Monday, January 15, 2018

Memoir of MLK and the March on Washington, with reflections on the Jewish histories of liberalism and Zionism

This is a draft chapter of an uncompleted work that needs editing and much more. Some of the references are unclear as they are to the previous chapter. Apologies. I am posting in honor of MLK day. It starts with a memoir of Dr. King at the March on Washington and then veers into historical stream of consciousness on the history of Jews, liberalism, imperialism, and Zionism. Comments welcome.

Chapter Two: The Emancipation of the Jews 

 On August 27, 1963, my mother, Shirley Cooperman Rubin, and I got up early to board a bus chartered by the Philadelphia chapter of the American Jewish Congress to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. AJC’s leader in Philadelphia, Rabbi Yaakov Rosenberg, barely sat down during the whole trip, leading us in singing Hebrew songs, civil rights anthems, and what were then known as “Negro spirituals.” On the way back from the rally our chorus joined with the many buses chartered by black churches travelling beside us along the highways, with people singing and shouting, “Freedom!” through the open windows in those days before air conditioning. Rabbi Rosenberg, who was then the leader of congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park, died in Jerusalem in 2000 while visiting his daughter Pnina, who was a year behind me at Akiba. I last saw her in Jerusalem during my 1967 visit, when I dropped in on a summer program in which she was participating.

 In a chapter about the U.S., Jacob Katz’s text taught about slavery in the South and explained the conflict over the doctrine of states’ rights, but it did not mention the horrors of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Some slave owners treated their slaves humanely, Katz wrote, but others subjected them to oppression (“parekh,” a Hebrew word applied in the Bible to the slavery of the Israelites in Egypt). The original edition, written before Brown vs. Board of Education and the growth of the civil rights movement in the U.S., did not discuss race relations after abolition. Later editions stated: 

Negroes were equal citizens before the law, but they continued to be considered as an inferior race by the majority of whites, and suffered discrimination even in the North.

 Katz did not mention legally imposed segregation, the deprivation of voting rights, or the use of terrorism, including lynching, against the black community. At Passover seders in my family we often compared the liberation from Egyptian slavery to the blessings of coming to the U.S. Starting sometime in the late 1950s or early 1960s, we also reminded ourselves that we were obligated to continue progress toward an incomplete freedom by supporting the civil rights movement in the U.S., and we sang the spiritual “Go Down Moses” at every Seder. That was part of our version of Luria’s tikkun ‘olam.

 My parents collected signatures on petitions for “open housing” for the American Jewish Congress, though I don’t recall ever discussing the civil rights movement in my all-white public elementary school in Lower Merion Township outside Philadelphia, where I studied through the spring of 1960. At Akiba, which I entered in the fall of 1960, all the students were Jewish and Ashkenazi. We had a Haitian French teacher of aristocratic demeanor (the only faculty member who always wore a suit and tie and whom we later – much later -- learned was a closeted gay jazz piano player) and a Moroccan Hebrew teacher, who had composed a Hebrew poem about racism, which he read at the school Seders: “’Ad ana, Eli, ‘ad matai, yad levana ta’oz ‘alai?” – For how long, my God, until when, will the white hand oppress me?

 Our Jewish contingent at the March on Washington got off the bus somewhere near the Mall and gradually made our way toward the Lincoln Memorial. We arrived too late to hear Josh White, the black folksinger whom my mother had seen perform in the 1940s, when she was a University of Pennsylvania undergraduate with leftist friends from New York. I finally saw Josh White myself on August 5, 1967, when I took my then girlfriend, now wife, Susan Blum, to hear him the Saturday night before my departure for Israel, at a coffeehouse called the Main Point in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. The opening act was a unknown singer with a well-known name, Arlo Guthrie, who performed the “Multi-Colored Rainbow Roaches” variant of his as-yet unrecorded song about draft resistance, “Alice’s Restaurant.”

 Our AJC group arrived at the Mall during the “folk music” segment of the March’s program. Joan Baez sang “Oh Freedom,“ “All My Trials” (which she changed to “All Your Trials,” addressing the crowd), and We Shall Overcome.” Bob Dylan performed “Only a Pawn in their Game,” about how one group of oppressed people, poor whites, were used against another, black people. Then Baez joined him for the first public performance of Dylan’s messianic hymn, “When the Ship Comes In,” which Dylan had written earlier that month as a prophecy of doom for a hotel clerk who refused to register him because of his ratty clothes:

 Then the sands will roll Out a carpet of gold
For your weary toes to be a-touchin’
And the ship’s wise men Will remind you once again
That the whole wide world is watchin’
Oh the foes will rise With the sleep still in their eyes
And they’ll jerk from their beds and think they’re dreamin’
But they’ll pinch themselves and squeal And know that it’s for real
The hour when the ship comes in

Then they’ll raise their hands Sayin’ we’ll meet all your demands
But we’ll shout from the bow your days are numbered
And like Pharoah’s tribe They’ll be drownded in the tide
And like Goliath, they’ll be conquered

As we got closer to the front, Peter, Paul, and Mary were singing Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” which they had released a few months earlier. Dylan didn’t release a recording till 1964. I had never heard it before:

How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
Yes, ’n’ how many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?
Yes, ’n’ how many times must the cannonballs fly
Before they’re forever banned?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind

How many years can a mountain exist
Before it’s washed to the sea?
Yes, ’n’ how many years can some people exist
Before they’re allowed to be free?
Yes, ’n’ how many times can a man turn his head
Pretending he just doesn’t see?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind

How many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky?
Yes, ’n’ how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, ’n’ how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind

I saw Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul, and Mary one more time -- at about 3 A.M. on August 29, 1968, when he calmed a beaten and tear-gassed crowd of antiwar protesters at the Democratic National Convention, including me, in Chicago’s Grant Park by singing Dylan’s as yet unrecorded, “I Shall be Released,” accompanying himself on the guitar:

They say ev’ry man needs protection
They say ev’ry man must fall
Yet I swear I see my reflection
Some place so high above this wall
I see my light come shining
From the west unto the east
Any day now, any day now I shall be released

Standing next to me in this lonely crowd
Is a man who swears he’s not to blame
All day long I hear him shout so loud
Crying out that he was framed

I see my light come shining
From the west unto the east
Any day now, any day now I shall be released

 About an hour earlier, along with my fellow student from Yale, Josh Javits, son of Jacob Javits, the (liberal Jewish) Republican senator from New York, I had run into Norman Mailer behind the Hilton Hotel. Mailer was another Jewish participant in (and chronicler of) the 1963 march, but we didn’t see him at the time – by his own account the rhetoric wore him down, and he wandered off, missing King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. President Kennedy was assassinated a few months after the March. While I was a freshman at Yale, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, and Bobby Kennedy just a month later, on June 5.

I had read Mailer’s “On the Steps of the Pentagon” in Harper’s magazine, an account of the October 1967 march on the Pentagon that would late be published as the book Armies of the Night. On June 6, the day after Bobby Kennedy’s assassination I wrote Mailer:

 When Martin Luther King was shot, I didn't quite understand what it meant. I had seen Kennedy during the campaign in 1960 and I heard King at Washington in 1963, and I could see that there was something similar in these men, some specific strength or knowledge that the slagheap left after the industrial production of men could not tolerate. At the time, in April, I wanted to write you to ask you to write something that would clarify things to me as The Steps of the Pentagon had clarified them. Now that Bobby Kennedy is dead, the need seems more pressing. So my request is that you write something now which would at least begin to explain what the mystery at the center of these events was.

 Mailer replied on August 2: “Well, I’ll be covering the Republican and Democratic conventions. Let’s see if anything comes out of that.”

I reminded him of our correspondence when we met behind the Hilton, scene of the first clash of police and protesters the day before. The protesters, or, should I say, we were chanting a version of a line from “When the Ship Comes In”: “The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!” The world was listening too: the crack of police batons on skulls was louder than I had anticipated. Mailer grinned, and we shook hands.

 In the adrenalin-fueled insomnia of that early morning in late August 1968, that sublime, hope-filled morning in late August 1963 seemed a long time past. As the music ended and the speeches began, my mother and I and the rest of the AJC group made our way from our starting point down the reflecting pool between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument and ended up slightly behind stage left of the podium. We had a pretty clear view of the speakers’ left profiles.

 Mahalia Jackson opened the final section of the program with “I’ve Been ‘Buked and I’ve Been Scorned”: “There’s trouble all over the world, children, ain’t gonna lay my religion down.” She followed with “How I Got Over”:

 Tell me how I got over Lord, Had a mighty hard time coming on over
You know my soul look back and wonder How did I make it over?

