isaiah scroll. His declaration was that a year special to God had arrived, a Jubilee Year that would redistribute wealth and end the economic persecution of the poor.

A key part of understanding Jesus involves his belief in this Year of Jubilee. According to Levitical Law, all land was owned by God. So, the people who controlled the land and farmed it were stewards/servants, but according to Leviticus, they never really owned the land.

Land could be bought and sold but only for a limited time. Plus, the holders of land were under some strict rules. Every seventh year the land could not be farmed, meaning the land had a Sabbath year when it rested.

At the end of the seventh seven-year cycle (i.e. 49 years), the Levitical Law required that all the people start over. Land was to be completely redistributed. This 50th year was called the Year of Jubilee. Other important things took place. All slaves were set free and all debts were canceled. The Levitical Law envisioned a new day for everyone.

Over the years the Israelites found ways of reinterpreting the law and avoided the keeping of the Year of Jubilee. People who had gained control of large land holdings were closely allied with the priests who ran the Jerusalem Temple.

The prophet Isaiah (who lived in the Eighth Century BC) despised the rich and the powerful. A recurring theme in Isaiah is a call to celebrate the Year of Jubilee honestly. Many today would call him the ultimate socialist. As far as anyone can tell, the Year of Jubilee has never been celebrated.

Jesus lived at a time of a concentration of wealth when working farmers had completely lost control of their land, which was owned by very wealthy men who lived in large cities some miles away. Under the prevailing economic system, the farmers became poorer and poorer.

Often, the farmers had to leave the farm and became day-laborers who worked at the mercy of absentee owners and their local enforcers. The greed of absentee land owners and the plight of poverty-stricken farmers form the backdrop of the entire ministry of Jesus.

When Jesus at the beginning of his public ministry as a reputational rabbi read the particular passage from Isaiah, his entire audience understood what he was saying. He was calling for the celebration of the Year of Jubilee.

Jesus made his statement in a minor village to a group of people who had become powerless under the economic onslaught of the rich. Jesus was declaring that the new day had arrived. At last justice would be established.

It was a brash statement partly because Jesus was not a trained rabbi. His position as rabbi would not have been accepted outside of a small area in northern Palestine.  According to the passage, he made his statement in the town (Nazareth) in which he grew up.

Jesus had spent his early manhood attending the local synagogue meetings as an active participant. A small village such as Nazareth had too few people to merit a trained rabbi, so the regular Sabbath meetings were led by lay people.

At Sabbath meetings, the Scriptures (Old Testament) were read, discussed and argued. Jesus was the leader that emerged from the group. His reputation grew as he became their “reputational” rabbi. Jesus embraced the Isaiah writings, and the Isaiah perspective had become the eyes with which he read and understood the Law and will of God.

(This understanding of Jesus’s radical message, challenging the power structure on behalf of the poor, puts into context his fateful decision to take his protests to Jerusalem where the scriptures describe him riding in on a humble donkey and confronting the money changers at the Temple. It also helps explain the determination of the religious and political elites of Jerusalem to have him crucified.)

Other Injustices

This column is the arrival of new days as an intrinsic part of the Christian message. Jubilee is any and every day when justice triumphs. And the message of justice is not restricted to issues of economic injustice or the excessive power of the rich. It also applies to social justice.

It has been more than four decades since the Stonewall riots started the revolution for gay acceptance in America. The Stonewall Inn was a gay bar in New York City that was regularly raided by the police. On June 28, 1969, the men at the Stonewall Inn had had enough. The resulting riots lasted several days and inspired the emergence of gay rights organizations across the country.

Within seven years, I felt it necessary to face the issue of gay acceptance in our churches, writing my first essay about acceptance of gay people in our congregation. I shared my call for acceptance with my congregation. A new day had arrived. It was a day that demanded justice for a persecuted and down-trodden group of people. The old ways were unacceptable.

I believed it was and is the calling of our churches to declare the arrival of the new day. But I have been sorrowed that so many Christian churches have chosen darkness rather than light. I am chagrinned by my fellow Christian clergy who have kept silent about justice for our gay friends when they should have been witnessing to the new day of Jubilee.