The final verse of the spiritual, which she did not sing that day, told where she was going – the same destination to which Isaac Luria intended to lead his students:

In that new Jerusalem I'm gonna walk the streets of gold
It's the homeland of the soul
I'm gonna view the host in white
They've been traveling day and night
Coming up from every nation
They're on their way to the great Cognation
Coming from the north, south, east, and west
They're on their way to a land of rest.

 Jackson took a seat directly behind the podium. King had not decided how much he would preach that day. As he reached the end of his prepared text with a somewhat stiff paragraph starting “I am not unmindful that,” Jackson called out to him, “Tell them about the Dream, Martin! Tell them about the dream!” And he did, in language I recognized:

 I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together."

 But before Dr. King gave his new testimony, we heard some of that old testimony from Rabbi Joachim Prinz, President of the American Jewish Congress and one of the leading rabbinical supporters of the civil rights movement. He was so well known for his activism that Philip Roth made him a character in his 2004 novel, The Plot against America, in which Prinz organizes the Jews of Newark into a self-defense force against anti-Semites inspired by Hitler’s ally, U.S. President Charles Lindbergh.

Prinz was AJC’s contribution to the day, and my mother always resented that King’s speech got all the attention, while everyone forgot Rabbi Prinz’s. But I never forgot it. This is what he said:

I speak to you as an American Jew. As Americans we share the profound concern of millions of people about the shame and disgrace of inequality and injustice, which make a mockery of the great American idea. As Jews we bring to this great demonstration, in which thousands of us proudly participate, a two-fold experience -- one of the spirit and one of our history. In the realm of the spirit, our fathers taught us thousands of years ago that when God created man, he created him as everybody's neighbor.

Neighbor is not a geographic term. It is a moral concept. It means our collective responsibility for the preservation of man's dignity and integrity. From our Jewish historic experience of three and a half thousand years we say: Our ancient history began with slavery and the yearning for freedom. During the Middle Ages my people lived for a thousand years in the ghettos of Europe. Our modern history begins with a proclamation of emancipation. It is for these reasons that it is not merely sympathy and compassion for the black people of America that motivates us. It is above all and beyond all such sympathies and emotions a sense of complete identification and solidarity born of our own painful historic experience.

When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful, and the most tragic problem is silence. A great people which had created a great civilization had become a nation of silent onlookers. They remained silent in the face of hate, in the face of brutality, and in the face of mass murder. America must not become a nation of onlookers. America must not remain silent. Not merely black America, but all of America. It must speak up and act, from the President down to the humblest of us, and not for the sake of the Negro, not for the sake of the black community but for the sake of the image, the idea and the aspiration of America itself.

 Enlightenment and Pseudo-Messiahs

 This was the Jewish narrative that brought us to the March on Washington: a people born in slavery, freed by a lawgiver, exiled by an empire, oppressed in ghettos – and emancipated by the movements that followed the Enlightenment, starting with the revolutionary French National Assembly’s proclamation of September 27, 1791, to which Prinz referred, granting full and equal rights of citizenship to the Jews of France. Commitment to those full and equal rights – for everyone – brought us to Washington.

 In his book, Wir Juden, written when he was a rabbi in Berlin under Hitler, Prinz described Jewish life before the French Revolution as being like life in a cell, where the prisoner counts the days by drawing lines on the wall. And then, in Katz’s words: Half a year after the outbreak of the French Revolution the Sephardim [who lived in areas long under the rule of France] were recognized as citizens of France with equal rights. The deliberations on the Ashkenazim [who lived mostly in Alsace, which had distinct anti-Semitic regulations] continued contentiously throughout the session of the first National Assembly. But before the dissolution of the Assembly the sympathizers of the Jews gained the upper hand. In September 1791 a declaration was issued granting the Jews equality of rights with all other citizens of the state. Prinz recounted how the revolutionary armies under Napoleon took emancipation farther afield. “When Napoleon marched though the Rhineland shining like a Roman Emperor, the Jewish youth cheered him as the liberator, the warrior, the stormer of the ghetto.”

 Katz taught a generation of Israeli Jewish youth:

 When the French armed forces entered the Rhineland and Northern Italy, the residents of the ghettos welcomed them with open arms. The report of the equality of rights of French Jews spread everywhere quickly, and the Jews of the conquered cities saw with their own eyes that Jews were serving in the French armed forces like the rest of the citizens. Everywhere that a republic was founded under the influence of the French conquerors, a law was enacted that there should be no difference in rights between Jew and non-Jew. Thus were emancipated the Jews of Holland, the cities of the Rhineland, and Northern Italy. It was as if the walls of the ghetto had fallen in one night.

 This is the history that led French Prime Minister Manuel Valls to say, after the Charlie Hebdo and Hypercacher massacres of January 2015, that the departure of France’s Jews would mean the “failure of the republic.” Though Napoleon later backtracked on some of his reforms and always considered the Jews with some suspicion, his acts led Tsar Alexander I to call him the “Anti-Christ.” Austrian Chancellor Metternich feared that the Jews might greet Bonaparte as “the promised Messiah,” as did some followers of Jacob Frank, an eighteenth-century pseudo-messiah born in Buczacz, the same town as Agnon.

 Napoleon did not only emancipate the Jews and spread the republican doctrine of the revolution (at least until he crowned himself Emperor) – his 1798 invasion of Egypt and Palestine also made him the first liberal imperialist. During that campaign Napoleon may have contemplated harnessing the messianic longings of the Jews to his imperial ambition. He may have been the first European ruler to take up, if unwittingly, a proposal made in the sixteenth century by the pseudo-messiah David Reubeni.

 I wrote a paper on David Reubeni in the fall of 1967, my first semester at Yale, in a class taught by David Price, then a history PhD student and now a Democratic member of the House of Representatives from North Carolina whom I met again in the course of my duties at the State Department. Reubeni claimed to come from a Jewish kingdom called Khaibar, possibly in Arabia, Cochin (India), or Afghanistan. Arriving in Venice in 1524, he offered European rulers an alliance with his kingdom’s Jewish army against the Ottomans, who had captured Palestine only seven years earlier. He proposed to the papal court in Avignon, King João III of Portugal, and the Emperor Charles V that they join with this army to establish a Jewish kingdom on the territory of the Ottoman Empire. Diego Pires, a forcibly converted Jew serving at the Portuguese court, reverted to Judaism and took the name Shlomo Molcho to serve as Reubeni’s herald and propagandist. It was in this role that he met Joseph Karo in Salonika. Nothing came of the plan at that time. The Inquisition burned Molcho at the stake, and Reubeni disappeared into its dungeons.

 Reubeni and his followers saw themselves as actors in the Jewish drama of exile, persecution, and redemption, but another history was going on around them. Reubeni met Charles V in 1530, thirty-eight years after the expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain, when Christopher Columbus, possibly a secret Jew, sailed from Seville looking for a western passage to India. He undertook that voyage using a mariner’s astrolabe and techniques of open-sea (blue-water) navigation developed in the previous century. Columbus’s wrong-way journey led to the conquest and colonization of the Americas and the Atlantic slave trade, which powered the global industries of first sugar and then cotton -- but Asia remained the prize. China and India produced over half of global GDP before the industrial revolution. Five years after Columbus, in 1497, Vasco da Gama circumnavigated the Cape of Good Hope, opening the sea route from Europe to India. In 1521, four years after the Ottomans captured Palestine, Magellan circumnavigated the globe. By the time Reubeni reached the courts of Europe, their rulers were already thinking of how to expand their reach into Asia despite Ottoman control of the land routes.

Two hundred and fifty years later, by the time of Napoleon, the struggle for trade routes and military access to those lands affected the entire globe – including the Jews with their hope for redemption. The original version of Katz's Israel and the Nations omitted any mention of colonialism. Later editions, written after the start of decolonization, included a chapter on “European Imperialism”:

 By the last third of the nineteenth century the western states that had reached the stage of industrial development dominated large parts of the continents of Asia and Africa. Thus the dominant states established their rule over areas outside of their own countries, as the Romans did in ancient times. Such an extensive state was called “imperium,” from which derives the modern term “imperialism.” This form of domination started with England, Holland, and France, which had established settlements for trade there as early as the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They called these settlements “colonies,” and rule over colonies was called “colonialism.”

 Katz drew no connection between the European imperialism he described and the British mandate in Palestine under which he was living when he wrote the first edition of the textbook. Nor did he connect it to an episode he recounted involving Napoleon and the Jews.

As part of his invasion of Egypt and then Palestine, Katz wrote, Napoleon launched an appeal to the Jews of Asia and Africa to ally with France against the Ottoman Empire, as Reubeni had offered to do several centuries earlier. As a general of revolutionary France, Napoleon faced a Britain that was not only leading the reactionary powers of Europe against the revolution, but was also competing with France on the seas and in the scramble for Asia. The British East India Company ousted the French from North India in 1757, when it defeated their ally, the Nawab of Bengal, in the Battle of Plassey. By 1793, two years after the French National Assembly offered full rights of citizenship to the Jews of France, the British East India Company established its capital in Calcutta (Kolkata). Its expansion temporarily blocked to the northwest by the rising powers of the Sikhs in Punjab and the Durrani empire in Afghanistan, the Company turned to the conquest of France’s holdings in South India, with its ports on the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean. By 1798 the Company’s army was on the way to defeating France’s ally in the South, Tipu Sultan, in the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War. Among the commanders of that war was Colonel Arthur Wellesley, who as the first Duke of Wellington eventually defeated Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815.

Unable to attack Britain’s island redoubt directly, Napoleon riposted to Britain’s offensive in India by establishing a beachhead between London and Calcutta, astride the land route from the Mediterranean to the British rear in India, the same route that Alexander the Great had followed. In 1798 he shocked the world by occupying Egypt, and in March he followed in Alexander’s footsteps toward Palestine and Syria. He captured Jaffa and Haifa and besieged the port of Acre in March 1799. Napoleon marched through Galilee toward Tiberias on the road to Damascus, destroying an Ottoman relief force at Mt. Tabor on April 16. But before Napoleon could reach Damascus, the British blocked him on both fronts. The Royal Navy, which had landed in Acre on March 16, 1799, imposed a successful blockade on Napoleon’s forces in Jaffa and Haifa. On May 4, 1799, Tipu Sultan fell in battle against the Company’s forces at Srirangapatna, in today’s Indian state of Karnataka. Wellesley (Wellington) was the first to confirm his death.

In the summer of 1973, during my first trip to South Asia, I viewed murals depicting the resistance of Tipu Sultan at his palace in Mysore, which I visited together with the Hillel rabbi of the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. I had met him at Sabbath services in the seventeenth-century Portuguese synagogue in Cochin, Kerala, established by the descendants of Portuguese conversos who declared themselves Jews when the Netherlands captured Cochin in 1662.

 Unable to resupply his troops in Jaffa and Haifa, and facing defeat in India, Napoleon lifted the siege of Acre and withdrew from Palestine on May 21, 1799. Before receiving news of Napoleon’s retreat, however, the French official newspaper Le Moniteur Universel published a dispatch from the front on May 22:

 Bonaparte has published a proclamation in which he invites all the Jews of Asia and Africa to gather under his flag in order to re-establish ancient Jerusalem. He has already given arms to a great number, and their battalions threaten Aleppo.

Katz devoted a paragraph to what he called “The Great Hope [ha-Tikvah – the Israeli national anthem] in the Days of Napoleon”:

When Napoleon sent his military expedition to Egypt, it aroused hopes that good things would come to all the people of Israel from his success. They believed that Napoleon intended to conquer the Land of Israel from the Turks and give it to the Jewish people as its ancient homeland. When Napoleon penetrated from Egypt into the Land of Israel, rumors spread that he had issued a proclamation to the Jews of Asia and Africa to gather under his flag and capture control of the Land of Israel. These rumors even reached Jerusalem, where the Jews awaited the events with beating hearts. The Turkish rulers of Jerusalem had already started to assess that the Jews secretly favored the foreign enemy who had entered the country. But none of Napoleon’s plans were implemented.

 This account seems to be based on a 1940 book by Franz Kobler, which included the only document purporting to include the full text of the proclamation. Kobler claimed that the document was a contemporaneous German translation of the proclamation brought by Napoleon’s emissaries to followers of the pseudo-messiah Jacob Frank in the Jewish community of Prague. Most now consider the document a forgery. Whatever Napoleon intended, no Jewish battalions came to his rescue. Some Jews did participate in the events precipitated by Napoleon’s incursion into Palestine, but their involvement shows how different the Jewish relationship to great-power geo-politics was then compared to a century later, when Theodore Herzl founded political Zionism.

 The nineteenth-century German Jewish historian Heinrich Graetz conjectured that Napoleon’s proclamation might have been aimed at winning over Haim Farhi, a Jewish Ottoman official who was organizing Acre’s defenses, something Katz did not mention, and which clashed with his contention that the Turks suspected the Jews’ loyalty. Katz’s initial work contained no account of the Jews living in the Muslim world except for the mystics in Safed and a chapter on the 1840 blood libel instigated against the Jews by Christians in Damascus. Later editions included chapters on the Jewish communities of the Muslim world that largely emigrated to Israel after 1948. Katz highlighted the response by leading Jews of Western Europe to the Damascus blood libel, but he did not mention the Farhi family, one of whose members defended his co-religionists as a member of the Damascus city council. The Farhis were the Rothschilds of the Levant, In the eighteenth century they controlled much of the Ottoman finances.

When Napoleon launched his attack on Palestine, Haim Farhi, respected by the Jews of Syria and Palestine for his religious learning, was advisor to the Ottoman governor of Galilee, Ahmad al-Jazzar (the butcher). Jazzar Pasha, as he was known, was a former Christian from Herzegovina (what we would now call a Bosnian Croat) who sold himself as a slave to escape a murder charge, converted to Islam, and rose in the Ottoman ranks thanks to a felicitous combination of brains and brutality. He once put out one of Haim Farhi’s eyes while in a pique: drawings of Farhi show him wearing an eye patch. In 1820, Farhi was killed by his Muslim stepson, whom Jazzar Pasha had made his successor. In response to an appeal from Farhi’s three brothers in Damascus, the grand mufti of Istanbul issued a firman authorizing Ottoman governors to supply troops to Farhi’s brothers to lay siege to Acre and take revenge. This Jewish-led Islamically mandated army, however, did not try to establish a Jewish state.

 Besides Farhi and the non-existent battalions menacing Aleppo, another Jewish participant in events surrounding the siege of Acre was the Jewish mystic and sage, Rebbe Nahman of Bratslav, a great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism. In his chapter on the rise of Hasidism in eighteenth-century Poland and Ukraine, Katz summarized Nahman’s teaching in one Zen-like quotation: “The greatest wisdom of all wisdom is to abandon all wisdom, but instead to be plain and direct in simplicity.” Katz did not mention Nahman’s journey to Palestine. In his book of Hasidic Tales, Souls on Fire, however, Elie Wiesel described that voyage as: [T]he journey of a visionary, a pilgrimage worthy of the teller and of his tales. Abounding in unpredictable, incredible adventures that succeed one another at dazzling speed, it is a race toward the unknown, toward nothingness. Wiesel mentions the context: “The Egyptian campaign is at its height. Napoleon wants Jerusalem,” but, like Katz, he did not mention the struggle over imperial access to Asia that explained why Napoleon wanted Jerusalem. Like Rebbe Nahman, Wiesel depicts the events as part of Jewish spiritual history rather than secular world history.

 Nahman never fully divulged what holy mission drew him to the Land of Israel, but he seems to have believed or hoped that the messiah would come soon. Some scholars hold that he believed he was the messiah. He identified with Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai, who was taught by the Prophet Elijah, as the messiah would be. Just as David Reubeni emerged to catalyze apocalyptic longings after the expulsions of the Jews from Spain (1492) and Portugal (1496), waves of messianic fervor had swept over the Jews of Ukraine and Poland after the 1648-49 massacres of tens of thousands of Jews by the Ukrainian revolutionary leader Bohdan Chmielnicki. In those days of horror, many survivors placed their hopes in the false messiahs Shabbatai Zevi of Izmir (1626-1676) and Jacob Frank of Podolia (1726-1791), who claimed to be Zevi’s reincarnation.

 Before leaving for Palestine Nahman traveled to Kamenets, a town with a long history of anti-Jewish regulations, and the center of Podolia, the region where the Baal Shem Tov, Jacob Frank, Rebbe Nahman, Agnon, and my wife’s grandmother were born. Susan Blum’s paternal grandmother, Rose Blum, born in Kamenets, told us of a pogrom in 1905 when the rioters cut off a Jewish baker’s fingers and threw them in the oven so he could never knead dough again. The town’s bishop expelled the Jews in 1757 (about the same time as the Battle of Plassey) after orchestrating a public debate between some rabbis and the Frankists, many of whom eventually converted to Christianity, a religion founded by an earlier claimant to the messianic title.