However, I am also pleased with the large number of churches and clergy who have been declaring the arrival of the new day of acceptance for gay people in the family of God. We have come a long way.

Jesus had the courage to apply Torah (the will of God) to the vicious economic injustice that had developed in his own day. He challenged injustice and declared a new day. Challenging injustice and claiming a new day for everyone are the calling of every person who calls Jesus “Lord.”

The Rev. Howard Bess is an American Baptist minister, who lives in retirement in Palmer, Alaska.  His email address is hdbss@mtaonline.net.




Did Anti-Muslim Film Cross Legal Line?

The makers of an anti-Islamic propaganda video achieved what they apparently intended, inciting a violent reaction among Muslim and creating new tensions between Islam and the West. But the killing of four U.S. diplomatic personnel raises questions about whether legal lines were crossed, maintains Lawrence Davidson.

By Lawrence Davidson

When I finish one of my analyses, I usually look forward to a week to 10-day hiatus and sometimes even wonder if I will have to hunt around for the next topic. It rarely works out that way. Usually, within three or four days, something happens which strikes me as worthy of attention. Often other commentators have moved more quickly than I to report on the event. However, there are always more questions to be asked and different perspectives to be offered.

So it is with the death of four American diplomats, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, in Libya on Sept. 12. There are two mutually reinforcing parts to this tragedy: one takes place here in the U.S., and the other in Libya, Egypt and several other places in the Middle East. Let’s take them in sequence based on the currently available evidence:

In summer 2011, a convicted felon by the name of Nakoula Bassely Nakoula, aka Sam Bacile (whose crime was bank fraud) decided to make a movie about the religion of Islam. Nakoula is an Islamophobe of Egyptian Coptic Christian background who lives in California. The movie was to be one of those propaganda pieces like the film “Obsession” back in 2005, but cruder and with more “shock value.”

Nakoula went about contacting other Islamophobes to raise the money and otherwise promote the project. Among those he recruited were Morris Sadek, a fellow Copt who also resided in the U.S. and whose long-term goal was to undermine the new Islamic government in Cairo.

Another was a Christian fundamentalist extremist by the name of Steve Klein who also seems to have an obsessive hatred of Muslims. Hovering around the margins of the project was the extremist “pastor” Terry Jones from Gainesville, Florida, who is an expert at inciting riots, having publicly burnt a Quran in 2011 sparking violence in Afghanistan that resulted in the death of 30 people.

Eventually, Nakoula put together a cast and crew by setting up what can only be described as a confidence game. He told the actors and stage technicians that the movie was about a “desert warrior” living in the remote past, ”a benign biblical epic” about past life in the Middle East. The initial working title was “Desert Warrior.”

Later, the film was reedited and new dialogue was dubbed over the original script thereby transforming it into an anti-Muslim diatribe with a new, supposedly ironic, title “Innocence of Muslims.” Among other things, the film depicts Mohammad as a fraud and a lecher. Subsequently, CNN received a statement from those who worked on the project indicating that “the entire cast and crew are extremely upset. We are 100% not behind this film and were grossly misled about its intent and purpose.”

Of particular import is the strong suspicion that the real purpose of the film was to incite a violent reaction in the Muslim world. According to Steve Klein, interviewed after the eruption of protests in the Muslim world,  “we went into this knowing this was probably going to happen.”

Klein told Nakoula, “you are going to be the next Theo van Gogh,” the Dutch film maker who was murdered in 2004 after making a film that defamed Islam. Subsequently, Nakoula’s accomplice, Morris Sadek, contacted an Egyptian newspaper reporter, Gamel Girgis, and told him he had an exclusive story about a American who made an anti-Muslim video. Sadek’s obvious intention was to make the video known to the Egyptian public.