Though in 1798 Jews other than converted Frankists were forbidden to spend the night in Kamenets, Nahman stayed there secretly and never revealed how he evaded the police or what he did there. The implication was that he had secretly contacted the Frankists about his messianic mission. Nahman sailed from Odessa across the Black Sea and down the Bosporus to Istanbul, where he knew no one. He tried to hide his identity and suffered from bouts of depression and aggressive childish behavior, all interpreted by his followers as manifestations of his doctrine of simplicity and means of avoiding the great dangers in wait for him on his messianic pilgrimage.

When Nahman sought to leave for Palestine, he learned that “France had entered the land of the Sultan, Egypt and the Land of Israel, … and France was moving to and fro on the sea.” The Jewish community of Istanbul, far from trying to use Napoleon’s advances for political purposes, tried to stay out of the war. It forbade all Jews to leave the city. But the community arranged one ship for a Sephardic scholar from Jerusalem who had collected the traditional Halukah, or portion, for the Jews of the Holy Land, and Nahman, among others, was allowed to board. After calming a storm that terrified his shipmates, apparently through spiritual prowess, Nahman arrived in the port of Jaffa.

When he tried to debark with the Jerusalem sage, however, “The Ishmaelites [Arabs, Turks, or Muslims] did not allow him to enter, because they saw his clothes and the form of his face, with long sidelocks (peyot), as is the custom in our country, and also saw he did not know their language. They therefore concluded that he was certainly one of the spies” sent by France. “No request or supplication sufficed,” and Rabbi Nahman remained on the ship.

 The Ottomans were right to be alert. Napoleon, already occupying the former Ottoman territory of Egypt, was planning a land invasion via Sinai and Gaza, which he launched within six months, on March 3, 1799. As any reader of Kipling will recognize, it was common for states to send spies disguised as pilgrims or traders to collect data of military importance.

 Bad weather and high waves in a spot that Sephardic passengers identified as the location where Jonah had been thrown into the sea forced the captain to leave Jaffa for Haifa, where there seemed to be no Ottoman customs house. Nahman debarked without hindrance on September 8, 1798, in time to celebrate Rosh ha-Shanah the following day. But after services, Nahman again fell into depression: “Anxiety and a broken heart awoke within him, and he uttered nothing to anyone.”

 Messages started to arrive from Safed and Tiberias, where Hasidim from Ukraine had started to settle since 1768 in order to be close to the tomb of Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai, asking the Baal Shem’s great-grandson to honor them with a visit, especially as his paternal grandfather, Nahman of Horodenka, a disciple of the Baal Shem, was buried there. But Nahman refused. His depression persisted, and during an otherwise joyful pilgrimage to the cave of Elijah on Mt. Carmel during Sukkot, Rebbe Nahman remained quiet, refusing to dance or celebrate. After Simhat Torah, a week later, he told his companion he wanted to return home.

 After Sukkot, Rabbi Nahman finally agreed to travel on to Tiberias. He visited the tomb of his grandfather and proceeded to the cave of Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai, where he suddenly rejoiced, singing Hasidic melodies to himself all night. He put on his tallit and tefilin and prayed for several hours. Plague struck Tiberias, which was placed under quarantine, and Nahman escaped only by climbing the city wall overlooking the Sea of Galilee. He made his way to Safed. In Safed he heard that “the French would soon come to Acre,” presumably that Napoleon had captured Jaffa on March 7. In Jaffa the representative of the Enlightenment and emancipator of the Jews massacred about two thousand Ottoman prisoners (mostly Albanians) who had surrendered under promise of safety.

A frightened Nahman immediately sent a messenger to Acre with instructions to book him passage on a ship flying the flag of Ragusa (Dubrovnik), a neutral city that had managed to become a trading superpower in the Mediterranean. Ragusan ships sailed freely through the war zone. Nahman arrived in Acre on the eve of Shabbat Zachor (March 16, 1799), but people fleeing the city had booked all the Ragusan ships. Nahman was terrified as 50,000 heavily armed “Ishmaelite” soldiers took over the city and locked the gates. He did not know they were carrying out the orders of his fellow Jew, Haim Farhi, who was personally supervising the city’s defenses.

The agent who was trying to find a ship for Nahman told him on the Sabbath (March 16) that the only one available was an “Ishmaelite” merchant vessel taking goods to Istanbul. The danger of capture and piracy seemed less than the danger of remaining in a city about to go to war, which the agent guessed would start in two or three days. The siege started on March 20, when Napoleon’s infantry arrived from Jaffa. Nahman authorized the agent to hire a ship on the Sabbath, because pikuah nefesh (saving a life) has priority over the Sabbath.

 And then, the Rabbi’s chronicler recounts: “Many ships with men of war from England also arrived in Acre, and panic spread more and more, for there was great crowding in the city, for there was little space to hold so much population.” This was the Royal Navy flotilla led by Commodore Sidney Smith, a rival of Lord Nelson, arriving in time to secure the route to India from France. Then came the announcement that the government had decreed that all civilians who did not evacuate the city by sea (the gates were closed on the land side) within two hours would be executed to clear the ground for the battle.

Though this order too probably came from Farhi, Nahman did not appeal to his fellow Jew, of whom he was apparently unaware; nor did he approach the British, as this was before the Balfour Declaration. Instead he and his companion with great difficulty made their way to the shore, where they took a “bark” to a large ship, thinking or hoping it was the one on which they had booked passage. When they saw it bristling with cannon, they tried to convince themselves that it was a merchant ship armed in self-defense, but it turned out to be a Turkish warship filled with “savage Ishmaelite warriors” who they feared would sell them into slavery. But they had no alternative and boarded.

 The battle started, the French Navy bombarded the ship, and the cannons roared. Nahman and his companion were confined to a small cabin with no food or water. One crewmember spoke a little Russian to them. The cook brought them black coffee twice a day. Battered by French artillery and storms, the ship took on water. The pumps broke, and the crew tried to bail by hand. They threw all the cargo overboard, but nothing helped. Nahman feared that the crew would sell him and his companion into slavery in a country with no Jews, an anxiety he coped with by working out how he would observe all 613 commandments alone, even if he had no books or texts and did not know whether it was the Sabbath or a holiday.

 The ship docked on the Isle of Rhodes, part of the Ottoman Empire, the day before Passover, April 18. Knowing that there were Jews in Rhodes, the captain let Nahman’s companion enter the city under guard to buy kosher food. The companion feared that the city’s security forces would arrest him as a foreign spy in time of war, but finally “they did nothing at all to him,” and he met the community’s chief rabbi (hakham, the Sephardic term) and told him what had happened. The hakham told him not to worry.

 The companion was in a hurry to buy matzah and wine, but first he played a little Jewish geography. It came to his mind that when he was in the inn in Tiberias he heard from Rabbi Zvi Horker that the latter’s wife, who was from an important Sephardic family, had a brother in Rhodes, a great and righteous hakham. He couldn’t remember his name, but he asked the hakham if he had a sister in Tiberias married to Rabbi Zvi. He didn’t, but he knew the hakham who did, so he invited both of them to the seder and again told them not to worry.

Rabbi Horker’s brother-in-law told him that the community had already convinced the captain not to leave until they had ransomed the captives, and they would pay whatever was necessary. The captain, he said, was a notorious thief, deeply rooted in evil, related to the five lords of the Philistines, which was how he signed his name. (The Philistine polity was composed of five city-states, named in Joshua 13:3 and I Samuel 6:17.) After sending the companion to the hammam and serving him coffee, they asked who the other captive was. They knew of the Baal Shem and were thrilled and honored to redeem his descendant.

 The next day, the first day of Passover, having returning to the ship to tell Nahman of what had happened, the companion came back to the city. He attended services and was invited to the afternoon holiday meal, during which he was plied with so much wine that when he returned to the ship laden with delicacies for Nahman, he passed out before he could say a word.

 The next day, the first of the intermediate days of Passover, the hakham and two wealthy members of the community called on the captain and asked him to release the two passengers. The captain may have been a Palestinian, since the only sense I can make of the claim that he signed his name as a descendant of the Philistines is that he called himself so-and-so (his name is not recorded) al-Filastini, the Palestinian, using a geographic surname.

 While the Jews of Rhodes considered him a thief, he presented a different narrative of his actions, which Rabbi Nahman’s companion passed on to the chronicler:

 What do you have to do with these two? I saved them from chaos. . . . Not just that, let me tell you, during this whole trip there was hardly a moment without an accident (rega’ be-lo pega’) and we could have tossed these two into the sea or sold them to the Ishmaelites (slave traders). We could have taken all their money and belongings without anyone so much as whistling or saying a word. But what could we do? They had lucky stars in heaven, and what’s more, God (may He be blessed) performed a miracle for them: this ship quickly arrived here, and, miracle within a miracle, God has unburdened my heart and enlightened my mind, so that I took one of them into the city. Even now it would be within my rights to take their money, but all I ask is that, to prevent my sailors from complaining to me, you give me two hundred thalers, and take them off the ship.

The Jews of Rhodes paid the ransom, equal to about the price of one African in the New York slave market on Wall Street at that time.

Nahman and his companion were freed from the ship on May 21, the same day that Le Moniteur Universel announced Napoleon’s plan to recruit a Jewish army against the Ottomans, whose authorities in Rhodes immediately accused the two Hasidim of spying. Much to their chagrin, they had to remove their black Hasidic garb and peyot and dress like the Sephardim to disguise themselves. The Jews of Rhodes got Nahman on a ship to Istanbul.

 In Istanbul the Ottoman authorities found that Nahman and his companion had not shown their passports when they had passed through before. They confiscated their passports and tried to impose an enormous fine (evidently larger than the ransom demanded by the captain). A member of the Istanbul Jewish community bribed someone in the Ottoman administration and the two rushed off to Galati, Romania, where they were put in quarantine. They each had to pay four gold ducats to be released. They got back to Ukraine with no further incidents.

 In 1805 the British Navy terminated Bonaparte’s oriental ambitions at Trafalgar, where Lord Nelson fell, and Britain ruled the waves. Five years later Rabbi Nahman died of tuberculosis at the age of 38 in Uman, Ukraine, two years before Napoleon’s failed invasion of Russia, without ever benefitting from either the emancipation of the Jews or Napoleon’s transient Middle Eastern conquests. Those of his followers who survived after their community was nearly extinguished in the Holocaust gather at Rebbe Nahman’s tomb every Rosh ha-Shanah. A formula containing his name now appears on many bumper stickers in Israel, as protection against the many dangers of travel that Nahman surmounted.

 In July 1944 the German forces occupying Greece deported the entire Jewish community of Rhodes to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Only 151 out of 1,673 survived. The Turkish consul general, Selahettin Ulkumen, managed to rescue about forty and is listed as one of the Righteous among the Nations at Yad Va-Shem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. A few survivors ended up in Seattle, where they founded the third largest Sephardic community in the US, which now includes a research center that is leading the revival of the Ladino language of Sephardic Jews. One member of the community, Howard Behar, became president of Starbucks.
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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Insights into the Repressive Character of the Government in Egypt

The response of the Egyptian government to the investigative report "All According to Plan" [حسب الخطة  Arabic link] by Human Rights Watch is extremely revealing and provides insights into the mentality of the al-Sisi regime.  In short, as reported by the flagship al-AhramHRW is biased, serves U.S. interests, is in cahoots with the Muslim Brotherhood and had no authority to conduct research in Egypt.  There is a deep-seated suspicion of foreign NGOs in Egypt. I have witnessed it numerous times over the past 35 years.

The latest episode, of course, serves a double purpose, viz., it stifles open discussion of the report and its serious accusations that Field Marshal al-Sisi sits at the helm of a repressive security apparatus that very likely committed crimes against humanity by conducting deliberate mass killings of demonstrators in 2013 following the toppling of Muhammad Mursi as President; and, it serves to warn indigenous rights oriented groups that--unlike HRW officials--they cannot escape reprisal arrests, torture and jail.  You can be sure that while many educated Egyptians with social media access are well aware of the HRW report, but would also confirm that the message to tread very carefully is indelibly received.

The government reaction is addressed by Egyptian Chronicles.

Even in comparison with the worst years of the Mubarak era, this is a very dark chapter in Egypt's modern history.
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Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Similarities and more similarities: Turkey, Israel, and the Kurds, and the Palestinians

By Murat Cem Mengüç

Nowadays, the similarities between Israel and Turkey are ever more striking. Both countries are populated by a multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-lingual demographic. And, both are ruled by governments/states which insist on a uniform national identity. The ruling elite in both countries consider themselves as chosen people who would realize a heavenly fiction. They both oppress a particular ethnic community more than the other ethnicities, to the extent that they murder them in thousands. And, both countries suffer from the consequences having toyed, or toying with apartheid.

Historically speaking, Turkey and Israel have been good allies. But, when the last diplomatic riffraff happened, namely the Davos and the following Mavi Marmara crisis, many of us thought the good days of this relationship was over. Mavi Marmara incident particularly suggested that Turkey was serious about its support of the Palestinian cause.

Then came the real earthquakes, a series of revolutions in North Africa, Tahrir in particular and the ensuing civil war in Syria. It was in that context that I tried to explain, to myself more than anyone else, how the next stage of the emerging political shift will be the emergence of Kurdistan, and perhaps a Palestine. I believed Tahrir announced not only the dismantling of the regional neo-liberal dictatorships, but also the end of democratized religious fundamentalisms in the Middle East. I believed Muslim Brotherhood and Justice and Development Party, along with the Zionist Israeli coalitions would come to an end, due to the new trend. I also thought that Israeli involvement in the emergence of a Kurdish state in the Middle East would be inevitable, as long as Turkish involvement in the Palestinian crisis ensued.

In the end, only my expectations of something similar to Tahrir happening in Israel and Turkey were correct. Soon, Israel had its social justice protest, and Turkey had its Gezi protests. But, neither were enough to challenge the current state of government in these countries. 

Meanhwile, the most shocking revelation was Netanyahu and Erdoğan’s complete lack of vision. They and their elite did not understand the severity of the economic and political legitimacy crisis which rocked the world. They both failed domestically and internationally to seize to moment and steer their countries for a better future.

Erdoğan, who once was a populist, couldn’t articulate a meaningful political agenda that spoke to the majority after Gezi. He now faces a presidential election, results of which may not favor him. Netanyahu failed to understand that Israel was not immune to the crisis, to the extent that he is now faced with an international boycott of the country, an intifada from within the green line, and more military commitment to Gaza.

The Syrian civil war also showed that Israel and Turkey were not influential players in the region. Turkey is nearly excluded from having a say on the emergence of a Kurdish state in Iraq. Israel have been a spectator of the Syrian crisis, and the emergence of a new era of US-Iranian relations.

Both Turkey and Israel have moved away from each others affair perhaps in this context. The so called defender of the Palestinian statehood is still silent about the current crisis in Israel. And Israel is quite about the Kurdish development.

What each may have committed behind the scenes will become known in the future. But let us end with one more similarity, and a food for thought. Recently, I watched Five Broken Cameras, and the landscape of the urban frontier in Israel reminded me of Ecumenopolis, a documentary I reviewed about a year ago. In each landscape an artificial construction industry advances to exterminate the unwanted people. In each landscape, the victim is in an existential fight, while the predator destroys not for survival but for ideology. Both Israel and Turkey consider themselves power houses of construction business in the Middle East. Yet, in both countries the driving force behind the sector is foreign investment, and the industry only amounts to 5-6 % of the economy. This is not a small number, adding up to billions of dollars. But, isn’t it interesting that in each country the true function of it is to expand the cement frontiers of the capitalist globalization, rather than supplying an existing demand?
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Thursday, March 27, 2014

Visions of Gulf Security

Courting Fitnah: Saudi responses to the Arab Uprisings

MARCH 20, 2014
By Augustus Richard Norton, Boston University
* This memo was prepared for the “Visions of Gulf Security” workshop, March 9, 2014.
[Download this essay and a dozen others from the March 2014 conference.]
The logic and impact of Saudi interventions in Bahrain, Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria suggest a state pursuing confounding aims with improvised, if not impulsive policies. It is often asserted that the instability-averse Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a status quo power, but recent Saudi actions suggest that it seeks to undermine the status quo. Rather than revealing an aversion to instability, the kingdom has fed instability by radicalizing minority Arab Shiite populations in the Gulf, supporting proxy forces involved in armed struggle and, at least until recently, turning a blind eye to the recruitment of Saudis to join al Qaeda-affiliated groups outside Saudi borders. Referring to the interior minister, Madawi al-Rasheed wryly notes: “To put it bluntly, the prince did not succeed in eliminating terror; he simply pushed it away to countries like Yemen, Iraq, and now Syria and Lebanon.”
There are obvious security challenges in the Saudi neighborhood, including the continuing struggles underway in Yemen, persistent demonstrations in Bahrain, and the failure of the Iraqi government in Baghdad to broadly legitimate its power, but Saudi Arabia has not been an innocent bystander in any of these cases.
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Sunday, June 2, 2013

What do the Turks want?