The Story in the Middle East

In July 2012, soon after “Desert Warrior” was morphed into “Innocence of Muslims,” a “trailer” for the film was posted on YouTube. It is still there (except in Egypt where it’s been blocked) and to date has garnered hundreds of thousands of hits. Just this month (September 2012), the video was dubbed in Arabic and posted on the Internet. That posting sparked anger in Egypt and elsewhere in the Muslim world.

Someone at the U.S. embassy in Cairo immediately sensed the danger that the film created. In an effort to defuse tensions, the embassy staffer posted a statement on the local Egyptian Internet that said in part, “The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims as we condemn the efforts to offend believers of all religions. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.”

However, the statement failed to prevent an assault on the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, the fatal attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and other protests around the Muslim world.

Though too late to stop the Cairo and Benghazi assaults, most Muslim governments moved to quell or contain the public anger. The Libyan government, which is beholden to the U.S. for its support in the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime, issued an apology for the Benghazi attack and began an immediate investigation. The militant group that stormed the consulate and killed Ambassador Stevens was readily identified, in part, because most of the violence was captured on film.

In Egypt, the newly elected president, Mohammed Morsi, himself a member of the Society of Muslim Brothers, was more nuanced in his reaction. He noted that Egyptians had guaranteed rights to “expressing opinion, freedom to protest and announcing positions but without assaulting private or public property, diplomatic missions or embassies.”

In a telephone conversation with President Barack Obama, Morsi “pledged to protect foreigners in Egypt.” But he also told Obama that there was a need for “deterrent legal measures against those who want to damage relations between peoples, and particularly between the people of Egypt and the people of America.” It is a need that Americans should take seriously.

Besides the immediate death and destruction, this incident has exposed a deep vein of anger against the United States that runs through the Muslim world. This anger is nothing new and we continue to ignore it at our peril.

After the 9/11 terror attacks, U.S. politicians refused to consider the context from which those attacks came, asserting simply that the violence against the United States was absolutely wrong and so there was no need to examine what had caused it. Well, that might be good politics stateside, but it guaranteed that the policies and behavior that led up to the 9/11 attacks would carry on into the future, such as imposing sanctions that ruin the lives of countless innocents, intervening militarily in Muslim countries, the arming and protection of dictators, and the carte blanche support of Israeli policies against the Palestinian people.

In other words, between 9/11/01 and 9/11/12 nothing substantial about U.S. behavior has changed. That means the Muslim world continues to be a tinder box that someone living in the West, someone like Nakoula Bassely Nakoula, can throw a match into and spark more violence.

At this point, many will argue that Nakoula’s perverse film is protected under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits the abridgment of speech and press. But this may not be entirely true. Free speech does not excuse purposeful efforts to incite a riot.

An enterprising prosecutor might be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the entire enterprise that created “Innocence of Muslims” was a premeditated effort to produce exactly the type of violence that we have seen. If that’s the case, Nakoula Bassely Nakoula, Steve Klein and Morris Sadek could be potential targets of a criminal investigation into the promotion of hate speech that contributed to murder.

The governments of the Muslim world, and indeed all governments, have the legal and moral obligation to protect foreign diplomats, embassies and consulates. And, the U.S. government has the responsibility to do all that is reasonable and practicable to protect its citizens. That includes the prevention of another 9/11-style attack or any variant on that theme.

Moving to prosecute those here in the United States who would purposely incite such attacks seems an obvious step and, in the long run, a step that is more useful than filling the skies with drones in search of alleged enemies.

Yet, as obvious and warranted as such a prosecution might be, will it be pursued? Do not look to Mitt Romney to propose such a preventative action. His sole concern is taking political advantage of the crisis by claiming that the State Department statement cited above proved that the Obama administration had more sympathy for the Muslims than for our own dead diplomats.

That is, of course, cynical nonsense. Yet, one cannot look to President Obama for much preventative action either. He is afraid of the political shadow to his right and will not move against even the most psychopathic actors, especially at election time.

So the most likely scenario is that, just as in 2001, our leaders will do nothing to address our own behavioral and policy shortcomings. Thus, the dangerous likelihood of more provocations igniting the deep anti-American anger in the Muslim lands will go on and on.

Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.