Until now, Turkey’s governing Islamist and conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) saw itself as immune to the political and economic turmoil which shook Europe, Americas and the Middle East. Having regulated its economy, especially its banking sector prior to the global meltdown of 2007-2008, AKP government believed it was on the right track. Having subsided the Kurdish insurgency in a rather peaceful manner, it thought it avoided a possible Kurdish Spring. And having dealt with the Syrian war in tandem with the international community, it was careful enough to avoid being sucked into it.

But, there was one thing AKP forgot. Popular discontent towards toward the selling off the country’s economic assets, be it land, natural resources, or heavy industry, especially those which were previously managed by the state and therefore belonged to the people, continued to grow at an accelerated speed. Along with a number of austerity measures it introduced, AKP government followed the good old neo-liberal economic policies. It became a partner in crime to the US, UK and the EU political and economic elite. And after having paid its debt to the IMF and donating $5 billion to the World Band, it even become a member of the G20, although its current foreign debt is above $200 billion.

Today what is happening in the streets of Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, Bursa, Antalya, and numerous other Turkish cities is no different than what had happened in Tunisia, Egypt, Italy or Greece. Neo-liberal economic discourse is dead. The notion of free cash for the well connected and tight budget for the masses, free capitalism for the global elite and curbs for the human, animal and ecological rights is no more. The protests in Turkey are not just about a park, a group of trees, a group of people or an isolated ecology. They are an episode of the end of neo-liberalism on a global scale.

So far, Turkish Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdoğan still believes he is in control. But there is every sign out on the streets that these people won’t go home until he resigns.

Murat Cem Mengüç is an Assistant Professor of Middle East History at Seton Hall University, New Jersey. He is a writer, a blogger who maintains the International Turkish Digests and writes for Mühim Hadiseler Enstitüsü, and an artist. Read more on this article...

Saturday, May 18, 2013

"The Syrian Refugee Crisis and Lessons from the Iraqi Refugee Experience"--a new report from the Institute for Iraqi Studies at Boston University

Download the free report (PDF) from the IIS website.  A Kindle version is due presently, and an iBooks edition is in progress.

[Cross-posted with "From the Field"]
From the Foreword:
Credible estimates reveal that one of every six Syrians has fled their home, or what remains of their home, often with little more than what they might carry in their arms or wear on their back. Millions have sought safety in other towns and villages, and many have been forced to flee several times to escape the crossfire of rival opposition fighters and government forces. About one and half million Syrians now find a measure of safety in neighboring countries: some in the relative order of well-run camps, but many others are not nearly so fortunate.  Even after escaping from predatory militias and vengeful military assaults, victims continue to be prey for criminals, sexual predators, sectarian vigilantes or allies of the Syrian government. 

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Monday, March 11, 2013

Obama’s Moment to Make the Case for Middle East Peace

Boston Study Group on Middle East Peace*
[Cross-linked with From the Field.]

If it were easy to do, an American president would have long ago shepherded Israelis and Palestinians into the negotiated two-state peace agreement that both peoples and their neighbors so clearly need — a peace that would greatly enhance U.S. interests.
There are many reasons why it will be hard for President Obama to achieve, in his second term, the Israeli-Palestinian peace accord that has eluded him and his predecessors for so long. The rise of radical one-state nationalists and ideologically driven settlers in Israeli politics, the debilitating split in the Palestinian camp between Hamas and Fatah, the power struggles and sectarian enmities roiling the region — these are all factors adding to the difficulty of forging the two-state peace agreement that alone can end the agony of occupation for Palestinians and bring Israel a sounder more durable form of security.
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Wednesday, March 6, 2013


(first published in the South China Morning Post as "Cutting the Fat"  February 25, 2013)


When politicians stake out the high moral ground and order a crackdown, it can be a smokescreen for business as usual, or it can mean they really mean business.

China’s incoming top leader Xi Jinping has signaled the media that he wants to cut back on banquets, but it is too soon to say if this means the anti-corruption campaign of the communist party led is for real, or just a smokescreen for managing public opinion while consolidating power.

Excessive consumption and corruption, especially on the part of state officials who are supposed to be public servants, does make a mockery of the “serve the people” ethos at the heart of good governance. China faces a destabilizing inequality gap, so the waste of public resources on empty gestures — like showy motorcades, honor guards, over-the-top banquets, glitzy hotel receptions and lavish gift-giving — not only squanders funds needed elsewhere, but fuels indignation while eroding social harmony and self-respect.

Despite his revolutionary communist pedigree, it is unlikely that Xi Jinping will be saying “Farewell, my tycoon,” any time soon, though. The get-rich-quick ethos launched by the canny “capitalist roader” Deng Xiaoping is still the default ideology in a nation bereft of meaningful ideology. Fawning over the rich and powerful and dispensing bribes to officials, typically in hope of cementing connections has already become a way of life. Laws that are mercilessly enforced when applied to little people rarely apply to the rich and connected in so-called communist China. The corruption and crony capitalism openly promoted by Deng’s successor, Jiang Zemin, still runs deep, even though Jiang, who, a senior powerbroker and patron of Xi Jinping, has been out of the limelight for a decade.

Putting on aristocratic airs has become so widespread that an everyday act as simple as the sight of US Ambassador to Beijing, Gary Locke, carrying his own bag and buying his own coffee was considered newsworthy in China. Where were his porters and servants?

There is corruption and then there is corruption.

Cutting back on banquets is an easy mark, but what about the ill-gotten wealth of hundreds of billionaires and millions of millionaires in a poor, developing country with no social safety net?

Cutting back on banquets and the maotai toasts in the military is one thing, but what about restraining dry drunk generals gunning for conflict, high on China’s newfound wealth, arrogance and advanced weaponry?

There are many kinds of excess and many kinds of sobriety. The problem is not necessarily the perk; the problem is the quality of the work.

Toasts offered at lavish Nixon/Mao banquets in the name of US-China friendship in 1972 marked a turning point in diplomatic history. And even the most lavish food and beverage bill would be a bargain if held in conjunction with peace talks between China and Japan, for example, if negotiations could put to rest, or otherwise resolve, the explosive Senkaku/Diaoyudao islet dispute.  Bring on the sake and maotai! Fly in the best sushi and seafood!

Cementing deals over food and making toasts to friendship is an East Asian legacy that runs deep. Even in the 1980s, when China was much less affluent than it is today, and a good deal more egalitarian, being invited for a meal at someone’s home was a grand gesture. The meal might have been cooked on a single-burner hotplate on a busy staircase outside a family’s one-room apartment, but it was always a multi-dish affair, a way of showing generosity and respect.

What started out as a heart-felt gesture may indeed have been corrupted over time, but will a crackdown correct this?

China has a history of swinging from one extreme to another, so even something as simple as a national drive to cut back on banquets needs vigilant monitoring. Is it just a sop to the poor, a showy show of belt-tightening, while the usual rules of a rigged game rigged for the rich apply? Or is it the first shot in a new Cultural Revolution, which will eventually lead to tables being overturned in fancy restaurants and luxury cars flipped and torched by irate crowds?

The tendency for things to swing in China could very well have deep roots in the rise and fall of dynasties over the centuries, but in more recent times, one need not look much further than the wholesale deracination from traditional culture, community and organic growth by decades of divisive and destructive Leninist-style rule.

Whatever the cause for China’s distinct political rhythms; long periods of insufferable status quo, followed by brief revolutionary outbursts, it is the ordinary people who suffer most. Xi Jinping’s populist appeal indirectly acknowledges that there is a problem with hypocritical leaders, greedy tycoons, a politicized bureaucracy and erratic --sometimes negligent, sometimes over-zealous-- application of the law.

There are crackdowns that are empty gestures for show, mere political posturing. Others achieve the opposite of the intended result. Sometimes crackdowns are factional power plays, pandering to public perceptions, while quietly eliminating rivals and consolidating criminal networks. You have greedy leaders calling for law and order even while they contribute to disorder and remain outside the law. You have police instituting crackdowns and curfews even as the children of the rich and connected run continue to run wild and inebriated, bullying anyone who gets in the way, with “do you know who my father is?” And like everywhere, you have silver-tongued politicians who talk the talk but don’t walk the walk.

Experience suggests that anytime a powerful politician, especially one with vast, vested interests, takes to the media and stakes out the high moral ground against one apparent vice or another, one should snap to attention and listen. But don’t judge them by their words; judge them by their actions. 

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Thursday, November 22, 2012

Two headlines from ANF and a fresh scenario

Today, under two separate headlines, the Kurdish news agency ANF argued that AKP started to support paramilitary groups to cross from the Turkish border into the Kurdish region of Syria, to attack the Kurdish population who have been trying to establish an autonomous Kurdish region. Along with the paramilitaries, the agency argued, AKP is collaborating with the Salafi Muslim militants who are associated with Al-Qaeda, so to start a Kurdish vs. Arab conflict.

ANF reports that so far hundreds of paramilitaries crossed from Turkey into Syria and clashed with the local Kurds. 29 paramilitaries were killed and the Kurdish military decided to establish a head quarter in Serekaniye, where most of these clashes took place, in order to oust the paramilitaries.

The scenario of AKP and Salafi and/or Al-Qaeda collaboration is far too serious to be taken lightly, especially when AKP and the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt are collaborating to change the course of the politics in the region. ANF's accusations still need further proof, but it known that AKP is sympathetic to the Muslim religious groups in the region and  willing to take harsh steps to put an end to the Kurdish fight for autonomy.

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Friday, August 17, 2012

Lebanon and the Syria Crisis

Originally posted at E-International Relations.  Cross-posted at From the Field.
With the battle for Aleppo continuing and Syria on a course to civil war, neighboring Lebanon finds itself in a precarious spot. Sectarian divisions, especially between Sunni and Shi’i Muslims, have deepened in Lebanon over the past decade, particularly since the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri in 2005, the 2006 war with Israel, and the Hezbollah-led incursion into West Beirut in 2008.  The Syria crisis has further exacerbated communal fault-lines. As Syrian refugees pour in, the Lebanese have become increasingly divided on just how they feel their government should respond to the crisis. Periodic clashes in Tripoli along the aptly named “Syria Street”, where an Alawi community abuts a Sunni majority illustrate how quickly transplanted Syrian enmities may explode, and how powerless rival political elites may be to dampen the violence.
As some Lebanese fight amongst themselves and with their newfound Syrian refugee neighbors, the question is whether Lebanon can avoid being sucked
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Saturday, August 11, 2012

AKP and Turkish Religious Fascism

Cross posted with NoIdleMouth

By Murat Cem Mengüç

They say, “When fascism comes to America, it will come wrapped in the flag and waving a cross.” While historically incorrect, I like this quote because it underlines a form of fascism often ignored. It is only true that fascism have not yet arrived in America, if one is willing to ignore its racist industrialism, and one interprets fascism strictly according to its German or Italian variants. This being said, today I can almost use the same quote for Turkey, and say, a new fascism have arrived in Turkey, which is wrapped in a flag and waving a Qur’an.

While fascism in Turkey relied less on religion, a variant is now promoted by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, and it seems to have strike a fine balance between patriotism and piety. At this point, it is no longer necessary to offer evidences of AKP’s authoritarianism. During 2011 and 2012, the government reinvented itself as an inward looking, dialogue free ideological machine. It cracked down on all criticisms and its victims include ethnic and religious minorities, journalists, artists, intellectuals, doctors, patients, children and finally unborn fetuses. Once there was an AKP which resembled a forward looking innovative institution, which paid tribute to human intelligence, science and universal ideals such as freedom and equality. Today, AKP has caved back to its roots, to its original dogmatic world view, with a fascist flavor.

The origins of religious nationalism in Turkey goes back to the last century of the Ottoman empire, when both the idea of nationalism was communicated to its intellectuals and an institutionalized state Islamism reigned. Throughout the nineteenth century, Ottoman intellectuals struggled to explain their ideas regarding nationalism and Islamism. They tried to reconcile the two, or at least explain why such reconciliation was wrong. As long as the empire remained ambitious about its national identity, such reconciliation remained impossible too. By the end of the century, we observe that Islamism took a back seat while Turkish nationalism became the leading force. Nevertheless, three generations of intellectuals, for example, roughly represented by literary figures Namık Kemal (d. 1888), Ziya Gökalp (d. 1924) and Halide Edib Adıvar (d. 1964), still struggled to establish a Muslim Turkish nationalist discourse.

I should note that AKP’s interpretation of the Ottoman history, the legacy and heritage of the old days often harks back to this period, mainly the turn of the century frame of reference. There are some obvious reasons for this. First, the turn of the century represents and era of struggles between religiosity and nationalism, which resembles AKP’s struggle for an over arching ideology. Second, the literature of the period remains the most studied and easily accessible one, both in terms of its language, grammar and references, to modern concepts which governed late Ottoman and Turkish identity. This literature is well printed, still collectible at reasonable prices in its original, and probably consumed more than anything else by historians and fans of history today. One can argue that its vocabulary and form, its Ottoman serves as the core from which the Turkish Islamist discourse nourishes its speech.

Finally, and most importantly, the turn of the century produced one of the last Ottoman Islamists who was able to give Islam priority over nationalism, without denigrating Turkish nationalism, namely Said Al-Nursi (d. 1960). Nursi’s importance for the AKP ideology and Turkish Islamism is well documented. Although was not the only Islamist intellectual who struggled to explain the relationship between modernity, nationalism and Islam, he became the most influential one in the case of AKP. Meanwhile, the split between Said Nursi’s Islamist nationalism and Turkish secular nationalism under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal which occurred in 1925, more or less represents the origin of AKP’s unique fascism.

Presently, Turkish fascism is associated with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), while many claim they are patriots of one sort or the other. Yet, the oppressive nationalist dictatorship during the Republican era, therefore the most successful fascist institution in Turkish history was Republican People’s Party (CHP), first led by Mustafa Kemal (d. 1938) and later İsmet İnönü (d. 1973). CHP’s reign lasted until mid twentieth century, and embodied all forms of nationalist/fascist sympathies, as long as they supported an anti-Ottoman, secular and a state sponsored military industrialist discourse.

Outside the RPP quarters, there grew an Islamist Turkish nationalism, often in exile, prison, or underground. The dictatorship of CHP was transformed into a dictatorship Turkish Military during 1960, whereon, in a series of military coups, the military established itself as the prestigious defender of so called Turkish democracy. Overthrowing a number of democratically elected governments, the military preserved the secular and nationalist, and at times fascist constitution of the country. Each coup targeted the socialists and Islamists, more than anyone else. The fact that the military had to interfere a number of times with the democracy underlines the fact that old CHP tailored state nationalism/fascism did not resonate with the people after 1960’s. Thus, the days of one ideology fits all came to an end, and coup after coup Turkish political establishment fragmented into smaller ideological camps. By 1980, even CHP was transformed, posing as a socialist nationalist opposition party, although mainly catering to the military's needs for an agent provocateur in the parliament. It would be a mistake to think that at this point CHP abandoned its fascist tendencies; yet ultra nationalist fascism was now mainly gathered under the banner of MHP. Meanwhile, Islamist nationalism struggled to carve a sphere of influence, forming parties like Nationalist Salvation Party (MSP) in the 1980’s, and Welfare Party (RP) in the 1990’s.

When the economic and political atmosphere of the late 1990’s and the early second millennium carried the later version of RP, the AKP into power, their governing concern was establishing a competent image, in the eyes of both domestic and international capitalism. Reforms to this end ran parallel to the reforms for European standards, required the promoting of more civil government and less military influence. AKP happily fought a stand off with the Turkish Military during the last decade, and it has at least for the time being emerged as the winner.

Then came the adaptation of a fascist discourse and world view by AKP which seems to have shocked its observers. Why would an anti Turkish Military camp later turn Turkish fascist? There must be many factors at play but some of the reasons for the emergence of this new ideology are obvious. First, the Islamist Turkish nationalism is no longer an underground phenomenon or considered an unusual hybrid. Turkish state nationalism has represented by a Turkish Islamist party for over a decade. Second, in some of the key regions, the MHP members shifted their alliances to the AKP, in order to find a place in the election ballots, who brought with them ultra nationalist views. However, to suggest that AKP changed its ideology under outside influence will be wrong. AKP adopted its ultra nationalist discourse recently mainly because it could do so. After the last general elections, AKP remained far ahead of any opposition and it no longer faces the wrath of the Turkish Military. Given that the Middle Eastern revolutions made it obvious that what became known as the crony capitalism (where a handful of well connect people controlled a nations wealth) of the previous decades was no longer maintainable, AKP had to re-brand itself. Finally, the Kurdish-Turkish conflict required all Turkish governments to adopt heavily nationalist discourses. When the dissolution of first Iraq and now Syria galvanized the Kurdish insurgency, AKP was somewhat caught unaware and it grabbed the reserved to the last strong hold of a government facing a challenge towards its territorial integrity.

Beyond these factors operate the global phenomenon, which could help us identify why a flag wearing and cross waving American fascism is resurging at the same times with a flag wearing and Qur’an waving equivalent in Turkey. These are the days of civil disobedience and crisis of capitalism. No matter how alternatively it may brand itself, AKP represents an old order in a deep crises. Ecologically and economically, capitalism as it is practiced today is no longer maintainable. All arguments to save it fall on deaf ears; even when well sponsored media and shareholders in giant international corporations try to keep it alive. In Switzerland, Panama and Cayman Islands, the talk is about banking reforms, alternative and more transparent ways to transfer wealth from one place to another. These are the days in which even the unregulated beg to be regulated. In the grand scheme of the things, to see religious fascism resurface and preach a moral order harking back at the golden days of history is no surprise. One wonders if a radical alternative can be formulated against these fundamentalist discourses. Globally, there are signs of it in the eco-conscious and anti capitalist camps. In Turkey’s case, such camps don’t seem to exist.
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Monday, July 30, 2012

Kurdistan the Pink Elephant

Murat Cem Mengüç

Judging from the front pages of popular media outlets, one would think the conflict in Syria is a domestic problem of a sovereign nation, support of which have divided the UN into two camps. However, the most significant outcome of this conflict may be the emergence of a brand new country, Kurdistan. During the recent weeks, the possibility (or for many the dream) of an independent country for the Kurdish people came closer to reality. Presently, northern Syria is witnessing the emergence of an independent Kurdish region, at least one Kurdish town in Turkey has become a battle ground where the Kurdish separatists are trying to free it from the Republic, and there has been speculations of an independent Kurdish government in old Iraq for a long time. For the news rooms in the east and west, this may be a hard to imagine script, but for the Kurdish men and women on the ground, it seems a reality. Looks like it is time to speak about the pink elephant in the room. Read more on this article...

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Newroz Fire and Our Coming Spring

By Murat Cem Mengüç

Speculations about a possible Kurdish Spring started long ago and after the terrible events of the Newroz celebrations in Turkey during the last week, even members of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) started to speak about it. Assistant Secretary of the AKP, Hüseyin Çelik mockingly stated that “spring doesn’t arrive for the Kurds alone.” He is right, but only ironically. A spring is on its way, and it is neither constructed by the Kurds alone, nor will be a spring well remembered by them exclusively. Following the daily Fırat News, one observes that the fire of Newroz is lit everywhere, fed by many, and threatens to burn more than the Kurds. For all we know, Kurds may be the only ones who know how to jump over it.

Turkey is on the brink of an ethnic civil war. US and EU watch Turkey like a patron observing his protégé, and still depict AKP as a moderate Muslim democratic party. They also insist Turkey is a universal example of how Islam should be politicized. On the ground, however, at least two Islamist movements govern the Turkish political scene, and they enjoy feeding the divisions among its peoples.

Besides AKP, and probably more important than AKP, there is a phenomenon called cemaat, a Sunni Muslim movement, formed around the US based theologian Fetullah Gülen. I call them cemaat (masses), because that is what they call themselves, otherwise they are known as Güllenists, or Gülen Movement. Historically speaking, cemaat and the AKP can be explained as a uniform entity, and come any election, they partner to defeat oppositions. However, they have slowly separated their paths as well.[1] AKP has governed Turkey nearly a decade, and successfully. It is a pro-capitalist, pro-globalization, right wing conservative entity, and it is a solidified political institution. It receives immense amount of respect both domestically and internationally. It is not a movement with religious tendencies. Its leadership possesses a consciousness formed through their interactions with other Turkish political institutions, such as the Turkish military and the Turkish judicial elite. They are in the position of power, and believe they are in charge of Turkey’s future. In contrast, the mentality of the cemaat, which is a much more organic and elusive entity, is less concentrated. Its ideals are shaped around the teachings and the statements of a spiritual leader. Its agenda is neither conclusive nor institutionalized. Its members want to influence the immediate Turkish politics and the global Sunni/Muslim scene. It seeks change through grassroots organization and media. Finally, cemaat is led by a man who lives in exile, whereas AKP is led by a group of technocrats who live in the Turkish capital. In short, if cemaat is searching for more power, and believes it can be more powerful, AKP thinks that it has now become the power.

As one reads the Stratfor Papers, it becomes obvious that the paths of AKP and the cemaat parted long ago. These papers suggest that the two groups remain symbiotic but don’t act together. However, Occidentally wired international media, along with the stereotype loving US and EU political elite observe AKP and the cemaat as a uniform phenomenon. Even the well informed agencies like Al Jazeera, who supposed to be an expert on the affairs of the Middle East is confused. When it cares to invite a Turkish scholar to compose a piece about the AKP or Turkey, it still strikes the same note of uniform Turkish Islam, such as in the case of Pınar Kemerli's recent opinion piece.[2] (In all honesty, Al Jazeera does a better job covering the British Premiership than the Kurdish insurgency in Anatolia and the Turkish politics in general.)

Kemerli’s case shows that aside from the outsiders, the insiders also make the same mistake. Even the journalist Ahmed Şık, who was just released from prison after being arrested for writing (though not publishing) a book about the cemaat, still refers to the Turkish Islamists as a uniform entity.[3] Whether because the Turkish secular intellectuals not yet grasped the multifaceted nature of Turkish Islamism, or not yet recovered from the shock of having lost the leadership of their country to a religious conservative movement, persistence of this view shows how alienated the educated secular elite and the common masses of Turkey have grown.

The important thing is the confrontation between AKP and the cemaat conceives everyone else almost irrelevant. Especially the non-Sunni religious minorities of Turkey are used as gambling chips. The Kurds are perfect example of this. They practice a different form of Islam and inhabit a region bordering the Syrian Shia dictatorship which is now exterminating its Sunni population. AKP gained its popularity in the Kurdish region when it introduced a program called “Kurdish Opening.” This opening promised a series of laws to recognize Kurdish civil rights. It also promised to unarm the militant Kurds without budging to the PKK. Presently, the “Kurdish Opening” collapsed, because cemaat leaked a sound recording of the secret dialogs between the PKK and AKP, which were not supposed to happen. They did so, to teach AKP a lesson. AKP was being spear headed under the authoritarian leadership of the Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdoğan.

Anything that plays the Turks against the Kurds, or the Kurds against the Turks also plays into the hands of AKP and the cemaat. Anything that grabs the daily attention, allows the Islamisation of the Turkish politics continue with less public out-cry. Moreover, AKP and the cemaat benefit well from being conceived as a uniform entity, because it makes them look even more powerful.

At the turn of the millennium, when AKP came to power, it was with the help of the cemaat, but due to economic factors which dictated the real politics in Turkey. By the mid 1990’s, membership talks with the EU clearly indicated that the archaic banking and tax laws in Turkey had to be reformed. After a disastrous economic collapse in 2001, AKP was able to emerge as the only party which could form a majority government, and willing to enact reforms. If it rose to power with the help of the cemaat and its grassroots strength, its later popularity was a result of many other factors. The banking and tax reforms AKP enacted were originally drafted by a Turkish economic genius Kemal Derviş, who is now the Administrator of the United Nations Development Program. These were designed to make Turkey a partner to the ongoing globalization, and they were very simple but strict recommendations. They brought Turkish economy up to par with the international capitalism in terms of its business laws. Surely, Turkish economy performed well afterwards and continues to do so. AKP became a temporary solution for the needs of a country which was long ruled by non-reformist institutions.[4] It became a political device employed by the middle and the upper class capitalists who sought a dependable capitalist order. If the previous political institutions were willing to enact similar reforms, there would have been no AKP in Turkey today, at least not one that could have achieved a majority government.

If one observes the rise of AKP to power from this perspective, one could see that the religious versus secular aspect of the Turkish political confrontations are coincidental, and I will argue, sometimes artificial. Religiosity and secularism cuts across the entire Turkish society, and have many facades. They are not denominators, and if considered denominators, they create more confusion than clarity. The depiction of Turkish Islamisims as a uniform front by the international and the domestic politicains and the intellectuals both feed the Turkish identity crisis, and allow a play field for the likes of AKP and the cemaat to manipulate the Turkish political scene. The fact that there exists a power struggle between AKP and the cemaat proves that there are many levels of Muslimness in operation. I believe this spring, it is this power struggle that will keep the Newroz fire burning.

[1] A good recent editorial on the subject was penned by Emre Uslu.
[2] A good recent piece was penned by Pınar Kemerli, in which she depicts the Turkish Islamists as a uniform political entity.
[4] See, Hakan Yavuz, “Is There a Turkish Islam? The Emergence of Convergence and Consensus” Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, Vol. 24, No. 2, October 2004.
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